IT’S ONLY PULP: A Fair and Balanced Review of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011)

IT’S ONLY PULP: A Fair and Balanced Review of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011)

conan2Friends, Bloggers, Conan Fans, lend me your ears! I come not to defend the new CONAN movie, but to present an informal overview that examines what works and what doesn’t work. To begin, I’ve seen a lot better movies … and I’ve seen a LOT worse movies.

First, let’s consider the source: Robert E. Howard is a largely respected fantasy author by today’s standards. However, that was not the case in the 20s and 30s when he was publishing his lurid pulp adventure stories in WEIRD TALES and similar pulp magazines of the time. In Howard’s day, pulp fiction was considered “trash,” and it was treated accordingly. Sex and violence were common ingredients in a good pulp tale, and Howard’s work is definitely full of both. However, what was considered obscene in the Pulp Era seems rather tame compared to the graphic sex and violence we see in today’s media. You can look at this in two ways: Either we as a society have gotten less uptight about certain subjects, or we have become a more depraved society. It’s all a matter of perspective. And as many philosphers will tell you, perspective is reality.

The new CONAN THE BARBARIAN film isn’t exactly a remake, but it does borrow its revenge motif from the original (and superior) John Milius CONAN film from 1982. That was NOT a Howard plot point. The Conan of Howard’s tales is not pursuing vengeance for his slain father, his slain mother, or his slain village. However, he would certainly have not been above bringing bloody and thunderous vengeance to anybody who wronged him. It simply was not his driving ambition, as it is in the movies.

Before I talk about the movie’s failings, let me first say what works about it: The visuals. Marcus Nispel’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN is a visual triumph. The Hyborian Age has never looked so wondrous, splendid, and believable on screen. From the virgin wilderness and Cimmerian villages to the decadent, sprawling cities, the vast monastaries, and the ancient citadels with skull-shaped caves, the movie simply looks fantastic. The costuming too is spot-on and suitably grimy, evocative, and well-designed. Same goes for the props: swords, spears, armor, ships, etc.

It all LOOKS fantastic. But looks aren’t everything…

Rose McGowan as the sexiest psychopathic sorceress who steals the show. She may be the most interesting character in the whole movie.
Rose McGowan as the sexy psychopathic sorceress who steals the show. She is definitely the most interesting character in the whole movie.

The casting is right on the money as well. Rose McGowan steals the show as the wicked sorceress Marique. She’s dangerous, sexy, and completely psychopathic. Her obsessed father Khalar Zym is played with suitable menace by Stephen Lang. Jason Momoa makes a great “young Conan”–he’s far less grim than the Arnold Schwarzenegger version. But that’s to be expected: Arnold’s Conan spent his adolescent as a slave and a gladiator. But Momoa’s Conan avoided that fate. Instead, a voice-over by Morgan Freeman tells us that he’s been roaming Hyboria for many years thieving, reaving, and slaying. This is more in line with Howard’s description of Conan’s youth.

There is a direct reference in the movie to Howard’s “Tower of the Elephant” story, when one character praises Conan for his role in defeating the wizard Yara and bringing down that infamous tower in Zamora. It’s a nice “shout-out” to Howard fans. Momoa gives us the youthful, carousing, wenching, headstrong Conan, not the older, wiser Conan that we see in most of Howard’s stories. And despite the questionable morality of all the killing he does, Conan is a man who stands up for the underdog, frees slaves when he encounters them, and is fearlessly loyal to his friends and allies.

Unfortunately, the visuals and the casting are the best qualities of this movie. The script and plot are basically Dungeons and Dragons cliches using Howard’s place names and concepts. However pleased I was to see Howard’s “purple-towered Acheron” used as a background for the story, the whole plot to assemble the pieces of a broken relic of necromantic power is a pretty old-hat fantasy stock plot. It works well as a motivation for the two villains, Zym and Marique, but other than that it’s sheer cliche of the dice-rolling variety.

This is my biggest problem with the movie: It’s lack of reaching for something more original in plot and story. Instead of lifting from one of Howard’s many great tales, the writers slapped together a string of fantasy-adventure cliches. The result is a typical “origin story” movie that serves only to set up further installments. I’ve felt the same way about many of today’s “comic book movies” — many of them are nothing but repeats of origins we’ve seen a dozen times or more. I hope that any Conan sequels bring on some writers who either draw directly from Howard’s plots or try a bit harder to bring something original to the story.

A common complaint among the movie’s critics is that the actions scenes are too chaotic and messy. I have to agree. However, I’d rather see quick, chaotic scenes than slow-motion “Matrix”-style fights. At least that’s one cliche the movie (mostly) avoids. I don’t agree with the critics who say there were simply too many fight scenes. This is CONAN, after all! However, I’d rather see less fight scenes done well than more fight scenes done in slapdash, confusing fashion. Perhaps the problem lies solely with the editing of these scenes, but the fight choreography is largely lost by the time these scenes reach the viewer.

conan-movie
Blood n' Thunder: Conan is first and foremost a pulp hero, so the bloody violence and lurid sexual situation are only to be expected.

For anybody who complains about the movie having too much blood, sex, and violence, you’re missing the point. This is  CONAN THE BARBARIAN, a pulp action hero. So criticizing these elements–which are essentially the bread and butter of any pulp hero–is ludicrous. If you are a person who does not like ultraviolence and lurid sexual situations, stay well away from anything that has to do with Conan. (Except maybe the horrid Saturday morning cartoon from a couple decades back. That’s what you get when you take sex and violence out of the Conan property. Ugh.)

There are three cringe-worthy moments in the film for me: 1) When Conan’s father holds his newborn son up to the sky (during a battle) and screams pointlessly. 2) When Young Conan holds up a sword in front of his burning village and screams pointlessly. 3) When Conan at the end of the movie, standing by his father’s grave, holds up his sword yet again and screams pointlessly. These three moments were almost embarassingly cliche and unneccessary.

So, is the new CONAN worth seeing? Only if you don’t expect it to be a Work Of Art. Only if you are content to enjoy the visceral thrills of pulp fiction at its most lurid and blood-soaked. And only if you don’t expect anything new from the filmmakers, other than a really fantastic looking fantasy world.

Personally, I recommend it for the visuals alone. As someone who has loved the Hyborian Age since I was a wee lad, it’s great to see it brought to life with such precision and beauty. I only wish the script had lived up to the pretty pictures.

If there’s a sequel (and there probably will be), let’s hope Quentin Tarantino gets together with George R. R. Martin and slaps together something that will really offend, surprise, and delight Conan fans.

Until then, there’s always the original stories to read and re-read.

Final Thought: John Milius’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN from 1982 still holds the distinction of being the very best Conan film. However, this new version by Marcus Nispel is light years ahead of the cinematic abortion that was 1984’s CONAN THE DESTROYER. I’m still trying to forget that one…

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[…] look at this review by John R. Fultz: Sex and violence were common ingredients in a good pulp tale, and Howard’s work […]

sftheory1

Good post. I haven’t seen the film yet, and I’ll probably watch it when it comes out on DVD. But, I do think you hit a fair and balanced review.

Tyr

So, you want to combine the wit of the most overrated film maker and most over rated fantasy author and make a movie that will offend Howard fans….you belong in Hollywood.
Your argument that it is ok to push and perhaps go beyond acceptable limits of depictions of sex and violence because pulp tales had sex and violence in them falls a little flat. If I may borrow from another genre this blog’s fans may like. People often think of lurid sex and violence when they think of ancient Rome. However, Spartacus was a great movie, Gladiator was a good movie, Caligula was what the janitor scrapes off the bottom of the toilet.

Henry

Like them or not, if only Hollywood would be so inspired or humorous.

Hollywood would prefer the same old, same old filtered through their superior entertainment acumen and end up offending fans regardless. No net loss.

C.S.E. Cooney

This is GREAT, John! People keep telling me not to see Conan because it’s not any good, and I’m like, “YOU THINK I’M GOING TO SEE A CONAN MOVIE FOR ITS LITERARY MERIT???” I guess a lot of die-hard Conan fans were looking forward to the literary merit, but since I’m not one of them, I’m there to enjoy the, er, “gore and tits,” I think you put it. “Gore and bronzed pectorals,” in my case.

I also like seeing epic cinematic fantasyscapes, and awesome costumes… Oh, and I’ve heard the skull-shaped cave mentioned more than once! By the power of Grayskull, I’m totally there! And SWORD FIGHTS! And DRUNKEN CAROUSING! I can’t WAIT!

I want to see Cowboys and Aliens too, no matter WHO tries to dissuade me!

Rock on. – csec

Scott Taylor

There won’t be a sequel to this, not if it can’t make 10 million in its first weekend with a 3D tag slapped on it. Heck Serenity made more than that in 05…

John, I’m going to say nay to the visual effects. They were pretty, but were too CG and fake for me, like someone painted them over a true rocky desert.

Also, didn’t you feel like you were in the movie Jumpers? I mean Conan went from abandoned rocky desert hut to ancient forest to fabled city of thieves to Zym’s fortress in all of seven minutes, and somehow happened to catch up to the bad guys before they had time to do their evil deeds that they’d been waiting 20 years to do… Ouch…

I tell you what, though, I’d have loved to see this with you. That would have been fun! If only you were in L.A. instead of S.F. 😉

smileyman

Every time I see a review of Conan (whether the stories or the movies) that says “It’s full of D&D cliches” I want to pull out my hair.

How about acknowledging that Conan was part of the source material for D&D, and saying that D&D is full of Conan cliches?

While I haven’t seen the movie yet (though I plan to see it very soon), I can tell just from the previews that this Conan is closer in spirit to Howard’s work than was Arnold’s Conan. Arnold’s Conan may be a better movie (and I do think it’s a classic of the fantasy genre and the score is one of the best film scores of all time), but saying a movie is better and saying it’s faithful to the source material are two different things.

RadiantAbyss

It seems Conan continues to confuse…Perhaps Conan is doomed to never have a uniform reception…

Now I consider myself a Howard fan.

I enjoy + accept Howards’ works warts + all.

This film stands mostly on it’s ‘face value.’

That is, surface.

This wasn’t a ‘faithful adaption of Howards’ vision.’ Neither was that first Conan film.

They both fall short. In different ways.

For ‘their times’ both Conan Brand films deliver brassy bloody action + exposed flesh aplenty for both sexes jaunts through primal exotic lands.

Surface.

I could go on. I won’t. I enjoyed this movie, even though it is not a ‘true Howard-Conan film.’

I knew I wasn’t going to get that.

I think the old Conan movie was trying too hard to reach the gamer faction of Conans’ fan base ( in 82′ that would be D+D )this is going for the gamers of my generation, whom do that MMORPG stuff.

Weak.

(BTW, this could lead people of my generation to the original works by Howard as that old film may have done. That would be great. I could talk Conan with people that aren’t old enough to be my dad, or my grand dad, or my great-grand dad…)

To me, old Conan movie really wasn’t any better except for the score. The old Conan film score pwns. Somethings were better for me in the old film, and some things worse, compared to this new one. Different things. Add it all up + they both fail to match the sum of Original Howard Conan. Again for different reasons.

Again this could go on and on.

I say it’s a draw between Conan 1982 and Conan 2011.

Neither is Conan 1932 however.

NewGuyDave

Great review, John. I only wish there were quick buttons on Black Gate to shoot this out easily to Facebook and Twitter. Hint, hint.

I’ll do it the old-fashioned way.
NewGuyDave

kid_greg

I saw this movie yesterday. I’ve been a life-long fan of Conan and REH, and I couldn’t agree more with your review.
I loved the shout-outs to Howard’s stories (even noted how the Picts who attacked young Conan, made animal noises which would could go along with Howard’s description of their gods) and I too loved the visuals and I did rather enjoyed some much of the fight scenes. But when it was over I was disappointed, more as Howard fan then anything.
You’re review points out the problems that I couldn’t quite put a finger on.

GreenGestalt

I’m truly amazed… How you can turn a movie that obviously is essentially “Conan the Destroyer” with a bigger budget; I.E. one of the “Space Filler” Savage Sword of Conan stories turned into a movie…. but somehow give an apologetic and more or less “Good” review. You’ve essentially given every good reason to hate the movie and spun it as tolerable…

I’ll save the full “Hairy Ballz of the Gawdz this Sucks —-” and foaming rabid media conspiracy ravings for my own blog after I’ve seen it. Yeah, I’ll see it in a few days, was too busy for opening night… I’m in a mood for self punishment and it’s cheaper than paying a Domina to burn holes in my rear with cigarettes… More or less they are just profiting off licensing the “Conan” name and this movie could be “Sword and the Sorcerer 2” and no one would know the difference, least of all Howard fans if the names weren’t the same, though it might make us wish they’d get the Governator and “Pomp him up” and make “King Conan” at last….

However, while I do agree that what was taboo in the “Pulp” days is commonplace for today… but – it’s not like we’ve “Evolved” past G-Rated stuff… Quite the opposite, the true “Pulps” are treated like “Toxic Waste” by the politically correct media controllers. More or less “Do you have a license to handle this stuff? Oh, you are dumping it in a limited market, make sure you’ve paid the bribes and kissed a— for permission…”

Case in point, I was looking on WikiSource and found among REH’s Public Domain works this cool story: “The Purple Heart of Erlik”

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Purple_Heart_of_Erlik

I love it! Frankly, I’m going to double check the “Public Domain” thing because I might well find space for it in my magazine for like Ish#3, adding wonderful illustrations to it. Good turn of the century Asian adventure yarn, with damsels in distress, gangsters, tough sailors and a sinister Fu Manchu type;-) In terms of actual skin and violence it’d fit quite well to today’s standards, mild even. Well, one exposed breast that could just be turned into the already torn dress and made to be equivalent… Heads split by axes but don’t have to depict the gore directly. It’d be tame by the gore/sex ratio versus today’s standards of spatter and near-porn.

BUT, just read the short story.
Imagine it made into a tv special…
It’d make a “Horrorshow” good 1/2 hour “Amazing Stories” style retro yarn. It’d be a real “Riot” it’d be so popular… Like the next day there’d be a mob of Asian American activists and Feminist groups screaming. Doubtless the director/head actor would end up a human sacrifice to the NWO PC Vampire and make a tearful public apology and then get fired/blacklisted anyways. Good old two-fisted Pulp where the Men are men, the foreigner is sinister and dames are dames…

GreenGestalt

John,

—>>This wasn’t a “good review”–I pretty much tore the movie a new a-hole.

Why not then title it “Hairy Ballz of the Gawds, this SUCKS A–!!!!” and rip it a new a-hole then? That’s what I’ll likely do… You can use my title if you want, too, long as we don’t care if the other uses it also:-)

Why not then make it clear to NOT watch the movie? To if out of morbid interest you want to see it urge people to wait till 3 months AFTER it’s on DVD…so the profit is near zero? To tell the producers if they spend all this $ on a movie like this and they license a good name versus “Ator: Re-Loaded” they’d better make GOOD writing, not just purchase and exploit and trash childhood memories…?

Yeah, they realized the Hyborean age or whatever, any budget like that with modern CG could do it. OF COURSE the visuals are the only good thing about it, IMO that is the POINT… To debase the property to be nothing more than a “Surface only” ravaging of fond memories and good storytelling, the lowest end of degenerate art before literally going into pornography or putting a pile of sh-t on an upturned trashcan and calling it “Art”.

I’m personally seeing red on this movie. I mean, I’ll try to save the real ravings for my post, it’ll be a good intro post past testing for my magazine now about ready to launch. And, yeah, I’ll see it first.

BTW-did you check out that REH story I linked?

It seems some REH stuff is clearly in the public domain now, due to a narrow window before the “Mickey Mouse” parasite era began, there’s this so-so illustrated brown covered Conan book that’s in and out of the “Bargain Bin” in the bookstores, and some e-books using the public domain stuff…

Another BTW—Have you seen the original Conan on Blu-Ray?

It’s a better transfer than Labyrinth or most now grainy at that resolution DVDs, but IMO it’s not as good a quality as it could be… And it’s a movie I am dead F*cking sure was filmed “Epic Movie” style in such a format that it should transfer to Blu-Ray. That, btw, is what Blu-Ray is; To bring “Cinema” resolution to the tiny (and not so tiny now) screen. When it first came out it had all sorts of “Fun” like Charlie’s Angels one of the ladies had a pizza face covered with troweled on makeup and it became noticeable;-) It wasn’t “Filmed for Blu-Ray” just standard modern filmmaking… Lots of Blu-Ray transfers picked out all sorts of details, but this movie while the best DVD quality and far better than any VHS was still not full Blu-Ray… I watched on my full HDMI 1080P/70000:1 monitor (and the DRM made it a nightmare for my computer to play) to make sure I could say this with conviction.

smileyman

Some of REH’s material is in the public domain, some of it isn’t. Here’s a nice handy reference guide for determining what’s in the public domain and what isn’t.

http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm

REH’s wikipedia page has a good list of what’s in the public domain and what isn’t.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_E._Howard_bibliography

Ryan Harvey

Green, to answer your question about how Conan the Barbarian was filmed, it was shot in Todd-AO 35mm, which was Todd-AO’s competition with the Panavision Anamorphic 35mm process. It wasn’t different from any other “widescreen” process used at the time, rendering a 1:2.35 aspect ratio from a 35mm frame. It wasn’t one of the higher resolution formats.

That said . . . yes, the Blu-ray of the film is not that impressive. Universal has rarely put much effort into back catalog titles for Blu-ray. The film looks better than the earlier DVDs, but that is the best I can say about it.

The sound mix in particular irritates me. Conan the Barbarian was mixed as a mono film. The Blu-ray only offers a 5.1 lossless option, and the remix is ugly. The score is easy to spread out, since it was recorded in multi-track masters, but dialogue and sound-effects are limited mostly to the front speakers and nothing about it stands out. Universal should have at least offered the option of hearing the original mono mix in a lossless option, which would give the film a much “bolder” kick, although Poledouris wouldn’t be in stereo.

Ryan Harvey

Okay, I’ve seen it now.

John, you know I always respect your opinion on anything. And I am in agreement with you on most of what you say here.

What I don’t agree with is this statement: “let me say what works about it.”

This film is a complete disaster. It fails on every level. The only good thing I can say about it is that Momoa does seems like a good casting choice for the part. But the movie is stacked against him with dumb lines and awful performances. Great actors like Perleman and Lang feel like terrible actors. McGowran is dull and actually silly in her hairdo. Rachel Nichols acts like she’s in a Lifetime movie.

And I can lay it all at the feet of Marcus Nispel. This man has no idea how to direct. I don’t have a problem with the loads of violence in the film—it’s what I want for Robert E. Howard. But Nispel apparently only knows how to direct violence, and he’s not even good at that. He keeps piling it on and I keep yawning. He actively tries to bore me with violence that should be jolting me. There’s never any moment to cheer Conan, or applaud a big kick-ass moment, because Nispel has zero sense of how to pace, shoot, or edit anything. I knew when he was assigned this film that we were in trouble, but I had no idea he would mess it up this horribly.

You know who should have directed this? Neil Marshall. Watch Centurion. This guy knows how to do it.

As for the visuals: I found them flat and cheap, like a SyFy movie got a slightly better budget. The 3D is also a joke. I can endorse nearly nothing about this film except that I think Momoa might have had a chance with a different director, script, and an adequate amount of money. He feels like he really wants to make a good Conan movie, and really loves the character, but nobody else involved seemed to have given a damn.

Conan the Barbarian is the worst film of the summer.

Ryan Harvey

Cool, John. It’s good have a genuine discussion about the film. You’re one of those guy who, even if I don’t agree with your opinion, I still love hearing it. After all, we’re sort of alone in the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom love.

Oh, I wrote an open letter to Jason Momoa on my blog to thank him for putting in the effort.

Ryan Harvey

I would love to read Momoa’s script. Shame it won’t happen.

Yeah. Onward John Carter!

Ryan Harvey

Cripes . . . the Conan rights are so damn complicated. My movie writing partner and I have been pitching a Conan TV show to various cable networks in Los Angeles, even had a few meetings with some big people, but the rights are the problem. This new wrinkle might turn out to be interesting. (My hopes aren’t high, however.)

GreenGestalt

On the Stan Lee Media thing, it’s good to ponder the copyright stuff. While I do think the people that made this movie should be punished for other reasons, Conan should be a “Public Domain” character by now. Most of the foundational stories were published before the Mickey Mouse thing so as long as they didn’t use Lin Carter/DeCamp stuff it should be fine. But, aren’t there collections being published and sold on e-readers that just have the public domain stuff? Wouldn’t a fan made, semi-pro writer compendium of Conan stories be cool?

Likewise, I was serious upthread- I’d love to use that “Spicy” Pulp story, even hammer out a couple sequel stories for later issues, “Yellow Peril” is sooo cool if done right.

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