Friday, May 19, 2017

Better Off Bad: IRONMASTER

The classic story of good versus evil can be deceptively complicated, especially those times when evil is so much cooler than good.  Face it, villains often make the best characters.  They get all the best lines, the most memorable scenes, and the dopest outfits.  That’s why Darth Vader is an icon and Luke Skywalker is just a whiny farm boy.  Clarice Starling may be awesome, but it’s Hannibal Lecter you want more of.  It’s hard to root for good to triumph when it’s so much more fun to hang out with the bad guys.  One of the more glaring examples of this moral dissonance comes in the form of Umberto Lenzi’s 1981 Italian fightin’ caveman epic, IRONMASTER.

The Capsule:
Way back in unspecified caveman times, Iksay (Benito Stefanelli), chief of the tribe of Vot, is getting close to retirement age (in those days, retirement usually meant you were eaten by lions).  There are two contenders for his job, the capable but hot headed Vood (George Eastman) and the well-intentioned but rock stupid Ela (Sam Pasco).  It's a difficult choice, at least until Vood, always the go-getter, sidesteps the process by caving in Iksay’s skull and proclaiming himself chief.  His assertive strategy is frowned upon by his fellow cavemen and they exile him to a nearby volcano.  There he discovers a shaft of iron naturally created in the last fiery eruption.  With his overwhelming technological advantage (iron beats sticks and rocks), Vood takes over the tribe of Vot and gives that chump Ela the boot into hostile apeman territory.  Not satisfied with one tribe, Vood teaches his crew to forge their own iron weapons and soon has conquered all the other tribes in the valley.  Meanwhile, Ela has been taken in by a by a bunch of vegan hippies living an idyllic life of peace (only occasionally interrupted by hungry lions).  Ela knows it is only a matter of time before Vood’s evil falls upon their sweet little lakeside commune.  If he wants to save his new home, he will need to devise a weapon strong enough to bring down the Ironmaster.

Always one to jump on a successful theme, IRONMASTER is Italy’s answer to the highbrow 1981 Dawn of Man epic QUEST FOR FIRE (with a hint of CONAN THE BARBARIAN thrown in for good measure).  Lenzi, trading in cannibal jungles for the dramatic hills of South Dakota, keeps the ambition down and the story more accessible.  Unlike QUEST FOR FIRE, whose entire cast communicated in a made-up caveman dialect, Lenzi’s primitives just cut straight to English, or more accurately, a combo of Italian, French, English, and a bit of German, all dubbed into the appropriate language depending on the distribution.  

It’s practically family-friendly as well, with no nudity except for Pamela Prati’s occasional nip slip wardrobe malfunction and a fair amount of prosthetic apeman wang.  It is also much less gruesome than one would expect from the director of CANNIBAL FERROX.  The only serious gore effect is when Vood cracks open the old chief’s brainpan.  The rest of the violence is restricted to guys clutching handfuls of fake blood to their stomachs and groaning.

While IRONMASTER could never be called authentic (that we know of, not a lot of home video from the caveman era), it isn’t a complete fantasy version of prehistory like ONE MILLION YEARS BC.  No one gets attacked by T-Rexes or flies on the back of a pterodactyl.  The wildlife in the area, buffalo, boar, and those pesky lions, seem plausible to the time period, if not the geography.  The most exotic beasties shown are a herd of mastodon, adorably represented in forced perspective by shuffling some plastic elephants around.  It rivals the low-fi cuteness of the toy rats on a conveyor belt from RATS.   
While relatively restrained by Italian standards, the highlight of this movie is unquestionably George Eastman.  Eastman is the Italian version Danny Trejo, instantly recognizable, physically intimidating, and thoroughly badass.  Eastman ran the gamut from mindless beast (ANTROPOPHAGUS) to unnervingly believable psycho (RABID DOGS) to over the top super villain (WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND).   Here he plays Vood as an impulsive Stone Age proto-dictator.   He is violent and cruel, but has an undeniable brutish charisma.  You know you should hate him, but he is just such an asskicker compared to Ela, who has the personality of a block of wood.  When everyone else is cowering in a cave while the volcano erupts, Vood fearlessly walks right up to it to check that shit out.  It’s a pity there weren’t more pyrotechnics in the movie, because Vood is just the type of motherfucker to calmly walk away from an explosion in slow motion.    

Vood even dresses like a pimp.  His first action after finding the iron spike is to kill a lion (to be fair, the lion started it).  The next time we see him, he is wearing the lion head as a helmet!  This man knows how to make a fashion statement.  Check out the (wildly inaccurate) poster, even.  It’s way more Conan that caveman, but look what the heroic main dude is wearing.  Beard or no, that’s supposed to be Vood.  Even the artist thinks he’s cooler.    

The thing is, while Vood is a merciless ruler, it’s hard to argue he makes the better leader, at least from an evolutionary standpoint.  The scene where Vood discovers the iron shard shamelessly apes the bone scene from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but the movie extends the metaphor by showing Vood bring about a technological revolution.  Within a matter of weeks, he’s taught his tribe not only to mine the iron, but how to smelt it and forge it into swords and axe heads.  He even invents tongs and bellows.  The dude totally leap-frogged over the Bronze Age.  All Ela had to offer was awesome hair.

Again, I’m not saying that Vood isn’t a total dick.  He kills anyone who opposes him, forces other tribes to provide food for his people, and enslaves men to work at the iron mine.  Clearly he is a jerk, but he did unify the tribes of the valley, establish supply and communication routes, and offered some protection from all the damn lions.  It’s sort of like the ancient Roman Empire.  Those guys were straight up assholes most of the time, but they also advanced human civilization in remarkable ways.  We got aqueducts and pizza out of the deal.  Not bad, big picture wise.

I would hardly call Vood a monster, either.  He doesn’t seem to enjoy killing people, he just considers it necessary sometimes.  There are no scenes of torture, or of him laughing maniacally at the pain of others.  And he shows some vaguely progressive ideas in a period classically thought of as being pretty shitty towards women.  Lith (Pamela Prati) was the first to see Vood's potential, and practically groomed him into becoming a conqueror.  Vood makes her his second in command, as well as his advisor and probably speech writer.  She abuses power more than he does, in fact, especially when she is left in charge of the hippy village.  Apart from her, women still have it bad.  All able bodied women of a conquered tribe are rounded up and informed they will bear children for Vood’s warriors.   They are told that a man can claim any woman he wants.  On the flip side, though, a woman can also claim any man she wants.  Still not great, but I haven’t seen brutal sexual dominance with an egalitarian twist before.  As far as ruthless despots go, you could do a lot worse.  

On the other side of the power dynamic is Mogo (William Berger) and his village of prehistoric hippies.  They live in cooperation, don’t hunt animals, and shun weapons of any kind.  Mogo is so dedicated to pacifism that he even objects to raising a hand against the lions that occasionally stop by for a hippy snack.  He’s a likable character who only wants the best for his people, but Ela knows that Vood is going to roll right over them, especially when Mogo suggest they oppose Vood with “the wisdom and persuasion that comes from the heart.”  Mogo doesn’t stand in the way when Ela convinces the others to fight back, but he can’t be a part of it, either.  Before departing his once peaceful paradise, he warns Ela that “weapons may give you your freedom, but they may one day take it from you.”  Then he is almost instantly stopped by a bunch of Vood’s goons and killed.  Sweet old man, though.

Right in the middle is Ela, who approves of Mogo’s peacenik ideals but has had enough experience with Vood to know his heart won’t be persuaded with anything less than a chunk of iron piercing it.    He doesn’t have Vood’s skill at making inspiringly bloodthirsty speeches, but with the aid of Mogo’s daughter, Isa (Elvire Audray) he convinces the lakeside village to put peace aside and give pointy sticks a chance.  Somehow the lunkhead even manages to one up Vood’s technological advantage when he invents the bow and arrow.  

In the end [spoiler], Ela lures Vood’s warriors into a surprisingly well laid trap (Isa must have come up with it), which leads to many an arrow through cavemen necks.   Vood and Ela cross swords, and the Ironmaster eventually falls to Ela’s overwhelming blandness.  Then, in the spirit of Mogo, Ela throws all the weapons into the lake and completely resets the evolutionary clock.  Nice one, dumbass.  I know its supposed to be a positive message about ridding ourselves of the engines of war before they destroy us, but have a little vision, Ela.  What could you possibly use iron for other than weapons?  Tools, maybe? Or construction, or art, or anti-lion barriers?  So when your hippy commune gets raided by apemen, don’t blame me, I voted for Vood.

C Chaka

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