They’ll put a spell on you! Wizards are as intrinsic to the fantasy genre as noble heroes, elves and dragons, and without their magical abilities, entire realms would be overwhelmed by dark forces. When it comes to fantasy cinema, witches far outnumber wizards. However, wizards dominate two of the genre’s biggest and most popular franchises, so there’s no shortage of wand-waving, spell-casting and sorcery on the screen.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The common definition of a wizard as “a man who practices magic” conjures images of those who pull rabbits out of hats. As far as the fantasy genre is concerned, which is what we’re discussing here, a wizard is a wise and wily old man with a long grey beard who carries a staff and dodders around a dimly lit room filled with scrolls, ancient texts and jars filled with powders. You know the type.
Then along came J.K. Rowling to subvert the stereotype; creating an entire Wizarding World and introducing a young boy hero playing with his wand. Wizards suddenly became cool and a profession to aspire to, although the perils of fooling around with magic remain constant.
Wizards are as intrinsic to fantasy as noble heroes, elves and dragons, and without them, entire realms would be overwhelmed by dark forces. They are usually the first to sense the oncoming of great evil and their wisdom and spellcasting prowess are invaluable assets to a kingdom.
They are usually benevolent but can be ruthless when required, especially if the stakes are high enough and the fate of a world hangs in the balance. Evil wizards that practice the dark arts are usually referred to as warlocks, sorcerers and necromancers.
Wizards will frequently mentor a young apprentice or become an indispensable companion on a quest, and despite their elderly mein, can be quite sprightly and fearless. They can also be very hard to kill – returning from the dead in different guises or offering advice from beyond the grave, depending on the individual’s powers.
WHERE TO START
The first movie wizard you should be off to see is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. L. Frank Baum’s novel was first adapted for the screen as a silent feature in 1925 but it was Victor Fleming’s glorious 1939 Technicolor version, The Wizard of Oz, that introduced the title character to an adoring audience and the pop culture zeitgeist. This particular wizard has the power to send young Dorothy back to Kansas and agrees to do so in exchange for a broomstick belonging to a certain Witch of the West. He’s also a trickster – initially appearing as a bulbous floating head before being exposed as a puffy-faced middle-aged guy in a suit, who eventually makes good on his promise and more. The Wizard of Oz is more of an incidental character in a film that’s all about Dorothy and her newfound friends, but in name alone he’s one of cinema’s most iconic wizards.
The most famous of wizards, Merlin, can be found in John Boorman’s definitive screen treatment of the Arthur legend: Excalibur (1981). British actor Nicol Williamson plays him as a batty sorcerer adept in the ‘Charm of Making’, which transforms Uther Pendragon into the likeness of the Duke of Cornwall so that Arthur can be conceived. The spell also spectacularly backfires on Merlin when he teaches it to Helen Mirren’s malevolent Morgana, who uses it to imprison him in a diamond-hard mist beneath Camelot. (Note: A younger incarnation can be found in the BBC series Merlin, 2008–2012.)
He has many names – Mithrandir, Greyhame, Stormcrow – but we know him best as Gandalf, the Middle-earth mage of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (2001–2003) and The Hobbit Trilogy (2012–2014) who’s brought to life by the great Ian McKellen in the role he was born to play. Middle-earth wizards are a powerful and strange bunch – they resemble old men but are actually immortal beings charged with protecting the world from Sauron. That’s how Gandalf the Grey managed to return as Gandalf the White after telling a Balrog it “SHALL NOT PASS” and plummeting to his doom. A wily wizard who can command moths, eagles and the respect of the Elves, Gandalf is a pivotal player in Middle-earth history. Having accompanied Bilbo Baggins on an unexpected journey to reclaim the dwarven realm from the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, Gandalf was also instrumental in the defeat of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings – forming the Fellowship of the Ring and leading the final battle of Mordor with Aragorn. Other Middle-earth wizards you’ll encounter in both trilogies are Saruman the White (the legendary Christopher Lee) and Radagast the Brown (former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy).
The wizards of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (2001–2011) resemble a bunch of kindly old English gents, with the exception of course of Lord Voldemort, who should not be named (oops, too late!). The greatest of these is Albus Dumbledore (played by the late Richard Harris in the first two films and Michael Gambon in the rest), the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the only wizard who can strike fear into the black heart of Voldemort. He’s also a grandfatherly figure to the saga’s other prominent wizard – young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), whose relationship with Dumbledore helps him fulfil his destiny as the chosen one who can “vanquish the Dark Lord”. Other notable wizards of the Potterverse include Severus Snape, Sirius Black and Gellert Grindelwald.
Spin-off feature Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) relocates Rowling’s Wizarding World to America, where you’ll meet Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an English wizard in New York. Or a ‘magizoologist’ to be precise, who carries a TARDIS-like suitcase full of fantastic fauna – which are illegal in the US and of course get loose following a baggage mix up. He also gets accused of conspiring with the notorious dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. Newt’s a nervous sort but still an accomplished wizard who plans to write the titular tome when he returns to England. Fantastic Beasts offers a fascinating contrast to the British wizarding way, with its subtle variations on established Potterverse lore.
The year before he gave us an (unfinished) animated version of The Lord of the Rings, director Ralph Bakshi unleashed what might be one of the most bizarre and original fantasy tales. Wizards (1977) is set in a post-apocalyptic world where faeries, elves and dwarves have been mutated by the fallout from a nuclear holocaust. The story centres on the power play between twin wizards Avatar and Blackwolf, stretches for three thousand years, and features a Nazi propaganda film used as a weapon. This animated cult oddity deserves a mention here for its title alone, even if it has virtually disappeared into obscurity.
Another wizard-driven fantasy flick that’s well overdue for DVD and Blu-ray revival is Dragonslayer (1981). The story of a naive sorcerer’s apprentice (Peter MacNicol) who is tasked with slaying the fearsome, fire-breathing Vermithrax, this Disney/Paramount co-production might be a little on the dull side, but it does feature one of the all-time great movie dragons. It also stars an actual knight – legendary British theatre actor Sir Ralph Richardson plays the resident wizard, Ulrich, although he looks like he’d rather be playing Richard III.
MORE WONDERFUL WIZARDS
THE PINBALL WIZARD – Tommy (1975)
“Ever since I was a young boy/ I’ve played the silver ball/ From SoHo down to Brighton/ I must have played them all.” He may be an wiz, but Elton John meets his match in a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” in Ken Russell’s barmy film of The Who’s rock opera.
THE WIZARD – Taxi Driver (1976)
This New York cabbie has been around the block a lot, that’s why they call him the Wizard. “A man takes a job and that job becomes what he is. You do a thing and that’s what you are,” he tells disgruntled colleague Travis Bickle when asked for advice.
TIM THE ENCHANTER – Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
While searching for the Holy Grail, King Arthur encounters a man who can summon up fire without flint or tinder. “I am an Enchanter. There are some who call me… Tim,” declares the stranger, who points Arthur in the right direction – The Cave of Caerbannog.
THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE – Fantasia (1940)
Disney’s episodic animated classic features Mickey Mouse – as an apprentice to the wizard Yen Sid – ingeniously using magic to get out of some manual labour, to the timeless music of Paul Dukas.