Empire’s April 2011 issue – including the debut of Khalar Zym! (Update)

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from Empire’s preview, save that there would likely be a few interesting new pieces of information, some commentary from the filmmakers, maybe one or two new pictures. Well, Empire’s pulled through again: not only are there some lovely new pictures of Jason Momoa for his fangirls (and fanboys, of course), but we have what could be the first clear look at Stephen Lang as Khalar Zym!

A warning: I’ll refrain from spoilers as much as I can, but the images included in this post are simply vast, vast, vast, vast pictures. Vast. Dare you click on?

Many Asuran spies died to nab a copy of Empire’s April 2011 issue, and I don’t intend their deaths to be in vain. As such, I offer their prizes: a few scans of the upcoming issue with analysis, and a few comments on the article itself.

First, the pictures.

This is obviously the picture previewed on the magazine website. Conan’s expression is somewhat ambiguous: is it anger, fear, surprise, disgust, confusion? Wondering who’s bright idea it was to give him a manica harness and lighting that that makes his pecs the envy of Jane Russell? (OK, ok, I’ll shut up…) Getting a closer look at the manica really puts me in mind of Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus:


Nice dynamic shot of the Cimmerian here, his “great muscles swelling in anticipation of murderous blows,” and we can see a good few nasty-looking scars. His hair looks nice and black, too. The setting appears to be the same as in the first official shot, which also first appeared in Empire. It’s also probably the place where the infamous “ninja mummy” stunt was shot, and Conan’s stance is possibly from that very scene, just as he’s about to cut some poor beastie’s legs from underneath itself. I vastly prefer his costume here to the manica one.

Another shot of the manica ensemble. Conan’s added another weapon to his ensemble in a small dagger, though whether it’s an enemy weapon turned on its owner or otherwise isn’t clear from context. I also note his chest looks a lot better here, and Momoa’s expression is my favourite so far: intimidating and fierce, but naturally so. This scene appears to be shot in the same place as the second official still, of Conan riding through a forest in pursuit of the mysterious carriage with the unknown symbol on the front: I guess Conan caught up with them, or at least some of the luckless guards.

The last of the pictures featuring Conan also shows what could be our first look at Remo, a character whose actor has still not been officially announced. Why do I think it’s Remo? Well, that would be spoilers: I’ll discuss that later.

So, the first unambiguous reveal of the main villain of Conan the Barbarian (2011) is tucked away in a small picture in Empire. And he isn’t even the main focus, he’s just sort of peeking in from the side. Ok. Let’s have a closer look.

Now who is this gigantic fellow? He clearly has more than a few inches on the 5’10” Stephen Lang, and may be as much as a whole foot taller. I believe this gentleman here is, indeed, Nathan Jones: though understandably difficult to recognize under the makeup, the proportions of his face do seem to match up – not to mention his sheer height. Jones was rumoured to be playing a part in the upcoming film, and one of The Pictures We Aren’t Allowed To Talk About sported a gigantic warrior in the background about a head taller than anyone else with the same hairstyle as this chap here. Being 6’11” and exceedingly well built, Jones is one of Hollywood’s go-to men when they require a Professional Huge Person with prodigious thews. Thus, this might be our first shot of Nathan Jones’ character in the film, who I believe to be the Cyclopean “Jailer” who features in the early script.

Well, what to make of our villain? Lang’s wearing a different costume from the horseman in gold-and-purple we had previously suspected could be Khalar, as well as the mysterious figure on the divan in The Pictures We Aren’t Allowed To Talk About, but there’s no reason why he can’t have multiple costumes in the film. This costume is less lavish and more practical looking to me: a stylized muscled cuirass, layered pauldrons, leather bracer, a few belts. Khalar also sports a fairly subtle goatee, and his hair is tied into a few braids. No sign of the dreaded Double-Bladed Parallel Scimitar, sadly.

I’d like to make mention of one thing:

Where are Conan’s blue eyes?

They’re one of the most easily recognizable things about him, they’re one of the most frequently used descriptions of Conan’s appearance, and they’d be incredibly easy to implement with modern makeup techniques. They got the woman who did the contact lenses for Black Swan, and there’s no sign of blue contacts for Conan the Cimmerian? I mean, I know Jason’s big brown eyes could melt a gal’s heart, but come on. Hopefully they’ll CGI some blue eyes in later, but you’d think Nispel would go for the low-tech solution.


First of all, I’m not going to reproduce the entirety of the article here, not least because I don’t want to leave Empire in the lurch. However, I will take some excerpts and discuss them.

The first part of the article immediately leaps into the fore with something of a challenge to Conan fandom:

“Yeah, we’re in trouble alright!” The fact that Marcus Nispel, director of Lionsgate Studio’s new Conan movie, is laughing provides the first hint that he speaks here not of production problems or studio dissatisfaction. Everyone is extremely happy with the new Conan The Barbarian. He speaks, instead, of the mighty warrior’s forthcoming confrontation with his greatest enemy. Forget Thulsa Doom; forget Thoth-Amon. Conan is going up against the Cult Of Fandom. “We’re ****ed!” jokes Nispel.

Those last two sentences seem especially pertinent, given the frosty reaction the film’s leaked synopsis received. Still, the film isn’t out yet… Nispel is enthusiastic, and pleased with the project so far. He doesn’t seem to be too worried about the film’s reception, and insists that although he loved the 1982 film, his won’t be a simple retread. Given the somewhat mixed signals the film’s promotional people are sending, it’s something that needs to be constantly reiterated.

Sean Hood also drops by with some comments, reiterating how the R rating provides far more scope for sexuality and violence suited for a sexual and violent time. Avi Lerner, he who reportedly courted Arnold for a one-day-cameo, even says he has a particularly good feeling about it, citing high production values and “thousands of extras.” While we can’t say for sure, there was certainly quite a sizeable quantity in the behind-the-scenes images recently unearthed.

Nispel returns to comment on how there’s still a lot of work to do, and most encouragingly, he cites Apocalypto as an influence – a very Howardian film, if I do say so myself. Nispel also gives props to Momoa (everyone seems to love the big guy, which makes me all the more anxious to see him in action) and comments on why Jared Padalecki was ultimately discounted, and a worldwide search all the way to Russia and Iraq.

Nispel retells the tale of Momoa’s audition, with a couple of salty embellishments, and mentions a few words of advice from John Milius. However, the most interesting, and I’d say extremely important, factor is one that some people use as an argument against Momoa:

“Conan needs to be the kind of guy that grabs a girl’s ass, and she laughs and he most likely gets laid that night. Whereas if you and I did that, she’d slap us and sue us for the rest of our lives,” as Nispel succinctly puts it. “That’s what we were looking for, and I knew we found it in Jason. He made all the Lionsgate office girls swoon.”

While I don’t like the choice of words Nispel used, he brings up a vital point. A great number of commentators are critical of Momoa for being too “pretty,” or “metrosexual,” or “soft” to play Conan. Usually these critics are men: “we want our Conan hard, rough, ugly and brutish, not some Baywatch alumnus with strokable hair and squeezable skin,” they seem to say. No doubt some women say that too, of course. Hell, here’s what Howard said about him:

Conan’s the damnedest bastard that ever was. He got a long black mane of hair, crystal blue eyes. He’s a fighter, born on the battlefield. To him, combat’s a way of life. It’s all he’s ever known, all he ever wants to know! He’s no soldier who was taught to fight. To him fighting’s an instinct, it’s a part of him. Like his legs, his arms, his chest, his bull neck. And believe me, he don’t take it from nobody. He’ll fight man, beast, devil or god.
– Robert E. Howard describes Conan to Novalyne Price, The Whole Wide World

But that’s just what men want from Conan: what do women want? Howard himself provided the answer:

“And when those women feel those tree-trunk firm arms around their waist, they melt like butter on a hot skillet.”
The Whole Wide World

It can be easy to forget that Conan is not only an indomitable warrior and defiant barbarian, but possessing a fierce, compelling magnetism that women find utterly irresistible. Think of the number of stories where women are almost instinctively attracted to him, how his primal vitality is more intoxicating and potent than anything they’d experienced before. If Jason Momoa can do that to the female audience, then that’s fantastic, and most emphatically a vital part of Conan’s personality.

Does this have to be at the expense of his masculinity? I don’t think so. Judging from Stargate Atlantis, Momoa is exceedingly skilled in fight choreography, especially for a man of his size. A warrior is defined by how he fights, not how he looks, after all. If he moves and acts like the vicious warrior we all know and love, then what matter if he isn’t as muscular as Arnold, or as weathered as Charles Bronson?

Nispel goes on to question old Sword-and-Sorcery tropes (“why doesn’t the wizard just turn Conan into a rabbit?” he opines) and subverts Richard Schickel’s preposterous “Star Wars by a Psychopath” review of Conan the Barbarian by using such a review as an aspiration.

A rare appearance by Joshua Oppenheimer follows:

“We could have stretched out a single short story,” he tells Empire, “but we opted to create a new one: one which spoke to the medium it was being created for. Our intention was to create something that fit snugly within the existing Conan mythology, which was hardly less of a challenge than making one of the original stories work within a traditional three-act structure.”

I have to wonder what the reaction would be if Peter Jackson announced that, instead of filming The Hobbit, he opted to create a new adventure for Bilbo Baggins, one that “fit snugly within the existing Middle-earth mythology.” I can’t imagine it being that accommodating. As for adapting one of the original stories (which have been translated nearly word-for-word into comics, not to mention “Pigeons from Hell,” which was excellently and faithfully translated to a televisual format with negligible differences), well, from what I’ve heard, Dirk Blackman does that reasonably well.

Sean Hood follows up with a criticism of Donnelly & Oppenheimer’s script, and addresses the apparent difficulty in adapting Howard from page to screen:

“Conan seemed to embrace and trumpet a higher purpose. I didn’t think that was true to his character. Some characters are compelling precisely because, despite enormous danger and pressure, they heroically refuse to change… I’m always struck by the way illustrations of H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters look so childish and cheesy, while his stories are so nightmarish,” says Hood. “Likewise, Robert E. Howard’s writing isn’t fairly represented by a muscle-man in a loincloth with a buxom babe. There is a gravitas, a raw passion and intensity that can get completely lost.”

While I still can’t understand the idea of Howard’s plots being difficult to translate to screen, perhaps it’s Howard’s powerful, evocative prose that would be lost in the translation to medium. Take this sheer prose poetry from “Queen of the Black Coast”:

A huge naked black stood crotch-deep in the jewel-brimming crypt, scooping up great handfuls of splendor to pass them to the eager hands above. Strings of frozen iridescence hung between his dusky fingers; drops of red fire dripped from his hands, piled high with starlight and rainbow. It was as if a black titan stood straddle-legged in the bright pits of hell, his lifted hands full of stars.

What is technically happening is one of the Black Corsairs of Conan’s crew is gathering treasure from a crypt, and passing them upwards to his mates. Howard takes this completely mundane task, and transforms it into a cosmic tableau, one that describes the simple action as if it was part of a mythic cycle. When put that way, how could one translate that sheer power from words to imagery? It would take a remarkable director to render such powerful words into a powerful vision.

Is Marcus Nispel up to the task? We’ll just have to wait and see. He has a lot to prove after Pathfinder and the horror remakes: we’ll see if Conan’s the film where he finally proves  what he’s made of to the world.

There’s a lot more in the article than I’ve described, and if it’s available where you are, I highly recommend getting this issue of Empire. Owen Williams has proven himself to be admirably well-informed as popular journalists go, and he mixes information and wit with aplomb. I especially appreciated the vulture analogy, and the cheeky “Guide to Hyboria.” Even the Howardist pedant in me didn’t mind the odd inaccuracy and minor pastiche intrusion. Another winner, Owen!

Empire for April 2011 is out now.

EDIT: A couple of sources linking to the blog (cheers, guys!) seem to be accidentally conflating the characters of Remo and the Jailer. If my wording or phrasing was unclear, I apologise. Thus, I’d like to elucidate that Remo and the Jailer are two different characters in all the versions of the script I’m aware of. Remo is listed in the casting sheet:

He’s in his 30s, any ethnicity, thin, feral, misshapen, a mysterious warrior of dark magic who travels by shadow and surprises men with a quick death. He leads a band of tracking Shadow Scouts under Khalar Singh’s employ. He can be immensely fast and devious, his soul as twisted as his body.

The Jailer is not mentioned in the casting sheet, but he is in the synopsis and both scripts:

Once inside the fortress, Conan (meets) the massive JAILER

Combined with the fact that the man tied to the catapult has a different hairstyle and is far smaller than the hulk in the Stephen Lang photograph, I’m pretty sure that the former is Remo, and the latter is the Jailer.

Hopefully that clears things up.