There are two Conans. The first one, Conan of Cimmeria, was created by Robert E. Howard in 1932 and adventured his way through Weird Tales, The Avon Fantasy Reader, and any number of books over the years. The other, Conan the Barbarian, was created as a simulacrum of the original, able to adventure through Code-approved comic books and, a bit later, movies. The former is the exclusive creation of Robert E. Howard, though a number of others have attempted to write stories about him. The latter is a collaborative effort by many hands, starting with Roy Thomas at Marvel Comics: I’ve lost track of how many different writers, artists, and others have been involved in the comics and movies. Conan the Cimmerian is a literary character. Conan the Barbarian is a pop culture icon.
The title of the new film should clue you in to which Conan it is about.
I went in expecting to see no Robert E. Howard whatsoever. I’d seen the screen treatment that was floating around the web a year or so ago, which contained not a scintilla of REH, and was to boot the silliest thing I’d ever read with the name “Conan” in it, and I knew that, for all he may have tried, Sean Hood had minimal time to try to repair the horrendous script of Donnelly and Oppenheimer. I had also, though, seen the trailers for the movie, and someone had posted the opening scene in which young Conan attacks and savagely mauls four or five Picts (at least, I assume they were meant to be Picts — they kind of looked like a cross between Mohawks and Richard Kiel as Jaws), and those had given me at least some hope that the movie would at least be a thrill ride. That’s all I figured to get out of the movie, a little excitement and adventure.
And that’s what I got. It was a cinematic version of the Conan comic book, in 3D. (Shelly and I went for the 3D experience, what the heck, go for the gosh-wow factor.) It’s too bad that it was like a story from the Michael Fleisher years,* rather than the Roy Thomas, but on the whole, I thought it was pretty well done. I’d put it on a par with my other favorite sword-and-sorcery movie, The Sword and the Sorcerer. (Now, that right there, I’ve just blown my critical credentials to smithereens, I guess, but since I went public with that years ago, I’m at peace with it. Shoot, the fact that I came to Howard through the Marvel comic back in 1971, and still read comics, blows my critical credentials to hell in the eyes of some, so what are ya gonna do?) I think both of them are way better — or let’s just say more to my taste — than that ponderous Milius film of 1982 or its laughable sequel.
Like The Sword and the Sorcerer, the new Conan the Barbarian has its faults. I understand that there are a lot of reviewers out there who are more than happy to catalog them for you. (I have held off reading reviews until after seeing the movie and writing my own.) But it has virtues, too, starting with Jason Momoa, who far better fits my conception of the Cimmerian than Schwarzenegger or Moeller did. There may indeed be some body-builder fans and/or wrestler fans out there who think that one of their guys should have been cast, but Howard makes it clear that Conan was not just big, he was lithe and quick and agile, and Momoa gets that across very well. I thought he did a good job.
Stephen Lang was fine as Khalar Zym, just as I expected. He’s one of the best badasses working today. Rose McGowan was suitably vile as his sorceress daughter, but that haircut they gave her was a mistake, making her look like a freak: give her her natural hair and sultry looks, and the undertones of those scenes with daddy would have been smokin’. Talk about your R rating… Ron Perlman was Ron Perlman, which I mean as a good thing. Leo Howard was terrific as the young Conan. Otherwise, no one really stood out, though I kinda warmed to Bob Sapp’s Ukafa.
The movie was dark and violent, which was as it should be. Lots of exciting, swashbuckling action. The sets and locations and costumes all contributed to a convincingly realized Hyborian Age. (Please, filmmakers, if you get a chance to do a sequel, it’s the “Hyborian Age,” but there is no such place as “Hyboria.” The Hyborians were a people, not a place. They were the “Hy Bori,” the people of the North.) Honestly, while I was expecting nothing whatsoever other than that thrill ride I mentioned earlier, I got from this movie a glimmer of hope. I think these people could actually do a genuine Conan movie, one that was pretty close to the character created by REH — but they’d have to have a very good script to work with. And that means starting with the actual stories of Robert E. Howard. Not as filtered through years and years of comics and movies and cartoons and action figures: you have to forget everything you think you know, and go back to the source. I’m not even saying you have to stick closely to a Howard story, just that you have to take Howard as your starting point, not the stuff that came later. (I’ve got a ton of other suggestions, too, of course, if you want to discuss ’em. I’m easy to find.)
The doomsayers and naysayers are hopping all over the weekend’s box-office numbers, declaring that the franchise is dead for the foreseeable future. I hope not. And I hope that the producers aren’t paying any attention to the people who are blathering that the movie bombed because of the star. Momoa is fine. It’s the ridiculous, cliched script that did this thing in. That and putting out an R-rated movie at the end of August. Shelly and I went to a Saturday afternoon show, and there were only about fifteen people in the theater. (At least three of whom could not contain their addictions to their phones, and had to be Sternly Admonished. Three words to remember, folks, it isn’t hard: Turn It OFF.) I agree with Fred Malmberg of Paradox that Conan should be R, for the violence if nothing else, but that is very problematic these days if you want to get butts in seats.
Anyway, I’m sorry to hear that the opening weekend is being called a disaster, and that it may mean that there won’t be any more Conan movies for the forseeable future. Because like I say, I think these guys could do it if they had a decent script to work from. I even think it could be done with a smaller budget, using less animation or sfx. Think “Beyond the Black River,” or “Red Nails.”
Robert E. Howard’s stories are still entertaining people 75 years after his death. Isn’t it about time to trust that a movie based on those stories would entertain people?
Anyway, those are some thoughts on the movie. I liked it. Shelly liked it (and she’s neither a comic nor Howard fan — her idea of a good movie usually involves subtitles). We’re not alone. It’s probably not for those REH fans who consider the comics to be beneath them, but for the rest of you, keep your expectations low, like mid-80s Marvel Conan low, and you should have a good time.
*Note: Thinking about it, maybe the Donnelly-Oppenheimer script was more like a story from the Chuck Dixon years of the Marvel comic. That enormous ship that Khalar Zym’s horde slowly and agonizingly haul overland to attack a mountaintop monastery can only have been the Nemedian Navy in action!