Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "A Couple of Fantastic Flops"

My own ambivalence toward the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian is well known. My overall feeling is that it's a decent enough sword-and-sorcery flick in its own right, but one should never make the mistake of confusing it with the Robert E. Howard creation on which it's nominally based. But, as negative as I might be about the film, it's nothing compared to what Gary Gygax wrote in "A Couple of Fantastic Flops," which appeared in issue #63 (July 1982) of Dragon. There, Gary lambastes Conan the Barbarian in the harshest of terms:
"Conan Meets the Flower Children of Set" might have been a better name for the film -- and if there is any resemblance between the cinema version of CONAN THE BARBARIAN and that of Robert E. Howard, it is purely coincidental. The disappointment which began to grow inside me about one-quarter of the way into the film was not mitigated by anything which happened later on. In fact, bad became worse. I refuse to become involved in even a brief synopsis of the movie's story line.
He goes on to say, "If you have any respect for Conan as presented by Howard, then I suggest that you stay away from the theater or else be prepared for great disappointment." Gygax adds that "L. Sprague de Camp should have been ashamed to allow his name to appear in the list of credits as 'Technical Advisor'," which is particularly amusing when one considers how the man is currently regarded in the field of Howard scholarship. More damning than any of the above, though, is the fact that the article, as its name implies, reviews two fantasy films. In this case, the second film is the execrable The Sword and The Sorcerer, which Gygax declares to be "superb" when compared to Conan the Barbarian (though still "silly").

Also of interest in the article is the fact, according to Gygax, a D&D movie is "scheduled for release sometime in late 1984 or 1985." He goes on to say that
if the D&D® film isn’t of the quality of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I will not only blast it in a review similar to this one, but I will apologize to you as well. Meanwhile, don’t be turned off by what you see on the screen these days. Give us a chance to prove that the genre can be good!
This makes me wonder what Gary thought of the actual D&D movie we did finally get.

40 comments:

  1. There are 2 D&D films, I know because I have them on a combo dvd set, and the second one is much worse than the first which is saying something :). I think you mean 'compared' instead of 'declared' at the end of your second paragrah. Also do you know if Dragon issue 55 has any good articles in it/ would it be worth buying for ten bucks in good condition? Thanks.

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  2. Conan the Barbarian was a masterpiece of cinema compared to the recent Conan movie.

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  3. Live performance of Conan film score directed by Paledoouris only months before he died: http://www.youtube.com/user/danbuter#p/f/22/HRTPf0g4h9s

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  4. The D&D movies are tripe compared to anything of the genre unless it's on the SyFy channel. Arnie's Conan despite it's derivative nature is a cult hit. It is well paced, well placed, quotable and yes, as mentioned before the score is one of the most recognizable of all time. I simply can't hate it.

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  5. The 1982 Conan remains one of my favorite films. I can't identify with the hate.

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  6. I've not seen the new Conan, though I will. I suspect a lot of the affection of the original Conan (and Nightmare and Friday 13 and so on) comes from viewing the old films through nostalgia goggles. That said, while R.E.H. Conan's stories are good, they are structurally wrong to adapt to a movie, at least not with out making a lot of changes.

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  7. Here you go, James!

    http://www.enworld.org/forum/archive-threads/57832-gary-gygax-q-part-iv-3.html#post1027041
    "The D&D Movie was such a dog-log that there is no chance that the game will be used as the basis for another major theatrical motion picture in the foreseeable future. That means there is little chance for a TV movie introducing a series. No name draw after the film fiasco, and no game based series has made money, so no D&D production." - Gary Gygax, July 2003

    and
    "Were it a pure fantasy film it would have been laughably campy. As it pretended to be something else. it was a wretched disaster. The special effects were fair. Nothing else in the whole film was up to that measure, fair. the sets were marginal. The plot, script, direction, acting, and costumes were awful." - Gary Gygax, March 2004
    http://www.enworld.org/forum/archive-threads/57832-gary-gygax-q-part-iv-3.html#post1027041

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  8. No nostalgia here; I still enjoy Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian. I've never read a Conan story (gasp!) and I have little familiarity with the comics (double gasp!) so I suspect it's more a case that I can enjoy the film on its own terms without bringing it's-no-Howard baggage to it.

    That's not to say that such baggage is a bad thing, but since I am free of it there's nothing to distract me from the film's inherent qualities.

    All of which will probably get me banned from here!

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  9. I like the Arnie Conan alot. I am a casual fan of the Howard books but get a big kick out of the movie- the Evil Wheel, the Spinal Tap baddies, the camel punching, the little wizard dude- all great fun.

    New Conan was ok, but just ok.

    My favourite under-rated D&Dish movies are Ladyhawke & Willow.

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  10. Wait a minute -- the Sword and the Sorcerer is "execrable"? I liked that one.

    But I like the original CtB too. I don't really get why fans of the stories hate it so much. Not Howard's character? Well yeah. It's a movie. Movies are made to draw audiences, not to gratify 1% of the population...

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  11. Wait a minute -- the Sword and the Sorcerer is "execrable"? I liked that one.

    There's no contradiction there :) I like a lot of bad movies, but The Sword and the Sorcerer isn't one of them. Even leaving aside the silliness of the titular itself, isn't this the movie where some thugs kill a guy by pushing his face up against a whetstone that he's operating with his own foot?

    But I like the original CtB too. I don't really get why fans of the stories hate it so much. Not Howard's character? Well yeah. It's a movie. Movies are made to draw audiences, not to gratify 1% of the population...

    The Arnie film catches flak because its protagonist is called Conan and it borrows elements willy-nilly (and nonsensically) from Howard's corpus. If you're going to use the name "Conan," why not at least try to be true to the source material? Otherwise, just call it Bob the Barbarian and be done with it.

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  12. That said, while R.E.H. Conan's stories are good, they are structurally wrong to adapt to a movie, at least not with out making a lot of changes.

    How so? They're mostly episodic short stories, which, to my mind, makes them ideal for adaptation without the need to change them in any significant way.

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  13. I forgot about that Gygax flower children line. For a long time I've referred to CtB as "Conan vs. the Hippies" so I laughed out loud when I saw Gygax's line not all that long ago.

    Yeah . . . I like CtB, but it's not REH Conan and it's really just bizarrely Arnold fighting (secretly violent, cannabilistic, devil-worshipping brainswashed) hippies with a sword. Oh and Arnold dies and comes back to life to rescue the hippies after being crucified. It's just freaking weird.

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  14. I'm just having trouble with the fact that Gary beats Sprague DeCamp with the shit stick for having served as a consultant on the Conan movie when Gary himself served as a consultant on that horrible D&D cartoon.
    It's been decades since I saw that Conan movie, and I remember it being campy and goofy, but I was entertained.

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  15. I have to agree with EGG about Conan-Arnie, but that's only if one tries to think of it as a genuine "Conan" movie. Looked at as a generic S&S movie, it's fine -- fun, even.

    I have no desire to see the most recent attempt.

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  16. As I wrote about at length in Conan: Then and Now, I absolutely love the '82 version and am amazed at how well it holds up today. (The recent remake was dreadful.) That it departs seriously from Howard in many ways never bothered me as a 12-year old (I hadn't read the Howard books yet), but it also never bothered my best friend who knew Howard inside and out.

    Like James, I despise Sword and the Sorcerer, but then I pretty despise every '80s fantasy flick other than the first Conan film. Not until Jackson's LOTR would my faith in fantasy films be restored. And yes to the comment about Basil Poledouris' score, second only to Howard Shore's LOTR score, both of which I still listen to all the time. The only legitimate criticism, in my view, is some of the substandard acting (though James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow are superb), but even here Arnold's non-acting talents work for rather than against him, and somehow the Austrian accent works perfectly in context. I was always puzzled by Gygax's vitriol.

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  17. i loved Arnold the Barbarian years ago, I saw it recently with my kids and went WTF? the plot was feeble, Conan was a shadow of himself and arnold...wel... "argle,argle, sputter, argle, argle, thalsa dooooooom" isn't the most inspiring of dialogue.

    Younger me didn't agree with Gary,adult me sure as hell does. My kids thought the movie was terrible except for a couple cool looking scenes.

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  18. The Sword and the Sorcerer is an awesome guilty pleasure (as is Hawk the Slayer and Krull). However, these movies did do a lot to instill the impression into Hollywood that serious fantasy was not possible. In fact, it was not until Lord of the Rings (and HP) that this mentality changed.

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  19. I just want to say that I pulled up this Dragon article after this post and noticed something else in the issue. That issue has a page of BASIC code for a program-it-yourself Top Secret Character generator. Oh those were the days.

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  20. I like Howard's Conan, and I also thought the Conan movie was a nice, fun sword-and-sorcery affair. It probably helps that I watched movie before reading the stories, but I am happy that I can enjoy and appreciate both. Heck, I even like the second Conan movie with its extra dose of campiness, though a few flat-falling jokes were annoying. I mean, a giant statue turns into a demon with an evil sorceress trying to sacrifice a virgin to it--how can I not enjoy it?

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  21. I love the Arnold Conan movies, but I don't try to compare them to Howard's work, of which I have read very little, to my shame.

    The Conan movies are a great escape for me. I can turn off my brain and enjoy muscle man punching camels for a while. And not a week goes by that I don't quote the first Conan movie to someone.

    I can understand all the nerd rage though, Gods knows I've cast my share of it on other things. But if there is a silver lining, it's this: I probably would've never picked up a copy of Howard's work if James Earl Jones had never rode into Arnie's village and killed his father, killed his people, taken his father's swooooord!

    *insert Conan's prayer to Crom here*

    Also, I'm a sucker for films like Krull, Ladyhawke, Willow, etc.

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  22. "Even leaving aside the silliness of the titular itself, isn't this the movie where some thugs kill a guy by pushing his face up against a whetstone that he's operating with his own foot?"

    See, I thought that was hilarious. Even as 10 year old I thought the sword itself was dumb and yes there were a lot of groan-worthy scenes but to me it's a lot like a Burt Lancaster movie...a goofy romp with a few neat action sequences or in this case Xutia ripping out people's innards with magic. But OK, I guess I have to say that it is a good bad movie, like Hawk the Slayer or The Magic Sword or Conquest. None of these are a credit to the genre. The LOTR films came along and tried to treat fantasy somewhat seriously and they were pilloried by hardcore "fantasy fans" too so I kind of doubt Hollywood CAN make a satisfactory 'serious fantasy film.' I mean even Excalibur, Dragonslayer, etc. get written off...

    Too bad nothing ever came of Gary's inital effort to get a movie made. Is there any evidence that there was ever a treatment or draft of a script back then?

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  23. Is there any evidence that there was ever a treatment or draft of a script back then?

    There was a script, as I recall, and I think some people have even seen it, or at least the story treatment, but I don't know any specific details. As I recall, it involved a plane-hopping quest to find some artifacts, with one of the planes being Oerth.

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  24. "Also, I'm a sucker for films like Krull, Ladyhawke, Willow, etc."

    Ladyhawke is a great movie, in spite of the weird helmets.

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  25. Ladyhawke is a great movie, in spite of the weird helmets.

    However, I am a major fan of the Alan Parson's project, and even I think that the soundtrack for that film is horrible.

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  26. "If you're going to use the name "Conan," why not at least try to be true to the source material?"

    In tone and theme, the film *is* true to the source material. Indeed, compared to many Hollywood adaptions, it's remarkably true to the source.

    More than that, though, it's just a great fantasy film -- beautifully shot, magnificently scored, with some of the best action sequences ever put on film and probably the best villain in the history of fantasy cinema.

    And, I'd bet my car that REH would have loved it.

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  27. Oh, and...

    "How so? They're mostly episodic short stories, which, to my mind, makes them ideal for adaptation without the need to change them in any significant way."

    Episodic films rarely get made, because they tend to not do very well. Can you name a single episodic action film that was ever made, let alone was a financial success? It's not a format well suited to the medium.

    That said, a few of the longer stories could work, with some changes, but the pickings are slim. BEYOND THE BLACK RIVER and RED NAILS would, I think, work best. HOUR OF THE DRAGON would cost far too much. Something like BLACK COLOSSUS might appear to be sufficiently "epic" in scope but if you read it closely, it has almost no second act -- you'd end up with a 60 page script, meaning you'd have to write a great deal of the plot from scratch.

    A 'Game of Thrones' type miniseries might seem to be the ideal solution, but again cost is a factor -- no one is going to finance the sets and costumes and fx for, say, RED NAILS without the chance for a major pay-off, which cable TV does not really provide.

    It works for 'Game of Thrones' because the same sets and actors are used throughout the entire 12-hour running time (and even then, they really didn't spend that much money, which you notice if you look closely -- the Dothraki horse 'nation' seemingly consists of about 30 people, for example). To create an entirely different fantasy environment for every episode would cost so much you'd never the project off the ground.

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  28. James and Merric, you've got to appreciate Gary's not seeing the need to sugarcoat his positions, hehe. I personally get a kick out of feisty negative reviews. (When they're not about me, of course.)

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  29. I'm in 100% agreement with Mssrs. Rosson and Cherryfunk. But I'm not one of those who gets upset when a movie diverges from its source. Milius captured the look and feel of Conan's world exactly as I imagined it.

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  30. "Also, I'm a sucker for films like Krull, Ladyhawke, Willow, etc."

    Ladyhawke is a good flick despite its lousy soundtrack.

    Krull and Willow have some very good qualities even though they're basically just remaking Star Wars. I particularly like the monsters in Krull, and Willow had gorgeous New Zealand scenery years before the LOTR movies made the country so popular.

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  31. Limpey — By the standards of kids cartoons of the era, there's nothing wrong with the D&D cartoon.

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  32. "I liked Willow!" -- Crow T. Robot

    I happen to agree with him.

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  33. New Holy Grail! The very idea that Gygax's screenplay for the D&D movie exists! That could potentially be some of the most entertaining EGG writing out there. If only they could print it, or an adaptation, or even a comic book version.... the mind boggles.

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  34. The 2nd D&D movie, the direct to video one they sometimes showed on the Sci-Fi Channel, is fun stuff, from the map at the beginning to the big disabling of traps. A really good gamer movie, clearly made with love.

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  35. Agreed. The 2nd D&D movie, while it does benefit from lowered expectations, is a better flick than the first. Which isn't saying much. But I can say I did not regret the time spent watching it.

    Willow? Perhaps I was getting snobby at the time, but I despised it.

    Dragonslayer? I think that was the best fantasy movie of the era. Watched it again recently and I still enjoyed it.

    DON'T see that brain-scoopingly stupid dragon movie with Sean Connery as the voice of the dragon. Read the synopsis, consider stealing from the synopsis for your game, and skip the rest.

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  36. This article actually cemented my complete dismissal of Gygax as an authority on anything. I frickin loved Arnie's Conan. Gary saying Sword and the Sorcerer is a better movie was completely ridiculous to me (even though I enjoyed Sword and the Sorcerer). I lost all respect for him for quite some time.

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  37. >> Walker

    However, these movies did do a lot to instill the impression into Hollywood that serious fantasy was not possible. In fact, it was not until Lord of the Rings (and HP) that this mentality changed."

    But you'll have noticed that we haven't ahd a decent fantasy film since Lotr? :(

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  38. If were going to list "guilt pleasure" 80's fantasy movies lets go all in:

    Conan the The Barbarian
    Sword and the Sorcerer
    Hawk the Slayer
    Archer: Fugitive from the Empire
    Beastmaster
    Ator Hunter from the Future.

    I would have to agree the best thing about CoB is the Poledoris score.

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