Monday, November 19, 2007
In which I argue the reasons why Conan the Barbarian crushes other films, drives them before it
Part 5 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.
Director John Milius' Conan the Barbarian is a significant departure from the character created by author Robert E. Howard. Its events bear little to no resemblance to any of Howard's stories, and in fact, other than borrowing some of Howard's names, places, and gods, it may as well be an entity unto itself. I note this because I know that many in Howard fandom despise the film for these reasons, and for spreading the myth that the lumbering, fallible Conan of the film is one and the same with Howard's creation.
Nevertheless, Conan the Barbarian resides firmly in my top 10 list of all-time favorite films. While the fantasy film genre is pretty weak overall (witness turkeys like The Beastmaster, visually appealing but empty films like Legend, the recent King Arthur, Troy, etc.), Conan the Barbarian rises to the top of this heap, just below The Lord of the Rings, because of its well-crafted visuals, its attention to detail, its nice casting choices and amazing score, and most of all for its single-minded adherence to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. This latter element in particular makes for a a rich viewing experience and makes Conan the Barbarian worth returning to again and again.
The following is a list of what I just plain like about this film:
The score. There's not much more I can add to the praise that's been heaped on Conan the Barbarian's exceptional soundtrack, except that I'll take it one step further and say that composer Basil Poledouris put together the best score for any film, ever. Lest you disagree, I present The Anvil of Crom: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkhdOQyIPo8.
Arnold Schwarzenegger. I know he gets criticism from a lot of corners for his sparse, halting lines, occasional foolish, un-Conan-like behavior, and (at times) awkwardness swinging a blade, but has anyone ever looked or sounded more the part? Schwarzenegger's thick Austrian accent, smoldering eyes, and massive physique make him look every inch the barbarian, and while he's not the most gifted actor he exudes an undeniable charisma.
A giant f-ing snake. Directors, if you're reading this: You can make your film better by a degree of five simply by adding a giant, man-eating snake.
The opening sequence. Darkness. Fire. A forge. Glowing embers. Molten metal. A bearded viking of a blacksmith pounding on an anvil with a big hammer. A glowing sword plunged into a snowbank. Classic.
Max Von Sydow. This legendary German actor has only a bit part as King Osric, but he plays it with conviction, and seated on a throne and clad in fur utters one of film's most memorable lines: "There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father's love for his child."
Sven-Ole Thorsen. What's not to like about a jacked 6-5 bodybuilder who plays a warrior named Thorgrim, and wields a massive war hammer capable of knocking over stone columns?
This exchange: (General): "Conan, what is best in life?" (Conan): "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of the women." Words to live by.
The riddle of steel. I've watched this film a dozen times and I still haven't settled on a satisfying answer to the riddle. Conan's father starts the film by stating, "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 in this world can you trust--not men, not women, not beasts, but this (points to sword) you can trust."
This theory (steel is mightier than the flesh) seems straightforward enough, except that, later in the film, arch-enemy Thulsa Doom seems to undermine this lesson when he demonstrates to Conan the superiority of flesh over steel, as exemplified by his rabid followers who obey his commands even unto death. "What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength of your body, the desire in your heart," says Doom.
Later Conan's father's sword is shattered by Conan's own vengeful hand, which seems to reaffirm Doom's statement. But then, Conan beheads Doom with the broken blade--before casting it away. So is the riddle of steel the combination of steel and flesh, impassioned by the purity of vengeance, which drives men to singleminded deeds and great heights? At the end--like Conan himself--I'm left contemplative, hand upon chin. If you have any ideas, please post them here.
And finally, Friedrich Nietzsche. Conan the Barbarian opens with the modified Nietzsche quote, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." And with a laser focus, Milius sets out to prove the truth of this statement over the next two hours. There's no compromises, no equivocation, no fussing around with morality. Just a mighty-thewed barbarian kindled by the bright flame of vengeance.