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:

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.


David Drage said...

I am a fan and collector of all things related to R.E.Howard and Conan.

I agree that a lot of REH fans don't like the movie. I, however, decided long ago that film adaptions are never faithful to their source material.

So like you I take the film for what it is, and like you I really like it!

I agree with all your points (and pretty much in the order you make them too).

Good posting, and a great blog, thanks


Brian Murphy said...

Hi David, thanks for the kind words about The Silver Key. I'll have to check out your Web site.

I've decided that I don't mind film adaptations when they take a kernel of an idea, or someone else's character/world, and create an entirely new and separate work from art from it (and when it's done well, of course). John Milius' version of Conan is a prime example.

The adaptations that irk me are the ones that claim to be true to the source material, but then stray from it, or which are mostly faithful but take certain disagreeable liberties.

For example, while I love The Lord of the Rings (and plan to write about it later), some of director Peter Jackson's decisions bugged me.

But again, in the grand scheme of things, I'll take an adapted Conan or LOTR any day for their quality and excellence.

Jesse said...

CtB is the great Fantasy movie. But greater is that it is the finest Philosophy film ever made.

CtB breaks through the wall of Robert E. Howard's chest cavity, cuts out his still beating heart, devours it, then throws up the glorious mess all over the silver screen for ninety minutes.

CtB is what is best in film.

Reed said...

Totally agree with your synopsis. Throughout the first half of 2007, I went through Schwarzenegger's oeuvre film by film in a feature I called "Schwarzenegger Sunday." People ask me, after all that research, which film is the best? Best is such an arbitrary word. If I had to say "what's the inherently best-done Schwarzenegger movie?" I'd have to go with T2. But Conan is my clear favorite. It's done perfectly, and a superb film for all those reasons you mention. I feel like I've had three levels of appreciation for it. 1) When I was a kid, I was pulled into the whole story and watched as closely as any other movie I'd seen to that point in life. 2) As a young adult who found the "epicness" of it so impressive. 3) As a "film geek" adult who appreciates things like the score, Arnold's acting and the bigger themes of the picture.

As far as the Riddle of Steel goes, I think the answer is that Thulsa Doom has it right. Conan truly has two fathers in this movie. The one who raised him from a boy, and the one who was responsible for him becoming the man he is. Doom (perhaps indirectly) is that second father. It is the reason, I believe, that Conan tries to get close to him instead of killing him quickly. Besides, what is Conan if not the strongest example of the power of flesh in movie history?

My review of this film is here.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Reed, nice work on "Schwarzenegger Sunday."

While Conan is my favorite Arnold film, I can see why you think T2 might be the best (although I'm actually a bigger fan of The Terminator).

You might be right about Thulsa Doom having the right answer to the riddle of steel, but I can't get over the fact that Conan exacted his revenge with his father's shattered steel blade. That seems a bit too coincidental to me.

Even a man such as Thulsa Doom, with legions of followers and a religion at his command, is ultimately just flesh and quite mortal.

slayergrrl said...

Conan is my favorite movie of all time. Beastmaster the second as I am a nature lover and lover of animals. I've probably watched them a hundred times over the years, in full or in part.

Thank you for this commentary ... I've just suffered something brutal at work and needed the reminder of "that which does not kill us ... "

Anonymous said...

My own take of the riddle of steel: Will is indeed stronger than steel, and it is what ultimatedly matters, but will is forged through adversity (being "hammered in the anvil of Crom", if you like), as supported by the opening "That which does not kill us makes us stronger" quote. Thulsa Doom represents the Last Man, imo, while Conan is a bona-fide Ubermensch.