Stephen Lang, Ruins, and the Sorcery of Conan

Thanks to commenter Antmanx, I was directed to Superherohype’s post on a new MTV interview with Stephen Lang.

“If you read Robert Howard, of course, the Conan stories and novellas, magic, the supernatural plays a huge, huge part in them: fakirs and magicians and wizards all over the place, so magic is part of that world. The magic in this film, there’s a lot of it, and there’s a lot of action-magic as well, a lot of magical fighting. My fighting is not magical: my fighting is just brutal. There’s a low-tech element to this film that I think is just terrific. When you get right down to it, it’s people banging away with these swords.”

I foresee that some people might have problems with the supernatural elements, since there’s an impression out there that Conan the Barbarian — the film — was largely bereft of fantastical aspects. Considering this is a film where Thulsa Doom hypnotizes people with his gaze alone, a witch transforms into a fanged horror which itself transforms into some sort of Will-‘o-the-Wisp, Doom transforms into a giant snake and charms a smaller one into functioning as an arrow, and the half-dead body of Conan is beset by an inferno of ghostly demons… I can’t say it’s entirely low magic.

Magic in the Conan stories is a tricky thing to pin down: it’s comparatively rare in the context of the world itself, but it obviously plays an important and potent part in the narrative of most of the stories. As Lang says, some sort of magic takes place in every Howard story, and sorcerers, wizards, shamans or supernatural beings among them. What’s more, magic seems very polarized: it’s either subtle, in the form of, say, hypnotic suggestion, telepathy, affinity with animals, or causing men to instantly drop dead of some unknown malady; or it’s profound alteration of reality — transforming men into beasts, teleportation through time and space and other dimensions, to the recreation of ruined cities and even entire countries to a facsimile of their heyday. There are no low-level mages flinging 1d4 magic missiles or cones of cold: any sorcerous projectiles are instantly deadly, or at least instantly paralyzing. Given what is known of the film, the magic does appear to be of the “high sorcery” type rather than the Dungeons & Dragons style.

As an aside, I love the use of the term fakir. Such a word has great relevance to The Hour of the Dragon and “Beyond the Black River”: perhaps those stories had an effect on Lang.

Pertinent to the discussion of sorcery is this intriguing post by Sean Hood (courtesy of Robert E. Howard Forumer Anastacia, as well as Conan Movie Blog local Stampfer), and it’s a good read on its own.  However, within is this piece of Conan information:

In short, 3-D is just another creative choice, one that the screenwriter should neither over-emphasize nor ignore.

So far, this best describes my experience on Conan. 3-D has indeed subtly effected the way we (writer, director and producers) are imagining the story. The Ruins in the climax, are looking more and more like a drawing by M.C. Escher – characters jump, fall, and swing their swords, in our imagination, in jaw-dropping 3-D. Conversely, I imagine the quieter scenes preceding the climax, scenes that emphasize dialogue and character intimacy, as completely flat. I don’t imagine “3-D moments” but I do imagine the space – flat, deep, or limited – in which the action occurs.

This maze set-piece has been corroborated in two posts by Tortola BVI:

The finale in the labyrinth is specifically about giving the audience an epic visual action sequence to end the film rather than serving the plot of the movie. I for one am looking forward to it.

More like Prince of Persia meets 300 with a touch of the Dante’s Inferno video game gluttony puzzle room, from what i read. If anyone has played the latter it’s rather close to that.

For those wondering about the gluttony puzzle, here’s a short clip.

Robert E. Howard Forumer Mikoza alerted us to this photograph from Nu Boyana, which could be part of the above labyrinth battle:

I know that greenscreen is not the enemy, but I’m getting serious The Phantom Menace flashbacks here. Using wires to facilitate action choreography is one thing, but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the more ludicrous stunts of 300 are not  ideal inspirations for Conan combat. Of course, without knowing exactly what’s going on in this shot, perhaps it’s too early to judge the film’s action scenes.

Now, there are quite a few maze-type constructions in Howard’s stories: the green-stone cities of Xuthal and Xuchotl in “Xuthal of the Dusk” and “Red Nails” respectively; the resurrected fortress of Dagonia in “The Devil in Iron”; the labyrinthine Alkmeenon of “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”; the Halls of Hell under the titular castle of “The Scarlet Citadel,” and the vampire-haunted crypts beneath the Great Pyramid in The Hour of the Dragon being the most prominent. However, none of those dungeons quite approached Escher-levels of space-time fluctuation as in the gluttony puzzle — and more importantly, none of them were part of the climax of the stories, taking place in the middle of their respective tales. This sort of mind-bending impossible architecture seems more suited to a Kull story — compare with Weird “with a capital W” Tales “The Screaming Skull of Silence” and “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” for instance — than a Conan one, or even a Fritz Leiber/Clark Ashton Smith yarn.

I’m sure many would also criticize this as a gimmick with which to involve the 3D aspect of the film. And I’d agree: it does seem like a scene that is fairly unambiguously created for the benefit of the 3D experience by Hood’s own admission. That said, if it does not detract from the experience, and is not obnoxiously gratuitous, it could work nicely to immerse the audience. I guess this is one of those things that we’ll have to wait and see on.

So I’m not going to judge this aspect of the film until we know more. I am, however, going to leave you with my immediate reaction to the idea of Conan running about in an Escher drawing.

That is, if Conan was played by Jennifer Connelly, and Khalar Zym by David Bowie. Mitra help us all…