Of Heroes, Waterbeds, and After-Midnight Television

THERE IS A MOVIE THAT follows the struggles inherent in the so-called Hero’s Journey: a high-born child is raised in secret by commoners, and eventually groomed by a wise elder to overcome obstacles and fulfill his destiny by taking his rightful place among the knighted nobility. And that movie is called … The Black Shield of Falworth.

If TBSoF (1954) sounds a bit like Star Wars (or even Excalibur), that’s because it travels the same mythic highway. And if it feels like 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, that’s because it too was based on a Howard Pyle book, Men of Iron. Pyle (1853-1911) had a knack for making poetic language sound natural (and vice versa), and influenced the conversation of many young minds (including your author’s) who loved nothing better than to declaim to their friends, “May a murrain [plague] take thee!” (Brackets pronounced.)

Along with The 300 Spartans (1962) and a few other secret greats, TBSoF was a staple of late 1970s/early ’80s Bay Area TV programming; it played seemingly monthly, in the wee hours, before the Star-Spangled Banner closed the broadcasting day. The owners/pitchmen of Waterbed Warehouse and The Sawmill ran informal infomercials between scenes, as did auto-dealership king Cal Worthington (“and his dog, Spot”). The ads were as much part of the experience as the film/s, and during the station breaks I happily sang along with all the jingles. (At two a.m., the atmosphere is perfect for such mercantile cheerleading.)

For a long time, and eager to share this largely unremembered classic, I tried — without success — to obtain a videotape or DVD of TBSoF. Finally, a good friend gifted me with a VHS copy, which I slid into the VCR with trepidation. Would it stand Time’s unforgiving test? Would it still be as charming without my being urged to “hop in [the] car and take the Whipple Avenue exit?” My fears were groundless: the acting was period-perfect, the dialog vintage Pyle, the characters engaging, and the action scenes well-blocked and exciting. It’s a fine, sprawling, brawling delight of a movie, which neither the Technicolor brightness nor Tony Curtis’ British-y Bronx accent can spoil. These days, it’s also streaming-available on Jeff Bezos’ flagship emporium (along with The 300 Spartans, which has become, alas, in 2020, high camp). For those seeking a cinematic escape, or just to revisit days and years gone by, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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