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Some Thoughts on the Eve of Conan the Barbarian

Thursday, August 18th, 2011 | Posted by Brian Murphy

conan-2011-movie-posterI’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.

coming-of-conan-the-cimmerianI’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?

10 Comments »

  1. Watching the current LionsGate trailer I’m totally confirmed in my review…

    Short form: “Hairy Ballz of the Gawdz this will Suck A–!!!”

    Long Form: If ONLY they’d titled this “The Sword and the Sorceror 2” or “DeathStalker 7” or “Ator Re-Loaded” or put a leather mask on him and it was “Tim Vigil’s Cuda”… Just switch the crudely placed names/places of Cimmeria, Hyboria…whatever and make up exciting sounding names…would anyone think this would be Conan???

    I’d be wild for it then. I’d be going “At last Heroic Fantasy is getting the treatment it deserves. Now let’s dust off and “Pomp him up” Arnie and make KING CONAN!!!”

    Comment by GreenGestalt - August 19, 2011 4:40 am

  2. The irony of all this is that 30 years ago, Oliver Stone knew what to do. Yes – his name is still on the writing credits of the 1982 movie, though I don’t believe much of what he wrote stayed in.

    He saw Conan as a James-Bond like franchise, with Arnold coming back every few years. Like Bond, there was an entire set of stories to work with. If the “behind the scenes” footage is to be believed, he had a treatment/script for “Black Colossus”.

    Milius canned that idea and the rest is history.

    Comment by pmcnamee67 - August 19, 2011 9:45 am

  3. Spot-on! The Red Nails adaptation sounds great. Yojimbo in a Sword & Sorcery setting. Also K.E.Wagner’s Conan & Ramsey Campbell’s Solomon Kane scripts, would have made good Howard films.
    I’ll be probably make execs happy by watching this on screen, in hope that at least it won’t be worst than a, monthly-Roy-Thomas-scripted, comic adaptation. That said, the story could be something entirely different than a reboot of the Milius film with lots of wizardry…
    On a last note the Dark Horse comic book adaptation of the new film although mediocre at best, contains a very interesting essay written by Dale Rippke about Howard’s chronology concerning the region of Acheron (a region heavily concerned with the villain’s background).

    Comment by periklis - August 19, 2011 9:55 am

  4. Brilliant article, Howard. You summed my own thoughts and feelings exactly. I doubt we’ll ever get a truly “Howardian” Conan film — unless one of his stories is adapted faithfully to the screen, as with Lord of the Rings. I still don’t get why there has been no interest in filming, “The People of the Black Circle,” “Red Nails,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” or any of the other longer, more complex Conan tales. But that’s Hollywood thinking for you. THEY can do better. (Yeah — right!) I won’t even discuss the travesty that was the “Red Sonja” film, or the hokey comedy of “Conan the Destroyer.” I am not a big fan of “Conan 1982” — it hasn’t aged well, and it wasn’t really Conan, when we come right down to it. Oliver Stone’s imput was much grander, darker, and might have been closer to Howard, but we’ll never know. John Milius did his best — but Dino DeLaurentis was behind it all, and he cared neither for the genre nor making a quality film. He was interested only in the $$$$ — typical Hollywood mind-set. I hope I at least enjoy the new Conan, and that it has better acting, better stunts, better, FX, and a much better story. Just another snake cult? Crom give me strength! I think I need to go read some REH right now.

    Comment by Joe Bonadonna - August 19, 2011 11:06 am

  5. Long Form: If ONLY they’d titled this “The Sword and the Sorceror 2″ or “DeathStalker 7″ or “Ator Re-Loaded” or put a leather mask on him and it was “Tim Vigil’s Cuda”… Just switch the crudely placed names/places of Cimmeria, Hyboria…whatever and make up exciting sounding names…would anyone think this would be Conan???

    I agree, that’s what should have been done. But of course they wouldn’t have the Conan (TM) trademark or name recognition. And fans of REH like me wouldn’t be hyping the film.

    He saw Conan as a James-Bond like franchise, with Arnold coming back every few years.

    I hadn’t heard that… is that on the CtB commentary track?

    I still don’t get why there has been no interest in filming, “The People of the Black Circle,” “Red Nails,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” or any of the other longer, more complex Conan tales.

    {sarcasm}But there’s no origin story, and that’s what audiences want!{/sarcasm}.

    I think I need to go read some REH right now.

    The best tonic, right there.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - August 19, 2011 2:19 pm

  6. @Brian; Watch this; around 2:37 it gets interesting.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwCR5x0KtAI

    Not sure why I thought “Black Colossus”, other than the mention of large armies…

    Comment by pmcnamee67 - August 19, 2011 2:30 pm

  7. It’ll suck. They’re cramming Conan into a superhero movie template.

    No one, least of all REH, gave a flip about how Conan got to be Conan. Did Howard ever devote more than a short paragraph to his background? I don’t remember him doing so.

    Conan is an archetype. The Conan stories are about a savage and his interactions with civilization — and the ephemeral nature of man’s endeavors. They should be looking at movies like Sergeant York, or even Crocodile Dundee, not Batman, to figure out how to do Conan right. He’s a fish out of water.

    I’m no fan of Oliver Stone, but he does know how to cram some philosophy into the action (much like, from the other side of the political spectrum, John Milius). You need a Milius or a Stone to work Howard’s distinctive beliefs into the warp and woof of the story. Once someone really puts an effort into bringing the Hyborean Age to life, even with its less-than-PC elements, then we can have a great Conan movie.

    That, or as others noted above, just do a super-literal Jackson-style version of one of the stories. The technology exists to do it on a modest budget. As ‘300’ proved.

    Comment by eeknight - August 19, 2011 2:50 pm

  8. I’ve only read some of REH’s horror fiction, so Conan is a bit uncharted territory for me. But the actor in this movie doesn’t seem to resemble the Conan from book illustrations, comics and the like, so it’s a bit off-putting.

    Comment by Mister_Alex - August 19, 2011 4:01 pm

  9. Another take on Conan in films that you may find interesting: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6876947/when-need-our-barbarians

    Comment by Nash - August 20, 2011 2:26 am

  10. Well if current box office receipts can be believed, it made 11 million and it was even in 3D… Planet of the Apes beat it and that’s been out three weeks.

    I did, however, go see it. Nothing Conan about it, but if you watched it thinking it was just an action fantasy film it wasn’t horrible, although there was no flow and the story was jumping around faster than a kangaroo on Georgia asphalt. 😉

    Comment by Scott Taylor - August 20, 2011 8:40 pm


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