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Posts Tagged ‘Conan the Barbarian’

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Mr Prez himself, Barack Obama, is a big fan of Conan the Barbarian and has a sizable collection of Conan comics. It’s one of those things which seems so natural once you’re aware of it, isn’t it? The imposing physical presence… the grim personal magnetism… the ferocious code of personal honour… peas in a pod, I tell you, peas in a pod.

I should probably stop being snide about Obama, who is not someone I have serious issues with, and write some more about the Cimmerian himself, who… well, Conan may be a fictional character who’s been dead for many millennia, but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to risk writing snotty things about him. Yes, he’s that hard.

And possibly he doesn’t really deserve it. After reading various Conan stories over the course of nearly thirty years – many of them pastiches written quite recently – not long ago I took the plunge and embarked upon Conan: The Definitive Collection, which contains the original tales written by Conan’s creator, Robert E Howard, back in the 1930s. (The word ‘definitive’ is potentially questionable, given that at least two stories from the centenary edition of The Complete Chronicles of Conan don’t appear – but I will resist the urge to digress, for once.)

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Most people’s view of Conan has been shaped either by the Marvel Comics version of the character so beloved of the Commander-in-Chief, or the movie incarnation so memorably embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger (I suspect we may safely dispense with Jason Momoa’s contribution), so to go back to the original source of the character would probably come as a shock. I am perhaps lucky in that I never really read the comics and didn’t see the movie until after I’d read a few Howard stories, so I always had a sense of how Arnie wasn’t quite getting under the character’s skin.

On paper there’s really not much to be said about the Howard Conan: the stories comprise a partial biography of a warrior living in a prehistoric but still semi-civilised world vaguely recognisable as our own (the geography is a bit different). After a chequered career as a thief, pirate, and mercenary, he rises to the throne of one of the major nations of his day, and… well, Howard never revealed whether his Ever After was happy or not.

The consensus about Howard’s writing is that this is pulp fiction, perhaps of a superior quality, but still ultimately pulp. And this is probably true: there is no great invention or artifice in the conception or construction of the stories. They are formulaic on a number of levels – the plots usually boil down to a confrontation between Conan with his massive sword and an unspeakably degenerate wizard of some stripe, more often than not featuring a fight between Conan and a big monster of some kind (usually an ape or a snake). It’s possible to view some of the later stories as expanded new takes on the earlier ones – Red Nails and The Slithering Shadow share most of their plot elements, as do The Scarlet Citadel and The Hour of the Dragon.

Even the actual storytelling gets quite repetitive: you find yourself playing a game when reading these stories which I used to think of as Conan Bingo, mentally looking out for the stock words and phrases Howard routinely deploys when describing his hero – not a single description of Conan goes by without an appearance of at least one of the following: wolf, thew, massive, square-cut mane, panther, iron, corded, muscles, frame. (Conan’s love interest of the week, by the way, usually snags at least a couple of: lovely, slim, lithe, pale, figure, alabaster.)

As you can probably imagine, the politics, sexual or otherwise, are fairly unreconstructed in all of these stories. Howard’s Conan isn’t the grunting thicko that Arnie sometimes gave the impression of being, but a sharp and wily customer with various talents beyond hacking people to bits – he speaks numerous languages and is a whiz at commanding an army. (He appears to have a solid grasp of neo-con financial management, too, judging from a few hints in the stories, but Howard never got around to writing Conan the Free-market Economist.) Most men he meets are instantly cowed by and jealous of him, while most women… well, you can probably imagine. He is not unlike James Bond in chainmail, in short.

The comparison with Bond is not quite as flippant as I may have made it sound, because I think both Robert E Howard and Ian Fleming were writing about a kind of idealised archetype of masculinity – from their own cultural perspectives, of course. Bond and Conan are both ruthless killers and bon viveurs, as well as being sexually magnetic – fantasy figures, it goes without saying. The difference is that Bond is an imperial figure, intent on preserving a cultural system, while Conan is a more American figure, representing freedom and individual self-reliance (his creator was a Texan, after all).

The parallels run further – both confront evil masterminds with outlandish henchmen, both are worldly polymaths, and both the Conan stories and the original Bond novels are quite staggeringly sexist and racist by modern standards. You quickly lose track of the number of references to shady hook-nosed easterners, yowling woolly-headed negroes, and so on. There’s never any suggestion of Conan himself even considering relations with a woman of a different ethnicity, and one of his few points of honour is his reluctance to let other ‘white women’ be despoiled by the other races.

Considered all together, this is perhaps why Robert E Howard is one of those very influential writers most serious critics are sniffy about. Even those who can find something positive to say about the verve, colour, and narrative strength of his storytelling qualify this by saying it was all a result of inborn natural talent – the implication being he never really thought about what he was doing.

I’m not sure I would go so far, and I do think it’s interesting that Howard is mostly held at arm’s length when his contemporary and correspondent HP Lovecraft is, to a significant degree, feted as a major literary figure. Lovecraft’s best known fiction is as formulaic as Howard’s, albeit in a different way, and it is just as uncomfortably racist, if not in fact moreso. The only thing that keeps Lovecraft from being sexist, one suspects, is the fact that he seems rather reluctant to write about female characters at all.

The links run deeper – there’s a Lovecraftian influence on some of the Conan stories which seems indisputable. One of the first stories, The Tower of the Elephant, has an encounter between the Cimmerian and an honest-to-Gawd extraterrestrial very much in the Lovecraftian mould – this creature is called Yogah, from the planet Yag. Mentions of blasphemous cities inhabited by dreadful, pre-human creatures also crop up in a number of stories (Queen of the Black Coast, for one). While Howard did write what some have classified as Cthulhu Mythos stories, none of them feature Conan (except to the extent that all his protagonists are to some degree interchangeable – wolfish, with iron, corded muscles, etc), which I can’t help feeling is a bit of a shame. What Lovecraft’s stories lack in narrative drive, Howard has by the gallon – and while the mythology and supernatural elements of the Conan stories sometimes feels a bit vague and underdeveloped, that’s the last thing you can say about the Mythos. A full collaboration between the two of them would surely have been a match made in weird pulp heaven.

But I digress. I really don’t think you can dismiss Howard as a guileless hack while continuing to acclaim Lovecraft as a great literary one-off. Many of the stories are formulaic, but that doesn’t detract from the energy and verve with which they are written. And every now and then Howard transcends his own formula and produces something of undeniable quality: the astonishingly vivid sequence in A Witch Shall Be Born depicting Conan’s crucifixion, for instance (practically the only thing from the original stories to make it into the movies), or the atypically bleak and downbeat tone of Beyond the Black River (Conan wins a Pyrrhic victory as an outpost of civilisation is overrun by savages).

And above all the stories have the smack of sincerity about them – their politics may be unacceptable these days, but the politics itself is implicit in what are primarily adventure stories. Provided you bear in mind these stories are the product of a different era and sensibility, there is still much to enjoy here (especially if you pace yourself and don’t splurge on the whole set in a few days). These stories and this character must have lasted for a reason – and, when you consider that, the whole question of exactly how good a writer Robert E Howard was becomes just a little bit academic.

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One of the things I am occasionally taken to task for by those who know me is the fact that I don’t watch Musical Chairs (or, as they prefer to refer to it, Game of Thrones). Partly this is because I don’t have access to an ethically-sourced copy of the series, not least because I try to avoid giving money to Rupert Murdoch on moral grounds, but also because of all the fuss about it being ‘Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy’. Well, I do like fantasy, generally speaking, so it’s probably not aimed at me.

The success of Musical Chairs means that now, whenever someone is trying to big-up anything else vaguely fantastical, the two get compared in more-or-less the same way that The Lord of the Rings was the genre yardstick ten years ago. When it comes to vintage fantasy films I am certain this is stretching a point, because – whatever else you might think about it – Musical Chairs is critically-acclaimed, while the overwhelming majority of heroic/epic/high/whatever-you-want-to-call-it fantasy films, even to this day, have been fairly naff.

Nevertheless, they’re still at it: introducing John Milius’s 1982 film Conan the Barbarian the other night, in the announcer weighed in with ‘Long before Game of Thrones…’ or something like that. Now, obviously I’m not in a position to judge just how justified this association is, but I am inclined to be a little more generous than usual as Conan the Barbarian is that rare beast, a 20th century heroic fantasy film which is not completely and embarrassingly awful.

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Proceedings kick off with a quote from Nietzsche and Basil Poledoris’ thundering score, which together sum up pretty well the tenor of what is to follow. Hum: young Conan is the son of a smith in a Cimmerian village, many thousands of years ago. His father is wont to take him up a mountain and deliver somewhat baffling homilies about gods and giants and steel and the untrustworthiness of other people, but he is still quite upset when their village is raided by marauders under the banner of evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones, taking it all impressively seriously). Conan’s dad having been hacked down and his mum having had her head chopped off by Doom himself, our hero finds himself strapped to a giant capstan of indeterminate purpose for the duration of a he-grows-up-into-a-strapping-young-man montage sequence.

‘Strapping young man’ probably doesn’t quite do justice to the physique of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, for it is of course he who plays Conan for most of the movie. Conan is freed from the capstan to become a star gladiator amongst the steppe nomads of the region, thus allowing Arnie to sweat and flex and grunt without the need for any dialogue. In the end, however, his sympathetic master releases him back into the wild (even with the benefit of an expository voice-over, it’s not entirely clear why this happens) and Conan sets out on a career as an improbably big and homicidal burglar.

As you might expect, he soon acquires a sidekick (ex-surfer Gerry Lopez) and a love-interest (the very-nearly-as-statuesque ex-dancer Sandahl Bergman) and three of them have a high old time breaking into temples in search of treasure, fighting slightly dodgy monsters, and generally behaving like a stereotypical D&D party. However the trio find themselves caught and dragged before the local king (a baffled-looking Max von Sydow) who offers them a deal: all charges will be dropped if they liberate his daughter from the insidious snake-cult run by, you guessed it, Thulsa Doom…

‘Good’ is obviously a relative term if we’re discussing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography, but this is still a pretty good movie, for all that it’s attempting to realise a vast fantasy world on a clearly inadequate budget, with a trio of protagonists played by a bodybuilder, a dancer, and a surfer. You look at it now and just imagine how much a decent digital grade, some subtle CGI, or even just better cinematography would give the film more of the scale and vibrancy it really needs to capture the energetic spirit of Robert E Howard’s original stories. Practically the only thing which genuinely feels epic about it is Basil Poledoris’s thumpingly good music – for many years, if you wanted to make a hugely violent and ideologically slightly-suspect blockbuster and needed some bombastic-yet-somehow-romantic music, Poledoris was the guy to go to (as Paul Verhoeven demonstrated with Robocop and Starship Troopers).

Stripped of the music this is much more clearly a close cousin to the dinosaur movies that Hammer were making back in the sixties, targeting the same kind of audience hungry for violence, bare flesh, a touch of fantasy, and the kind of haircuts not normally seen on men outside of British New Wave Heavy Metal bands. Milius is clearly not attempting to make a camp film and so Conan the Barbarian takes itself very seriously indeed – there are virtually no jokes in it, though this obviously doesn’t stop parts of it looking unintentionally hilarious today (the scene in which Arnie is playing Whose leg is that? with a woman, who thoughtlessly starts turning into a demon in flagrante, is uproariously funny).

Milius goes further and drains most of the fantasy silliness from the film – modern films in this genre tend to revolve around the collection of plot coupons and Lost Artefacts of Convenient Doom, with no real sense of an emotional core to the story. Well, there are touches of the supernatural throughout this film, but it’s primarily about Conan’s quest for revenge on the man who killed his parents, and this is at least more accessible. There’s still the problem that Schwarzenegger, as a performer, is all surface, unable to suggest any kind of interior life in his character: the script may call for a scene in which a barbarian sits on a rock, brooding intensely, but what reaches the screen is a scene in which a bodybuilder just sits on a rock. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Arnie having the same kind of sheer physical presence that Conan requires.

Schwarzenegger may not capture all the subtleties of Howard’s Conan, and his transformation in the film from barely-articulate brutalised gladiator to (relatively) eloquent moral agent is rather implausible, but the film does pay its dues to the original stories, even if it isn’t a strict adaptation of any of them. What Milius adds to the mix is a ferocious ideological element Howard himself might well have approved of: it all opens with Nietzsche’s ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, and further words of wisdom pepper the film, all in a similar vein: ‘Grab the world by the throat and take what is yours by right’, ‘Time enough for peace in your grave’, and so on. If this film was a person it would probably take you off into the woods and make you live up a tree, eating only things you had killed yourself. Equally tellingly, the contemptible followers of Thulsa Doom’s cult all carry bunches of flowers, and one of them, it is suggested, is a young man with inappropriate designs on Conan’s person. Subtext isn’t always necessarily subtle.

Perhaps it’s the sheer right-wing bravado of Conan the Barbarian which stops me from liking it a bit more than I do. I always find Arnie to be an agreeable screen presence, James Earl Jones is good, and so – perhaps surprisingly – is Sandahl Bergman. But despite all this, and of course, the score, the film is just so stolidly po-faced and stoic. The original stories had a bit more energy and life to them. That said, of course, this is still the best Robert E Howard film which has yet been made, and one of the best heroic fantasies of the 20th century: though that says more about the state of the genre than anything else.

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Anyone up for a spot of treading the jewelled thrones of the Earth under their sandalled feet? Well, someone obviously thinks there’s some interest in that sort of thing, as they have knocked out a new movie based on Robert E Howard’s invincibly buff troublemaker, entitled – as you’d expect – Conan the Barbarian. Directing this time around is Marcus Nispel and playing the Cimmerian himself is Jason Momoa.

Is this a remake of the 1981 movie starring His Arnieship or a whole new take on Howard’s original stories? I don’t think it makes much difference. Set in a mythical way-back-when, it all kicks off with Conan being born on the battlefield where his mother has declined to take maternity leave (from somewhere she has managed to find chain-mail maternity wear – look, if you’re going to start asking awkward questions this early in the movie, I really wouldn’t bother at all), skips forward through his astoundingly violent young manhood, then on to the destruction of his village and death of his father (Ron Perlman, possibly cast due to his playing Conan in an unfinished animated movie, but a good choice anyway) at the hands of a passing megalomaniac Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). This gentleman is intent on collecting plot coupons which will allow him to resurrect his wife, open the gates of hell, give him overlordship of the world as we know it, etc, etc – plot coupons being worth a bit more in days gone by.

Well, years go by, Conan grows up into the strapping form of Momoa, but remains intent on taking revenge against Zym when not being a reaver, buccaneer, freebooter, and all the other things on his CV. Zym, on the other hand, is still looking for coupons, the last one being the final descendant of an ancient bloodline: she is played by Rachel Nichols, her name is Tamara, and she is a monk. No, really – she states her career choice on a couple of occasions. Why is she a monk and not a nun? My money is on this being the result of a really thick-headed script and/or a suspicion that the audience might not be quite on-side with the idea of Conan getting it on with a nun. Whether they’ll be happier with the idea of Conan getting it on with a monk I really doubt, but I’m absolutely certain this is a really thick-headed script.

So Conan ends up protecting Tamara from Zym and his nutty witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), with the aid of his old buddies Artus (Nonso Anozie) and Ela-Shan (Said Taghmoui) – hmm, my spellchecker has just gone off weeping. The names of characters and places just slide out of your head, anyway, but you always know what’s going on as it’s all straight out of the Big Book of Heroic Fantasy Cliches: Barbarian Warrior, Aristocratic Love-interest, Wisecracking Sidekick, Aspiring Despot, Insane Evil Girl Minion and so on. Swords get swung, body parts get chopped off, fake blood splashes in remarkable quantities, and, well, er, it’s all very mechanical and rather familiar.

In fact, this is very much the direct descendant of any number of ropey, generic fantasy movies that got made in the Eighties and Nineties. There’s nothing original about the characterisation or plot, and the world of the movie is drawn so vaguely that you really have nothing to engage with. Very occasionally the film has a moment of insanely over-the-top machismo – such as at the beginning, where Conan’s mum, mortally wounded, gives herself a quick C-section in order to make sure he’ll be okay – that elevates it to a level of camp absurdity that I found rather endearing, but all too often it continues to wallow in the realms of the predictable.

I’m not a great fan of heroic fantasy anyway, to be honest, especially in its American idiom – given the choice I’ll take Elric over Conan any day – but I do have a certain fondness for Robert E Howard’s original stories. Maybe Howard was a bit of a hack, but his stories have a robust honesty about them that I find rather appealing, and his setting is distinctive. I would say this movie is probably closer to Howard than the 1982 version, but only marginally so.

If nothing else, Jason Momoa looks the part as Conan (possibly – heresy ahoy! – even more than Schwarzenegger did), but all the performances here are forgettable (with the possible exception of McGowan, who’s just plain bad). The script, as I mentioned, is thick-headed, and the direction nothing special. And yet I find it hard to actually dislike this film. It’s not much cop, and yet it’s still very far from being the worst film in this genre, and even those based on Howard’s works. That’s an indictment of the low standard of epic fantasy movies in general, I suppose: with a very few, very obvious exceptions, no literary genre has been as poorly served on the big screen as fantasy. Something tells me we shouldn’t be surprised that Conan the Barbarian continues this trend – in any case, it certainly does.

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