Whenever TNT needs to air a movie that guarantees the network huge ratings, its programmers pull out a few surefire audience favorites: (1) Objective: Burma, starring Errol Flynn, (2) John Ford’s classic Western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and (3) The Beastmaster.
Surely you’ve seen The Beastmaster, especially if you’ve done any channel-surfing from TNT to sister station TBS — which, between them, run the 1982 MGM flick about once a month. (It next airs on TNT Sept. 6; Cinemax shows its tongue-in-cheek sequel, Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, Sept. 19 and 30.) Pure dumb fun, Beastmaster is the tale of strapping blond warrior Dar (Marc Singer), cruising a desert landscape with his telepathic pets (two ferrets, an eagle, and a panther) in pursuit of child-sacrificing warlord Maax (Rip Torn, with steel teeth). Along the way, Dar slaughters bald mutant warriors, leers at a slave girl (Tanya Roberts), and utters lines like, ”My village was destroyed by the Jun horde. I’ve sworn revenge.”
”I saw it as a cross between samurai films and Disney,” says director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm). ”It covers all the bases.” The Beastmaster flopped in theaters, though, grossing a meager $10.7 million. Then a funny thing happened as Dar roamed his way to cable. The movie pulled in huge ratings, first on HBO, then on TNT and TBS. ”It’s among our most popular movies,” says TNT program executive Phil Oppenheim. ”It’s in the second tier after Gone With the Wind.”
Exactly why is anyone’s guess. Oppenheim says it has to do with the film’s ”mythological appeal — it’s more serious than the Conan movies.” Stephan Shelanski, manager of scheduling and programming for Cinemax, offers a more prosaic reason: ”You can come into any part of it and not feel you’ve missed much.” But why miss the sight of a soup vat filled with human heads?