So not getting it

By Lorenzo

I was very disappointed in the 2011 Conan movie. (From its IMDB ratings–5.2–and box office failure, I was not the only one.) I was looking forward to see Jason Momoa strut his stuff as Conan the Barbarian. Being a Stargate Atlantis fan, the thought of Ronan Dex on the big screen worked for me. (Game of Thrones fans will recognise him as Khal Drogo.)

ronon_weapon_Stargate

The movie notionally has a lot going for it. Jason Momoa is just the person to play Conan–he has the looks, the presence, the physicality. Stephen Lang plays the villain. He is a fine actor–he was particularly good as the corrupt union official in Last Exit to Brooklyn who finally does something true to himself and more-or-less literally gets crucified for it. It is terribly important to have a good villain. Rose McGowan, who plays his witch-daughter, is one of the best things about the movie. It is fun watching it just for her delightfully creepy performance. You end up caring what happens to her–important for a villain.

Drogo_1x01b

Khal Drogo

Stephen Lang’s character, not so much. In fact, so little emotional impact that I can never remember his character’s name–never a good thing in an action flick, if the name of the main villain escapes you. (IMDB tells me it is Khalar Zym.) The villain-failure is not Lang’s fault. Nor are the problems of the movie from the rest of the cast, who are fine. Ron Perlman as Conan’s father, Rachel Nichols as the love interest, Nonso Anozie as Conan’s best mate all light up the screen in various ways.

The action sequences work.  There is a mostly reasonable back story and plot–one that actually ties in somewhat with the original Robert E. Howard stories (though more in the L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter extensions than Howard’s original yarns). Having the pirate and best mate be a black guy rather than Belit, queen of the Black Coast, as in the original stories, is a disappointment. Yes, I get that two love interests would be problematic. And I really get that C21st Hollywood doing boy-action-flick is rather more misogynist than 1930s Robert E. Howard–Conan is Belit’s 2iC.  Perhaps they are just making a bad pun–black pirate king rather than pirate queen of the Black Coast.

Conan-the-Barbarian-conan-the-barbarian-2011-27423096-1280-1024

2011: an action-packed flop

As for the movie, the problem is the script.

Too many words, none of them memorable.

I have no idea whether the director or the writers are fans of the original Robert E. Howard Conan stories. Whether or not they are, they don’t get them. Or Conan himself.

1982: Being Conan

1982: being Conan

Everything that is wrong with the 2011 Conan the Barbarian film can be seen in the contrast with the 1982 Conan the Barbarian with John Milius directing, Arnold Schwarzenegger being Conan and James Earl Jones as the grand villain Thulsa Doom giving every moment he is onscreen an evil gravitas. A film which grossed more at the box office ($69m) than its 2011 reboot ($49m).

Milius was not originally a Conan fan, but he immersed himself in the original Howard yarns and he got Conan. A man of action, a man of deep emotions, a man of thought, and a man of few words.

The 1982 film is full of memorable visual sequences containing few words. The 2011 film does not know when to shut up. Perhaps in 1982 they were sparing their novice lead from having to deliver too many lines, but what is effectively silent acting, in its way, demands more. The point is, it works. Indeed, it seems quite deliberate and considered. (Spoilers follow.)

The 1982 opening sequence starts with a quote from Nieztsche (“What does not kill us makes us stronger”) with a brief opening narration by Mako, who plays the Wizard (my favourite character) setting the general time and place:

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

Then we have the sequence the forging of the sword, a sequence that has the power of grand simplicity, helped by Basil Poledouris‘s magnificent musical score. It also sets up the theme that ties the action and the ideas of the film together. Holding the forged sword, Conan’s father has a short, grand speech which sets going the central motif of the movie:

Fire and wind come from the sky, from the gods of the sky. But Crom is your god, Crom and he lives in the earth. Once, giants lived in the Earth, Conan. And in the darkness of chaos, they fooled Crom, and they took from him the enigma of steel. Crom was angered. And the Earth shook. Fire and wind struck down these giants, and they threw their bodies into the waters, but in their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. We who found it are just men. Not gods. Not giants. Just men. The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts.

[Points to sword]

This you can trust.

A villain with presence

A villain with presence

We move directly into the attack on the village. Which is powerful, shocking and has no dialogue apart from some barely heard battle commands. The introduction of Thulsa Doom, and his confrontation with Conan’s mother, is all done entirely without words. And so works.

Conan is taken off in slavery with the other children of the village, to push around the Wheel of Pain as it grinds grain on a desolate hill top. There is a clever passage of time sequence ending with the great Arnie reveal. He is bought to become a pit fighter, then, after surviving that murderous competition, is taken East to train in weapons. All this also done without any dialogue, just some brief narration.

Then we get the great “what is best in life?” question in a nomad khan’s yurt:

Khan: Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?

Nomad prince: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.

Khan: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?

Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Years later, Arnie used that line when asked what his political philosophy was. The journalist had to do a double-take before realising that Arnie was playing him. These words are the first Conan utters, and they are 20 minutes into the movie.

Be happy to be visual and when you have dialogue, make it count. That is how Howard spun his grand yarns (though he did word-pictures), and that is how to do a Conan movie. There are so many great pieces of dialogue in the 1982 Conan. Max von Sydow has a single scene as King Osric, but he makes it live:

There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its lustre, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.

Sandal Bergman, as the thief and warrior Valeria who captures Conan’s heart, is an immensely capable heroine who moves beautifully and memorably expresses the solitary nature of her existence:

All my life I’ve been alone. Many times I’ve faced death with no one to know. I would look into the huts and the tents of others in the coldest dark and I would see figures holding each other in the night. But I always passed by.

We believe in their love, which is conveyed visually–Conan utters five words to her in the entire movie, and they are in the few seconds when they meet.

Conan had previously met Subotai (played nicely by surfing champion Gerry Lopez), who becomes his best mate, outside a witch’s hut:

Subotai: Food… FOOD! I have not eaten for days.

Conan: And who says you will?

Subotai: Give me food, so I have strength when the wolves come. Let me die, not in hunger, but in combat!

Conan: Who are you?

Subotai: [jumps to his feet] I am Subotai! Thief and archer! I am Hyrkanian… the great order of Kerlait!

Conan: So what are you doing here?

Subotai: [holds up chains] Dinner for wolves.

[Conan laughs, Subotai laughs]

The second confrontation between Conan and Thulsa Doom is marked by wit and pathos. Conan, Valeria and Subotai having previously stolen a great jewel, the Eye of the Serpent, from one of Doom’s serpent towers:

I wish to speak to you now. Where is the Eye of the Serpent? Rexor says that you gave to a girl, probably for a mere night’s pleasure, hmm? What a loss. People have no grasp of what they do. You broke into my house, stole my property, murdered my servants, and my PETS! And that is what grieves me the most! You killed my snake. Thorgrim is beside himself with grief! He raised that snake from the time it was born.

Doom and Conan having a moment

Thulsa and Conan having a moment

All delivered in James Earl Jones’s magnificent baritone voice. Imagine Darth Vader with a sense of humour. Beaten and bloody, Conan expresses his anguish:

Conan: You killed my mother! You killed my father, you killed my people! You took my father’s sword… argh –

[Rexor twists his arm]

Thulsa Doom: Ah. It must have been when I was younger. There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel, when steel meant more to me than gold or jewels.

Conan: The riddle… of steel.

Thulsa Doom: Yes! You know what it is, don’t you boy? Shall I tell you? It’s the least I can do. Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks; a beautiful girl. Come to me, my child…

[coaxes the girl to jump to her death]

Thulsa Doom: That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste.

Contemplate this on the tree of woe.

Crucify him.

Doom is a philosophical and contemplative villain who conveys a sense of being aware of things beyond the ordinary. He is also utterly vile, but there is grandeur in his viciousness. The entry speech of Conan’s birth father is continued, and even completed, in this exchange by the dark father of Conan’s outer and inner strength. That he is so much the source of what Conan has become is something Thulsa Doom also invokes in their third and final confrontation:

My child, you have come to me my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? I am the wellspring from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What would your world be, without me? My son.

As John Milius studied with George Lucas, the Star Wars Luke/Darth Vader echoes may be quite deliberate. Especially given they are delivered by the voice of Darth Vader himself.

In the 2011 movie, the characters talk far more, but nothing they say is memorable. The closest is Conan’s line:

I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.

Which is arch rather than powerful and, moreover, wrong. Conan is not a restful soul. He is merely not much afflicted by self-doubt, not the same thing.

One got to be Conan

One got to be Conan

The film starts with much the same narration as the 1982 film, but with added visual effects and a brief history of the Acheron Empire. Why the dread potentially-world-conquering necromantic bone mask is shattered and scattered rather than simply being burned–it is only made of human bones, after all–is never explained. The dramatic opening sequence–Conan’s birth on a battlefield, ripped from his dying mother–is fairly dreadful. The first thing we see of Conan’s mother is her being stabbed in battle–apparently, Cimmerians had pregnant woman armour. Since we have never met this woman and know nothing about her, her death lacks dramatic power.

Then we move to Conan’s boyhood, starting with him pushing his way into the warrior trial.  Which is interrupted by some Pictish warriors. While the older boys sensibly go back to warn the village, Conan decides its much more important to continue to run the warrior trial. He then massacres several warriors, so his father decides its time for him to have a sword.

The sword-making sequence, with its “you need fire and ice” is also arch and somewhat pointless, as it has no connection to the rest of the film, except for Conan’s father’s sword being something for the villain’s witch-daughter to wave around. It seems to be there only because there was a sword-making sequence in the Arnie version–but they failed to notice how it framed the earlier film. Given the villain’s obsession with necromancy, it could have been the basis for framing about things in their proper balance–way out of place in a Conan story, one would have thought, but it would have been something.

Conan’s training by his father continues the theme of Conan-as-pigheaded adolescent. Then the villain’s forces attack. This is far too “busy” a sequence to have the stark power of the 1982 version. Instead, we get the Braveheart stupidity of using archers to shoot into combat after your troops had closed with their opponents.  Conan’s father, and then Conan, are captured and tortured. The villains burn everything and wander off, leaving Conan to watch his father die and swear revenge. Again, the 1982 sequence was both far more dramatically powerful and made much more sense–of course you sold the children off into slavery. Even armies of shadowlords have to be paid.

Wasted resource

Wasted resource

Then we have Conan-among-the-pirates rescuing slaves for the sheer hell of it. Not a Conan thing to do, but hey, it’s cool, so it’s in. Carousing in Messantia, Conan recognises one of the villain’s henchmen. There is a rather fun sequence where he gets crucial information out of him.

Then we are at the monastery where our heroine lives. The villain’s army is marching on it, pulling a huge landship whose existence is never explained; again, it is apparently there because it is cool.  The landship is used to bust down the wall whose gate is already open–they literally pull the thing through the wall. This is, of course, a deeply stupid thing to do, as it sends huge stone blocks crashing everywhere, making access much more difficult. But hey, crashing the pointless landship pointlessly through the wall with the already open gate looks cool, so it’s in.

And on it goes. You get the drift.

Too much stuff that’s there because it’s cool, not nearly enough story. The writer and the director never show any understanding that less is more and that story-telling trumps all. This is supposed to be a Conan story. Robert E. Howard was not a great writer, he was a great yarn spinner. And a yarn, a story, is not just a sequence of happenings, it is a coherent sequence of happenings.

The 1982 film is a great cinematic yarn, framed by coherent ideas. So it works. The 2011 film is a sequence of cinematic indulgences wandering around aimlessly playing with ideas. So it doesn’t work.

If you are not in the business of presenting a great cinematic yarn, you have no business making a Conan film.

And what a waste of Jason Momoa.

6 Comments

  1. Posted July 10, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Enjoyed this fannish rant greatly, Lorenzo. Here’s a review I did a few years back after watching Conan the Destroyer, which makes some points about scripting (or lack thereof) and acting (or lack thereof) which complement yours neatly.

    PS on the visual nature of pulp that you talk about above – I have somewhere an essay by Brian Aldiss, who reads through some of the science fiction in his boyhood and notices a scene in which the heroic captain, running for his spaceship, ‘shook his head’ mid-run. An impossible gesture but, as Aldiss observes, ‘so quaintly pulp’ – conforming to the rule that something should never be expressed in dialogue if it can be expressed by gesture instead.

  2. Posted July 10, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Glad you enjoyed it. Arnie has great screen presence and his films (which are, as you say Arnie films) always have excellent production values. And I like the Brian Aldiss point.

  3. conrad
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure remaking/extending films which are really built around a classic actor often works well, especially entirely distinctive ones like Arny. This seems to parallel Terminator, the first two which were classics, and the latter versions which were awful.

  4. Mel
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Yep, I did enjoy the original Conan.

    These days I rarely see a movie that I would rate four stars or above. One of the lugubrious aspects of getting older is that is increasingly difficult to find a film that stands out from the thousands of films you’ve already watched.

    On the hand, I’ve really enjoyed series like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, mainly because they are sufficiently well done to make you care about the characters. They are many orders of magnitude better than the series that came out in the 80s and 90s.

  5. John H.
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    The 1982 film is full of memorable visual sequences containing few words.

    One of the best films I have seen in recent years is the modern silent film, The Artist.

  6. Posted August 3, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Have to present the counterargument to Conrad.

    Godfather, part 1, was built around Marlon Brando, as iconic an actor who has ever lived.

    Part 2 did not feature Brando at all, but made a star out of then-basically-unknown Robert De Niro.

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