Heroes of Appendix N: Conan The BarbarianThe Dark Herald
BUMPED: I got a special Barbarian-flavored treat coming for you tomorrow night.
Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming
Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet…
Conan the Destroyer was a bad movie and it didn’t need to be. The original script would have been a superb sequel to Conan the Barbarian. But a string of terrible decisions ruined what should have been a great movie in the name of maximizing its box office appeal.
The original Conan movie did well but the studio felt there was room for improvement in the bottom line.
I’m going to raise a few eyebrows with this statement: Conan the Barbarian is one of the greatest fantasy movies of all time. No, really, it is. Because it is one of the few good examples of its genre in existence. Sword and Sandals movies have gotten very little respect from their makers. There was a slew of them in the Eighties and they all revolved around B-film actresses in leather studded bikinis getting their tops ripped off by Gruundar the Defiler.
It didn’t need to be this way.
Conan the Barbarian made $70 million against a budget of $20 million. In 1982 terms this was both big-budget and big payoff. And the reason it succeeded was simple enough, it was true to Robert Howard’s source material.
Now, I know there are a lot of you who will say, ‘no, it absolutely wasn’t true to the source the material.’ In Howard’s books, Conan spent his youth in the mountains of Cimmeria. Every day would bring a new struggle for his survival. Every night something would try to kill him. He lived a savage hand to mouth existence for his entire childhood and on into his youth. He was simply, a barbarian.
The Conan in the movie was a slave. And aside from his occasional bouts in the gladiator pit, a rather pampered one. He was clearly well-fed. He was given beautiful women for his pleasure. He joined the masters at their table. He was even made literate and given writing and poetry to expand his mind. Not. A. Barbarian. They didn’t even get his worst enemy right! Thulsa Doom wasn’t a Conan villain, he was from the Kull stories!
And these are all valid points, and they all collapse before one thing.
It felt like a Conan story.
It was a tale that belonged to a world that predated dynastic Egypt and has completely vanished without trace now. A place where Atlantis had been real and had been lost beneath the waves. It was a setting where a Barbarian hacking his way on to a throne by the skill of his sword and the strength of his will was believable. Conan the Barbarian delivered on the dark, savage world of Robert Howard.
Robert Howard’s work is akin to Tolkien’s in that every author who works in the field of fantasy has to consciously accept or reject what he added to the genre. He brought that much to the table in his brief career as an author before he blew his own head off at the age of thirty.
Howard was very much a product of his environment. When he was born, Cross Plains, Texas was a sleepy, little rancher’s town of something like a thousand people. Howard’s father was the town doctor. His mother viewed herself as a fallen, small-town princess who had married down when she wedded Isaac Howard. During Robert’s boyhood, Cross Plains exploded into an oil boomtown and the population soared ten-fold. Along with hard-bitten oil-roughnecks and roustabouts, came whores and gamblers eager to feed off poor men who suddenly had pockets bulging.
As the son of the town doctor, Howard saw the results of easy violence on a daily basis. He saw blood running red and heard strong men trying to bite back screams when his father would set broken bones. He knew what pistol fire sounded like and what the results of those reports would be. The men he knew had memories of Indian raids that were no more distant than our memories of the Gulf War.
Howard had one foot in two different worlds.
In one world, he knew full well what the results were of being the second toughest guy in the room. He took up boxing and considered a career at it. He spoke of the times he was in barroom brawls. He knew he had to live tough because he was aa Texan.
In the other world, his mother’s class insecurity was focused with laser-like intensity on him. She encouraged his efforts at more refined ways of making his way in the world. She also discouraged any kind of relationship with women she viewed as being beneath him. Which was every single woman in Cross Plains, Texas. For that matter, she didn’t like his male friends either. And used her protracted illness from Tuberculosis to isolate him as much as possible.
Sadly, the results of these two worlds produced a man with the socio-sexual rank of Omega.* When his mother finally died he lost half of his identity, his social jailer, and his biggest fan. And that was the end for him. At the age of thirty, he put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger.
His heartbroken father had only his son’s words as a legacy, and so, he created an estate to guard and preserve them.
The original Robert Howard collection had its run through the Depression and then went out of style when the War Years began. During the fifties, there was a revival of interest from fans that had been boys and were now men, who needed replacements for their tattered, dog-eared copies of Weird Tales.
The books sold well enough that the long-dead Robert Howard acquired the first of his many post-humous co-authors; L. Sprague De Camp. He started editing Howard’s stories and then moved on to heavily rewriting them. Turning Howard’s non-Conan stories into Conan stories. Finally, he started producing his own original works of (bluntly inferior) Conan pastiche.
During this period Frank Frazetta’s cover art was creating a face and form that became the figure we all recognize as being Conan’s. Howard’s words were taking on another life.
The fifties run created a new market for Conan in the Sixties. Fans of the savage Cimmerian began pelting Marvel with requests to run a comic book of his adventures. Stan Lee weighed the letters, decided the pile was heavy enough to pursue the matter, shrugged, and handed the whole business over to Howard’s next big co-author; Roy Thomas.
Thomas went to the Howard estate and made his pitch. Which basically came down to, “look I can’t pay you much of anything, but you will be introducing Conan to a new generation of readers. This is an investment in the brand’s future.” The Howard estate’s agent proved to be smarter than the average bear and accepted the deal.
Of the two co-authors, I honestly feel that Thomas had a much better grasp of the material than De Camp did.
This kept Conan alive and expanded the market enough that Hollywood started sniffing around the fifty-year-old property.
The tale of Conan the Barbarian’s production is torturous. The rights were all over hell. The first script by Thomas got chucked. Then came Oliver Stone’s script which was mostly chucked. The producers got bought out and the only thing anyone could agree on was that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the only guy who could play the part.
Oliver Stone’s script found here was true to Howard and Conan’s world and would have been impossibly expensive to film in 1982. John Milius the director of Conan, heavily rewrote Stone’s script.
A lot of the changes were necessary. Expenses had to be reduced. And Conan’s lines needed to be eliminated wherever possible. Arnold’s acting was weak, and his accent was almost incomprehensible in those days.
Yet, the result was a great film with very strong themes that couldn’t get made today. The A-story was a straightforward enough one of revenge on the man that killed his parents, sacked his village, and enslaved him. The B-story was something very unusual. Normally a B-story is something like, the protagonist has something he wants versus something he needs, these two things are diametrically opposed, and eventually, he discovers what he needs is more important than the thing he wants. There are lots of variations on how this is resolved but that is the formula.
In Conan the Barbarian, the B-story revolves around a riddle. The Riddle of Steel was the central question of his life and the pursuit of an answer to it sent Conan on an odyssey that repeatedly took him to the brink of death and left him stronger for it each time.
Conan the Barbarin is a static character and despite wailing protests of English professors, this is just fine if the character isn’t a Mary Sue. Conan is a Gary Stu, he can only maintain his identity through more and more feats of spectacular heroism. That’s honestly fine and it’s all that anyone has ever asked of him. However, that means that he can never be a better man by the end of his story.
But he could find his truth, which is where the Riddle of Steel led Conan.
This is something unique in filmmaking.
Also, the soundtrack was pitch-perfect for the character. Pounding, stark, and stoic.
It was a hit. And so, it was proclaimed that a sequel would have to be made. One of the things that Conan had going for it was that neither the studio nor Dino De Laurentius was paying all that much attention to it when it was being made, they had bigger films to worry about.
But now they could pay attention to it and the project suffered badly for this.
The first and biggest mistake was made by Universal’s accounting wizards who proclaimed in their infinite wisdom that Conan the Destroyer would make thirty percent more money if it had a PG rating instead of an R.
Sure, Conan had made them a lot of money but E.T. had made a shit-ton more. Consequently, Universal was all about moving in on Disney’s turf.
This was nothing short of abject stupidity. Making Conan, lighthearted family-friendly entertainment was going to alienate the core audience. Schwarzenegger knew it and objected strenuously to the new direction, but he wasn’t big enough to make his impact felt back then. So, the gore and the nudity were both out.
Another problem the movie had was that Conan the Barbarian was a stand-alone story with no real room for a sequel. Conan, Subatai, and the Wizard were still alive but that was all they had to go on.
Roy Thomas got to write the first draft called, Conan the King of Thieves. Which bears only a superficial resemblance to the finished film. Honestly, the story had its weaknesses, but it was certainly better than the final product. You can judge for yourself. Thomas published his script as a graphic novel, The Sword of Azoth. You can read it here.
The other problem it had was that Dino DeLaurentis decided to be a lot more hands-on with this production, despite not having any background with or love for the property. He just kept inserting his ideas here and there, no matter how bad his ideas were. And no one could explain to him why they sucked because he was Dino and he wouldn’t listen. As a prime example, he came up with the clown-thief that replaced Subatai. The biggest problem the film had was that John Milius was not brought back to direct. Richard Fleischer, (who hadn’t worked in ten years) was brought on board. This was probably the biggest problem the film had. While Fleischer was competent he wasn’t exceptional, he didn’t have any kind of a vision for the project and since he was happy to be getting a paycheck again, he didn’t buck Dino on any of his “improvements.”
Conan the Destroyer went into production with some fundamental problems hardwired in.
It was one of the first movies that basically said, “screw the old core audience of the franchise. We want a new and better one.” It is easily the silliest of attitudes you can have when making a franchise production. Yet, it is one that has proven to be profoundly pervasive today. This odd belief that all you need from the last story is the title, and a new audience will follow, despite the fact that they weren’t interested the first time around, seems to be nearly an article of religious faith in the modern entertainment industry. Despite the fact that it invariably leaves the core fanbase wandering away muttering, “what the fuck?”
And if you are going to try something this dumb then it is imperative that you make sure your new movie is actually, you know, good.
Conan the Destroyer failed rather badly at this last point.
Movie begins and we have the opening narration of the Nemdian Chronicles.
Then horsemen are galloping across the screen, filmed through a ruddy, cinnamon-colored filter. That actually did look good and felt like it was in keeping with the Hyborean world.
We first see a much more buff-looking Conan kneeling before a stone altar dressed in a furry and comically overstuffed banana hammock. Richard Fleischer had wanted Schwarzenegger to be as big and ripped as Conan was in the comics. John Milius had Arnold slim down as he wanted his version of Conan to look more like a warrior than a bodybuilder. I’ll give Fleisher credit where it’s due, time has found his version to be the more iconic one.
The horsemen quietly surround Conan and his little buddy the clown-thief. They attack. And what little promise the opening shot had vanished. Conan spoke.
Malik: We must have made the Merchant angry!
Conan: Are you, surprised?
Malik: We didn’t steal everything he had!
Conan: We didn’t have time.
In Conan the Barbarian, the first dialog we hear is Conan’s father telling him about Crom and the Riddle of Steel. This established a tone that was consistent though out the entire film
In Conan the Destroyer, this “comedic” exchange, immediately neutralized any tension that was built up by the horsemen galloping up in the previous scene. Conan was now going to be “funny.” And honestly, this was so thickly delivered that Dino may as well have telegrammed the audience in advance to let them know when they were supposed to laugh.
Fight scene begins and Malik the clown-thief reveals himself to be a backstabbing coward. Fine, whatever. What we also see at this point is that Richard Fleischer was drastically behind the power curve on contemporary fight scenes. There were frequent slow-motion shots, to show off Arnold doing something spectacular, like pulling a couple of riders trying to net him, out their saddles. These shots would have been good in the sixties but by 1984, slow-mo in an action scene killed the momentum for a Generation-x audience.
Admittedly, I don’t know how much of this was ordered by Dino DeLaurentis to try and appeal to adolescent viewers. But this is a Richard Fleischer film, his name is on it so he has to answer for it in a way that David Lynch doesn’t for Dune.** And they both had the same crazy boss.
The other issue with the action scenes was frequent, jump-zooms on various characters, which showed their faces rather than what they were doing. This didn’t work with Arnold back then. He needed firmer direction like he had with Conan the Barbarian. In Conan the Destroyer these shots just made him look comically googly-eyed.
Conan dispatches the baddies and the villainess introduces herself. She is on a recruiting mission and promises to return Conan’s dead (uh) wife (I think) Valeria to life. Okay, Conan was never a mental giant but he wasn’t that trusting either. He shouldn’t have taken her at her word for it but does so because the movie needs him to.
They ride into town and there is more clumsy humor. For some unexplained reason, the crowd turns out to cheer Conan’s entry into the city, and again, there is no justification as to why they should react this way to a Cimmerian desert bandit. Also, they steal a joke from the first movie, which was itself stolen from Blazing Saddles. Again there is such a long wind-up for “Conan punches another camel” that no one over the age of eight would have laughed at it.
Parade is over and the Queen briefs Conan on his mission. Her niece has been born with a special mark (which they forgot to show), which means she has to go to a magic castle on a fetch-quest, so she can get a MacGuffin that will allow her to go on another fetch-quest.*** She also has to be sacrificed at the end to bring the Dreaming God, Dagoth back to life but she didn’t tell Conan about that, since she plans to kill him anyway. He has to take Princess Jenna and her bodyguard Bombata with him.
I also, don’t know why they made such a big deal out of Jenna needing to be a virgin when she’s sacrificed. Okay, sure the virginity part is a standard trope but her cherry was never once placed in danger. Not by Conan, not by bandits, not by Wilt Chamberlain (who was rather ironically playing a eunuch). The eunuch thing was another leftover from the previous version of the script and probably left the audience’s confused when Princess Jenna says that Bombata isn’t “a real man.” It was such a vague statement that the viewer couldn’t help but wonder if she felt Bombata was a sub-human because he’s black.
Again, it had been turned into a kid’s movie so there was no real need to leave any of this stuff in. It was clumsy and it just wasted time for no reason.
They ride out.
Conan rescues the shaman from the first movie from cannibals. It was another boring fight scene with a lot of quick zooms featuring googly-eyed Arnold. Plus a slow-mo head spinning, which was something I guess.
Then the fifth member of the Nekama (yes, the use of the word is sarcastic) is recruited. I have no idea where Hollywood’s mid-Eighties obsession with Grace Jones came from. She couldn’t act and if you wanted a black woman there were much better-looking ones available. Seriously, I don’t get why she was such a thing back then. She couldn’t move tickets. Her “music” was about as popular as Yoko Ono’s and no one sane wanted to have sex with her. But somebody at Universal must have thought she was hot because we got to see lots and lots of shots of her ass in this “kid’s movie.”
Team Conan is now assembled, so they start their first fetch quest.
The first MacGuffin is a jewel and it’s guarded by the Wizard Toth-Amon. When I first saw this in the theater back in 1984, I immediately forgave the movie for everything. I was too fast off the blocks there.
Toth-Amon was Conan’s recurring villain in Marvel’s The Savage Sword of Conan. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, title, was a proper comic book and thus subject to the Comic Book Code. Savage Sword was a “magazine,” and as such was NOT. It was much more graphic, with plenty of blood, tasteful nudity, and frequent decapitations. It was everything my grandmother thought comic books were in 1955 and I felt they should have been when I was a kid.
And Toth-Amon was a great bad guy. A perfect foil for Conan.
Conan was physically powerful and Toth-Amon was a legendary sorcerer. Gifted in the Dark Arts and morally flexible in their use. Toth was civilized and Conan was savage. The Barbarian had cunning, the Stygian had vast otherworldly knowledge. They were born to be a Cobra and Mongoose act.
And it was just terrible. The big duel was just a wrestling match with a guy in a rubber mask. Then Conan kills him. So, much for Toth-Amon. I don’t know why they used him.
They go off on the second fetch quest and are briefly waylaid by the queen’s guard in yet a third action scene that does its best to avoid showing the effects of sword fighting. Conan punched another horse.
Anyway, Jenna uses the jewel to retrieve the Horn of Dagoth. Conan’s five-man band then runs into the Keepers of the Horn of Dagoth, who declare their peaceful intent to keep the horn and girl for themselves. And Conan suddenly remembers, oh yeah, I’m a barbarian and shouts, “ENOUGH TALK!”
It was the only decent action scene in the movie and credit where it’s due they made the most of it.
It did its job. It was a great little choppy-choppy sequence and Bombata was made out to be a very creditable threat to Conan. When they had their showdown in the climax the tension is real because you buy him as an opponent.
Anyway, Bombata betrays the team and takes Jenna back to be sacrificed. The sacrifice gets messed up. Dagoth turns into Andre the Giant. There is another wrestling match. Wilt dies, the Queen dies, Dagoth dies. What is left of the Nekama stay on with Queen Jenna and Conan turns down her offer of marriage because it felt more awkward and out of the blue than Kylo and Rey’s first kiss.
Was there anything I liked?
The fight scene in the temple, as I already said. It should be mentioned that Wilt Chamberlain did better than should have been expected for a first performance. Scenes with Jenna were tender enough that I was honestly surprised that Bombata didn’t betray the Queen and try to save Jenna at the end.
The costuming was excellent and very much on point. ****
The rest of it was like Grace Jone’s butt, obvious, over-exposed, and unwanted.
When I was a fighting-man, the kettle-drums they beat,
The people scattered gold-dust before my horse’s feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back.
Okay, I’m done here.
*I completely reject the Oedipus Complex theory. This was a hypothesis generated by armchair psychoanalysts who barely remembered anything from Psych 101. Also, the chief proponents were both Gammas and were jealous of Howard. Trust me, I was an Omega. A wolf can smell one of his own.
**Dune was directed by David Lynch but so hated the cuts DeLaurentis made and took his name off of it. It was officially directed by Alan Smithee. The pseudonym that directors used to use when they demanded their name be removed from a project.
***I don’t have anything against this. I’m just a little overly sensitive to them after the Rise of Skywalker.
**** Conan the Destroyer was shot in Mexico and the costumes and sets stayed there when production wrapped. This led directly to a plethora of super-cheap, direct-to-video, sword, and sorcerer movies in the Eighties. While in the foreground, Princess Bosom-Flowers is getting her top ripped off by the evil Lord Brun-ock, you can spot the Conan costuming on the extras in the background of these flicks.