Monday, August 22, 2011

Dope Island: Conan the Antiquarian

By Charles Cassady, Jr.

The CONAN THE BARBARIAN movie is in theaters, and, as followers of this blog may know, it did not screen in advance for critics. That coupled with this dog-days month of August means a very bad omen, by Crom. Yet the 20-somethings at one of my part-time jobs were planning their weekend around seeing the new CONAN. Maybe it's just to study up on the videogame version. I hate to think the clever lads might think this is a movie about that funny talk-show guy on late-nite TV with the Masturbating Bear among his ensemble.

But one Conan that we could throw up here on the blog in advance is the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's been out on DVD and VHS, and it still seems to surprise viewers (AKA parents) that, although Conan has been a star in his own long-running series of Marvel Comics books (wow, a movie version of a Marvel Comics character, imagine that), this tries to get away from the campy, silly Conan of the 70s and 60s and back to the original dark, brooding, psychotic Conan of the 1930s. Yes, I know that's the logline for all the Batman movies, but this one went there first, with R-level sex and bloodshed in the form of sword impalings, torture, dog attacks, bloody axings and gladiatorial beat-downs (even of animals), sex and nudity.

In the 1982 CONAN THE BARBARIAN scripter/director John Milius adapted for the screen the virile adventure stories of American pulp writer Robert E. Howard, set in a mythical prehistoric age before the sinking of Atlantis. Hey, you want to cyber-bully some kid and give him an inferiority complex, text or e-mail him the fact that in the first Howard stories in the cycle, muscular Conan is only about 14 or 15 years old. So picture that, little squirt. If you felt you were a no-self-esteem wimp already, try measuring up to Conan, whose bicep alone was taller than you are! Anyway, Conan is son of a village sword-maker in a northern tribe. His village and family are massacred blithely by Thulsa Doom (a seemingly detached James Earl Jones), a bandit with a mystic streak. Sold into slavery, Conan gains a super-physique thanks to years of hard labor (and is now played by Mr. Universe Schwarzenegger). He proves a champion in the gladiatorial ring and is tutored in a warrior philosophy by his master: "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, hear the lamentation of their women!" Well, it beats "Go Browns!" He's also used as a stud with various slave girls to breed little Conans (this narrative thread, surprisingly, is never followed up - not even by Disney).

Yet the same master decides that Conan has earned his freedom. Thus emancipated, Conan (with nothing else to do, really) goes on a vengeful quest to find Thulsa Doom, who now has a new gig as leader of his own snake cult and is recruiting masses of suicide-crazed religious fanatics. The script, co-written by Oliver Stone, earns some respect from the intelligentsia by insinuating an existentialist-atheist philosophy, sometimes word-for-word from Nietzsche; unbowed Conan has no use for gods (especially snake gods) who demand obedience and sacrifice. The only gods worth any respect were the Earth ones who allowed man the smarts to smelt weapons and go kick ass on his own - and if those gods turn to be a hardship, screw them too! Okay, very Ayn Rand-approved, but personally I was surprised by this Conan only because of the lack of surprises. Conan plods grimly from point A to point B, Thulsa Doom just sort of waits around to be killed in a lackluster finale, and while Milius aspires to be more serious in intent than a lot of films with longstanding comic-book tie-ins, the overall impact is pretty ponderous - think Ang Lee's HULK without digital f/x. And with a college liberal-arts degree.

Production design is Frank Frazetta-fancy, but the sword-battle scenes are shot in flat, no-frills fashion. While Schwarzenegger strikes martial-flexing poses and has the required physicality, he really isn't given much of a character to play, reacting rather than acting, and I (unlike Conan) will forgive the savage critics of 1982 who thought Schwarzennegger was a talentless plank of wood - checking him out in the contempo documentary PUMPING IRON, the jock drama STAY HUNGRY or even the comedy THE VILLAIN showed flashes of the humor and charisma that would make him a likeable star down the line (Maria Shriver may disagree at this point). And while few critics called the 1984 sequel CONAN THE DESTROYER, directed by Richard Fleischer, the better movie, I had to say it did give younger fantasy fans the Marvel Comics-level slam-bang action, Robert E. Howard pulp-mentality and primordial monsters this one seemed to hold back (DESTROYER also skips the sex and explicit nudity, and thus wrested a mere PG rating from the savage MPAA).

So never mind the new CONAN; is the old CONAN worth a look? Okay, but for the real deal, go back to the books. Author and weightlifter Robert E. Howard sure knew how to spin thunderous yarns, and there's a biopic about him called THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD that I ought to see some day, for whatever insight that offers.

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