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Masters of the Universe: The He-Man Movie Turns 30

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Special effects artist Richard Edlund, who won an Oscar for his work on Star Wars in 1978, was arguing. Cannon Films co-owner Menahem Golan was arguing back. Edlund was insisting the 64 planned effects shots for Cannon's Masters of the Universe, a live-action film based on Mattel's He-Man toy line, had been grossly miscalculated during pre-production and that the film would likely need nearly double that number. Golan screamed that he was being bled dry.

Edlund would later recall that Golan had "fun" when haggling, although he probably was having less of a good time trying to keep Cannon afloat. The company would soon fold, with Masters of the Universe being one of the last casualties of their budget-cinching slate. Released on August 7, 1987, it made an underwhelming $5 million its first weekend. Some 30 years after its debut, fans of the franchise continue to debate whether it was an earnest attempt at a fantasy spectacular or a misguided cash-in for a toy line that was already waning in popularity.

According to executive producer Edward Pressman, who was doing publicity for the film in 1987, the He-Man phenomenon began when Mattel was shown a rough cut of the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Conan the Barbarian. Having considered licensing the film for toys, Mattel executives were put off by the amount of violence in the footage and backed away from the deal. It would be easier to simply create their own sword and sorcery epic, with characters and confrontations molded into age-appropriate settings.

He-Man debuted in 1982, a larger, steroided alternative to the comparatively puny G.I. Joe. With his bowling-ball deltoids and modest loincloth, He-Man resisted the ambition of rival Skeletor to take over their shared home world of Eternia. To populate toy aisles, each had a supporting cast of allies and a host of vehicles. More than 120 million figures were sold; a syndicated cartoon kept adolescent eyes glued to screens.

A tie-in movie was a no-brainer for Mattel; the company petitioned studios via their relationship with Pressman (who had produced Conan) to take a risk on a big-budget feature. Estimating the movie would cost about $40 million, most studios declined. Realizing the risk was too great, Mattel approved a more affordable premise. Instead of staging the action on Eternia, He-Man would have to travel to modern-day Earth in order to retrieve a Cosmic Key that could release the Sorceress, a guiding light of the planet who had been captured by Skeletor.

Pressman eventually piqued the interest of Warner Bros. with the reworked idea. The studio offered a $15 million budget; Cannon, which was trying to establish itself with more expensive schlock like the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling drama Over the Top, offered $17.5 million. Mattel and Pressman agreed to the bigger deal and went with Cannon.

Dolph Lundgren, a Swedish actor and athlete who had studied chemical engineering at MIT, was a towering presence who had impressed Hollywood as stoic Russian Ivan Drago in 1985's Rocky IV. Though producers thought he'd be perfect for the part of He-Man, Lundgren wasn't convinced.

"I thought about it for months and months," the actor told Starlog in 1987. "Masters is one of those films where if you didn't do it right, it would be a disaster and everyone would laugh at you for another 20 years." After he eventually signed on, Lundgren packed on additional muscle until he looked remarkably like the action figure.


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Director Gary Goddard, who had overseen a Conan stage show for Universal and was hired by Pressman, saw in Lundgren a perfect physical specimen—although his Swedish accent had remained thick. Goddard hoped to perhaps dub the actor with another performer during looping sessions, although such extravagant expenditures would soon prove impossible.

One compromise Goddard was unwilling to make was setting the film entirely on Earth. The script originally opened with a beaten, weathered He-Man imploring a suburban family to help him. Goddard insisted the film be book-ended with scenes on Eternia, an economical way of honoring its fantasy elements. Sets were constructed so that Skeletor (Frank Langella) could luxuriate in an ornate throne room, barking orders at subordinates and plotting against He-Man. More expensive effects—a stop-motion Battlecat, or a wire-strung Orko, the hovering wizard sidekick—were left in the toy box.

Goddard and Pressman planned on shooting 13 weeks and wound up shooting for 20. Lundgren, described by most everyone who encountered him as a friendly man, struggled with his dialogue and spent his time off-camera pumping dumbbells. Langella's make-up required frequent attention, his prosthetic teeth never quite fitting right. Bounced checks from Cannon, which was suffering from a string of flops, became a weekly ordeal.

When Goddard needed to shoot the climactic fight between He-Man and Skeletor, he was reduced to a stripped-down set shot in the dark, a casualty of depleted funds. (Mattel tossed in the remaining half of their $1.5 million guarantee in order to keep shooting going.) Goddard had originally intended to make his film a grand tribute to comic book artist Jack Kirby and his distinctive space opera style. He would eventually have to be satisfied with getting the film completed at all.


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The delay in getting a studio interested in Masters of the Universe had unfortunate consequences. By the time the film was released on August 7, 1987, interest in the toy line had waned considerably. Had it been released in 1985, there's no telling how frenzied kids might have reacted. Years later, it was bested in its opening weekend by the Emilio Estevez comedy Stakeout.

Reviews were middling. Johanna Steinmetz of the Chicago Tribune was one of the rare critics to acknowledge the filmmakers' efforts. "It breaks no new ground," she wrote, "but neither will you demand your money back, unless you feel acutely deprived of hero Dolph Lundgren's less intelligible lines.

"European-born Lundgren, who played a Soviet boxer opposite Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, here has the role of He-Man. He can ripple his muscles with the best of them but has trouble getting his Teutonic tongue around such complex sentences as 'I don't want innocent people to die'—to which his nemesis Skeletor responds, 'Well said, He-Man,' inspiring some scattered laughter in the audience."

None of this deterred Cannon, which was in its death throes but continued to put its best foot forward. At that year's Cannes Film Festival, Golan announced that Masters of the Universe 2 would go into production shortly. With Lundgren unwilling to reprise the role, they hired surfer Laird Hamilton for the lead and began constructing sets. When Mattel refused to participate, director Albert Pyun repurposed them for a low-budget Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle titled Cyborg.

Decades later, movies based on toy lines are no longer uncommon. Hasbro has made vast fortunes with films inspired by Transformers and G.I. Joe. A revamped He-Man film has been in the works for years, though no definitive release date has been set. In 2010, Lundgren expressed his desire to join the project, although he would like to have more input on his wardrobe.

"I think it's a good idea," he told IGN. "I think He-Man is a cool character, and I had fun doing [the movie]. I wouldn't want to take my shirt off again for three months, wearing that … diaper or whatever it was I was wearing, loincloth. I'd rather play the king. But yeah, good idea."

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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