Sunday 13 December 2009

Troll & Flame, Living Up to the Name

As I've mentioned more than a few times, I quite like Conan the Barbarian. It ain't Howard, it ain't Conan, but it's a fun film. Great music, good set & costume design, good acting by the actual actors James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow, a real atmosphere of a ruder, barbaric time. I'm always willing to defend it on the grounds that it deserves, despite it being about as Conan as Ally-Oop.

However, I'm not going to defend it for what it isn't: a good Howard film, a good Howardian-in-Spirit film, or a good Conan film.

What brought this on? This post.

Movies are the sum of many parts; music, costuming, writing, art direction, cinematography, sound design, location scouting/set construction, physical performance, fight choreography, stunts, special effects, editing. One or a few of those being bad don't condemn a movie. If you say CtB has shitty acting I don't agree(it's not good for sure) still I can accept that's your opinion and it's valid. But if you say CtB is a horrible piece of crap solely or primarily because it has shitty acting my response is that you're a shallow twit.

So apparently, good acting is not a prerequisite for a great film. While I agree that a film is a sum of many parts, and that a film can be saved if one or more of its elements are inadequate, by Crom, there's a bloody limit. I don't believe Conan the Barbarian qualifies, since the aforementioned thespians carry the show, and despite being profoundly wooden, the three main players are at least competent enough to deliver dialogue without stumbling. Keanu Reeves has made a career out of it. The set/costume design is particularly good considering the budget of the time, which was not exactly lavish.

Then this bombshell:

Note how accuracy to source material isn't even on the movie parts list. Cause accuracy to source material doesn't matter one whit to the art and appreciation of movie making.

It only matters a whit if you, well, want to adapt the source material. What is the point of making a film based on an existing property if you take practically nothing from it? Sure, source material accuracy is not required, but then again, the baffling success of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen shows that a good script, consistent and quality special effects, competent and engaging acting, a tight story that doesn't insult intelligence or collapse with the gaping plot holes riddling its frame, or PC sensibilities are required either.

It's a creation of academics and fans so they can show others how very knowlegable they are.

Ah, now I understand. We don't want a Conan film to be accurate to the source material because we are fans of the source material, or because it's some of the finest fantasy literature of the 20th Century, or because it's just a damn fine read that would translate magnificently to film. No, we want a Conan film to be accurate because we want to impress people with our esoteric knowledge. We don't want to see a cinematic equivalent of the sexually charged Dance of Belit, or Conan's fight with Thak, or the horrors of the Scarlet Citadel, or the Battle of Shamla Pass, or the sorcery of the Black Circle because they would be - oh, I don't know, incredible pieces of cinema if directed and produced well - but because we're so terminally arrogant that we have nothing better to do but lord it over the uninitiated. So glad you could clear that up for me, for the longest time I thought I liked Robert E. Howard's work because he was a great author with a boundless imagination, when in fact it's actually because I'm a nerd who enjoys being in a tiny clique apart from the rest of the world, to snicker nasally at the poor plebes who don't know anything about Conan.

I encourage my friends, family and acquaintances to give Robert E. Howard a chance. I go on message boards, providing Amazon and HowardWorks links to give them a place to start. I admire REH's work so much I practically fall over myself in trying to spread the word - because I'm a Robert E. Howard fan. If I was only in it for the "mystery cred," surely such behaviour would be detrimental to that mystique? Better to never give any ideas on where to pick up the Del Reys, otherwise they might actually read Robert E. Howard. Whatever would I do then? I certainly couldn't converse with them about the many themes, metaphors and symbolism, for that would imply that I'm not an insufferable nerd who hates everything that's popular, and is only interested in Howard because of his status as a niche author.

Nice try, though.

I don't give a flying fuck if CtB portrays Conan the Cimmerian "correctly"(whoever gets to decide that? Oh, it's you, self-appointed fantard) follows the plot of any story written by Robert E. Howard, or even if it has the "spirit" or "style" of the Conan yarns.

It's not hard to know how to portray Conan the Cimmerian "correctly". You just compare it to the source material. If it doesn't measure up correctly, then it fails. It's not some sort of judgemental, complicated mess of interpretation and extrapolation, it's very, very simple. CtB doesn't portray Conan the Cimmerian correctly because a simple side-by-side comparison proves that. No involved delving into metaphor or anything. It's simple stuff, man.

No ZOMG! his hair isn't black! Look it says right here on page one! "He ran his fingers through his streaming black mane"

See that link? It's to a Leo Grin post on The Cimmerian. Leo Grin is famous among the Howard fan community for his tireless defense of Conan the Barbarian. Of all the posts of all the Howard fans and scholars in all the world you could've chosen to illustrate your point, you use the one who is most sympathetic. Way to shoot yourself in the foot, bucko.

I also love how he concentrates only on the surface aspects of Conan's description, as if that's the only thing Howard fans have a problem with, not to mention the implication that Conan's hair colour is some weird, hard-to-find detail, when descriptions of Conan's hair and eyes practically punch you in the face. Apparently the fact that Milius' Conan is a passive, reactive pussycat whose life is marked and dedicated revenge for childhood trauma, who has to be taught everything he knows, who only gains muscle by being tied to a wheel for a decade, who only learns fighting by being stuck in a pit and being trained by sword-masters, who only learns sexuality by having whores thrust into his cage, who only gains his freedom by being untied and set free, who cannot do anything without his three friends, who cries for mercy from the man who shaped his entire life... is beyond him.

If I want Conan as R.E.H. envisioned him I go read R.E.H.

I don't believe you've read a damn word of REH.

It's completely fucking stupid to expect a different art form with the creative input of dozens to be an exact copy of what you perceive the source material to be.

No, it's completely asinine to dismiss any criticism of a film by citing "the artistic process." An adaptation of a film has a responsibility to somewhat resemble the source material it's based on, otherwise what's the point? Despite the differences between the classic original series, Star Trek still featured all the characters, the Enterprise, the Federation, the Romulans, and tons of recognizable elements of the original series. Batman Begins had many elements of the Batman mythos, even with its modern retelling, and it roughly followed the established Batman origin story. Even Battlestar Galactica, a series which set out to re-imagine the series, had easily recognizable elements despite the vast differences in tone and style.

What does Conan the Barbarian have? A big dumb lug whose life is nothing like that of Howard's creation, in a world nothing like Howard's creation, in a story nothing like Howard's creation.

I can't fathom how someone's opinion of a movie depends on its title and name of main character?

Really? It's very easy. Are you saying if Batman Begins had Bruce Wayne be an impoverished Brooklyn youth, who learns martial arts while training as a professional wrestler in a bat costume called "The Bat-Man," who decides to become a master criminal to foil the brutal vigilante known as The Joker, would Batman fans thus be completely unjustified in saying "Hey, that's not Batman! That's not Batman at all!" I doubt it.

If your argument against CtB depends on it being called "Conan the Barbarian" vs "Rogar the Barbarian", you're way too much of a pretentious anal fanboi. And I bet if it had been named the latter you'd be whining about how the writers of RtB ripped off Conan

No, we wouldn't, because the differences between RtB and Howard far, FAR outnumber the similiarities. We'd be more likely to call it a ripoff of Beastmaster or, at the very most, Kull. The idea of a slave becoming a gladiator, mercenary and eventually King is not something that's exactly exclusive to Howard, and certainly not exclusive to Swords-and-Sorcery fiction.

Conan the Barbarian would be just another ok fantasy action flick except for Basil Poledouris. His blood pumping, soul stirring score elevates CtB to awesomehood. Battle of the Mounds fucking rules, I literally can't stay still and seated when I listen to it. Star Wars is another movie that wouldn't be nearly as great without its excellent score.

Wait, doesn't this completely contradict what you said earlier? About how a movie is a sum of its parts, and how it should be judged on those merits without one element overriding the contributions of everything else? Why is it one isn't allowed to dismiss a movie for one poor aspect, but they are allowed to praise it for one good aspect? You need to think this through, mate: is Conan the Barbarian awesome, or is it just the score? Either Conan the Barbarian is just another ok fantasy action flick, or it's just another ok fantasy action flick with a great score. It can't be made awesome simply because of Poledouris' score, otherwise Starship Troopers would be the greatest film ever made.

Regarding pulp fantasy: ancient snake-god, snake cult, orgy, cannibals complete with giant pot of body part ghoulash, black lotus, thievery, debauchery, brutal & bloody, few against many, fast-paced and action rich. How can you not see it?

How can we not see what? Are you saying that there's nothing more to Howard than those things? That doesn't cut it, son. Everything you list is something that makes Howard the same as every pulp fantasy story out there, not difference. Every pulp fantasy has hot babes, an ancient evil god, a devious sorcerer, a muscular barbarian, amoral deeds, gallons of blood and heroic action set-pieces. Every. Single. One. Saying that's what makes Howard is so myopic you should check in at the opticians' to look for cataracts.

Quit putting your expectations onto something and then bitching when it doesn't meet them. Enjoy things for what they are and in return get more enjoyment out of life.

What expectations? That a film called Conan the Barbarian, based on the character created by Robert E. Howard, should resemble the character created by Robert E. Howard? Might as well have no expectations at all. Might as well take no pride and no appreciation in anything, since we should just take what we're given and shut up like good little consumers. Like how the folks who grew up on Transformers should just haud their wheesht when the Bay monstrosities were not just an affront to their childhood memories (which were not that high to begin with), but affronts to the art of cinema itself. Man, that doesn't help your assertion that CtB is high art at all.

Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe.

See, the weird thing is, I'm technically on your side. I don't hate Conan the Barbarian. I like Conan the Barbarian. But there's no way, at all, that I'm going to subscribe to the idea that one has to lower their expectations in order to enjoy something in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It would help if you gave any indication, any indication at all, that you had read the Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard. Maybe then you'd see exactly why Howard fans, no matter their appreciation of Conan the Barbarian for its own, many, virtues, can't help but feel short-changed.

Contemplate this on Constantius' cross. Like Milius' Conan, I don't think you'd last long enough to even see the vultures descend.


  1. The guy grinds me gears. There's another guy on a forum I frequent who dislikes Howard's Conan, and prefers CtB. Why? Because he's under the delusion that "The People of the Black Circle" ends with Conan promising to burn Ayodhya to the ground and rape Yasmina in the smouldering ruins of her palace. It's as if he's TRYING to misunderstand the story.

    I could understand people having a problem with Conan's concussion & sorcery-driven rape attempt in "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and his misanthropic callousness in "The Vale of Lost Women," but come on, of ALL the Conan stories...