Conan the Rehash
Saturday, November 7, 2009
posted by Al Harron
Right now, the reaction across the internet regarding the recent casting call for the upcoming Conan film falls into roughly three camps. The first and largest camp is that of the average movie-goer: they are not averse to the idea of a reboot of the “original” Conan film, and with the critically successful Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica re-imaginings meeting the wild approval of even old fans, they might even view it as a good thing, offering a fresh new spin on a “stale” concept. The second camp are more jaded cinemaphiles, sick of the recent spate of shallow and soulless remakes, wondering why there’s a need to remake a classic film, especially when Arnold “was” Conan and Milius “nailed” the Hyborian Age. The third camp are the Robert E. Howard/Conan fans, whose reaction to the phrase “Cimmerians wiped out by werewolves” is unanimous: disbelief, disdain and anathema.
Being a shieldwall for Robert E. Howard and his work on the internet, it’s perhaps obvious which camp The Cimmerian’s regulars fall into. Some more seasoned Howard aficionados may look upon the younger, perhaps more idealistic, fans with a little pity: did we really expect a Conan film to meet with our expectations? Did we truly believe that the profit-idolizing cultists of Lionsgate would allow for anything more than the most tame, generic, derivative mess of cliche plots and cardboard cutout characters? Sadly, we did. Paradox Chief Executive Officer Frederick Malmberg himself assured us that the film would adhere more closely to Robert E. Howard than Conan the Barbarian did. Mr Malmberg claimed Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer understood Conan, that they read all the stories and comics, and that the film has nothing to do with the ’80s film “continuity-wise.”
The overall impression Mr Malmberg gave was that this would be what the fans wanted: that it would be closer to the tales which launched Conan toward the cultural icon he is today, those same tales which are considered worthy enough for inclusion among Penguin Classics by an author whose work is considered sufficient to stand alongside Lovecraft, Melville and Hawthorne in the Library of America. The same stories which have been printed, unedited and uncensored, by Del Rey more than seventy years after they were published while every single pastiche languishes out of print.
A common question non-Howard fans ask is “Why do we care? Conan isn’t high literature.” Or “As long as it has a big muscular barbarian, attractive women, evil sorcerers and lots of sex and gore, what more could one need?” Or even, “The original stories are seventy years old, maybe they need an update to be relevant to today’s audience.” Each question belies the lack of knowledge–indeed, the lack of care–about Robert E. Howard’s original creation. The battle for recognition of Howard’s literary merits is largely won thanks to the tireless efforts of Howard scholars in the last twenty years, though as with any niche author, this has yet to filter into public perception. If people don’t view Conan as “high literature,” then why would they expect a film that moves beyond the schlocky Sword-and-Sorcery staples of twenty years ago? At which point I would counter: why would you settle for such elements? Almost every Howard story has a tremendous action scene, many have at least one attractive woman in various states of undress, most have some supernatural element, and there’s plenty of blood as a given. Asking for those things in a Conan film is, frankly, like asking for a film to have actors & sets: it’s the bare minimum.
I’m reminded of Chris Rock’s infamous routine from Bring the Pain, where he alludes to a certain demographic that expects to be congratulated for carrying out tasks and routines that other people undertake as a matter of course without expecting any reward. Taking good care of their children and not going to jail, for example: it’s generally expected for people to do those things, rather than being above and beyond the call of duty. In a similar way, there’s a certain lowness of expectations with a Conan film where the things that just should be in an adaptation are praised, when one should take them for granted. Rather like applauding a film about the Normandy Landings for merely having tanks, soldiers, guns and explosions: you’re supposed to have those things in such a film.
So, the recent casting call is out, and confirmed as the real McCoy. However, perhaps there is still hope for those kool-aid imbibers desperate for the possibility that beyond the Extinct Cimmerians, Shadow Scouts and Tempered Steels, maybe there’s something vaguely Howardian in the whole mess. Unfortunately, if the early script I read is anything to go by, that isn’t happening. It appears to be the same document known from the Latino Review Featurette and the Cin City 2000 script comparison, though it bears some differences from the casting call: the “four-armed archers” of the Latino Review script have apparently been upgraded to mystical blind archers (I’m really not sure which is worse, to be quite frank), and Tamara’s undergone a change into an Action Girl. The main points of contention, regrettably, appear to be intact.
To go through every little thing that the script botches would result in a rather long list. There are plenty: trite one-liners, set pieces and events taken from other Sword-and-Sorcery flicks, as well as lapses of logic and character. In the interests of not wanting this post to reach ludicrous proportions, I shall focus on those elements which bother me most as Howard fan, as well as certain elements which bother me purely as a cinemaphile.
Deuce said pretty much all that needed to be said from a Howard fan’s point of view, but there are some elements in the script which I wish to expand upon. First of all, it appears that Donnelly & Oppenheimer have indeed read the Conan stories, for sprinkled throughout are elements of Howard’s own prose. However, in addition to alterations in phrasing, sentence structure and vocabulary, there’s a particularly jarring example of taking a Howardian quote out of context, and changing it to suit their own purposes.
Who could forget the classic passage from “Queen of the Black Coast,” where Conan dispels all notions of him being a brainless barbarian unconcerned with philosophy, spirituality and metaphysics?
“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”
One would think that including even parts of this wonderful paragraph could only be a good thing.
I know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, a woman’s hot embrace, the mad exultation of battle. But until my peoples’ debt is paid, they are fleeting joys. I drink deeply, but the thirst remains. It is not a life to envy.
I am utterly flabbergasted by this. Not only do Doppenheimer take one of the most powerful, philosophical, and unforgettable pieces of Conan’s characterization completely out of context, but they manage to twist it to serve as justification for their pastiche storyline. Not since the misappropriation of Thak for the preposterous Conan the Destroyer have I seen such offensively ham-fisted use of Howard’s most iconic text. Perhaps what is most bewildering about this is that it is evidence that Doppenheimer have indeed read the stories–yet they still disregard Howard’s meticulous crafting, plundering bits and pieces they like to put in a narrative they like better. Because, of course, Howard was “not a great writer” and needed somebody to take his good ideas and make them “work” for cinema.
It isn’t just the prose: the Hyborian Age itself gets the shaft. In Doppenheimer’s interpretation, Khalar Singh is able to form an army and march–unchallenged–from Khoraja to Cimmeria: even Thugra Khotan couldn’t have managed that. Khoraja, by the way, despite being a land-locked nation on a mile-high escarpment, somehow has sufficient need for warships! The specter of the Bruce Jones era of comics is strong in this script. The Cimmerians fit the typical “hardy medieval peasant” model, trading with the hated Aquilonians instead of their kindred (or raiding for supplies) when the harvest is poor. Perhaps most galling is that Acheron was not destroyed by barbarian invasions and the power of the Heart of Ahriman, but through civil war, collapsing in on itself like an over-inflated soufflé. One of the most potent examples of one of Howard’s most essential themes, that of the barbaric triumph over civilization, is essentially erased in favor of a generic evil civilization being hoist on its own petard.
There are hundreds more such examples, born either from lack of familiarity or just lack of interest. However, an argument could be made that these are only criticisms to Howard and Conan fans: if one distances themselves from the idea that this is meant to be a Conan film, does it look alright on its own? After all, Conan the Barbarian is considered a pretty good film by its own standards, even a classic of cinema. Would that it were true for this film.
Conan the Barbarian may not have been entirely original, but at least it borrowed from masterworks of cinema. The music, photography, and even Thulsa Doom’s helmet in the “Riders of Doom” sequence are heavily inspired by Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky: and why not, since it’s one of the greatest films ever made, and Milius is a known fan of the director. The scene where Rexor presents Doom with Conan’s father’s sword is practically lifted from a similar scene involving the Teutonic Order knights. Peter Jackson did the same for the prologue of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the charge of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The classic “Wheel of Pain” sequence is uncannily similar to a similar scene in the Maciste film Cabiria. Certainly, the ambiance of the film owes much to the great “Sword and Sandal” epics of European cinema, featuring heroically proportioned warriors like Ursus, Hercules, Samson and the aforementioned Maciste.
So what films does Doppenheimer’s Conan take cues from? Well… for one thing, Corin engages the brash, impatient young Conan in confusing riddles in an effort to teach the boy patience and technique, much like Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid, or Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back. Khalar Singh seems to have mastered interstellar travel, since he uses the Ceti Eels from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to bend people to his will, having them invade their bodies and make them highly suggestible. Doppenheimer seem to have enjoyed 300, for Khalar Singh’s evil invading army is comprised of many strange ethnicities from across the world, which mean to threaten the liberty of a proud nation of universally white warriors (not to mention having gargantuan pachyderms, an angry giant & hideous monsters in their ranks).
Of course, one needn’t forget previous Sword-and-Sorcery films, for the script has more in common with them than any Howard story. Despite Frederick Malmberg’s assurances, the film is practically a remake of Conan the Barbarian with the names switched about. Conan’s father raises him, relating existential musings about swords and warriors. His parents are killed at an early age, one of them murdered personally by the evil sorcerer who would become his lifelong nemesis. Said sorcerer’s mercenaries destroy Conan’s village, leaving him homeless, and eventually he is forced to brave the hypocrisy of civilization. Like Thulsa Doom, Khalar Singh is a charismatic warrior-sorcerer of non-Caucasian ancestry, the leader of a recent cult, looking to exploit an ancient mystery in order to dominate the world. There are some other elements: the sanctuary of female monks besieged by an evil sorcerer searching for a magical macguffin essential to his plot–said sorcerer being the same villain who devastated the protagonist’s early life– is just like in Red Sonja. Ukafa might as well be Bombaata from Conan the Destroyer, seeing as it also lifts the plot to resurrect an ancient evil with sexual overtones from that film. The less said about the elements it steals from Kull the Conqueror, the better.
It’s often said that one of the things which sets Howard’s fiction apart from other fantasy is the “realism.” Although hardly devoid of magic and the supernatural, there’s a sincerity and substance to Howard’s weird touches that elevate it above the generic high fantasy of the D&D and Warcraft generation. Unfortunately, nobody told Doppenheimer that. In the script, we have a monastery kept isolated from the world by a massive, seemingly permanent sandstorm. While I’m glad to be spared the sight of seeing four-armed archers (of “The Black River” no less: where were they in that story?) trying to operate two bows, I cannot get over the inherent silliness of blind archers. Khalar Singh’s werewolves appear exactly once, early in the story, and are never seen again: typical for the video game mentality of this script.
In fact, much of the script reads like a poor marketing tie-in, with weak “cannon fodder” for Conan to cut down with ease, tougher “sub-bosses” to give Conan a little challenge, and “bosses” with weak spots Conan has to hit for massive damage. One of the most egregious examples is late in the script, where Conan defeats fifty–fifty–heavily armoured soldiers, split into three divisions, attacking him at once. How does he defeat them? He has to use video game tactics. He beats the pikemen by rolling under the pikes, cleaving them to splinters, then gutting the hapless idiots who didn’t think to carry an arming sword. How does he defeat the swordsmen, who’ve formed an implacable shieldwall? Simple: he hits a running dropkick on the captain that sends him flying twenty feet, landing behind them. The swordsmen are so incapable of moving their shields around in time that Conan cuts into their backs. What of the final wave, the dreaded dual-wielding swordsmen? Conan watches their attack patterns, waits for an opening, then attacks at the gap between slashes. Press A + X for massive damage!
Beyond a mere lack of originality in the plot, there are also much deeper concerns. Every Howard fan is acutely aware of the great Deinotherium in the room, that being named “1930′s prejudices.” Howard’s racial views are a frequent shadow cast across the man’s work and life, and I can sympathise with the need to take it into account. However, I was rather taken aback to see that Doppenheimer have not taken this idea on board, and have instead added plot elements of simply astonishing racial insensitivity. It’s bad enough that Ukafa, Khalar Singh’s foremost henchman, happens to be black, making the sight of Conan fighting a black man depressingly common on the screen. But did they have to give him gold teeth? In the script his teeth were filed down to sharpened points, which at least has historical and Howardian significance, but a flashy grill is so tied to modern gang culture that comparisons would be unavoidable. If it turns out Ukafa can chew metal with his mighty gnashers, I expect the shade of 007-fanatic Steve Tompkins to be incandescent.
There’s much worse than that. Here’s a description of the Shadow Scouts:
Harkening (sic) from the deepest jungles of Kush, the tribesmen’s shifting skin serves as camouflage, seamlessly blending them into any background. Only their EYES betray their position, almond spheres that appear to float, bodiless.
Yikes. So we have black tribesmen from the Hyborian analogue of Darkest Africa, whose skin makes them invisible, especially in the dark, only the whites of their eyes visible. In a script with a giant black man sporting hip hop fashion jewelry, and naked black tribesmen atop a great war mammoth as part of a multicultural invading army, this is really not helpful in convincing a modern audience that a 1930′s Texan author is still relevent, and not hopelessly trapped in its period.
Sexism also rears its ugly head, with more than a few vulgar references. Thankfully, the script I read is not terribly offensive to my feminist sensibilities: though Tamara and Islene are hardly Valeria or Belit, or even Yasmina, they aren’t the worst examples of Conan ancillary females.
This article was originally a long, detailed breakdown of the script, but since I worked up four thousand words on the first thirty pages alone, it would likely have been a tough read. I will go out on another exerpt from the script which epitomises everything that I find wrong with the film:
Conan tugs on the rope for the camel to move faster. The Camel BRAYS and rears. Conan yanks harder and the camel flies forward, its eyes wide.
Conan meets its eye.
Do not test me, beast.
Is there not a living thing you can be at peace with?
That’s right. The infamous camel-punching scene from Barbarian and Destroyer gets more respect than Howard.
So what now? This film is not Robert E. Howard’s Conan. It’s barely John Milius’ Conan. That much was probably clear when Brett Ratner, of all people, was announced as a genuine front-runner for the role of director, and the Doppenheimer Duo named as scriptwriters. Suffocating as the frustration and resentment at this situation may be, it is not a time to let the bleak disappointment take command. In the next few months, it is our duty as Howard fans to illuminate and educate who Conan really is. As a Howard fan, I take every opportunity to talk about him to new people. If I think they’re receptive, I even suggest picking up his books. I’m not into Howard because he’s a “niche” author, or because he’s an obscure name I can use to impress people with, or even because it makes me feel cool and mysterious. I’m into Howard because he’s a damned fine writer, and I think many more people would enjoy his work.
That’s why this whole thing sticks in my craw. It’s a sad fact that people are more likely to watch a film than read a book: it’s also a sad fact that people form judgments about authors and their work based on adaptations. Judgments based entirely on pastiche elements, that they have no business making. If this film is made, it’s all going to happen again, and we’ll have to get used to explaining that no, Robert E. Howard never had Conan fight an evil Sikh, or see his parents slain and his village destroyed, or fight a giant rapper and troupe of blind archers.
But take heart, sword-brothers and battle-sisters. Turn this disaster into an opportunity: use the buzz surrounding the film to introduce Robert E. Howard and the real Conan to those not yet familiar with our favourite author. Spread the word via message boards, forums, email, letters, telephone, Skype, whatever is at your disposal. Sign the petition at the Conan forums, whatever little good it may do. The worst thing a Howard fan can do at this time, in my opinion, is just ignore it–no, we cannot, must not. In times when the name “Conan” will be on everyone’s lips, that’s precisely the time for us to make our voices heard. Many a Howard fan I know gravitated naturally to the Howardian fountainhead after watching the films or reading the comics.
Over the internet, most people don’t even understand what the problem is. Despite multiple new Howard books in print and increased awareness on the internet, most people look at the casting sheet, and cannot see anything wrong. It has a guy called Conan, it has an evil sorcerer, attractive female lead, battles, swords, monsters, enemies–what more could we want from a Conan film? They might compare the situation with, say, fans’ reaction to Peter Jackson as director to The Lord of the Rings, or the furore over Toby Maguire’s casting in Spiderman, without fully grasping exactly how much worse this situation is, let alone why so many write it off despite Conan not even being cast yet.
For good or ill, many people will go to see this film. It remains to be seen how many, and whether the response is negative, positive, apathetic or whatever. What is a certainty is that cinema-goers will see the name “Robert E. Howard” on that big, silver screen. Captivated by the brutality, action and adventure of the film, some will wonder who this “Robert E. Howard” is, and embark on a quest to find out more. Learning that Howard wrote stories published in the 1930s, some of them may wonder if those yarns are worth reading today, and seek out people who know more.
We must be there for them.