Steel Dawn (1987)
This Lance Hool directed feature takes the classic theme of Alan Ladd’s Shane and crosses it with the post apocalyptic world of Mel Gibson’s Mad Max. Taking the lead role is Patrick Swayze as the wandering warrior who will find himself defending a band of people including a widowed woman and her small son from an evil war lord played by scene stealer specialist Anthony Zerbe.
For no apparent reason I can think of, Swayze is introduced to us standing on his head in the middle of a desert wasteland. For purely spectacle reasons to show us just how adept he is at twirling and using a sword he’s attacked by creatures that rise to the surface from below the sands. For those of us familiar with The Mole People, you’ll get the picture. Not familiar with them? Then do yourself a favor and check out this 1950’s sci-fi “classic.”
Let’s move ahead with the narration here and get to the point where Swayze’s stranger turns up at a settlement overseen by Swayze’s real life wife, Lisa Niemi and her lead hand and all around strong man, Brion James. Though he’s offered food and shelter, Swayze isn’t to be trusted just yet. Not at least until he earns his keep in the eyes of Niemi and those living in the settlement that serves as a farming operation. Usually a screen villain, James will read Swayze the riot act but our quiet stranger with a classic 1980’s BIG hairdo doesn’t seem to be too worried.
Time for Zerbe to show up dressed in black and stating matter of factly, “I’m the authority in this valley.” It’s running water that is more precious than gold and Zerbe suspects Neimi has a spring in a nearby cave that he wants for his own. “Whoever controls the water controls the valley.”
Just like the 1952 western classic that saw Emile Meyer’s Stryker bring in Wilson .. aka .. Jack Palance to kill those that stand in his way, Zerbe will bring in a vicious sword specialist of his own played by Christopher Neame. Hammer fans will recall Neame from his role as Johnny Alucard in Dracula A.D. 1972. Adding a little spice to the eventual showdown is the fact that these two briefly tangled earlier in the film when Neame gets the best of our leading man.
Unlike the western standard from the fifties, Miss Neimi is a widow whereas Jean Arthur was married to Van Heflin. This gives Swayze an opportunity to have a fling once he flexes his muscles and comes to the aid of the settlement putting himself squarely in Zerbe’s path. Most noticeable when comparing this to the Ladd classic is the fact that there’s a young boy involved who will hero worship the quiet stranger with the deadly hands. The boy is played by Brett Hool. Surely a relative to our director Lance though I can’t seem to confirm that.
I’m not giving anything away but I couldn’t help but wonder if the boy was going to try and follow Swayze into the mountains hollering “Shane. Shane! Come back!” at the fadeout. But of course before we get that far we need to face off against Neame and Zerbe. To the death.
First time viewing for me and I’m not quite sure how I missed this one back when it would have turned up on VHS shelves for my weekend entertainment. Swayze’s star was on the rise by this time having appeared in Uncommon Valor and Red Dawn. Truthfully this one’s a step backwards when compared to those and the enormous success he would experience with his other title released to theaters in ’87, Dirty Dancing. He had married his leading lady Miss Niemi in 1975 and would remain with her up until his untimely death at just 57 years of age due to cancer.
A big part of my interest in finally seeing this film is character actor and noted screen weasel, Anthony Zerbe. The man never disappoints. He could play nasty in any setting from cowboy duds to futuristic tales to suit and tie villains. From Cool Hand Luke and The Omega Man to a second tier Bond villain in License to Kill combined with a long list of television credits, he’s a man never to be trusted. Just the way I like him!
Director/Producer Lance Hool is another name that fans of cult action films might pick up on. He was briefly associated with Cannon Films working with their biggest stars of the day Bronson and Norris. He’d continue producing films afterwards including the third Crocodile Dundee film and Denzel Washington’s Man on Fire.
Lastly a sharp eye will be sure to notice that one of Zerbe’s goons has a familiar look to him in a desert setting no less that puts him right at home. It’s Arnold Vosloo who would go on to fame as Egypt’s Imhotep in the box office hits The Mummy and The Mummy Returns that pitted him against Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz.
Now that I’ve finally seen this desert tale of a post war apocalypse with a Shane like twist maybe it’s time to revisit a few others from the era. Anyone recall Knights with Kris Kristofferson and Lance Henriksen?