Conan the Barbarian was once a household name. Back when I was very young, the character was at the height of his popularity, and you might have seen his grim visage and muscular physique painted on the sides of vans or on the backs of leather jackets. At the very least you would have seen him on the covers of comics, paperbacks, or the big screen of your local movie theatre. But it’s not the 80s anymore, and these days we don’t leave a lot of room for shirtless, brazenly macho murderers and ladies’ men.
Now, when I tell people I work on Conan books and games, they ask, “the comedian?” Sigh. But memories aren’t too short—once I mention Arnold Schwarzenegger, they conjure vague memories of fur diapers and hotdog tans. They’ll say “oh, cool” or some other words of feigned interest, and the conversation moves onto other things. But the community in which I spend a lot of time knows deeply who Conan is and what he’s about. Not only that, they know who Robert E. Howard is and the differences between Kull and Bran Mak Morn, and some—the truly nerdy—know Hyboria is not a place, despite what the marketing department would have them believe.
Needless to say, in this social media circle, the topic of the Conan movies rears its head on a regular basis. Someone’s always stepping in to say, “Hey, did you know the Jason Momoa movie is much closer to Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories?”, as if their observation is novel and a thousand other people haven’t already made the claim. And of course I have to put down whatever I’m doing, sharpen my oversized sword, and wade in to the conversation to tell them how wrong they are. That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its strengths. They all do, but to quote a more modern, hulking, northern warrior, “you have to be realistic about these things”. So I’ve strapped on my sandals and girded my loins for a short exploration into the merits of each Conan film. Next time the topic pops up in my feasting hall, I shall have a link to my definitive say on the matter and can drop it into the conversation like Thulsa Doom’s severed head.
Little wonder Conan the Barbarian (1982) has stuck so firmly in our public consciousness and made the character impossible to separate from Arnold Schwarzenegger, “crushing enemies”, and the Riddle of Steel—It’s a classic film. The script, direction, cinematography, orchestral score, production design and performances all stand out as good to excellent in quality. Pair John Milius’ masculine sensibilities with Arnold’s peerless physique and you’ve got yourself a quintessential testosterone-fuelled fantasy flick and easily the best of the sword and sorcery films. When I ask, “what is best in life?” you know the rest, and that’s because this film is full of classic moments and set pieces. So, it works as a film on its own merits—I doubt anyone reading this would disagree—but how well does it represent Robert E. Howard’s original stories?
On the surface it does a lot wrong in translating Conan to the big screen—especially the character himself. The you-killed-my-family-so-now-I-seek-vengeance plot is sort of anti-Conan and anti-sword and sorcery. Howard’s Conan sought adventure, riches, love, life, and slaying. He didn’t need a reason beyond wanderlust and burning curiosity to explore the glittering kingdoms and tread the jewelled thrones of the earth beneath his feet. It’s also probably hard for the Howard fan to swallow that Conan, regardless of his age, would allow himself to remain a prisoner and a slave. Howard’s Conan would have broken those bonds on his own and spilled the blood of his captors in an explosion of violence. As cool as the Wheel of Pain is, it isn’t something Conan would stick around to push. But if you look beyond the motivations and temperament of the title character and the needless origin story, you will find Howard’s Hyborian Age, lived-in, grim, and brutal. You’ll also find allusions to other Howard’s works including the Kull and Bran Mak Morn tales. So, the appreciation for Howard is present—if not misguided—but arguably overshadowed by John Milius’ wish to make a Genghis Khan film. In short, it’s an excellent genre piece, among the best fantasy films of all time, but not overly rooted in the source material. But that’s okay because we have the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, to course correct and offer a truly Howard-esque Conan, right?
Well…no. With 1984’s the Destroyer we got an objectively worse film—one that dials up the humor, camp. It may be a pretty awful Conan film and dubious on its own merits, but it’s the best damned Dungeons and Dragons movie ever committed to film. While it’s fairly despised by Howard fans, I am not among those who hate it. In fact, I like it—a lot. But it’s for all the wrong reasons, and I can’t really defend it as an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s work. There is that one really awesome, “enough talk!” moment, though. Speaking of that—ENOUGH TALK about Conan the Destroyer.
That brings us to the entire reason I felt compelled to write this article: Conan the Barbarian 2011. I remember my mounting anticipation during this film’s promotion. Those involved attested this would be Robert E. Howard’s Conan onscreen, finally. Of course those promoting it would say that; that’s what they do, and at that time fidelity to source material was the hot thing to do, thanks in no small part to Marvel Studios’ efforts. I can forgive the promoters. But what really disappoints me are all the fans who claim Conan the Barbarian 2011 is Robert E. Howard’s Conan.
I’ve watched the film numerous times, and not even with Mitra as my guide can I understand where this notion comes from. They can’t be serious, right? I assure you, I’ve read countless posts claiming this film is closer to Howard’s Conan than the two films preceding it. How do I say this politely? These folks are selling Haga, and I only smoke the finest Stygian lotus.
I’ve tried to imagine what aspects of the film they believe tether this aggressively generic fantasy film to Robert E. Howard’s greatest creation. Is it the Lord of the Rings plot, where a dread artefact is splintered into pieces and scattered about the land and “hidden for ages”? Is it that Conan’s father was the last protector of the final shard? Maybe it was the wagon chase so emblematic of Howard’s prose (or was that Willow?) No wait, I’ve got it—it’s the parkour sand mummies, right? Of course, and maybe the cool double-bladed scimitar which was only slightly less egregious than the rocket sword from the Sword and the Sorcerer? How about the “master thief” who is clearly respected in Argalon, City of Thieves(what? Where? Huh?)—the master thief whose skill set involves—and I’m not kidding here—having keys. Surely Shevatas, “thief among thieves, whose name was spoken with awe in the dives of the Maul…and who lived in songs and myths for a thousand years” would have been impressed.
No? None of these? Then what makes these folks claim this is Howard’s Conan? Is it the orcs? Yeah, you heard me. Sure, you can argue that Remo and Akhun are just beastly henchmen, but in a movie so clearly aping other aspects of the Lord of the Rings, it’s not a stretch to think the director (Marcus Nispel) or one of the several writers demanded orcs with the serial numbers filed off.
But what about Conan himself? Does Jason Momoa embody Robert E. Howard’s timeless reaver? Yes and no. Momoa shows flashes of greatness in the role and, at times, really does seem to step off the mouldering pages of Weird Tales. There are scenes where he stalks his prey much like a hunting cat, much like Howard describes Conan. He’s got the speed and athleticism and though the sword fights are clearly of the style over substance variety, he is believably deadly with a sword. That said, he also seems a little too Bro-nan for my liking. I appreciate his mirthless grin, but is it really necessary to have Conan say, “come on!” five times over the course of the film? I’m not so sure. He also gives his word to someone that he won’t kill them, only to trick them with semantics. Not very Conan-like, I’m afraid.
As a sword and sorcery film, it’s not bad. It’s not good either, but the Picts, the Dweller, the young Conan scenes, and the pacing are all high points in what ends up being a master-class in derivative storytelling. There’s a Batman Begins scene. There’s a location called the Forbidden Forest. The finale takes place inside Skull Mountain. The revenge plot and the “mystery of steel” are plucked from the 1982 film and rehashed, diminished, and once again, not from Howard’s stories. All of these aspects are fine if you view this film as a long-lost 1980s sword and sorcery flick. But when people claim it’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan on screen, I’m forced to write lengthy articles insisting the contrary.
It has been almost a decade since the last crack at a live action Conan film. There have been false starts and rumours about subsequent projects, and I’m sure before long we’ll all enjoy (or endure) another. Will they finally get things right and offer a film steeped in Howard’s texts? I’m doubtful, but I also don’t believe that’s what we need. Direct adaptations are tricky and mediums differ. Changes are necessary. My hope is that we get something that captures the proper tone, feel, and spirit of Howard’s stories. All three films offer some of these elements, but ultimately they all fail to properly represent Howard’s most popular character and epoch. You don’t have to agree with what I’ve said here, but I appreciate you taking a moment to listen.“And if you do not listen, then the hell with you!”