The Sword Isn’t So Mighty After All


Pictured above are Orko and He-Man, characters from the 1983 cartoon “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” They’re holding the Sword of Power. If you don’t know He-Man’s back story — at least this cartoon’s version of it, here’s the Wikipedia summary:

The show takes place on the fictional planet of Eternia, a planet of magic, myth and fantasy. Its lead character is Prince Adam, the young son of Eternia’s rulers, King Randor, and Queen Marlena. Whenever Prince Adam holds the Sword of Power aloft and proclaims “By the Power of Grayskull!” he is endowed with “fabulous secret powers” and transformed into He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe. Together with his close allies, Battle Cat (who undergoes a similar transformation from being Adam’s cowardly pet tiger Cringer), The Sorceress, Teela, Man-At-Arms and Orko, He-Man uses his powers to defend Eternia from the evil forces of Skeletor. Skeletor’s main goal is to conquer the mysterious fortress of Castle Grayskull, from which He-Man draws his powers. If successful, Skeletor would have enough power to rule Eternia and possibly the entire universe.

Basically: Guy uses a powerful sword to defend the universe from bad guys

Except that the sword isn’t all that important.

Let’s watch a short video — 1 minute, 47 seconds — and you’ll see. Click here to watch He-Man battle an “ice lion,” a creature whose breath freezes whatever it comes in contact with. Can’t watch right now? OK, here are some screen shots. Let’s start with a picture of the ice lion and his freeze-ray breath.

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Pretty menacing, right? He-Man isn’t scared, though. He runs at the beast and engages it in hand-to-hand combat. When the battle starts, He-Man unsheathes his sword and stabs the monster, right?

No, not yet. Instead, he grabs the leg of the ice lion by the ankle…

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… and, using his super strength, tosses the ice monster aside.

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He-Man’s plan makes no sense, though. The ice monster can still shoot its ice breath at our hero, which is exactly what happens. He-Man ends up stuck, with his legs frozen, entirely at the mercy of the beast.

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He-Man is in trouble — and he knows it. If you watch the video, you’ll hear him say “I have one — chance,” acknowledging the peril he’s in. And then, he throws his sword at the ice monster. Right?

Wrong. He throws his sword, yes, but aims at the base of some boulder of snow off in the distance.

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Now, that doesn’t seem like a great idea, but He-Man has a plan. The sword displaces the ice boulder, sending it rolling down the hill. And by some stroke of luck, it rolls right into the ice monster! And as seen below, it knocks the beast into a tar pit, effectively neutralizing the threat.

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It’s a miracle!

But… it not a good strategy.

Pretend you’re He-Man, and again, YOU HAVE A SWORD. And not just any sword, but the very magical, very powerful Sword of Power. It’s so powerful that its very name says it’s powerful.

Do you:

  1. Grab the ice lion by the ankle and throw him aside or
  2. Slash and stab him with your sword?

You stab the monster. Obviously.

But let’s say, for some reason, that didn’t occur to you. You toss him aside and then realize the folly of your ways when his ice breath freezes you in place. Now, you have one chance to survive the encounter — and you remember, you have a sword! Do you:

  1. throw the sword at a giant snowball, hoping it comes loose and rolls directly at the creature which, by the way, can still move and evade a rolling snowball, or
  2. throw the sword at the lion itself?

You probably use the sword properly — as a weapon. But not He-Man. He-Man, it seems, isn’t really allowed to use his sword as typically intended. (If you need more evidence, check out this battle versus a dragon, where He-Man only uses his sword as a shield.)

The reason? The 1983 He-Man cartoon series came out a year after toymaker Mattel released a line of He-Man action figures, and the cartoon was widely seen as a promotion for the toys. That was controversial, but it wasn’t the only point of contention. At the time, there was a strong cultural resistance to violence in cartoons, out of concern that children who saw their heroes solving disputes with weapons or fists would do so in real life.

For those who wanted to sell action figures, though, that proved to be a problem. So Filmation, the company that created the He-Man cartoon, tried to toe the line between violence and not-quite-violence. Lou Scheimer, Filmation’s president, told the New York Times that animators at his company “try not to have He-Man hurt any living creature, and the good guys always win,” noting that “He-Man is heroic but not omnipotent.” And, as Wikipedia noted, “in accordance with broadcast standards of the period, in the Filmation cartoon, He-Man could not use his sword as an offensive weapon or punch or kick anyone. He was only allowed to destroy robotic enemies.”

If that seems like a silly place to draw the line, well, it is; there’s really no reason to think that anyone picked up on the fact that He-Man was more wrestler than fencer, despite the equipment. (And does anyone really think kids didn’t use their toy swords because the cartoon version of He-Man didn’t use his? Doubtful.) In any event, the fiction that He-Man didn’t use the sword was short-lived; when the He-Man franchise rebooted in 1987 with a pretty awful movie, the hero (and his enemies) were allowed to fully use their weapons.

Bonus fact: After the 1984 smash movie success “Ghostbusters,” producer Columbia Pictures looked for other ways to capitalize on the brand, but they weren’t alone. Filmation also tried to get in the game, and lucky for Filmation, they owned the “Ghostbusters” name. In 1975, Filmation released a 15-episode season of a live-action show called “The Ghost Busters” — here’s the opening — which apparently did well enough to warrant a second season (but Filmation decided to invest elsewhere). Columbia Pictures licensed the name for the 1984 movie and went to develop a cartoon spinoff with Filmation, but when talks broke down, Filmation made their own version based on their characters from 1975, and called it, simply, “Ghostbusters.” Columbia Pictures made a cartoon as well, calling it “The Real Ghostbusters,” based on the 1984 movie’s characters. Both cartoons debuted at around the same time in 1986, but they suffered different fates. Filmation’s version only lasted one season; The Real Ghostbusters had a seven-season run. (That said, as someone who grew up watching both, I — perhaps uniquely — preferred the Filmation ones at the time.)

From the Archives: Ninjas Need Not Apply: The story behind the Teenage Mutant [Censored] Turtles.

Take the Quiz: Can you name the 1980s Saturday morning cartoons by their characters? This was much harder than I thought it’d be.

Related: “Vintage He-man Masters of the Universe Action Figure & Vehicle He-Man & Battle Cat” — he has a sword and an ax, but probably doesn’t use either.