My Robert E Howard mania has brought me back to the films starring his most famous creation, Conan. I decided to watch and evaluate both films entitled Conan the Barbarian (from 1982 and 2011). Both have their merits, the first becoming a box office smash and the other a flop. Naturally, I'll also point out elements of Howard's tales that they incorporated.

Conan the Barbarian (1982) was the vehicle that made Schwarzenegger a household name. It tells of Conan's village being raided by Thulsa Doom and his enslavement as a youth, then tells how he became a warrior, adventurer, and thief who took his revenge. It has some great philosophical undertones with the movie's theme, the Riddle of Steel, and the analogy that eventually concludes with the insight that it is the man who wields the blade that is stronger than the steel the blade is made from. Hence, we have the Nietzsche quote at the beginning, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." In many ways, the film is done artfully and conveys the feel of how ancient the world is, even in the Hyborian Age. The movie also nails the corruption and decadence of civilization and how it compares to the relative purity of barbarism, a major theme in Howard's work.

What does the movie get wrong? Conan mostly. Howard's Conan is smarter and he's a talker. The movie Conan barely speaks and doesn't have much of a personality. Howard's Conan has equal measures of melancholy and mirth and Movie Conan is mostly melancholy, who broods enough to make Batman envious. The film's Conan is Germanic and that, combined with the Nietzschan philosophy of the superman lead some scholars to see the film as fascist. Howard would have been offended. He despised fascism, particularly Mussolini. He was every bit a fan of less government, and had intended Conan to be an ancestor of the Celts. Howard's sympathies were with the Irish and the Scots. I'm not wholly convinced by the acting either. Like I said before, the film meanders and it is easy to lose the thread of the story.

Storywise, there are elements of the pulps, but the director John Milius, seemed to have more elevated aspirations than pulp. Elements such as thieves infiltrating a tower ("Tower of the Elephant"), Conan's grief over the death of a lover ("Queen of the Black Coast"), and Conan being crucified ("A Witch Shall Be Born") feature prominently in the film. Overall, the film was a success thematically, when considering Howard's work, if not wholly true to his character.

In some ways, Conan the Barbarian (2011), succeeds where it's predecessor failed. I actually like this one more, although that puts me in the minority. In this one, young Conan's village is raided by a warlord who is trying to reassemble an ancient mask created by dark sorcery. We flash forward to an adult Conan who is a warrior and pirate and becomes the protector of a beautiful priestess. He confronts the warlord who plans to use the priestess to activate the mask as a part of his plan to rule the world.

This film has a pulpier feel to it and moves faster. It may not have the philosophical resonances of the first, but I think Jason Mamoa's Conan is a closer match to Howard's vision. He has a big personality with only occasional brooding moments. This Conan wasn't sold into slavery, and it works better because Howard's Conan would have fought being enslaved to his dying breath. The movie makes a more concerted effort to tie Conan to his pulp roots where he is born on a battlefield. It openly references his adventure in the Tower of the Elephant and mentions him storming Venarium. He's not as ripped as Schwarzenegger, but at least this film broke the habit of enlisting Germanic bodybuilders to do a Cimmerian's job.

Problems with this one? The acting isn't the best. I have to admit that the first had James Earl Jones to sell the role of a villain. The villains in the newer film aren't as memorable, aside from Rose McGowan, who played an evil witch. Both films have a corny feel to them which might be inevitable with today's crowd of jaded moviegoers.

Storywise, I would say this one has echoes of "People of the Black Circle" with the plotline of Conan on the run with a female companion and confronts sorcery. There's a little of "Beyond the Black River" with young Conan confronting the Cimmerian"a neighboring enemies. There are also echoes of "Pool of the Black Ones" and "Queen of the Black Coast" with their connections to Conan's pirating days.

Both movies are satisfying watches, but despite growing up with the first I like the 2011 quite a bit. Moreso than the first, the 2011 film captures the escapist fun of the pulp fiction that Conan came from. This is another result of my Howard craze. It is slowing down now and is starting to morph into one of my other recurring obsessions: Weird Tales, my first love of the pulps. More on that some other time.

Written by Nicholas Montelongo

No comments

The author does not allow comments to this entry