Watching the 1988 movie Willow scene-by-scene. Why? Because it’s freakin’ Willow! The movie’s first scene goes straight from birth to death in a matter of minutes, 0.00-2:34 on the Blu-ray.
It just wouldn’t be a fantasy movie without an opening text crawl, and Willow’s is in three parts. The first part merely says “It is a time of dread…” We hold on that for a few seconds, letting it sink in. One the issues with the movie is that often speaks to a bigger world of cities and kingdoms that the viewer never gets to see. Therefore, we need a single-line “time of dread” to really hit home that life has taken a big downturn in this world.
The next part of the text states, “Seers have foretold the birth of a child who will bring about the downfall of the powerful Queen Bavmorda.” I’m not clear on who these seers are, but the canon depicts Bavmorda being raised and trained by other magic-users all her life, so it’s no stretch to assume seers are among these magic users.
The third and final part of the text crawl states, “Seizing all pregnant women in the realm, the evil queen vows to destroy the child when it is born…” Because there’s so little scope of how large or far-reaching this realm is, we can only speculate as to the logistics of this. Does the realm have some sort of rudimentary census? Did those seers help in the search? Unknown. More importantly, the crawl gives us two adjectives for Bavmorda, “powerful” and “evil,” so the audience knows who the villain is right from the start. The statement that Bavmorda vows to “destroy” the child is only partially true. We’ll get to her plans for the baby later in the movie.
Speaking of which, the first proper shot of the movie is a crying baby, apparently just having been born. This says to viewers, “better get used to lots of baby shots.” We then see four women in a cage/cell in a dungeon, each one blankly staring off to the side of the camera. A voice asks “Is it a girl?” and “Show me its arm.” A second voice says, “She bears the mark,” and a woman starts crying “No!”
The camera pans over and we see Sorsha, though she’s not yet named. She’s wearing a plain white and blue dress rather than her usual super-cool battle armor. She speaks to two hooded men and a guard, saying “The omen is true. I must tell my mother.” Given what was just established in the opening text, the audience can easily surmise that this is Bavmorda’s daughter. The hooded men, according to canon, are the druids, a group of which are always hanging around Bavmorda’s castle as her advisors.
We then get a scene with the baby’s mother and a midwife, whom the canon names Ethna. The mother pleads for Ethna’s help, but Ethna says, “I can’t.” The mother says “They’re going to kill her,” and Ethna clearly has a change of heart. She takes the baby and places it in a basket. I guess this is supposed to be a laundry basket, but it’s conveniently baby-shaped.
We’ll soon learn that the baby is the all-important Elora Danon, and this woman is her mother. The mother, however, is never given a name or backstory. This one scene is all we know of her. Elora’s father similarly remains unknown.
Ethna not-very-sneakily sneaks down a corridor, only for a guard to shout “Stand aside for Queen Bavmorda,” just as our villain appears at the far end of the hall. Bavmorda, who appears to be walking with a slight limp, moves past the midwife, not paying her any attention. Sorsha and more druids follow her.
We next see Ethna walk by some cages filled with monstrous dogs, appropriately named Death Dogs in the canon. Instead of barking or growling, the Death Dogs make squeaky, Jawa-like sounds as they snap at each other, not knowing the baby is escaping.
Then there’s the first exterior shot of the movie, as Ethna walks outside the castle gate as black-cloaked soldiers ride horses by. To the left of the screen, we see the castle walls are made up of huge bricks, each one a couple of feet tall, held together with pale yellow clay and straw. This gives the feeling that this castle is gigantic. Even though this is a pretty dark, dreary opening scene, the score adds a heavenly chorus to this shot, adding a sense of hope and wonder to what’s happening.
Back in the dungeon, the mother says to Bavmorda, “You cannot stop the prophecy!” This raises the question of how many people know about the prophecy. In most fantasy stories, future knowledge like this is restricted to only a few. Perhaps the prisoners were informed of the prophecy after they were taken, as the few other civilians we meet in the movie don’t seem aware of it.
Bavmorda says the child will have no power over her, and she tells one of the druids to start the ritual. As we’ll see later in the movie, preparing for this ritual is quite the lengthy process. What we’re learning about Bavmorda in this moment is just how single-minded she is. It’s all about the baby and the ritual, no big speeches, no sarcastic wisecracks. She’s just getting the job done and that’s it. Bavmorda is quick to deduce that the bundle of rags in the mother’s arms is not the baby. Sorsha puts it together that the midwife took the baby, and Bavmorda orders Sorsha to find her. “Use the dogs,” Bavmorda says. “Bring her back to me alive.” That second part is an interesting detail. From what we’ll see in a few minutes, I think we can conclude that “her” means the baby in this case, not the midwife. The baby must be taken alive because of the whole ritual thing.
The baby’s mother then has a total King Lear moment, speechifying how Bavmorda’s reign of terror is at an end, and how the baby will finish her. We get a close-up of Bavmorda during this speech, and we can see the words really sting. Bavmorda says “Kill her” with maximum iciness. We don’t see the mother die, but it’s implied she does with the way the music swells. The movie never really shows us Bavmorda’s reign of terror, but I think this murder gives us some glimpse of how bad things have gotten for the kingdom. Bavmorda’s “Kill her” also shows what kind of villain we’re dealing with. There won’t be any sort of nuance or redemption arc for her — this one’s pure evil.
And on that murderous note, we’ll end for today.
Next week: It’s getting pastoral up in here.
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