But frankly, all those feelings of "we told you so" are utterly submerged in a deeper, darker feeling of regret. So many people worked hard to make this film work: seamstresses working their fingers to the bone, production designers having nervous breakdowns trying to make everything work, SFX engineers trying to wring every drop of quality out of their rendering software, actors sitting for hours in makeup chairs. Even the people I hold directly responsible for the mess the film became - the producers, aside from Fredrik Malmberg (though I do think he made some decisions which didn't pay off) and especially Avi Lerner, and Marcus Nispel - didn't try to make a bad film. I may feel vindicated that another example of people monkeying around with REH and thinking they know how to make a better story than one of the founders of 20th Century fantasy fiction has failed... but I'm more angry that this happened. After everything that's happened, I didn't want the film to fail.
What to make of this?
See, I didn't go into this expecting Howard. I didn't even go in expecting Michael Fleisher. I went here expecting nothing less than "a terrible film that had some redeeming values which balanced out enough for me to find it enjoyable." I was expecting the live-action Fist of the North Star, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Dungeons & Dragons. Even the likes of good fun action films that do what they do extremely well like Predator, Die Hard and Rambo were below my anticipations, let alone ones with symbolism and depth like those of James Cameron or Paul Verhoeven. And I didn't get that. I enjoyed those films listed above - even the first three - more than I enjoyed Conan: The Wrath of Zym.
People who think I couldn't turn my inner Howard fan off, or think I'm wanting to hate the film, or that I simply couldn't turn off my purist sensibilities - again, I found immense enjoyment in this film:
Conan: The Wrath of Zym was less enjoyable for me than a film in which these things happen:
So please, don't assume that I'm a snob who cannot enjoy films which desire nothing more than to deliver action, excitement, sex and adventure. I gave this film a chance to measure up to these films. And I found it wanting. Obviously others disagree: even Den of Geek gave the film 4 stars, and plenty of Howard fans professed to having a rollicking good time. But don't presume that if I had just "turned my brain off" I might've enjoyed it - because that's exactly what I did. Obviously others are seeing something that I'm missing, but by Crom, it isn't through lack of trying.
Let's look at this review by John R. Fultz:
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.
Frankly, I would disagree with this assessment that we've become "less uptight/more depraved" than Howard's day, simply because Howard wasn't living during the era of the Hayes Code, and the Moral brigade hadn't taken hold. As such - actually, I think there are a great many things in the Conan stories that would be too racy for nowadays. For one thing, Belit is topless for near the entirety of "Queen of the Black Coast," and the female characters are entirely naked for most of "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," "The Pool of the Black One," and a few others I'm doubtless forgetting. There's no way you'd get a film made nowadays where the leading lady was naked for the entire film runtime: it appears people are still a bit uptight about nudity.
As for violence... seriously, John? You're calling Howard's violence tame compared to modern standards?
Like gay-hued leaves after an autumn storm, the fallen littered the plain; the sinking sun shimmered on burnished helmets, gilt-worked mail, silver breastplates, broken swords and the heavy regal folds of silken standards, overthrown in pools of curdling crimson. Silken standards, overthrown in pools of curdling crimson. In silent heaps lay war-horses and their steel-clad riders, flowing manes and blowing plumes stained alike in the red tide. About them and among them, like the drift of a storm, were strewn slashed and trampled bodies in steel caps and leather jerkins – archers and pikemen. The oliphants sounded a fanfare of triumph all over the plain, and the hoofs of the victors crunched in the breasts of the vanquished.
- "The Scarlet Citadel"
In an instant he was the center of a hurricane of stabbing spears and lashing clubs. But he moved in a blinding blur of steel. Spears bent on his armor or swished empty air, and his sword sang its death-song. The fighting-madness of his race was upon him, and with a red mist of unreasoning fury wavering before his blazing eyes, he cleft skulls, smashed breasts, severed limbs, ripped out entrails, and littered the deck like a shambles with a ghastly harvest of brains and blood.
- "Queen of the Black Coast"
There was a frenzied instant when the blades flamed like summer lightning; then the group fell apart and Conan sprang up the stair. The oncoming horde tripped over three writhing forms at its foot: one lay face-down in a sickening welter of blood and brains; another propped himself on his hands, blood spurting blackly from his severed throat veins; the other howled like a dying dog as he clawed at the crimson stump that had been an arm.
As Conan rushed up the marble stair, the man above shook himself from his stupor and drew a sword that sparkled frostily in the radium light. He thrust downward as the barbarian surged upon him. But as the point sang toward his throat, Conan ducked deeply. The blade slit the skin of his back, and Conan straightened, driving his saber upward as a man might wield a butcher-knife, with all the power of his mighty shoulders.
So terrific was his headlong drive that the sinking of the saber to the hilt into the belly of his enemy did not check him. He caromed against the wretch’s body, knocking it sidewise. The impact sent Conan crashing against the wall; the other, the saber torn through his body, fell headlong down the stair, ripped open to the spine from groin to broken breastbone. In a ghastly mess of streaming entrails the body tumbled against the men rushing up the stairs, bearing them back with it
- "Xuthal of the Dusk"
He caught the sword of the first man on his ax-head and crushed in the wielder’s breast with a murderous counter-stroke before he could step back or parry. The remaining Nemedian, missing a savage swipe, had his brains dashed out before he could recover his balance... The ax fell in a devastating arc, and the Aquilonian cried out and went to his knees, grasping the severed stump of his right arm from which blood spouted. It had been shorn away at the elbow, and the ax, unchecked in its descent, had gashed deeply into his side, so that his entrails bulged out.
- The Hour of the Dragon
He saw men lifted bodily and their heads cracked open against the stony altar. He saw a flaming torch, grasped in a monstrous hand, thrust inexorably down the gullet of an agonized wretch who writhed in vain against the arms that pinioned him. He saw a man torn in two pieces, as one might tear a chicken, and the bloody fragments hurled clear across the cavern. The massacre was as short and devastating as the rush of a hurricane. In a burst of red abysmal ferocity it was over, except for one wretch who fled screaming back the way the priests had come, pursued by a swarm of blood-dabbled shapes of horror which reached out their red-smeared hands for him.
- "The Servants of Bit-Yakin"
To be frank, the violence in Conan the Barbarian 2011 was nothing short of pale and wan compared to the veritable carnage depicted by Howard. Very few films I've seen these days outside of Rambo and the excesses of zombie films have anything approaching the sheer horror of Robert E. Howard's action scenes. This film had a lot of phantom blood bags exploding, but it didn't feel like people were being cut to pieces: it just felt like somebody cut open a bunch of juice cartons. There was no real sense that people were being murdered, and as such, I was disappointed.
However, much as I hated the film, it's utterly insignificant compared to the disdain shown by Leo Grin:
Saw Conan the Barbarian last night. Revoltingly stupid, incomprehensibly plotted and edited, and overflowing with the kind of quasi-erotic torture porn (seemingly pulled wholesale out of a serial killer’s wet dreams) that’s become a staple of both fantasy literature and Hollywood films this century. Easily one of the worst films I’ve seen during decades of painfully slumming through mediocre genre fare — I daresay even Uwe Boll (the ham-fisted director commonly seen as the modern era’s answer to Ed Wood) has never made anything this irredeemably rotten. As you know, the best of Robert E. Howard’s pulp tales of the 1930s — which in recent years have been reprinted everywhere from academic presses to Penguin’s prestigious Modern Classics imprint, and which the various silly comic books and movies resemble not a whit — cry out for the cinematic talents of a Akira Kurosawa or a Sergio Leone, men possessed of the same operatic poetry, grandeur, heroism, and thematic depth found in Howard’s original stories. Perhaps someday. Until then? Well, the audience I saw the movie with seemed to have cheerfully low expectations, yet even they didn’t so much leave the theater as recoil from it. You’ve been warned.
Whoa. I may agree that it's revoltingly stupid, incomprehensively plotted and edited, and that the torture scene was pointlessly sadistic, but it's still not the worse film I've seen in decades. That honour still goes to Kull the Conqueror, and I hated Clash of the Titans 2010 a smidgen more than I hated this. And it's not as bad as some of the Uwe Boll films I've seen.
So why did it fail not just critically, but financially?
Boy: Hey girl, want to go to see a film?
Girl: Sure, what do you want to see?
Boy: Well, I was thinking Conan.
Girl: .... Well, why don't I go and see that chick flick with the girls, and you and your pals can go to Conan?
Boy: Aye, alright.
Girl: We've been to that chick flick three times, when are you going to Conan?
Boy: No, some of the dudes are organizing it, we'll get around to it!
Boy: Did I mention Jason Momoa is Conan?
Girl:... I'll come with you this week.
They go to the film to find it stopped showing weeks ago.
Many things may have contributed to the film's downfall: parents taking their children to Spy Kids 4 or Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead of paying money they can't afford in this economic climate for an adults-only treat; female viewers choosing The Help instead of Conan; the horrendous publicity backfiring; early critical reviews utterly panning the film; word of mouth from disgruntled Conan fans, be they Arnold fans, Milius fans or REH fans. I doubt the perception of it being a "remake" did it, otherwise why would Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Clash of the Titans succeed? Nor could it be the lack of Arnold in a film series normally dominated by the man, otherwise how can one explain the success of the Arnold-less Predators? Of course, we can't purely say whether it's a failure or not until the international numbers come out. Domestically, though, the film looks like it's going to be a flop.
I'm not happy about the film's performance. In fact, I'm furious. We Howard fans were hoping that this film would get all that silliness about origin stories for a character who doesn't need an origin story out of the way. Get the film franchise started, establish Jason Momoa as Conan, set the foundations for a real adaptation. Now we're not getting it. Remember how we were hoping for a real Solomon Kane film after Bassett had his fan-fic origin story? Well, that didn't happen, and it looks like it never will - not to mention the likelihood of Bassett's film getting a US theatrical release going down the drain. But that's not all we'll have to let go.
Pay your respects to the stillborn Conan: Red Nails. Say goodbye to Sean Hood's Queen of the Black Coast. Bid farewell to Blackman's adaptation. Wish Jason Momoa the best of luck on his film career beyond Conan. Because if this film really does fail at the end of the day, then that's going to be it for the Conan film franchise for another 29 years. We didn't even get a chance to see if a true Conan adaptation would sink or swim on its own merits. The only possibility I see is that Avi Lerner manages to tempt Arnold back for Crown of Iron, and you all know how I feel about that prospect.
A couple of people wonder why I still hold out hope for a true REH adaptation, when after 5 films with little to nothing to do with Howard, I should've gotten it by now. Surely after Destroyer and Kull I can't have expected anything good, right? Well, perhaps it's a mixture of youthful belligerence and not having the optimism beaten out of me by cynicism and world-weariness, but I still hope. If you don't have hope, what's the point?
This is why I'm thinking of throwing my hat into the REH adaptation arena. I've already been working on my origin story for Conan, Out of Shadowed Hills, but I might follow Doug "Kortoso" Sunlin's lead and do my own adaptation. Maybe a Conan story rendered in CGI or hand-animated, maybe another Howard story. But it's clear that while we can only hope for a proper REH adaptation in the future, if you want something done the way you want it, you have to do it yourself.
Everyone has different interpretations of the Conan stories. That's the beauty of fiction. So even a complete, faithful adaptation of a Howard story wouldn't be perfect for every Howard fan. I know I'd probably find *something* to criticize. So the best way to make a Howard adaptation that would please me is to make my own Howard adaptation. (After Encyclopedia Hyboriana and all the other stuff I'm doing.)
Or... just make film versions of my hypothetical trailers using clips from other films. Take this live-action fan trailer for Thundercats using clips of Vin Diesel, Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman and others, but using digital makeup to make them resemble Panthro, Lion-O and Tygra:
This fan-film does an interpretation of a Death of Superman trailer/fan film using clips from various films:
Take Vladimir Kulich and darken his hair, and you could use clips from The Thirteenth Warrior and Ironclad for a Conan film.
Look at these pictures:
Don't those images, sans black hair, just fit grizzled veteran warrior era Conan to a tee?
Whatever I decide to do, I'm fairly sick of the 2011 film. There's tons of news I haven't posted on Conan Movie Blog simply because I've lost any sense of energy or even duty, be it the reviews, box-office numbers, or even stupid links like "Did Conan O’Brien’s Influence Make the Barbarian Change the Pronunciation of His Name?" The most I'd be able to muster are a list of links to reviews. My inbox is straining with film reviews via Google Alerts I've simply lost the patience to read. I just... I just can't be bothered with the film's garbage anymore. I spent thousands of words analysing it, looking over every nook and cranny to divine something, anything, worth note. And for what? A film I can no longer stand the sight of.
I don't know, folks. This film's broken a fuse in my brain, and everything I thought I was over came crashing back like a ton of bricks.