Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Conan the Barbarian" Movie Review (and Suggestions)

I just finished the film Conan the Barbarian - Collector's Edition, which I rented the other evening to entertain myself while I was ironing. Time for the review...

To be perfectly blunt, I could have written a better script than writers John Milius and Oliver Stone did.  I've read a fair bit of Conan fiction, although to be fair, it's mostly from later writers like Robert Jordan who filled in the gaps creator Robert E. Howard left in Conan's life.  Thus, I've got a fair bit of knowledge about the Conan mythos.

However, I don't like to criticize without offering suggestions for improvement, so I'll go through the film from the beginning and describe how I would have done things differently when I don't like something and praise the things I did like.

For starters, I would have had Conan be a teen when his village is destroyed by raiders and he is sold into slavery.  In the timeline assembled from the stories by various writers, Conan, before he was sold into slavery, had already fought against some invaders from the civilized realm of Aquilonia who were attempting to colonize Cimmeria.  Some of the source material describes him as a respected warrior among the tribe by the time he was around 15.

In the stories, Conan was enslaved as a gladiator as a teenager, but not for very long.  He broke his chain and, using it as a weapon, battered his way to freedom.  Also, in the film we see a frightened-looking woman brought to Conan in his gladiatorial cell, where he proceeds to rape her--in the stories, Conan is proud of how he never took a woman against her will and the sex while he was a gladiator was from noblewomen who admired his prowess in the ring.  I don't recall anything in the stories or the timelines about him being bred "to the finest stock" as part of some prehistoric eugenics program.

That version of the "gladiator phase" would eliminate the need for the decade on the Wheel of Pain (some kind of slave-driven grain-grinding machine) and make Conan a far more active character than the man who was a slave his entire life and is only freed (for no discernible reason) by his master rather than his own efforts.  It would also give him reason to say the "to see your enemies driven before you" line, as he would have had the life experiences to learn this lesson.

Soon after leaving slavery and finding a sword in a tomb, Conan is seduced by a woman who, while having sex with Conan, starts turning into a snake-like monster and trying to bite him.  He physically tosses her away and she turns into some kind of fiery being who flees the area. 

That scene strikes me as something taken from Howard's short story "Worms of the Earth," which was about a Pictish king fighting the Romans and had nothing to do with Conan.  It also didn't involve shape-shifting--the woman in question was the product of the rape of a human woman by one of the "Worms of the Earth" (a reptilian semi-human race whom the Picts drove underground centuries before) and had some snaky features, but didn't change her form.

Given how the purpose of that scene is to introduce Conan to his traveling companion Subotai, who for some reason is chained to a nearby rock wall for the wolves, I would have simply had Conan, soon after escaping slavery, hiring on as a caravan guard and fending off a group of horsemen.  Subotai could have been a survivor of that group who becomes Conan's devoted henchman for having his life spared or something like that.

After meeting Subotai, we have a scene where he and Subotai discuss their different gods.  I would have kept that or something like that because it exposits Conan's (and the general Cimmerian) attitude toward their god Crom.  However, after that, I would have replaced the montage of them running through the fields with a montage of them doing the various things Conan did during his early career--thievery and mercenary work.  We could see scenes of them fighting and debauching afterward (see below).

I liked the introduction of Valeria and the way her relationship with Conan began.  The montage of them blowing their loot on parties and material goods after they successfully rob the temple of the snake cult nicely ties in with how Howard and his successors got Conan off on adventures again after he'd successfully snagged a lot of money--he proceeds to blow it all on drinking, gambling, and prostitutes and soon ends up with only his sword.

I also liked how Conan managed to infiltrate the headquarters of the snake-cult on the assignment to rescue the princess who'd run off with cult leader Thulsa Doom (although I would have used a different villain, since TD was actually associated with Howard's other barbarian hero Kull), although it would have been nice if it were clearer just how Conan was discovered.

(Some of the priests of the temple that he'd robbed recognized the icon he used to gain access to Doom's headquarters but there's no dialogue to indicate this when they confer with each other.)

I liked how Doom's casual dismissal of Conan's accusation of the murder of his family ("I was younger then") showed his evil attitude and the "power of flesh" demonstration (in which he showed off his authority as a cult leader by having a woman jump to her death).  Conan's subsequent crucifixion, in which he bites the head off a vulture trying to nibble on him, was unintentionally hilarious due to bad 80s effects but it does come from one of Howard's short stories, I think "A Witch Shall Be Born."

However, in that particular story, Conan was rescued from the cross before death and not killed and resurrected in a rather trippy sequence where his companions Valeria and Subotai fight off some demonic-looking beings.  I think there might be a dead-and-resurrected Conan in another story, but I didn't like how this was pulled off in the film.

The infiltration of Doom's fortress and abduction of the brainwashed princess were fun, although I'm not sure why Doom took that opportunity to transform into a giant snake, which he never does again throughout the film.  It would have been better if he did that for the purpose of sneaking around the heroes and ambushing them or escaping them when they burst into his chamber to retrieve the princess.

Valeria's death works, since to preserve a sense of threat to the main characters, one should be willing to kill off the supporting cast.  I guess it would be either her or Subotai, since the Wizard was introduced too recently for the viewers to develop an attachment to him.

Conan, Subotai, and the Wizard making their stand against Doom's horsemen in the middle of the standing stones makes sense, since the alternative is being taken on an open plain, as does their carving of many anti-cavalry stakes.

The problem is, we never see the stakes being used for their intended purpose.  No horsemen end up being impaled on them, nor do we see them being used to "channel" the enemy into traps or positions Conan and his friends can more easily defend.  All we see is someone riding past the stakes and later some soldiers Subotai shoots with his bow and arrow smashing them by rolling down a hill.

In the stories, although Conan did not have a lot of formal education, he was intelligent and his enemies underestimated that to their detriment.  The defense against Doom's cavalry could have done a much better job of illustrating that.

It's also not clear why the princess, after Doom tries to kill her, helps Conan infiltrate the temple for the final showdown with Doom.  Obviously she has reason to be angry with him, but it's an abrupt jump from Doom's retreat to the infiltration of the temple.  Some dialogue here would be nice, especially since earlier, Subotai explicitly told Conan to simply retrieve the princess and save killing Doom for another day.

The defeat of Doom was also rather anti-climactic--he attempts to hypnotize Conan like he had Conan's mother, only for Conan to kill him.  Given how Doom was a raider before he became a cult leader, I would have him bust out some martial skill and, failing that, turn into a snake again.

The aftermath of Doom's defeat was rather slow.  Not sure what suggestions I would have to improve it--perhaps less time showing Conan sitting on the steps of the temple looking contemplative.

As far as movie quality goes, the version I saw merited a 4 out of 10.  The soundtrack was really good, which helped.  Hopefully the upcoming animated Conan film Red Nails, which has experienced delays but has recently picked up some new voice actors, will hew more closely to Howard's stories.  After all, it's a straight adaptation of one story rather than an attempt to glue several of them together.

Edit: The podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood discussed the film. Here's the link. Having watched it a second time, I was probably less harsh on it this time around


  1. Nowadays, people tend to view the work by other writers as non-canonical, or at most a secondary level below Howard. Still, even considering the time, when guys like Jordan were writing stories, the film made a lot of deviations.

    Some of the source material describes him as a respected warrior among the tribe by the time he was around 15.

    That'd be Robert E. Howard himself, in a letter to P.S. Miller. At that age, Conan took part in the Battle of Venarium, where he was part of a horde that wiped out an Aquilonian settlement In the same letter, Howard explains more: after Venarium, he travels north with a band of Aesir, where they fight their enemies the Vanir and Hyperboreans. At one point, Conan is captured - not enslaved - by the Hybperboreans, but he escapes south. He spends some months wandering through Brythunia, Nemedia (possibly the story "The God in the Bowl" takes place here), Aquilonia and Koth. A year after Venarium, he has ended up in Zamora, where he spends another year practising his thieving skills. By the time of "The Tower of the Elephant" he's 17 years old.

    There really isn't a way to work in a storyline like Conan the Barbarian where Conan is enslaved as a youth with the information Howard gave us. If it's before Venarium, he would be younger than 15 before the story ends and he comes back to Cimmeria. If it's after, then it isn't much of an origin story. The only possibility is substituting Doom for some Hyperborean wizard or general, and having Conan compete in gladiatorial games in prison - and again, the entire story would only take place over months, not years.

  2. By "source material," I am referring to Howard's stories and the stuff by Jordan and de Camp, as opposed to the film.

    (Obviously the stuff by the original writer takes precedence, but I thought the later material was supposed to supplement, not replace, Howard's work. The movie, however, grossly contradicts it.)

    Re: Conan being a slave and gladiator, I remember a reference to Conan being a gladiator and how he "becomes a man" by having sex with a noblewoman who'd seen him in the ring. Then he breaks the chain and bashes his way to freedom.

    Based on the "becomes a man" line, I figured he would have had to have been relatively young when this episode took place.

    However, this timeline here describes the escape from slavery as being after his capture by the Hyperborians and makes no references to lusty noblewomen.

    (It includes references to Karela, the red-headed bandit woman from some of Jordan's work, so it includes the later writers as well as Howard.)

  3. Maybe I'm lucky that I saw this movie before I read Howard's work, but I always thought the film was incredible. While not true detail-wise to Howard's work, I feel it really captures the spirit the stories represented. TO each thier own I suppose.

  4. Taranaich,

    Here's the link where I found the "Conan is enslaved" episode. It was apparently before Venarium.