I've already expressed my thoughts at ridiculous length, and frankly, I don't think they've changed much from my initial reaction. What little that was good in the film was swamped and consumed by everything that wasn't as good, and the infuriating thing is, it's easy to see why it went wrong. Well, easy for this armchair analyst who really has no business talking about why a film flopped, but maybe a few shots in the dark will actually hit their target.
First of all, the producers seemed to think that appealing to the hardcore Conan fans meant taking the elements from the 1982 film. They figure "well, the HARDCORE Conan fans don't want to see a Conan film unless it has the essential Conan elements - that means we have to have Conan going on a quest for revenge against the warlord who killed his father! There we go, that'll keep the real hardcore fans happy!" Now they're all shocked and surprised that the Conan fans didn't turn up in droves to see what the "hardcore fans" considered a remake of their beloved 1982 film!
It simply didn't seem to occur to them that the hardcore Milius/Schwarzenegger fans simply aren't interested in a Conan film without Milius or Schwarzenegger involved. Without them, it wouldn't matter if it was a shot-for-shot retelling Gus Van Sant style - without those two, it isn't a film they'd be interested in. So why even bother with those elements in the first place, especially since trying to make it more Howardian ends up diluting and compromising both elements, the story?
A common complaint I hear about the film is that the 1982 film had a lot of pathos with young Conan: a sweet, innocent, doe-eyed little boy who has his parents murdered, people slaughtered, home destroyed, and childhood lost as he's sold into slavery, forced into manual labour for 20 years, and turned into a ruthless killer through years of abusive training. That's a pretty brutal upbringing, and you gain sympathy for the little boy who was transformed through no will of his own into a violent warrior, and watch him rediscover things like friendship, love and laughter over the course of the film.
This film has no such development, and it's intensely problematic because it spans over 20 years of Conan's life. None of Howard's stories show a marked development of Conan's character because none of Howard's stories take place over such a long time, but if you combined, say, "The God in the Bowl" with "A Witch Shall Be Born" and account for the time difference, one can see that Conan at each age was very different. There's nothing like that in the new film: Conan at twenty-something is about the same sort of guy he was when he was a precocious preteen. Thus, by removing Conan's slavery, gladiatorial training and martial arts schooling, you're removing that sense that Conan's been developing as a human being. The film basically condenses the considerable character growth Conan undertook from his thieving days in Zamora to the period in the film (which is stated to be after "Queen of the Black Coast") with a black screen and voiceover.
It's infuriating, because Howard fans know how Conan developed and changed during that period, but new filmgoers aren't going to have a clue. "Show, don't tell" is the mantra, and while I applaud Sean Hood for putting in the references to Conan's pirating days and Venarium, I can't help but wish the filmmakers decided to, you know, film Conan's pirating days and Venarium.
But then, this is all because of the innate problem of the origin story. The filmmakers were trying to compromise in an uncompromising situation: make it closer to Howard, or a remake of the 1982 film. Compromise just ends up in confusion and dilution: removing the most egregious elements of the 1982 film's origin (slavery, Wheel of Pain etc) may make it more palatable for REH fans, but at the expense of making the 1982's origin story watered-down and limp. Consequently, using the 1982 film as a basis means that the film would never be truly Howardian no matter how many alterations were made. This really was an "all or nothing" situation: either just go for a straight remake, or just make up an entirely new origin (preferably) based on what we know from Howard.
The problem is, I don't think a remake of the 1982 film would've made things any better, creatively or financially. Say they got Djimon Honsou for Thulsa Doom, Jaime Alexander for Valeria, John Foo for Subotai, Sonny Chiba as the Wizard, and so forth. With Marcus Nispel still directing, Tyler Bates doing the score, the same screenwriters etc, would it have any more interest? Would people go to the film when they see Thulsa Doom turning into a snake and getting in the inevitable final fight (having completely missed the point of the original film's understated climax), seeing Subotai and Valeria engage in preposterous wire-fu, a POV shot of the snake-arrow flying through the air, Valeria actively fighting the new CGI demons come to claim Conan's soul, all to a horrendous soundtrack?
Many of the things people miss from the 1982 film - Conan's prayer to Crom, "What is Best In Life," the Wizard, Valeria, Thulsa Doom - are things that people just assume would be in a film whose plot, according to the film's own promotional material, is about the exact same story arc as the 1982 film. Why wouldn't they assume it's a remake, and then think that the lack of the best things from the 1982 film was a case of the film being "unfaithful to the source material"?
I'd been bending over backwards trying to explain to people that this isn't a remake of the 1982 film - even the Arnold Fans are saying this isn't a remake - but when faced with the film's own promotional material concentrating on "the tale of Conan the Cimmerian and his adventures across the continent of Hyboria on a quest to avenge the murder of his father and the slaughter of his village," sometimes I feel at a loss. I just think, why even bother? Remake, reboot, reimagining, reincarnation, reinvention, reinvigoration, reconstitution, repeat, retread, rehash - it doesn't matter, it's just not even worth the effort of proper terminology.
The Little Things
As with Solomon Kane, sometimes the little things could be just as irritating as the big things. I was planning on doing an Unanswered Questions post on Conan, but there were just so many that simply couldn't be answered satisfactorily outside of "it's in the Vilayet Sea Scrolls, so we don't consider it Canon" and they just kind of bugged me too much.
Note that none of these have anything to do with deviations from Howard. They'd take up their own page. These are examples of the story just not making sense by itself, given the information we have in the film, independent of any divergences from the source material.
- The film can't seem to decide whether Acheron was an ancient evil empire, or a relatively modern evil empire that was destroyed just a generation before. The Acheronian bloodline is apparently old enough so that purebloods are exceedingly rare and unaware of their dark origin, the Mask is old enough to foster a prophecy of being remade, and the last remnants of Acheron appear to be subterranean ruins accessed by a skull cave; on the other hand, Khalar's soldiers wear exactly the same armour, bear the same standards, and use the same methods as the Acheronian soldiers in the prologue. This is not helped by the fact that some get the impression Corin himself led the Cimmerians against Acheron, as in the film's Wikipedia page, and that the attack which resulted in Fialla's death was somehow connected to Zym, making him responsible for the deaths of both of Conan's parents. So is Acheron ancient or modern? Making it the former jives more with Howard, but making it the latter just makes more sense in the context of the film.
- Why do the barbarians not just, you know, destroy the Mask of Acheron? They've already broken it, they're barbarians so they have a hatred and fear of magic... why didn't they just keep cutting it into pieces until there's nothing left?
- It sure was nice of the
VanirGeneric Barbarian Marauders to give Corin and Fialla some alone time as Corin delivered his son. What smarts is we see the Cimmerians make a shield wall in the battle at the village: would it have been so difficult to have the other Cimmerian warriors realise Fialla was giving birth, and instinctively form a ring around her, showing the solidarity of the Cimmerians and not leaving Corin and Fialla completely open to attack?
- Conan is meant to be an untrained warrior. The whole point of the Egg Race was to see which of the Cimmerians would be given the right to train with the warriors, and since they're completely unarmed and no reference is ever made of prior training, it stands to reason that they are indeed raw recruits. So where did Conan learn his lovely kata from? From whence did this allegedly untrained warrior get his perfect form?
- Conan screaming, chomping and opening his mouth during the fight with the
PictsBeast-Men, yet somehow never breaking, swallowing or spitting out the egg. Crom almighty, was the continuity editor drunk, sleeping or just shouted down?
- In an early iteration of the script, Conan kills three of the Picts, and the other escapes. That Pict is later seen leading Khalar's army to the Cimmerian village, with the promise to take "all the Cimmerian heads he wishes" as payment. He assures Khalar that there is only one head he desires.
In the final film, there is no such plot: Conan defeats all four Picts, and the way the scene is cut suggests Conan kills the final survivor. However, he comes back to the village with three heads... and the Pict he "killed" turns up later with Khalar's army. It isn't even as if it could've been some other Pict, it's very clearly the same character, and there's definitely something more going on than what we see in the final film. It isn't even as if he's seen in the background: he's front and centre in a crucial shot of the army roaring in triumph. You've seen it in the trailers. Instead of just cutting that shot out, they leave it in, presenting us with a Dead Character Walking. And here I thought only Transformers had that problem...
- So Conan's been searching for Khalar Zym. Zym, it transpires, has been running roughshod over the Hyborian Kingdoms and set himself up as king somewhere in Zingara/Argos/Shem/TheDirectorObviouslyDoesn'tCareSoWhyShouldYou. You'd think that Conan might have encountered him before that, what with Zym being a freaking king and all, and that word from his conquest of the hitherto unconquerable Cimmerians (the same barbarians that destroyed Acheron, don't forget, in this film continuity) would've reached his ears sometime in the last decade. How on earth did Conan only now discover that the man who's set himself up as king after a wave of conquests was the same man who destroyed his village?
- Whenever the film has a major battle scene involving many extras, they always cut it short. The Cimmerian village battle and the Monastery siege were about two minutes apiece, while fights with maybe a dozen or so warriors get much longer, and are essentially variations on a theme. Couldn't they have taken out ten or so of the meaningless fights from elsewhere in the film and combined them into the bigger battles to make them more satisfying?
- For that matter, if Conan believed Khalar was just a "common bandit," then how could his village be so easily destroyed? You'd think they'd be set up for defence against those sorts of things. Did Conan really believe that a common bandit could so easily rampage through Cimmeria? Did he truly believe that a common bandit's army would boast hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers from all over the world clad in plate armour and wielding the finest weapons?
- Conan's "no man should live in chains" mantra strongly suggests that Conan's anti-slavery. So why does he insist on not only calling Tamara his property, but treating her like his property? He even ties her up and gags her. Maybe he's just taking it literally, implying that no men should live in chains, but women were perfectly fine: after all, he did get Lucius killed through proxies, saying that "I wouldn't kill you."
- Let's suppose Marique as seen in the flashback scene shows her at about five, at the very youngest. Marique can't have been older than 15 during the attack at Conan's village. During that time, at most ten years, Khalar has conquered Ukafa's, Akhun's, Cherin's and Remo's people, all of whom are evidently from many different parts of the world. Once he has the mask, it takes him twelve years to find the monastery which is hiding Tamara... and which happens to be within a few day's marching distance from his own fortress. It takes Khalar Zym longer to find the last pureblood a stone's throw away from his capital than it does to conquer half a dozen barbarian tribes hundreds of miles apart. What.
- Why does Khalar Zym haul that giant ship over land anyway? Why is it imperative that he have thousands of slaves and dozens of elephants dragging this gargantuan boat hundreds if not thousands of miles? If it's so he can breach the walls of the monastery... dude, battering rams. Look into them. Requires roughly one thousandth of the effort, resources and manpower for the same effect. Hell, even if we're supposed to think "he's an eccentric warlord with a flair for the ostentatious," you'd think someone would at least mention the elephant(-drawn warship) in the room.
- Tamara: helpless damsel in distress, or competent woman warrior? The film never could make up its mind. In some scenes she's cowering in terror screaming for Conan to save her: in others she's taking as many heads as Conan himself. Sometimes she's timorously holding a dagger like someone completely unfamiliar with weapons, others she carries herself with the assurance of combat experience. Totally inconsistent.
- Marique conjures four Sand Warriors from a handful of dust. She never does this again. See, Jason and the Argonauts dealt with this easily, since the skeletons were spawned from the Hydra's teeth, and there was only a finite amount of Hydra-gnashers. But sand is everywhere, and there's no indication that this was magic sand, or that the magic had a limited time offer.
- Marique also dips a blade into poison, which she uses to incapacitate Conan, with enormous success. It never seemed to occur to her to use that poison again. It would've been handy in her scrap with Tamara. Nor did it occur to Khalar to coat the edge of his sword in it, especially since Conan was kicking his arse until the poison kicked in.
- Considering we get a reference to Conan's days as a notorious and dangerous thief, what on earth could he possibly need Ela-Shan for, especially when it transpires that he isn't really much of a thief at all, and especially especially since Conan's thieving reputation was referenced before we meet Ela-Shan in the first place?
- Where did Khalar Zym's army go, and why was nobody guarding Khor Khalba? Khalar's massive army conquers all over the place, invades a monastery, a few forces get dispatched by Conan, and then... nothing.
ARGH, I've ranted enough.
So anyway, over to you folks.