The Filmgoer’s Guide to Conan the Barbarian (2011) Abridged

Those who’ve followed my personal blog will know I’ve been producing a fairly lengthy series discussing the relation of John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian to the original Robert E. Howard stories, patterned after the Encyclopedia of Arda’s Filmgoer’s Guides to the Lord of the Rings film adaptations. It seems inevitable, then, that I would produce another one for the upcoming film. This won’t be as lengthy or detailed as the Filmgoer’s Guide ’82, and will stick to bullet points and quotes. A more in-depth edition of the Filmgoer’s Guide will likely follow in due course.

As with the Filmgoer’s Guide ’82, this is not intended to denigrate or criticize the film’s cinematic merits, but simply to serve as a guide. It isn’t about saying the film is bad, just that it’s different. For opinions on the film’s quality, one can go to the multitude of excellent and insightful reviews across the internet, or my review and critique, but this is strictly an impartial assessment – save for a few scathing remarks which I’ve retained for my own sanity, mostly in the film references section.

Anyone with any suggestions/corrections/observations, please let me know in the comments.

References to the original stories

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” is a truncated excerpt from the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” by Robert E. Howard. More information on this can be found here.

Acheron was a kingdom which once dominated a substantial portion of the world three thousand years before Conan’s time, and was destroyed by a barbarian horde who would go on to found the Hyborian kingdoms of Aquilonia, Nemedia and Argos. The Cimmerians fought the Acheronians, but had no direct part in Acheron’s downfall. The descendants of Acheron persist to Conan’s time, but they are gnarled, twisted, degenerates dwelling in hill and inner-city conclaves, rather than secretive monks of vaguely Asian descent. Acheron was only mentioned in The Hour of the Dragon, chronologically the final Conan story.

The character Xaltotun, seen for a brief moment in the film as one of the Acheronians creating the Mask, is one of the primary antagonists of The Hour of the Dragon. The existence of the mask and especially Xaltotun’s part in its creation present significant continuity issues between the film and the novel, discussed here.

Conan is born on a battlefield, as mentioned in “Black Colossus,” The Hour of the Dragon and Robert E. Howard’s letter to P.S. Miller. All that is known is that he was born during a battle between his tribe and a horde of raiding Vanir.

Conan “storming the high walls of Venarium” is a reference to the battle of Venarium retold in “Beyond the Black River,” one of the formative experiences in Conan’s early life. More information on Conan’s early life can be found here.

Cimmeria is Conan’s homeland, described as a place of perpetual mist and darkness, where even by day the land is sinister, and where the sun never breaks through the clouds. More information on Howard’s Cimmeria can be found here.

The Cimmerians, Conan’s people, are never depicted directly in the Conan stories, but Howard noted they were uniformly black-haired and blue or grey-eyed, tall, powerfully-built, and moody. They were superlative warriors and were never conquered, despite being the target of many invasions by Picts, Acheronians, Aquilonians, Hyrkanians and more, only being displaced by the great Nordic Drift. The women are noted to have fought alongside the men. More information on the Cimmerians can be found here.

The “Zingaran Slave Colony” refers to Zingara, one of the more prominent non-Hyborian kingdoms, though it’s unclear whether it is a colony in Zingara, one run by Zingarans, or has Zingaran slaves. Zingara, like many civilized kingdoms of the time, was known to have slaves, though it was not particularly known for its slavery industry in the stories. Zingara was the setting of two chapters of The Hour of the Dragon.

Messantia is the capital of Argos, one of the last Hyborian Kingdoms to be established, and the setting for the first few pages of “Queen of the Black Coast” and two chapters of The Hour of the Dragon.

“… it was he who stole The Elephant’s Heart and slew the sorcerer Yara!” – Artus’ story of his first meeting with Conan and the boasts that follow is a reference to “The Tower of the Elephant,” one of the most celebrated of Robert E. Howard’s stories: however, the details in Artus’ recollection are very different from the events of that tale, and might be attributed to Artus “spinning a yarn.” The full story as it appeared in Weird Tales can be read here.

The Turanian Desert may be a reference to the Eastern Desert, an arid expanse east of the Hyborian Kingdoms, which was conquered by Turan in Conan’s later life.

I live, I love, I slay, and I am content” is an altered extract from one of the most famous passages in “Queen of the Black Coast,” and is one of the most concise examples of Conan’s philosophical worldview in its original form. More on this can be found here.

Hyrkania is a vast region in the far east of the Hyborian Age, occupying the lands east of the Vilayet Sea (what is now the Caspian Sea), and stretching to the eastern coast of Asia. The Hyrkanians were a nomadic culture analogous to the Mongols, and although no Hyrkanian cities are mentioned in the stories, they are mentioned on the Vilayet and eastern coasts of Hyrkania in Howard’s “The Hyborian Age” essay.

References to the Conan Franchise

Marvel Comics

Khalar Zym, a Nemedian (according to the script and Stackpole’s novelization), carries a gigantic warship over land using a team of elephants and slaves. In “Besieger of Cities” in issue #148 The Savage Sword of Conan, the Cimmerian is pursued down the Black Coast by the Nemedian Navy: Zym’s method of transportation perhaps offers an explanation of how a land-locked country thousands of miles from any substantial body of water can support a navy capable of pursuing Conan all the way to the Western Ocean. A preposterous explanation, true, but still…

The Dweller is possibly a homage to the titular monster from The Savage Sword of Conan #13, “The Dweller in the Dark.”

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

The film’s title logo is remarkably similar to the one used in the 1982 film.

Corin’s sword bears a ram’s skull motif, with the horns forming the crossguard: in the 1982 film, the Master’s Sword bears a stag’s skull motif, with the antlers forming the crossguard.

Both films show Conan’s father forging a sword using a casting technique, a method mostly used for bronze rather than steel swords.

In the 1982 film, Conan’s father’s sword is taken by Thulsa Doom, and Conan reclaims it from his first lieutennant Rexor; in the 2011 film, Conan’s father’s sword is taken by Marique, and Conan reclaims it from Khalar Zym.

The concept of Conan’s home village being destroyed, his tribe massacred and his father slain by a warlord on a search for an ancient secret is shared by both the 1982 and 2011 films.

Conan the Destroyer

Both films feature a princess (Tamara and Jehnna) whose “purity” is used in conjunction with an ancient artefact (the Horn of Dagoth and the Mask of Acheron) in a sacrifice which the villains use to resurrect an ancient evil (Dagoth and Maliva).

They also have an irritating, ineffectual sidekick who claims to be a great thief, but is actually a phoney hanging onto his giant friend’s coattails (Ela-Shan and Malik)

Red Sonja

Both films feature a sanctuary of female monks being besieged by a villain – who received a disfiguring scar by the hero during the attack on the hero’s home (Khalar Zym and Gedrun) – searching for a magical Macguffin which will aid them in ruling the world (the Mask of Acheron and the Talisman). They also feature an unarmed young boy who defeats armed men using martial arts (Young Conan and Prince Tarn), a female warrior who nonetheless becomes a damsel-in-distress at some point (Tamara and Red Sonja) and are thoroughly in the shadow of their male companions (Conan and Kalidor), and the villain’s castle collapses during the final battle as a result of the powerful sorcery at work.

Conan the Adventurer

Conan has to prove himself worthy to wield his father’s sword as a final test of his manhood, failing in an early attempt as a youngster: it is only as an adult that he finally claims the sword and wields it. This exact dynamic is seen in “The Night of Fiery Tears,” the pilot episode of Conan the Adventurer.

Conan: The Adventurer

In the 2011 film, Conan’s closest ally is a black warrior with dreadlocks and a fiery temper; in the 1998 tv series, one of Conan’s companions is a black warrior with dreadlocks and a fiery temper.

Kull the Conqueror

Both films feature the resurrection of a long-dead witch (Maliva and Akivasha) who a group of conspirators hope will give them the secrets of Acheron in a bid to rule the world.

Dark Horse Comics

Corin and Fialla are the names of Conan’s parents in the Dark Horse Conan comics, and Conan’s attire is very similar to a costume worn in Conan 0 and the Born on the Battlefield story arc.

Inventions of the Filmmakers

While the above posts may give the impression that the film is, in fact, fairly faithful to Howard’s work, one must remember that all of that amounts to a fraction of the screenplay. To truly understand how divergent the film is, one need only look at the story.

Here is the plot synopsis of the film from its Wikipedia page:

During the Hyborean Age, a group of sorcerers from Acheron created a mask from the skulls of dead kings and sacrificed their pure blood daughters to the dark gods in order to give the mask the power to subjugate the entire world. After killing countless people in their campaign to conquer the planet, the sorcerers were defeated by the barbarians led by Corin (Ron Perlman), who destroys the mask, scattering the pieces across the land, and keeping one for himself. Shortly thereafter, in a battle against a rival tribe, Corin’s wife, after being wounded by the enemy, gives birth to their son, Conan (Leo Howard), and dies.

Conan grows up to become a skilled, but violent warrior, whom his father believes is not ready to wield his own sword. One day, their village is attacked by the forces of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a warlord that is reuniting the pieces of the Mask of Acheron in order to revive his dead wife and conquer Hyborea. After locating Corin’s piece and murdering the entire village, Zym leaves. Conan is the only survivor, and swears revenge.

20 years later, Conan (Jason Momoa) is a pirate still seeking for revenge. With the help of his friend Artus (Nonso Anozie), he raids a slave camp and takes the rescued slaves to the city of Messantia, where Conan meets Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui), a thief being chased by a man whom Conan recognizes as Lucius (Steven O’Donnell), one of Zym’s soldiers from years before. Conan allows himself to be captured alongside Ela-Shan, and, in prison, escapes and confronts Lucius, who is forced to reveal that Zym is planning to sacrifice the pure blood descendant of the sorcerers of Acheron in order to unleash the mask’s power. He helps the rest of the prisoners to escape, and, in retribution, Ela-Shan tells Conan that, if he ever needs him, Conan will find him at the City of Thieves, Argalon.

Meanwhile, Zym and his daughter, the sorceress Marique (Rose McGowan) attack a monastery where they believe the pure blood is. Sensing something is wrong, Fassir (Raad Rawi), an elderly monk who teaches the monastery’s students, tells one of them, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), to run away and return to her birthplace. Tamara’s carriage is chased by Zym’s men. Conan hears the commotion and, recognizing Zym’s men, attacks and kills them, saving Tamara. Conan also captures one of Zym’s men, Remo (Milton Welsh), and catapults him to Zym’s nearby camp after forcing him to reveal Tamara’s importance as the pure blood.

Zym and Marique confront Conan, who is pretending to be interested in exchanging Tamara for gold, and he attacks Zym, but Marique saves her father by invoking soldiers made of sand and then poisoning Conan with a poison-laced boomerang sword. Tamara rescues him and they return to Artus’ boat, stationed nearby, where Artus helps Conan recover. The boat is attacked by Zym’s men, and, although they kill several of Conan’s men, they are defeated. Conan orders Artus to return to Messantia with Tamara and departs to confront Zym in his kingdom. Artus tells Tamara that Conan left a map behind and she follows him, meeting with him in a cave, where they make love. The next day, as she’s returning to the boat to join Artus so they can sail away, she’s captured by Zym’s men.

Conan finds out about Tamara’s capture and departs to Argalon, where he asks Ela-Shan to help him break into Zym’s castle unnoticed, while Zym prepares to drain Tamara of her blood to unleash the mask’s energies. After confronting several monsters that guard the dungeons, Conan infiltrates Zym’s followers and watches as Zym puts on the mask, having removed some of Tamara’s blood. He confronts Zym, and the cave where they’re in begins to crumble in the ensuing battle, killing Zym’s followers. Conan is able to release Tamara, and she escapes as he fights Zym. The castle starts to fall, as Marique attacks Tamara. Conan hears Tamara’s scream and attacks Marique, cutting her hand off and Tamara kicks her into a pit, where she gets impaled by a large spike below. Zym comes and, upon finding his daughter’s corpse, he swears revenge upon Conan.

Conan and Tamara become trapped in a unstable bridge as Zym attacks them. He uses the mask’s power to call forth the spirit of his dead wife, Maliva, a powerful sorceress who was executed by the monks from Tamara’s monastery for attempting to unleash occult forces to destroy Hyborea, and Maliva’s spirit begins to possess Tamara. She begs Conan to let her fall, but he refuses, and instead stabs the bridge before jumping to safety with Tamara. The bridge collapses along with Zym. The power-hungry ruler falls to the lava below the immense precipice screaming the name of his wife, implying his demise. The mask shatters upon impact with the ground below.

Conan and Tamara escape, and he returns her to her birthplace, telling her that they’ll meet again. He then returns to his old village and tells his father that he had avenged his death and recovered the sword Zym stole from him, honoring his memory.

Here is the plot synopsis edited down and altered to include only the elements from the original stories:

During the Hyborean Age… sorcerers from Acheron… defeated by the barbarians…

…in a battle against a rival tribe… gives birth to their son, Conan…

Conan grows up to become a skilled, but violent warrior…

20 years later, Conan is a pirate… city of Messantia…

That’s it. Aside from the above references and others highlighted earlier, none of the story, characters, places or events can be found in the original stories. Khalar Zym, Marique, Tamara, Fassir, Artus, Ela-Shan, Lucius, Remo, Ukafa, Akhoun, Cherin, and all other supporting characters are inventions of the filmmakers. (We can infer that Conan had a mother and father, but their names and history is absent in the original stories.) The Monastery, Shaipur Outpost, the Forbidden Forest, Khor Kalba, Skull Cave and Argalon are inventions of the filmmakers. The Mask of Acheron is a creation of the filmmakers, and so, there is no prophecy regarding its reformation.