Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Conan the Barbarian Review Reviews: Grand Illusion Cinema tackles the Conan films

Time for another Review Review.  Syon, feel free to skip this one.

Conan The Barbarian is a sweeping fantasy epic from the days when they knew how to make a sweeping fantasy epic. The formula was a simple one: hire a bodybuilder, don’t give him any dialogue, and make sure he’s packing an enormous sword; then add is an evil wizard, and a scantily clad female or two and you’ve got the recipe for pretty much every swords and sorcery epic of the 1980′s.

That's what I've been trying to tell everyone! Bodybuilders, big swords, evil wizards, scantily clad females do not make a Conan movie.  They make a Big Dumb Sword-and-Sorcery movie.  From Ator to Zardoz, those elements can be found in all the useless Sword-and-Sorcery movies out there.  How one distinguishes a Conan movie - be it Milius or Howard - from any of the others relies looking beyond those elements shared by them.

Produced by Dino De Laurentis—who was certainly no stranger to spectacle—both Conan films (Barbarian and Destroyer) embodied the larger than life ideals of the Marvel Comics. It is true that Robert E. Howard invented the character of Conan, but neither film really captures his storytelling which was all  manly action and gore-spurting combat. Instead the films attempt to humanize the mighty Cimmerian and make him more than just an iron thewed killing machine. The result is an uneven, yet awesome pair of films in which Conan falls in love, loses his lover, sexes up a werewolf, fails to be seduced by either a simpering princess, or the terrifyingly oiled-up Grace Jones, and then goes head to head with a giant rubber snake.

... Right.  Because it isn't as if we see Conan's more contemplative side in "Beyond the Black River," "The Black Stranger," "Queen of the Black Coast," "The Tower of the Elephant," or "The Phoenix on the Sword" - you know, the very first Conan story.

Now he laid down the golden stylus with which he had been laboriously scrawling on waxed papyrus, rested his chin on his fist, and fixed his smoldering blue eyes enviously on the man who stood before him. This person was occupied in his own affairs at the moment, for he was taking up the laces of his gold-chased armor, and abstractedly whistling – a rather unconventional performance, considering that he was in the presence of a king.

"Prospero," said the man at the table, "these matters of statecraft weary me as all the fighting Ihave done never did..."

"...I did not dream far enough, Prospero. When King Numedides lay dead at my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless.

When I overthrew Numedides, then I was the Liberator – now they spit at my shadow. They have put a statue of that swine in the temple of Mitra, and people go and wail before it, hailing it as the holy effigy of a saintly monarch who was done to death by a red-handed barbarian.

When I led her armies to victory as a mercenary, Aquilonia overlooked the fact that I was a foreigner, but now she can not forgive me...."

"No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live for ever."

My goodness, that's a totally emotionless, robotic, iron-thewed killing machine right there, isn't it?

I'm consistently baffled by this idea that Milius' Conan "humanized" Robert E. Howard's, as if Howard's character was some sort of boring one-dimensional slayer with no depth or vulnerabilities. Have these people not read the stories, with Conan's sly self-depracating gallows humour, his philosophical outlook, his canny strategic mind, his appreciation of the arts?  Wait, don't answer that.

Not many films have managed to capture the feel of the comics that they are based on as well as the Conan films do. The characters may not be complicated, but they don’t have to be, because they are larger than life. Despite efforts to humanize them, they remain iconic. They may not be played by the greatest actors in the world, but each and every one of those actors is perfect for the role they are asked to play. We don’t want to see Conan deliver a fancy speech, we want to see him chop off Thulsa Doom’s head and roll it down the stairs like a bowling ball! We don’t want Grace Jones in a romantic roll, we want to see her hitting stunt men in the crotch with a pointy stick! All right thinking people want to see that (except for the stuntmen) and I can assure you, with Crom as my witness, that seeing these films at the Grand Illusion is one of those things that is best in life.

Oh really? You mean fancy speeches that make up some of the most fantastic dialogue in any of the Conan stories? For that matter, what is Konahns prayer to Krumm but a fancy speech in itself?

Also gotta love "all right thinking people."  Because the quality of a film, contrary to popular conception, is not subjective, and that there is in fact a "right" and "wrong" way of watching a film.There might be appropriate ways to watch a film and inappropriate ones, but that doesn't mean right or wrong.  Sure, one can try to look at a Joel Schumacher film from a critical perspective, but just because the film won't really stand up to as much scrutiny if viewed as anything other than a popcorn flick doesn't mean that it's wrong to try.


  1. Have these people not read the stories..?

    They haven't even read the comics they think they're referring to.

    I think they would benefit from asking the same question I believe REH wanted his readers to ask: "who's the real barbarian here?"

  2. It is depressing how this kind of nonsense gets recycled over and over, and anyone who raises a voice to disagree is labelled an "obsessive fan" instead of someone who appreciates literature.

    (The same idiocy pops up quite often in discussions of Peter Jackson's mangling of The Lord of the Rings. Apparently the characters are more human if they're robbed of all dignity.)

  3. "I'm consistently baffled by this idea that Milius' Conan "humanized" Robert E. Howard's, as if Howard's character was some sort of boring one-dimensional slayer with no depth or vulnerabilities."

    Hey, they have to justify Milius's work somehow. If you start pointing out how it might conceivably be more simplistic than the source material people might start thinking the wisdom they received growing up about it being "the perfect sword and sorcery film" might be at fault ;)

  4. Very true, guys. Can't add anything else, really.