I’ve offered my general opinion of the film, but due to the nature of film reviews, I decided to stay away from delving into the details of the story and characters. I’m not overly concerned with spoilers myself, but I recognize others are, so I respected their choices, and made the review as spoiler-free as I could manage.
This, however, is a different animal altogether. If you want to go into the film completely unspoiled, I suggest you wait until after viewing to read this. This critique is going to go through the entire film, analysing every bit and piece I consider worthy of discussion, observation and, when it comes down to it, praise and criticism. Sometimes I’ll be delving into real nitpicking territory – things like pronunciations, spellings, city names, things like that – but hey, that’s what I do. You have been warned, serious esoterica Hyboriana ahead. As such, it’s very long, close to 20,000 words, but keep in mind that even given its length, this is me condensing. If anyone questions why I’m wasting my time dissecting a “dumb action movie” when all you want is “swords, sex and sorcery,” then I’m afraid you and I are just very different people.
In my review, I was carefully attempting to keep a balance of respectfulness and optimism, because of this. But here, I think it’s fairer for me to be frank and blunt. I figure the filmmakers don’t want me to be insincere and fawn over a film I hate, they want to know what I really think (and if they do want an insincere fawn, then they’re not getting it), because as long as I’m constructive, I hope that this might serve as an example to what the film did right and wrong, what would be great in future adaptations, and what wouldn’t be.
From my point of view, of course.
Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, where shining kingdoms spread across the world…
It starts off brilliantly, with the way I can’t imagine a Conan film being without – the Nemedian Chronicles. It’s voiced either by Morgan Freeman himself (my assistant doubted Mr Freeman would deign to demean himself with such a project) or a canny imitator. As with the 1982 film, though, it’s a truncated version. And, like the 1982 film, it goes off in a different direction, as the narrator starts talking about Acheron:
First came the dark empire of Acheron, where cruel necromancers sought secrets of resurrection. They crafted a mask from the bones of kings… and sacrificed their daughters to baleful gods. The mask summoned spirits of unspeakable evil, giving them power no mortal men should hold. Soon rivers ran red with blood, and cities burst in flame. Acheron enslaved the civilized world. Only the barbarian tribes were left to rise up against them. The Mask was shattered… and Acheron fell. Each tribe kept a single shard, so that no man might attempt to join them back together, and drive the world again into madness and ruin. The pieces remained hidden, scattered across the land for three thousand years. So rose the Hyborian Age, both bleak and brutal…
We all knew this would come, but it still comes as a jolt. But first, one thing really bugged me about the introduction, and that’s the map. See, the map is of the Hyborian Age… and has Atlantis illustrated on it, as well as the Nameless Continent. Now, I can’t immediately recall if the Thurian continent’s coastline was identical to Howard’s map, but it really looked like it, and as Atlantis faded from the map, I didn’t notice any change on the Thurian continent. Which kind of ignores the effect of the Great Cataclysm to a somewhat profound degree, if I recall this sequence correctly. I really hope it’s not the case: this’ll likely require a second viewing to truly ascertain. But the presence of the Nameless Continent, which only rose after the time of Atlantis (originally it was merely islands, which would become the peaks of the Rocky Mountains), doesn’t bode well for that repeat viewing.
On to Acheron – which is pronounced “Asheron,” as opposed to the more technically correct “Akkeron” (think of other Greek words with “ach,” like Achilles, Achaean, or Dyrrachium – it’s somewhat disquieting that Kull the Conqueror, of all things, sticks with the correct pronunciation, while this doesn’t). In this film,
Mordor Acheron was indeed a mighty kingdom which waged war against Middle-earth the Hyborian Kingdoms “Hyboria,” and at the height of their power, the dark lord Sauron Xaltotun (I’m not kidding, there’s a shot of a bearded Acheronian putting on the Mask with a closeup – according to the credits, Xaltotun is in this movie) forges an artefact of great sorcerous power, the One Ring Mask of Acheron, which apparently has the power to restore life. Quite why they’d bother with this mask when they already have the indescribably powerful Heart of Ahriman and the Incantations of Skelos necessary to unlock it is never brought up, for obvious reasons. And, of course, absolutely no mention is made of this magnificent mask in The Hour of the Dragon, despite Xaltotun himself being involved in its creation. We see matte paintings of Acheron too, and aside from being terrible, they don’t even bother with the few things we know of the bloody place. No shimmering purple towers, no pyramid of heads in the great square, nothing that distinguishes it from Mordor or Outworld or every other dark, horrible landscape of Evil.
But the Age of Acheron ends, and we discover that the barbarians did indeed destroy Acheron. However, these barbarian tribes then find the mask, and divide it among themselves, ensuring that nobody could use the mask for Evil again. Well, let’s look at the problems here: the barbarians which destroyed Acheron according to The Hour of the Dragon were the barbaric Hyborians. The Hyborians settled in the ruins of Acheron, and over the course of three millenia, eventually became virile and cultured civilizations in their own right – the kingdoms of Aquilonia, Nemedia and Argos. So, if the Hyborians did destroy the mask, then they’d obviously be held safe somewhere in those kingdoms, right?
Well, no. According to this film, at least one of the barbarian tribes involved in the destruction of Acheron was… the Cimmerians. Now, the Cimmerians are known to have fought Acheron (“I fought his ancestors of old: not even the Kings of Acheron could conquer them”), but they were emphatically not the ones who finally destroyed it. The whole point of the Hyborians destroying Acheron is that Acheron was, at least partially, a Hyborian kingdom itself: by having Hyborian barbarians destroy it, Howard was hinting at the cyclical nature of civilization, that with decadence, complacency and decay, barbarian invasions can overwhelm even the mightiest kingdoms. At the same time, the former barbarians would become civilized themselves, and though not quite decadent yet, the foundations of a new wave of barbarians lurking beyond the Black River and the Border Kingdom were starting to solidify. Changing the barbarians who destroyed Acheron from Hyborians to Cimmerians ruins that little poetic irony, and just presents the problem of how anyone could possibly mess with the Cimmerians, considering they destroyed the most powerful sorcerous kingdom in eons.
Also a big problem is that we see these Acheronian soldiers… and they’re identical to Khalar’s men. Same armour, same standard, same weapons, shields with the Mask of Acheron. So are we to assume that Khalar Zym has effectively created a New Acheronian army specifically modelled after the old? If so, then how in blazes did the Hyborian kingdoms, who despise Set worship (Acheron being a centre of that cult), let Khalar Zym survive even when he was a “lowly bandit”? A man who has an army dressed in the panoply of a kingdom whose name is culturally synonymous with nightmare and tyranny, and the proud, warlike people of Aquilonia, Nemedia, Argos, Zingara, Corinthia, Ophir, Brythunia, and Hyperborea just let him consolidate his power? It isn’t as if those kingdoms were powerless against Zym’s forces: Aquilonia alone boasted an army that must’ve been in excess of 100,000 going by The Hour of the Dragon.
It’s never stated outright in the film just which other barbarian tribes were involved in the Battle of
Middle-earth “Hyboria,” but it can be gleaned from piecing together clues. Khalar Zym has amassed an army from many parts of the world: black warriors in feathered headdresses, scale-armour clad Amazons, and the like. His lieutenants – Lucius, Ukafa, Akhoun, Cheren, and Remo – are apparently from conquered barbarian tribes, those lieutenants pledging themselves to his service. Lucius is Aquilonian, while Cheren is Brythunian, which means they’re not barbarian tribes (unless we’re supposed to think the Brythunians were barbarians) So it follows that Ukafa, Akhoun, and Remo’s people were among the tribes who destroyed Acheron. Going by the script, Ukafa is Kushite; Akhoun is Turanian; Remo is Zingaran.
The problems are obvious: how did the Kushites manage to get to Acheron through the Old Stygian Empire, which spanned an area the size of the Roman Empire at its height? What kind of bloody Turanian is Akhoun, considering he doesn’t remotely resemble any of the Turanians in Howard’s stories, and that the Turanians aren’t barbarians in the first place? Since when were the Zingarans sharp-toothed, tattooed monsters? Most pointedly of all, how did Khalar Zym manage to get to all those countries and conquer them with so much geopolitical opposition in his way if he was just a “lowly bandit”? Not only are we to believe Khalar could march all the way to northwest Cimmeria and emerge unharmed, but he could get past Stygia and conquer Kush, conquer the mightiest eastern empire of the entire Hyborian Age, and on top of that, have the only female warrior troupe in the Hyborian kingdoms which has otherwise no mention of such a company. Khalar Zym has effectively conquered the entire Hyborian Age even without the Mask, all in a mere 20 years or so… yet he’s never mentioned in a single Conan story.
Since we never do hear where Remo, Lucius, Ukafa, Akhoun, or Cheren come from – we never even learn the latter four’s names in dialogue, and have to trust the credits and recognition of the actors – we can probably ignore the massive problems of having the Cimmerians join forces with the Kushites, Turanians and Brythunians in taking down Acheron, and subequently having Khalar Zym conquer Cimmeria, Kush, Turan, Brythunia and who knows where else on his quest for the Mask, and concentrate on the other massive problems. Oh, and we see one of Acheron’s poorly rendered towers explode. For some reason. Because instead of a horde of barbarians scaling the walls or something remotely Howardian, this film needed more explosions. And, of course, we end on a prophecy, as apparently someone was prophesied to reform the mask and rule all of “Hyboria.” Who prophesied it? Never explained. Still, thanks for your time, Mr Freeman.
“Birth” on a Battlefield
After we digest that, we see a CGI baby in the womb, floating serenely within a surprisingly well-lit uterus, before a sword plunges in. Oh boy… The camera is drawn out with the sword, and we see this chap:
So it seems this is the chap who slew Conan’s mother, Fialla (evidently her name was changed to Dark Horse’s interpretation, and admittedly it’s better than the wishy-washy Islene of previous drafts), and she immediately retaliates. I love that Fialla is clearly a warrior herself, wearing armour and wielding a sword in the thick of battle. Laila Rouass does her best in a largely thankless role. No, she doesn’t have blue eyes. Don’t be daft. Corin also has a fairly blond-looking beard going on, which is a shame, since he already has the volcanic blue eyes which would make him an awesome Cimmerian. Come to think of it, Rachel Nichols and Stephen Lang had great blue eyes too, but they weren’t Cimmerians. Dadgum it.
I’ve already asserted my utter hatred of the idea of Conan being born via Caesarian section, so I won’t belabour the point. Suffice to say, from a Shakespearean symbolism point of view, Marcus Nispel’s Conan is technically not born on a battlefield, and that although the birth is obviously visually arresting, it’s exploitative and has no emotive impact. It’s crazy and over-the-top, like Crank or any other of those hyperviolent films, but it’s just silly mindless violence. I should point out that we don’t see the gory details in the version I saw: just Corin plunging his knife into Fialla’s belly – mind the baby, eejit! – off frame, and coming back with what I really hope is an animatronic newborn. This birth scene really needed at least three minutes if it was going to have any impact: as it is, it’s just too little.
Corin then raises Baby Conan to the sky with a roar, and we get the title screen.
Here’s Robert E. Howard’s Cimmeria, as described by Conan in the draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”:
“A gloomier land never existed on earth. It is all of hills, heavily wooded, and the trees are strangely dusky, so that even by day all the land looks dark and menacing. As far as a man may see his eye rests on the endless vistas of hills beyond hills, growing darker and darker in the distance. Clouds hang always among those hills; the skies are nearly always gray. Winds blow sharp and cold, driving rain or sleet or snow before them, and moan drearily among the passes and down the valleys. There is little mirth in that land.”
“Life seems bitter and hard and futile. The men of those dark hills brood overmuch on unknown things. They dream monstrous dreams. Their gods are Crom and his dark race, and they believe the world of the dead is a cold, sunless place of everlasting mist, where wandering ghosts go wailing forevermore. They have no hope here or hereafter, and they brood too much on the emptiness of life. I have seen the strange madness of futility fall upon them when a little thing like a spinning dust-cloud, or the hollow crying of a bird, or the moan of the wind through bare branches brought to their gloomy minds the emptiness of life and the vainness of existence. Only in war are the Cimmerians happy.”
This film’s Cimmeria is not too far off… from a distance. But when one takes some time to look through this Cimmerian village, one gets the unpleasant realisation that this isn’t really a very barbaric village at all. This supposedly barbaric village, which lives a largely hand-to-mouth existence, has goats, sheep, and chickens. Freakin’ chickens. There are little old ladies knitting serenely, gentle old-timers shooing off the children, a water mill trundling on the outskirts. Break the skin of barbarism and you find the sheep, baaing and soft-handed. See, this isn’t a barbarian village at all: it’s a rustic, early medieval village straight out of Conan of Venarium. While this particular folksy, grungy village is a damned site better than the peaceful folk of the 1982 film, they’re still far from the moody, grim, cheerless savages of Howard’s creation. It’s jarring when you see Corin then talk about Cimmerian thirst for blood and cold edge of steel against a backdrop of genteel pastoralism: it’s like they want to have their cake and eat it. Are they peaceful farmers, or are they bloody-handed warmongers? They say one thing, and do another.
Now, this first scene is similar to the “When Blood is Spilled” featurette which has been seen online, but it’s expanded. There’s more room to breathe, more dialogue, and it takes its time a bit better. For one thing, when Conan runs up to Corin, Corin asks him “I gave you chores,” to which young Conan replies “finished, father.” That at least explains why he was in such a rush. I haven’t talked much about Tyler Bates’ score, but it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that he decides to borrow the wistful cod-Celtic pan pipes from Braveheart and just about every other film in the 1990s that followed Braveheart: sure, the Cimmerians would become the Gaels, but I don’t want to be reminded of the bloody Shire from The Lord of the Rings.
There’s something which only now occurred to me which strikes me as wrong about Leo Howard as young Conan, and about the only thing apart from eye colour: height. Howard said that at the time of the Battle of Venarium, when Conan was 14-going-on-15, he was already 6′ and 180lbs. Leo Howard was 13 at the time of filming, and there’s nothing in the story to suggest that he’s any other age. However, Leo Howard is 4’11”, which would mean he would have to grow 11 inches in the space of two years, which is kind of pushing it. This height is confirmed when he’s juxtaposed against the 6’3″ Ron Perlman, and he looks pointedly shorter compared to the other Cimmerian youths.
It’s vaguely annoying to me that Nispel would make the choice to show Conan being short in comparison to other boys, even if they’re meant to be older, when Howard remarked upon how tall Conan was for his age. It feels like a purposeful de-emphasis on Conan’s size, to make him look even smaller. That said, it could be possible that young Conan is meant to be much younger than Leo, perhaps around 9 or 10, but that just pushes the suspension of disbelief at what is to come even further. Nonetheless, Leo Howard is, like his elder incarnation, a frustrating highlight: there are times where he completely captures Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and then he does something preposterous like a roundhouse kick or overblown kata. Whenever young Conan is allowed to emote, or his fighting style is swift and brutal, by Crom, he’s channeling Conan at times.
Speaking of Crom, that line by Corin is the one time the deity is invoked in the entire film. Ever. Conan never says “Crom.” Or “Crom’s Devils,” or “By Crom,” or “in Crom’s name,” or any other variation at all.
Weak, movie. Weak.
The Egg Race
These Cimmerians are a bloody race, born with a sword in their hand, as it were…
– Demetrio, “The God in the Bowl”
Oy, this scene… Well, let’s talk about the Cimmerian boys training to be warriors. For one thing, if Cimmerians are anything like their Nordic brethren, then they will have been trained in combat since they were strong enough to hold a weapon. The idea that a boy has to “prove themselves worthy” to be a warrior is needlessly restrictive when a tribe has to face constant raids, skirmishes and battles during their lifetime, not to mention dealing with a harsh environment and the hazards of simple existence in Cimmeria. Then one has to think of the test itself: what about winning a race without breaking an egg in your mouth makes you worthy of training with the warriors, exactly? I can only suppose someone saw Rapa Nui and decided it would make a cool scene, even if there’s a difference between the Rapa Nui’s annual tradition and, you know, warrior training.
What’s also bothersome is that there were no girls among the warriors: despite Howard specifically stating that Cimmerian women “often fought with the men,” and we have an example of this in Fialla, none of the dozen or so prospective warriors are girls. Considering the astonishing misogynistic moments that happen later in the film, this was a colossal missed opportunity to show the egalitarianism of the Cimmerians in contrast with civilization, as well as giving a pointed example of why Conan is so disdainful of the civilized women he meets.
So when the boys chortle and guffaw as they rush to the forest (yeah, that’s a “moody” race, all right), only to rush into the Picts, I have to wonder at the wisdom of sending your next generation off into the forest unarmed, when we’ve seen that raids by enemy tribes are commonplace. They are most assuredly untrained, for as soon as they get sight of the Picts, they rush back to the village. Commendably, one youth spits his egg out disdainfully, showing this isn’t out of fear, so much as “to hell with this!” attitude. That said, for a race “born with a sword in their hand, as it were,” these Cimmerian youths were remarkably vulnerable considering their culture and geographical position.
I’d already discussed elsewhere my problems with the film’s interpretation of the Picts:
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. 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.
As well as my issues with this fight scene:
I can believe Conan catching three Picts by surprise and killing them in seconds, and displaying his strength in breaking one’s neck makes it clear to the audience that he’s not your average 12-year-old. However, the way it played out on film made the *four* Picts look like bumbling idiots: they circle Conan, attacking one at a time (as is the law of Conservation of Ninjitsu), and the fight is more drawn out, exacerbating the issue. I especially dislike the part where little Conan leaps on one’s back and swats at him ineffectually with his hands, making him look even more like a child, and making the Picts even more pathetic. I sure don’t recall Conan doing roundhouse kicks either. More infuriating is the number of times he cries out and opens his mouth: how in blazes did his egg not fall out, or get cracked open in the scuffle? Most infuriating of all is the fact that he beats 4 Picts, but only brings back 3 Pictish heads, with no explanation of what happened to the crippled Pict – and particularly confusing, since the end of the clip gives the impression that he kills the fourth one. And, again, I notice the Cimmerians are shocked (the women covering their mouths in fright had me spluttering blasphemously), which is from the Lobel draft and before.
Yet more than my disagreement with their artistic choice, I find the sheer anonymity of the Picts distracting. The only people who are going to get any depth out of this scene are Conan fans who know who the Picts are, who are aware of their immense cultural history which spans through dozens of non-Conan stories from Kull to Turlogh Dubh, and who know about their eon-lasting blood-feud with the Cimmerians. The average cinema-goers are just seeing bestial warriors who are presumably enemy tribesmen: that’s it. They might as well be beastmen, and indeed, the fact that they howl like animals – for reasons never explained – means they serve no purpose but something for Conan to fight. The Picts deserve better than to be treated as nameless obstacles.
Going Too Far For A Warrior
Of course, when Conan eventually comes back to the village, the reaction is not with pride at a young untrained Cimmerian obviously taking their blood-and-steel mantra to heart, nor even shock at the idea that Picts got so close to the village – but horror at the violence young Conan has wrought. Cimmerian women hide their faces, some in tears at what they’ve seen. Cimmerian men are shocked and appalled. Corin looks at Conan, with an expression that can only be “boy, what have you done?” It’s about as profound an inversion of Howard’s Cimmerians – who are only happy in war, who live their lives on the edge of a blade, who were “born with swords in their hands, as it were” – as I can imagine.
It isn’t just the fact that it’s contradictory to Howard’s Cimmerians, but that it’s self-contradictory.
When a Cimmerian feels thirst, it is a thirst for blood. When he feels cold, it is the cold edge of steel.
To see a young Cimmerian sating that thirst for blood, and feeling that cold edge of steel, and then have those who said and approved that mantra to be offended that he took it to heart, is astonishing naivete at best, and contemptible hypocrisy at worst. “Yes, we said Cimmerians only thirst for blood, and only feel cold when it’s the edge of a deadly weapon, but that doesn’t mean you can just kill people!”
Fire and Ice
And now we come to the “philosophy” of the film, which serves as this iteration of the Riddle of Steel. However, instead of the riddle being something about flesh being stronger and will being stronger still, it’s a simple exploration of how a well-forged sword requires both heat and cool in order to be balanced and effective. Corin displays this by showing a sword with too much of one, which shatters in a single blow. The context with Conan is obvious: Conan has too much “fire,” and needs to temper his rage with the cool, calculating “type.” The boy has no patience, so to speak, even though young Conan’s kata speaks of quite a large amount of discipline inherent in learning martial arts styles (yes, we get it, Leo Howard’s a black belt – he doesn’t have to be a black belt in every bloody film)
The problem here is… well, Conan seems to be doing pretty darn well as a warrior already. The boy killed three adult warriors, while he was unarmed, and before he was formally trained! We will later see that he’s already a better Cimmerian warrior than most of the adults in his village, by virtue of him being the only one left alive, and killing half a dozen of Khalar’s soldiers by himself. Why is it essential he learn something when he seems to be on the right track, seeing as it’s already served him so well? The one time this fire/ice dichotomy proves against Conan’s favour is during sparring practise on a lake, where Corin effortlessly defends against Conan’s wild and fierce attacks. But in an actual battlefield context, young Conan does better than his own father, who succumbs against the combined efforts of Cheren, Akhoun and Remo. So much for “fire and ice.”
That this is directly opposed to what we know of Conan’s fighting style seems irrelevant when it seems Conan has to learn something about fighting that he clearly doesn’t need. Conan’s “fire” let him live where very other Cimmerian in his village died: what could learning patience and technique do for him? He’s already a more accomplished warrior than the adult Cimmerians, who presumably had learned this “fire and ice” “mystery of steel,” and look where it got them. Conan was better off ignoring his father’s advice.
Corin and Conan forge a sword together, and once again, the sword is cast. Forget fire and ice, casting a sword is guaranteed to end up with breakage. Nonetheless, Conan will learn something in all this: when Conan’s sparring with Corin on the ice, Corin utilizes a rather unorthodox maneuver: he plunges the sword into the ice, and uses it as a lever to topple Conan. The boy then falls into the freezing water. This is the one thing he learns that actually proves useful.
After Conan’s embarassment at his father’s hands, we see him bashing away at sticks in the forest in frustration. Then he notices a horde of riders: Khalar Zym has arrived, and the Cimmerians are caught completely by surprise.
Much of what I said regarding the 1982 film’s destruction of Conan’s village applies here. The central problem: how did Khalar Zym get to Cimmeria, and more importantly, how did he get out alive? However, this problem is made even worse by a glaring conundrum: Khalar Zym is trying to gain the Mask of Acheron, the most powerful artefact of that ancient empire. The Cimmerians were part of the horde which destroyed Acheron. Khalar Zym has already conquered the other barbarian tribes, recruited their leaders and armies into his host, and gathered the pieces of the mask – a feat unmatched even by Acheron. Effectively, Khalar Zym is already more powerful, and more successful, than Acheron. How is it that a “common bandit” could do what the darkest, most terrible sorcerous empire of the age could not?
Khalar doesn’t need the bloody mask to be a god, he’s already a god. He’s conquered as far afield as Kush, Turan and now Cimmeria, defeating foes that even sorcerers who were capable of rocking cliffs, flooding rivers and destroying cities could not crush, conquering more of the world than any other nation in the Hyborian Age. Surely a man as mighty as he has no need of some ancient mask requiring very specific ingredients and circumstances, when he could just as easily march into Aquilonia, take the Heart of Ahriman, and resurrect his dead wife in the same manner as Xaltotun was raised from death? Or use any of the other incantations which could resurrect Maliva? I simply don’t see why he needs the mask of Acheron at all.
In any case, the Cimmerians do a lot better than their 1982 film counterparts: the warriors arrange quick battlements and walls (quite why they don’t have a permanent or at least semi-permanent wall in the first place considering they’ve cut down all the trees is beyond me), and from the all-too-brief time we see the battle from someone other than Conan or Corin’s perspective, they do a decent job. There are still some infuriating scenes of Cimmerian women running from horsemen in terror or wailing in fear, though they’re not as prevalent as elsewhere. Some of the “Greek Archers” (they’re never identified) shout “fire” as they shoot, which is one of those anachronisms historically-minded people hate, but is just so prevalent that it seems unavoidable. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings were guilty of this too. Compared with other stuff we see in the film, though, it’s practically esoteric.
Corin and Conan are doing well, but Cheren gets her one line of dialogue (“die!”) and finds her mark on Corin. Not only that, but Akhoun comes over and smites Corin across the face for good measure. Then, we cut to the interior of the forge, while the battle is apparently still raging, though it’s really badly transitioned, so it’s difficult to tell what’s going on.
So Corin is being beaten up by Khalar’s thugs inside his own forge. It’s never stated in the film, but according to the script and novelization, Khalar is a Nemedian Prince: considering it’s never brought up and Khalar Zym is hardly a Nemedian name, he might as well be from bloody Barsoom for all the difference it makes. Corin dares to tease Howard fans with this remark:
One day, the other clans of Cimmeria will gather for vengeance. Then, god or not, you shall fall.
It never happens. As far as this film’s concerned, there might as well be no other Cimmerian clans at all.
Corin refuses to divulge the location of the Bone Shard (have I wandered into Everquest?), but Khalar has other tricks up his sleeve. As this transpires, young Conan sneaks into the forge, hiding in the shadows: at this point, he bursts out of hiding and gives Lucius a Cimmerian rhinectomy. He valiantly attempts to free his father, even taking on the bullish Ukafa, but a quick right sends him sprawling. Khalar Zym immediately deduces that this is Corin’s son, announcing “I like him!” This line will have a payoff later in the film, believe it or not.
We’re introduced to Khalar’s daughter Marique, and the young lass or lasses (both Ivana Staneva and Yoana Petrova are credited separately at the IMDB for reasons that currently escape me: perhaps one does the voice, another the acting, or they take shifts) does a… pretty good job, successfully conveying a fey menace and dark wisdom beyond her years. I’d almost prefer it if we stuck with young Marique for the rest of the film, frankly: Rose McGowan decides to channel Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy for her interpretation. But we’ll get to her in due course.
I’d said that the film doesn’t really have a thematic core: certainly not one like the 1982 film, or Solomon Kane. However, if this film was going to have one, then it would be something to do with birthright and ancestry. Conan & Corin have their thing going on, and they’re ancestors of the people who destroyed Acheron who are guarding a terrible secret; Tamara has no parents, but she is a descendent of Acheron, and so Conan & she have some sort of Forbidden Love Montague/Capulet situation; Khalar & Marique obviously have their thing. Conan & Khalar have both lost loved ones, and both are motivated by a sense of revenge; both Conan & Marique have lost a parent at a young age. Each of the families here has their own little dynamic going on relating to the idea of living up to your parents’ expectations, claiming birthright and heirlooms, and dealing with loss and family history. Khalar & Conan both want revenge, and both are dealing with loss in different, yet arguably similar ways. Conan has let go of the past, whereas Khalar seeks to rebuild it: Conan seeks to free people from oppression, chains possibly reminding him of his experience losing his father, while Khalar wants to enslave everyone. Both are arguably in metaphorical chains of their own.
Is it enough to form the foundation of a deeper theme for the film? I don’t know. Certainly in its current form, no, but in an extended form with more of Hood’s script? Perhaps. I’d really like to see if this film does retain any sort of subtlety or theme, but as it was on my first viewing, it was simply a series of disconnected events, people going from point A to point B, just moving the action along without any thought for what it all could mean. Back to the plot. Khalar encourages his daughter with this little insight:
The Cimmerians do not pray. They have no priests. This (indicating the forge) is what matters to them. This is their church. It will be here…
This is one of the few extrapolations in the film that strikes me as pretty Howardian, asserting that Cimmerians do not pray, and have no priests. After all, the Cimmerians are only happy in war, and so much of their spirituality is centred around it: it makes sense that the forge, where they make their weapons, would be viewed as analogous to a church by more traditionally religious eyes. So, they find the last piece of the mask, contained in an ornate golden box. Not very Cimmerian, so I’ll preserve my sanity and assume it’s an Acheronian box. After commending his daughter (“Your mother would be proud” – d’awww), the matter of just what to do with this pesky Corin and his rhinophobic son must be addressed. Lucius is indignant on account of no longer being able to smell, but Khalar brushes him off.
So,I’ll see if I get this right: Khalar orders the forge be burned down, but chains Corin to a bowl of molten steel that was suspended above him. He cuts away one of the supporting chains, and Conan rushes to stabilize it. The logic goes that if either stops pulling the chain, the other will be doused in fiery metal. Marique decides she rather fancies Corin’s sword, and decides to take it. Outside, Khalar holds his prize aloft, with the villains cheering wildly.
Back inside, Conan’s hands are starting to burn, and the vat is rocking: a droplet lands on Conan’s cheek, forming a lifelong scar. It’s apparently a losing situation: one of them must let go. Rather than letting his son die, Corin sacrifices himself by pulling on the chains. He’s drenched in burning metal, falling backwards as he dies. Conan emerges at night, surrounded by the bodies of his kinsmen. Filled with vengeful wrath, he takes up a sword that happened to be lying around, roars with rage, and lifts the sword to the heavens. He carries that same sword with him until adulthood – presumably he loses it during the events of “The God in the Bowl,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Rogues in the House” and “Queen of the Black Coast” before getting it back in time for the film, since none of those stories mention a Cimmerian longsword.
Do you know the weirdest thing? Technically, Khalar Zym doesn’t kill Corin at all: Corin kills himself. There is absolutely no reason for Corin to let himself die the way he did: what, exactly, was stopping him from pulling the chains from a slight angle, so the steel would pour away from his face? He wasn’t chained to the floor: he could’ve leaned to the left or right. Indeed, he actively pulls on the chain so that his son wouldn’t die… even though Conan was never in danger of dying. Young Conan was holding the chain stopping the steel pour on Corin, not trapped underneath it. I simply cannot see why Corin felt the only possible option was to pour the molten steel onto himself, considering Conan wasn’t even in mortal danger. It’s a stupid, contrived, completely arbitrary death which could easily have been avoided, and Khalar Zym just couldn’t be considered the man who killed Corin. Destroyed Conan’s village, certainly, but not his father, making Conan’s quest for revenge against the man who “killed” his father somewhat misguided.
We fade to black, and the same voiceover from the beginning tells us what Conan does in the years between his father’s death and our first encounter with adult Conan:
Conan left Cimmeria and wandered the edges of the world, slaying, thieving, surviving, storming the high walls of Venarium and prowling the dark seas among pirates. But the nameless man who scarred his hands remained in shadow.
According to the soundtrack, 12 years have passed: in the script, Conan is 11. Making Conan 23 at this point. I still find it incredibly problematic that, for this film to make sense, Conan has essentially not gone straight after Khalar Zym, and that some of the great Howard stories have this unfinished business hanging over them, but it’s just one in a list of things. The question of just how Conan could participate in the Battle of Venarium leads to its own conundrum: why did the Cimmerians gang up to kick out the Gundermen, but not Khalar Zym? Stackpole’s novelization has Conan find his grandfather, in an attempt to give him some semblance of a normal Cimmerian life – but that just raises further questions.
A more profound problem here is that, unlike the 1982 film, we don’t see anything Conan did in the interim period between then and now. We don’t see him prowling the dark seas, or thieving in Zamora, or storming Venarium. Just a black screen as the voiceover tells us what happens. Contrast this with the 1982 film, where it shows us what Conan did in the years when he metamorphosed from Jorge Sanz into Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s preferable to having Conan on the Wheel of Pain yet again, but only from a Howardian point of view: from a cinematic point of view, it fails the “show, don’t tell” maxim of filmmaking.
This is the essential problem with doing a Conan film that spans decades: you have to show Conan grow. Conan didn’t grow substantially in the original stories because they only took place over the course of a very short time, so Conan was more or less the same person at the end of the adventure that he was at the beginning. He may have learned something, he may have reconsidered some deeply-held belief, but he didn’t change dramatically, because great changes in personality happen over the course of a lifetime, not a few days, or weeks, or months. So Conan being more or less the same throughout “The People of the Black Circle” would be more believable than having him ham-fistedly come to some sort of revelation that utterly changes him to the core – because “The People of the Black Circle” only takes place over a few weeks at most.
Looking at the Conan stories as a whole, however, a very different picture emerges. Conan the thief is very different in temperament, character, experience, intellect and even size compared to Conan the mercenary, who is different from Conan the adventurer, who is different again from Conan the king. This Conan film takes place over the course of decades, from Conan’s birth through to childhood and on to early 20s, therefore, Conan should be a very different person at each stage of the film, though of course, without compromising those aspects which make him Conan. Yet Little Conan and Big Conan aren’t really that dissimilar at all: both are near-feral warriors with similar levels of guile, prowess and intellect. There is no sense of progression in Conan’s skill or personality, save Big Conan’s developed a new thirst for the ladies to accompany his thirst for blood. He’s essentially a man-child.
The 1982 film showed Conan growing as a person, from the doe-eyed innocent child to the broken slave, to the merciless killing machine, to the reawakened Cimmerian hero. This film has Conan pretty constantly on smouldering, brooding, sarcastic badass from birth to end credits with little variation. As a result, while this film’s Conan is superficially closer to Howard’s Conan, the 1982 film’s character is more complex, rounded and compelling, because it recognized that a person changes over the course of their lifetime. A Conan film that showed Conan changing as he did in the stories, replicating that subtle character arc from the feral, naive, superstitious thief to the cynical, crafty mercenary could be done: it just wasn’t seen in this film.
Zingaran Slave Colony
In any case, after this, we’re introduced to Jason Momoa’s Conan, as he’s judging wind change by pouring sand. We see that Conan has scars on his hands: welts made by the burning chains. Of course Howard never mentions anything of the sort, but at least it isn’t as preposterous and noticeable as Purefoy’s Kane being covered in arcane symbols and tattoos. Nonso Anozie’s Artus is there too, and it appears that in the interim, Conan has become something of a freedom fighter:
Conan, I am told the man you seek is not here. Why attack?
No man should live in chains.
This has been the target of some criticism online, but as we shall soon see, Conan and Artus aren’t doing this purely out of charity. Their target is only described as a “Zingaran Slave Colony.” Zingara, of course, has a rich history and political backstory in the Howard tales, but in this film, all we see of Zingara is a bunch of slavers. To the general audience, a “Zingaran” could mean anything from a location, the name of the slaves, the name of the slavers, or the type of colony. In any case, we see a large caravan train with multiple caged carts with wailing women trapped inside, all being pulled by luckless men. Where there’s a whip, there’s a way, and all that.
Conan and Artus’ strategy is… roll rocks down the hill, hoping to miss the slaves and hit the slavers. Sure enough, the tumbling stones wreak havoc, crushing carts and slavers in the chaos. I have to think they could’ve picked a less haphazard strategy: even if we assume this story takes place before “Black Colossus,” Conan probably isn’t that bad a strategist at this point in his life. Conan & the pirates ride down and start taking out the remaining pirates in short order, breaking chains and opening cages, celebrating with a cheer.
This is one of the moments in the film I truly hated. Conan has just freed the slaves, and given the amount of whipping and mistreatment they’ve been subjected to, you’d imagine the slaves would be dishevelled and broken, their backs criss-crossed with weeping wounds, their skin marked with bruises and abrasions. You would be right, if this was another film. In this film, the slaves are fresh as daisies save for some git and grime, and the topless female slaves – I kid you not – appear completely none the worse for wear. Now, despite the women being quite clearly sex slaves, they ask Conan something that amounts to “oh, woe is me, whatever shall we do, brave rescuers,” in the best Medieval Porno voice. Conan and Artus grin wildly, and pick up two of the girls… who laugh coquettishly. All the girls do. The next time we see them, they’re in Messantia, writhing and snaking all over Conan and the pirates with clear, genuine enjoyment.
This is appalling. Imagine if a grizzled action hero in a contemporary action film decides to bust a human trafficking ring. He breaks the women out, and they immediately start flirting with him and his trusty sidekick: then they go to a strip club, where they cavort with wild abandon. Think about this. Human trafficking is the modern evolution of slavery. Women are carted far from their homes and forced into serving the whims of their masters: they’d be malnourished, abused, frightened and traumatised, forced to degrade and humiliate themselves, if not endanger their very lives. When they’re rescued in sting operations, they could do anything from break down in tears, scream uncontrollably, or shut down entirely. What I do not think they would do is flirt with the police.
If – and I mean a major if – such a woman decides to use their sexuality to their advantage, as a way out of an unbearable situation, then it would be a sign of her desperation, that she truly had no other way to go. Reading Livia’s attempt to bargain with Conan in the oft-maligned “The Vale of Lost Women” is not titillating or enticing, but harrowing and stark:
“I will give you a price!” she raved, tearing away her tunic from her ivory breasts. “Am I not fair? Am I not more desirable than these soot-colored wenches? Am I not a worthy reward for blood-letting? Is not a fair-skinned virgin a price worth slaying for?
“Kill that black dog Bajujh! Let me see his cursed head roll in the bloody dust! Kill him! Kill him!” She beat her clenched fists together in the agony of her intensity. “Then take me and do as you wish with me. I will be your slave!”
He did not speak for an instant, but stood like a giant brooding figure of slaughter and destruction, fingering his hilt.
“You speak as if you were free to give yourself at your pleasure,” he said. “As if the gift of your body had power to swing kingdoms. Why should I kill Bajujh to obtain you? Women are cheap as plantains in this land, and their willingness or unwillingness matters as little. You value yourself too highly. If I wanted you, I wouldn’t have to fight Bajujh to take you. He would rather give you to me than to fight me.”
Livia gasped. All the fire went out of her, the hut reeled dizzily before her eyes. She staggered and sank in a crumpled heap on an angareb. Dazed bitterness crushed her soul as the realization of her utter helplessness was thrust brutally upon her. The human mind clings unconsciously to familiar values and ideas, even among surroundings and conditions alien and unrelated to those environs to which such values and ideas are adapted. In spite of all Livia had experienced, she had still instinctively supposed a woman’s consent the pivot point of such a game as she proposed to play. She was stunned by the realization that nothing hinged upon her at all. She could not move men as pawns in a game; she herself was the helpless pawn.
This is not an isolated incident: there’s often the unmistakable air of desperation in sexual bargains in Howard’s stories, be it Conan or beyond. So for this film to treat such a serious issue as sex slavery with sub-adolescent frivolity instead of the sombre gravity it deserves, and that Howard recognized, is something I find utterly repulsive. Howard is unfairly accused of Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment, and this sequence is a prime example of exactly that, where women are always free and willing to shower the hero with sexual pleasures, regardless of their station and lot in life. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, or I’m overthinking it (probably, in all likelihood) but this scene truly angered me. It’s one of the low points of the film – of any Howard “adaptation” to date – and the point where the film started to lose me.
Remember this scene from the UK trailer? It turns out this is Messantia. It’s a lovely shot and all, and a nice city, but I expected something more like the sprawling, heaving metropolis of The Hour of the Dragon:
It was a logical destination; all the sea-ports of Argos were cosmopolitan, in strong contrast with the inland provinces, and Messantia was the most polyglot of all. Craft of all the maritime nations rode in its harbor, and refugees and fugitives from many lands gathered there. Laws were lax; for Messantia thrived on the trade of the sea, and her citizens found it profitable to be somewhat blind in their dealings with seamen. It was not only legitimate trade that flowed into Messantia; smugglers and buccaneers played their part…
… He entered the city unquestioned, merging himself with the throngs that poured continually in and out of this great commercial center. No walls surrounded Messantia. The sea and the ships of the sea guarded the great southern trading city.
It was evening when Conan rode leisurely through the streets that marched down to the waterfront. At the ends of these streets he saw the wharves and the masts and sails of ships. He smelled salt water for the first time in years, heard the thrum of cordage and the creak of spars in the breeze that was kicking up whitecaps out beyond the headlands. Again the urge of far wandering tugged at his heart.
But he did not go on to the wharves. He reined aside and rode up a steep flight of wide, worn stone steps, to a broad street where ornate white mansions overlooked the waterfront and the harbor below. Here dwelt the men who had grown rich from the hard-won fat of the seas – a few old sea-captains who had found treasure afar, many traders and merchants who never trod the naked decks nor knew the roar of tempest or sea-fight.
– The Hour of the Dragon
Still, at least they didn’t do something stupid like make it a floating crystal castle or some such.
So anyway, Conan and Artus are celebrating with the freed slave girls – one wonders what happened to the enslaved men, presumably they were left in the lurch despite Conan’s heroic introduction – and that means much imbibing. The tavern is certainly bustling and seedy, exactly the sort of place in which pirates, smugglers and corsairs would congregate. Conan and Artus have an arm wrestling contest, and… Conan decides to cheat, by spitting wine in Artus’ face. Artus responds by slugging him. This is probably one of those things that seems totally unlike Conan, or absolutely just like Conan, depending on your perspective as a Howard fan: from my perspective it’s the former, but hey, it could be the latter too.
What bothers me is that Conan is frequently referred to as being incredibly strong in the original stories. This is a man who broke the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull “before he was a man,” who threw a 100lb chair across a room with enough force to send an 8-foot demon flying backwards, and who used a bench which “few men could even lift” as a bludgeon. He isn’t superhuman, but he’s clearly grazing the upper limits of natural human strength. So why on earth would you have him stalemate an arm-wrestling contest at the beginning of the film? The only reason I could think of would be to show how monstrously strong Artus was – but this isn’t a plot point, and Artus’ superior or even equal strength never matters in the grand scheme of things. It just seems incredibly strange to present your protagonist, who’s one of the strongest men in the world, failing to win a simple arm-wrestling bout so early in the film.
However, it does lead to this bone thrown to Howard fans:
When I first met him, he was no bigger than you. Just a scrawny little rat picking pockets in Zamora. But even so, it was he who stole The Elephant’s Heart and slew the sorcerer Yara!
Hey… a reference to one of Robert E. Howard’s stories, indicating that “The Tower of the Elephant” actually happened! So we know, at least, that “The Tower of the Elephant” is part of this Conan’s canon. Some might be concerned about the fact Conan is described as successfully stealing the Elephant’s Heart and slaying Yara considering he actually did neither during the course of the story, but it works, nonetheless, as a bit of in-universe myth-making. Same with describing Conan as a “scrawny little rat”: just exaggerating for the yarn-spinning effect. After all, one has to wonder what happened to the Heart and Yara after that story’s ending, and since Conan was the only one left… Well, that’s my explanation and I’m sticking to it. Of course, this also makes us think “why didn’t they tell us THAT story instead of this one,” which is bound to happen when the story you’re telling isn’t as interesting as the one you’re alluding to.
That said, this shows that Conan and Artus have known each other since he was at least 17, yet Artus is not mentioned in “Queen of the Black Coast” or the other thief tales. Presumably we’re supposed to think Artus was only a sporadic companion of Conan’s, like Sakumbe of the Tombalku documents. More pertinently, he isn’t mentioned in the Nestor fragment, which chronicles Conan leaving Zamora and his eventual team-up with Nestor, who may be the Gunderman of “Rogues in the House”: Artus’ absence in these stories is a bit glaring, not to mention how a Zingaran buccaneer ended up all the way in Zamora. It’ll be interesting to see what Funcom do with Artus’ backstory in the upcoming Savage Coast of Turan expansion pack. Personally, I want to know who “Big Mama” is, given she’s introduced with much aplomb, and gets to glomp Jason Momoa. What’s her story? I want to know what mad adventures she got up to. Perhaps Ray “the Dead Barbarian” Cook can shed some light on the mysterious Big Mama?
However, there’s precious little time for backstory, as a familiar face enters the bar: Lucius (though the film only refers to him as “The Captain”) is on the hunt for someone. Despite wearing what can only be described as a mixture of a nose protector and Mick Foley’s Mankind mask, Conan recognizes him. This is also our first meeting with Ela-Shan, formerly “One-Eyed Thief,” who is furtively skulking through the tavern. When Conan finds out Lucius’ position as captain of the guard, a plan forms in his mind: he starts a bar fight with the express purpose of getting himself arrested. And it works: after a bit of brawling and fighting, he and Ela-Shan both get put in chains.
I have to say, I question the wisdom of the guards not putting every precaution possible into practise. Conan is clearly some kind of northern barbarian, and is referred to as such: these men are treated as near-mythical, with an aura of mystery and power that makes them feared throughout the Hyborian Kingdoms. Putting a measly set of wrist-chains is somewhat lax security, and you’d have to think a barbarian offering himself up to captivity so readily would be treated as highly suspicious. In the original script, Conan feigned drunkenness, and though I criticized it, I think it makes more sense for the guards to be unsuspecting if the 6’5″ barbarian warrior was soused.
Another problem with the scene is that it starts quite clearly at night, and only a few minutes seem to pass – but when Conan and Ela-Shan are accosted, it’s early morning. We could’ve done with some indication of passing time to suggest Conan had been drinking all night, but as the scene was shot, it gave the impression that it went from night to morning in a manner of minutes.
Anyone waiting to know what moment had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck was? Well, here it is. There’s a shot where the camera’s panning through the Messantian prison, naturally filled with emaciated slaves moaning wretchedly (there’s a way to do pathos, Marcus, and it isn’t through Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Then the camera zooms on Conan, as he’s lifting his head. He has a mirthless grin on his face, his eyes dancing with feral menace. That was Conan, right there. For a few seconds, I forgot I was watching “Conan”: The Wrath of Zym, and felt this could be the opening scene to “Rogues in the House,” as Murillo enters the dungeon holding the captive Cimmerian.
Then we cut to Lucius torturing Ela-Shan. Ooh, what a nasty man. In earlier iterations, Lucius was originally a handsome man before Conan disfigured him: the incident twisted him into a sadistic torturer. Here, I guess we just have to assume this is fairly typical stuff. Evidently the Argosseans are fairly lax indeed, as they only have a couple of guards watching the giant Cimmerian: this allows Conan to start laying waste to them, including a pretty badass bit where he hurls one into a rotting column, which explodes on impact. He also hurls another guard into a table. It’s one of a few scenes where we see Conan’s incredible strength in action, and perhaps because it’s in an enclosed surrounding, it’s also one of the more straightforward action scenes, even if it’s a bit like a ’50s cowboy saloon brawl. Conan just punches, throws and headbutts: no spinning kicks or somersaults. One of the guards claims that the captain will only open the door for him, an you can probably imagine what happens next.
Lucius continues to torture Ela-Shan, using torture devices vaguely reminiscent of thumbscrews, but for the wrists. A knock comes to the door, Lucius angrily demands the guard to see who it is. He slides open the window to see the Bailiff’s listless, which is clearly dead and listless, and the guard immediately thinks something’s amiss, and oh wait never mind he opens the door to see Conan’s holding the baillif’s decapitated head. Which he then uses to headbutt the guard. I have to say, the idea isn’t that bad, and suitably barbaric/inventive – but the way it’s shot, the guards look like idiots, and you can tell what’s coming a mile away. So Conan barges in, and it’s just him and Lucius. Lucius asks who this barbarian is, to which Conan responds “I’m the one who made you pretty.”
Conan frees Ela-Shan, and puts Lucius into the torture equipment. With much nasty brutality, including a particularly unpleasant exploration of his nasal passage and subsequent emptying of Lucius’ bladder, it paints Conan as something of a sadistic brute to someone who, for all we know, was just employing perfectly legal (for the period) information extraction. Sure, Lucius is hardly a good guy, but he’s also clearly just a mook, a minion, a henchman: if anyone was going to be tortured in this film, you’d think it would be someone who really deserved it. Perhaps if we see more evidence of Lucius getting pleasure out of torturing innocent people, maybe…
In any case, it’s here we learn Khalar’s been busy in the last 12 years:
You seek Khalar Zym?
Zym? No. My people were slain by a common bandit, not a king.
He was a bandit then, but now, a legend – a shadow lord, nowhere to be found, yet everywhere at once.
So here it is clear: we are to expect that a common bandit managed to kick the arse of pretty much the entire Hyborian Age, conquer a people that an entire empire could not, and that he’s now a king. I find it pretty bizarre that Khalar would manage to become king, and yet knowledge of his conquests would not have spread before now, considering the sheer amount of soldiers in his army and the destruction he must’ve caused in his wake – which makes it pretty bizarre that Conan is only now, after 12 years, discovering that the mighty bandit-turned-king is in fact the same bandit which attacked Cimmeria. Considering Cimmeria has been infamously difficult to conquer, you’d think that Khalar being the only man who successfully penetrated Cimmeria with a large army would be fairly common information by this time, and that Conan would’ve come across it well before now.
King of where? Who knows: Khor Kalba is never placed. All we know from later scenes is that it’s on the coast, and given that much of the rest of the film is set in the region of Argos and Zingara, it seems logical to presume that it’s one of the Meadow Shemite kingdoms – it’s the only logical explanation, even given its very Kothic-sounding name. Of course, logic doesn’t have much place in this film, so for all we know this is meant to be in Nemedia or something. This film’s map might as well be just a big blob with no boundaries or territories, and a few randomly placed dots for all the locations.
Lucius complicates matters by saying that the Monastery is located in the “Red Wastes” of the “Turanian deserts,” near “the Forbidden Forest”: when Khalar returns to Khor Kalba, he will go by way of the “Shaipur Ravine.” This is another one of those situations where the casual viewer might assume that those names were thrown in for the fanboys to enjoy, which turns out to be fallacious, since none of those places are in the original stories = the “red wastes” are from L. Sprague de Camp’s “Black Tears,” and Turan did extend into the Eastern Desert, but that’s it. Now, depending on where in the “Turanian desert” we’re talking, this could mean at least 1,500 or over 2,000 miles away from Conan’s current position. The “Shaipur ravine,” which has an outpost which will be the location of a set piece, is presumably near the coast too, making it most likely another location in Shem. The complication here will be made clear when we get to the forest chase.
“I said I wouldn’t kill you”
He was not like the freebooters, civilized men who had repudiated all standards of honor, and lived without any. Conan, on the other hand, lived according to the code of his people, which was barbaric and bloody, but at least upheld its own peculiar standards of honor.
– “The Black Stranger”
“He is a wanderer and a plunderer, and a slayer, but he has his own code of morals. I don’t think we have anything to fear from him.”
– The Tombalku Fragment
Here’s the thing that bothers me about the torture scene: out of all Khalar’s henchmen, Lucius is the one who is probably the least to blame for what happened at Conan’s village. Cheren brought down Corin with an arrow; Akhoun knocked him out; Ukafa beat Conan up; Remo burned down the family forge; Khalar set up the circumstances which led to Corin’s death; Marique takes his father’s sword. Lucius doesn’t personally do anything: if anything, he has more of an issue with the Cimmerian than the reverse, considering Conan cut off his nose and permanently disfigured him. When you realise that Lucius is given the most gruesome, painful and drawn-out death of any of Khalar’s henchmen despite doing the least wrong to Conan, it seems very disproportionate.
After Lucius holds up his end of the bargain, we then come to Conan committing a sickening act of civilized duplicity. He forces Lucius to swallow his key, hauls him out into the middle of the quarry, and tells the slaves the key to their chains is in the captain’s belly. Lucius protests, saying Conan gave his word he wouldn’t kill him: Conan responds “I said I wouldn’t kill you.”
Here’s why this infuriates me: how is what Conan’s doing any different from what Khalar Zym did to his father? After all, technically Khalar Zym didn’t kill Corin, he simply set up the circumstances which resulted in his death. Conan is doing exactly the same to Lucius – but worse, because unlike Khalar, Conan promised that he would not kill him, and betrayed the spirit of his word by using the letter as an escape clause. So in a way, Conan is acting worse than the man who’s supposed to be the main villain! At least Khalar never gave his word to betray: how can we trust Conan’s “barbaric code of honour” if he’s so willing to break it? Again, this might be a case of Howard fans having different opinions on what constitutes Conan’s “code of honour,” but frankly, this is solidly a minus for me.
The slaves descend upon Lucius – evidently all these scores of slaves were guarded by a mere half-dozen guards – and Ela-Shan introduces himself. Apparently he’s a master-thief, and that there’s no lock he cannot open, and no vault he cannot enter. You won’t believe how disappointing the secret of his skills seems to be. You don’t need me to tell you Conan intends to make good on Ela-Shan’s promise to repay him saving his life, and that he can be found in “Argalon.” I don’t know where that is.
On the Hornet, Artus’ ship, Conan confides in Artus the identity of his father’s killer. Artus is horrified (this isn’t in the script, so I’m paraphrasing):
I have heard he is the angel of death.
Angels never appear in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and it’s difficult to extricate the word from Christian theology – but more annoying than this is the fact that this is never referred to again. Nobody ever calls Khalar the angel of death, he never calls himself the angel of death, so what was the point of that? In any case, Artus offers to sail Conan to the Shaipur coast, and plans to join him. Inexplicably, Conan says that “this is something I must do alone.” … Why, Conan? Do you want Khalar dead, or don’t you? You’d probably have an easier time of things if you had your trusted friend at your side. Seriously, Conan, why alone? Of course, the reason why is because The Story Demands It, but when Howard separated his heroes, he had a reason and active justification for it, not just that glib, patronising “I gotsta do this myself, buddy.”
This is the point where we see him crossing the desert in the trailers, with that big broken bridge above him. It’s never explained: there are no allusions to the Cataclysm, no subtle hints of Acheron, no vague nods in the direction of Old Stygia. It’s there because it just looks cool. Such is the case with a lot in this film.
We see a matte of the monastery, which is, like most of the mattes, pretty gorgeous. Then we go to the interior, where Fassir & Rachel talk about prophecies and whatnot, including the “man crossing the sands” who will take Tamara to her birthplace: however, they don’t have much time to chat, as Khalar’s army approaches a great gash in a cliff face. It’s here we see our first shot of Rose McGowan’s Marique, and the Man of War being pulled by elephants and a thousand slaves. I’ll spare you the disappointment: it never gets the chance to be used in a sea battle.
So we come to the first problem: why is Khalar hauling this gigantic ship over desert and forest, when he doesn’t expect to encounter any water? If this really is near the Turanian desert, then they’ve been hauling this 50-ton paperweight for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. Well, they try their best, since the Man of War is used to crash into the monastery’s outer walls. You know, Khalar, you could’ve just invested in a couple of battering rams or trebuchets for a percentage of the labour, resources and time it took you to heave your giant pleasure-ship over land, and get the same result. It isn’t just Khalar being breathtakingly inefficient: quite why this secretive monastery withholding a terrible secret from the world doesn’t have guards keeping watch on the wall is beyond me, otherwise why are they caught completely by surprise when the Man of War’s ram smashes through the masonry? Didn’t they at least hear the rumbling approach of the army and elephants, which weren’t making any attempt to be stealthy or quiet in their approach? Why is everyone half-asleep in this movie?
Khalar’s men swarm into the monastery, and we see the
Shaolin Shaipur Monks try to defend themselves. Fassir bundles Tamara into one of Khalar’s coaches, commandeers by monks, and I’m simultaneously amused and impressed by the sheer speed Raad Rawi exposits:
I’ve never seen such a brazen attempt to get as much exposition out of the way as quickly as possible. So Tamara gets in, and the monks ride away – but Remo, now newly tattooed and sporting more extravagant armour, is in pursuit with a squadron of horsemen.
Death of a Priest
In a conquest as short and unsatisfying as the battle at Conan’s village, Khalar’s victory at the monastery is over in less than a minute. Most of the “cool” shots from the trailer – including the bit where a monk spears the camera – are absent, as are Khalar’s flourishes with the Double Bladed Parallel Scimitar, but fear not, we’ll get there. The surviving monks are rounded up in the market square (why does a monastery have a market, oh fercromsake I don’t know) and Marique starts to interrogate the girls. For you see, they’re searching for the pureblood – the last descendent of the line of Acheron. So, yeah, Tamara is meant to be from the same blood which gave the world Xaltotun. A sorcerer borne of a thousand generations of dark sorcery. Tamara’s one of them. Well… she doesn’t look it. For that matter, the non-purebloods don’t look much like the stunted, monstrous beings Howard mentioned in The Hour of the Dragon either, though perhaps only the naughty ones that want to resurrect Acheron are like that.
Marique starts to prick, nip, scratch and otherwise draw the blood of the female monks to see if any are pureblood. Naturally, she hams it up like nobody’s business, in a performance more suited to Flash Gordon than Conan. In her frustration, she lashes out with her gruesome finger jewelry, stabbing torsos and ripping faces open like Freddy Krueger. It’s pretty grim.
Khalar then starts to interrogate Fassir, and we get some of Khalar’s backstory: the reason he wants the mask.
You value life? Have you forgotten what happened in the forests of Ophir? Did not ALL the nations of Hyboria hunt a woman down like an animal? Were not both my daughter and I forced to watch as Maliva, my innocent wife, was lashed to the wheel and set aflame?
Once again, that “forests of Ophir” sounds like it should mean something to Howard fans, but it makes no more sense than the Forests of Somewhereorother. Ophir was a Hyborian Age kingdom known for its rolling plains, scientists, silk, and vast preserves of gold. In this context, it doesn’t seem to matter much anyway, since it just matters that it’s a forest, because Bulgaria has a forest the filmmakers could use, and they decided to use Ophir since that’s a name in the Howard stories, right?
More problematic is the question of why all the nations of “Hyboria” were after a single woman, hunting her down in a forest. The threat of Natohk with his hundred-thousand-strong horde wasn’t enough to get the Hyborian Kingdoms to support Khoraja against his invasion during “Black Colossus,” and Nemedia’s employ of dark sorcery wasn’t enough to have the other kingdoms uniting against it in The Hour of the Dragon: who did Maliva cross to bring down the ire of all the Hyborian Kingdoms? If Maliva was really dangerous enough to have all the kingdoms on alert, then she would have to be more dangerous than Natohk and Xaltotun – and someone more dangerous than those two wouldn’t be chased down in a forest like a commoner. It’s utterly perplexing.
And it’s here that we get a really weird plot point: according to this, Khalar only decides to go after the Mask after his wife dies, in front of his and young Marique’s eyes. He and Marique manage to find all the pieces of the mask while Marique is still a child – only a couple of years at most. Khalar manages to find all the pieces of the mask, which were specifically hidden and kept safe for no less than 3,000 years, thousands of miles away from each other and guarded by barbarian tribes which were tough enough to destroy an empire, before his young daughter enters pubescence. Yet it takes him until Marique is a grown woman – a whole 12 years – to find the final piece of the puzzle, the Pureblood? Seriously? It takes Khalar less time to conquer nations thousands of miles apart and put together a shattered 3,000 year old artefact than it does to find a massive monastery complex!?! It isn’t even as if the monastery is further away than any of the barbarian tribelands: in fact it’s closer to Khor Kalba. So how in blazes did he miss it? What in the seven hells was he doing in those 12 years?
Another problem is the fact that Maliva was burned at the stake. Now, I realise this is a fantasy film, but it’s still a fantasy film steeped in history: this is happening in our earth in the distant past. It isn’t an alternate earth, or another planet: part of the strength of the setting is that it takes place among our distant ancestors, on our planet, in our timeline (fictionally speaking). The fact is that thousands of women were burned at the stake during the height of the witch hunt craze, and these women were often completely innocent women (and men) who were burned for reasons completely unrelated to supposed “witchcraft.” More pertinently, it’s illogical: if they’re really witches, then why would they let a bunch of bumpkins burn them alive? Any witch who lets themselves get burned can’t really be much of a witch at all. This is something Conan personally recognized:
But Conan’s was the broad tolerance of the barbarian, and he had refused to persecute the followers of Asura or to allow the people to do so on no better evidence than was presented against them, rumors and accusations that could not be proven. “If they are black magicians,” he had said, “how will they suffer you to harry them? If they are not, there is no evil in them. Crom’s devils! Let men worship what gods they will.”
– The Hour of the Dragon
One of the supporting heroes of The Hour of the Dragon is a witch, but the Aquilonians don’t mess with her: they know better. So to see witch burning being used to deal with a genuine witch gives a level of legitimacy, even justification, to the very concept of the witch hunts – an entirely undeserved one. It’s a dangerous and somewhat offensive stereotype to perpetuate. Howard knew this perfectly well. As I said in my review of Solomon Kane, which also included a witch burning:
A particular issue I have is the witch which appears part of the way through the film. The idea of the witch-burning is deeply rooted in the western horror tradition in two forms. Either the witch is real, and thus must be killed via a cleansing conflagration; or the witch is an innocent girl unfairly persecuted by a patriarchal society punishing anything remotely “un-Christian.” Howard addressed both in typically Howardian fashion: those witches who were killed by baying mobs of torch-and-pitchfork wielding fanatics were unquestionably of the latter variety. Conversely, the real witches with access to dark powers were rarely, if ever, killed in such a manner. To paraphrase the famous Cimmerian: “If she’s a witch, how will she suffer you to harry them?” Atla, Kwarada, Salome and other Howardian witches certainly never met their end at the hands of a disorganized rout.
However, what bothers me is that the other paradigm is never mentioned: the witch here is indeed a powerful sorceress, but rather than being treated as the exception, there’s no implication that this witch hunt was unjustified. Combined with the “good witch,” this leads to the perception that in Howard’s world, most witches are real–and therefore, witch hunts are not merely the hysterical group insanity they were in history. Thus, Howard’s more realistic worldview is simplified and made into a fairytale.
I’m thus disappointed that this is the second Howard-related film that ignores this essential element of Howard’s treatment of witchcraft and sorcery.
Fassir then decides to challenge Khalar, saying that Maliva “sought to enslave all of Hyboria” (considering she let herself get captured by a mob, she’s a few shades behind the likes of Zelata, let alone Salome or Tascela) promising that Maliva would never return. This pushes Khalar into a rage, and he batters Fassir’s head against the floor. Again, I feel direction kills this scene: the idea of the villain having a sympathetic origin makes him superior to the usual rank-and-file, but Nispel’s handling of the scene spends far too little time, and Lang doesn’t really push himself into acting appropriately to engender a genuine emotional response in the audience. Wasted opportunity.
The Forest Chase
This chase scene is probably the best action scene in the film, in that you can tell what’s going on, there’s some nice moments, and the stunts are well-executed. It’s still too cartoonish, and it’s also highly reminiscent of Indiana Jones, but for what it is, it’s well constructed and shot. Almost as if it was done by an entirely different director. Well, until you see Conan smack down a horse with a giant chain. Eventually, only Remo remains of the horsemen, and Conan places himself between the henchman and Tamara.
Step aside, Northerner. The woman is property of Khalar Zym.
She is my property now.
And so we get our first sight of Conan the Misogynist, which is a really irritating trope borne by a complete misconception of Conan’s treatment of women in the stories. According to one interview, Marcus Nispel describes Conan as “misogynist,” which is infuriatingly facile. No, Conan doesn’t have a low opinion of women, he has a low opinion of civilized women. If a girl is self-sufficient, independent, feisty and hard, Conan respects them – just as he’d respect a man with those qualities. But if a woman is pampered, indignant, self-entitled and arrogant, then Conan has little time for them, or at least knocks them down a few pegs. In “Black Colossus,” Conan fully expects Princess Yasmela to don armour for a battle, since that’s what Cimmerian women do. Conan realises that holding Nafertari or Livia to their bargains (sex in exchange for protection/freedom) would be akin to taking them without their consent – i.e. rape – and so he refuses, for he had never taken a woman against her will. In “Red Nails,” we discover that causing harm to a woman, even an armed one, was repugnant to him. In what way could one then conclude Conan was misogynistic? Only if you fail at reading comprehension, and given the hash Nispel’s made of Conan’s character, it wouldn’t surprise me one iota.
Cimmerian women were never property. Barbarian women in general were never property. We’ll later learn in this very film that the only women Conan had respected beforehand were Cimmerian women. The implication, of course, is that barbarians are more egalitarian than the civilized kingdoms of the Hyborian Age: this is reflected in modern history to an extent, where Celtic and Germanic women had high esteem and social clout, while Roman and Greek women were considered second-class citizens. So to see Conan describing a woman as his property seems… well, awfully civilized of him. Even if he’s just saying that to Remo in words he could understand, Conan’s disdain for civilized ways would surely mean he wouldn’t deign to say another person was his property.
Sure, Conan’s “owned” slaves before, or otherwise taken women into his charge, but he was also noted to treat even lowly slave women better than civilized men tended to:
The girl was a Brythunian, whom Conan had found in the slave-market of a stormed Shemite city, and appropriated. She had had nothing to say in the matter, but her new position was so far superior to the lot of any Hyborian woman in a Shemitish seraglio, that she accepted it thankfully.
– “Xuthal of the Dusk”
He had taken possession of the pleasure-palace, however, and Conan’s girls were dragged to his quarters. The people muttered at the sight of the royal beauties writhing in the brutal hands of the iron-clad retainers – dark-eyed damsels of Poitain, slim black-haired wenches from Zamora, Zingara and Hyrkania, Brythunian girls with tousled yellow heads, all weeping with fright and shame, unused to brutality.
– “The Scarlet Citadel”
“I am afraid,” murmured Tina. “I hope Strom and Zarono are killed.”
“And not Conan?” asked Belesa curiously.
“Conan would not harm us,” said the child, confidently. “He lives up to his barbaric code of honor, but they are men who have lost all honor.”
– “The Black Stranger”
Conan’s rough chivalry is what separates him from the misogynistic world of the Hyborian Age, that same world Valeria, Belit, Yasmina, Yasmela and Albiona have to fight against to attain their station in life. So to see Conan treating Tamara so poorly – aside from the villains, he’s the person who treats Tamara with the least respect in the entire film – is to see a Conan diametrically opposed to one of the defining traits of his character. Conan in this film treats Tamara the way Tilutan the Ghanata treats Lissa, or the way Totrasmek treats Nafertari: a way that the literary Conan would not.
And as if that wasn’t enough, this also directly contradicts an earlier scene in the film. Not twenty minutes earlier, Conan himself said “No man should live in chains,” indicating Conan was against slavery. Yet here, he has no bones pronouncing a woman to be his property. See the problem here? Maybe he should’ve said “no man should live in chains – women, yes – but no man.” At least then he’d be consistent.
In any case, another bone is thrown to the Howard fans. After Remo boldly states “I’ve killed hundreds of Cimmerians,” which would be an outrageously bald lie in any other Conan story, Conan reveals his identity to Remo:
If you run from me, I will tear apart the mountains to find you. I will follow you to Hell!
Our first of a few Howard quotes slightly altered for the film. This one, of course, is taken from one of the earliest Howard stories:
“You can not escape me!” he roared. “Lead me into a trap and I’ll pile the heads of your kinsmen at your feet! Hide from me and I’ll tear apart the mountains to find you! I’ll follow you to hell!”
– “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”
Conan takes out Remo, though doesn’t kill him, and then we get this delightful bit:
Woman! Come here. Now!
See, this is a caricature of what people think Conan would be like with a woman: a brutish thug ordering women around like they’re dogs. Tamara, being raised in an isolated monastery with men half Conan’s size, is indignant, and stands up to the man a foot taller than her – even though Conan’s size has most men shuddering in terror, let alone women – and she demands he escort her home. Oh, by the way, you know what Tamara’s birthplace is? Hyrkania. Or, as she pronounces it, “High-ruk-ania.” Not since the the live-action Conan series have I heard such bizarre pronunciations for Hyborian Age places. But at this point, something like pronunciation’s hardly going to matter, is it?
Another thing: this is the last time we see Conan wearing his manica. After this scene, he decides not to bother with it. No explanation is given. I complained about the manica before, but any armour’s better than no armour when you’re going up against armoured foes, so it’s somewhat perplexing to see Conan just… forget about it.
The Petrified Forest
This is the one we’ve seen in the trailer. “Me Tamara, you Conan” and whatnot. Annoyingly, Conan felt the need to tie Tamara up: in the script, she actively attempts to kill Conan and trick him out of his sword, but it isn’t here, so we don’t see why Conan bound her. Sure, she wanted to go to High-ruk-ania, but she would clearly not have gotten far, and realised she should stick with him, since he’s the only person not trying to kill her for miles. Remo’s feigning sleep against a pillar.
She continues to voice her indignation at her situation, asking if Conan plans to have his wicked way with her. Conan rolls his eyes (as do I) and tells her to go to sleep. Tamara continues to complain. Then Conan stuffs a piece of cloth in her mouth. Conan may have barked angrily at women to get them to shut up, but he never gagged them, not even when he was in mortal danger.
Crom’s Devils, I’m really starting to root for Khalar now.
The Man of War
Well, not after this scene. There’s an establishing shot of the Man of War, currently at rest, with the elephants having a well-deserved break. I can’t be sure until I get a second viewing, but I really think they loop the animations for the elephants. Either that or I’m seeing things. Those poor elephants, lugging around a giant ship that’s been used only once…
Now we’re in the interior. Zym’s ship is decorated with the plunder of nations: pots, vases, jugs, chests, rugs, furs, jewels, mammoth tusks strewn about his quarters. He even has a little stand to put the mask on. A sliver of the father-daughter dynamic from Hood’s draft is retained, as Khalar pointedly opines about Remo “never disappointed him” (though I don’t know where Marique was supposed to have disappointed him, making the remark somewhat confusing) while Marique very creepily says that she could take her mother’s place. Obviously it’s in reference to her powers growing, and her confidence in being able to learn the secrets of Acheron… but then… Marique starts to kiss her father’s hand, while she’s on her knees. Then she puts his finger in her mouth. Oh dear. Subtlety had already taken the next flight to Timbuktu long before this point in the film, but right now it’s shivering 30 miles above the Atlantic. Khalar looks freakishly tempted.
Yes Marique, you are like your mother in so many ways. But you are not her.
And he pushes her away. If Rose McGowan’s to be believed, there’s a deleted scene involving a kiss between Khalar and Marique. If there’s an extended/unrated(/unchained?) edition, we might be blighted with it, removing any ambiguity about the father-daughter relationship. I really am not digging the Elektra complex subplot at all, considering the way it plays out: it had the possibility of having pathos and complexity, but Nispel decided to just go with the easy shock value. Given the flagrant and borderline libellous misinformation regarding Howard’s own personal life, I would rather people didn’t even attempt to bring up the subject at all.
Outside Khalar’s Camp
Conan is still trying to wrestle the truth of why Khalar’s after Tamara from her, but she’s as mystified as Conan is – that is, until Remo decides to speak up, revealing the special nature of her blood. Well, that was nice of him. Remo tries to bargain with Conan, claiming Khalar could give him substantial rewards. Conan agrees.
And then… we get this scene. What could’ve been another showcase of Conan’s great strength is somewhat diminished: we see him pulling a huge dilapidated siege engine upright, and ties Remo to a rock. Now, there are two possibilities here: either this abandoned trebuchet was still in mostly working order when Conan found it (unlikely, given the high precision necessary to craft a siege engine of that size, not to mention degradable parts like sinew), or Conan fixed it up, which would make him something of an engineering genius. It’s a bit of a confusing scene for me. Again, I’ll probably need another viewing to confirm this, but the rock Conan attached to Remo in the film was pretty freakin’ huge, far larger than the one from the Empire photos. The largest trebuchet in history, the War Wolf, was known to throw rocks up to 300lbs. That’s huge in terms of ammunition. Remo himself looked like he’d weigh at least half of that, and even the smaller rock looked like a good 700lbs: yet the trebuchet Conan set up is about a third of the size of the War Wolf. It’s something of a miracle the thing worked at all, let alone managed to bullseye its target.
With physics thrown to the wind, Conan sends a message to Khalar Zym with courier. That’s as stupid as it sounds… more stupid, in fact, because at one point during Remo’s flight, the camera cuts to his face as he’s flying through the air. Then a wide shot of the missile hurtling back to earth (I guess now gravity decided to get off its backside and do its job) in one of the funniest scenes in the entire film. All it needed was the Wile E. Coyote falling whistle and Goofy yell.
Remo crashes into the Man of War’s hold, waking Khalar and Marique out of bed. The same bed. At least Marique was curled around her father’s feet like a puppy, though, leading me to hope they were just sleeping. The two seem surprisingly relaxed about a gigantic missile hurtling into their warship, but Marique finds a note written on cloth in Remo’s gullet:
“I have the woman. The Shahpur Outpost at noon. Come alone.”
In another nice Howardian nod, we can see through the semi-transparent material vague letters, and they’re written in – what else – a bold scrawl. Tamara sniffs the cloth, and picks up Tamara’s scent. And this is the last you see of the Man of War, which Khalar hauled over hundreds of miles to act as a giant ostentatious battering ram. Maybe the reason it took him so long to find the Monastery in the first place is because he insisted on dragging this thing around with him wherever he went. It’s as good an explanation as any.
The Shaipur Outpost
We get an all-too-uncommon lingering establishing shot of the Shaipur Outpost, really poring over the details of the set. It’s nice and atmospheric, allowing the film to actually stop for a moment and take its time. Tamara is tied up to a post: Conan’s waiting for Khalar. Lots of close-ups of his eyes, and this would’ve been even more awesome if they were blue. No, I won’t stop bleating about that.
Khalar doesn’t come alone, but brings Marique – still, it isn’t as if he came with his entire army, so it’s arguable whether he broke his word. Regardless, Conan doesn’t bring it up, so it can’t have been a massive breach of the deal. Khalar, true to his word, brought a sack full of gold. Conan, however, doesn’t want his gold (not “kingdom” as stated in the trailers), but his head. Khalar’s reaction is priceless: he’s both amused and bored, like “ah, Mitra, another knucklehead who wants to chance his luck with the Zym.” He then tells Marique to kill the idiot.
This is the fight with the Sand Warriors. Now, I’m going to say that for what it is, the fight scene is very well done. It’s excellently choreographed, well-shot, fast-paced and generally quite fun. What it isn’t, however, is Howardian. For one thing, the supernatural menaces in Conan stories are always strange, eldritch and unknowable: figures of mystery and terror, beings that pose incredible threat to Conan not just physically, but psychologically too. The Sand Warriors are the Putty Patrol from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. They aren’t menacing, they’re backflipping, breakdancing fools barely a few steps above the Putties, or any of the other nameless mooks in these martial-arts oriented programmes.
What’s more, you’d think that creatures made of sand would be pretty difficult to fight: how can you kill a creature made of tiny particles? I would’ve thought they would recombine if Conan managed to cleave on in two: he would then have to employ some sort of inventive strategy to deal with them. Maybe knock them into a well and see them melt and disintegrate into mud, or be blasted into glass by sudden heat. Something, anything. But no: Conan just kills them the exact same way he kills anyone, with his sword. No extra cleverness involved. In Conan the Destroyer, Conan had to use his wits to discover how to defeat the pitiful Thak ripoff, and discovered he had to break the mirrors to inflict damage, showing at least a semblance of ingenuity. In other words, even bloody Conan the Destroyer tried to be clever with its monster fights, guys!
Soon, Conan had dispatched the Sand Warriors, and Tamara manages to get one killed too. Go her. Khalar is impressed, but figures playtime’s over, and the two engage in a fairly adequate swordfight. Nothing memorable, but nothing particularly bad either. Conan draws blood, and it’s then that he learns the identity of this wild barbarian. The problem with this fight is that Conan’s doing pretty damned well: he’s gotten Khalar on the defensive, and actually kicking his arse. However, Marique decides to interfere by hurling a poisoned dagger at Conan: he ducks, but the blade nicks him, and he instantly starts to succumb to the toxic effects. Then Khalar has the advantage, as he starts to beat Conan up, sending him flying. Conan’s still putting up a fight, but it’s clear he’s starting to fade fast.
However, Conan had a back-up plan (apparently): he tosses a torch onto some barrels, which then explode. Perhaps that lingering shot was supposed to highlight the barrels, but I can’t remember seeing them. The explosion distracts Khalar and Marique momentarily, and Conan and Tamara run from it. They barely hesitate when they see the precipice, and leap into the sea. Luckily, the Hornet’s waiting for them, and since Khalar didn’t bring any archers with him, he can only watch was his quarry swims off to safety. Khalar Zym, the bad guy, has been doing a better job of keeping his word than the ostensible hero. Huh. All I can say is that Man of War would’ve been pretty darned useful right about now, not to mention that gigantic army of thousands.
In Sean Hood’s script, there are a good two pages dedicated to Conan’s recuperation after being poisoned. It’s a pretty interesting scene, as Conan hallucinates various weird images as the fever plays havoc with his senses, and Tamara tries to keep him from breaking his stitches and doing himself further injury. It’s important, because we see Conan beaten, injured, vulnerable, for the first time in the film since he was a boy: it’s also vital cooldown time between battles, and character development for both Conan and Tamara. It serves the same purpose as when Conan was beaten down by Doom in the 1982 film, and his subsequent recovery: he’s faced with an obstacle which beat him, and he had to adapt to defeat it – or, in Howard’s stories, when Conan was beaten by Tsotha-Lanti, Xaltotun, Khosatral Khel and others, forcing him to look for other options.
In this film, Conan seems fine after being poisoned and beaten to a pulp by Khalar. No Black Corsair healer like the Tigress’ N’Yaga, not even a line saying “the poison is fading,” it’s just forgotten about. Both poisoning and injury are just shrugged off, because Conan is Wolverine now. I guess we’ll just have to assume that the poison which damn near got him killed and the injuries incurred by Zym just weren’t that serious. This nigh-invulnerability is a complaint many people have (erroneously) made about Conan, that near-invincible heroes don’t have that suspension of disbelief, that you need to believe the hero could be hurt, even killed. Howard knew this, which is why half the stories see him receive a score of wounds, sometimes to the point of near-death. Milius knew this too, which is part of why the 1982 film still endures. There was clearly some idiot producer somewhere who thought “no, you can’t make Conan look weak or vulnerable in any way, he has to be this unhurtable thing for the boys to fantasise about being,” completely forgetting that badass heroes being beaten to a pulp didn’t seem to hurt Rocky, Die Hard, Predator, Rambo… or the 1982 Conan the Barbarian.
Conan vents his frustrations on Artus, who personally thinks it’s a victory: he’s the only man to have fought Khalar Zym and lived to tell the tale.
Are the tales they tell true? Does he have fiery red eyes and a hide of golden scales?
He is just a man.
Then it is he who failed. In fact, you may be the only man in Hyboria to fight Khalar Zym and live.
This is followed in the script with a scene where Artus plots Khalar’s journey on a map, giving the world a sense of place, that this really is a larger world beyond the locations of the film, and giving the audience a sense of the scale of their journey. But of course they don’t, they need to cram in more fight scenes. Again, I’m imagining some producer thinking that stopping the action for even a second would result in the Spike TV-addicted broskis losing interest if someone isn’t dying or stripping every thirty seconds. But before that, here’s my favourite part of the film from a Howardian perspective:
A charming man, your friend.
Most men are born to mother’s milk. But his first taste was of his mother’s blood. He was battle born.
So all he can do is kill?
Oh no. He has the heart of a king. The loyalty of a bloodhound. Barbarians may be warriors, but they do not sacrifice their children or enslave their allies like the priests and princes of the “civilized” world. As for his manners…
You look like a harlot!
Yes, apparently I’m the only woman you have ever met who isn’t one!
(Pause) Cimmerian women wear armor. Get her some.
(To Tamara) I think he likes you.
Can you tell why this is my favourite exchange in the film? Sure, I could complain about the messy business of birth meaning that technically most people’s first taste is of blood, or that “battleborn” implies that this is a thing in the Hyborian Age when it isn’t, but damn, it’s something at least.
So, because of budget and special effects limitations, we won’t be seeing the Hornet battling the Man of War, nor the reason for the Hornet’s name (the forecastle is a collapsible casing hiding a ballista): instead, Khalar sends a squadron of canoes to attack the ship at night. Not a bad idea, considering they seem to have a knack for ninja attacks where nobody hears them until they’re right on top of their target. Ukafa and Cheren lead Khalar’s assault team, and they attack. Artus rouses the pirates in the defense of the ship.
However, Ukafa gets into the hold, and finds Tamara. There, Conan and Ukafa have a titanic battle (I swear to Mitra, I even think Ukafa powerbombs Conan into the wall at one point) with much broken wood, including the scene from the trailer where Tamara hurls a knife. However, it plays out differently, as her weird face is absent. Artus continues the pro-wrestling by tossing one of Khalar’s soldiers into the sea with a textbook Military Press Slam. E-C-Dub! E-C-Dub! Again, it’s good for what it is, but it’s a WWE-inspired brawl, not a desperate fight for survival. However, Conan and Tamara team up to dispatch Ukafa using his own khopesh, as Conan asks “How many Cimmerians died on that blade?” In a Howard tale, that’d be entirely rhetorical, but I digress. They move up deck, and Tamara manages to take out a few villains by herself.
Then Conan kills Cheren by hurling a harpoon through her guts. I have to say, it’s weird seeing Conan kill a woman. There are two camps in regards to Conan’s code when it comes to fighting women: one believes that he would never harm a woman, considering this passage:
He could draw his broadsword and disarm her, beat the blade out of her hand, but the thought of drawing a sword on a woman, even without intent of injury, was extremely repugnant to him.
– “Red Nails”
Still, others look to this passage, seeing it as a hint Conan has indeed killed women before:
“He will cut your throat,” answered Natala with conviction, knowing Conan better than Thalis did.
– “Xuthal of the Dusk”
I believe Conan would kill a woman in self-defense if there’s absolutely no other option, certainly – but it’s still disquieting to see given the statement in “Red Nails.” In the script, though, the point is moot, seeing as Tamara kills her: for whatever reason, the filmmakers decided to add to Conan’s kill-count in a fairly anti-climactic manner. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t give Tamara a chance to shine, but then again, given how often the film flip-flops between her being a competent warrior and a shivering damsel, perhaps it’s for the best. Conan tosses a sword to Tamara, and comments “not bad”: this is the scene with her weird tick, as evidently she’s somewhat moved that Conan’s impressed. The pirates are triumphant.
The Hornet anchors in a bay, and Conan makes his way – and once again, he decides to go alone, instead of bringing along a crew of pirates that *might* come in useful. Artus cheekily gives Tamara a reason to go after him, by claiming Conan left his map behind. (Wish we saw the map, so we could know where in blazes we are). Tamara all but kisses Artus on the cheek as she scurries off to join Conan. It’s here we hear the second Howardian line, which results in some sort of aphrodisiac spell on Tamara, since she kisses him right afterwards:
Do you ever wonder if our actions serve some plan – some purpose spun by the gods? Or are we all just doomed to chaos and ruin?
I know not, and I care not. I live, I love, I slay… I am content.
Just for completeness, here’s the original line and context:
Bêlit shuddered. “Life, bad as it is, is better than such a destiny. What do you believe, Conan?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “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 priests 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.”
– “Queen of the Black Coast”
Yes, it’s out of context, and yes, it’s a very diluted, concise excision of the quote… but it’s still something. I only hope that if “Queen of the Black Coast” is adapted for the sequel, they retain that line in its original context.
The Love Shack
I chose this name because I’m simply flabberghasted by its existence. Conan and Tamara just happen to find a cosy little barn in the middle of nowhere, full of lovely fresh hay, and enjoy each other’s bodies (well, at least the body of Rachel Nichols’ stunt double). All while a mysterious light tastefully illuminates their bodies, giving an impression of lovemaking rather than an actual depiction. Like a Bonnie Tyler or Meatloaf music video, it’s all rather ’80s. However, I can’t get over the really silly niggle: whose barn is this? Is this some poor Shemite farmer’s homestead Conan & Tamara have blundered into? I half expected him to barge in, beard flared, pitchfork in hand, spluttering in rage at these two derned kids messing up his precious barn.
Sadly, that doesn’t happen: Tamara slinks off in the night after kissing Conan on the cheek. We see her emerge, and a truly beautiful shot of Prohodna Cave in the background. See, if Nispel could keep the camera still and focused for a few seconds, he can make a really lovely shot. The film’s always at it’s best (for me) when it’s a nice wide shot of Bulgaria’s natural wonders or the well-crafted CGI cities and ruins. The audience gets a lovely shot of Jason’s magnificently sculpted backside, of course, as he snorts himself awake. It isn’t a particularly revealing shot, but the lasses attending the screening I went to seemed pleased enough, if their cooing and giggling was any measure.
Tamara is on her way back to the Hornet, but NINJA HORSE. Yes, somehow one of Khalar’s horsemen, in full armour, managed to sneak up behind Tamara, who only noticed it when it reared and whinnied a mere two or three feet away. I’m telling you, guys, ninjas. Tamara’s weird on-again off-again warrior capabilities have failed her this time, and she’s quickly captured, including a hilarious daft shot of Marique grasping for the camera. Conan searches through the forest for his girl, having heard the kerfuffle, but all he finds is one of Marique’s talons…
Tamara is led in chains to Khalar. Marique, presumably just to be sure, tastes her blood, and confirms her royal lineage. She seems to have a fair supply of backup talons, since we see she still has five of them. Again, this has extra dialogue in the original Hood script, which is used in the novelization and Conan: The Mask of Acheron, so it’s annoying that everything except exposition is cut.
Argalon, City of Thieves
… Yeah. Not the Thief-City of Zamora, but some place called “Argalon.” I’m presuming it’s Shemite too, seeing as it would be ludicrous for Conan to ride all the way to Zamora to get Ela-Shan, but I believe this place was originally Asgalun. I don’t know why they changed it: can’t Asgalun have a thieves’ quarter? Was it really imperative that it be a city of thieves? Whatever the place’s name is, Conan makes his way into a hive of scum & villainy virtually identical to the hive of scum & villainy in Messantia. I realise these places don’t necessarily have a lot of variety, but it would’ve been nice to have some sort of variation, even different lighting would work wonders. Conan is immediately accosted by a thief demanding to know Conan’s business. Conan responds by smiting him in the groin. The thief bends over, makes a high-pitched squeal, and mugs for the camera.
Conan hits a man in the groin, which forces him to squeal and make a funny face.
… I got nothing. Let’s just ignore it. We have to quarantine this incident, make sure it doesn’t contaminate anything else.
Luckily, Ela-Shan recognizes Conan. Conan immediately calls in a favour.
The Road to Khor Kalba
Conan and Ela-Shan go to Khor Kalba, but they have to find a more surreptious way in. One does not simply walk into Khor Kalba, for “breaking into Khalar Zym’s fortress is like reaching under a sleeping dragon to steal her eggs.”
Oy, remember when Ela-Shan said he was a master thief? I quote:
I am Ela Shan. Perhaps you have heard that there is no lock I can not break or vault I can not enter.
So you’d think that this means Ela-Shan is a pretty good thief, right? After all, he gets all those thieves to stand down when Conan causes a ruckus, suggesting he’s a pretty respected one. And to be a good thief, especially one who breaks locks and enters vaults, you’d think he’d be a master lockpicker of some description. Well, it turns out Ela-Shan is a complete fraud. Oh, he gets through the locks, alright – but it’s because he has a key for every single one. Yes, the master thief doesn’t actually utilize thieving skills – he just happens to have a good inventory of keys. I would almost think this was intentionally humourous, but it’s never brought up! Conan never challenges Ela-Shan for his blustering self-inflation, questioning how good a lockpicker he is when he’s just using keys anyone could turn. So I have the inescapable conclusion that just happening to have all these keys is supposed to make Ela-Shan a master thief. In all seriousness. And that makes it even funnier, for all the wrong reasons.
Bechdel Test: Pass or Fail?
Tamara is dressed in her sacrificial outfit as Marique starts to chat. This is the point where the film could’ve passed the Bechdel test. Not that it would’ve made the chauvinistic elements any more repulsive, but it would’ve been something:
My mother wore this gown on her wedding day. It flatters you.
I am NOT your mother.
No, but you will be. Imagine your body is a vessel and your soul is the water that fills it. When your blood seeds the mask, my father will empty you. And my mother’s soul will rise.
I would rather die.
If they just cut out that mention of “my father,” that might’ve been enough. Could it? Maybe? I dunno. Wouldn’t have made it any less of a sexist film in some parts, but considering so many films fail the Bechdel Test, it would’ve been nice to have Conan have that badge.
*Update: BechdelTest.com’s Conan the Barbarian page classifies the film thusly: “There are two or more women in this movie and they talk to each other about something other than a man, although dubious.” It passed 3 of 3 tests. So, there you go.
Again, there’s more dialogue in this scene, as there’s some dissent between Khalar and Marique, but we can’t have character development in this movie, oh no!
(I can’t immediately recall, but there may have been more cuts back and forth from Conan/Ela-Shan to Tamara/Khalar/Marique, so bear with me)
Conan and Ela-Shan are making their way through the dungeons of Khor Kalba, Ela-Shan using his masterful thievery skills to put keys in the lock… and turn them. By Bel, truly worthy of a Master-Thief of Zamora! Lots of skeletons and things. I note that Conan’s decided to put on armour here: we never find out why, or see him putting it on, but hey, a change in costume. Suddenly, Ela-Shan is sucked beneath the flooded water, leaving Conan to stab wildly before he too is dragged under the surface.
Marique is admiring Corin’s sword as Tamara is being affixed to the sacrificial wheel. According to Marique, it is said that Cimmerian steel is superior to any other. Oh, I think the Akbitanans, Aquilonians and Khroshans would have something to say about that. Apparently when it cuts, “the pain is close to pleasure.” I have to say, I never thought that could be a reason the Cimmerians were undefeated in battle: people were enjoying being stabbed and slashed too much to fight back. Tamara is then borne away by chanting votaries, who make for Skull Cave.
The Lair of the Dweller
After that creepy interlude, we’re back to Khor Kalba. They surface in a great central chamber with an elaborate grating, where Akhoun has apparently been just chilling. The third Howardian quote appears, and it’s a bit vaguer than the others:
A feast for my sword.
No! A feast… FOR THE DWELLER!
This is a callback to another line which was cut, and closer to this, the original iteration:
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”
– “Xuthal of the Dusk”
In the script, the Dweller is built up in foreshadowing and outright references to the terrible thing lurking under Khor Kalba. This makes sense, since you want to build up a sense of dread and suspense going into your big set piece. In the film, though, all that’s taken out – and again, it’s just another thing that happens without any build up. The first we see of the dweller is when it attacks Conan, and the first we hear of it is when Akhoun names it. This is basic narrative convention, Marcus! It’s not hard to do this right!
So we have another action piece, and again, for what it is, it’s well done: it’s a pretty well shot, fun little action scene you’d see in a kid’s adventure film. It isn’t Howardian, not nearly enough terror and violence, but it’s good version of, say, a Savage Sword of Conan battle of the Fleisher years. The Dweller himself is pretty clearly influenced by Savage Sword #13’s Dweller in the Dark. Unfortunately, budget limitations struck again, because we don’t really see that much of the Dweller: indeed, the Dweller isn’t even defeated. Conan and Ela-Shan just dispatch of Akhoun by feeding him to his own pet, and… toddle off down a side passage. It would’ve been nice to get a full shot of the creature before the end, but unfortunately the best we get is a blurry underwater shot of its tentacles wrapping around Akhoun.
Atop Khor Kalba
Conan and Ela-Shan go to a tower at the top of Khor Kalba, and I have to ask: where in blazes is Khalar’s army? You know, the one he conquered half the world with? There is no security presence in the Lair of the Dweller: I get that. But there are no guards in the rest of the bloody castle? Conan and Ela-Shan are the only people we see in the whole citadel in this shot! Khalar Zym’s capital! Where in Crom’s name did those thousands of soldiers go? After they took Tamara, we never see another of Khalar’s soldiers again. They’re all gone. Disappeared. What, did Conan kill every last one of them? Crom.
This is where we hear the riotous “farewell my friend” line, and poor Jason looks like he’s ready to corpse. Of course, Ela-Shan then reminds Conan where to find him. Because it was so funny the first time around.
We see Conan approaching Skull Cave, and again, while I think the idea of Skull Cave is absolutely laughable, it’s at least beautifully painted and very well done. Conan sneaks into Skull Cave, and sees the ceremony. Khalar then begins the ritual, all as the votaries are chanting (can’t make out what they’re saying, unfortunately): he cuts Tamara over her heart, and collects the blood in her mask. And then Conan barges in and stops Khalar from awakening the mask? Nope.
The orifice in the centre of the mask starts to suck up the blood, and the tentacles twitch. Khalar, resplendent in golden armour (if I didn’t know better, I’d say this could’ve been a reference to the legend of Khalar having golden scaled hide), is triumphant.
Behold and despair, your new master.
Because a crucial piece of that line has been cut (Ancient Ones, who burn beneath us, unspeakable are thy names…) it’s unclear exactly who Khalar is talking to. The only ones around him are his acolytes… and isn’t he already their master? Or is he saying this will transform him into a new man, and so a “new master”? Bah, it’s weird.
Conan has been busy sneaking up to an acolyte, who he stabs. As this happens, Khalar puts on the mask: it goes all Facehugger on him, and transforms into an organic helmet of sorts. Something which only now occurred to me is this: does something that doesn’t really cover the face count as a mask? We can still see Khalar’s face, and only the forehead and cheeks are really obscured. Isn’t it more like a hat than a mask? Even small masks at least cover the eyes and cheekbones. I guess the Hat of Acheron wasn’t quite as grim.
At this point, Conan attacks: he has gotten close due to wearing the acolyte’s robes, but Khalar managed to parry in time. And… Conan’s armour is gone. He’s back to shirtless. I don’t know why Conan thought it would be a good idea to go into battle with someone who kicked your arse the last time you met without armour you were wearing literally seconds ago. It isn’t as if the robes were form-fitting, or anything. Conan, you moron.
Conan’s attack doesn’t strike home, but he does chip the mask, causing the cave around to tremble, with eldritch roars emanating from the deep dark. This I know from the script: the segment is shot so poorly I don’t think anyone could tell what happened, or why the cave is shaking all of a sudden. This causes the wheel Tamara’s on to become loose, and thus starts the falling wheel sequence. Conan has to simultaneously battle Khalar, free Tamara, and not fall off from the edge. One more time: for what it is, it’s well done, and good. Good CGI, proficient technique from the stunts and effects department, nicely shot and paced… but not Conan. Another callback occurs, as Khalar says “Barbarian… I don’t like you any more.” Groans and laughs issue from the audience. Tamara screams in a very shrill and irritating manner, going from Marion Ravenwood to Willie Scott. Grrrr.
After Conan manages to free Tamara, a game of hide-and-seek begins: Marique stalks Tamara, while Khalar and Conan prowl around for each other. Marique and Tamara have a little fight sequence of their own, and it isn’t a mere catfight: they really lay into each other. Tamara had wrapped one of her chains around her forearm, making an impromptu chain cestus. Conan and Khalar have a showdown, and this time, Conan has the better of it. I have to ask: how much power does the Mask have if it can’t really help Khalar against Conan? You’d think in addition to its necromantic powers it would help protect him in some way, or give him access to other powers. It just seems strange that Khalar putting on the mask acts, fights and reacts pretty much identically to Khalar sans-mask, only with a headcrab on his skull.
This is another moment that was pure Howard to me, but it’s by accident: the lighting at the very end of the fight makes it look like Conan has blue eyes. Probably a coincidence, but if I could get a screenshot of that, that’s how I’d want Conan to look. Before he can finish of Khalar, he hears Tamara scream, and he rushes off. Marique has Tamara on the ropes, but Conan comes to her rescue, cutting off Marique’s clawed hand. This lets Tamara recover long enough to kick her off the edge. Marique’s hand twitches on the ground. I’m still a bit weird about Conan and the whole killing or maiming women thing, but this is handled well enough that one can assume his desperation overrode his personal repulsion.
Conan and Tamara attempt to escape, and Khalar comes across his dead daughter. He is, understandably, furious, crying out for the barbarian. Tamara turns around at this as she’s running across a bridge, and of course, it breaks. Conan manages to catch her by the chain around her wrist, but Khalar is fast approaching. Conan has Tamara in one hand, and his sword in the other: does he choose to save Tamara, or avenge his people? Some people have criticized the scene, claiming Conan could’ve pulled her up easily: they forget that doing so would force Conan to drop his sword. You can’t pull something up with one hand, unless you use a staggered grasping technique, and it’s pretty difficult to do that with a 100lb weight.
Once again, the little Cimmerian boy is caught holding a chain.
This is a problem with text reviews, since I can’t properly describe the expression of disapproval on my face. At least it ties into earlier in the film, rather than being another in an irritating series of unconnected vignettes. Khalar then chooses this time to summon his wife, and a visible change comes over Tamara, who helpfully informs us that “his witch is possessing me!” Brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department. She starts to warp and shift into Maliva, and we see she has the same hair and makeup as Marique. I still want to know the reasoning behind that particular fashion, it’s driving me nuts.
Faced with the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Conan decides to take a third option: once again making a callback to earlier events in the film, he breaks the bridge – just as Corin did with the ice – causing Khalar to plummet to the fiery chasm below. Screaming “MALIIIVAAAA” as he goes. A deeply unsubtle exit for a deeply unsubtle villain. Conan pulls Tamara up, and they escape from Skull Cave, which collapses. To it’s credit, the film at least offers an explanation as to why the evil fortress is collapsing: the Mask obviously plummeted into the fiery lava, and was destroyed. This started the quaking which culminated in the collapse of Skull Cave. It still doesn’t explain what the bloody hell happened to Khalar Zym’s army, though.
Conan has taken Tamara home. Yes, this shot actually depicts Hyrkania (or “High-ruk-ania”). This is the furthest location the film has taken us by a wide margin: the equivalent of the area east of the Caspian Sea. I gotta tell you, it doesn’t look like a Hyrkanian City, but it’s only the last five minutes, I think we can safely infer that’s the case. It’s still beautifully rendered. Let’s just call it Hierochania, say it’s in Koth, and leave it at that. Conan and Tamara part amicably, though Conan leaves her a good mile from the city. Eh, she rode far enough.
Back to Cimmeria
As the final finishing touch seemingly intended to put my teeth on edge, when Conan gets back to Cimmeria, he’s greeted by warm sunlight. Cimmeria, land of darkness and the night, where “even by day all the land looks dark and menacing” and “clouds hang always among those hills; the skies are nearly always gray,” looks pretty damned cheerful at the end of this film. Conan finds the ruins of the forge where his father’s sword was cast, along with a flashback for those who can’t remember what happened less than two hours ago, as well as recalling his words of advice. Of course the advice doesn’t make sense since he didn’t put it into practise, and there’s no discernable difference in fighting style, but whatever, the film’s over, we can go home. Conan raises his sword into the air, the camera zooming into the deer-skull hilt, and that’s all, folks.
As ever, I’d like to finish on a positive note.
I’ve been pretty harsh on the film, but I also realise my opinion will be just one of many. I know of various Howard and Conan fans on this blog who quite liked the film. There are reviews from Howard fans on the net, like Drew McWeeny and Harry Knowles, who didn’t hate the film to nearly the same degree I did, and in fact quite liked it. Dennis McHaney, a scholar whose opinion I respect greatly, had great things to say about the film, which came as a surprise to me, but not an entirely unpleasant one.
I’m choosing to see this as a good thing. Yes, I’m frustrated that not everybody shares my view of the film’s faults, and I do feel like I haven’t been vindicated. However, I’m not alone, since there are at least some Howard fans who felt the same on viewing. If the film really isn’t as bad as I feared in the eyes of others, then that might translate into box office success – and a greater pool of prospective, “sleeping” Howard fans.
I don’t want to support this particular film. Ironic, since I’m running a blog on it. However, I want to promote certain things the film represents, and the possibilities it could open. No, I feel that appealing to the lowest common denominator, a by-the-numbers plot with forgettable villains and cartoonish violence is not the way to make a Howardian Conan film. However, I do think that showing the world that there’s more to Conan than Arnold Schwarzenegger, that a Conan the Barbarian closer to Howard’s can be relevant in modern times, and that there is interest in new Conan films, is a cause worth supporting.
I may have to see the film again, to see if a second viewing will leave me more receptive. Perhaps seeing it in 2D will change my opinion of some of the action scenes. Having not seen a great deal of films in 3D I can’t comment on how “good” or “bad” it was, save that it was often blurry due to the glasses not fitting properly over my usual spectacles. Perhaps seeing it with a mere 2 dimensions will give me a different perspective.
So I still hate the film… but I don’t hate that others enjoy it. I’m not going to be one of those guys: if you liked it, fantastic! I’m over the moon! I’d hate for everyone to despise the film, even if I would appreciate the vindication. I just want what I wanted from the beginning: to bring Robert E. Howard to more people, and to be able to talk to more people about his fantastic work. If more people like the film, more people are likely to seek out the original stories. I don’t want Howard to be the focus of some secretive, reclusive clique, and if this film helps broaden the small, but loyal and ever preaching Howard fandom, then I can just hope this will leave room for a sequel that I can enjoy with the rest of the fans.