Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Something of the glamour of a crusade...

One of the more contentious aspects of The Blog That Time Forgot (well, me) is my propensity to go on crusades to enlighten, correct or otherwise address people that get things wrong.  In the past, I've been criticized for it - "The Blog That Does Nothing But Whine" being a zinger that still zings a bit to this day - but I've been doing my best to bite my tongue unless I find something that has to be dealt with.

Luckily, I'm not alone in this. Damon Sasser of Two-Gun Raconteur has regularly commented on these situations on the 'Net, and my Cimmerian Blog compatriot Brian Murphy goes for the jugular when it comes to J.R.R. Tolkien, as evidenced by two recent posts, one addressing a Class 3 Camper, another barely containing his irritation at Evangeline Lilly's latest comments.  I must admit, I tend to grit my teeth whenever I see Evangeline Lilly at the best of times, so I can sympathise. However, there's been something of a backlog building up with People Who Are Wrong On The Internet, and rather than dedicate a number of posts to any one of them, perhaps it would be better to deal with them in one place.

What makes a bad Sword-and-Sorcery Story?

First up is this post by Joshua Unruh.

So the other night a bunch of writers sat down together in a room to story edit each other's short stories. We're putting together an e-zine of speculative fiction and this was just part of the process. Before sitting down to write, I knew my fellow writers. I know, more or less, what kind of nerds they are and I expected a lot of fantasy pieces. I was right. I expected a lot of high fantasy pieces. I was also right. I decided to do a low fantasy piece, just to be different. I thought people might get a kick out of it.

Damn, I was WROOOOONG.

... So I decided to write one. I'd never tried short stories (as previously mentioned) nor a low fantasy, but I dove in. I let Aaron take a look at it and he gutted it like a pike. Some of my issues were short story driven and he also gave some really great suggestions that added depth and personality to the piece. But he eviscerated my Third Person Narrator. He asked me to tone down the purposefully stilted, somewhat poetic verbiage. He insisted there were too many point-of-view characters and that I was "cheating." The flowing introduction to the city that would be the home of my story (and probably others after it) was cut entirely. But I dutifully modernized my story and hoped that the reprehensible main characters doing distasteful things for profitable reasons would carry the intent through. I actually got to where I thought it was pretty good after a few dozen rewrites.
Then I brought it to the group and there was some actual hate. I come pretty close to a quote when I tell you that Thomas (in the most loving way possible) said, "If that's what you meant to do, you did it...but I HATE it."

The first thing that pops out is that Joshua is blaming not his personal writing skills (by his own admission, this is not only his first Sword-and-Sorcery story, but his first short story), but the genre for why his story got such a poor reception among his writer friends. That's a bit off: surely the fact that he's never written a low fantasy short story before might mean that it isn't the genre, but his story which just wasn't very good?
Let's look at the criticisms Joshua cited:

  • Purposefully stilted, somewhat poetic verbiage
  • Too many point-of-view characters
  • Reprehensible main characters doing distasteful things for profitable reasons

The implication is that those elements are all parts of Howard's writings, and that Joshua amply replicated them - and that he shouldn't, because there's no audience for it!

This combined with Aaron insisting that I couldn't "write to Howard's audience" brought something home to me. If I wanted to write to Tolkien's audience, that was fair game. But the insinuation was that low fantasy lacked depth, lacked emotional resonance, and, most important in some ways, lacked an audience. I was flabbergasted. Was there truly not place in modern fantasy for prosaic adventure stories for whom the whole point was the adventure? Was there no interest in jeweled thrones being trod 'neath sandaled feet or dark gods being stabbed to death unless we knew about the protagonist's issues with his mother? Or was it merely the style that had to go? Howard and his contemporaries wrote on the cusp of when what we consider the modern novel was  formalized. Could he himself, or those influenced by him, have had more influence on that if he'd stuck around? Does it even matter anymore?

The essential problem with Joshua's view of Swords-and-Sorcery/Low Fantasy is that he has an incredibly narrow definition of what it is, and thus, when he writes a story with those elements, it can't help but be tiresome, cliched and redundant after the quite literally hundreds of books and short stories utilizing the formula. Joshua's definition of low fantasy - from Conan to Fafhrd and beyond - is this:

I don't know when it was that I discovered the Low end of the fantasy pool, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was VERY near when I discovered Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. Tolkien is to Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle what Howard is to Chandler and Hammet. The bad guys were willfully terrible human beings, the good guys were, at best, noble savages, the plot was where to steal the next thing or who to kill next, and emotional arcs sounded like a spell one of the invariably evil sorcerers would throw at Conan. It was gritty, it was often harsh, it was violent, and it was pure adventure.
Now, don't get me wrong; I love some Tolkien. Aggressively pro-Jesus, pro-Catholic, pro-Mythology, and anti-Industrialization when none of that was going to bring him widespread acclaim. I appreciate everything he did for fantasy in general and for representative storytelling in particular. And you can imagine how much I want to emulate his ability to filter everything through a mythological lens so that it feels authentic even if I'm making it up. That's strong stuff.
But until those movies came out, it never occured to me that anybody in Lord of the Rings ever got dirty. Or sweaty. Just like it never occurs to me that Achilles or Beowulf get dirty or sweaty. They just aren't that kind of story.
But Conan started his life as a backward savage, so he was never anything other than dirty and sweaty. Solomon Kane put sword to a continent of godless heathens, so I bet he sweated a lot. All of Lankmar was a cesspit figuratively and much of it literally. If Tolkien was mythology, then this is what "real life" would feel like if I were hanging out in the seedier ends of the Hyborian age.  The themes and ways of Low Fantasy storytelling may not have resonated with my soul in the same way grandiose manufactured mythologies did, but they got me somewhere in the guts and balls and spoke to the same bits of me that liked tough talking but tarnished detectives and dangerous, long-legged dames.

Almost immediately I can guess that Joshua's fantasy involves at least one of the following:

  • A chiselled, masculine, hard-boiled hero who inevitably wins the day
  • A dastardly sorcerer who the hero inevitably kills
  • A hideous monster who the hero inevitably kills
  • A priceless treasure which the hero inevitably filches
  • A buxom damsel in distress who the hero inevitably rescues

The thing is, as I've said before, the Conan stories offer far more variety than the standard Sword-and-Sorcery template of Grog, Girls and Gore, and the people who think otherwise tend to be the people who put out the most abysmal Sword-and-Sorcery pastiches.  Joshua is correct in thinking that the primary appeal of Sword-and-Sorcery is adventure, but he is incorrect in thinking that it is their only appeal.

I and others have explained why Howard's Conan stories are so much more than just "prosaic adventure stories for whom the whole point was the adventure," but reading Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories, I can heartily say that his best Lankhmar stories are easily far more too. Same with the likes of Moorcock, Wagner, Saunders and all - they have emotional arcs, complex villains, and deeper themes than "where to steal the next thing or who to kill next."  Without having read his story (and I would actually like to see Joshua put up a sample on his blog) it's impossible to tell for sure, but based on what I've seen, I think it's more likely that his first low fantasy short story isn't bad because it's a low fantasy short story, but because he just doesn't know how to write them.

As for the comment on how you can't compare Tolkien and Howard because Tolkien apparently created a genre whereas Howard was merely a master of a genre he didn't create: no comment, dude, just no comment.

Conan Confusion

I've been keeping away from that damned movie a while, but with the amount of bad reviews out there, I might have to deal with them sometime or another. For now, part of the problem these bad reviews have is that which I feared: that people expecting more from a Conan film than Grog, Girls and Gore are somehow delusional, seeing things that aren't really there, and ascribing a sense of profundity which is entirely unwarranted. Witty retort not found.  Anyway, here's an example of that.

The predominant theme of Robert E. Howards original Conan the Cimmerian short stories is the idea that “barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” Conan explicitly rejects the trappings and taboos of conventional developed society (or at least the dark ages definition of “developed” that shows up in the fantastical realm of Hyboria). He doesn’t wear clothes, except perhaps armor on occasion, he’s impolite, he drinks to excess, he degrades women, and he has little to no compunctions about all forms of crime, murder included (he never quite crosses the line into rape, though it’s been a close thing once or twice). Conan does whatever the hell he wants, and he always gets away with it, even when his shenanigans get him into trouble with dark wizards,ancient demigods, and the like. His thought process when confronted with a problem usually goes like this: Can I kill it with a sword? If yes (and it is always yes), begin hacking and do not stop until it is dead.

Crom almighty, where to begin?  OK, let's break it down:

The predominant theme of Robert E. Howards original Conan the Cimmerian short stories is the idea that “barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

This theme is frequently misunderstood when taken out of context. For one thing, the context in which it appears happens after the Picts - the bad guys of the story - win the war. Sure, the battle of Velitrium was won, but the province of Conajohara was lost.  The Picts had won.  Thus, "barbarism must always ultimately triumph" is not necessarily a good thing, so much as a grim, stark reminder of Howard's cynical worldview.

Conan explicitly rejects the trappings and taboos of conventional developed society (or at least the dark ages definition of “developed” that shows up in the fantastical realm of Hyboria).

Again, this is simplistic, since Conan's interaction with conventional developed society - and considering the Hyborian Age boasts scholars, scientists, philosophers, scribes, savants, and even bloody atheists, I don't see the need for quotation marks - evolves along with the stories. Hence how you can have Conan completely baffled by civilized ways in the thief and pirate stories, yet exploit them in later mercenary tales, and uphold highly democratic ideals as king.

He doesn’t wear clothes, except perhaps armor on occasion

I guess tunics ("The Tower of the Elephant," "Rogues in the House") cloaks ("Queen of the Black Coast," the Shumballah fragment), full pirate regalia ("The Devil in Iron," "The Black Stranger," "Red Nails"), hillman garb ("The People of the Black Circle"), breeks ("The Pool of the Black One," "The Servants of Bit-Yakin") and rich royal attire (every King Conan story) don't count as "clothes" or something.

he’s impolite

I consider there to be a distinction between "forthright" and "impolite."  Barbarians are forthright.  Civilized men are impolite.

he degrades women

If by "degrade" you mean "treat women with greater respect and appreciation than civilized men of the age," I suppose...

Conan does whatever the hell he wants, and he always gets away with it, even when his shenanigans get him into trouble with dark wizards,ancient demigods, and the like.

*Buries head in hands* You mean apart from the times Conan doesn't get away with it?  Like the time he murdered a judge in Messantia and had no choice but to flee?  Or the time he was run out of Zamora?  Or the time his Kozaki predations resulted in him having to spend weeks avoiding Turanian patrols in a swamp?  He only "gets away with it" if you treat "surviving by the skin of his teeth" as being "getting away with it."

His thought process when confronted with a problem usually goes like this: Can I kill it with a sword? If yes (and it is always yes), begin hacking and do not stop until it is dead.

The very first Conan story makes a mockery of this idea. "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." "If I could but come to grips with something tangible, that I could cleave with my sword!" I believe this chap has read the stories, in that he's dragged his eyes over the text and he recognized some words.  But I sincerely doubt he actually comprehended them.

Shockingly, there is actually some story. I hesitate to even use the word story in a piece like this. Like the original short stories and the 1982 film, the story is a loose pastiche of themes and environs meant to evoke certain emotions in the reader/viewer. 

Aren't all stories "a loose pastiche of themes and environs meant to evoke certain emotions in the reader/viewer"?  What a weird comment.

The scant backstory giving in the film’s introduction is extraneous at best, and stupid at worst. I have no idea who the “necromancers of Acheron” are, and I’m pretty sure that nobody in the film does either.

Guess Andy hasn't read The Hour of the Dragon then. This quote slays me, as it's exactly the sort of glib "whaddaya expect" remark that drives me berserk:

It’s not high art. While the film attempts to throw in some human understanding (“A sword must be tempered with both ice and fire!”), for the most part it’s one battlefield after another. Sure, we get some glimpses of positive values in Conan’s interactions with his close friends and a girl he gets pretty attached to, but these are extraneous to the main theme of awesomely violent swordplay. But hey, it’s an action film. What did you expect?

Somehow I wonder if people even consider the likes of Goldfinger, Robocop, First Blood, Terminator 2, Aliens, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the like to be action films, since they're chock full of action, but have a little more depth and complexity than "awesomely violent."

Then again, Andy had a positive review of the film:

I like this movie a lot. I’ve always had a soft spot for Conan, and while this update doesn’t quite capture the brooding, introspective anti-hero of the short stories, it comes about as close as anything but the 1982 film and the Kurt Busiek/Cary Nord comic series ever has. There’s been a resurgence of Conan lately, but something tells me that this film’s relative failure is going to be the end of it. It’s really a shame, because this is a solid movie all around. Definitely see it in theaters if you’re a fan of Conan. Otherwise, it’s well worth a rental.

Perhaps it was inevitable I would disagree with such a review.

Expert Opinions, Deadliest Warrior Style

Part of my dislike of Deadliest Warrior is that they get stuntmen and actors to play the roles of "experts" in their chosen field despite being no more appropriate as authorities than schoolchildren doing a history project. Well, in lieu of getting someone who actually knows a little about Robert E. Howard - jeez, I'd even take Darrell Schweitzer or James Enge - Box Office Magazine went to historical romance novelist Hannah Howell.  It's an interesting choice, since I had no idea Ms Howell was a Howard fan, but reading her piece is very interesting, if a bit perplexing at times.

The Highlanders were like the Barbarians of the Middle Ages.

... OK, let's see where she's going with this...

These people were never completely peaceful. They're very independent, very tribal people. You have these clans and hardly any of the clans liked each othereven when there wasn't a war, there was still clan conflict. The whole structure of the society allows you a lot of freedom to run around with the plot, whereas the English society is very feudal and structured with sheriffs. If some English earl suddenly decided he wanted to go to war with another English earl, there'd be so much interference, even way back then, because they were so structured in their hierarchy. I mean, they had sheriffs in Scotland, too, but they were also clan people. And it's a very hard life.

Ah, I see where she's going.  Well, there were certainly of plenty other tribal communities in the Middle Ages, from the Lithuanians to the Tuareg and beyond, but the Scots certainly held out on their tribal ways.

Things get a little woolly fast, though.  The whole piece speaks of someone who really doesn't seem to know that much about Conan, but a little about Scottish history (or at least romanticized Rob Roy-style Scottish history), and was asked to write a piece about the two.  The fact that nearly everything she says about Conan is from the film and retroactively applied to the stories says it all. Then she starts to meander and talk about her stories.  It's a very strange piece altogether. And, again, "whaddaya expect" rears its ugly head:

It's a sword and sorcery movie, so you're not expecting anything deep and philosophical.

And as long as people don't go in expecting anything deep and philosophical, we're probably not going to get one.

Sometimes I wonder if I've seen the same film...

The retroactively-applying-things-in-the-film-to-the-original-stories thing I mentioned also pops up in this review:

The script is serviceable, but a great example of what bores me about Conan in general; there’s just not much there, there. It also has a near-complete lack of anything remotely humorous or emotional to relieve the hacking and slashing.
At one point, Conan says, “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.” If you want deep characterization, or a plot you haven’t seen before, this isn’t your sword-slinger. However, if a movie in which a large muscular semi-naked man lives, loves, and slays will make you content, Conan won’t disappoint.
Verdict: Conan The Barbarian delivers exactly what a Conan fan would want: muscles, swords, blood, sorcery, costumes, fights, a random half-naked woman or two, and a plot you’ve probably seen or read dozens of times. For those who might want a more cerebral fantasy, semi-naked Jason Momoa also stars in Game of Thrones 

It absolutely breaks my heart that one of the most profound and poetic passages in all of Robert E. Howard's work is used as an example of Conan not being cerebral, deep or meaningful.  "I live, I love, I slay, and I am content," taken in conjunction with Conan talking about his lifelong exploration and introductions to such wildly different worldviews as Nordic Valhalla, Cimmeria's limbo, and even atheism, shows that Conan has thought much and thought deeply about spirituality and existence.  The man spent hours listening to Zamorian philosophers, weeks among Pelishti Wise Men, and who knows how long with Nemedian scholars.  It shows that Conan has, in fact, thought about it - but he eventually came to the conclusion that it matters not, since "if life is an illusion, I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me."

The way "I live, I love, I slay, and I am content" has been interpreted by many reviewers in the exact opposite way.  Tamara asks Conan about the question of existence, and Conan's immediate response is he does not care.  No mention of how he's learned and experienced many different outlooks, no references to the people he's met, nothing.  It's like taking Descartes' "I think, therefore I am," but reinterpreting it as meaning "I must be real, because I'm thinking, therefore there's nothing else to discuss."

It's absolutely perverse that one of the best philosophical moments in a Conan story has been so wildly misinterpreted by reviewers who view it as the anti-intellectual blatherings of a caveman.  Can't say that's delivering anything like what this Conan fan would want.

The less said about the film's apparent lack of humour, the better.  I still see that mugging thief's face in my nightmares.

Inevitable Comparisons

This is one of the problems I have with the film's depiction of Conan's birth.  One of many, obviously.  But ignoring the Shakespearean elements, the lift from Roots, and the general silliness, the scene is just too damned short.  There's no explanation for why Conan's mother's on the battlefield, when Howard's original quote has a perfectly good one right there: it's a battle between Conan's tribe and a horde of raiding Vanir.  "Raiding" indicates that the Vanir are the aggressors, so they could be attacking Conan's home village, or at least a group of them away from their home.  "Horde" indicates that it's a numerically superior force, suggesting that every Cimmerian needed to fight, or risk utter annihilation - thus, even Conan's mother would be compelled to fight.  Every sword arm was needed.  Thus you explain to people exactly why Conan's mother was in the middle of a battle.  But apparently that's too much explanation, since Conan's birth amounts to less than a minute of screentime.

This comes up in one or two reviews, such as this one:

As we view a fetal Conan resting comfortably in his mother's belly, a blade suddenly pierces through her gut and past the unborn infant's head. Conan's mother is mortally wounded by this assault, but manages to kill her attacker... in the middle of a raging battle? Yikes! I know these people are barbarians and all but you'd think they'd leave their pregnant women at home, or somewhere safe during an all out war.

*Sigh* I know it's trite, but I really do think I could've written a better Conan origin story than what we got.  Plus other problems present themselves:

(Wow, it was really nice for all the warriors on both sides to give Corin time to perform a Caesarian and then raise his newborn son into the air like a Stanley Cup trophy.)

See, this would've been a beautiful moment to show Cimmerian solidarity in battle, as they see Fialla in labour, and instantly form a shieldwall around her and Corin.  But they don't, because Marcus Nispel doesn't seem to know what he's doing.  The Cimmerians and Generic Marauders (because they clearly weren't Vanir) just ignore the woman giving birth and the de-facto Leader of the Cimmerians tending to her.  It's doubly irritating since we see the Cimmerians make a shield wall later in the film.

But then, while I agree with the review in some regards, there comes a comparison between the 1982 and 2011 films which blissfully ignores the source material:

* Conan is portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was at his physical peak so he is impressively enormous, and his Austrian accent lends an air of credibility to his role as his character did come from a tribe from the icy frozen Nord.

* Conan is portrayed by Jason Momoa. He spends most of the movie scowling at everything and working hard to sound gruff and tough.

The biases are obvious in this review, since Arnold's accent lends "credibility" to the fact that he speaks in an accent completely different from that of his father's. At least Leo and Jason had a somewhat similar accent, and that it wasn't totally alien to Ron Perlman's. Let's not even dignify "tribe from the icy frozen nord."

* As a young boy, Conan's parents and people are wiped out by an evil sorceror. Conan is enslaved and forced to circle "The Wheel of Pain" day after day for an indeterminate number of years. As time goes by, the others on the wheel have either been sold off or died, and Conan, now a mountain of muscle, is the only one left. He is sold off into slavery, then thrust into gladiatorial combat where the oversized man-child must fight for his very survival. After numerous victories, he becomes a skilled warrior and begins to lust for battle.

As a prize for making his master rich, Conan is taught languages, trained in the art of war, provided with scrolls, presented with women, and eventually given his freedom. He manages to find himself a kickass sword, becomes a thief, picks up a cool sidekick, falls in love with a sexy blonde warrior/thief, and eventually avenges the deaths of his lover and his people. Then he sits on a throne and broods like it is going out of style while Mako narrates his outro.

* Conan is born on a battlefield and by age fifteen proves to be a total badass after completing his tribe's test of manhood while simultaneously beheading a group of attacking savages. Then he's suddenly an adult and quests for revenge against the evil warlord that killed his people. Along the way he falls in love with a beautiful woman and must rescue her from the villain that he has sworn to destroy. He succeeds; they live happily ever after.

Except, as you see in the film, Conan doesn't live with the girl happily ever after. I agree that , but if there's one thing I'll say for the 2011 film, I find it far more believable that a boy who could kill 4 adult warriors would grow up to be a mighty warrior, than a doe-eyed freed slave who was just tossed into a gladiator pit with zero training and somehow became a mighty warrior through trial and error. Seriously, who would you believe would be more likely to grow up to become Conan: a kid who's already an able warrior, or a kid who freezes like a deer at the sight of an enemy?

* Conan is obviously a warrior and a thief. No pirating is implied.

* Conan is clearly a warrior, but doesn't really do any real thieving (unless you count stealing whores from slavers as thievery) and his only claim to piracy is riding upon a vessel filled with self-proclaimed pirates.

Erm, I don't know about you, but stealing whores from slavers does kind of fit the definition of thievery. And since piracy is essentially shipborne thievery, I'd say he's a pirate too. What a silly statement.

* Conan is unstoppable against the normal soldiers and minions of Thulsa Doom, however he is bested by Doom's two main henchmen and beaten to a bloody pulp, then left to die on "The Tree of Woe." Even after being saved by Subotai, Conan nearly loses his soul to demonic forces, but is saved when his beloved offers her life for his. Conan is brutal and powerful, but even he can make mistakes and suffer dearly for them.

* Conan destroys any and all opponents. In classic 80's action-film fashion, only the main villain has the ability to actually cause him any real harm. He receives superficial wounds when battling sand-creatures, and is beat up a bit by Khalar Zym after being poisoned by Marique. Still, he never truly takes a real beating and you never experience a moment when you think that'll he'll lose and/or die. Bo-ring.

I agree with this to an extent. The fact that Conan has such difficulty with Thorgrim and Rexor was actually a point of contention with me, since you'd think a man like Conan who'd spent his entire adult life (after decades of manual labour) learning anything and everything to do with war, battle and fighting, would be able to defeat two middle-aged warriors twice his age and after trading in their armour for priestly robes. But that's for a future post, where I discuss my problems with the 1982 film outside a Howardian perspective.

Maybe it is closer to Robert E. Howard's version of the character, but I'll take Ah-Nuld over Momoa any day.

How depressing, since frankly, I'd take the 1982 film over the 2011 film too.

Realism and Conan

I hated the blood in the new Conan film.  I didn't hate that there was too much of it: I hated that it wasn't done in a realistic manner.  There are realistic ways to do fountains of blood, all of which require massive bodily trauma: severed arteries, torn jugulars, shorn limbs and bisected torsos generally result in veritable eruptions of blood.  Light blows to armour-clad shoulders, hitting your head on a rock, and the classic scrape-sword-across-belly does not.  This film's villains explode as readily as bottle rockets.

Unfortunately, some reviewers, like Chris Sims, think this is entirely in keeping with Conan:

It's impossible to talk about this movie without at least touching on the sheer amount of insane violence they pack in to earn that R rating. It's lurid to the point of comedy; no one in this movie dies without a huge, Zatoichi-esque gout of blood shooting out of their body, even when there's no actual cutting involved. At one point, a guy gets thrown back-first against a rock while wearing armor, and when he falls away, the rock has this enormous bloodstain on it, indicating that he was thrown against it so hard that his blood exploded through his armor.

But at the same time, I love it. After all, the images that we have of Conan in pop culture from guys like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo aren't exactly what you'd refer to as "subtle" by any stretch of the imagination.
(Picture of Conan by... Earl Norem)

Transferring that kind of over-the-top aesthetic to the screen in the form of truly ludicrous levels of violend bloodshed isn't just fun, it makes sense. Everything in the world of Conan is taken to the next level, and the gallons of blood that fly out of the bad guys as they're slaughtered fits right in with that in a way that a more realistic take wouldn't have. Again, it works with the character.

The thing is, Howard's depiction of violence was informed by personal experience.  His father was a doctor, and he frequently helped out in extreme circumstances.  In a Texas Oil Boom Town in the '20s and '30s, this meant anything from accidents to assaults, knife wounds, gunshot wounds and worse.  Howard himself had experienced his share of blows and buffets over the years.  Combined with history books and the works of historical authorities like Harold Lamb and Talbot Mundy, Howard's depiction of violence wasn't far off.  Sure, things like cleaving helmets and having heroes cut people in two is extreme, but the actual effects described aren't.  Slashing a man's throat sufficiently deeply will result in spurting blood; disembowelling a man will result in, well, disembowelling; cutting off a man's arm will result in arterial gushes.

Conan 2011's blood was just preposterous and unreal.  It wasn't like people were being brutalised, it's like someone accidentally burst open the juice cartons they were keeping for lunch in their pockets.

Sims does happen upon a pretty strong point:

Unfortunately, Nispel drops his really well done version of Conan into a movie that, as a story, is not very good. The plot is pretty standard fare for Conan -- and by extension, for sword and sorcery at large -- to the point where it almost feels like they read a stack of Savage Sword comics and made a checklist of the most common elements.

There's an evil wizard (check) after an ancient artifact (check) that will grant him the power of an evil god (check) through a ritual of darkest magic (check) that will involve killing a beautiful maiden (check) who has recently gained Conan's affections (check), and will take place in his unassailable fortress (check) which is built within a rock shaped like a skull (check).
That's pretty much it, isn't it?  It's just another stupid story with another formula that's been done to death since the '60s.  It's the plot of just about every horrible Sword-and-Sorcery film released since the '80s.  Conan should not be just another stupid story that's been done to death by its own ripoffs.

They break in, and then get in this huge set piece fight with a tentacle monster referred to in a callback to Howard's stories as "The Dweller,"
Uh, no.  "The Dweller" is from the comics.  It's nowhere to be found in the stories. 
I think I get the why of it. The moving of the plot from one big set piece to the next seems to be a clear attempt at hearkening back to Conan's roots in the pulps, a series of increasingly dire cliffhangers. In practice, though, it just doesn't work. It feels like padding, or worse, like a really awful D&D session your DungeonMaster gives you to kill time while he or she writes the real adventure.

As with Joshua's story above, perhaps the problem isn't with the genre, but with the story itself.  In the best Conan stories, the set pieces are always clearly linked to each other and serve a purpose to the plot.  Even the mediocre ones do this.  The only overly-episodic story I can think of is The Hour of the Dragon, and even the seemingly-inconsequential stuff with the ghouls and Akivasha serves a purpose to move the plot along and to deepen the mythology and themes of the tale.

The real explanation for the plot moving from one set piece to another is much more prosaic: the film was horrendously rushed and re-written to a degree where nothing has any real rhym or reason.  The story was written around what sets were available.  The set-pieces dictated the story instead of the reverse.  That's why everything's so disjointed.

The Internet's Latest Conan-Related Gag

Everyone and their goldfish is talking about Dr. Cimmerian, so I might as well too.
Long Room Hub Associate Professor in Hyborian Studies and Tyrant Slaying.
Dr Conan T. Barbarian was ripped from his mother’s womb on the corpse-strewn battlefields of his war-torn homeland, Cimmeria, and has been preparing for academic life ever since. A firm believer in the dictum that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” he took time out to avenge the death of his parents following a sojourn pursuing his strong interest in Post-Colonial theory at the Sorbonne. In between, he spent several years tethered to the fearsome “Wheel of Pain”, time which he now feels helped provide him with the mental discipline and sado-masochistic proclivities necessary to sucessfully tackle contemporary critical theory. He completed his PhD, entitled “To Hear The Lamentation of Their Women: Constructions of Masculinity in Contemporary Zamoran Literature” at UCD and was appointed to the School of English in 2006, after sucessfully decapitating his predecessor during a bloody battle which will long be remembered in legend and song. In 2011/12, he will be teaching on the following courses: “The Relevance of Crom in the Modern World”, “Theories of Literature”, “Vengeance for Beginners”, “Deciphering the Riddle of Steel” and “D.H. Lawrence”. He strongly objects to the terms of the Croke Park agreement and the current trend for remaking 1980s films that he believes were perfectly good enough in the first place.
He is happy to hear from potential research students with an interest of any of these topics, but applicants should note that anyone found guilty of academic misconduct or weakness in the face of the enemy will be crucified as an example to the others.
It really depresses me that I can't just enjoy this fun, silly little piece of news, because I just can't get over the movie references.  I can't help it, dammit!  Considering Conan's become the head of literature, I would've liked there to be more literary Conan references.  Now, if Conan became head of Media Studies, I wouldn't mind the movie stuff, but putting him in the literature faculty gives the impression the 1982 film was accurate  to the source material and oh Sweet Christmas I can't believe I'm actually critiquing this what is wrong with me I HAVE TO STOP


  1. "It's a sword and sorcery movie, so you're not expecting anything deep and philosophical."

    What an unfortunate thought coming from someone that writes in a genre as similarly maligned as historical romances.

  2. I think I prefer "The Blog that Whines a Lot." Has a nice ring to it.

  3. The Blog That Roars A Lot.

    For the Lion of Scotland NEVER whines.


  4. Hey!

    I found your blog through the ignoble method of one of my reviews appearing on your S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L., but I stuck around as a reader because I enjoy what you have to say.

    I wanted to share my most recent Conan-related article, even in the fear that it won't meet your strict criteria. I couldn't find a contact link for you, so I am posting it here in the comments:

    The Canon of Conan

    Zack Davisson