Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Conan the Barbarian Review Reviews: Empire Magazine

Part of the reason I started up a blog was to discuss things which I didn't feel were appropriate for my usual haunts. Too low-brow for the esteemed Cimmerian blog, too off-topic or impolite for the Conan forums. One of these is "reviews of reviews", where I spend a little while ranting and raving like a loon about a particular reviewers' interpretation of Howard, usually via Conan the Barbarian.

Sure, there are plenty of good reviews out there, but there are also lots of terrible ones. While not truly horrific, Clark Collis' Empire Magazine Review is flawed, with one or two very annoying elements.

Lay on, Macduff, and damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

EMPIRE ESSAY: Conan The Barbarian (18)

The review starts off with some of the myths about Conan the Barbarian, including the He-Man legend (the truth is just as interesting, and reflects very poorly on CPI, which just makes me even more glad of the CPI we have today), as well as some anecdotes about Arnold, Milius and de Laurentiis. It's largely irrelevant filler, and doesn't comment on the film or its production. The problems start soon enough:

De Laurentiis, however, is not a man to bear a grudge — at least not when doing so might stand in the way of making money — and had few problems with the casting of Arnold as the decidedly un-American Conan.

Even being a patriotic Scot, I feel a twang of anger at the assertion that Conan is un-American. Of all the things one could call Conan, to say that he is un-American is one that oddly vexes me. At the surface, certainly Conan wouldn't count as an American in the very strict, technical sense, being a Cimmerian of the lost Hyborian Age. But while his nationality is undoubtedly not that of his creator, he is most assuredly an American creation. Steve Tompkins, Leo Grin, Don Herron, Glenn Lord and countless others have argued as such. If they called him non-American, that would be different, as it merely says that he is "not of America": un-American gives the impression that he is not only not a native of the country, but antithetical to it, which he quite clearly is not.

A poor choice of words is just the beginning.

The original Depression-era Conan comic had been written by Robert E. Howard who, like Schwarzenegger, transformed himself through bodybuilding from skinny pup into an adult hulk before blowing his brains out at the age of 30.

Of course, Conan was not a comic, and of Howard's 600+ stories and 800+ poems, not one of them was a comic. It's truly bewildering how many people make this mistake. Bad research, Empire. Then we get the rather irreverent summary of his life, though at least Empire have the decency to say Howard did something in his life other than "writing Conan" and "committing suicide" like so many do.

By then, however, Conan's rampaging his way through ancient lands, beating to a pulp as many people as he could get his hands on, had captured the public's imagination.

Beautiful, Conan is reduced to a berserk animal whose only purpose is to ravage and slay. Not even a token mention of ravishing maidens and defeating sorcerers!

Yet, the seriousness with which Milius took proceedings — a good indication of which is his prefacing the whole shebang with a quote from Nietszche — elevated the enterprise far beyond both its pulp origins and technical limitations.

I see this a lot from people who know absolutely nothing about Howard: the implication that an injection of Nietszche and seriousness "elevated" Conan from its pulp trappings. It's almost pointless to rebuke, as a reading of just about any Conan story would reveal depth, subtlety, complexity, and symbolism that shames Conan the Barbarian utterly. Suffice to say, there's a reason why Howard's original Conan writings are being reprinted today, while lesser S&S - be it Conan pastiches or shameless ripoffs - are languishing out of print. I just wish people who've obviously never read something would refrain from commenting on it, especially when just about every REH fan I know considers CtB inferior to Howard, no matter their opinion of the film.

Predictably, the review ends in an anecdote.

"I told Arnold, 'look at Charlton Heston,'" says Milius. '"He's always bigger than life. And if you look at his career he was very smart in picking things to play that way. In The Greatest Story Ever Told he's John The Baptist — and he plays him like Conan!'"

This surprises me. I am a great admirer of The Greatest Story Ever Told, especially Max Von Sydow (who delivered what I consider the greatest ever performance of Jesus), and I noted that John the Baptist was indeed played with great masculinity by Heston, much as just about every single one of his roles is. Now that I think of it, Chuck would've made a pretty solid Conan.

Despite my problems with Conan the Barbarian, I really like Arnold. He really did have a natural charisma, and while someone like Heston or Wayne would blast him off the screen with their larger-than-life persona, he was still very compelling to watch. Unfortunately, very little of that was in evidence in Conan the Barbarian. Conan was a spectator in this film, always reactive, while the likes of James Earl Jones, Max Von Sydow, Mako and even bally Gerry Lopez dominated. At this point in his career, Arnold was no Chuck Heston.

Still immensely popular 40 years on, Conan was always going to be a natural for the big screen.

I've found something to agree with: just a shame that despite him being a natural for cinema, we still haven't seen Howard's Conan adapted, and if the recent casting call is true, we still have a long time to wait.


  1. Good Post. I don't see how it wouldn't fit for the Cimmerian or the forum though, but then hey you gotta have blog material.

  2. Ultimately, I think it was a bit snarky, and I don't want the Cimmerian to be dominated by negative reviews, especially with the casting bombshell.

  3. True. Some people just don't know the material-damn the casting.