Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pondering Conan the Barbarian

What to make of John Milius' 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, which made a star of the largely unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger? That's a question with no easy answer, even though I've spent more time than I care to admit trying to disentangle my own very conflicted feelings about it. Conflicted feelings seem to be par for the course from what I can tell, with even professional Howardists (is that a word?) divided, sometimes bitterly, over its relative merits. That said, there are at least two points on which everyone agrees:
  1. The film's soundtrack, by the late Basil Poledouris, is pretty much perfect in every way.
  2. The film's 1984 sequel, Conan the Destroyer, was abominable.
Unfortunately, that's the extent of the common ground between the lovers and the haters of this film.

I was 13 when this film was released, but, due to its R rating, I didn't see the film until it was released on video sometime afterwards. At that point, my exposure to the character of Conan was limited primarily to a handful of Lancer paperbacks I'd picked up here and there, almost none of which contained any actual stories by REH. Consequently, I wasn't much bothered by most of the divergences from the Howardian canon, because, quite frankly, I was utterly unaware of them. Having only read (I think) parts of Conan the Avenger and Conan of Aquilonia, my sense of the both the character of the Cimmerian and of the Hyborian Age was lacking. I'd also seen the covers of many a Marvel comic featuring Conan, though I'd never read one.

Given this background, the story and character we got in the film matched my own expectations reasonably well. Indeed, if one takes Conan the Barbarian simply on its own terms, as a swords-and-sorcery tale vaguely inspired by some names found in Robert E. Howard stories, I think it still holds up quite well. Certainly it reaks of pastiche. Untutored though I was in the mysteries of pure Howard back then, I could still sense that it was a strange, cobbled together Frankenstein of a movie, unapologetically borrowing elements from a wide variety of sources. I don't consider "pastiche" a term of opprobrium. Dungeons & Dragons wouldn't exist if not for the gleeful pastiche-making of Gygax and Arneson and, as readers of this blog know, I actually believe D&D is at its best when referees and players alike adopt a similar approach in their own games.

Yet, there's little question in my mind that Conan the Barbarian can't really be called "Howardian" except in a tenuous analogical sense. Yes, there are characters, themes, and even scenes that appear in the film that are broadly consonant with Howard's own work. However, I can't recall a single line of dialog in the film that comes from a REH story (someone can correct me if I'm wrong) and there are a few places where I feel the film actually undermines Howardian themes, replacing them with its own. Again, I don't mean this in a negative sense. Much like D&D, I think there's virtue to be found in creating one's own story by looting the parts of other stories one likes. So long as one doesn't mistake this for "being true to the spirit" of authors and stories one loots, you won't hear a peep of criticism from me.

As I got older, though, I read more genuine Howard and came to appreciate his work considerably more than I ever had as a youth. It's hard now, with the knowledge of and love for those stories that I now possess, to view Conan the Barbarian as much more than a typical example of Hollywood grave robbing, albeit a riotously fun example of it. As I said before, if this movie had been about some other northern barbarian seeking revenge against the slayer of his parents and people, I could continue to extol its virtues without qualification, because I think Conan the Barbarian may well be the best swords-and-sorcery movie ever made. Admittedly, that's as much an indictment of Hollywood's woeful treatment of the genre as it is praise for the film, but I mean it positively.

Conan the Barbarian
is a fun, occasionally insightful, feast for the eyes and I enjoy it on that level. I think, though, that it's also an exercise in brandification, playing off the fame of the name "Conan" to tell a very different story than any Robert E. Howard would have told. For many people, Schwarzenegger's portrayal of Conan in this film is the only exposure to the character they will ever have and that's a shame -- not because I think Schwarzenegger's portrayal is bad (I don't) but because his portrayal has very little to do with Howard's Cimmerian. Now, for many, this isn't an issue, in much the same way that they can shrug off the brandification of D&D over the years. If one has no particular knowledge of or liking for the real Conan, this criticism likely rings hollow. And of course many people who possess both still don't see it as a fatal flaw to what I cannot deny is a well-made fantasy action film.

So where does that leave me? I still don't know. Part of me just wants to sit back and revel in the spectacle of it all, for the film has many terrific moments that I absolutely adore. Another part of me recoils, though, at the hash made of Conan, the Hyborian Age, and the auctorial voice of Robert E. Howard. Even more than the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings films, Conan the Barbarian misrepresents its ostensible inspiration to audiences who might otherwise not be familiar with them. Traditionalist that I am, I can't help but be bugged by that. Is that enough to make me stop watching the film every now and again? No, it's not, which makes me wonder if why. Do I continue to enjoy it in spite of the things I dislike about it or do I perhaps sense some hidden depth to the film that I'm not yet consciously aware of? Or is it that I just hope that there's something of substance beneath the spectacle? I wish I knew.

57 comments:

  1. Your thoughts on this pretty much mirror my own. Although in my own case, I can enjoy it a bit more as a mish-mash pastiche now that when I first saw it - as a youth raised on Howard, it offended my purist sensibilities to no small degree, whereas now I can just shrug, and remember that it's just a film, I should really just relax.

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  2. While it fell short of REH's stories, Milius is a great director who is not infected with the usual Hollywood wussy gene (he also directed "Red Dawn", for example).

    I did like some of the backstory details. For example, the crossguard on Conan's father's sword is supposed to represent the skull of a now extinct Irish Elk, which dovetails nicely with the sort of pre-pre-history premise of REH ("between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas"...) The sword that Conan finds in the tomb (and I think we was robbed - that skeleton should have attacked him, just like in the original REH story!) has all sorts of symbology related to Atlantis and its destruction. Take a look at a close up shot of the hilt sometime and you'll see what I mean.

    In the end, I like the movie a lot, but it could have been better. And, yes, the 2nd movie was apalling...

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  3. I was first exposed to Conan via the comics, then the film, then the various novels, and finally Howard's own work. My feeling is that there are many, many Conans, and I jusge them each on their relative merits. Conan the Barbarian is the best swords & sorcery movie yet produced, and I worry no more about Milius' presentation than I do of Boorman's Excalibur. Indeed, I see it not as evidence of brandification, but of the mythologising of the Conan character on the same level as King Arthur or Roland.

    I never worry about good films. ;)

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  4. The sword that Conan finds in the tomb (and I think we was robbed - that skeleton should have attacked him, just like in the original REH story!)

    Unfortunately, that wasn't an original REH story. It was Lin Carter rewriting an old Thongor story and L. Sprague DeCamp allowing it to be our first glimpse of Conan, rather than the much better "Tower of the Elephant".

    I am a textual REH purist -- the current Del Rey editions answer the long-held need for pure and unedited/amended/pastiched Conan stories, as REH wrote them. I never much cared for the comics (save for issues of Savage Sword where they presented illustrated versions of Howard tales), and the movie . . . well, the movie is indeed a good fantasy film. But, Milius wasn't making a fantasy film. He was making a Conan film, and in that it's an abysmal failure.

    Rather than stick to REH's own backstory for Conan (born on a battlefield, a warrior of note by his fifteenth year, part of the Cimmerian horde at the sack of Venarium), Milius and Oliver Stone instead create an insipid origin, casting Conan, who had ever been the ultimate icon of unfettered freedom, as a slave -- doomed to push a Useless Wheel until his master saw fit to train him in the art of war (also known as throwing him into a pit and hoping for the best). Does Conan kill his master and escape? No. No, that would be too much in the vein of true REH.

    I can literally go on forever about how *bad* the movie mangles REH. Yes, in retrospect it is a good Sword and Sorcery film, and Milius redeemed himself in my eyes a thousand times over with his work on Rome, but as a Conan film it is the celluloid equivalent of pissing on REH's grave.

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  5. Much as I like Conan the Barbarian, I think it is a stretch to call it the best swords and sorcery film of all time. I might place The Sword and the Sorcerer above it, or the Harryhausen Sinbad films.

    That said, the fast-and-loose treatment of the original REH material doesn't bother me in the least. Indeed, the fact that it is so fast, and so loose, affords me the opportunity to say to myself that it's another barbarian named Conan, in a milieu that happens to have some superficial similarities to the Hyborean Age.

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  6. I agree with Mr. Stanham. I find it much more useful to think in terms of a varying field of Conan literature of which Howard's original stories are a key part, but not the only part. Taken in that view, I think the movie holds up as well as many of the best of the comics and better than most of the non-Howard stories.

    Am I the only one who likes the second film? Clearly it's an inferior bastardization of everyone's favorite Cimmerian, but until the official D&D movie it was one of the best examples in film of how half-assed adventuring parties slop their way through the DM/director's lame plot. The first movie is how I wish my campaigns played out, the second film is what happens when the dice hit the table.

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  7. I love the film, but it's definitely alien to the spirit of REH. A Nieztschean epic with a deep moral sense - though not Christian morality, of course - completely different from REH's Conan with his amorality combined with rough honour. Schwarzenegger's Conan is neither amoral nor honourable.

    The look of the movie is very good, on a limited budget it creates a sense of a lived-in world.

    Overall, I have to say I kinda prefer the film to the REH stories, good though they are. They're terribly, terribly dark. The movie is like the Ring Cycle condensed into a couple of hours, and its ending (especially in the Director's cut) leaves me with a cathartic feeling I've rarely experienced elsewhere.

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  8. I never worry about good films. ;)
    Yes, yes, yes. I absolutely adore the first Conan film. It may not be true to the original works, but that makes it no less a great piece of work.

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  9. Rather than stick to REH's own backstory for Conan (born on a battlefield, a warrior of note by his fifteenth year, part of the Cimmerian horde at the sack of Venarium), Milius and Oliver Stone instead create an insipid origin, casting Conan, who had ever been the ultimate icon of unfettered freedom, as a slave -- doomed to push a Useless Wheel until his master saw fit to train him in the art of war (also known as throwing him into a pit and hoping for the best). Does Conan kill his master and escape? No. No, that would be too much in the vein of true REH.

    This, to me anyway, is perhaps the biggest divergence from REH and the one that rankles me to no end. Much of the rest I can stomach or rationalize a way, but it's very hard to reconcile Howard's Conan to the origin the film gives to him.

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  10. Much as I like Conan the Barbarian, I think it is a stretch to call it the best swords and sorcery film of all time. I might place The Sword and the Sorcerer above it, or the Harryhausen Sinbad films.

    The Sinbad films certainly bear mentioning, but I don't think I can ever take The Sword and the Sorcerer very seriously after the grindstone scene ;-)

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  11. The first movie is how I wish my campaigns played out, the second film is what happens when the dice hit the table.

    That's a very interesting way to look at it.

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  12. My major complaint with the movies is that Conan is portrayed as being stupid, not helped by Arnold's poor english and the dumb, brutal barbarian is now what Conan means to most people rather than the savvy, shrewd and later even political character as he is portrayed in the REH books and the comics.

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  13. In an issue of Dragon, EGG, in one of his few non-gaming article diversions, reviewed both S&S and CTB and pretty much (IIRC) eviscerated them. He also liked the sequal to Conan better than the original.

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  14. James, I'm not gonna lie to ya. You like it because it's a damn fun movie, whatever qualms there are to be had with it, and there's no shame in that.
    Verification word: Outbei
    Definition: particularly barren stretches of seafloor covered in sand. The outback of the bay.

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  15. I don't like either Conan film.

    I do love the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films, though. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is my favorite of the three.

    My favorite fantasy (as opposed to space fantasy, sci-fi, monster, or horror) film is Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts.

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  16. The movie can be fun, but the trip-wire controversy with the horses has always bothered me. There is no need to injure or kill animals for movies or other sorts of entertainment.

    I grew up as an avid hunter and was taught to kill to cull and to eat what you slay.

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  17. Yes, Conan in the first movie is not true to the REH creation, and even made him look like a [brute/idiot/tool] next to the original. I'm a REH purist, but I dont rally blame the filmmakers for the inaccuracy - in fact, they did their damnedest to give it a strong Hydorian Age feel! I (and many other REH fans) put the blame for the generally accepted inaccuracies on L. Sprague DeCamp. Their are a number of REH fans who still like DeCamp's works, but many hate how he altered Howard's work, and how he hoarded his work from the public eye.

    Thus far, Conan the Barbarian is the best swords & sorcery movie, because it still holds well to the spirit and soul of S&S! The title character may not be true to the original source - which could not be helped - but the movie's style and trappings (not to mention the gratuitous content) is definitely a the Hyborian Age!

    Mind you, Conan the Destroyer dont count! It was more of a live action cartoon to appeal to younger viewers! The less said about Conan the Adventure (both the cartoon and live-action shows), the better!!!

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  18. I cut my teeth on Conan. Not all of that Conan was Howard's of course, I intermingled the de Camp and Lin Carter pastiches in freely, as well as the Roy Thomas comics.

    Still, Conan was a much bigger influence on my gaming life than Tolkien.

    As such, I never really cared for the Conan movie. I felt Sword and Sorcerer, which is a terrible movie, still managed to capture the feel of Hyboria better than Conan.

    I guess as a fantasy movie, it was ok but even as a kid I preferred Ladyhawke to the Conan movie.

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  19. Just pretend it's called Ed the Barbarian. Problem solved. :)

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  20. Scott Oden wrote: Unfortunately, that wasn't an original REH story. It was Lin Carter rewriting an old Thongor story and L. Sprague DeCamp allowing it to be our first glimpse of Conan, rather than the much better "Tower of the Elephant".

    Actually, the our first look at Conan should be either be:

    "The Phoenix on the Sword" (first published)

    or

    "The Frost Giant's Daughter" (first in internal chronological order)

    I know that the "official" timeline for Conan claims that he leaves the barbarian north, journeys into the lands of civilization, and then later returns to the barbarian north for the events in "The Frost Giant's Daughter". But there's no reason for that to be true, and many reasons why it shouldn't be thought of as such.

    Regarding the film: Normally, I don't get particularly fretful about the faithfulness of an adaptation. For example, I enjoy the Constantine movie immensely while simultaneously recognizing it as being completely non-faithful to its source material. (OTOH, when a movie deviates from excellent source material in order to suck, it leaves me scratching my head.)

    But I feel strongly that Robert E. Howard's reputation -- both personal and literary -- was horribly and senselessly sullied by those responsible for managing his literary legacy. (L. Sprague de Camp, in particular, deserves to be singled out for particular scorn.)

    The Conan film -- for better or for worse -- is a part of that wider mismanagement of Howard's legacy. And it's difficult for me to separate its merits from its wider context.

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  21. I would have to agree with Geoffrey and give nod and great praise to Jason and the Argonauts, then Golden Voyage of Sinbad, in that order. I saw Conan with EGG at its release, and he left the theater in Lake Geneva saying, "Arrfg! Split pea and hand soup!" He was sorely disappointed. I shared his sentiments, but not wholly (as James); and did not agree with him on the sequel,as I am in the consensus as noted by James, there.

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  22. Justin Alexander wrote: Actually, our first look at Conan should be either be:

    "The Phoenix on the Sword" (first published)

    or

    "The Frost Giant's Daughter" (first in internal chronological order)


    Agreed, on all counts.

    I, too, would count Jason and the Argonauts as a far superior fantasy film.

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  23. Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That's what's important! Valor pleases you, Crom... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!

    I get a kick out of that every time.

    I have to admit, I just love the movie because it's a hell of a lot of fun. Now, maybe I'm not the best judge. I grew up on a grab bag mix of Savage Sword of Conan, the Del Ray books, the regular Marvel comics title, and yes, the movies, and I've only recently gone back to reread the original stories.

    And let's not forget: if not for those comic books and movies and bastardized versions of the tales, I might not even have known about Conan, or cared enough to have gone back now to read the originals. Some folks are concerned about these treatments ruining how people experience the material. I'll grant that I'm only a population of one, but I wonder if I'd care as much about Conan now if it hadn't been for those treatments.

    So in general, I lean toward JRients's take. There's a big pot of Conan stuff out there, and I love different flavors of it at different times for different reasons.

    Rich

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  24. What it boils down to is that once you hear the wardrum in the opening, your blood stirs.... no matter how many times you've watched the movie. I also find that CTB is an example of perfect meshing of music to imagery. Start counting the minutes from the opening until you get some first real dialogue and not narration.... and you never really miss the spoken word! The score carries the tone and tells the story, along with some fantastic scenes showing what life as barbarian may truly have been like. Philosophy sprinkled throughout.
    True to REH's image? Probably not, but read the series of books and you will note that Conan is reimagined several times, hence so many different titles. I'm almost glad the movie is what it is and not trying hard to stick to a traditionalist approach, utterly failing to please people in the end.
    EGG, although I am grateful for what he gave us and still remember those young hands grabbing his works off bookshelves in awe, was a horrible movie critic. I really don't care much what he thought of the film. He actually liked the second DnD movie, which is laughable.

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  25. Slightly off topic. Dark Horse has been reprinting the old Savage Sword of Conan magazines in the form of large trade paperbacks. Good stuff.

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  26. IMO, the best thing for a Conan movie to do would be to be a faithful adaptation of REH's "Beyond the Black River". If successful, it could be followed up by a faithful adaptation of "Red Nails".

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  27. Heh! the "Faithful Adaptation", is a mythical beast. There are many examples I would like to see, but I know I never will.

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  28. Milius himself admitted that a lot of the action and iconography in "Conan the Barbarian" was little more than a homage/pastiche/rip-off of "The Vikings".

    It's still probably the best film about LARPing ever though. ;)

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  29. I have to consider myself lucky in that my brain is pretty capable of compartmentalizing these things such that I can enjoy different media on its own merits. I do agree however, that there is a divergence between what the movie was doing, compared to the REH short stories, with the stories being more substantial pulpy goodness compared to the popcorn action and thrills of the movie.

    Neither here nor there, but the only book to movie adaptation that really was tough to get over for me was Starship Troopers where the movie essentially satirized the book.

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  30. the dumb, brutal barbarian is now what Conan means to most people rather than the savvy, shrewd and later even political character as he is portrayed in the REH books and the comics.

    Absolutely and that's another part of my beef with the film.

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  31. I do love the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films, though. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is my favorite of the three.

    My favorite fantasy (as opposed to space fantasy, sci-fi, monster, or horror) film is Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts.


    All excellent films, though I'm not sure I'd call any of them "swords-and-sorcery."

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  32. The Conan film -- for better or for worse -- is a part of that wider mismanagement of Howard's legacy. And it's difficult for me to separate its merits from its wider context.

    I largely agree with this.

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  33. And let's not forget: if not for those comic books and movies and bastardized versions of the tales, I might not even have known about Conan, or cared enough to have gone back now to read the originals. Some folks are concerned about these treatments ruining how people experience the material. I'll grant that I'm only a population of one, but I wonder if I'd care as much about Conan now if it hadn't been for those treatments.

    That's the rub, isn't it? I am keenly aware of the fact that, much like D&D, it was the "dumbing down" and mass marketing of it that helped create a demand for "the real thing" later on. It's a double-edged sword and, while I'd much prefer a pristine world in which, from the first, everyone loved REH and Conan for what they really were, that's not the world as it is.

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  34. Dark Horse has been reprinting the old Savage Sword of Conan magazines in the form of large trade paperbacks. Good stuff.

    They're newer series of comics is also quite good (for the most part).

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  35. IMO, the best thing for a Conan movie to do would be to be a faithful adaptation of REH's "Beyond the Black River". If successful, it could be followed up by a faithful adaptation of "Red Nails".

    There was an animated version of "Red Nails" being worked on, with Ron Perlman doing Conan's voice, if I recall. I'm not sure of the status of the project, though, or how closely the screenplay follows the Howard original.

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  36. Milius himself admitted that a lot of the action and iconography in "Conan the Barbarian" was little more than a homage/pastiche/rip-off of "The Vikings".

    That doesn't really come as a surprise, though it's interesting to hear that Milius admitted it.

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  37. I have to consider myself lucky in that my brain is pretty capable of compartmentalizing these things such that I can enjoy different media on its own merits.

    As one might expect, I have a very hard time doing this. It's a flaw, I know, but it's also a reality with which I must contend.

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  38. CtB was probably, thinking back on it, the first R-rated movie I ever saw. I've probably seen it at least fifty times since, including twice at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA where they had two midnight screenings over a weekend. CtB had been my favorite movie up to that point, and sitting in the dark with a theater sound system around me and Conan on the big screen, it was probably one of my top three theatrical experiences of all time. There is no comparison between watching this movie via Cable late some night on your puny 24" TV, and seeing it 20 feet wide and shockingly loud. The score alone nearly caused my heart to rip itself out of my chest.

    As for how it's "not REH", whatever. The needs of literature are not the needs of film, and while it is in many regards a flawed movie, I have yet to see one that's perfect. Yes, there are many things that could have been done to make it more "faithful", but they weren't done and that is the film-makers prerogative. Back in 1980-82, REH scholarship wasn't what it is today. Stone & Milius were coming at the Conan mythos from a very different angle (just be glad you didn't get Oliver Stone's version...it had mutants...), and every film maker brings with them their own tastes and sensibilities. Such is the art of film making, and so it will always be. I heartily invite anyone who doesn't like it to go make their own version (so sayest the man with the Film degree).

    Anyhow, if anyone is interested in more of my opinion of this film, not as a Howardian adaptation, but as a Revenge Tale, about two months ago I did my second Filmic Gaming Fodder column on CtB. Howard purists can run themselves ragged whining about the film (see the above link to The Cimmerian), but there are other ways (especially if you're a gamer) to look at it.

    Oh, and by the by, if you have a DVD of the movie that came out after 2002, you'll probably have the 20th anniversary edition with the hilarious (but surprisingly insightful) commentary track between Milius and Schwarzenegger. A lot of the backstory of the film comes out in that commentary, and even though I think Milius is something of a bombast, I do believe the man has real talent (see The Wind and The Lion, or his Dillinger film, as two wonderful examples). That DVD also contains a short documentary on the making of the film, as well as some interesting concept art.

    I could go on, but I suppose that's what happens when you've watched the movie 2-3 times a year for the last 20+ years.

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  39. This is kind of a trivial point, but I've heard old Irish folkies complain about how Howard ripped off Conan from their own pure traditions - they'd probably be OK with him, as a kind of Indo-European ur-warrior archetype, if only he had a different name. Maybe Bretons complain about those Johnny-come-lately Irish, and of course, the Basques were there first.

    I'm delighted that this post tries to judge film-Conan as a separate entity with its own merits.

    Now if only we could reclaim Watchmen.

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  40. Although I'm still hoping that one day we'll get to see the real REH Conan on film, I'm in the camp that can enjoy CtB on its own merits. I think it's a terrific film.

    I liken Milius' version to that of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. In the end, it's quite different from King's novel, but it stands alone as a great piece of art and spectacle.

    I think that anyone sufficiently interested in the film and the character will eventually seek out the source material. CtB and Savage Sword of Conan were my gateways into REH, and while they deviate (particularly the former) from the Conan of the pulps, they've certainly proven effective at bringing in new readers.

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  41. Richard: God willing that should happen.
    Confirmation word: Cesti
    Definition: this one is actually a real word, if I recall correctly, being the plural of cestus, which was a type of weighted glove.

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  42. I did like the movie but I am not a fan of the original REH stories. I find his treatment of women and sometimes overt racism a turn off and just can't read many of his works without putting them down in disgust. I have had similar problems with Lovecraft for reference.

    The movie is less offensive to my senses and is good popcorn and soda time when I have nothing better to do.

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  43. I think that the film turned out as well as it did, at the time, with the budget it had, and with the swell of input apparently coming in from all directions about what it 'should be' as a film.

    Far from perfect, but captivating and fun, with more depth to it that many give it credit for and much more than many of the other fantasy/sword & sorcery flicks... Including Lord of the Rings, which is downright lazy in comparison at times.

    CtB leaves a lot of blanks for you to fill in yourself, the "riddle of steel", the value of strength, faith, and freedom. But it rarely slaps anyone in the face with telling dialogue about these things.

    It also has a sense of wonder to it that means I can never hate it. Conan finding the King's tomb is one of the coolest things I've seen, hinting at ancient worlds even to an awe-struck barbarian already living in a magical world.

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  44. Brendan Falconer's comment above drives me to make another point to help support him, namely that a lot of what gets me PO'ed about people trash-talking CtB isn't the Howard purism, it's the jackass-itude of the modern movie viewer.

    It's the attitude that makes every movie viewer into one of those guys from MST3K, barely paying attention to what is actually going on in the film because they're too busy sitting there making fun of it. I find this phenomenon especially prevalent amongst the geek/nerd community, mostly directed against sci-fi, fantasy, and action movies but the worst offenders do it with anything they watch. Instead of sitting back and enjoying a film, the only enjoyment they get out of it is tearing it apart on every possible level and from every possible angle.

    I know about this attitude because back in high school I was one of these people, and even though I went through a film program in college, it actually helped me step back from the brink because I saw so many of my fellow classmates plunge over it. I have plenty of friends these days with whom I simply can't go to the movies - they spend the whole damn movie just saying things like "OMG that was so stupid it would never really work." or "WTF is the director thinking, it doesn't work like that in real life, this looks so dumb". I feel sorry for these people because in trying to make themselves feel so superior to the film makers, they're missing out on all the wonder and enjoyment in front of them.

    Does this mean you can't be critical of a film? No. But these days, with the advent of the Internet and shows like Mythbusters, everyone feels like they're an armchair expert on "how things really are", and 80's movies suffer particularly badly in this regard. The 80's was a time when movie-making capabilities outstripped the education of the filmgoers in an attempt to capture the elusive "blockbuster" (a term that was pretty much born from the Star Wars genre and matured in the early to mid-80's.

    My favorite example is Top Gun. I thought this movie was awesome when I was younger, but nowadays no one takes it seriously - either because those aren't "real MiGs" they're going up against, or because they spend the whole movie blabbing about how "homo-erotic" it is.

    Circling back to CtB, most geeks/nerds who watch it see it once, spend 3/4ths of the movie making fun of Arnold's accent or "WTF that hammer is so dumb that's not what a real war-hammer is like" :::wankwankwank::: or "OMG those sets looks so cheesy what were they thinking", and not enough time really watching the film. The same holds true of Star Trek: TOS in many regards - people see the old sets and SFX and just stop there, rather than actually paying attention to the stories, which are often pretty good.

    OK, rant over (sorry about that).

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  45. Circling back to CtB, most geeks/nerds who watch it see it once, spend 3/4ths of the movie making fun of Arnold's accent or "WTF that hammer is so dumb that's not what a real war-hammer is like" :::wankwankwank::: or "OMG those sets looks so cheesy what were they thinking", and not enough time really watching the film. The same holds true of Star Trek: TOS in many regards - people see the old sets and SFX and just stop there, rather than actually paying attention to the stories, which are often pretty good.

    You sir, are a scholar and a gentleman.

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  46. @Iglesias...

    Fortunately, I am neither a scholar nor a gentleman, but I'll take a compliment where I can get one.

    Thank you for your agreement, though.

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  47. The movie is a source of excellent sword&sorcery imagery from start to finish: wastelands, snowfields, sinful cities and an ancient serpent-man sorcerer (played by the wickedly awesome James Earl Jones) enthralling his duped followers... In this respect, it is much more respectful to Howard than anyone else except maybe the Savage Sword comics and Frazetta (but Frazetta's barbarian didn't look like REH's barbarian: REH said Margaret Brundage's interpretation was just as he imagined Conan, and that guy is lean).

    As for the rest, I am in agreement with Falconer and Badelaire, but then I am not a "Howard scholar" - I have read the original tales, like them, but will not let their appreciation ruin my enjoyment of a perfectly good movie, just like I don't like my appreciation of Alex Raymond ruin my enjoyment of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie (featuring Queen sound tracks of all things!).

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  48. I am neither a scholar nor a gentleman

    acrobat?

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  49. Considering my background, probably dual-classed Ranger/Wizard.

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  50. Badelaire said: I know about this attitude because back in high school I was one of these people, and even though I went through a film program in college, it actually helped me step back from the brink because I saw so many of my fellow classmates plunge over it.

    Funny thing. But knowing a bit about how films are put together has resulted in me finding whole new levels on which to *like* films.

    I now have the good fortune to be able to walk away from a film, even one I disliked, thinking: "Didn't like the story; but it was still clever how the director/cinematographer/editor/foley artist did A, B or C to get X, Y or Z effect..."

    Hating "Conan the Barbarian" just for being what it is (a 80s fantasy film - a little cheesy, a little kitsch, but good fun) is just...well, dumb.

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  51. This is kind of a trivial point, but I've heard old Irish folkies complain about how Howard ripped off Conan from their own pure traditions - they'd probably be OK with him, as a kind of Indo-European ur-warrior archetype, if only he had a different name.

    Seriously? I'd love to meet one of these guys.

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  52. I think that anyone sufficiently interested in the film and the character will eventually seek out the source material. CtB and Savage Sword of Conan were my gateways into REH, and while they deviate (particularly the former) from the Conan of the pulps, they've certainly proven effective at bringing in new readers.

    Quite possibly. As I noted elsewhere, I am torn in multiple directions both by this film and by the mass marketing of something that simultaneously does violence to the source material but also (perhaps inadvertently) draws people to that source material.

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  53. Hating "Conan the Barbarian" just for being what it is (a 80s fantasy film - a little cheesy, a little kitsch, but good fun) is just...well, dumb.

    I've never met a person who hated it for those reasons. Most of the dislike of the film comes either from the way it appropriated the character to tell a story that's quite different than any REH would have written or from the fact that many viewers never go beyond it in their exploration of Conan or Howard.

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  54. Conan the Barbarian was not a bad film because it didn't stick to the pure Howard established characterization. It was a bad film, period.
    I was a long time Howard reader and Conan fan. I was 23 when that film was released. Despite not liking the casting of Arnold Schwarzeneggar I still hoped the film would be good. It was bad for a lot of reasons and the few listed below are just samples.
    1. Conan lacked any of the wit of charisma of Robert Howard's character.
    2. Good art direction did not help the film because it fools even the most cynical people into thinking that looking good is good enough. Well, it isn't.
    3. From Arnold's make-up, wig and the poorly staged fights it's more than apparent that the settings and props carried the action better than the actors.
    4. The only exception to what I wrote was Sandahl Bergman, who, even burdened with horrible lines, managed to be the most convincing character in the whole film. Also, she was more like Conan than Conan was. Example: during the big fight in the mountain she was both the first one in but she was also the last one out. That's just one of many.
    4. Conan cries at the feet of his tormentor after he's manhandled by lowly temple thugs? Seriously, from the whole slavery for years to this scene, how does his character bear any relation to Conan?
    5. The lacking color in the costumes and the sets had a way of making everything look dull and brown.
    6. The story is trying very hard to seem like a big odyssey but in retrospective it has such a sense of sameness from one situation to the next it feels rather provincial.
    7. The closing scene between Thulsa Doom and Conan has that swiped Darht Vader theme. Seriously, there no coincidence when you realize James Earl Jones also voiced Darth Vader's lines.

    I could go one all night but the point is this is not a good film. That Conan's portrayed so badly is just another of many things wrong with this movie.

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  55. This post has a particular relevance to me personally—the day it was published happened to be the day that I picked up my first REH Conan anthology at Borders. I'd never read any Conan and felt it was time to do so. Just finished "The Phoenix on the Sword" yesterday. Great stuff, and it's a wonderful first step into the mythos that informed OD&D.

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  56. For what it’s worth, I didn’t read any Conan or Howard until I got the Fantasy Masterworks volumes. I didn’t see the movie until after I’d read those.

    What baffled me is that Howard didn’t show up in the film at all. I remember thinking there were all of two scenes that were nods to Howard. I’m not talking about canon or details or any thing of that sort. I’m just saying that—beyond names—I found no connection between this film and Howard’s work.

    That doesn’t really bother me, but it does baffle me. Why go through the hassle of licensing something if you don’t intend to use it? If you’ve got your own story to tell in your own style, why pay money to put somebody else’s name on it? Just follow Lucas’ lead: Take influence from all sources, mix it up into your own story, and put your own name on it. Not only do you get all the credit, you also don’t have to worry about failing to please existing fans, which even the best adaption does.

    How well known was Howard or Conan before the movie? Did it really need to trade on Howard’s reputation?

    I just don’t get it.

    Even forgetting all of that, though—even looking at it as it’s own work independent of Howard—I can’t say I liked the film.

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  57. How well known was Howard or Conan before the movie? Did it really need to trade on Howard’s reputation?

    Someone better versed in Howardiana than I could probably answer this, but my recollection is that there was a mini-boom in Conan popularity in the late 70s and early 80s, no doubt building on the success of both the Lancer paperback series and the Marvel comic.

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