I’ve refrained from talking about Conan the Barbarian (2011) until now, despite my love for Robert E. Howard’s works. But now that we’re poised on the eve of its U.S. release, I thought I’d weigh in with my personal hopes—and fears—regarding the film.
The bottom line for me is this: I’m going to do what the studio execs want, which is opening my wallet and seeing the movie. And I might even consider it money well spent. That said, the updates I’ve followed up to this point (your ultimate source is Al Harron’s Conan the Movie Blog) don’t leave me with great expectations.
Let me air out one piece of dirty laundry up front: I greatly enjoyed the original Conan the Barbarian (1982) back when I first saw it on HBO as a wee lad, peering guiltily through my fingers at the Arnold-Sandahl Bergman sex scene. Today I realize that Milius’ Conan bears little to no resemblance to Howard’s Conan nor any of the original stories, and in fact, other than borrowing some of Howard’s names, places, and gods, the 1982 film may as well be an entity unto itself.
My point in this admission (along with the fact that I might have bad cinematic taste) is that I’m not a Howard “purist”, and I’m probably not a Howard “fan boy,” either. I can handle deviations and cinematic alterations. Though Conan the Destroyer was, is, and always will be, junk.
That said, I still don’t know why a studio can’t bring itself to adapt one of Howard’s original Conan stories. Take The Lord of the Rings films: Deviations a-plenty, but still very recognizably J.R.R. Tolkien. Neither Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, nor Red Sonja resembles anything Howard wrote, and it certainly looks like the 2011 film doesn’t either.
For just a moment, imagine a film that featured a millennia-old gang war in an ancient, isolated city, whose rival members celebrate their kills with crimson nails driven into a pillar of vengeance. A story that features near-death escapes from dino-dragons, a lunatic sorcerer living in the catacombs under the city, and a witch with a dark, unspeakable secret of perpetual youth. This combustible mix ends with an orgiastic outburst of violence.
That’s “Red Nails,” which Howard wrote in 1936. Sounds pretty good to me, but we’ve never seen it on film, and we probably never will.
I’ve seen arguments around the web that no one cares about the original stories because all moviegoers want is spectacle held together by a simple story of vengeance. But does every hero these days need to have his entire backstory explained, a slain father to avenge? It’s not wrong to expect more out of films than bloodshed and bared breasts and the Hero’s Journey rehashed ad nauseum. Also, don’t fool yourself that REH was just about blood and guts. Howard has been dead for 75 years and his stuff is showing no signs of going away; quite the contrary, he’s still widely read and arguably more relevant than ever .
That doesn’t happen if all you write is pulp.
Howard was fun. Howard was pulpy. Howard’s stuff was escapist, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. But Howard was also so much more.
The fires roared in the skalli-hall,
And a woman begged me stay—
But the bitter night was falling
And the cold wind calling
Across the moaning spray.
How could I stay in the feasting-hall
When the wild wind walked the sea?
The feet of the winds drew out my soul
To the grey waves and the cloud’s scroll
Where the gulls wheel and the whales roll,
And the abyss roars to me.
Man the sweeps and bend the sail—
We need no oars tonight
For the sharp sleet drives before the gale
That dashes the spray across the rail
To freeze on helmet and corselet scale,
And the waves are running white.
I could not bide in the feasting-hall
Where the great fires light the rooms—
For the winds are walking the night for me
And I must follow where gaunt lands be,
Seeking, beyond some nameless sea,
The dooms beyond the dooms.
In addition to an ability to write headlong action like no one else, Howard was a writer of surprising depths. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Howard expressed a heavy melancholy for that which has been lost in the marches of time. He cast a sad glance over his shoulder at receding history and the glories of wilder, freer times. Read enough Howard and you encounter a sense of foreboding and doom, the call of the abyss. See “The Outgoing of Sigurd the Jerusalem-Farer,” above, from Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures.
Yes, Howard wrote historical fiction too. And boxing stories. And westerns. And … you get the point. He was, to borrow one of his own descriptions of Conan, a man of gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth.
My only “fear” with this movie—if indeed one can feel fear about a Hollywood blockbuster as opposed to say, real fears like the state of the economy or terrorism—is the inevitable swarms of cackling critics taking the easy route and perpetuating the old myths that the film is a “remake” of the “original” Conan of the 1982 film, or that Howard was nothing but a shallow hack writer of disposable pulp, and that everything he wrote was senseless bloodshed. His reputation may take more of a beating than it has already endured over the years. For the record, that’s enough hard blows to make Conan wince.
Conan was a larger-than-life pulp hero and a ferocious, savage fighter. But there was more to the Conan stories than just severed limbs and one liners and women thrown over his saddle-bow. Howard was a better writer than that.
I will say this much: Jason Momoa looks the part, and the early reviews, as negative as they are (Conan is tracking 27% on Rotten Tomatoes) seem to indicate that he plays a good Conan.
Long story short: We’ll always have the books, even if the film is a flop. But I hope Conan the Barbarian is something more than a mindless late summer action film. Is that too much to ask?