Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Robert Clouse's 1975 post-Apocalyptic adventure film, The Ultimate Warrior, is not particularly well-remembered or well-regarded, but I first saw it on the CBS Late Movie in the late Seventies, and liked it quite a bit - and still do. Starring Yul Brynner (Westworld) and Max von Sydow (Flash Gordon), it is essentially a Western in sci-fi drag, filmed entirely on backlot city streets on a low budget. Still, coming four years before Mad Max, its urban setting makes a nice difference from the usual deserts and  wastelands of the majority of post-Armageddon genre efforts, and I've always had an affection for the film.

It is the year 2012, and war and plague have devastated the world and civilization has crumbled. Among the ruins of New York City, groups of survivors have banded together within walled-off city blocks and attempt to carve out some sort of life for themselves. Some groups are peaceful, clinging to the tattered remnants of civilized life, while others are aggressive, violent scavengers. One of the peaceful groups is The Commune, led by a man known as the Baron (von Sydow). Nearby is another band of survivors led by the brutal, red-haired Carrot (the always-awesome William Smith). One day, a bare-chested, bald man appears on the streets between the two groups, standing unmoving in the same spot for hours. Apparently this behavior is a recognized way of applying for a job, because the Baron believes that the man is a fighter entertaining bids for his services.

The Baron leads a delegation to try and recruit the man, a mercenary called Carson (Brynner, still convincingly badass at age 55). At first, Carson appears disinterested in the Baron's offer, but when the delegation is attacked by a group of Carrot's marauders, Carson steps in to help, proving himself adept with a knife. The Baron and the surviving members of his group, accompanied by Carson, retreat to the safety of their barricaded neighborhood compound.

Once introduced to the members of the Commune, Carson is given clothing and food and sits down to discuss his services with the Baron. When asked why he agreed to join them, Carson admits that it was because the Baron had mentioned that he possessed a supply of cigars! Eventually, the Baron reveals his true reason for recruiting the mercenary. The constant raids from Carrot's group and the rapidly diminishing food supply has convinced him that the only hope for the future is to get select members of his group - including his pregnant daughter Melinda (Joanna Miles) and green-thumbed rooftop farmer Cal (played by Richard Kelton, who portrayed a vegetable himself as Ficus on Quark) - out of the city. He wants Carson to lead and protect them as they make their way to an island off the coast of North Carolina with a supply of Cal's hybrid seeds.

Ultimately, only Carson and Melinda make it out of the compound, and are pursued through the city's abandoned subways by Carrot and his raiders... leading to a final battle to the death between the mercenary and the red-haired scavenger.

Robert Clouse is a competent director of B-action movies, having helmed films like Darker Than Amber with Rod Taylor (and William Smith) and The Amsterdam Kill with Robert Mitchum. But his greatest success was directing Bruce Lee's only Hollywood-financed film, Enter The Dragon. He spent most of his career trying to recreate that success with a slew of drive-in chop-socky films starring Jim Kelly, Jackie Chan, Joe Lewis and Cynthia Rothrock. In the case of The Ultimate Warrior, he not only directed but wrote the screenplay, which, as noted above, is pretty much a straightforward Western plot.

Although not a great movie, Clouse makes good use of the Warner Brothers backlot city streets (which have been appropriately "distressed") and stages the fight scenes fairly well. Brynner - and his stunt double - are convincingly tough and quick with a knife, and Smith always makes a great, physically menacing villain. In fact, the cast is uniformly good, with everyone delivering solid, professional performances. Special effects are minimal - shots of the "abandoned" city/aftermath world are conveyed by still photographs of empty streets and one or two static matte paintings.

As a pre-Mad Max/Road Warrior/Escape From New York "aftermath" flick, The Ultimate Warrior is refreshingly free of "punk" haircuts and S&M fashions, and presents a somewhat more believable world than most of the post-Apocalypse actioners that came along in the 80s. The backlot filming does give the movie a slightly claustrophobic/artificial feel, but Clouse manages to keep things moving along a decent clip, and Brynner's charisma holds it all together.

A couple years ago, Warner Brothers released it on DVD as a Best Buy exclusive, paired with the extraordinarily goofy, 1967 "yellow peril" flick Battle Beneath the Earth. The DVD has no extra features, but does sport a very decent, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The disc is still available for less than twenty bucks, at Amazon: Battle Beneath the Earth/The Ultimate Warrior


  1. One of my favorite films of the post-apocalyptic genre, for precisely the reason you state; it wasn't poisoned by the Road Warrior aesthetic. I had no idea it was available on DVD-- I'll definitely have to pick it up once the Christmas gift certificates roll in on Saturday!

  2. I first saw this movie on CBS late night back in the 70s. I can't wait to see it again!

  3. I also saw this on a late night movie in the 70s as a kid. I was thrilled to find a home burned dvd on ebay a couple of years ago. i didn't know it was on dvd at amazon, may have to grab one. the movie still holds up today.

  4. I love this movie, i first saw it back in the early 80s at my local mom and pop cinema, it was one of those saturday afternoon double features with westworld i think, i once read somewhere that the producer and writer/director came up with the concept with bruce lee in mind for the carson role when they were in hong kong filming enter the dragon. One thing that bothers me about the movie now is their are no guns, in all of new york, i cant think of a good reason why this is, only that its good for the story line, lol, but still a great watch

  5. I first heard about this movie in this blog, and I have to admit that at initially it didn´t catch my atention. Though for some reason it stuck in the back of my head. I finally deciced to watch it and I really liked it a lot.Thanks for the possibility of discovering THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR.

  6. I did not share the enthusiasm for this film. While Brynner, Smith and Von Sydow are always entertaining and the backlot sets fairly convincing, the direction by Clouse is surprisingly routine. There is also not enough conflict developed between Carson and Carrot prior to their final battle.