What we can learn from ‘Ator: The Fighting Eagle’

If there’s one film genre the 80’s loved, it was hack-and-slash barbarian fantasy films. There seems to be no end to them, ranging in quality from ‘Conan’ to ‘Yor,’ and ‘Ator, the Fighting Eagle’, a 1982 Italian flick featuring a hunky, muscular, handsome hero out to save a kingdom from an evil ruler who has enslaved the land while wielding a giant sword, facing monsters, and wanting to marry his sister.

Wait, what?

Knowing that ‘Ator’ was chosen as the season finale for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival should give you a clue as to its quality: it’s not a very good movie, and aside from the creepy incest vibe, doesn’t do much to stand out among it’s many competitors. Still, it’s good for some chuckles, and has its fair share of lessons for the aspiring writer. So, with that said, let’s take a look at what it has to offer.

If you include a prologue, keep it brief

Read any writing how-to book, article, or opinion piece, and you’ll be told again and again to avoid prologues, AKA, dumping mountains of backstory and info on the audience. It’s solid advice, but, surprisingly, ‘Ator’ does a good job with its prologue. While cliched (a kingdom has been enslaved and a Chosen One will be born one day to set it free), it sets up the story quickly. But, more importantly, the prologue only gives us the most critical information:

*A land is enslaved by an evil force

*A child will be born to free it.

That’s it. Nothing about bloodlines, the kingdom’s history, how the land was formed, the various gods, religion, etc.

In our own stories, a prologue should be as bare-bones as possible. Keep it brief, tell your audience only what’s relevant to the story’s main problem, and save more background information for later in the story. Some great examples of well-done prologues include Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’, New Line’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, and any of the Star Wars movies.

Be extra-careful including incest in your story

In a field as crowded as barbarian fantasy, ‘Ator’ stands out in a way it probably didn’t intend: by having the main character wanting to marry his sister. Thankfully, they’re not biologically related, but it leaves a creepy vibe that no amount of cute bear cub footage can get rid of, as Ator himself spends the movie fighting to save said sister so they can presumably become husband and wife.

In our own stories, there’s no topic that’s off-limits, but some should be handled very delicately, if at all, and incest is one of them. While the subject itself can be a topic for great drama and conflict (a married couple accidentally finds out that they’re brother and sister and has to deal with that, and the fact that they’ve had kids), how it’s handled is vitally important, and I think there’s two ways to do so:

1. You present the subject matter as a tool to tell a story.

2. You present the subject matter as something you want others to accept.

The first route, I believe, is safer. One memorable episode of the British TV series, ‘New Tricks’ featured a business owner who forced his sister to have an abortion after they had sex. The show didn’t endorse the act, instead using it as the catalyst for the episode’s mystery. Conversely, ‘Ator’ feels like it’s trying to say that incest is okay, even going so far as to reveal that Ator’s ancestors used to allow brothers and sisters to marry each other, making the film almost feel like a pro-incest propaganda piece. That can’t be what the movie intended, but it proves the value of being cautious in how controversial subjects are addressed.

Avoid having a random events plot

Much like ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom,’ most of ‘Ator’ feels like filler to kill time. Ator being seduced by a temptress, running away from random warriors in a foggy forest, and having his partner be trapped in a cave feel like time-killers that were put in without much consideration as to how they would tie into Ator’s quest to save his sister and the kingdom.

In our own stories, keeping all the events that happen in your story related to main quest/plot subtly tells your audience that you know where you’re going, and they’re more likely to hang around to see what’s going to happen. While it’s okay to occasionally have a random action sequence that doesn’t affect the plot in any way (such as the unique fight between Ator and a shadow), those should be the exception, rather than the rule. Action for the sake of action may be enjoyable for a short time, but it will quickly wear off its welcome when the audience realizes they’re not any closer to the story’s resolution.

Consider having the mentor betray the main character/s

Probably my favorite twist in Ator’s story comes near the end, when, having slain the leader of the spider cult, Ator is betrayed by his mentor Griba, who reveals that he only helped Ator so he could reclaim his position as the cult’s high priest.

We don’t see mentors betray their charges all that often in fiction – they can be mean, yes, and downright cruel, but they still want their students to succeed. But to betray them is rare, and gives writers a great opportunity to have the student fight the mentor, and use everything they’ve learned – and a few tricks they’ve picked up on their own – to win.

When people lose their loved ones, make sure they grieve

At the very end of the film, Ator’s companion, Roon, dies of her injuries after fighting off spider cult goons, but not before getting a chance to say farewell to Ator. It would have been a touching moment… had not the very next shot (and the last one of the film) been Ator and Sunya cheerfully running through a forest with big smiles on their faces, seemingly forgetting that Roon ever existed. While it’s natural for Ator to be ecstatic at having rescued his sister, an additional scene of him mourning Roon, or laying her to rest would have allowed him to give her some closure and a chance to honor and respect her memory before heading off.

Because of how final it is (at least, in real life), death shouldn’t be treated lightly when it comes to your story’s main characters. If one of them dies, have the others mourn. If there’s no time to do so (they’re being chased by giant spiders, for example), then have them mourn later, or, at the least, miss the presence of those they’ve lost. Otherwise, you run the risk of making the dead character feel like a throwaway piece of the scenery who aren’t worth remembering.

An Alternate Universe version of ‘Ator: The Fighting Eagle’ that learned from its mistakes

A brief prologue tells us about the prophecy of a child who will be born to save his kingdom from enslavement at the hands of a spider cult. Years later, that child, Ator, having fallen in love with a girl from his village, sets out on a quest to save her after she’s kidnapped by the cult’s leader. Along the way, he takes his bear-cub companion, meets up with an Amazon warrior named Roon, and works to build up his fighting skills with his mentor, Griba, and acquire weapons that will help him defeat the spider cult, while fighting off various challenges the cult’s leader sends his way (a seductive enchantress, a village paid-off to capture him, undead warriors the leader raises, etc.), defeating each one and growing stronger.

Finally reaching the cult’s temple, Ator uses all his skills to defeat the cult’s leader, only to be betrayed by Griba, who only helped Ator so he could reclaim his place as the cult’s leader. Using everything he’s learned, Ator barely manages to defeat him, kill the cult’s spider-god, and save his girlfriend. However, Roon is fatally wounded and dies. Mourning her, Ator buries her on a beautiful hillside and vows never to forget her for the help she gave him.

With his beloved as his side, Ator returns home, having freed his kingdom and found the love of his life.

What we can learn from: ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2’

Wizardsofthelostkingdom2cover

Two weeks ago, we took a look at the 80’s fantasy film, ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom,’ a flawed film that had a lot to teach writers on approaching fantasy tropes. When I saw that a sequel had been made, I was curious to see if it had learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, and after watching I can say that while the end result is… well, while not a classic film, or a well-made one (it features the most obvious rubber snakes in film history), it is an improvement, if only a little. I was especially pleased to see that ‘Wizards 2’ corrects the lack of a focused plot: instead of a vague goal and random events, our protagonists here have a clear, achievable goal from the beginning and a general knowledge of what they’ll face. As a whole, ‘Wizards 2’ is better than the first, including a few genuinely clever ideas, but you’ll probably get the most entertainment out of watching it on ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000.’

Now, strap on your sword, and let’s return to the world of Argentian sword-and-magic epics to see what we can learn from the last tale set in the world of Axeholme.

Avoid doing a follow up that invalidates everything your heroes did the last time around

In most stories, victories, triumphs, and success are hard-won, bought with sweat, blood, and tears. Heroes fight, struggle, and strain to achieve their goals… which makes it especially cruel when a sequel invalidates everything they achieved. ‘Wizards 2’ (which has no characters or locations from the first film) starts with the kingdom getting into yet another war, and killing everyone from the first film.

In our own stories, doing a ‘all of it was for nothing’ sequel isn’t the wisest course of action if we want to keep fans satisfied; if a sequel makes the first pointless, who’s to say a second sequel will do the same to the first? It also retroactively harms the previous story, making rewatches or re-reads feel futile, as we know that everything we’re seeing the protagonists do will be for naught.

Consider having a grade Z mentor for your hero

In fiction, having wise, knowledgeable mentors is a standard story trope, both for helping guide the hero on the journey, and for explaining to the audience how the world and its various traits (such as magic) work. One thing ‘Wizards 2’ does well is invert that by having Caedmon – Tyor’s mentor – be not very wise, or even powerful. He’s a discount Obi-Wan who initially doesn’t even want to help Tyor due to feeling inadequate and not up to the task, but still takes up the mantle, even if his magic isn’t all that great (like turning straw into dung instead of gold).

In our own stories, having a mentor be a less-than-ideal candidate adds a unique spin on the typical student and master relationship, in that both don’t really know what they’re doing, and both have to learn and grow during the course of the story.

Consider not dumbing down your bad guys because they’re in a family movie

We’ve seen it so many times: Whenever the Chosen One (inevitably a young boy or girl) comes across an evil lord or a minion of the evil lord, said villains never just try to kill the child, instead gloating, mocking, and all but allowing themselves to be inevitably defeating in an embarrassing way (bonus points if they yell “This cannot be!” in the process). ‘Wizards 2’ is no exception, as the evil sorcerers Tyor faces are… well, either defeated too easily (Loki), give up too easily (Freya), don’t even try to take him on when they’re obviously more powerful (Donar), with only Zarz putting up an actual fight, but not taking obvious opportunities to kill Tyor when the moment arises.

Considering how family-friendly fantasy films wouldn’t take kindly to showing dark lords killing children, and making them incompetent makes the hero’s quest feel too easy, what’s a writer to do? I believe the answer is simple… don’t dumb down the villains. As an example, take what I consider to be one of the best villains ever to appear in a child’s film: Sharptooth from the 1988 film, ‘The Land Before Time’

In both of these clips, Sharptooth doesn’t mess around with Littlefoot and his friends. He sets out to eat them, no matter the cost, forcing Littlefoot and his friends to work together and rely on their wits to defeat him. When they finally achieve their victory, it feels well earned. Now, compare Sharptooth to all the villains on ‘Wizards 2’, and they don’t present any threat, and their inevitable defeats don’t feel earned at all.

Bottom line: Make your villains dangerous. Make them so determined to get their goals that they treat young Chosen Ones as adversaries to be disposed of, not played with, unless it’s to mess with their minds and weaken them.

Consider having characters in a fantasy treat our everyday objects as bizarre, frightening things

In fantasy, writers have the unique opportunity to take the ordinary and turn them into mysterious objects for their characters. A remote control becomes a summoning device for long-gone monsters. A cell phone becomes a holy device to contact the gods, and an ordinary piece of fruit becomes something bizarre and dangerous. In ‘Wizards 2’ ‘s most (intentionally) amusing scene, Tyor tries to turn a rock into a sausage, but accidentally creates a banana, which neither he or Caedmon recognize, and immediately throw away.

The biggest opportunity this trope presents to writers is letting us play around with everyday items, allowing us to either get a good look at how silly they can be, or, better yet, get an opportunity for some great humor. We, the audience, know the true nature of everyday, harmless objects, but characters don’t, and that can lead to some good laughs.

Consider limiting the number of places that must be freed/ bad guys that must be fought

‘Wizards 2’ takes the well-tread trope of having its characters go to three separate places to gather three separate things, and defeat three evil characters in each. Nothing wrong with such an idea, but the problem comes that the movie is only an hour and twenty minutes, and we don’t have much time to get to know each location before heading off to the next kingdom/item.

In our own stories, consider limiting the number of kingdoms to be liberated, dark lords to be fought, and items to be gathered. If there are too many, we risk rushing the story, never giving the audience the chance to slow down and take things in before the ending shows up. Perhaps there’s only one kingdom to save, or there’s only two bad guys, and only one item to find. The fewer we have of each, the more time can be spent on them.

Don’t have your Chosen One have everything given to him

An important part of any quest, Chosen One or not – is having the protagonists grow from their experiences, whether they end in success or failure. As in life, it’s okay to give them advice from other people in the story, but there’s a fine line between helping and telling them what to do in every situation that comes up. ‘Wizards 2’ has a problem with Tyor’s allies bailing him out, and even telling him exactly what he needs to do instead of letting him figure it out himself. While it makes sense to save his life when he’s in mortal danger, having a disembodied voice say “No, do this’ or ‘No, do that’ feels like cheating. It’s especially egregious at the climax, where Caedmon has numerous opportunities to actually fight and stop Zarz, but doesn’t, instead telling Tyor to arm himself instead of whacking Zarz or setting his robe on fire to distract him.

In our own stories, by all means, have allies help the protagonists, but also leave room for your main characters to try their own things and learn from their own experiences. They may reach victory more quickly if they’re shown the path, but it’s more satisfying for them to put in the effort and figure out the way to it.

Consider forcing your characters to defeat a villain without using violence

My favorite moment in ‘Wizards 2’ comes at the climax, where Tyor faces Duran and Zarz, but has a delima: if he kills them, he’ll become evil and join them, forcing him to try and find a way to win without resorting to violence. This presents an interesting challenge, where the key to Tyor’s victory lies in his wits, cleverness, and morals, instead of strength and bloodlust.

While audiences expect the climaxes of fantasy films to include fighting and weapons slamming into one another, trying something different can help make your story stand out. Having to do something other than violence helps authors come up with creative victories and resolutions, and I would argue that giving Tyor this situation is ‘Wizards 2’ ’s most creative moment… had the movie not proceeded to ignore it and have Tyor kill both Duran and Zarz without any consequences. Whoops.

Consider having the student become the master to her/his mentor

In an amusing twist, Caedmon becomes the student to the now powerful Tyon at the end of the film after defeating the sorcerers and reuniting the Powers of Creation, leaving the two set off on more adventures together. It’s not everyday we get to see this kind of inversion, especially when the mentor survives the story (can you imagine Obi-Wan becoming Luke’s student at the end of ‘A New Hope’? Me neither). Because of its uncommon nature, it opens up all sorts of interesting avenues and ideas for a relationship between two individuals, making the story as a whole more interesting.

The Takeaway

Be very careful choosing to do a sequel to a story that invalidates everything the protagonists did (but if said story wasn’t too good, you can turn this to your advantage). Regardless of what you choose, consider having your protagonists be baffled by everyday objects common to us, be mentored by a less-than-ideal mentor, and face off against villains who won’t treat young, ‘Chosen Ones’ differently than any other enemy, while limiting the number of those villains and their kingdoms to a reasonable amount to avoid rushing through all of them. When the time comes for the final conflict, consider forcing the hero to try and resolve it without killing, while not telling the protagonist everything he needs to do, and then switching positions between the mentor and the student to mix their relationship up