I saw The Magic Sword several times on TV when I was a young kid in the 1960s and early 1970s. I absolutely loved this movie back then. And I was totally traumatized by the deadly skin-dissolving swamp and the horrible soul-sucking cave creatures. I still remember quivering in terror during those scenes, especially when my favorite knight, Sir Patrick of Ireland, faced his doom. It has been a good 35 years since I last watched The Magic Sword. Some scenes still evoked remembered chills and thrills. But some aspects of the movie did not quite stand the test of time.
The Magic Sword is a 1962 color live action fantasy film. It was “mainly aimed at children, based loosely on the medieval legend of Saint George and the Dragon”. The tale that became Saint George and the Dragon originated in the Middle East and was brought back to Europe by Crusaders where it was retold and eventually appended to the legend of Saint George. The Golden Legend, a collection of biographies of various saints that was compiled in 1260 and became a sort of Medieval best seller, is one of the earliest tales of Saint George and the Dragon. It is the first to place the story in exotic Libya where Europeans could easily imagine a Dragon existing.
In The Golden Legend, a town has a pond where a plague-bearing Dragon has taken up residence. To appease the Dragon, the townsfolk start out feeding it two sheep a day. Gradually, they graduate to feeding their own children to the Dragon. The King’s daughter is chosen by lottery as the next Dragon meal and is dressed up as its bride and left for the Dragon to eat. St. George is riding nearby when he spots the Princess. When he sees the Dragon, George arracks and wounds it. Then George takes the Princess’s girdle and ties it around the Dragon’s neck and the Dragon is instantly tamed. George takes the Dragon and the Princess back to the town. The townsfolk are still terrified of the Dragon so George tells them to convert and be baptized and he will kill the Dragon. They do and he does. As George rides off to more adventures, the grateful King builds a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to Saint George and the waters that flow from the altar are able to cure all illnesses.
The movie The Magic Sword has a guy named George, a worried King, an imperiled Princess, and a Dragon but those are the only things the movie really has in common with the legend. In the movie, twenty year old George is an orphan who was rescued and then raised by a good, if rather ditzy, witch named Sybil. George has fallen in love with Princess Helene from a nearby kingdom. Small wonder he fell in love since he has been using a magical pond to spy on her while she swims naked in a garden pool. George sees the Princess get kidnapped and he runs home to Sybil. They discover that the evil sorcerer Lodac has a massive grudge against the King and has kidnapped Helene for revenge. He plans to feed her to his Dragon in exactly seven days. The King promises to send knights to rescue her and kill Lodac but the sorcerer just smirks and lays down a curse:
“Now seven times do I curse the road that lies between this castle and mine.
Let no one live who dares the dark journey.
Let no man face my seven curses and reach the Dragon’s lair!”
George is desperate to go and save his lady love but Sybil refuses to let him go. Her father and brother were killed by Lodac and she believes he is just to powerful to beat. To cheer up a despondent George, Sybil decides to show George the magical gifts she has prepared for his 21st birthday the next year. She has a magnificent white stallion that is faster than any other creature alive, magical armor and a shield that cannot be pierced by any weapon, and a magic sword named Ascalon that can open all doors and slice through black magic. Sybil also shows George the bodies of six fabled knights who were frozen by her brother long ago. The wheels in George’s mind begin turn and he gets an idea. He manages to trick and trap Sybil then he gathers up his gifts, wakes up the frozen knights, and heads off to rescue his Princess in distress.
George, as played by actor Gary Lockwood (SciFi fans may remember him as Dr. Frank Poole in 2001, A Space Odyssey and as Commander Gary Mitchell in the Classic Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) is always smiling and super confident that he can rescue his beloved Princess even though he has never trained as a knight at all. Sybil, his foster mother and good witch, as played by actress Estelle Winwood is a bit flaky and forgetful and never seems to be really worried about anything. Legendary actor Basil Rathbone as evil sorcerer Lodac and Ann Helm as hapless Princess Helene bring the most professionalism to their roles but even they spend most of their time screaming or chewing the scenery. Among the rest of the cast we have Sybil’s two-headed minion, the six mostly character-less knights, the scheming but ultimately stupid Sir Branton, the ridiculous King, and an ugly old hag who keeps showing up.
The special effects in The Magic Sword are pretty laughable by today’s standards. Any ten year old with a laptop could probably create better but then again this movie was filmed in 1962. I have to admit that while the soul-sucking cave creatures now look hugely lame, the deadly skin-dissolving swamp still managed to give me a slight shiver. I actually did not remember the Dragon at all and it has such a key role at the end. The Dragon special effects are pretty decent for the time and the Dragon manages to be quite scary. In fact, the special effects and the movie as a whole might still be a bit much for young children. I had nightmares forever when I saw The Magic Sword as a child (although I still loved the movie and re-watched it whenever I could). But I think, even though the special effects are very dated, that some images might still be too much for some tender young movie fans. Mystery Science Theater 3000 actually lambasted The Magic Sword in a 1992 episode. But MST3K star Joel and Tom Servo did admit the movie was “pretty good” although Crow T. Robot disagreed.
The Magic Sword runs a tad over one hour and twenty minutes. It is in color but there are a few scenes where the color is a dark wash and other scenes that are a bit too dark. For the most part the video is in good shape and the audio is excellent (in fact, the Dragon scenes are pretty loud). There was some rather weird music (by today’s ears) in places, especially when magic was being worked. The six fabled knights that accompany George are a bit interesting in that all seem to be based either on a saint or a legendary figure: Sir Dennis of France could be based on St. Dennis the patron saint of France, Sir Patrick of Ireland could be based on the patron saint of Ireland, Sir James of Scotland could be based on any of the Scottish kings with that name, and Sir Ulrich of Germany could be based on St. Ulrich of Augsburg (the other two knights are Sir Pedro of Spain and Sir Anthony of Italy). The acting is pretty bad throughout the movie except for a few glimmers of ability from Basil Rathbone and Ann Helm. Gary Lockwood as George fails completely to give the killing of the Dragon any drama at all. Despite all that, I still enjoyed watching The Magic Sword again. As a fairy tale kind of film I think it still works and is thoroughly fun. Of course, I’ll have to wait until tonight to see if I have any more nightmares.
The Internet Archive has The Magic Sword available to watch online or download completely FREE. IA also has several items related to the original St. George and the Dragon legend. There is a photo of a ceramic statue ca. 1750, another statue from the 18th century, and a photo of an Italian bronze plaque from the late 15th century. There are also two engraving prints from 15th century Germany (Print #1 and Print #2) and two versions of a woodblock print from Germany (Version #1 and Version #2). IA also has a fantastic photo dated June 26, 1875 of children play-acting St. George and the Dragon. All of these items are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lastly AI has a digitized copy of a book published in 1893, titled St. George and the Dragon by Sarah Anne Matson.