Monday, February 13, 2017

Conan the Barbarian: A Review, an Analysis, and a Little Bit of a Misunderstood and Improperly Played - While Talking About the Pulps

It appears that, barring a sudden change, my father will not be with us much longer. As his children, grand-children, great-grand-children, and various in-laws gather (there are about 65 of us, all told!) to see him, my thoughts are on what he shared with me.
Note: My father passed away while this was being written. We were able to see him before he died.

In the Spring of 1982 I was 14-going-on-15 and very excited because Conan the Barbarian was coming out soon. My father, who was a huge fan of the pulps, had introduced me to Conan when I was very young (even the De Camp stuff) and I had been mining it for my D&D games for years, along with Howard's works on Kull, Kane, and even his Breck Elkins stories. The day that Conan hit the theaters my father took me to see it.

Over the weekend I saw that the 1982 film was available on streaming and watched it again (the 14th or 15th time, I am sure). I had seen the remake with Momoa in the intervening years, as well as the TV series (Well. Some of the series).


The movie itself is important for a number of odd reasons. It was the star-making vehicle for Arnold, of course, an actor that had a tremendous impact on films in the last third of a century. It spawned the sword & sorcery films craze of the '80's that was fueled by (and helped fuel) the VCR explosion of microbudget films. It helped fuel an interest inside and outside the film industry to examine independent productions. And until LotR it was the de facto standard of S&S action films.

But how was the film, itself?
My father, a big fan of Howard, told me in the lobby as we left,
  "That was really a Kull movie."
  I still think he is pretty accurate with that. Kull spent years as a galley slave and that gave him great strength. Later he was a prisoner/gladiator where his combat skilled were honed and improved.
  In contrast, young Conan was never a slave or gladiator.
  Accepting the movie is more a mash-up of Howardian ideas, how was the film itself?
  Short version? Very Italian.
  Longer version: A large, international cast where the protagonist has very, very few lines. Arnold has to do 90% of his acting non-verbally, and is surprisingly good at it for a first time actor, former bodybuilder. The setting is really odd with a jumble of times and places (done on purpose) and a lot of implication flying around. My favorite is the famous line,
  "Two, three years ago they were just another snake cult, But now they are everywhere."
  While many (including me) find it amusing, it is actually a great piece of subtle world-building.
  The movie is supposedly about Conan's quest to avenge his parents, but huge swaths of the film show him doing a lot of other things. There is a fair amount of topless women (or, as a reviewer I know calls this, 'the cheapest special effect') and there is a great deal of blood and violence. The camerawork is professional, the pacing is OK, and the music is epic.
  My almost-four year old loves the Conan soundtrack. When I put it into the car stereo he always says 'thank you, daddy.'
  The supporting cast is, frankly, really effing weird. A 2-3 minute role is played by Max von Sydow (of Det Sjunde Inseglet, Jungfrukallan, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Hawaii, the Exorcist, and Three Days of the Condor, to start), the main antagonist is played by James Earl Jones (a ton of Broadway as well as Great White Hope and Claudine, etc.).
  FYI, that is one of the most acclaimed international film actors of the 20th Century in a cameo and a villain played by an actor who already had a Golden Globe and a Tony when he showed up at wardrobe. In a low budget, troubled production, foreign financed, sword and sorcery film staring a weightlifter in his first role.
  The supporting antagonists are played by a Broadway dancer who had only had non-speaking film roles before this (as a dancer and the Greek muse of dance) and by a professional surfer. Jones' supporting antagonists were a former Green Bay Packer and a strongman competitor.
  Yeah.

 The plot? it is a mess. Thulsa Doom rides into a village, kills a lot of people, sells the kids to a grist mill that is the open on a desolate mountainside, and rides off. A kid slave pushes the mill until he is grown, then is a slave gladiator, then runs off and hooks up with a thief, and robs things while trying to track down the guy who wiped out his village. He meets a girl while robbing a snake cult, finds the symbol of the guys who wiped out his village, and is hired by a king to steal back a princess from the cult. He gets caught and learns Doom is now a cult leader. Doom has him crucified, but he pulls through. The girl gets all dead, him and the thief wipe out some thugs, he beheads Doom, and the cult is sad.
 I've heard the movie called 'Conan vs. the Flower Children' and 'Conan Makes Hippies Cry' because of the odd cult central to the plot. When the movie was made cults were big in the media and some had been pretty odd, so they were popular in books and films of the day so they were on people's minds.
  But the script gives no explanation why people would join a vicious snake cult that loves human sacrifices of its own members, and practices cannibalism when magic is demonstrably real. No, really - in Real Life people join cults for a number of reasons, but in the land of Conan it is because Thulsa Doom can do magic.
  Well, so can the crazy guy in the hut. So can the witch in that other hut. Why don't they have cults?
  And if Doom can mind control people, why not mind control a king and take over that way?
  Yes, yes, I know - it is a riff on the actual cult of Assassins from history. The tale of the leader of the assassins ordering a follower to leap to his death is repeated in the film.
Note: the word 'assassin' does NOT derive from the Arabic word for 'user of hashish'. The real assassins were Persian and spoke an older form of Farsi. The leader of the assassins was named Hassan; the term for his followers would have been hassanassa (or close enough). A little blurring later and it became assassins.
  In the end we never really know what Doom was really doing or was really after. Heck, it is vaguely implied that he's half-mad and that his lieutenants follow him to smash things, kill people, and to get rich off what he leaves lying around.

  Overall it is an average film with a flash or two of brilliance balanced out by a few failures.

  The 2011 film was disappointing to me. They stuck closer to the story of Conan in some ways (he was the son of a blacksmith and was born on a battlefield) but again his motivation is to avenge the murder of his father and village. Again there is a single main antagonist who is on a quest (although that quest is a bit more coherent this time). Just as in the first film, Conan's life goal is realized in the film's climax, givings little reason to have more Conan stories.
  The remake was a bomb and is more of a cautionary tale than an inspiration.

  Let's back up and talk about the non-film Conan a bit. As this article mentions, when Howard wrote the first Conan story he effectively invented the sword & sorcery genre with a single short story. And Conan's tales are the de facto template for a lot of fantasy RPGs, as well. The Conan stories were incredibly influential in the writing world and the authors who speak openly of how they borrow from, allude to, etc. Conan tales is a long list, indeed.
  The short stories (novelettes, really) were originally published between December 1932 and July of 1936 with most of them (12 of the 17 he sold himself) published in the 24 months between December 1932 and December 1934. A few works he hadn't sold were published in 1952/1953, another complete but unsold tale, some related works finished by Howard,  and some unfinished ones were published from 1965 through 1969.
  Consider that - the Conan tales were so popular there was a market for story fragments more than 30 years after the death of the author!
  The Howard tales were published as hardcover collections from 1950 to 1957 and a paperback series (edited/reworked by de Camp and Carter) were published from 1966 to 1977. Since Howard's death more than 50 original novels featuring Conan have been written by dozens of other writers including names like Poul Anderson, Harry Turtledove, and Robert Jordan. I have no idea how many original short stories using Conan have been published since, but the number must be huge.
  Marvel started creating Conan comics in 1970 and keep creating new tales for 23 years. Demand was high enough that they published 2 different comics for 19 of those years! Those comics are being reissued as trade paperbacks to this date.
  Darkhorse also ran a comic for the decade between 1993 and 2003.

  Sweet mercy! Conan stories have been popular and sold well for 80+ years, meaning they have appealed to 4 generations. If it hadn't been for WWII and the Korean War causing paper to skyrocket in price there wouldn't have been that decade gap in publishing, obviously.
  Toss in RPGs and computer games and you have Conan making coin in virtually every realm but Old Time Radio. The Conan franchise is a cash-making powerhouse that appeals to young and old. It is one of those intellectual properties that appeals to a broad spectrum of consumers, obviously, with mass appeal to working class and the educated.

  So why did the first movie stumble and the second one totally tank?!

  Simple - the people who wrote and led the movies don't "get" pulps.

  Thanks and good night!
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  What's that? You want more details?
  Sure!

  The two movies share a narrative arc; young Conan's father imparts some wisdom; young Conan's tribe is attacked and his parents are killed before his eyes; adult Conan sets out to avenge his father; Conan fights a wizard; Conan gets revenge.
  This is very much Screenwriting 105: Joseph Campbell and the Hero's Journey. It makes sense this is how it would play out. The 2011 writers were a low-experience bunch who before and since wrote very conventional, by-the-numbers stuff that never did well. The 2011 Conan was bland because the people who wrote it made it like every other screenplay written by someone who was trained to write after about 1970. To the majority of these folks this is what fantasy or swords & sorcery writing means;
  'Take Campbell's Hero's Journey, plug in names and swordfights, have the production designer put in flames, caves, and caves with flames, done.'
  It is lazy writing taken up to template levels. And it shows. It was referenced when making 2001; Lucas referred to it again and again when making Star Wars. And since Vogler's 'A Practical Guide to the Hero With A Thousand Faces' was issued as a memo it is now effectively 'the plot' being used in Hollywood.
  Want to know why the Star Wars prequels were so bland? Lucas knows one plot, and it isn't his. Why does season 3 of the Flash have the same arc as seasons 1 & 2? it is the only arc the writers know.
  Even the writers of the 1982 Conan were doing much the same. John Milius' previous works include Jeremiah Johnson, which has a very similar narrative in a number of ways. He also did a lot of the script for Apocalypse Now.... The first version of the 1982 Conan was by Oliver Stone (yes, really) and he wanted it much more akin to (of all things) Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream, a book I really must write about. But both of these men had heard of and referred to the Hero's Journey idea and have used it since.

  Howard died well over a decade before The Hero With A Thousand Faces was published and I think that he would have sneered at it. As many more people before me have pointed out, Campbell's theory of the Hero's Journey is malarky. It is so very broad that it can't be defended in a scholarly sense and yet it is so confining and  predictable that when writers use it it hits everything with a Power Word: Bland spell effect. It fails to describe a number of rather seriously important myth cycles and attempts to shoehorn all of heroic narrative into a single pattern.

  Howard didn't write with that One Plot. Howard wrote all sorts of things, but even in his longer works he mixed it up. The first Conan story is a simple 'don't get assassinated' with a mystical element. Red Nails is a freakin' dungeon crawl right out of D&D. The Tower of the Elephant is a caper story with a supernatural element.
  As the blog post above mentioned, Howard obviously wrote at least some Conan as 'pre-historical Westerns', but others were robbery stories, prisoner escape stories, pirate stories, you name it. The setting, the secondary characters, the antagonist, and the plot differed all the time. The only constant was Conan himself.
  That is the real issue; the Conan of the movies differs too much from the Conan of the tales. Howard's Conan is not just fierce and strong, he's intelligent, insightful, and charismatic. But the two things critically important about the Conan of Howard that is effectively absent from the movie are that Conan is chivalrous and non-materialistic.

  I have mentioned this before, but chivalry is not about which fork is for salad and which wine goes with duck. Chivalry is about how professional killers behave. Conan instinctively protects women because of course he does, what sort of man wouldn't protect a woman? His men love him because he treats them firmly but fairly and expects nothing from them he does not expect of himself first. Rape?! The thought would never cross his mind. A willing woman is wonderful, an unwilling one has just made up her own mind. He would never betray a friend because friends don't betray each other, although a treacherous person might be surprised at just how hard Conan can strike back at those who double-cross him....
  So Conan is brave, loyal, and straightforward. He doesn't pay lip service to the equality of women because he has no wish to impress anyone. He doesn't praise women for being like men (although he loves a strong willed, fierce woman) because he likes women as women. This is related to something else I don't see a lot of from contemporary writers - Conan has an actual respect for women as women. He is very close to this in the 1982 movie, but much farther away in the 2011 movie. One of the things in the 2011 movie that struck me as being out of character was the idea that Conan would lose a war of words; Howard wrote him as being very sharp and quick verbally as well as physically and he was good with a jibe, joke, or taunt.

  The lack of materialism may be the hardest for modern writers (and readers!) to grasp. Look at Tower of the Elephant; Conan, nominally a thief at that time, and openly out to steal a great gem, ignores a huge fortune in gemstones on his way into the tower and then abandons the target gem as he simply leaves.
  This is so confusing for most contemporary readers even the wikipedia page has snarky comments about how Conan ignores all this wealth, implying it is terrible writing.
  No, the author of the snark just doesn't understand Conan! Conan didn't want to steal the Heart of the Elephant to get rich, he wanted to be the man that stole it! It wasn't the material value, but the risk and the ability to prove his own skill that drew him. Once he was in the tower his goals changed; now stealing the giant gemstone meant nothing to him. Having done what he wanted, he left happy and satisfied because he had achieved his (non-material) goal.
  Or consider this rather famous passage from the Jewels of Gwahlur,
Conan was almost under the spot from which the creature had fallen. The monster struck the lower arch glancingly and shot off, but the writhing figure of the girl struck and clung, and the chest hit the edge of the span near her. One falling object struck on one side of Conan and one on the other. Either was within arm's length; for the fraction of a split second the chest teetered on the edge of the bridge, and Muriela clung by one arm, her face turned desperately toward Conan, her eyes dilated with the fear of death and her lips parted in a haunting cry of despair.
Conan did not hesitate, nor did he even glance toward the chest that held the wealth of an epoch. With a quickness that would have shamed the spring of a hungry jaguar, he swooped, grasped the girl's arm just as her fingers slipped from the smooth stone, and snatched her up on the span with one explosive heave.
"Well," said Conan, setting the girl on her feet within the sheltering screen of branches,
"we can take our time now. I don't think those brutes will follow us outside the valley. Anyway, I've got a horse tied at a water-hole close by, if the lions haven't eaten him. Crom's devils! What are you crying about now?"
She covered her tear-stained face with her hands, and her slim shoulders shook with sobs.
"I lost the jewels for you," she wailed miserably.
"It was my fault. If I'd obeyed you and stayed out on the ledge, that brute would never have seen me. You should have caught the gems and let me drown!"
"Yes, I suppose I should," he agreed. "But forget it. Never worry about what's past. And stop crying, will you? That's better. Come on."
   Conan had come for the jewels for the sake of having them and, yes, for the wealth. But to him vast wealth was insignificant compared to the life of a near-stranger slave girl. Why? He isn't a materialist. He really just can't fathom why the girl is crying over the jewels he just let fall in the water.

  Can you imagine how the first scene would have be written in a contemporary movie? Conan would have been greedily stuffing ever gem he could find into pockets, feverish with greed. At the end he would have been devastated that he didn't get the massive wealth of the huge stone.
  In the second the camera would have cut from the girl to Conan's eyes to the chest to his eyes to the girl as the actor showed great confusion and indecision over the girl and the gems and then he would have gotten the girl, but resented it.
 Why?
  The screenwriters can't grasp a character that isn't a materialist.

  This is another reason the arc of 'avenge my father's murder' is slapped onto the Conan movies; the writers want to motivate Conan, they want to give him a reason to pursue all these adventures, to travel to all these places, to fight all these creatures. They assume that for a man to conquer incredible odds and do incredible deeds of heroism he needs a motivation that is almost singular, one that would obsess an man. So they kill his father (and mother) in front of him.

  But in Howard's tales, why did Conan leave home? What drove him to be a mercenary in the frozen North, a thief in the desert metropolis, a pirate, a nomadic horseman, a soldier, a general, and a king? What great event forced him to leave his home village and put him on the path of the hero? Was it murder? Death? A lost love?
  According to Howard, Conan walked the world because... he was bored at home. Conan wandered the land and sea, fought monsters and wizards, and became a mighty king all because he was restless and easily bored.
  It seems legit. I joined the army very literally because I knew it would be hard and I wanted to be hard enough to do it. A friend of mine joined because he wanted to travel for free. Hundreds of reasons, all legitimate, all interesting.

  It seems that 'because he wanted to' or 'because it is his job' just don't strike contemporary writers as actual motivations, however, so they invent really huge events to motivate characters.
  Look at the Bond movies. The first several were '...007, your mission is...'. These days? Every trailer might as well open with a voiceover proclaiming,
  "This time, it's personal!!!!"

  But the pulps didn't have this problem!
  To the pulps doing something hard because it was hard was the default. Valuing any life over riches was the hallmark of a hero - being conflicted over saving a life versus becoming wealthy was a sign of moral weakness. Men saved women from peril because that is what men do.
  Look at the great characters of the literature from H. Rider Haggard to Leigh Brackett - you see this archetype of the hero who is chivalrous and anti-materialist held in contrast to "civilized man", usually meaning people who replace virtuous character with empty courtesy. The bystanders, weak supporting antagonists, and peripheral antagonists will often be men and women of soft moral fiber and a strong materialistic focus; they lie, cheat, steal, and kill for money and power for their own sake. Howard in particular viewed a great deal of 'civilization' as an excuse to avoid moral development.
  Look at Ignosi of King Solomon's Mines; a noble, honorable man focused on regaining the throne that is rightfully his and in freeing his people from tyranny. Ignosi was praised in story and out for his regal bearing, virtuous character, great courage, and good counsel. The fact that the character is a Black African and that the novel was written in 1885 shows just how much good morals were a critical element of characterization!
  In Haggard's books of the 19th Century, Burrough's books of the first half of the 20th, Howard's tales, and most others race is mentioned... and then dismissed as secondary to chivalry and a non-materialist outlook (also called 'good character' in the sense of moral outlook). In the Barsoom novels even species is secondary to good character!

  What motivated these pulp heroes? That varied tremendously. Conan wanted to see what was over the next hill and wanted money to buy wine. Breck Elkins just stumbled into trouble over and over. Tarzan was typically minding his own business when someone decided to annoy him enough to make him act. John Carter was either looking for his wife or fulfilling his duties as a political leader. Allan Quatermain was usually exploring new lands or looking for someone who was lost.
  In other words, the authors were creative.

  Let's talk about gaming for a little bit.
  I have listened to the backstories of player characters in vast numbers. I know of exactly 4 who had a backstory of 'I quest for vengeance for my slain parents'. 3 were in 1982-1983 and one was in 2011. All were fighters (barbarians, actually). The problem with such a background is it is very limiting. If you aren't seeking vengeance right now, why aren't you? Does that dungeon have bearing on your vengeance? And once you get your vengeance, then what? Back to your village to become a pig farmer? It can soon get very thin. Of even worse, it can be a demand that the other players and even the entire campaign revolve around your backstory.
  Hell, even Batman turned the murder of his parents in front of his eyes into a general hatred of crime rather than 'I'll get that guy!'. Otherwise it would have been 4-5 issues and then done. I think one of the most refreshing backgrounds for a player character barbarian I ever read was 'he wanted to go somewhere that it never snows and then decided to look other places, too.' It was from a 10 year old boy that hadn't read or seen Conan yet. He went on to play a great barbarian for many years.

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  I had a bit more to say, but I think the note at the top of the page explains why I am wrapping up a touch early
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  In the end, Conan is a rich, complex character whose goals and motivations often change in the middle of a story. This makes perfectly good sense and is dramatic because in Real Life people change as they encounter new things. The pulps did a good job of capturing this in their stories.
  Most contemporary writers, however, seem more wedded to a particular story arc than to such actual on-screen development of character.
  Don't fall for this as either GM or player. Let motivation wander around, let goals change, let real growth occur.