Wednesday 4 August 2010

Robert E. Howard Movie Review Reviews: Richard Scheib's Moria

Originally, I was going to take Richard Scheib's movie reviews one at a time, but seeing as he recently put up his Solomon Kane review, I feel I might as well do them all.

Let's start.  SPOILERISMOS for those who haven't seen Solomon Kane (or Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja and Kull the Conqueror)

Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane was one of the creations of pulp writer Robert E. Howard, best known for having created Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja. As with many of Robert E. Howard’s supplementary characters, Solomon Kane was essentially a variant on Conan – a tough and brutal character who instead of wandering a mythic prehistory battling monsters and the supernatural with a broadsword wandered the 16th/17th Century battling monsters and the supernatural with a cutlass and flintlock pistol.

Yeah, Solomon Kane's just like Conan in many ways!

He loves nothing more than a good flagon of ale or wi - ah...
Well, he's a notorious ladies' ma - urm...
Ooh, isn't he always after priceless treasu - er... 
Wait, I know, he's infamous for being a bloodthirsty throat-slitter, bandit chief, pirate and thie - oh...
Ah-ha, he overthrows a dynasty and becomes the king of a great kingdo - hmm...

Yeah, it doesn't really add up, does it?  If you're going to consider Kane just "a variant on Conan" simply because he's "tough, brutal, wanders the world battling monsters and the supernatural" then technically that'd mean tons of people are just variations on Conan, from Beowulf and Geralt to Blade and Van Freakin' Helsing.  Are you going to call Van Helsing a variant of Conan?  'Cause I'm sure not.

(Oh, and no, Kane doesn't (usually) wield a cutlass: he has a rapier.  He probably didn't have flintlocks either, rather, he had their predecessor - wheel locks.)

Michael J. Bassett creates a sword-and-sorcery film with a welcomely grim and hard edge. What makes Solomon Kane far stronger than many of its ilk is the fascination of the central character. I don’t think James Purefoy is quite the incarnation of Solomon Kane that Robert E. Howard created – he seems too aristocratic and handsomely well bred, not the burned-out and hollow character with piercing eyes that Howard distinctively describes. (He is also provided with a backstory he doesn’t have in the Howard stories about being the son of an aristocrat and the dark lord his brother). 

... That's what you find divergent from Howard's Kane?  The fact that he's "too aristocratic" and "handsomely well bred" (speaking of which, how do you figure?  I don't think Kane's background was even clear enough to be aristocratic OR common) and the aristocratic aspect of his backstory?  You didn't notice - you know - the fact that Kane was a murderous scoundrel, in direct contradiction to several stories, taking place in a time when it would have to ignore several tales or render them in an entirely different light?  Of all the things to notice...

What does work is the strength of Solomon’s character arc – the man who is damned by the sins he has committed, so much that the powers of darkness come hunting him, and decides to walk the path of Christian virtue so as to save his soul, only to realize he has to kill again to save others.

A character arc that is, obviously, completely absent from the Howard stories - and incompatible.

There’s a marvellous scene in the forest where the Overlord has a possessed soldier holding a knife at the boy (Patrick Hurd-Wood)’s throat and Purefoy begs that he will do anything, whereupon the Overlord tells him to kill the soldier, Purefoy hesitates and the boy’s throat is slit and he realizes he has to break his oath and risk damnation in order to save the others.  

Kane's character arc is actually the weakest part of the film, for many reasons, and the scene is one of the most infuriating in the film.  Does Kane truly think that allowing someone to die through inaction is any better than slaying a man who intends to murder someone?  Is Kane that self-absorbed, that he'd allow a boy to die to preserve his soul?  Indeed, as soon as he believes Meredith to have perished, instead of continuing doing the Lord's work, he sinks into a depression, and gets drunk out of his skull.  Sure doesn't sound like he gives a damn about anyone apart from Meredith.

Purefoy is also crucified at one point, which seems to be a standard fate to show the toughness of sword-and-sorcery heroes – see Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Lee Horsley in The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982).

Lord, isn't it infuriating when something that should be fairly unique has been done so often that it becomes "standard fate"?  Thanks a freaking lot, Horsley. 

Conan the Barbarian

The character of Conan the Barbarian was a creation of author Robert E. Howard. With his stirring and full-blooded writing, Robert E. Howard became one of the finest pulp adventure writers of the early 1930s. Conan the Barbarian was the most popular of several larger-than-life heroes invented by Howard. Howard’s Conan stories reveled in a primal red-bloodedness...

Hey, not bad. Maybe this review won't be too - 

... Conan is a Nietzschean superman who defies all morality and operates on pure instinct. 

... Oh dear.  It's only the beginning, folks: errors riddle this review.

 Conan appeared in nineteen stories and one novel published between 1932 and 1936, mostly in Weird Tales magazine.

Actually, Conan appeared in twenty completed stories and one novel. I wonder which one Scheib forgot? Of those stories, only sixteen - and the novel - were printed, all of them in Weird Tales. This is basic stuff, dude.

(Although, there have been a substantial number of other authors completing supposedly unfinished fragments of Robert E. Howard’s work following his death, as well as adding original works)

"Supposedly"?  When were the unfinished fragments ever in question as being anything but genuine?  De Camp & Carter certainly mentioned which tales were completions, and I don't recall any debate about the stories not being based on genuine Howard documents - which has proven to be true, given the existence of manuscripts and so forth.  "Supposedly"?

Howard himself was a figure who seemed almost the antithesis of his work – he spent the entirety of his life in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas, never travelling beyond.

Again, false.  Hell, the fact that he wasn't actually born in Cross Plains says that he can't have spent "the entirety of his life" in the town.  Even discounting nearby Peaster and Brownwood as being too close to "count," Howard travelled to:

  • San Antonio, Texas
  • Austin, Texas
  • Fort Worth, Texas
  • Galveston, Texas
  • Rio Grand Valley, Texas
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Carlsbad, New Mexico
  • New Orleans, Louisiana

That's a hell of a distance for a guy of Depression-era Texas to travel.

His correspondence was voluminous and reveals a man who was caught between introversion, phobia and social isolation on one hand – some of his ideas were plain weird – and of dreaming of being a larger than life figure on the other.

As the Great God Wikipedia once said, "Citation Needed."  What ideas were "plain weird"?  Surely Scheib isn't talking about tongue-in-cheek fun like how he thought men should have tails?

Sadly, Howard committed suicide in 1936 at the age of 30 by self-inflicted gunshot wound, unable to bear life after the death of the mother he was overly attached to.

"This flawed and simplistic analysis of the complicated and at time difficult to discern circumstances of suicide is brought to you by..."

It is with perhaps some irony that an individual whose life appears to have been closeted and introverted can create a character that has become an archetype of hyper-masculinity. Indeed, Robert E. Howard’s work single-handedly inspired its own genre – something that became known as ‘sword-and-sorcery’

It is with perhaps some irony that I note that little to none of the "facts" about Howard's life in the review are actually correct. I suspect the glamour of the "introverted Texan weirdo who made the mightiest barbarian in fiction" dichotomy was too good to let little things like basic accuracy get in the way.

(The definition of sword-and-sorcery is loose – it is heroic fantasy adventure set in mythical lands. Robert E. Howard’s work falls into it; J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t, but many Tolkien imitators do. One suspects that the real meaning of sword and sorcery is simply that of pulp fantasy that has no higher aspirations than telling adventure tales)

Wait, why doesn't Tolkien fall into it?  Is it because his work does have higher aspirations than telling adventure tales, while Howard's doesn't?

I will concede that the definition Sword-and-Sorcery is indeed loose.  I'm one of the guys who would place Tolkien into Sword-and-Sorcery, myself.  Hell, I think the distinction between Sword-and-Sorcery and High Fantasy is, frankly, so vague as to be useless.  But that's another argument.

Milius is a director not unakin to Robert E. Howard himself – all his films concern themselves with primal red-blooded masculine rites of passage.

"Primal red-blooded masculine rites of passage"?  Can't say I recall that many in Howard - sure, there are some, but it hardly dominates his work. Most of Howard's heroes have already undergone such manly initiations.

John Milius and Oliver Stone take somewhat erratically from Robert E. Howard – Valeria was a character in the story Red Nails (1936) but effectively becomes Bêlit, Conan’s pirate queen lover from The Queen of the Black Coast (1978); Thulsa Doom is based on Conan’s continuing nemesis, the Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon but is now named after a character from Howard’s King Kull stories. Pastiches are made of various elements from stories – the crucifixion of Conan from A Witch Shall be Born (1936) and the substance of the story The Thing in the Crypt (1967) (which is in fact a pastiche from a Conan story by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter).

"Somewhat erratically?" Somewhat erratically!?! That's putting it lightly as all hell.

No, Valeria doesn't become Bêlit: she just steals one of her iconic moments.  She doesn't have any of her personality, history, appearance or... well, pretty much anything.  She just takes the "back from the dead" mechanic.

Thulsa Doom bears little to no similarity to Thoth-Amon.  Doom is tall, pudgy and black: Thoth is gigantic, rangy and dusky.  Doom is a raider-turned-local cult leader: Thoth is the most powerful sorcerer in the world. Doom can do hypnosis, turn into a python, and do a trick with snakes: Thoth can summon virtually indestructible demons from the Outer Dark, his touch is instant death, and he is the master of a whole organization of sorcerers.  Both are linked to snakey gods called Set and Egyptian visual cues - that's it.

The pastiches account for little more than 20 minutes of the whole film, total. 

At least, John Milius gets the raw, barbarian primality of Robert E. Howard’s writing right, be it a body count approaching somewhere near that of World War II, Basil Pouledoris’s Wagnerian score or the ponderous Nietzchian quotes, which are all wound together in the service of Milius’s machismo-fired brand of modern cinema heroism. 

... No he doesn't.  He just doesn't. 

The story’s length is slow at times, particularly the first half, which seems told entirely in lap dissolves. And there are odd pieces that seem out of place like James Earl Jones’s transformation into a snake where the film seems to be trying to jump on the then air-bladder makeup effects trend begun with The Howling (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981).

You know, I never actually made that connection, but it totally makes sense.  There was never a real explanation for why Doom transformed into a snake.  This is the only one that does that. 

Milius also seems uncomfortable with the fantasy elements – the appearances of a witch and the likes are isolated, as opposed to Howard where they are fully integrated with Conan taking on demons and monsters in full combat with regular regard.

This isn't strictly true.  In some stories, yes, the supernatural element is a constant menace, as in "Xuthal of the Dusk" or "The Pool of the Black One."  However, in many Conan stories, the supernatural is - while integrated within the story - not nearly as "regular" as Scheib seems to suggest.  Case in point, "The God in the Bowl" - the titular menace doesn't appear until the final act.  The visitation of Epimitreus and the Demon of the Ring take up far less of the plot time than the conspiracy in "The Phoenix on the Sword."  This alleged "low fantasy" aspect of Conan the Barbarian is something that perplexes me sometimes.

Some of the performances let the film down – Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular. Schwarzenegger is without the sense of self-deflating humour he would later develop and his thick accent makes lines like “Grant me revenge Crom, or you can go to Hell,” or “What is good in life, Conan?” “To destroy your enemies, raze their villages and hear the lamentations of their women,” come out funny.

As any fule kno, the lines are "Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!" and of course "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women." I'm sure Conan the Barbarian fans would be stunned to read this egregious lapse from Scheib, and his geek cred's gone right out the window.

By the way, this was last updated on the 18th of July, 2010.  Yup.

Anyway, on to darker pastures.

Conan the Destroyer

Oh lord... Well, it'd be damn hard to say something wrong in this review.  It's actually probably Scheib's best:

Moreover, despite what the film’s vandalistic title suggests, this is a severely watered down Conan. All the primal violence of Milius’s vision in the first film has been replaced by a two-dimensional comic-book tone. Indeed, this Conan film received a PG rather than an R-rating, like the original. All the primality and brutality that essentially is Conan has been sacrificed. And in Arnold Schwarenegger’s performance, which has yet to develop the tongue-in-cheek audience rapport it would with later action film stardom, Conan is a dumb brute whose intelligence seems down around the single-digit level. The rest of the characters fare little better – there are some awfully mawkish scenes regarding the princess’s sexual awakening and infatuation with Conan. Both Tracey Walter and Mako give embarrassing performances. The one good aspect of the film is the presence of avant garde singer Grace Jones in one of the handful of film appearances she made in the mid-80s. Grace isn’t a particularly good actress but whenever she is on screen projects a raw savagery – she is like a wild animal that needs to be caged. Although the filmmakers, as though seemingly somewhat daunted by such a strong female presence, have to dumb her down with a sexist scene where she screams at the sight of a mouse.

Considering Conan in Conan the Destroyer tries to count to six and gives up after three, I think single-digits is about right.

Red Sonja

It's strange how Scheib's reviews get better the worse the film is.

It is surprising that Red Sonja has become Robert E. Howard’s next most famous creation – surprising because she only ever appeared in a single Howard short story, Shadow of the Vulture (1934), and there she bears little resemblance to what we know Red Sonja to be today. The story takes place in the 16th Century Ottoman empire where Red Sonya is a pistol-wielding woman seeking revenge. It is curious that she has become so popular rather than other Howard creations such as Solomon Kane, Brak Mak Morn and Kull who have each had far more stories devoted to their exploits than she ever did...
... The Red Sonja we know appeared in Marvel Comics’ Kull and the Barbarians in 1973 series and later Conan comic-books, where the Marvel writers transported the character of Sonya into the Hyborian age and gave her more of a fantasy origin. Her popularity grew after she was expanded out of into her own line of comic books beginning in 1977 and then into a series of six novels by David C. Smith and Richard Tierney in the 1980s. Thus it is that this film, although it credits only Howard and not any of the others who elaborated the Red Sonja mythos, can be said to draw itself from the comics and novels more so than any Robert E. Howard story.

Curious indeed - but then, Sonja is one of the most prominent action heroines despite only appearing in the one story. A shame Scheib fails to note the distinct lack of a rape origin, metal bikini and monstrously sexist vow...

Of course, with Sonja, Howard was merely taking the brutish barbarism of his various male creations and giving them a sex change.

Dammit, you just couldn't go a whole review without a back-handed compliment, could you? One wonders if Scheib considers Red Sonja to be a "variant" of Solomon Kane too. However, Scheib makes a great save with the following paragraph:

Insultingly, for a dominant female character like Red Sonja, Schwarzenegger is the one that gets top-billing rather than Nielsen. It is de Laurentiis trying to sell Red Sonja as a Conan movie – the character Schwarzenegger plays is Conan in all but name. The effect is only patronizing. The ferocious intensity of Howard’s creation has become a muted banality – the Sonja character drops a few lines about hating men and challenging them to best her in a duel, but this is quickly forgotten about and we thereafter see little evidence of her hatred. It is as though the filmmakers were unable to conceive of a strong female character who could not save the day by herself – Kalidor is always keeping an eye on Sonja like a kindly older brother and turns up to save her at every opportunity, she rarely gets out of a jam under her own steam. Richard Fleischer created a similarly strong Amazonian character with Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer but when he did, he seemed to also see the need to throw in a wholly unnecessary scene where she was scared of a mouse – it is as though Fleischer cannot psychologically handle the concept of strong female characters and keeps needing to undercut them, by either belittling them or as here reducing Sonja’s tough assertive independence to little more than a younger sister role. The final duel between Sonja and Kalidor where Sonja surrenders to his arms rather than fight is completely insulting to the character of Sonja. The cheap but entertaining Spanish-made Conan-ripoff Hundra (1983) and of course the later tv series Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) were much more successful at incarnating the original conception of the tough Amazonian warrior woman that Red Sonja represented. Try and imagine a character like Xena giving into the loving arms of a male warrior rather than fight and you get an idea of just how wimpy this Red Sonja has turned out to be.

That's a pretty solid encapsulation of one of the many, many problems I have with the film.

Two of the reasons the film is almost worth watching for is Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score, and for the impressively imaginative sets of Danilo Donati of Flash Gordon (1980) fame – giant swordsman statues over the training arena, an ochre castle in burnished gold and Oriental motifs, the unique temple designs, a giant animal skeleton as a bridge.

I have to agree on Morricone's score, though that damned skeleton bridge is just a source of hilarity to me.

Kull the Conqueror


(Kull was a precursor to Conan who appeared in only three short stories published in Weird Tales in 1929)

Hooray, he got something right! 

Robert E. Howard’s heroes are the ultimate incarnations of the alpha male and Nietzsche’s ubermensch combined – they cut across all morality and make their own rules, they are direct in their instincts and simply take what they want, feel no regret and silence any objection with brutal regard. In fact, Sylvester Stallone is the ultimate incarnation of a Robert E. Howard barbarian.

Oh ferchrissakes, not this Nietzsche nonsense again.    Show me where Conan's Ubermensch amorality (or at least the misinterpretation of it) is in The Hour of the Dragon and "Beyond the Black River." If Conan makes up his own rules, why does he choose to abide by the laws of society in, say, "Queen of the Black Coast," no matter how he may disagree with them? Read "The Phoenix on the Sword" and tell me where Conan silences any objection with "brutal regard." And seriously, Conan has no regrets?  Come on.

Unfortunately, the Kull one sees on screen here is simply not Robert E. Howard’s Kull. It is Kull: The Legendary Journeys. It is Kevin Sorbo playing a Robert E. Howard barbarian with the same Sensitive New Age Guy persona he played in tv’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-9), the popularity of which the film has been clearly designed to emulate.

Back on track?  I wish. 

Kevin Sorbo’s Kull remains a far cry from Robert E. Howard’s Kull – rather than a primal cry of male ferocity, Sorbo’s Kull refuses to have sex unless the woman wants him back, frees all his slaves and insists on the right to free worship for minority cults. It is Robert E. Howard having been put through the PC wringer. Not that one should necessarily applaud such values; on the other hand, it is like making a James Bond film where Bond remains celibate and a non-smoker.

You know, it's funny: people criticize the sexuality of Sorbo's Kull, but for entirely the wrong reasons.  Instead of being some sort of sensitive man who only has sex with women who want him back (something that was actually the case with Conan, who "never took a woman against her will), Kull shouldn't have sex.  Ever.  It's one of the most interesting distinctions between Kull and his descendent Conan - unlike the popular stereotype of the libidinous savage, Kull is completely uninterested in women.

While I doubt Kull would do something so stupid as free the slaves - such an act would utterly wreck the economy and social structure of a kingdom - I can easily see him ensuring that they are well treated. And I can definitely see him saying "let men worship what gods they will" - though, unlike in the film, Kull wouldn't be stupid enough to extend that to evil cults.

(and Valka, I'm getting in too deep to this wretched mess of a film already...)

In all other respects, Kull the Conqueror is a routine sword-and-sorcery effort. It is competently made without being engaging or holding anything other than surface depth. The plot is simplistically linear. Worse the tongue-in-cheek unseriousness of Hercules: The Legendary Journey has been allowed to creep in – especially in the campy performance of Tia Carrere, where Kevin Sorbo has to brave one-liners like “Your bride is over three thousand years old,” “She told me she was nineteen”. A less-than-serious attitude is almost guaranteed to sink a Robert E. Howard adaptation whose limited appeal is always in being able to revel in its primal red-bloodedness.

"Limited appeal," eh? Considering the multiple comic series over the years, I'd say Kull has slightly more than a limited appeal. 

The less you know about his review of The Whole Wide World, the better - in addition of failing to realise that since the film is based on Novalyne Price's memoirs, that would explain why the story is more about her than Howard, he comes up with the usual old nonsense espousing the curious dichotomy between Howard the Man and Conan his Creation. Ah well, at least he doesn't throw the stupid Oedipal theories there.

That said, Scheib comes up with some other clunkers.  In his review of Hundra:
This is one of the many cheap ripoffs of Conan the Barbarian (1982) that were made on the continent, usually in Italy. In fact its plot is very closely modeled on Conan – it follows the same story arc, opening with the slaughter of the barbarian protagonist’s mountain village home, through their quest to take revenge on the cult responsible. Although with its sword-swinging female protagonist, the film actually comes closer to Robert E. Howard’s second most famous creation after Conan, Red Sonja – the film is in fact a far better incarnation of the spirit of the Red Sonja stories than the Red Sonja (1985) film ever was.

... I'm sure he means Roy Thomas' Red Sonja, since I sure didn't have the fur-clad Hundra in mind when visualizing the Rogatino hellcat from "The Shadow of the Vulture." You'd think he'd make this distinction.

Oh, it gets better.  From his review of The Sword and the Sorcerer:

The Sword and the Sorcerer attained a small amount of success by coming in quickly on the tail of the success of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian (1982). Indeed, it was the first of a number of films that jumped on the early 1980s sword-and-sorcery fad created by Conan. The Sword and the Sorcerer crackles with authentic Robert E. Howard pulp spirit – many scenes like the crucifixion, the use of a leg of meat as a weapon and the revival of the sorcerer have been taken directly from Robert E. Howard Conan’s original stories. In fact, The Sword and the Sorcerer’s vigorous pulp splendour is in some ways a more authentic translation of the spirit of Robert E. Howard than John Milius’s brooding, artistically-minded Conan film or the toothless Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Red Sonja (1985) were.

Dear God man, do you read what you type!?! TSatS is a more authentic translation of REH's Conan stories... because it has a bunch of scenes stolen from them?  And the fact that Conan the Barbarian was "brooding" and "artistically-minded" is what prevents it from being a proper REH adaptation - as opposed to, I don't know, the fact that it was thematically incompatible?  TSatS is no more Howardian than Masters of the fecking Universe.

It isn't just REH that suffers, but Scheib's own sense of continuity. To whit in his review of the Asylum Princess of Mars:

Burroughs created the genre that has become known variously as ‘planetary adventure’, ‘planetary romance’ or ‘sword and raygun’. This mixes the interplanetary space opera escapades of Star Wars (1977) and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith with the sword and sorcery of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard but with the story restricted to a singular planetary locale and with rayguns and forcefields in lieu of swords and magic.

... So is Tolkien Sword-and-Sorcery or isn't he? Make up your mind, Scheib!

... the film seems to embody far too much of what was criticized about the Robert E. Howard school of barbarian sword-and-sorcery – of being little more than a teenage empowerment fantasy of brawn and strength, available curvaceous women who disrobe at the drop of a hat and softcore bondage. 

Criticisms which are, of course, completely wrong: as wrong an assessment of Howard's school of Sword-and-Sorcery as Mazes & Monsters was to Dungeons & Dragons.

Overall, Scheib is a lot more forgiving of Sword-and-Sorcery cinema than I am.  That said, in the non-Howard areas, he's actually a very good reviewer.  I'm quite impressed by some of his reviews.  So, I recommend exploring his site - but take a grain of salt with you all the same.

*Cheers to Tex for a slight correction regarding Scheib's mention of One Who Walked Alone.


  1. I can't stand salt, so I think I'll just avoid Scheib's site.

    I tell ya, guys like Scheib make me wonder if they sometimes forget to take their meds before sitting at the keyboard.

    (who also wonders if they watched the same gorramn movie he did!)

    PS--Not a problem, Al. Rockin' utterance, as always!

  2. really? do you actually have a life, a review is someones opinion of what they saw. the fact that you've taken the time to review a review says a lot about how pathetic you are..

  3. And a review of a reviewer who reviewed a review is...?

    (who thought disco was dead)

  4. Thanks for taking the time out of your undoubtedly busy schedule to comment, disco! Being a pathetic soul with no life, I crave any sort of comment, even negative ones, and I'm glad you were only too happy to oblige.

    Besides, I'm hardly the first or the last to tackle reviews in this way, and I'm keeping to prominent reviews that might lead to misinformation and misapprehension. At least I'm not doing reviews of IMDB or reviews: that would be silly.