A few weeks ago I reviewed a 2019 movie I was really excited about called GUNDALA. It’s a pretty great Indonesian martial arts movie directed by Joko Anwar, based on a comic book (also Indonesian) that started in the ‘60s, and it’s supposed to launch an MCU-inspired movie franchise called the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe.
When I read up on the BCU for that review I learned a little bit about the other characters they’ll be making movies about, and some of them have already appeared in movies. IMDb listings of Indonesian films are not very complete, but based on my research I think there’s a 1981 version of GUNDALA; a 1954 version of SRI ASIH; seven (give or take a few erroneous double listings) about Barda Mandrawata – The Blind Man From the Ghost Cave, an incredible sounding character whose new movie is to be directed by Timo Tjahjanto (THE NIGHT COMES FOR US); and three about a wandering warrior named Mandala.
Out of all of those titles I could only locate three, and the first I’ve gotten my hands on is THE DEVIL’S SWORD (1984) starring Barry Prima as Mandala. This character is supposed to be played by Joe Taslim (THE RAID) in the BCU’s MANDALA: THE DEVIL’S SWORD, and if that’s like a slicker, more modern version of this, I can’t wait. This version is directed by Ratno Timoer (who both directed and starred in some of those Barda Mandrawata movies) and it’s kind of a cross between a CONAN THE BARBARIAN wannabe and a low budget kung fu movie (complete with wirework), plus some sexploitation thrown in for flavoring.
Mandala is passing through a village when he sees an old friend and pupil of the same master, Banyujaga (Indonesian karate champion Advent Bangun, LADY DRAGON) massacring a bunch of people on behalf of the Crocodile Queen (Gudhi Sintara, ESCAPE FROM HELLHOLE). Banyujaga suggests not getting involved, but Mandala declines.
The Queen’s deal is she lives in a huge, strangely dry underwater cave with a spinning bed ringed with crocodile-tooth-stalactites, and she has an army of “Crocodile Men” in funny crocodile costumes, who she sends to pillage villages and kidnap men to be sex slaves for her famous cave orgies. Banyujaga kidnaps the husband of a village princess named Pitaloka (Enny Christina, TWO IN BLACK BELT), and Mandala vows to help rescue him. To do that he has to get mixed up in some bullshit where the world’s most evil warriors, who have previously united and killed off almost all of the good warriors, are battling for the right to enter the mountain where the legendary Devil’s Sword is hidden.
Oh yeah, the Devil’s Sword! I dig when movies have a legendary sword with a cool name and/or design. But this one is extra cool because it has a great origin story that makes up the pre-credits scene. One night a meteorite crashes near the hut of a Pai Mei looking old man with a cool dragon-headed staff – we later learn this is Mandala’s master’s master. He goes and looks at the glowing rock and I’m thinking of the old man in THE BLOB who pokes the blob with a stick, but instead it cuts to him inside his hut forging a sword out of it. I mean, that’s fucking great! If you’re a true artist you gotta be spontaneous like that sometimes. Unfortunately as soon as he wields this thing it magically sets his hut on fire and knocks the walls down, so I guess he decided on the mountain plan. Again, spontaneity.
Anyway, it at least has a cool design, as displayed in the title sequence.
The duel between the evil warriors next to the mountain is a highlight. One guy holds a live snake that he turns into a staff with the power of a jump cut, and he has a hat that decapitates people like a flying guillotine. His opponent is an old hag who he bisects like Darth Maul, but her torso lands on a rock, laughs at him and calls him a coward. Then it hops back onto its bottom half and keeps fighting! He only beats her by using two swords as scissors to snip her head off and then he has to jam it in a crevasse behind a rock and it continues threatening him.
Mandala is pretty cool. He has long hair and a headband. He talks to his horse at one point. “Gaber (?). We must go help our master.” I like heroes who talk to animals. When he finds his master ailing he goes out to pick mushrooms for medicine and chops off both his legs to stop the spread of infection. I don’t like mushrooms, so I wouldn’t have the stomach for either of those things.
Pitaloka is the coolest character, though. I was surprised and disappointed to see that Christina is only in one other movie. She has a great, tough presence and the character is refreshingly kick-ass. She doesn’t let her man go without a fight – she has an awesome move gliding with a parasol, and then spinning it to create wind – and when Mandala doesn’t want her to go on the rescue mission she turns and runs straight up a steep hill to catch up with his horse – shown in a single take! So she goes with Mandala and is his equal. In fact, in some ways his superior, because she doesn’t get seduced by the Crocodile Queen and have to have the masters telepathically warn her that “She is not beautiful, in reality she is an ancient hag.”
I get it, though. Look at her, on her crocodile-themed couch. She seems pretty cool. Maybe I could change her.
I enjoyed the little touch of Mandala wanting to make it very clear that he’s just trying to help the princess, not get down her pants. When he meets her he assures her he is only there to help save her husband. And before riding off into the sunset at the end he says, “I hope the two of you rekindle the love you once shared.” (Pitaloka was upset about some of her man’s behavior in the crocodile sex cave, and said earlier that he was gonna have some explaining to do.)
THE DEVIL’S SWORD was released on DVD in the U.S. by Mondo Macabro. It’s dubbed in English, which gave me pause, but it works. It’s a movie that strikes that beautiful balance of being cheap and chintzy by modern standards, but impressively elaborate, from the giant croc statues to the cyclops with a light-up eye to the well-done underwater photography. That cave set is huge, and there are so many extras!
Also, it has the kind of pace you need to keep a movie like this fun – it doesn’t go too long without bringing in a new colorful character or setting or having a guy fly in on a rock like he’s the Silver Surfer or a fight with Crocodile Men or a raft or somebody’s head flying off. I’ll probly watch some more movies like this, but I won’t be surprised if this is one of the best of its type.
P.S. The DVD also has an interview with Prima, superstar actor since 1980, known for the THE WARRIOR trilogy, FEROCIOUS FEMALE FREEDOM FIGHTERS and PANTHER. According to the intro he was retired and reclusive at the time, but they tracked him down and convinced him to do an interview at a restaurant. He looks great, like he could still be doing movies, except he apparently hates acting and thinks movies are stupid, so he seems annoyed and evasive the whole time – or at least the part I was able to get through before getting too uncomfortable/sad and having to turn it off. But he did a bunch more movies after that, so hopefully he’s happier now.