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: ‘Killer Fish’

NOTE: My apologies for posting this two days late: Christmas and all it’s related fiascos has been taking up more of my time than I expected.

Forget Jaws. Forget ‘Deep Blue Sea’, ‘47 Meters down’ or ‘The Shallows’. If you’re looking for man vs killer aquatic animal action, look no further than the 1979 Italian caper, ‘Killer Fish’, a gripping, heart-pounding tale of criminals vs some of the most ferocious fish ever known to mankind!

Okay, it’s not that exciting. Or quick-paced. Or even on league with the aforementioned films. ‘Killer Fish’ won’t win any awards or be remembered out of bad film circles, but with its beautiful scenery, silly effects, and groovy 70’s soundtrack, it’s good for a laugh or two. Let’s dig in and see what writers can learn from this tale of diamond thieves vs fish.

When doing a killer monster movie, give a tease of your monster at the beginning

It may be a cliché, but giving your audience a tease of the monster at the beginning of the story (without fully revealing it, of course) gives them a delicious tease of the carnage to come after the inevitable first-act setup. In ‘Killer Fish’, however, the piranha are nowhere to be seen for the first half hour, as the film instead focuses on people blowing up a refinery, stealing diamonds, and then sneaking through a jungle and starting to argue with each other at a resort, leaving the audience wondering if they came to the wrong movie by accident; they came to see piranha wreaking havoc, not a criminal heist movie.

As a writer, keep the characters, plot, and action tied to the killer monster, even in the first scene: Imagine ‘Jaws’ without the opening attack; the film would have a much slower, less interesting start, and a bored audience will quickly become an audience that walks away.

Consider having the antagonist’s plan to use the monster backfire

Unlike most monster stories, where the beasts are either discovered or accidentally released to wreak havoc, ‘Killer Fish’ is unique in that the leader of the thieves release the piranha into the lake to guard ‘his’ diamonds, a refreshing change from the usual ‘monsters are accidentally released or are discovered’ storyline we frequently get. What’s great about this subversion (beyond giving the main antagonist an admittingly clever idea for guarding the treasure) is that it also sets up the inevitable moment where the antagonist is done in by their own plan, which is always a crowd pleaser.

Unless you’re going for a jumpscare, foreshadow big events in your story

When the piranha finally claim their first victim, the moment we’ve been waiting a half hour to see, it happens so quickly that – aside from seeing some terrifying bubbles – there’s no foreshadowing of the piranha’s attack. We, the audience, expect that the diver will go down, there’ll be a minute or two before something happens, and… oh, wait. He’s already being attacked. Nevermind.

There’s something to be said about giving audiences what they want in a monster film, but it’s important to remember that building up to the carnage makes the payoff even sweeter. Knowing that they’re finally on the verge of seeing the juicy bits lets creators ratchet up the tension and suspense before a monster attacks. This also applies to non-monster attacks; “Killer Fish’ features a tornado that destroys a dam, unleashing a tidal wave. The problem is, there’s no foreshadowing, or even hints about the tornado’s appearance, making it feel like something the script threw in to keep the plot moving, instead of a well-thought out event that feels logical and not a Diabolus ex Machina.

Consider having your character’s place of refuge slowly fall apart around them

Much like ‘Deep Blue Sea’ 19 years later, ‘Killer Fish’ smartly has the characters trapped in a location that’s slowly sinking, meaning that if they don’t find a way to escape to shore, they’re doomed to a terrible, fishy death. By preventing them from just sitting around and waiting for rescue, the story ensures that they have to stay active and work hard to ensure their survival, which keeps things moving forward. Even better, almost all those on board are thieves who want the diamonds and are willing to betray each other to get them, making their interactions more interesting than ordinary people just trying to stay alive.

Consider having your jerk have one completely selfless moment of compassion for others

Ollie the photographer is a pretty standard camera snob who’s only interested in getting his shots throughout the film (but with Brazil’s gorgeous scenery, can you blame him?). But in a smart move, Ollie does get one good moment on the sinking boat where he tries and help an injured crewmember without any ulterior motives. While he’s not the standard, ‘heartless, smug professional who’s not interested in helping others’ type, it is a nice, effective redemption moment for him.

Having a selfless moment for your own jerk characters allows you to make them more interesting: Imagine a snob who is mean to everyone they meet throughout your story. They insult, put down, and offend everyone they can, just because they can. Then, imagine that they’re seen handing out food and supplies to the homeless in subzero weather without any regard to their own comfort. Though it won’t automatically make them a well-rounded, compelling character, such opposites will help in developing them, and maintain the interest of the audience.

Consider having two characters who hate each others guts declare a truce during a bigger disaster

It’s always interesting to see character who hate each other’s guts being forced to work together, which is what happens with Robert and Paul, who have to put aside their desire to kill each other to survive piranha who want to kill them both… at least, until they can both survive long enough to try and kill each other again.

While mutual survival is the most common reason for enemies to work together, writers have a great opportunity to try many different things with such a relationship:

*The two can learn to like each other and become friends.

*The two work to irritate each other as much as possible.

*The two gain a begrudging respect for one another that lasts after the crisis has passed.

*The two still try to kill each other at every available moment.

*The two immediately fall in love and marry each other (not likely)

The possible outcomes for such a relationship are almost endless; few storytelling techniques leave your audience completely in the dark on what can happen, making for compelling drama, comedy, or whatever genre you want to explore.

If you’re doing a monster story, have the monsters be the focus of said story

Perhaps the biggest error ‘Killer Fish’ makes is that it’s not a movie about killer fish: it’s a film about thieves betraying each other and trying to get some diamonds while having to deal with the inconvenience of piranha stopping them from getting away with said diamonds. Most of the film revolves around them betraying each other, with the aquatic menace being regulated to a subplot, instead of the other way around.

No matter your genre, remember to keep the focus on what your audience came to see, whether it’s monsters, a natural disaster, aliens, etc. To use ‘Jaws’ as an example again, imagine if the film revolved around Brody and Co. fighting to save Amity’s only seafood restaurant, with them having to fight the shark to retrieve the sunken deed to the building. Yes, they’d still blow it up, but at the end of the day it would be about saving a restaurant, not saving Amity from a killer shark. Audiences would be disappointed that they didn’t get a shark-focused story, and would be angry at having been tricked into seeing a story about saving a restaurant.

The Takeaway

When doing a monster movie, keep everything focused on the monster, including opening with a tease of its fearsome abilities, foreshadowing its appearance later on (along with any other disasters that might occur). When everything falls apart, consider having your character’s place of safety slowly fall apart, forcing two characters who hate each other to work together for survival, giving a jerk a chance to do one truly selfless, charitable act.

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

Wizardsofthelostkingdomcover

Ah, the 80’s. A magical time for fantasy cinema. From that era we got such classics as ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ ‘Krull,’ and ‘Dragonslayer.’ But every golden era has it’s… not-classics, films that end up becoming snark bait on Mystery Science Theater 3000. ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom’ is one of those films. Made in 1985, ‘Wizards’ feels very much like a movie made to cash in on the fantasy fad, and while it’s no classic of the fantasy era, writers looking to create their own sword and sorcery epics will find a lot to learn from its mistakes, so let’s dig in and see what this Argentinean epic has to offer.

Consider having a nobody take on the most powerful bad guys in your story

He’s barely in the film, but king Tyler manages to get the most impressive background of anyone we meet: the opening narration tells us that armies of wizards and sorcerers were fighting each other, but it wasn’t a powerful warrior, or a good wizard who defeated them, but a simple peasant who united the common folk and took them out.

It’s common to have underdogs take out much more powerful antagonists in fiction, but it’s all the more impressive when a person with no magical or extraordinary powers manages to do so against characters do have those abilities, and giving such a backstory – or showing it – makes for an interesting character. Indeed, Tyler is the most intriguing character in ‘Wizards’ based off that intro… which makes it a pity that he has less than two minutes of screentime before being killed.

Avoid rushing the first act of your story

There’s something to be said about leaping into a film and getting right to what the audience wants. Heaven only knows how, as a kid, I got bored about how many movies seemed to take forever to get going. As an adult, however, I’ve come to realize the value of setting up a story, characters, and necessary background in the first act.

‘Wizards’ has to be credited for getting going right out of the gate. After the opening voiceover that sets up the backstory, we’re off and running with Simon, the young wizard, as he sets out to save his kingdom from Shurka, an evil wizard. The problem? The first act lasts only thirteen minutes, and we have barely any time to settle in before the main quest begins. While that’s impressive from a time perspective, it gives us barely any time to know anyone in the story or understand what the main problem is, and why we need to be invested in it. It’s like heading out on a hiking trip, but you only get thirty seconds to meet everyone before being dumped on the trail with only the faintest idea of where you’re going. It’s disorienting, makes you wonder if taking this trip is a good idea, and ‘Wizards’ feels the same way.

In our own stories, there’s no problem in getting going right away, but be sure to lay the foundations for your work. Audiences will want to know what they’re getting into, and taking the time to give them even the most basic of information about the world, characters, and story will get your story off to a good start. When in doubt, it’s better to take your time and let the audience settle in, than to rush and leave them wondering what on earth is going on.

Give your main character a goal

It’s one of the most basic storytelling rules, but it cannot be understated: one of the keys to an interesting character is giving them a goal, something they want and need to work towards. Simon, by contrast, only wants to get back to the castle and stop the wizard. While wanting to save a kingdom is a noble goal, the problem is that he doesn’t make the choice to do so: he’s told by his wizard father, and, like a loyal dog, sets off on his quest. Compare Simon to Luke Skywalker: Luke was bored living on his moisture farm and wanted to leave and find adventure in his life. He had a motivation for leaving, and after his aunt and uncle were barbecued, he had the new goal of fighting the Empire to stop them from committing any more atrocities. Compared to Luke, Simon is a chess piece being moved across the board without making any decisions on his own.

When it comes to doing your own characters, their own goals don’t have to be big, but just having something they want to achieve makes them feel like a person, instead of a robot just doing what it’s told to do (though to be fair, having a robot set off to save a magical kingdom could make for an interesting story on its own).

For the love of all that is holy, think twice before making your ‘chosen one’ a teenager

If there’s one story trope that’s been done to death, resurrected, beaten, killed again, and brought back to life over and over, it’s the idea of a youngster chosen by fate to save the day. While the trope itself isn’t bad, Simon is the embodiment of its most cliched portrayals: he’s whiny, hardly does anything on his own, and is a brat at multiple points. In his favor though, the film does show why Shurka would want him dead, by demonstrating that Simon can give life to inanimate objects and raise the dead… pretty fearsome powers indeed.

If you’re going to do your own chosen one who’s a teenager, then try flipping some of the cliches Simon has: Have your character be confident, but aware that he has a lot to learn. If he’s going to whine, have him whine at characters who are slacking off or not doing their jobs instead of how hard life is for him. Show him taking the initiative and doing as much as they can on their own, even if they’re afraid or aware that they aren’t going to succeed, and show some of the skills they have that are key to winning the day, even if they aren’t fully developed yet.

Consider having your character summon incredibly powerful allies who want nothing to do with their quest

One of the best parts of the film involves Simon coming up with the clever idea of summoning several dead warriors to help him take out the evil wizard and save his kingdom. And, amazingly enough, he actually pulls it off, awakening the corpses of four dead warriors… who have no interest in fighting whatsoever and almost immediately sink back into the earth.

The genius of this scene comes from the buildup: the idea of summoning legendary dead warriors to fight off an evil wizard makes sense, and there’s a lot of potential for interesting interactions with them as they trudge back to the castle, which makes the audience expect those warriors to stick around. Having them have no interest in fighting at all and wanting to go back to sleep is a nice twist on our expectations, and is… kind of pathetic, really, which makes it amusing.

Save the comic relief for the first half of the story

A little bit of humor in any story is always welcomed. But, like all things in life, there’s a time and place for it. ‘Wizards’ has a sequence near the end of the second act where Simon’s protector, Kor, is captured by a cyclops and threatened with death if he doesn’t marry his sister, who Kor ran away from after apparently getting engaged. While some parts of the scene are amusing (primarily the one soldier who runs away via sped up footage ALA Benny Hill), the problem is that the scene feels out of place. We’re coming up on the climax of the story, and things are supposed to be getting more focused, tighter, and more serious. Pausing the story to have a sequence that doesn’t advance it is not a good idea. If anything, this sequence should have been earlier in the film, shortly after Kor and Simon met: Helping Kor out of his jam would have shown Kor that Simon wasn’t just a whiny, pink shirt-wearing useless kid, and that helping him out would be a worthy cause.

In any case, be very careful where you put comedic scenes in non-comedic movies. While there’s no rule saying you can’t put them later in the film, it’s generally better to have them take place earlier on, and, more importantly, have them advance the story instead of being a side trip that doesn’t add anything to the movie.

Consider how many secondary characters you need, and set them up

No film is complete without a supporting cast, but making sure that cast contributes to the plot is vital: ‘Wizards’ features two characters, Gulfax the… shag carpet monster thing, and Hurla the gnome, neither of whom contributes anything to the story. Gulfax is a clear Chewbacca stand-in who’s only contribution is to whack someone in the head, and Hurla guides Simon and Kor to the fearsome Suicide Cavern the promise of helping him again… which he doesn’t. Both could have been easily cut from the story without any ill effect.

Granted, not all side characters have to do big, mighty things: Chewbacca, in ‘A New Hope,’ mainly helps fly the Millennium Falcon and assists in freeing Leia from the Death Star, but his contributions feel important. If Gulfax, for example, had acted as a guide to Simon on their journey back to the castle, and the gnome been mentioned earlier as someone who can give Simon vital help in stopping the sorcerer, their roles would have been more substantial and meaningful.

In our own stories, don’t pad your story with characters just because you can. Each of them needs to play a role, and the more you have who don’t do anything is less time you can spend on the characters that do matter.

Avoid a random-events plot, and have all your scenes and locations contribute to the story

For all of ‘Wizards’ flaws, perhaps the most glaring is that it the story feels unpolished. All the events are in place, but don’t have the narrative glue binding them together, making the story feel like a bunch of random events taking place between the beginning and the end. Very few of these scenes add anything of value to the story, and those that could have don’t live up to their potential: The Suicide Cavern, for example, could have let us see what Kor and Simon are afraid of, and then have them work to overcome them, and strengthening their bond in the process. Instead, they just sing songs and pass through easily. After several more of these scenes, we finally reach the climax, and then the movie’s over, leaving us with the feeling that we don’t know anything about anyone, or why it all happened in the first place.

How can you avoid this mistake? When doing your own story, take the time in the first act to set up everything that’s coming afterwords. If your characters have to go on a quest, tell them where they’re going and why they’re going there. Warn them of the dangers they might face, and allies who might be able to help them, so that we, the audience, has an idea of what’s coming. While we want to be surprised by something unexpected, there’s still great value in anticipating something exciting or frightening coming our way.

The Takeaway

When doing a story, it cannot be overstated how important it is to give your characters (one of whom is hopefully not a teenager ‘chosen one’ who whines all the time) goals and motivations, to have every scene and character contribute to the story, and to set everything up in the first act so the audience has a good idea where they’re going and what to expect. Once you get going, limit comedic scenes to the first half of the story so the second can focus on the climax.