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Plot: in a barbaric world one warrior must fulfill an ancient prophecy.

There are but two demographics who were really receptive to embracing the practice of DIY filmmaking, stunt actors and horror/science fiction enthusiasts. That not everybody can be a Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, or Tsui Hark was a given – but it seems more than a little unjust that stuntwoman/devil-do-all Cecily Fay is left in micro-budget hell whenever she isn’t working anonymously on Hollywood blockbusters. A woman with her skill set should be employed as an action director, fight choreographer, and weapons expert on productions with budgets that she’ll never command. It’s nigh on unbelievable that a woman like this wasn’t hired by Stallone for his The Expendables series or whenever America attempts another martial arts romp. Certainly indie directors like Rene Perez, Neil Johnson, and Benjamin Combes would know what to do with somebody her. Imagine what fireworks could be generated when Fay was partnered with somebody like Danielle C. Ryan, Antony Centurini, or Tara Macken. Warrioress provides ample evidence why such a partnership needs to happen. If this is what Cecily can do on her own, imagine her bundling her considerable forces with someone with actual clout.

Warrioress is a throwback to the barbarian movies - particularly the ones produced by Roger Corman in Argentina from the early-to-mid 1980s - following the break-away success of Arnold Schwarzenegger in John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982). Like its Argentinian forebears Warrioress too feels like a Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta, or Christophe Young painting brought to life. Albeit that it just as often looks as LARPing caught on home video. Just like Geisha Assassin (2008) and Ninja Apocalypse (2014) before it Warrioress has the thinnest veneer of a story as a preamble to have as many action sequences (brawls, confrontations, and duels – with and without weapons) as humanly possible. It’s primary concern is not one of world-building, the plot is at no point significant (or all that important), and it consists of just about every barbarian, steampunk, and post-nuke archetype under the sun. Before anything else, Warrioress is a showcase for Fay and her Babes With Blades collective and a demo reel extended into a 90-minute feature presentation. It’s one of those unfortunate instances where the digital box art is better than the film itself.

And who’s the creative force behind Warrioress? Cecily Fay. Fay is a British stuntwoman who has worked on Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) as well as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016), and Outlaw King (2018). This pint-sized powerhouse is a martial artist, choreographer, weapons expert, and a lifelong practitioner of tai chi and the Indonesian martial arts of pencak silat. With a resumé like that you’d expect at least some of her Hollywood friends to lend a hand. No such thing is the case. Warrioress is DIY from conception to execution. In practical terms that means that Fay was involved in every aspect of its creation with exception of directing. She may not stand… well, tall or anything at 4’9″ (1.45m), but Cecily is a force of nature otherwise. A British Michelle Yeoh, or Angela Mao Ying, if you will. Warrioress is the debut feature of both herself as a performer and the Babes with Blades Theater Group that she runs and something of a collaborative effort between herself and director Ross Boyask.

Once every generation the Danan Sidhe hold a tournament to choose their ultimate warrior. For long they have held a prophecy that a Chosen One would fight the northern tribes of the Ragganwold and unite the hordes. She would wield the Twin Sister Swords and crush the Falonex oppressor. The shamaness (Loveday Holly) believes that Boudiccu (Cecily Fay) is the prophesied Chosen One. When she wins the local tournament she’s send on a perilous quest by village sage Valexia (Penni Tovey). Believing her lover Finvarrah (Christian Howard) to be slain during a raid only enrages Boudiccu further beckoning her on her journey to the mythical Tombs of the Ancestors. Meanwhile the Emperor (Will Brenton) of the Falonex industrial empire has sent champion Djahn (Helen Steinway Bailey) to eliminate Boudiccu. Along the way she forges an alliance with Ragganwold warrioress White Arrow (Joelle Simpson). The two liberate White Arrow’s sister Silver Rain (Jennie Flader) and some of her kin from imprisonment. It’s then that Boudiccu realizes that the legends, the Prophecy, and the traditions of her people were just fables to maintain inter-tribal disputes. Her adversary in the battle of Prophecy is not some Falonex agent, but her ally White Arrow. After defeating White Arrow it dawns upon Boudiccu that the only way to keep the encroaching oppressor at bay is by joining the Ragganwold. As the two tribes unite under one banner, the Falonex mount an invasion to consolidate their regime…

Since the story isn’t all that important it’s no wonder that Warrioress has the look of a Renaissance Fair industrial film with a slight Celtic/steampunk/post-nuke bend. Seeing how Fay was clearly inspired by Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) the plot is a seemingly random combination of elements from Amazons (1986), The Sisterhood (1988), and Amazon Warrior (1998) and a twist straight out of Planet of the Apes (1968). The cinematography ranges somewhere between shaky home video and the better no-budget feature (along the lines of Alex Chandon and Nigel Wingrove) to the occassional semi-professional mise en scène (the early work of Rene Perez comes to mind) and the rare artsy shot reminiscent of something from the Arrowstorm catalogue. Overall, though, this remains squarely in the micro-budget/shot-on-video realm of amateur filmmaking. As impressive as the action direction, martial arts – and weapon choreography might be, everything surrounding it leaves a lot to be desired. From the hokey score, and the barely there continuity to the skimpy, highly impractical metallic cheerleader outfit that Cecily herself wears – Warrioress is the much overdue revival of Barbarian Queen (1985), and thus is trash of the highest order.

The reason to see Warrioress are, of course, the main women themselves: Cecily Fay, Joelle Simpson, and Helen Steinway Bailey. Fay (for obvious reasons) gets the most screentime and she’s involved in every action scene. The sheer amount of variety in weapons, number of participants, styles, and locations greatly add to the authenticity. Warrioress breathes Hong Kong with its fast-moving, acrobatic, and frequently gravity-defying stuntwork. Fights will often change while they happen. A brawl might split up into individual confrontations, duels that start as hand-to-hand altercations will change gears when weapons are introduced, and the weapons themselves range from swords, spears, to bows and axes and other sharp-edged utensils. The incredibly scenic locales all were publicly available spaces in and around Guernsey. Warrioress was shot in an combined 18 months over a marathon three-year period. It might not have the sheer inventiveness of, say, We're Going to Eat You (1980) or Bad Taste (1987) – but it is never for a lack of trying. It might not exactly look or sound spectacular, but at least Warrioress has ambition beyond being a thinly-veiled demonstration video.

Although principal photography started in 2011 it wouldn’t wrap until three years later. Mostly because photography was arranged around everybody’s availability and Simpson becoming pregnant twice. Warrioress spent the following year in post-production and the by time it would finally see release Helen Steinway Bailey had become one of the most in-demand stunt performers in the world, the British Tara Macken or Zoë Bell, if you will. In that capacity she has doubled for Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Chastain, Felicity Jones, and Nasim Predat in big budget event movies as Marvel Comics’ Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), Rogue One (2016), Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017), Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), and even the maligned Aladdin (2019). By the time Warrioress was finally released Fay was several years deep into pre-production and writing on her second feature. Ultimately Warrioress was a victim of unfortunate circumstance with characters, plotlines, and such being cut for any number of logistical or practical reasons. It was destined never to unlock its full potential, but Fay's second feature would. And with that feature she would maintain full creative control and man every department herself. Warrioress might not appeal to everybody, but Cecily Fay is definitely a woman on the rise.

Plot: Sheherazade tells tall tales on the day of her execution.

In 1990 the peplum, or sword and sandal genre, was all but extinct. In that barren wasteland of a ten-year period the last and dying embers of the peplum revival of the seventies – and Paul Naschy’s The Cantabrians (1980) utter failure at the box office a decade earlier had already signaled that there no longer was a market for grand historical - or expensive costume epics. Not even the troubled big budget Terry Gilliam production The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) could stave off the inevitable. Just like the swashbuckling adventure and Oriental fantasy movies in the fifties and sixties, the sword and sandal genre no longer found an audience in the cineplexes. The 90s were unkind to any number of genres, and 1001 Nights would be (and, in all likelihood, is) an obscurity if it weren’t for the presence of one actress who would become a beloved Hollywood superstar and celebrity a decade hence.

1001 Nights was released, to little fanfare and acclaim, in 1990. It was a firmly tongue-in-cheek send-up to the Arabian Nights adventures of the fifties and sixties. Apparently the subject of some budget principal photography took place in France with additional location shooting in Malta, Morocco, and Tunisia and production lasting from April 17, 1989 to August 1, 1989. For 1001 Nights special effects man Christian Guillion had 8 million French francs at his disposal and the costumes were inspired by 19th century paintings.

Everybody has a skeleton or two in their closet. In case of Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones there are, well, more than a few. The at the time 21 year-old Zeta-Jones was performing at the West End theatre in London when she was spotted by director Philippe de Broca. 1001 Nights was her first major role, long before The Phantom (1996), and The Haunting (1999) sullied her reputation. We all start somewhere and before Catherine Zeta-Jones was in The Mask Of Zorro (1998), High Fidelity (2000), Traffic (2000), Chicago (2002), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Terminal (2004), The Legend Of Zorro (2005), and No Reservations (2007) she played Sheherazade in a little seen and zany subversion of the classic Oriental fantasy adventures of old. If it’s remembered for anything, it’s for Zeta-Jones’ wide array sexy costumes and one spectacular nude scene.

Philippe de Broca was a French director that made a name for himself as a specialist in breezy comedies and riveting action/adventure romps. De Broca began as an intern under Henri Decoin, and from there worked his way up to assistant directing under the aegis of domestic masters of cinema Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Pierre Schoendoerffer. Among de Broca’s most remembered titles are his films with Jean-Paul Belmondo, including the swashbuckling adventure Swords Of Blood (1962), the spy-action/adventure romps That Man From Rio (1964), as well as The Man From Acapulco (1973) and Incorrigible (1975). De Broca often worked Jean-Pierre Cassel, Philippe Noiret and Geneviève Bujold. In the late eighties and nineties Philippe de Broca primarily helmed a number of TV movies, of which 1001 Nights was one. 1001 Nights (or Les 1001 Nuits as it was domestically released as) was the only Arabian Nights production that de Broca ever helmed and it allowed him to play up to his penchant for comedy and high-octane action/adventures set against an Oriental fantasy background. Whether director de Broca intended it as a spiritual successor or homage to 1001 Nights (1968) with Luciana Paluzzi is presently unclear, but the similarities are striking indeed.

In Baghdad around the year 1000 astronomer Jimmy Genious (Gérard Jugnot) defies Allah by insisting that his destiny lies in the stars and not on Earth. Allah decides to teach Jimmy a lesson by sending him to 20th century London, England where he’s cursed not only with perpetual rainfall, but is locked in said time and location unless someone summons him back to Baghdad with the magic lamp wherein he's imprisoned. Around this time Sasanian king Shahryār or simply The King (Thierry Lhermitte) decides to take more wives besides his Queen (Farida Khelfa). One of the candidates for that position is the daughter (Florence Pelly) of Grand Vizier Ja'far ibn Yahya (Roger Carel). The Grand Vizier shrugs off his daughter’s idea as he considers her not attractive enough for the King’s liking. The Grand Vizier summons The Executioner (Georges Montillier) to the court, who brings his two kids Aziz (Faycal Smaili) and Azaz (Omar Zerrei) with him. Brought to the public square and before her executioner Sheherazade (Catherine Zeta-Jones) decides instead of undergoing her fate to spin a wondrous tale of how she came in the king’s harem. Each tale leads into a new one and at one point Sheherazade has to admit that the grand tale she has been spinning has turned “a bit episodic.”

As a courtesan in the king’s court Sheherazade is expected to satisfy the King’s carnal needs, something which she doesn’t look forward to. Instead she decides to do a sultry dance which the King doesn’t mind. As a token of appreciation she is given a jewel-encrusted ring while continuing to spur the King’s advances to consummate their relationship. One day Sheherazade flees the court and escapes into the dusty streets of Baghdad. There she’s promptly bought by a slave trader (Abdelkader Lofti) but she’s able to sneak away long enough to offer up her ring as collateral to a benevolent stranger as a means of regaining her freedom. In the streets she comes into an old lamp that she decides to clean up to obtain some much-needed currency. In doing so she releases Jimmy Genious from bondage, who will prove vital to her survival.

The benevolent stranger introduces himself as Aladdin (Stéphane Freiss), an aspiring young philosopher, but Sheherazade leaves him to fend for himself when things start to get too hot and heavy for her liking. Meanwhile she has to continually escape the royal guards who the King has sent to look for his prized possession. “I am very good at running away,” chirps Sheherazade at one point. Fortunately Jimmy Genious is on hand whenever Sheherazade’s womanly wiles, strong legs and quick wits are not enough to keep her out of harm’s way. After one such daring escape Sheherazade ends up naked in the lap of Sinbad (Vittorio Gassman), a full-time drunk and over-the-hill sailor who due to seasickness prefers to imagine his travels across the open seas rather than to actually undertake them. How Sheherazade ends up in Sinbad's lap is one of the production's greatest gags.

Sheherazade, beautiful and in an absolute minimum of fabric, performs another sultry, hip shaking dance that causes middle-aged Sinbad to faint in awe. In company of Sinbad, Sheherazade reinvents herself as a fearsome pirate queen. Sinbad, who isn’t the sailor as the stories have made him out to be, is rescued from dying at sea by Jimmy on multiple occassions. Her conquest of the seven seas brings her on to the shores where the King is camping out. Believing her perished in the sea Sheherazade finally gives herself to him and together with Jimmy and Sinbad they form a travelling roadshow in a soon-to-be very famous showgirl / magician double-act. At long last Sheherazade has realized her life-long dream.

Sheherazade’s traveling roadshow extravaganza becomes such a rousing success that they draw the attention of the Grand Vizier who sabotages her show when they land in Baghdad. As through no choice of their own The King and Jimmy are thrown back to contemporary London, The Grand Vizier condemns Sheherazade to death on trumped up charges of regicide. In the absence of a ruler The Grand Vizier crowns himself king and orders Sheherazade to be executed. The Executioner refuses to behead the lovely courtesan and everything comes to a head when Sheherazade finishing her story coincides with the belated arrival of Jimmy and The King in Baghdad by helicopter. The King ousts the scheming Grand Vizier, putting Jimmy Genious in his stead, and crowns Sheherazade to be his queen. Supposedly, although it’s never explicitly mentioned, all live happily ever after.

To her credit Zeta-Jones worked her way up from television to the big screen and avoided the early pitfall of doing the typical cheap horror film early on in her career. It wouldn’t be until The Haunting (1999), a loose adaptation of the Robert Wise 1963 original, that Zeta-Jones indirectly worked with legendary American exploitation – and pulp producer Samuel Z. Arkoff. Like most big budget, special effects-driven Hollywood horror movies in the nineties The Haunting is infinitely inferior to the original and maddeningly mediocre otherwise. In a rather interesting decision Zeta-Jones was dubbed in 1001 Nights despite her being fluent in four languages, including French. And let’s be honest, nobody is going to see 1001 Nights for the story. Just like nobody endures 1001 Nights (1968) voluntarily for the story, but rather to see Luciana Paluzzi. The only reason to even search out 1001 Nights is Catherine Zeta-Jones before she became a megastar – and does it ever deliver. Whether she's performing sultry dances as a harem girl, charming her way out of a bind, or parachuting from a biplane whilst losing her clothes, 1001 Nights is all about Zeta-Jones and her frequently disrobed shenanigans. It does everything that the earlier Arabian Nights adventure with Paluzzi couldn’t.

As far as early career embarassments go a young actress could fare far worse than 1001 Nights. There’s a child-like innocence about the project and as a spoof of the Arabian Nights genre it works wonderfully well despite, or in spite of, its light science fiction zaniness. For a spoof to work the most effectively it needs a screenplay that understands the conventions of the genre it is parodying. 1001 Nights writer Jérôme Tonnerre understood that and by making it a pastiche of several known Arabian Nights properties he and director de Broca effectively satirize the conventions of the genre while staying faithful to the source material. The screenplay is also largely a preamble to put Catherine Zeta-Jones in whatever colorful, sexy or crazy outfit the writers could dream up. Zeta-Jones takes it in stride and 1001 Nights combines her love for dress up, song and dance into one. No wonder she chose this part as her first major role. It's everything an up-and-coming theater actress could dream of, even if it required her shedding fabric at one point.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that 1001 Nights even got made in the first place. The peplum had been extinct for a decade by that point and it wouldn’t be until Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) ten years later that the genre experienced a brief big budget resurgence. Gladiator proved not strong enough to revive the genre and neither did surrounding productions Troy (2004) and Kingdom Of Heaven (2005). No wonder then that 1001 Nights is has been relegated to a footnote in the genre and is completely forgotten otherwise. Catherine Zeta-Jones has since become a Hollywood darling and in most of her official biographies 1001 Nights curiously isn't mentioned while her work in the London theater, the very thing that led to her discovery, is. Everybody has to start somewhere and Catherine started here. Even here it was clear that she was destined for superstardom.