The Ultimate Warrior (1975)
Yul Brynner (Carson), Max Von Sydow (The Baron), Joanna Miles (Melinda), Richard Kelton (Cal), Stephen McHattie (Robert), William Smith (Carrot)
Famine, Disease, War, Societal Breakdown
“Only a few people still live in New York in 2012. They are organized in gangs with their own turf. One of them is led by Baron, another one by Carrot, and they are constantly at war with each other. Baron’s gang is more peaceful and have developed seeds that can germinate despite the nuclear fallout. The lone ranger Carson is hired by Bishop for protection.” Written by Mattias Thuresson on imdb.com
We open on New York city in the far-off year of 2012. The world is a desolate ruin filled with disease and strife, edible plant life and animals are in small supply and humanity has a toe-hold on existence. People are either half-starved waifs crouching in makeshift forts together or wild-eyed maniacs roving the streets attacking strangers for clothing, supplies, and (it’s implied) meat. Thanks Obama.
Our focus is on a mid-sized group of people living in a protected community led by The Baron (Max von Sydow) which is better off than most thanks to The Baron’s son-in-law Cal (Richard Kelton) who is a horticultural wizard; Cal has managed to cross-breed fruits and vegetables that are capable of surviving the blight that killed off most other plant-life. Unfortunately Cal’s gift has put a target on the community’s back and a larger group of survivors living in a nearby prison has set their sights on what The Baron and his people have. The Baron’s only advantage is that his enemy has no idea how few his people are or that he has no great fighters to help protect him.
One day The Baron goes down and talks to a man, stripped to the waist, who has been standing deadly still in the open for the past two days. The man, Carson (Yul Brynner), is a skilled fighter who uses only a small knife for a weapon and kicks fifteen kinds of ass with seemingly no effort. He accepts The Baron’s offer of employment, not due to The Baron’s code of morality but because he has a supply of cigars he is willing to pay for a fighter’s services.
Carson tells The Baron that he’ll serve him for a time, but he’s just passing through on his way to North Carolina where he has family living on a small island off the coast. This island piques The Baron’s interest and he tells Carson that his community is in collapse and that he would like to accompany him, taking Cal and his own pregnant daughter along with them. Things become very dark in a way I will spoil in exhaustive detail in-between the next two pictures, but suffice it to say that things do not go according to plan.
There’s a subplot involving a young couple with a baby. The community is running out of powdered milk and the wife thinks there’s still some hidden in an old bakery just outside the compound. The husband tells her it’s suicide to take a chance but she sneaks off when he isn’t home and goes looking for it. He arrives to find her and the baby in the bakery and together they bust open a safe to find nothing more than a box of paperwork. The noise they made attracts a group of raiders who kill the young couple and use the baby as bait to lure Carson out.
After the baby’s cries have echoed through the compound for a day, The Baron tells Carson to go retrieve the child. He arrives to find a street woman holding the infant’s corpse. Carson narrowly escapes this trap, killing a handful of raiders in the process, but it’s just the beginning.
Later a thief plants a stolen tomato in the home of shopkeeper whom he feels has wronged him. As punishment, The Baron orders that the shopkeeper be given to the street people. A bag is placed over his head and a coat covered in sleigh bells wrapped around him as he’s thrown outside for the wild maniacs to kill.
The raiders find a way onto Cal’s rooftop garden using planks balanced on windowsills in an alley. When Cal comes out to see them plundering his vegetables he turns into Bruce Dern in Silent Running and rains fisty vengeance upon them. While he gets points for passion, he’s not much of a fighter and he’s outnumbered so he gets thrown off the roof to his death effectively dooming the community and making everyone very distraught.
The Baron drugs his daughter and has Carson carry her out through an access tunnel beneath the community, but they’re witnessed in the process and after a confrontation the people rise up and beat their leader to death with blunt objects in anger. Meanwhile, the thief from earlier sells out Carson to the rival group and they track him through the underground. Carson delivers The Baron’s grandson and fights off most of the raiders until it comes down to he and their leader.
The raider’s leader is armed with a weighed ball on a cable and it becomes wrapped around Carson’s wrist as he knocks the leader down into a pit. To save his life, and end that of his enemy, he severs his hand with a hatchet. The movie ends as Carson and The Baron’s daughter, with very little food and a baby in tow, one-armed and weak from blood loss in an inhospitable city a very long way from North Carolina or this hopefully uninhabited island off the coast. These two hopeless wretches stare up into the cold light of day pouring down from the subway entrance before them. Roll credits.
The Ultimate Warrior is pretty light on plot and often seems like a series of dour vignettes stretched onto a loose framework, but they serve to build a picture of just how fragile the Baron’s utopian commune is in this harsh and unforgiving world and make his desire to cut ties and just save his family seem less selfish than it does initially.
It should be no surprise that the movie is alternatively titled The Baron, considering that it’s more Sydow’s movie than Brynner’s. The Baron doesn’t get painted in the best light; he comes across as cowardly, selfish, uncaring, and aloof. But in context, his actions are understandable and he’s much more sympathetic. His community, likely started as an act of civility for the good of his fellow man, has turned sour on him and are growing increasingly more desperate and animalistic. The compound cannot be saved, but his family (and potentially humanity, thanks to Cal’s seeds) can be saved and there is more admirable about that than it would initially seem.
Carson isn’t much of a character to begin with, he’s a vague “Man with no name” archetype who just happens to have a name and a (loosely defined) purpose. Carson doesn’t even really have much to do with the plot until the last 20 minutes. Supposedly Robert Clouse wanted Gordon Liu for the role of Carson but Yul Brynner was an easier sell to the studio for his star power. It is rather a shame as having The Ultimate Warrior know how to fight would’ve made the fight scenes a lot more exciting and I don’t feel that Brynner’s stilted line delivery and weird muscularly skinny physique added anything to the film that Liu couldn’t have competed with.
The villain, played by William Smith, is a compelling enough antagonist. His final battle with Carson is a decently harrowing fight scene and he’s suitably intimidating… except for his name. The character’s name is Carrot. I’m sure the name is derived from the character’s reddish-orange hair but it really deflates his fearsomeness a bit. Carrot just doesn’t have the same intimidating air as say, Toecutter.
The Ultimate Warrior was written and directed Robert Clouse, most famous for directing the Bruce Lee films Enter the Dragon and Game of Death, but also responsible for the feral dog thriller The Pack, the doofy gymnastics martial arts movie Gymkata, and the giant killer rat (wherein the rats were played by dachshunds in rat costumes) movie Deadly Eyes. Aside from Enter the Dragon, The Ultimate Warrior is easily Clouse’s best film, but it does have some problems.
For one thing it can’t decide whether it’s an exploitation film or a Hollywood sci-fi epic. This isn’t really surprising, nor is it likely Clouse’s fault as Warner Brothers probably shelled out a fair amount of money getting this made and wanted something with a bit more prestige than a sleazy b-movie, which is why the film is virtually bloodless and its worst aspects are more hinted than blatantly spelled out.
Still, Clouse left a lot of exploitation sensibilities in the movie itself and it kind of leaves the impression that he was bitten by an Italian film director and turned into a ravenous Claudia Fragasso when the moon was full during shooting. These moments of sleaze make the bombastic Hollywood western-sounding score seem even more out of place than it already is. The feel of the movie is very similar to Damnation Alley, where the viewer is really only aware of how fucked up the movie was after they think about it later due to the lack of gravity given to traumatic events in the film itself.
The Ultimate Warrior isn’t a lost classic but it’s far too interesting and well-made to dismiss. It’s really a shame that this movie has largely been forgotten the way it has. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess indeed.
The Ultimate Warrior is only available as part of a double feature with Battle Beneath the Earth on DVD, the upside is that that DVD is only $4.99. It’s also available on Amazon Instant.
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“That son of a bitch took my pants.”
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