Thousands of years ago, the Tribe of Zod (before whom I’m sure they all knelt) grappled with the paucity of game to hunt in their domain. But then, the Earth trembled, and the people were frightened. Tribal leader Iksay (Benito Stefanelli) decides that good-hearted, musclebound lad Ela (Sam Pasco) will inherit his mantle when he is gone rather than his own son Vood (George Eastman). Needless to say, Vood doesn’t cotton to any of this, and after he discovers iron (prior to the Bronze Age, mind you), he conquers the land, but Ela still has a few tricks up his non-sleeves.
What Umberto Lenzi’s Ironmaster (aka La Guerra Del Ferro: Ironmaster) draws its direct inspiration from is Conan the Barbarian’s “Enigma of Steel” speech. Unlike John Milius’ superlative epic of savagery, however, there is little wisdom to be found in this film’s take outside of what it says about weaponry and men swinging their dicks. Conan’s father speaks to his son about the relationship of men to their world (“This you can trust”). Vood’s relationship with the Earth is strictly on the basis of exploitation and power (“War is our reason for living”). Disregarding the differences in subtlety of approach, Ironmaster does still have legitimate things to say, though. When humans discover something new, something which has the capacity for destruction, they will tend to use it for that purpose first. Iron is not a strong material with which to build sturdier shelters for these people (Vood’s tribe live in caves for the entirety of the film, and the other prominent tribe dwell in straw huts) but a tool for subjugation. In this way it talks about man’s inherently bellicose nature, and this is even stated outright in the film’s opening monologue. While these sentiments do ring true, they’re addressed bluntly in the movie, creating rather obvious, facile metaphors where the possibility of a more nuanced insight is just as attainable. This is not to say that a high degree of finesse is essential in this sort of story, especially considering its genesis. Unfortunately, it does point to the filmmakers’ method of building narrative, for me, this was an issue.
What I mean by this is that Lenzi and company structure the film in a “lather, rinse, repeat” fashion. There’s a scene of Vood and his minions slaughtering a bunch of people. Cut to Ela and Isa (Elvire Audray) wandering around, lamenting their plight, and arguing over if and how they will fight Vood. Cut to Vood lording it over his newly enslaved iron gatherers. And so on. It gets old after the first two iterations, and this is in a film that’s almost one hundred minutes long. That it’s all delivered in the plainest manner possible only makes it more painful to endure. This is how much I like all two of you; I sat through the whole thing just to report this.
But back to the film’s more interesting elements. Aside from the abuses of physical power in the film there are the abuses of religious power. Ela’s tribe worshipped the god Zod, and he is more or less a benevolent deity (he’s called “Punisher of Evil”), in as much as any absentee god is. His mouthpiece (priest, what-have-you) in the tribe is Rag (Jacques Herlin), and he is thoughtful and considered in his counsel to Iksay. Nevertheless, Rag is an older man, so what he augurs in the flames of the tribe’s camp fires could just as easily be his interpretation of probabilities based on past experiences, but his advice is still sound. After Vood unearths the iron, he is approached by Lith (Pamela Prati), who worships Eferron (get it?), the Earth Trembler. Vood and Lith use the gift of iron as proof that Eferron has named Vood as supreme ruler and that the god’s wish is for his people to crush the world beneath their feet. Of course, the other tribe members are enthralled by this, largely because they are inherent followers. However, they also experience the feeling of might that comes with conquest, and they desire more. This is all reinforced by Lith and Vood’s insistence on their divine right. With just a small amount of manufactured/imagined proof, the pair gull their fellow men under the guise of Eferron’s will. This is not to say that Lith and Vood don’t believe that they are justified in their motivations or the genesis of same (or we are never shown anything indicating different). By that same token, Lith seems far more deceptive than Vood, so if anything, one could easily suppose that the entire plot is Lith’s machinations with Vood acting as bulky figurehead for a male-dominated society.
Another thing this movie does (in fact, what so many movies of this ilk do) is places its various factions into distinct groups with little to no intermingling. So, along with Vood’s warmongers and Isa’s peaceniks, we also have the Mudmen, the Ursos (read: Apemen), and (apparently) the Lepers. This is important for several reasons. One, there need to be distinctions between the factions which the audience can easily distinguish. Two, there need to be contagonists to get in the way of both the protagonists’ and antagonists’ goals. Three, other tribes are needed to draw out the plot and pad the runtime with (in this case, rote) action set pieces. Four, there need to be more wildly inhuman tribes outside of the main two so that the primary conflict makes a bit more sense. After all, if any of the contagonist tribes were physically indiscernible from Vood’s or Isa’s, they would become viable contenders for rulers of the land rather than visually interesting monsters/subhumans to be dominated. I mean, the Baseball Furies were never going to rule all the five boroughs of New York City any more than the Crazies were going to rule the above ground world of Manhattan, but they are memorable as serious (but still minor) obstacles in their cinematic universes.
One final distinction, perhaps the most important one (perhaps not; I’ll leave that to you), is in the nature of the two tribes as embodied in their locales. Vood’s tribe is hard. They live in caves next to a volcano. Their weapons are rigid, unbending. Their men even eat iron (yes, really). Isa’s tribe is populated with tranquil fishermen. They live in individual straw huts under an open sky. They have no weapons because they believe that people will leave you alone if you do them no harm. At first, Ela believes that the way to defeat Vood is with iron weapons of his own, but he comes to the realization that flexibility can overcome inflexibility when applied properly. The ultimate revelation of the film falls in line with Lao Tzu’s quote, “nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” And while, the protagonists follow their learned philosophy to the correct conclusion of this story, we know how humanity will develop down the line (assuming this all takes place on our Earth, naturally), making for a hollow victory of sorts.
MVT: George Eastman’s Hercules-esque headgear is the best thing in the film. Normally, I would be inclined to give it to Eastman himself, but he doesn’t do anything especially notable in the movie, and besides, he looks better doing it with the headgear on than with it off.
Make or Break: The Break for me was Vood’s discovery of the semi-titular ore. The volcano effects are quite well implemented, and this is in many ways the most interesting scene in the entire film. Sadly, it also inexplicably succeeds in being overlong and dull. The repetitive structure of the film’s remainder is simply more nails in the coffin, comparatively speaking.