Cinematic anniversaries are usually pretexts for revisiting the great, enduring movies, and in the DVD era there are many forms of celebration: new footage is found, restorations make old prints look as sharp as they did decades earlier. Thus, the 70th year of Citizen Kane inevitably saw a special edition with two separate commentary tracks by renowned critics. Five years on, an even more elaborate DVD package is sure to render this one obsolete.
One film I don’t expect to see an anniversary edition for is the 1987 live-action version of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which turns 25 this month. In fact, I’d be surprised if it even had a DVD life currently. And yet, it occupies a special place in my corpus of movie memories, a reminder that even mediocre films can carry strong resonances if you see them at a particular point in your life — and if they are closely tied to other memorable events.
Even at age 10, I knew on some level that Masters of the Universe was a shoddy film. It did have a few things going for it, of course. The action star Dolph Lundgren — a breathing vindication of the word “beefcake” — was in the lead role. (Lundgren was a cult figure among boys of my generation, having played Sylvester Stallone’s greatest adversary, the Russian boxer Drago, in one of the Rocky films.) Frank Langella, who I later realised was a respected theatre actor, played the skull-faced villain Skeletor (and possibly agreed to the role only because no one could ever prove it was him beneath the make-up). The cute young Courtney Cox — nearly a decade before Friends — was an earth girl who got involved with He-Man’s cosmic battle. And there were some halfway decent special effects and action sequences: halfway decent, that is, if you had not been exposed to anything fancier than Mr India’s invisibility device and Mogambo’s cough syrup-coloured pool of lethal acid.
But the real reason for my nostalgia is that I forever associate the film with a long summer vacation in London. That wasn’t where I saw it, but it’s where the build-up began. Already a He-Man enthusiast, I discovered — in the toys section of Selfridges — why the West called itself the Developed World: here were dozens, perhaps even hundreds of Masters of the Universe action figures (okay, okay...dolls) that I’d never even heard of back home. Each of the figures came accompanied by a comic book that explained the provenance of the character in question, and this enabled my cousins and me to work out our own plots and act them out.
It was here too that I first heard about the film, which was coming out later that summer. Widely available in malls was a promotional book with a synopsis and movie stills — but more interestingly, a page with blank spaces where the mug-shots of the characters were supposed to be. You had to gradually fill those blanks by collecting stickers from candy stores; each time we went shopping to Tescos that summer, I added to my collection.
Needless to say, after returning to India with my prize collection, I was the star among my He-Man-obsessed friends, none of whom had more than six or seven of the most basic dolls. Somewhere in an old bag in our store-room, most of those toys are still intact (some of them have limbs and weapons missing, the result of overenthusiastic endeavours to use them as target practice for arrows when the Mahabharata craze began). That old book, with the stickers in it, is around too, as is a battered video-cassette of the film itself. But I’m in no hurry to seek it out and have it converted to the DVD format.
Some memories are best left in long-rusted cabinets.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer