Director: Robert Clouse
Writer: Robert Clouse
Producer: Fred Weintraub, Paul M Heller
Cast: Yul Brynner, Max von Sydow, William Smith, Joanna Miles
Year of release: 1975
Reviewed from: UK TV screening
It’s not a widely held belief, but for this writer the period 1969-1977 was a golden age for SF movies, bookended of course by 2001 and Star Wars. Because relatively few science fiction films were made in the 1970s, those that did hit the screens tended to be well-crafted, well-thought out, imaginative, serious works. A Clockwork Orange, Rollerball, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green... classics all, and now here’s another one, although The Ultimate Warrior seems to have faded into unjustified obscurity.
The film is set in a large US city (probably New York) in some sort of post-holocaust aftermath. Unless there was some sort of prologue (the old video recording I watched was missing the opening titles), then we’re left to guess at why society has broken down. But broken down it has, leaving pockets of civilisation among the lawless streets. Max von Sydow plays ‘The Baron’, leader of a peaceful society of 50 or 60 people, barricaded into a city square to keep out ‘the street people’ and violent rival groups such as the gang led by Carrot (William Smith: Hawaii 5-0, Conan the Barbarian, Hell Comes to Frogtown). They have a water supply, a few children (The Baron’s grandson is imminent) and fresh vegetables thanks to his son-in-law, horticulturalist Cal (Richard Kelton).
Yul Brynner, in a magnificent performance which is right up there with The King and I and Westworld, plays Carson, a fighter for hire who is persuaded to join The Baron’s settlement. He does his best to hold back the encroaching anarchy, but an attack by Carrot’s men and rumblings of dissent within the compound spell the end of The Baron’s dream. He sends Carson, with his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) and a bag of precious seeds, into the abandoned underground railway system in the hope that they can make it to a rumoured peaceful island. Carrot and his men pursue the fighter, who stands off against them, knowing that the healthy seeds are the most valuable thing in the city.
This is a powerful, serious film which (along with Battle for the Planet of the Apes) is a very obvious precursor to both Escape from New York and Mad Max 2, the two movies generally regarded as kicking off the whole post-holocaust subgenre. The gradual collapse of civilisation within The Baron’s compound is terrifying, as is his way of keeping order: a man falsely accused of stealing a tomato from the rooftop garden is left to the mob, who tie his wrists, blindfold him and throw him outside where he is swiftly dispatched by the cannibalistic street people, who swarm up from basements like rats. The final stand-off between Carson and Carrot is brutal, savage and culminates in one of the most horrific things you’re ever likely to see.
I am amazed that this film, with a good cast and crew, remains so obscure, especially given that it reteamed the director and producers of Enter the Dragon. The Ultimate Warrior is not only a great action movie, but an excellent social drama which deserves recognition as the inspiration it so clearly was.
MJS rating: A