Monday 30 August 2010

King Conan: A Necessary Evil?

The history of the King Conan movie has been one long, drawn-out tease since the late 1990s. Milius' script, King Conan: Crown of Iron, was intended as the first of two films, followed by King Conan: Beneath My Sandalled Feet. Another script was, apparently, the disaster which would become Kull the Conqueror, leading many to note the hilarious irony of Kull the Conqueror being a rewrite of a Conan adventure when the literary Conan's first adventure was a rewrite of a Kull story - not helped by the fact that Milius stole a lot of Kull's back-story to supplement his Conan. However, neither came about, because Arnold decided Batman & Robin was a better use of his time - and I have to admit, he was the best thing in that wreck.  When it came to finalizing trilogies before he conquered the Proudest State of the American Continent that Reigned Supreme in the Dreaming West Coast, he settled for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. When Schwarzenegger ran for office, plans for a King Conan film were doomed, at least for the 2000s. I'm glad it didn't happen.

For the next several years, Warner Brothers was scrambling to get the project done, approaching Milius, the Wachowskis, Robert Rodriguez, and Boaz Yakin for the project. Rodriguez apparently came frighteningly close, until he decided to abandon it in favour of Grindhouse. That turned out well for him... The Wachowskis also worked with Milius on the revision for Crown of Iron, though they left after apparent conflicts with Milius over the direction of the screenplay.  Well, let's just say I'm doubly pleased this version didn't happen:

Now here's where it gets real juicy and the part the Wachowski brothers contribute an idea. John Milius writes in the suggestion. Milius kills off Conan half way through the picture! But fear not, after Conan's brutal death, he is reborn in a scene somewhat reminiscent of his rebirth in 1981's "Conan The Barbarian". Ceremoniously, with the help of many women, Conan is brought back. Crom lets Conan live but only perhaps long enough to set things right. Whether or not Conan fully accomplishes his task in this tale - or if his battle is continued in the following Conan movie ­ I will not say.

Conan is killed, brought back to life, and Crom allows him to live only long enough to set things right.

Larry?  Andy?  Stay away from Conan.  Forever.

Then we had the possibility of Triple H as King Conan.  As far as I'm aware, this was never a "done deal," but the idea that Triple H was even considered for Conan utterly baffles me.  The only reason Triple H ever seems to be brought up as an "ideal" Conan is his musculature.  That's it.  And arguably, that's all you need for John Milius' Conan - muscles.  But aside from muscles, what does Triple H bring to the role of Conan?  Nothing.  Zilch.  Less than Arnold.  Triple H doesn't look like Conan, he can't act beyond the range of "smouldering badass" and "sarcastic joker," he can't even affect Arnold's accent.  I don't even have to tell you what I think of him for Howard's Conan, let alone Milius'.

Triple H himself appeared to confirm those rumours:

"That's an awesome franchise. I'd love to get involved with it if they want me to. It'd be a thrill," Triple H said of Conan, but cautioning that "we'll see what happens."

Triple H has read a draft of the script and "I thought it was great. I think John Milius is an incredible writer. He knows how to create characters and storylines. I'd be honored to work with him."

You're right about that, Trips: Milius is good at creating characters and storylines.  A shame he's supposed to be adapting them.

Thankfully (well, at the time) after much pussy-footing around by the W.B., the rights went back to Paradox in 2007, and they started over. After looking over New Line Cinema, Hollywood Gang and Millenium, Paradox settled for Lionsgate, and the film we all know and hate started to ferment in the festering bowels of their imagination.

Long Shadows

People still want a King Conan film.  Pick a news site discussion the upcoming Conan film.  Chances are, you'll find at least one person saying "why didn't they just wait for Arnold to come out of office and do King Conan?"  And you know, I can sympathise.  Since Conan the Barbarian came out, fans have been waiting nigh-on thirty years for the conclusion, to finally see Conan "become king by his own hand," to "place the crown on his troubled brow," and "tread the jeweled thrones of the earth under his sandalled feet."  Crom knows, anything Milius came up with couldn't be as bad as Conan the Liberator... well, OK, it couldn't be as bad as Kull the Conqueror.

I've come to a rather startling possibility: we're simply not going to get a true Robert E. Howard adaptation until we exorcise the ghosts of Conan the Barbarian once and for all - by ending Milius' trilogy, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as King Conan.

This new film is, at its heart, a retread of Conan the Barbarian.  A childhood in a cold frosty snowscape, a Quest for Vengeance against the sorcerer-warlord who killed his parents and destroyed his people,  half-baked metallurgically-tinted philosophies, and a warrior-heroine who must sacrifice her life for the good of the hero/the world. From Conan the Destroyer we have a tall black savage in the employ of the enemy as an imposing foe, a princess who doesn't know her own power and is the key to resurrecting an ancient god of evil, and a bunch of irritating sidekicks.  From Red Sonja we have the warrior nun, last survivor of an organization dedicated to preserving a dark secret falling into the wrong hands, who eventually bonds with the male hero.  From Kull the Conqueror we have... it doesn't bear thinking about.  It isn't going to satisfy fans of the Laurentiis films, it's certainly not going to satisfy Howard or comic fans.  The only people who could possibly be satisfied are the average joe movie-goers - and frankly, what about this story would be a better sell than the original stories to begin with?

There are obstacles to overcome with King Conan, mostly because some crucial cast and crew members have passed away.  Mako was one, and The Wizard had a substantial part in Crown of Iron.  So too has Basil Poledouris, and it would be difficult to imagine who could take up the mantle in his absence in a film so reliant on music.  Jody Sampson, designer of the iconic swords seen in Conan the Barbarian, cannot contribute any new creations.  Yet Arnold will be out of office shortly, Milius seems perpetually enthusiastic, and I'm sure other cast members like Sandahl Bergman or even Gerry Lopez would be up for a reunion.

Then there's that horrible possibility - that Conan will be such an unmitigated disaster (or success, for that matter) that Lerner and company decide that the public doesn't want "faithful" Conan, that they want Arnold and Milius back.  And so, we get treated to King Conan - "Conan done right."  And us Howard fans will be aghast, laughing uncontrollably, shaking our heads, weeping, or facefisting.  (It's like facepalming, only more aggressive and profound).

See, there's this popular delusion going around right now, that Arnold is the only person who can ever play Conan in the movies.  I believe this isn't because Arnold is unique (though he is, in his way) and certainly not because he fits the role better than anyone else (he doesn't) - but for the simple reason that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only person who has ever portrayed Conan on the big screen.  Because nobody else has done it, there is no point of reference to contrast, unless you count Moeller.  And you know I don't. Thus, I dismiss assertions that Arnold is The Only One the same way I dismiss ideas that you can't really adapt a Robert E. Howard story to film - how can you know when nobody's actually tried?  Therefore, how can you know that Arnold is The Only One is there's no-one else to compare him to?

Besides, Momoa just ticks more boxes than Arnold ever did.  The one thing people are most hung up on is the fact that he clearly hasn't taken steroids.  Which Arnold definitely did (legal ones, I hasten to add).  Apart from that...

There is only one professionally made Robert E. Howard adaptation: Thriller's "Pigeons from Hell." It takes the story, plot, characters, themes and setting (more or less)... and puts it on screen.  And it works.  It's so good, it's one of the most celebrated episodes of the entire series.  Robert E. Howard adaptations work.  There is no reason for the nonsensical "Howard's work couldn't be adapted to the screen" argument because it's been proven wrong. Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Kull the Conqueror, Solomon Kane - not one of these films was an adaptation of a Robert E. Howard story.  No, not even Pogues' script (which I'll get to in the future).  All save two were unmitigated disasters, and of the two good ones, only one can really be called a cult classic.

Arnold is the only Conan - but that's because no-one else has been given the chance.  Until Momoa, that is.

It Might Yet Come To Pass

Oh, but don't think King Conan is down and out for the count even with Conan on the horizon, since Milius is still optimistic.

TheArnoldFans spoke with Conan director, John Milius, about the possibility of returning to "King Conan: Crown of Iron" and whether Arnold Schwarzenegger may still be interested in playing the barbarian when he gets out of office. Milius also informed me of his new Genghis Khan script. Could this be another script option for Arnold's 2011 comeback film?

Anyone having an aneurysm over the idea of Arnold as Genghis Khan, calm down: the article isn't implying that. Thank Mitra.

If you recall, Arnold gave us the exclusive in 2002 that he was officially going to do King Conan as his follow-up film to T3, thanks to our petition with the 14,000 signatures.




TheArnoldFans: Have you spoken to John Milius recently about all the positive buzz of “Crown of Iron” and will this project happen?

Schwarzenegger: "Yeah, I just saw Milius yesterday. We did lunch and a stogie. Yeah, he’s rewriting it as we speak... because it was a one hundred and sixty-eight page script. One of the brothers called – the Wachowski bothers, Ah, that’s right, I knew it was a Polish name. The Wachowski brothers called and said he should reduce the script because it would be a three and a half hour movie and we should cut it down to a hundred and twenty pages, and take certain things out and that’s what he’s doing right now. Because as you know, with John, things take time. He’s not the quickest guy in town. He smokes a stogie and then he writes a page and then he smokes another stogie...”

An online petition achieved something?  And it only took 14,000 signatures?

That's it, Howard fans.  No more excuses.  14,000 was enough to get Arnold to officially consider King Conan as his follow up to Terminator 3.  Sure, a small diversion got in the way, but still - Arnold Schwarzenegger responded.  To an internet petition!

Of course, that's assuming that Arnold was, in fact, responding, and not - say - doing Crown of Iron completely independently of The Arnold Fan's petition demands.  Because I don't see much indication of Arnold saying why he's doing Crown of Iron.  Hmmmmm.

Let's get caught up with Milius now and hear of the King Conan downfall. Although it did come crashing down in 2003, is this the end? Maybe not...

Macha, Morrigan, Badb, Nemain, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb...

TheArnoldFans: Was King Conan officially grennlit by WB in 2002?

John Milius: It was never greenlit. I signed a contract to write it and I wrote it. You know who stopped it? It was really the Wachowskis at Warner Bros. I was going to direct it but they jacked around with it and they wanted to make 'THEIR' movie and kept giving me vague stupid notes and stuff. I don't know if they had any intention on ever making it.

Seeing as how Milius adopted one of the Wachowski's stupidest ideas into his screenplay, what sort of ideas were the Wachowskis batting around that Milius didn't want to see?  I shudder to think.

Also, gotta love Milius being all frustrated about people "jacking around" with his creation, and making it "their" movie. Yeah, not a great feeling, is it, Mr Milius?  Karma is a harsh mistress.

TheArnoldFans: I always thought Arnold dropped the project because he headed toward the Governor's chair. So Arnold never pulled the plug then?

John Milius: No, Arnold never pulled the plug. He still would like to do it, I think.


TheArnoldFans: If he wants King Conan to be his comeback movie, would you still direct it?

John Milius: I wouldn't direct it. I don't think so. I think I have one big movie left in me. But I don't know, maybe I'll be so rejuvinated that I'll want to direct something else too? But King Conan is a terrific thing and a great thing for him to do. But I think he should get a young director for it.

TheArnoldFans: Oh, I don't know about that...

John Milius: Yeah, there are not a lot of good, young directors.

I think the only person who can possibly direct a John Milius Conan the Barbarian movie would be John Milius.

So much of Milius' heart and soul went into the film that it's simply impossible to imagine someone else making it, except maybe a young John Milius, but I don't know of many gung-ho right-wing zen-fascists.  Maybe Frank Miller, actually: he's gone so far off the deep end he might well pull it off.  He isn't exactly young, though.  But the point is, Crown of Iron is Milius' baby.  Getting anyone else to direct would just be a waste of time.  Ah, well, at least they don't have the Dastardly DeLaurentiis to contend with.

TheArnoldFans: Are you still angry over the King Conan downfall?

John Milius: Yeah, and to tell you the truth, now that I look at Conan, I love Conan, I love the movie and I love what it is, and I like Ron E Howard, but Conan isn't what I would have picked normally anyway. I never even read Conan when I was a kid. But I would have liked it if I would have read it. 
...I love Conan, I love the movie and I love what it is, and I like Ron E Howard, but Conan isn't what I would have picked normally anyway. 
... I love the movie and I love what it is, and I like Ron E Howard...
... I like Ron E Howard
Ron E Howard

I... I got nothing, folks.  It just speaks for itself.

Ron.  E.  Howard.

Either Randy Jennings made a serious typo here, indicating he doesn't know who Robert E. Howard is and doesn't even care to check Google or Wikipedia... or John Milius can't even remember Robert E. Howard's name.

(Also, he loves Conan, he loves the movie, he loves what it is... but he just likes "Ron E. Howard."  Figgers, don't it?)

TheArnoldFans: What is best in life?

John Milius: That is taken you know from Genghis Khan?

TheArnoldFans: What, the four wrong things (the open step, the wind in you hair, etc) or the three corect things?

John Milius: I have several accurate versions from history and he says, and let me paraphase it... but he says "Women's breasts as your pillow, to ride your horses and to hear the lamintations of thier loved ones... and he goes on a little further. I mean it's what he really said and this is what is best in life.

Ahem.  Two things:

1. Jennings really didn't know that the most famous quote in Conan the Barbarian is a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Genghis Khan in The Secret History of the Mongols... going into an interview where he's going to talk about a Genghis Khan biopic?

2. No, it isn't what is really said, it's what's attributed to him. For one thing, the most commonly cited version is: "The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters," but I won't rag on Milius for the paraphrase, except to say it looks like he got a bit confused with the lyrics to a Cornershop song. For another, this quote is from a source written long after Genghis' death: sure, he might have said it, but it's a secondary source, so one cannot say with as much certainty as if it was a contemporaneous document.  It could've been an "Elementary, my dear Watson"-style misquote, or it could've been made up entirely.  We don't know.

TheArnoldFans: Very interesting. We need Arnold to star in this film. Whether it be a lead role or the person who turns and says, "Khan, what is best in life?"

John Milius: Ahhh...we'll make an official announcement of eveybody at that point when we want to announce the cast.

A Conan the Barbarian reference in Genghis Khan?  Ahahaha, ... no.  No.





Corona Ferrarius Delenda Est

I don't want to see King Conan: Crown of Iron.  The script I've read is atrocious, and no amount of tweaking could possibly save it, save a defenestration and restart-from-scratch.  Sure, some things might've been alleviated - maybe Konahn's a little less of a wimpy dotard, maybe Kon's less of a subservient wretch, maybe they've decided not to desecrate REH further with new additions.  But it's still going to be the mess I believe it would be from a Howard fan's point of view, simply because its inherent themes are utterly alien to Howard.  And it's all because of Conan the Barbarian.

The ghost of Conan the Barbarian must be dealt with. The only ways to stop it are to destroy it, or to make its peace with the world.  Destroying it should be simple: make a Conan film that's better than Conan the BarbarianConan the Barbarian was a good film, but Robert E. Howard is just another league altogether.  I see zero reason as to why The Hour of the Dragon, for example, cannot be adapted to cinema nearly intact.  And a faithful Hour of the Dragon, or "The People of the Black Circle," or "Beyond the Black River," or "Red Nails," or "Queen of the Black Coast," or half a dozen other stories I could name, in the hands of a strong director, with a strong lead and actors, would blow Conan the Barbarian out of the sky.  Of course, this is a generation that would make Clash of the Titans and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen into wild successes...

But nobody's willing to do that.  So until some visionary director willing to put his fortune on the line to fund a pitch-perfect adaptation of a Conan story comes along, we must look to the second method: make its peace with the world.  As it is, Conan the Barbarian worked on its own.  It was self-contained, and hinted at great stories yet to come - but it included that line...

And this story shall also be told.

Like a fungal growth infesting the foundations of a sidewalk, that quote has eaten away at Conan the Barbarian's legacy.  When will this story be told?  What was Conan's rise to kingship like?  What sort of battles did he fight?  What monstrous foes did he face?  What beautiful women did he woo?  What dastardly villains did he conquer?  For almost 30, that question has been unanswered, and the Conan the Barbarian fandom has pined for a resolution.  It isn't helped by the fact that the only "canon" version of that story was Conan the Goddamn Liberator.

 Damn that book.

So of course, fans would be clamouring for it.  Well, in the absence of a truly Howardian movie, maybe we should give it to them.  Finally put that story to rest.  Finally see the end of Konahn's adventures in Hyboria* as he takes the crown for himself, and finally stalks up to that famous throne, and sits.  It's done.  It's finished.  It's over.  A fitting end to the saga started a quarter-century ago.  Then the slate is wiped clean, ushering in the hope of a new movie that does Conan right.  Don't delude yourself into thinking this ridiculous origin story for the upcoming film will result in a "true" REH adaptation.  I'd love to think that could be so, as I do with Solomon Kane, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it.  Rumours for the Solomon Kane sequel include a hip, young, black N'Longa, and Kane fighting two lions on a rope bridge that happen to be on fire (the lions, that is, not the rope bridge.)  Even if Lionsgate and company do, miracle of miracles, decide to plunder the Howard stories for material, they've shown that they clearly have no interest in fidelity to them.  They'd probably do Conan the Destroyer before going onto Howard.  No, Conan is not going to be the start of a new era - and the shadow of Schwarzenegger still stretches over all.

Conan the Barbarian has had its day, but its shade has unfinished business with the world.  Perhaps after the sun sets on Milius' fantasy opus, the dawn will break on the Day of the Lion.

* Yes, I'm using that phrase.  No, that doesn't mean I'm endorsing it.  I'm equivocating it with Conan the Barbarian.  That's how much I dislike the phrase.


  1. Seriously, dude, this is a GREAT article... you should include it into the "Conan movie blog".

  2. Thanks very much, K!

    I deliberated over including it on the Conan Movie Blog, but I'm wanting to keep to the task at hand as much as possible.

  3. could be Zack Snyder a possible young Millius?

  4. Snyder never occurred to me, but he'd be quite an interesting fit! I'm unsure if his own politics reflect Milius, but there's definitely a lot in common between Conan the Barbarian and 300. Not cinematography or style, necessarily, but certainly in theme and tone.

  5. have you seen Centurion by Neil Marschall? it is a good film? The descent is one of the best horror film I have seen... best of the 2000's along with Cabin fever by Eli Roth...

  6. Haven't seen Centurion yet, though I'm getting it on DVD when I see it next. Marshall seems to have a thing about Scotland: many of his films feature the country in some form.

    I loved The Descent too. Even though Marshall doesn't seem well versed in REH (he thought Conan started in comics, which is at least better than thinking he started on film), I think he'd make a really good choice for a Howard film, especially Bran Mak Morn.

  7. I have to agree with you on a few points. Mainly,until the make a version that is faithful to R.E.Howards stories they will continue making the rubbish that has been churned out the last 30 years.I read all the original Conan stories as a young man and was extremely happy when I read 30 years ago that they were finally bringing It to the big screen. Imagine my disappointment when I went to watch it and discovered the garbage that the had made.anyone that says Arnold was perfect for the part should have their heads examined,I take nothing away from the man,he is a great actor and I have grown up enjoying his work but the script sucked,the story sucked and his Coetzee were a bunch of football player and surfers that couldn't act if their lives depended on it...I think if I were doing it I would start with maybe Ridley Scott , Peter jackson or Guillermo de Toro ..and get some actors that can act...personally I think Jason mania could have done a decent job with a decent script...a REH SCRIPT....ANYWAYS...Just my humble opinion

  8. Ps...I would really like to see one of the above directors I mentioned do one of Howards Cormac Mac Art stories...just sayin ;)

  9. Taraniach excellent article, but I must tell you that:

    -there are no "legal" steroids when bodybuilding. Steroids can be purchased legally only if you have a prescription due to you having a condition requiring synthetic or reconstituted human testosterone.

    -Arnold admitted using steroids (primobolan and dianabol + others to cut up in prep season) while Momoa didn't...admit.
    Arnold used them because everyone was using them at the time without being bothered -he even stated it wasn't a big deal- , unlike now , when all kinds of laws exist today to criminalize steroid sale & use.
    He also stated his dosage was very mild , unlike what modern bodybuilder freakozoids are injecting and gulping down in 2013, looking like anthropomorphic bovines.
    Truth is that in California, actors get prescriptions easily and the producers get them basically what they need to be in shape quickly, they can't risk having someone with torn biceps or extenuated due to overtraining, let alone being completely not in shape.

    -Momoa is not that flamboyant actor you're presenting us. He's an escapee from Baywatch and that did hurt his acting forever. He's beyond what Arnold did in Hercules in New York,no doubt, but then Arnold didn't have the years of experience Momoa had by playing in various sitcoms & scifi series. Arnold was atrocious in Hercules in NY.
    If we compare each of them in a state of their lives when they had an equivalent amount of experience, Arnold has far more charisma than Momoa, evn if Arnold is a bit stiff.
    Momoa isn't stiff, he's a pretender, it's even worse. Still if he was correctly trained and I see he wasn't, he could be a good TV series Conan.

    -What proof do we have that Momoa and many other actors weren't on the juice fro movies, even if they already have a serious background in sports? Nothing apart from the opinion of experts who assess that they clearly were. Examples: Brad Pitt in Troy. Edward Norton in American History X, Will Smith in Bad Boys .
    The juice isn't only "steroids" , there are so many other illegal drugs now related to growth hormone and insulin, which aren't steroids.

    People really don't have a clue of what's going on in Hollywood and dream weird dreams.

    1. Thanks for the info, Guru, I always like clarification on things I'm not an expert in!

  10. Jason MOMOA is obviously Samoan and DOES NOT look Gaelic in the least! Jason Momoa was a poor choice to play Conan based on that alone - period. At least Arnold is from the general vicinity that Cimmerians were supposed to have come from in Howard's world: North Western EUROPE! In a way, Momoa as a European is akin to white people playing Asian or Native American characters in old movies. And while Conan the Adventurer was a pretty poor show, at least Moller LOOKED the part! In case you couldn't tell, this is a big sticking point for me ;)