Beastmaster

A few years ago, over the Grapevine mountain range, down at Disneyland, I caught sight of the Beastmaster waiting in line for the Mad Hatter’s teacup ride. And by that, of course, I mean I saw Marc Singer, the actor who played the sword-swinging, animal-loving barbarian, Dar, in the 1982 fantasy film, Beastmaster.[1] I saw the actor, not the character, though it was, admittedly, a little tough for me to keep them apart in my mind.

I’d come to the Land of Disney with my former wife and our son. We’d driven four-plus hours to visit some friends in Hollywood and to escape the murderous San Joaquin Valley heat; and there we all were, nestled into the ample bosom of the happiest place on earth, queuing up for the Mad Hatter’s ride, when I spotted him.

Across the winding maze of happy people, I caught a quick glimpse of the Beastmaster. Brief at first, my gaze shifted away, but I kept glancing back, subtly collecting the confirming details—angular face, aquiline nose, overly large nostrils, broad shoulders and blondish hair. It took a minute or two for me to register Singer’s face and place him in the films I knew; but when I did, I felt that strange satisfying heat of nostalgia settle into my gut, and I wanted to roll around it in a like a dog rolls in dead stuff.

Singer had skin that looked sort of stretched and tanned like leather; but he was still in good shape, still strikingly handsome. He’s only a couple of years younger than my parents and the age was evident in his face, but his body was sculpted and fit, his biceps and pecs filling out a tight t-shirt. He looked good, better than I imagine I’ll look at his age. To the other people in line, he could have been any average LA guy, just a fit suburban dad or fitness buff with a fake tan and dyed hair. But I knew the truth. Underneath those normal clothes, he was Dar, the Beastmaster.

I felt strangely happy to see that, if called upon, Singer could still play the role of a shirtless barbarian. Somehow this seemed to preserve a small part of my often miserable but occasionally transcendent adolescence. I’m pretty sure Singer was riding the teacups with a much younger woman, but honestly I was so fixated on him I don’t really remember his companion or companions. He might have been there with his kids. Or his dentist. Or his mother. Or some kind of Hollywood player. I didn’t really care.

marc singerNobody else in line seemed to recognize Singer. Or at least nobody asked for his autograph. Nobody said, “Hey, Beastmaster. You rock!” though I did point him out to my son, who had no idea who I was talking about and mostly ignored me—whereupon I resolved then and there to, at some distant point in his future, school the boy on the finer examples of 70’s and 80’s barbarian narratives. It seemed like the least I could do—though now, of course, he’s reached his teenage years and would, undoubtedly find my love of crappy 80’s fantasy flicks to be both sad and embarrassing.

Let’s be honest: Beastmaster is not an objectively great (i.e. critically acclaimed) movie, but it was an important movie to many kids growing up in the early 80’s. Though a plot summary doesn’t quite capture the epic quality of the film, the movie database, IMDB describes it thusly:

Dar, the son of a king, is hunted by a priest after his birth, so he is sent to grow up in another family. When he becomes a grown man, his new father is murdered by savages. He discovers that he has the ability to communicate with the animals, and after that, Dar begins his quest for revenge in this Conan-like movie. 

So for me, it’s that line about the “ability to communicate with animals,” that gets me every time. I grew up watching old Tarzan episodes on Saturday mornings, obsessed with the ape-man’s ability to live between two worlds so comfortably, captivated by the “idiot savant” character of the charismatic barbarian—a character I thought I could probably play pretty easily.

Raised by wolves or apes or dolphins, Tarzan and the other crossover characters were mutants and freaks, and yet still somehow uniquely adapted for survival. They looked like “humans” and exhibited “human” characteristics, but also possessed both the best and worst of  “animal” characteristics—strength, power, savagery, and moral indifference. Most importantly, they possessed the ability to communicate between species. And if I’m being totally honest, amidst the angst and turmoil of the 80’s, a painful divorce and the usual adolescent insecurities, I often wished I’d been raised by wolves or bears or some other family of beasts. Some days it felt like nobody understood me and I’d be better off talking with animals.

The Beastmaster movie was marketed with a poster of a tanned and muscled, Marc Singer, coupled with a tag line, describing our hero thusly: “Born with the courage of an eagle, the strength of a black tiger, and the power of a god,” which I’ve decided is exactly what I’d like etched into my tombstone when I die.

Using his far more advanced skills in Beastmastery than I could ever hope to possess, Dar befriends an eagle named Karak[2], and travels with the aforementioned, “black tiger,” as well as a buxom “slave princess” and two thieving ferrets, all of them happily internalizing Dar’s quest to find and kill the evil “priest,” the sorcerer, Maax, (with two a’s) responsible for the deaths of his parents.

The revenge-fueled barbarian quest was a popular trope in 80’s movies and television. Between the Conan movies, Beastmaster, Mad Max, and the animated TV series, Thundarr the Barbarian, I consumed many stories of semi-savage, muscled men who traveled with a team of justice-loving outcasts and/or animals through a dangerous, fantastical and/or post-apocalyptic world filled with mutants and freaks. It was the 80’s, after all, and such stories seemed not just inevitable but entirely necessary.

Often these “wild” men, these barbarians were pursued unjustly or hunted by a persistent threat—a priest or a cop, a general or colonel, a mad scientist or a mercenary. Often there was vengeance. And scantily clad women. And fighting for justice. And swords and loin-cloths and stuff. And even Tina Turner and Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain and Andre the Giant. It was amazing and ridiculous, pretty much like everything else in late 70’s, early 80’s pop culture—hedonistic and base and undeniably seductive. The movie makers knew their audience—legions of disaffected young, middle-class white boys who grew up at the tail end of the Cold War (when things got really weird), boys who loved comic books and metal and Star Wars and, especially, Princess Leia’s gold bikini, boys who harbored dreams of vengeance and epic escape through a fantastical barbarian bildungsroman—boys just like me.

* * *

Beastmaster 2

Many of my favorite TV shows and movies from late 70’s and early 80’s were objectively bad and “short lived,” perhaps because I appreciated the transient significance, the lingering resonance of camp and melodrama. Perhaps my appreciation can be explained by a feeling during those years that everything meaningful had a short shelf-life, destined as we all were to die in storms of nuclear wind and fire. Perhaps it was my long-running fascination with the one-hit wonder, the flash-in-the-pan, or the earnestly crappy expression of pop culture. I also loved the songs, “Oh, Mickey,” and “867-5309;” so perhaps I simply had bad taste.

The 1977-78 series, Man From Atlantis, was one of these short-lived TV shows starring Patrick Duffy and was clearly based on the comic book character, Aquaman. It featured a protagonist named Mark Harris, who had washed up on a beach, suffering from amnesia and sporting webbed hands, sculpted pecs, and some really awesome feathered hair. Harris, believed to be the last known survivor of the lost city of Atlantis, swam like a dolphin with his arms at his side, kicking his legs in unison instead of in a scissor-motion, making his body wiggle and wave like a worm in the water. This, perhaps not surprisingly, was something I tried to imitate EVERY single time I was in a swimming pool as a kid, and still do today just to show off for my kids and pretend that I, too, could be the Man from Atlantis, if only for a moment, in the suspended animation of a hotel swimming pool.

Aside from his uniquely entertaining swim style, Mark Harris also possessed superhuman strength and the ability to communicate with sea creatures—both of which come in handy when you’re a mutant freak being hunted by a madman. The story hit a lot of marks for me. But in terms of narrative tension, the show perhaps depended too much on the audience internalizing a fear of this aquatically inclined madman who, when he wasn’t relentlessly pursuing Harris, was creating an undersea Kingdom from which he intended to nuke the surface world into oblivion. Again, I didn’t see a problem with this.  It seemed to be a pretty obvious analogy for the current geopolitical climate.

The show had it all. What’s not to like? Superhuman mutants with feathered hair? The clash of science and nature? The blurry lines between man and animal? Nuclear bombs? This was pop culture at its best. Unfortunately the critics, audience, and studio executives didn’t feel the same way, and The Man from Atlantis was canceled after only thirteen episodes; and many members of the target audience—the savage youth of 80’s America—believed that our own seasons, our own fragile pilot lives, would be canceled soon enough, wiped out by the cold logic of nuclear war.

* * *

The Fall, 1983 TV Series, Manimal featured the protagonist, Dr. Jonathan Chase, played by Simon MacCorkindale, a shape-shifting private detective described in the show’s intro as:

… wealthy, young, handsome. A man with the brightest of futures. A man with the darkest of pasts. From Africa’s deepest recesses, to the rarefied peaks of Tibet, heir to his father’s legacy and the world’s darkest mysteries. Jonathan Chase, master of the secrets that divide man from animal, animal from man… Manimal!

Manimal exists, for me, as a cultural touchstone, a nexus of meaning and madness. The show’s run coincided with the post-apocalyptic TV-movie, The Day After, the Beirut bombing of the Marine barracks, the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007, the invasion of Grenada, and, ultimately, of my parents’ divorce—all of these bombs dropping during the Fall of 1983

Boom, boom, boom, boom.

manimalTo say that those long strange months were significant in my life would be an understatement. It was, for me, the season of apocalyptic synchronicity—when all my private hopes and fears seemed to play out on the public stage and on-screen. Terrified of nuclear war and of the Soviets and terrorists, obsessed with mutation and solitary adventures in the wilderness with animal friends, it felt like they were making movies and TV shows just for me. Sometimes the whole world seemed sick, like a bad fantasy movie, and Manimal felt like the only cure. I don’t think I was alone in believing that, when the inevitable end came, it wouldn’t be the meek but the mutants and the manimals who inherit the earth.

I suppose I felt the sort of solipsism that most people feel in their adolescence, but it was also a time of significant self-reflection for me, and for an odd kind of empowerment and acceptance through the glory of bad movies and crappy television, through the revenge travel narratives of charismatic barbarians—those brief, bright heroes of the screen who somehow touched the archetype and spoke to an internal struggle so many of us felt deep in our marrow. The world—all of it—often seemed so serious, so dire and depressing, that we all needed a release, a promise of better times. We needed to feel stupid and barbaric, if only for a season, as a salve against the smarts that seemed required to survive the 80’s.

* * *

Though he could change into any animal, Dr. Chase, or Manimal, most often morphed into a hawk or a black jaguar, presumably because these two animals were the best at crime fighting. The hawk could . . . you know . . . fly and see really well and grab things with its talons; and the jaguar was a big predatory cat . . . that mostly just scared the living shit out of bad guys. When the cat showed up, the party was over. Surrender was imminent and predictable. There were few, if any, scenes where the animals actually attacked a human. No vicious jaguar or bear maulings. Mostly Chase relied on the strategic intimidation the animals could offer.

And here’s the important distinction in the Manimal story: Chase’s animal nature, you would learn, was not chaotic, not wild and rampant, but instead a product of rational thought and planning, a willful morphing from man to beast. It was a way to solve problems, to avoid violence through intimidation and performance. Peace through strength—just like Reagan’s nuclear and foreign policy. Manimal was more American, more Cold War, than we could even imagine.

At every step, Chase had to think it through and plan his transformation into an animal. It was always a calculated move. Jaguar as gun. Hawk as badge. He chose to be a monster and a menace when it benefited the common good. Chase had succeeded where Bruce Banner and the government couldn’t with the Incredible Hulk; he had controlled and weaponized his animal side.

Let’s assume, then, that the Hulk is a metaphor for the false promises of the atomic age, a big green manifestation of chaos, a rampaging unpredictable nuclear meltdown. Jonathan Chase, then, exists as a kind of mutative dream, the perfect picture of successful Cold War survival—like James Bond and The Hulk had a handsome, well-adjusted baby boy named Jonathan. As a general public, we were just lucky that Chase chose to use his mutative powers for good. And we were lucky that cameras were rolling to capture it all.

One my favorite parts of the Incredible Hulk TV show was the mutation sequence, where we saw the slow, seam-splitting transformation of Bruce Banner into the Hulk. It always started in the eyes. You could see the storm coming. And not surprisingly, this cinematic mutation was also my favorite part of Manimal. Even more than with Banner and the Hulk, the special-effects used to show Chase’s on-screen shape-shifting were the real star of the show, and regularly got top billing, eating up minutes of every episode, keeping me and about nine other people in America rapt and transfixed as if we were witnessing not just a physical transformation but a spiritual transition as well.

I’d pitch forward in my chair, all the lights off, the glow of the Zenith casting the room in bluish tints; and my fingers curled tight over the arm of the chair, beads of sweat rising from my brow. I watched and witnessed, amazed and titillated anew each time as Chase mutated into a big black cat. I could not look away . . . How could anyone?

The metamorphosis happens slowly, methodically, like a seduction, with that uniquely synthesized and sleazy porn-quality music playing in the background—because everything in the late 70’s and early 80’s had porn music in the background. But it feels right. Perfect, actually. Because you feel a little dirty for watching. Chase’s shirt splits down the middle as his back swells and arches, his spine rising up in a thick, ropy ridge of knuckles. Guttural sounds burst from his mouth, as if it hurts to change, as if he’s coming through something painful and ecstatic. His face bubbles and stretches, his muscles bulge, inflating like balloons. His jaw distends, his nose turning up and flattening out into a snout. Hair grows like weeds in a time-lapse video; and his fingers curl inward, melting into paws, as claws sprout from them. Fangs burst from his gums and his eyes change shape and color—all of it happening in slow motion and climaxing with the requisite stock sound footage of a panther’s orgasmic growl.

And before you know it, it’s over. Man becomes animal. And you’re spent, done, exhausted and satisfied. You don’t even care what happens next. You just know it was good.

In other episodes, Chase also changes into a bear and a bull, a dolphin, horse, and even a snake, some of them happening off screen, but all of the mutation under his control. All of it patient and careful.  All of it thoughtful.

The title itself is so simple and so brilliant, an inelegant but efficient portmanteau. Man to animal. Manimal. How could it not succeed? How could it not be a huge success?

But in addition to competing with the super-popular night-time soap opera, Dallas (which starred Patrick Duffy, of The Man from Atlantis fame), Manimal suffered from the storytelling challenge of finding increasingly novel situations in which changing into a jaguar proved narratively satisfying. Call it the seven-episode-itch. Call it bad writing. Or call it the short, flaming brilliance of novelty, and the transient specialness of special effects.

The show was canceled after only eight episodes, and Manimal is today widely considered to be one of the all-time worst TV shows. It maintains a cult following, perhaps because of its extreme badness and camp quality, perhaps because of it’s ridiculous premise and cheesy special effects, or perhaps because Manimal still speaks, much like The Beastmaster and Man from Atlantis, to a deep-seeded desire many of us hold to cross over, to live between two worlds, and to master the secrets that divide man from animal, animal from man.

That day at Disneyland, I watched the Beastmaster climb into his teacup for a ride and it was like seeing a piece of my childhood—a character who seemed to contain all of them, one man to represent all the barbarians of my youth—queued up for a ride; and I had the urge to run after him, to elbow tourists aside and leap into his cup because the experience was like watching that piece of my childhood, something I that I realized I might never be able to adequately share with my own children, spin away from me, twirling off madly into oblivion, off into the place where all the 80’s manimals still live, captured forever and contained in the illuminated museum of memory, never to return.

 

[1] Singer also starred in the 1984 classic sci-fi TV series, V, yet another formidable pop culture influence on my adolescent mind, where he played the handsome khaki-vest-wearing photo-journalist, Mike Donovan, a leader in the underground rebellion against Nazi-esque alien lizard people plotting to colonize planet Earth.

[2] It is perhaps worth noting that several of my childhood heroes of literature and pop-culture possessed the unique ability to domesticate predatory raptors.

TAGS: , , , ,

STEVEN CHURCH is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Ultrasonic: Essays and the newly released One with the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals. His nonfiction has been published and anthologized widely; and he's a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for the literary magazine, The Normal School. He teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.

One response to “Manimals in Captivity”

  1. Todd Mitchell says:

    Finally, someone else who gets my life-long fascination with The Beast Master! Thank you, Steve Church, for once again finding a way to delve into the secret subterranean caverns of the 80’s psyche.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *