By Ken Mondschein
On the eve of Father’s Day, and with the follow-up Disney+ series premiering later this year, it’s an excellent time to revisit one of my all-time favorite ‘80s swords-and-sorcery films: 1988’s Willow, starring Warwick Davis as the titular character.
For those who haven’t seen it, Willow (directed by Ron Howard from a story by George Lucas) takes the “baby-set-adrift” and “hero’s journey” motifs and mashes them up in a medievalesque world inspired by Celtic mythology. Elora Danan (played by infant twins Kate and Ruth Greenfield) is prophesized to end the rule of wicked sorceress Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). As evil rulers have done since the beginning of time, Bavmorda arrests all the pregnant women in the kingdom, but Elora Danan is set adrift by her midwife and winds up in the care of Willow, a member of the diminutive Nelwyn people, who evoke Tolkien’s hobbits (“regular”-size people are “Daikinis”). The Nelwyns, needless to say, are all played by actors with dwarfism.
The striking thing about the movie is that, while Willow’s journey to save Elora Danan and overthrow Bavmorda follows a predictable plot (Roger Ebert called it “turgid and relentlessly predictable”), it is incredibly well-done, and, from a vantage point of several decades, we can look back and see how it breaks the mold in many ways. As someone who has neither a disability, nor children, nor a (living) father, watching it again made me realize how influential it had been to me on all these issues.
The first is the theme of fatherhood. Willow isn’t a young boy or teenager, like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, or a bachelor man-child, like Bilbo and Frodo. Rather, he is depicted as an adult, with a wife and two small children of his own and a farm to run, and he becomes a parent-figure and protector to Elora Danan. (Davis, interestingly, was only 17 when the movie was shot.) Watching Willow as a young teen, it said to me that adults could grow and change, too, and were sometimes unsure of themselves. Formative adventures are not just for kids, and it’s never too late to be a hero—even, as with Patricia Hayes’ Razel, if one is older.
Similarly, Willow’s sidekick/comic relief Madmartigan (Val Kilmer)’s character arc takes him from self-centered rogue to a doting foster-father to Elora Danan. Madmartigan’s opposite number is Bavmorda’s daughter Sorsha (played by Kilmer’s future ex-wife, Joanne Whalley), who becomes Elora Danan’s foster-mother but whose character arc seems unearned—she’s redeemed by means of cliched, fairy-dust-induced “love of a good man.” Cut from the final movie, however, were scenes where Sorsha learns the power of good by reuniting with her own father.
Tied in with the theme of fatherhood—and really inseparable from it—is disability. Willow is established from the first as a loving father to his son and daughter. His on-screen wife, Kaiya, played by Julie Peters, doesn’t appeal to the male gaze in the way preferred by casting directors, but the camera nonetheless lingers on her kind, good face and brilliant blue eyes. She is beautiful not because she is a Hollywood starlet, but because she is human. Her scenes with Warwick Davis convey real love and affection. The message it sent me is clear: people with disabilities aren’t sexless anodynes or cute playthings, but fully realized people who form relationships and have families.
And where you have families, you will have a society. The Nelwyns (possibly from the Welsh for “beautiful people”) are fully realized as people and as a people, much more so, even, than Tolkien’s hobbits. There are politics—Mark Northover’s Burglekutt, the village “big man” who resembles nothing so much as Chaucer’s miller, covets Willow’s land. There are friendships—Willow has a real relationship with his best friend Meegosh (David Steinberg). There is heroism—the Nelwyn warriors, led by Vonkhar (Phil Fondacaro) ably dispatch one of Bavmorda’s fearsome Death Dogs. At the village festival where Willow performs stage magic, we have establishing shots of the Nelwyns celebrating and performing a dance with palm branches. What is this dance? Who knows—but it clearly means something. In short, these are not munchkins who seemingly spring into existence when Dorothy lands in Oz and exist only to further the protagonist down the Yellow Brick Road. There is no whimsical Lollipop Guild. Nelwyns don’t make toys in Santa’s workshop; they grow cabbages. The plot centers on Willow’s journey while the more conventionally “heroic” Kilmer and Whalley are reduced to supporting roles, but first the movie establishes that he comes from a fully-established society and culture.
This is the exact opposite of early modern depictions of people with dwarfism. The “court dwarf” became very popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—often, as a pet and buffoon, rather than a fully-realized human being. For instance, the d’Este family of Italy, especially Isabella d’Este (1474–1539) kept several “court dwarves,” one of whom, “Crazy Catherine” (Caterina Matta) may have had intellectual or psychological disabilities but whose behaviors were considered amusing antics. This association of carnivalesque and licentious behavior with dwarfism extended well into modern times. For instance, the Munchkin actors on the Wizard of Oz were long (and inaccurately) held to have groped Judy Garland and held hell-raising parties.
On the other end of the spectrum, Willow is a break with other fantasy literature and films, which often depict dwarves, fairies, and other mythical beings too chastely. These depictions come from the collections of folk tales by nineteenth-century writers such as the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen, which make them creatures from some netherworld, akin to spirits. Like angels and demons, they are sexless. Similarly, there are no dwarf-women in Middle-Earth; the elves seemingly reproduce asexually. The hobbits, being English countryfolk, do have families, but it’s not until after the events of The Lord of the Rings are over that Sam can settle down, and that ends the book (save for the endless appendices). Therein we see the fantasy dwarf or elf’s derivation from folklore: they are sexless beings. The Nelwyns, however, are most assuredly people, and they do have love lives and families.
Today, cinematic dwarves, hobbits, and elves can be depicted by actors of “normal” stature using camera tricks such as forced perspective, or with CGI (a practice Davis has compared to “blackface”). Conversely, Peter Dinklage, perhaps the best-known actor with dwarfism working today, has spoken out against typecasting actors of short stature and famously refused to play “elves or leprechauns.” I would argue, however, that Willow, made while Dinklage was still an undergraduate at Bennington, is important because, at the time, it was a representation of people of short stature (and, by extension, people with other disabilities) that humanized the actors to the audience (that is, me) rather than treating them as a gimmick.
Such experiences seem to be ever-present in the film. Just as the outside world is dangerous to the Nelwyns, the actors visibly struggle to make their way across the landscapes and sets. The stick Mark Northover uses for mobility becomes Burglekutt’s staff of authority. Just as those with visible differences are othered in the real world, the Daikini have a derogatory term—peck—for the Nelwyns. Willow bristles so much when Madmartigan uses it that he wants to use one of his precious petrifying acorns on him, and abandoning prejudice is made part of Madmartigan’s character arc—something that wasn’t lost on me as a kid. And, of course, the protagonist is someone with a visible difference: Willow protests that he is an unlikely hero, “short, even for a Nelwyn,” but of course in the end, it is he who saves the day. This, too, wasn’t lost on me, especially as a weird kid growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn.
But Willow’s repercussions went well beyond the cinematic. Jerry Marren, one of the actors who played a Munchkin, recalled in his autobiography that coming to the set of The Wizard of Oz was the first time he saw people who looked like him. Much as had happened on the set of The Wizard of Oz, the actors with dwarfism, many of whom had previously played Ewoks, formed a community, and such a community is inextricably linked with activism. (In fact, Billy Barty, who plays the High Aldwin in Willow, had founded Little People of America in 1957.) This unavoidably extended to off-screen life, as well. Laura Cannata, a fan with dwarfism, wrote on Twin Cities Geek:
That movie was my first introduction to other people like me. That movie led my mother to seek out an organization called the Little People of America, or LPA for short. The founder of the LPA was Billy Barty, a renowned actor who happens to play the village elder in Willow. This organization formed my early years. It led me to knowledgeable doctors, education, and support.
Willow has a positive message to all people who are different, but especially so to people with dwarfism. In this film, little people get to play people. Not goblins, not creatures, but people with hopes and dreams like everyone else.
In popular culture, an imaginary, fantastical Middle Ages is linked with fantastical creatures such as smaller versions of humans such as hobbits, elves, and dwarves. However, when it comes to depicting such a world with real people, such depictions can be problematic and exploitative—or they can blow up our expectations. In the case of Willow, we have an example of a film that upends how people with dwarfism and other disabilities were treated in the past to show that people with disabilities can be productive, satisfied, included, and valued members of society—and, yes, they can form relationships, become parents, and raise healthy, happy families. This, to my mind, is what makes Willow such a good movie: it made people with at least one particular sort of disability both visible and human.
Ken Mondschein is a scholar, writer, college professor, fencing master, and occasional jouster. Ken’s latest book is On Time: A History of Western Timekeeping. Click here to visit his website. You can also fellow Ken on Twitter @DrKenMondschein
Top Image: Image from Lucasfilm Ltd. / Imagine Entertainment