I discovered The Ultimate Warrior via an anecdote my Father told me, about a film that he had once seen in which “Telly Savalas got paid in cigars”. I was somewhat flummoxed at the time but after a little research it became apparent that he meant Robert Clouse’ 1975 science fiction movie. I finally got to see The Ultimate Warrior for myself in the late eighties on satellite. Turns out it was Yul Brynner and not Telly Savalas but its easy to get such iconic seventies slapheads confused. He was right about the cigars though.
The seventies was a truly great time for intelligent and thought provoking science fiction. Environmental issues were very topical so it not surprising to see such themes as a biological apocalypse in movies such as No Blade of Grass and The Ultimate Warrior. Both films depict a very stark vision of the near future and the decline of civilisation. The latter is especially true of The Ultimate Warrior . Through the minimal use of matte paintings and still photographs, the viewer is shown a decaying New York, bereft of power, utilities or any semblance of government. Pockets of survivors live in scattered communes, where as the streets belong to feral humans.
One such commune, led by The Baron (Max von Sydow) has managed to grow several strains of disease resistant vegetables. Yet despite this break through the group is teetering on the edge of total disintegration, due to the dwindling food reserves and the constant attacks from a rival gang run by William Smith.Enter Yul Brynner as Carson, a fighter for hire. Upon accepting The Baron’s offer of employment, he learns that he is not there to protect the community but to secretly take the precious supply of seed to safety. The deal also includes the safe escort of The Baron’s pregnant daughter.
Despite a somewhat simplistic plot, The Ultimate Warrior explores many ideas. Carson is not just a thug but a wordly and introspective character. The Baron is also a complex individual, feeling loyalty to a group of people who have long ceased to think for themselves. He knows that they will inevitably turn upon him but the maintains his role to the very end. Clouse directs competently and makes no attempt to soften the impact of the movies content. The fights are minimalist and efficient. There are no guns or steampunk weaponry. Carson uses a simple knife. The story offers little moral redemption. Humans quickly abandon the rules of society and become mere predators, just to live to see another day. It’s bleak and worryingly plausible.
It is a curious thing that this relatively minor studio picture achieves a lot more in narrative, terms than many contemporary equivalents. It is greatly assisted by the presence of two outstanding character actors. Brynner who was fifty five at the time, still comes across as an imposing and formidable street fighter. The artistic freedoms of the time are very apparent in the movies ending. Carson’s personal sacrifice is a metaphor for society having to make tough decisions for the sake of the greater good. It is highly unlikely that such an end would appear in an equivalent film today. Ignore the superficial trappings of the time. The Ultimate Warrior still has a lot of credible things to say. Unlike other more recent depictions of the future, at least no one here is wearing a colander as a hat.