Ah, Roger Ebert. Doug Walker, a fan of Siskel & Ebert, has a tribute to the pair which illustrates nicely the nature of the man and his work. While I can appreciate his popularity and contributions to film studies, I'm not a fan. I find that he's too quick to apply a perceived agenda to films, and can be derisive of films not adhering to a script 3-act structure made in the past 50 years. He also tends to make a few factual errors, which is one of those things only nitpickers like myself are really bothered with.
However, nothing bothered me quite as much as his review of Conan the Barbarian. The reasons will be self evident.
Conan the Barbarian (R)
Not since Bambi's mother was killed has there been a cannier movie for kids than CONAN THE BARBARIAN. It's not supposed to be just a kids' movie, of course, and I imagine a lot of other moviegoers will like it. I liked a lot of it myself, and with me, a few broadswords and leather jerkins go a long way. But CONAN is a perfect fantasy for the alienated preadolescent.
Consider: Conan's parents are brutally murdered by the evil Thulsa Doom, which gets them neatly out of the way. The child is chained to the Wheel of Pain, where he goes around in circles for years, a metaphor for grade school. The kid builds muscles so terrific he could be a pro football player. One day he is set free. He teams up with Subotai the Mongol, who is an example of the classic literary type (the Best Pal) and with Valeria, Queen of Thieves, who is a real best pal.The first three paragraphs, I was willing to go with Ebert. I can certainly see his argument that Conan the Barbarian would appeal to adolescents. But then it completely falls apart when he asserts that it is not only accurate, or "faithful in spirit," but a very nearly perfect visualization.
Valeria is everything you could ever hope for in a woman, if you are a muscle-bound preadolescent, of course. She is lanky and muscular and a great sport, and she can ride, throw, stab, fence, and climb ropes as good as a boy. Sometimes she engages in sloppy talk about love, but you can tell she's only kidding, and she quickly recovers herself with cover-up talk about loyalty and betrayal: emotions more central to Conan's experience and maturity.
With the Mongol and the Queen at his side, Conan ventures forth to seek the evil Thulsa Doom and gain revenge for the death of his parents. This requires him to journey to the mysterious East, where he learns a little quick kung-fu, and then to the mountainside where Doom rules his slave-priests from the top of his Mountain of Power. There are a lot of battles and a few interesting nights at crude wayside inns and, in general, nothing to tax the unsophisticated.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN is, in fact, a very nearly perfect visualization of the Conan legend, of Robert E. Howard's tale of a superman who lived beyond the mists of time, when people were so pure, straightforward, and simple that a 1930s pulp magazine writer could write about them at one cent a word and not have to pause to puzzle out their motivations.
Allow me to snort derisively.
Let's see, "people were pure, straightforward and simple". What is "pure" about Conan, or Belit, or any of Howard's characters barring children like Tina? What is "straightforward" about his adventures, full of twists and turns where violence is rarely enough to solve anything? What is "simple" about the politics of The Hour of the Dragon, "Rogues in the House," and "The People of the Black Circle," or even "The Servants of Bit-Yakin"?
What about "not puzzling about motivations"? Let's take just one story as an example. "The Phoenix on the Sword" has no less than six villains, all of whom have very different, human, understandable, and clearly delineated motivations:
- Ascalante is a wily rogue who aspires to be kingmaker, duping Dion, Gromel, Volmana and Rinaldo into being his puppets while he wields the true power...
- Gromel is personally offended at being snubbed in favour of Pallantides for the position of King's guard, and wishes to get back at Pallantides, as well as attain the highest military office in the kingdom...
- Volmana wants to bring his poverty-ridden estates back into the black, which were devastated during the War of the Barons, as well as regaining the prestige & influence he once held in the old regime...
- Dion is a vapid moron who is promised ultimate power and what he considers the rightful rule of the kingdom, but is too cowardly and stupid to do anything himself...
- Rinaldo is a madman who truly believes in a righteous cause to usurp the tyrant Conan, the only one who seems to have a reason to kill the king other than any personal ambition...
- Thoth-Amon wants to regain his former power and enact vengeance for Ascalante's abuse and humiliation, and is sufficiently disdainful of the others to order the demon to kill all around him.
Six villains, five of whom may have a common goal, but have very different motivations, at least one planning on betraying his four allies, and one other villain working counter to them. None of them can be handwaved as "he's the villain because he's evil, end of story," each of their motivations is logical, understandable, and human. This is just one example: just about every one of the longer Conan stories, and even some of the short ones, have just as many elaborate schemes and complex motivations. Yet as Ebert would have it, Howard was just a hack writing against the clock to turn out words. Riiiiight.
Schwarzenegger's slight Teutonic accent is actually even an advantage, since Conan lived, of course, in the eons before American accents.
Of course, how could Ebert possibly know that the Cimmerians were the ancestors of the Gaels, making an Irish or Scottish accent far more appropriate, given that he clearly hasn't read the original stories? Just as well he admits his ignorance... oh, wait, he doesn't.
Ron Cobb, the sometime underground cartoonist who did the production design on this film (and on ALIEN) supervises an effort in which the individual frames actually do look like blow-ups of panels from the Marvel Comics "Conan" books.
It appears Ebert hasn't even looked at a comic, since Conan is black-haired and blue-eyed, not brown-haired and green-eyed, not to mention the multitude of other divergences in the comics' art style from the film, but I don't care about Ebert's views on the comics.
But there is one aspect of the film I'm disturbed by. It involves the handling of Thulsa Doom, the villain. He is played here by the fine black actor James Earl Jones, who brings power and conviction to a role that seems inspired in equal parts by Hitler, Jim Jones, and Goldfinger. But when Conan and Doom meet at the top of the Mountain of Power, it was, for me, a rather unsettling image to see this Nordic superman confronting a black, and when Doom's head was sliced off and contemptuously thrown down the flight of stairs by the muscular blond Conan, I found myself thinking that Leni Reifenstahl could have directed the scene, and that Goebbels might have applauded it.
Am I being too sensitive? Perhaps. But when Conan appeared in the pulps of the 1930s, the character suggested in certain unstated ways the same sort of Nordic super-race myths that were being peddled in Germany. These days we are more innocent again, and Conan is seen as a pure fantasy, like his British cousin, Tarzan, or his contemporary, Flash Gordon. My only reflection is that, at a time when there are no roles for blacks in Hollywood if they are not named Richard Pryor, it is a little unsettling to see a great black actor assigned to a role in which he is beheaded by a proto-Nordic avenger.
Oh, here we go. This, my friends, is the perfect example as to how Conan the Barbarian could be damaging to Howard, regardless of the film's quality. Let's ignore the fallacious "Conan as proto-Nordic" nonsense that only a person who's never read Howard would make. This is an example of people putting two-and-two together and making orange.
Here's what I think Ebert did: He noticed that Conan's lifelong nemesis in this was a black man. Howard was alive in the 1930s, which was about the time the Nazis were coming to power. Since Conan is "obviously" a proto-Nordic avenger, it's clear that Howard is being influenced by the Nordic super-race myths being peddled by the Nazis. The implication, of course, being that Howard was influenced by the Nazis. Which is demonstrably false. Here are a few excerpts of Howard's thoughts on Nazis and fascism in general (Robert E. Howard Collected Letters):
I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth, nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the "civilized" Nazis are now doing in "civilized" Germany.
- Letter to H. P. Lovecraft, July 1933
I know it is the fad now to sneer at Democracy; but Democracy is not to blame for the troubles of the world. The men who are most to blame are the very men who now would “save” the country under the new name of Nazis, or Fascists.
Considering it again, I am not so sure that even cultural and artistic things will not suffer as civilization “advances” along its present lines. You seem to take it for granted that Fascism would guarantee absolute freedom of thought and mental research. I wonder if this faith is justified. I don’t notice any hilarious renaissance emanating from Germany or Italy or Austria resulting from the exhilarating freedom of dictatorship.
- Letter to H. P. Lovecraft, January 1934
You are right economics will have to revolutionized entirely if the nation is to continue, and the choice seems to lie between fascism and communism – both of which I utterly detest.
- Letter to H. P. Lovecraft, December 1930
You accuse me of “hating human development” because I mistrust Fascism. Well, there can’t be much toleranace [sic] about a system whose advocates denounce as “enemies of humanity” anyone who disagrees with them. According to that, you consider as “enemies of humanity” every man and woman in the world who is not a Fascist.
Of course, you say that the type of Fascism you advocate is without despotism and persecution of intellectual freedom; you might as well say you advocate a cobra without its venom, a skunk without its stench, or a leper without his scabs.
- Letter to H. P. Lovecraft, December 1934
It is truly nauseating how many people assume that, because Howard was influenced by the racist science and politics of Depression-era America, that means he must have been sympathetic to the Nazis. Otherwise impeccably-researched Alternate History stories make this same mistake. It makes no more sense than asserting the average American condones the actions of the IRA just because of the US and UK's early history. Even if these letters did not exist, nothing in Howard indicates that he would agree with the totalitarian dictatorship going on in Germany at the time any more than he'd agree with the Communist revolutions taking place in Russia. Still, if people are going to insist that Tolkien, of all people, was a monstrous bigot, then it's perhaps natural they'd consider Howard to be Don Black's spiritual ancestor.
Conan fighting a powerful black man is one of the more bothersome tropes that the films indulge in. Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian, Bombaata in Conan the Destroyer, and Ukafa in the upcoming one. While Conan fought black tribesmen at various stages in his career, there's the very unpleasant connotation that Conan had some sort of vendetta against black people, to the point of being racist. The unpublished, not-intended-for-publication "The Vale of Lost Women" notwithstanding (and I have my own theories about why Conan was in such a funk in that story, which are not related specifically to race), the evidence contradicts that.
Conan was a chief among the black corsairs. In The Hour of the Dragon, some twenty years after his time, he ends up on a ship with some of his former crewmen among the oarsmen. Despite all of them being of practically identical height, build, features, haircuts and attire, as well as 20 years worth of time difference, Conan instantaneously and correctly identified three of them, by name, as he emancipated the slaves and promised to lead them to freedom - which he did.
They were all negroes, forty men to each side, each confined by a chain locked about his waist, with the other end welded to a heavy ring set deep in the solid runway beam that ran between the benches from stem to stern. The life of a slave aboard an Argossean galley was a hell unfathomable. Most of these were Kushites, but some thirty of the blacks who now rested on their idle oars and stared up at the stranger with dull curiosity were from the far southern isles, the homelands of the corsairs. Conan recognized them by their straighter features and hair, their rangier, cleaner-limbed build. And he saw among them men who had followed him of old.
But all this he saw and recognized in one swift, all-embracing glance as he rose, before he turned his attention to the figures about him...
... Conan bounded out on the bridge and stood poised above the upturned black faces, ax lifted, black mane blown in the wind.
“Who am I?” he yelled. “Look, you dogs! Look, Ajonga, Yasunga, Laranga! Who am I?”
And from the waist rose a shout that swelled to a mighty roar: “Amra! It is Amra! The Lion has returned!”
- "The Hour of the Dragon," The Bloody Crown of Conan, p189-191
Ajonga, Yasunga and Laranga obviously made an impression on Conan. Conan was distraught at being forced to slay his crewmate N'Gora in "Queen of the Black Coast," he likely became acquainted enough with the Tigress' shaman N'Yaga during his time with Belit, and he looked forward to meeting his old companion Sakumbe in the Tombalku fragment. Ajonga, Yasunga, Laranga, N'Gora, N'Yaga, Sakumbe: for a guy who didn't like black people, Conan sure had a lot of black friends.
What's with this sudden tangent? Well, I just wanted to point out that some people assert that making Conan's nemesis black was "appropriate" to Howard, what with him apparently being the bane of black people everywhere. Conan had no nemesis: nobody lived long enough to become one. The vast, vast majority of the enemies he faces in the stories are only dictated by the clime. If Conan's in the black kingdoms, he fights the natives. If he's in Hyrkania or Shem, he fights Hyrkanians or Shemites. If he's in a Hyborian kingdom, he fights Hyborians. Simple as that. Out of all the black characters in the stories, every one that has a name - with a few exceptions like Shukeli, Bajujh, and Ageera - are allies. Even ones that don't become close friends of Conan like Gwarunga and Nafertari's slave are largely decent enough folk.
Indeed, if Conan does display some sense of disdain for certain races being inferior to the mighty Cimmerians, that's because unlike ethnicities in modern times, the Cimmerians were demonstrably more powerful, more durable, and more dangerous than other peoples of the time. Conan considers the Cimmerians to be superior to Hyborians, Picts, Hyrkanians and Kushites because the Cimmerians are superior to those people in many ways. Conan may be an exceptional example among the Cimmerians, but secondary information indicates that the Cimmerians in general were tough as hell. They could not be defeated by the Kings of Acheron, a nation of sorcerers so powerful that one of them had the ability to reshape the very geography of a continent. They could not be destroyed by the Aesir, a people whose striplings could out-shoot the greatest arrow flight on modern historical record with a simple bow. They could not be defeated by the Hyrkanians, who could deliver a precise killing blow from horseback 2400 feet away. They are a people for whom ghosts, goblins, monsters, necromancers and sorcerers were a real menace that they triumph over throughout the centuries. Every one of Conan's boasts about his kin don't seem that implausible when you factor in the rest of the Hyborian Age, especially the talents of the peoples who failed to destroy them.
The point of this tangent is that Ebert is making a judgment on Howard based on the film. Ebert is not the only one: I've known too many folk who assume that Conan the Barbarian was a perfectly accurate depiction of the character, and all the themes therein - Nietzschean overtures, filibusters against the hippy lifestyle, emphasis of Nordic myth - are derived from Howard. This is poisoning of the well at its very worst. If Conan the Barbarian were a poor film, one could dismiss it as such. But the problem is that Conan the Barbarian is a good film, and as a result, people suppose that since it's good, it must be because it's an accurate representation of the source material.
That's a dangerous road to go down. If people are willing to assume that Howard wrote about a Nordic superhero whose nemesis was a charismatic, intelligent, beguiling black man, what else could they suppose? They already think Conan is meant to be proto-German or proto-Aryan because of the film. Would they see Milius' caricature of Flower Power as a sign of Howard's supposed conservatism? Would they interpret the Riddle of Steel & Wheel of Pain as symbolic of Howard's alleged militarism and eugenics affiliation? Would they see the quiet, not-generally-literate musclehead's triumph over the loquacious, educated demagogue as Howard's alleged anti-intellectualism?
You might want to brace yourself for this last paragraph: the sheer, breathtaking, backbreaking, spine-busting irony of it is staggering. Soul-punching, even. It just shows what a complete, utter ass Ebert is, for not seeing it, and trying to bluff his way into convincing readers he knows a damn thing about Robert E. Howard or his creation:
The problem with CONAN is the problem with all S&S movies. After the initial premise (which usually involves revenge) is established, we suspect there's little to look forward to except the sets, special effects, costumes, makeup, locations, action, and surprise entrances. Almost by definition, these movies exclude the possibility of interesting, complex characters. I'd love to see them set loose an intelligent, questing, humorous hero in one of these prehistoric sword-swingers. Someone at least as smart as, say, Alley Oop.
An intelligent, questing, humorous hero in a prehistoric sword-swinger. Someone with "gigantic mirth" to go along with his "gigantic melancholies." Someone with a strong case of wanderlust, filled with a desire to explore, discover, and experience the world and all it has to offer. Someone who is wise, cunning, intelligent, knowledgeable, philosophical.
Sound like anyone you know?