‘Conan The Barbarian’ (2011)

Back To The Hyborean Age

This may come as a surprise but I was looking forward to this new reboot and somehow managed to miss it at the cinemas. I guess deep down I am a sword-and-sorcery genre fan. Double cheese isn’t cheesy enough for this piece of roadkill bush meat shoved enough two sides of a split burger bun. And I like it that way.

I know I complain about the dumbing down of cinema and the endless parade of comic book characters, but let’s get one thing straight. Conan the Barbarian was written, not drawn. To that extent any adaptations of Conan should at least be put on the same footing as say, Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. The appeal of Conan the barbarian is pretty simple – muscle-bound sword wielding dude who famously “cuts a bloody swath through the Hyborean age” (“Crom! I cut my bloody swath” wrote one wit). Yet, the archetypal figure of Conan actually opens up all sorts of  polemics about strength, kingship, justice and vengeance. The biggest of these polemics might be what is known in the original Conan movie with Arnie as ‘The Riddle of Steel’.

What’s Good About It

Lots of blood-splattering effects and solidly athletic action sequences. Lots of homages to art found in old role playing games. There were more than 4 or 5 scenes that included shots that were lifts from ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and ‘Role Master’ art work. In a weird twist, the cheesier the action got, the more authentic the film got.

Jason Momoa’s Conan is less wry and ironic, more gravelly and glaring. It’s hard to watch Arnie’s Conan movies without a smile these days because we know who he is and what became of the man. It’s great to watch a new actor do his thing as Conan, and for Conant to come alive as a new kind of character. The best thing about a reboot of a Conan movie is that it allows the character of Conan to be divorced from Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a little like divorcing James Bond from Sean Connery, but it has been done. It’s no insult to Connery that many Bonds have followed, and the many Bonds played by various actors has filled out the character of James Bond in so many ways. With a little luck, there will be many more Conan films with many different actors playing the muscle-bound barbarian. Indeed it is a little sad they didn’t get The Rock to play Conan at some point.

What’s Bad About It

I know it’s only a sword-and-sorcery film, but sometimes the film is too much like a hundred action sequences in search of a meaningful plot. It’s a bit like complaining there’s too much sugar in the icing, but they could have spent a bit more time developing the characters on screen. The high priestess ends up in bed with Conan way too simply with apparently very little convincing needed. I know it’s fantasy but, come on.

What’s Interesting About It

Let’s start with ‘the question of steel’, as it is presented in this film. Back in 1982, Arnie’s Conan is told by arch-nemesis and slayer of his father Thulsa Doom played by James Earl Jones that the answer to the ‘riddle of steel’ is flesh. It made for a chilling moment when somebody committed suicide by leaping off a tall structure at Thulsa’s command. The point being, swords don’t kill people, people kill people. In this film, the question of steel has a cryptic answer that it is both fire and ice. The issue is not re-visited ever again. It left me a little bemused because from memory, that’s how Derek Smalls describes his role in Spinal Tap, between the fire and ice of David and Nigel, something like luke-warm water.

Surely luke warm water (or Derek Smalls) can’t be the answer to the question of steel. Plus, I preferred the ‘riddle of steel’ to ‘question of steel’. I guess the way to understand the question of steel is that perfect swordsmanship resides in a ying-yang-like balance that is metaphorically represented in the fire and ice required to temper a blade. It’s a lot less vexing than the ‘riddle of steel’ which tells us that the essentially violent nature of man necessitates the sword. Of course, the 1982 film was written by the likes of John Milius and Oliver Stone so it’s not surprising, but all the same, the new one isn’t as scary as the old one because of it.There are any number of samurai movies that say essentially the same thing, and they’re invariably not as cool as the ones that posit that man’s capacity of violence is what necessitates the sword.

Conan’s Talent For Violence

In the old film, it is not clear that Conan is born a violent being. The part of the story where his village is ruined and his family killed segues into his life as a slave, and through it he finds he is strong and capable of great feats as a result. This iteration of Conan has it that even as a child, Conan is capable of great violence and murder; in fact it is his special talent to kill people. I’m not sure that this is as interesting as the former because in the Arnie text, we come to realise it is about the Darwinian survival of the fittest and of course we see echoes of fascism through Arnie’s Austrian accent. In this version we come to understand that Conan’s prowess isn’t because he’s born to a barbarian family, but because he’s just born that way. I’m not sure this was the right choice, because it sort of means the title is wrong; it should be Conan the Murderous Psychopath.

Anyway, such subtle distinctions don’t register in Hollywood land. Clearly, they like the story about talent.

In the previous Arnie version, Conan comes to understand that it is not strength but will that guides his destiny – his totally unbending determination to exact vengeance finds its answer at the climax as he confronts Thulsa Doom. At that point, it’s not quite about swordplay. In this version, Conan simply must solve the where and when issue of how he exacts vengeance; when he faces off against Khalar Zym, it’s basically about acrobatic swordplay against another adept. The action is good and spectacular, but somehow it means a lot less.

Villains Come Smaller These Days

Which brings me to the bad guy Khalar Zym. Khalar Zym’s quest to re-form some artefact and bring back his witch wife from the dead makes for a great motivation, but it actually betrays something very human. We all grieve, we all mourn, and we all find it hard to let go of our loved ones. This grief has turned Khalar Zym into a marauding monster, but to be honest this is not as scary as the inexplicable snake-god incarnate of Thulsa Doom. I don’t say this to say the earlier film is better – it’s not in many ways – but it has to be said Thulsa Doom as the villain is more insurmountable than Khalar Zym. For that the scriptwriters have to take a hit. For the sake of drama, Conan’s great adversary can’t be a bloke who’s mourning for his wife and working on this nutty project. It has to be an inexplicable evil that comes out of nowhere.

Now that we’ve seen ‘Lord of the Rings’ in the years since the Arnie Conan movies, Conan’s foes should be at least as scary as Sauron. Working up super villains should be the writers’ jobs.

Is There A Future For Conan On Screen?

As much as I found this iteration wanting, I do hold out hope there will be more. This was on the whole a fun film and it was good to see another actor take on the role, freeing the figure of Conan from Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don’t know if it made enough money to warrant another film, and early indications on rotten tomatoes is that critics and audiences alike panned it.

I actually see lots of scope for more adventures in Hyoborea, but clearly nobody’s asking me. 🙂

It would be a real shame if this were to be the last Conan movie; but seeing how bereft of good ideas Hollywood is these days something tells me there will be more.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema, Film, Literature, Movies

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s