Over on Opti-Mystic Pictures (I love that name) are two photos from the Conan shoot, dated January-March 2010. The first is a fairly unremarkable portrait of a crew member. The second is a man in makeup with a topknot wielding a stick between his teeth. After so many images of Jason Momoa, unknown extras and saucy tavern wenches, it seems we might finally have an image of an antagonist in the Conan film – not one of the named villains, but what appears to be a Pict.
The image is in black and white, so while we can’t tell the exact colours of the war-paint, it’s pretty similar to the type seen on Plains Native Americans such as the Cherokee, the Pawnee, and the Iroquois Confederacy. Most notably, it’s also very like the Picts as depicted in Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (seen below), especially the presence of a topknot. So even though the film is only giving the slightest of lip service to Robert E. Howard, it appears they’re making more of an effort to adhere to the art style established in Paradox’s current cross-media project.
What bothers me about this is that, like the Romanised Aquilonians (a misconception that goes all the way back to the original illustrations for “The Phoenix on the Sword”) this is a visual concept that at best ignores, and at worst contradicts, Howard’s descriptions. Howard’s Picts, be they of Conan’s time or otherwise, are never depicted wearing their hair a topknot: their hair is always described as “tangled manes,” “bound back with bands of copper,” with their tribes and status delineated by tokens in their “square-cut manes”: a heron’s feather denoted a peaceful emissary, while a dab of scarlet would indicate a chief. One could argue that not all Picts were the same, but then, there are many examples of Picts from all across the Wilderness — the wild Sea Tribes of “The Black Stranger,” the more diplomatic southern tribes of “Wolves Beyond the Border,” and the cunning Westermarck haunters of “Beyond the Black River” — and all of them bear the same sort of hairstyle. The primary way to differentiate between Pictish tribes appears to be through paint designs and tribal ornamentation. That’s not to say I think topknot-wearing Picts are impossible, just that there’s no precedence in any Howard story, and it seems presumptuous to portray the Picts west of Cimmeria as being very different to just about every other tribe out there.
Secondly, and of greater concern to me, is the paint. Howard described the Picts’ paint as “horrific,” “barbaric tribal designs,” and “hideous designs.” Even without being able to discern the colour (I’d go with red, the colour most associated with war by native American tradition), it doesn’t really look like it could be described as particularly “hideous” or “horrific.” In addition, the Picts had a very powerful and easily identified method of alerting others when on the warpath against non-Picts: they painted a great white skull on their chest. The Picts all had their own unique paint designs on their bodies and faces, but the white skull appears to be universal.Â Obviously we can’t see whether this Pict is on the warpath or not, but we can tell that his facepaint, at least, is rather plain.
That said, it isn’t the fact that the paint isn’t particularly gruesome or terrifying that concerns me, but that it really looks like a Native American design — you could drop this guy in Last of the Mohicans, and nobody would be any the wiser. The problem here is that the Picts of the Hyborian Age weren’t just Native Americans under a different name: there are elements of the Scottish Picts, Mediterranean tribes, even palaeolithic cultures, as well as elements Howard made himself. Howard’s Picts, more than even the Cimmerians or Stygians, were his own creation. The similarities of the Cimmerians to the Irish and Scottish are plain to see, and the Stygians are very evocative of their Egyptian descendants: however, the Picts are almost a uniquely Howardian creation, and it’s a shame they seem to be “ersatz Iroquois” here — not least because it wouldn’t help the misinterpretation that the Picts are racially Native American, when they weren’t.
Nitpicking? Perhaps — I’m a fan, and none can pick at those nits like fans. All the same, I wish the filmmakers had spent as much effort adhering to Howard as they appear to be adhering to the modern art style.