The Legend of Conan: Hopes and Dreams

Well, I’m back.

Having been the castellan of the Conan Movie Blog for a long time, and being somewhat burned out, I was sure I wouldn’t be back, at least not so soon. But lo, Universal and Paradox have come to an agreement, and are looking to release The Legend of Conan for 2014. The 2011 film with Jason Momoa and Conan the Destroyer are being ignored: this is a sequel to Conan the Barbarian and only Conan the Barbarian. I have my reservations, but I refuse to just ignore this. As with the 2011 film, whatever one thinks of the final product, the fact of the matter is Robert E. Howard’s name will be up on the silver screen, and this is a great opportunity to grasp.

So while Waldgeist and myself will work together on keeping everyone updated, for my part, I doubt we’ll be seeing anything near the rigour and density of the news and articles for last time. We’ll certainly keep you all up to date with links, and perhaps a few editorials, but don’t expect any more 20,000 word critiques. This is a continuation of the 1982 Conan: it doesn’t even pretend to be Howard’s Conan in any way except inspiration, so questions of its fidelity to Howard’s work are moot. With the 2011 film, it was supposed to be a fresh start, and it was imperative to separate what was Howard and what wasn’t so people understood what was what. The job is somewhat more difficult considering 1982’s Conan the Barbarian makes the 2011 film look like The Maltese Falcon in terms of fidelity to the source material, and is in fact almost by definition not an adaptation of Howard’s work so much as a sequel to a distinct and separate story and universe.

So what’s happening?

Unlike some of my more optimistic fans, I don’t see any chance of The Legend of Conan being remotely reminiscent of Howard’s Conan – and frankly, I wonder if they should even bother to attempt it. This isn’t Howard’s Conan we’re talking about, so bringing in overtly Howardian elements runs the risk of contradicting Milius’ Conan as established in Conan the Barbarian. In terms of canon for this film, the 1982 film trumps Howard – it has to, if it’s to remain any sense of integrity. Fredrick Malmberg, CEO of Paradox and avowed Howard fan, said this:

“It’s that Nordic Viking mythic guy who has played the role of king, warrior, soldier and mercenary, and who has bedded more women than anyone, nearing the last cycle of his life. He knows he’ll be going to Valhalla, and wants to go out with a good battle.”

Any Conan fan worth his salt knows that Howard’s Conan was no “Nordic Viking,” and he most assuredly wouldn’t be going to Valhalla. That’s the point. Howard’s Conan was not Nordic, nor a Viking – but Milius’ Conan was. Howard’s Conan didn’t know he was going to Valhalla, or any afterlife for that matter – but Milius’ Conan did. Fredrik Malmberg himself certainly knows this: for the past decade Paradox has distanced itself from the 1982 film, so for him to turn around and talk about Conan as a Nordic Viking preparing to meet Crom in Valhalla does not bely ignorance of Howard’s creation – not in the slightest. He is just treating Milius’ Conan as a separate creation from Howard’s – as should we all.

It might sound strange for a Howard fan such as myself to demand that there be less Howardian elements as opposed to more, but that’s because I’m a fan of the 1982 Conan as well, and I believe he’s a sufficiently distinct character to tread his own path across the jewelled thrones of the earth. Counter-intuitive? On the contrary, I think it a necessity. There are certainly aspects of the 1982 film which are complementary to Howard’s Conan: the presence of women with agency, people of colour in major roles (a rarity even in modern fantasy films), and something that’s different to the usual derivative Dungeons & Dragons style are all things that the 1982 film shares with the source material. I’d even say some of the very broadest ideas of Howard’s Conan are retained, in that it has a sword-wielding warrior named Conan who has to deal with the cultural shift from barbarism to civilization in a prehistoric world: it’s just Conan’s journey is completely different in Howard and Milius, as is the treatment of barbarism and civilization in itself.

A middle ground between Conan the Barbarian and Howard’s Conan? Surely such a thing is impossible, impractical, vaguely blasphemous to boot! Yet I think the possibility is there, depending on how pliable the respective universes are in relation to each other. An outright adaptation of “The Hour of the Dragon” or one of the other King Conan tales would be a mistake, in my opinion, though I might be in the minority on this. Sure, you could wave off some of the more egregious issues in the film with a short exchange…

Conan: Know, O Prince; that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of … Hither came I, Conan, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, to tread jewelled thrones of the earth beneath my feet. But now my eyes are dim. Sit on the ground with me, for you are but the leavings of my age. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

Prince: But mighty king, first tell me of your youth. I have heard many differing accounts: one scribe has it that your people were slaughtered by Thulsa Doom on his quest to solve the Riddle of Steel; another supposes that a wizard king enslaved your tribe; yet another claims a sorcerer slew your father in his search for a cursed mask of ancient Acheron…

Conan: (laughs heartily) And so? Next, you’ll tell me a Serpent-Man turned my family to stone and cursed me to play wet-nurse to a trio of tousle-headed whelps! Do not concern yourself with the rumour of eunuchs and gossip of courtesans. I shall tell you the truth, in time. But first…

… But why would you want to? What’s the point of making this story in canon to Conan the Barbarian if you’re going to ignore the basis of its entire mythos? Better to continue and conclude the story told here than try to weld Howard and Milius’ divergent takes together, I think. In any case, that isn’t going to happen, any more than we’re going to get a scene of Arnold throwing away the Atlantean sword, dismissing it as a child’s toy.

While I’m on this, let’s get another thing straight: the fact that Howard wrote stories about Conan as king mean absolutely nothing in regards to this project. I’ve been seeing a lot of comments stating to the effect that Howard’s Conan stories start off with him as an old king, thus suggesting this new project has some sort of relevance to those stories. This is incorrect: Conan was in his mid-forties by the time of “The Hour of the Dragon,” chronologically the last Conan story, and he was most emphatically not dealing with the problems of ageing. Conan’s trials in HotD are varied and complex, but “he’s getting old and can’t do what he used to any more” is not one of them – he’s still in the prime of life at the Battle of Tanasul, he has few problems getting around and fighting, and his mind & body are sharp as ever. So let’s nip this in the bud: Howard never wrote about Conan dealing with old age.

I’m going to forget any notion that this is going to be remotely Howardian, and it’s probably better that way: inviting Howardian elements invites comparison to Howard’s work, and the film can only suffer in that regard. Conan the Conqueror has been compromised by Kull the Conqueror. Crown of Iron, then? I’m not for it, though it has rave reviews from others. While I’m frankly not that interested in whatever story they come up with, there are several things that I hope are retained from the 1982 film purely from a sense of consistency with that film, and a few things that I think the film would do well to add.

What I don’t want is more culling from the yarns. Some might say this is the best and only chance we have to see some of those iconic moments on screen: I say if you’re going to remove those brilliant scenes from their context and strip them of their relevance, then I’d rather they remain unfilmed. The Tree of Woe is as much a source of derision and mockery as it is a highlight of the film; the return of Valeria from death confused as many as it delighted; the tower heist was so removed from its ostensible inspiration it’s barely worth citing; Thulsa Doom and Valeria are so unlike their namesakes they would’ve been better off with entirely new names – and in the process, their inclusions have more or less scuppered adaptations of “A Witch Shall be Born,” “Queen of the Black Coast,” “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Red Nails.”  A scene isn’t great on its own: it’s great because of the context of the story, the pacing, the foreshadowing, the consequences. Lifting the battle with Thak from “Rogues in the House” sure didn’t save Conan the Destroyer. Take inspiration, certainly, but outright lifts without actually adapting the stories themselves? No thanks.

So here are my hopes for the film from the standpoint of a Howard fan who also admires the 1982 film, and wants something that will provide a worthy successor to Milius’ opus while respecting Howard as much as a non-adaptation can.

 Conan’s Age Must Be Acknowledged

Even if Conan was meant to be younger than Arnold was at the time of filming (mid thirties), Arnold could only conceivably play at least a 45-year-old Conan, if enough makeup and trickery is employed: as it is, Arnold’s tough life and political career has left its mark on his face and body, so even a mid-fifties Conan would be pushing it. This cannot be ignored like it was with the clearly older Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, featuring as it did a Dr. Jones in at least his late fifties who could still swing from ropes and partake in elaborate chases without so much as a wheeze. It seems clear that Morgan and company are going this route, so we needn’t worry about a stunt double parade.

The idea of a once-young barbarian dealing with the ravages of time, the frustration of his body failing him, and the twilight of is life is a compelling one. This has been something that’s been talked about since the late ’90s, and given the amount of dunderheaded comments from people who claim Arnold is “too old” to play Conan, perhaps this is just the sort of thing they need.*

Conan Cannot Be the Centre of Action

As Arnold can no longer carry himself in melee combat like he could 30 years ago, the action must be placed on another’s shoulders. This is where Conan’s son tends to come in: he’s essentially “Conan, but younger and more energetic,” and so could easily fulfil the brawny beefcake that a certain dimension of the audience insists upon. Back in the day it was the likes of Dwayne Johnson and Jean-Paul Levesque who vied for the role, and I’m pretty sure some executive is eyeing up Kickinger as we speak, but this would be a good time to give a young up-and-coming action star a chance in the spotlight, a passing of the torch from one of the icons of the eighties and nineties to the new generation.

So who are we talking about? Jason Momoa is sadly unlikely at this point due to the filmmakers’ desire to eschew the 2011 film: same with Leo Howard. Daniel Craig, Gerard Butler, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vin Diesel and Matt Damon are established enough. Newer action heroes like Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pine (what’s with all these Chrises?), Sam Worthingtron and Jeremy Renner already have marquee franchises to their name. There are lots of young, muscular young men who would likely kill to be in Conan – Kellan Lutz, Jared Padalecki, and Tayler Lautner have all been linked to Conan before – and certainly plenty of young female actors too.

Then again, should we be looking for actors? Sure, we could have action movie regulars like Danny Trejo, Dolph Lundgren, Gary Daniels and the like for supporting roles, but the 1982 film was notable for casting body builders and athletes rather than actors for the action-oriented roles. Perhaps drawing from today’s pool of footballers, dancers, wrestlers, strongmen and the like would be a possibility. Of course, that shouldn’t mean a dearth of genuine Thespians: we had James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow in the 1982 film, so hopefully we’ll get some classic players. Preferably ones that haven’t hired themselves out to the degree of Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley.

Conan’s Fighting Style Must Evolve to be Relevant

While Arnold can’t be the anchor for major fight sequences, that most certainly should not mean he stands in the corner twiddling his thumbs: Milius’ Conan has spent much of his life fighting and pushing heavy things, so it would be ludicrous to presume he would keep out of a good scrum. Yet with an artificial hip, a replaced heart valve, a repaired shoulder and countless aches and pains, how could he fight? The obvious answer to me would be that Conan has mastered the arts of the War Masters to the point that he can be deadly with the slightest of movements. It’s no longer necessary for him to charge berserk into the fray, for he can kill with the merest movements. He’s the old karate master who can clear a room full of ninjas with a few brisk movements. Of course, sometimes he can go all out, but generally speaking I see an older Conan fighting with a cool, calculated, disciplined calm – antithetical to Howard’s Conan, but Milius’ Conan has been working towards it all his life. Leave the energetic theatrics to the young ones: Conan’s fighting style should be memorable for different reasons.

It Needs Good Female Characters

Conan has a reputation of being masculine-biased at best and male adolescent at worst, not helped by the many pastiches and comics which perpetuated the Woman as Cheesecake idea. Compared to his contemporaries, Howard was nothing short of revolutionary, practically proto-feminist in many ways: one only needs to read “Sword Woman,” “Blades for France,” “The Shadow of the Vulture,” “Swords of the Northern Sea,” and “The Island of Pirate’s Doom” to see that. Even in the Conan stories, which are actually unusual in the amount of supine slave girls and concubines compared to the rest of his work, we have a pirate queen who is the most infamous plunderer of the age (“Queen of the Black Coast,”) a warrior woman whose legend is sung in ports and taverns throughout the world (“Red Nails”), proud and imperious queens who dominate their kingdoms (“Black Colossus,” “A Witch Shall Be Born,” “The People of the Black Circle”), down to resourceful women who actually save Conan’s life on a few occasions (“Iron Shadows in the Moon,” “The Pool of the Black One,” “The Hour of the Dragon”).

Nonetheless, the 1982 film was notable in having two admirable and proactive females in Conan’s mother and Valeria, women who did not cringe in terror, but took their life in their own hands.Admittedly, both characters suffer from the Women in Refrigerators problem: that their deaths serve primarily to provide character development for the hero, and that they don’t seem to have much character themselves beyond their relationship to the main characters. But even so, Valeria is a memorable fan favourite, and Conan’s mother was particularly iconic despite never speaking a single line.

A new Conan film needs to keep this up. That doesn’t just mean “stick in another Valeria/Red Sonja”: give the queen, sorceress, slave girl, peasant, courtesan or adventurer more to do than fulfil an archetype. Nor do I mean some cheap faux-feminist posturing of a supposed action-heroine who ends up needing rescued all the time, like the unbearable Elizabeth Swan: follow through with the agency. Women make up 50% of a potential audience, and I have to think those women who aren’t already into Conan and similar fiction would appreciate female characters that provided more than eye candy. If Howard could do this in the 1930s with Valeria, Belit, Yasmina, Zenobia, Belesa, Zelata and others then there’s no excuse for a modern Hollywood film to have compelling female characters who aren’t defined by their relationship to Conan.

As a bonus to the writers, see if you can pass the Bechdel Test.

And Good Minority Characters

The 1982 film was notable in its strong minority cast: Conan’s stoic and good-natured ally Subotai was played by the Hawaiian surfer Gerry Lopez; the wily and charismatic Wizard was played by Japanese actor Mako; Thulsa Doom, the compelling main antagonist, was played by the black James Earl Jones. Even Conan the Destroyer carried on this tradition: Grace Jones’ Zula was one of the few things many people actually liked about Conan the Destroyer, being a fierce and strong warrior woman of colour, supported by Wilt Chamberlain’s Bombaata and the returning Mako. Since this is Milius’ Hyborian Age instead of Conan’s, that trend would do well to continue with a significant multicultural cast.

It’s a common criticism of modern fantasy cinema that the cast is full of white Europeans: this presumably stems from the innumerable spawn of The Lord of the Rings who only imitated the surface elements rather than the mythic grandeur, as well as following in the traditionally white male geek community which fostered Dungeons & Dragon and its ilk. The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Pirates of the Caribbean, even Harry Potter are overwhelmingly – if not exclusively – white. The respective fantasies have fairly good reasons for it (The Lord of the Rings is set in a fantastical north-eastern Europe, Narnia is a mirror-analogy to Christian mythology in Britain, Harry Potter is set in Britain, which has a much greater white majority than other western countries, etc) but explanation for why there are so few black, asian or hispanic characters of consequence in one setting doesn’t excuse the fact that there are so few fantasy settings which buck that trend – especially since Hollywood has a history of actively whitewashing such settings. Look at Earthsea, a setting which was explicitly non-white-European, which was populated with blonde blue-eyed white actors: look at Amazons, which was originally going to be based on Charles Saunders’ Dossouye story “Agbewe’s Sword” until he learned that his black warrior-women would be cast with white actors; look at The Last Airbender, where the casting of white actors as quintessentially Asian roles led to the formation of a website tackling this controversy.

Conan, especially Milius’ Conan, is one of the few Sword-and-Sorcery films set in a fantastical land where a varied and colourful cast is not only possible, it’s practically intrinsic to the setting. Howard’s Hyborian Age was already polyglot, with several named black and Asian characters in the stories, both antagonists and allies. There are several stories where Conan is the only white character altogether. Milius’ Conan goes further: not only are there people of all colours, several are main characters – and their presence is justified by virtue of its placement in prehistory. This is a world where a black man can found a cult powerful enough to threaten kingdoms, where Asians can mix freely with Europeans, and no-0ne bats an eyelid.

It’s a perfect opportunity to present one of the best things about the Hyborian Age, Howard’s and Milius’: that it isn’t just a European fantasy-land where non-whites are exotic and mysterious foreigners, it’s a melting pot of all world cultures which have a place in their world. Sure, there’s a veneer of exoticism in the stories set in the Black Kingdoms and Blue East, and Howard’s writing in the 1930s may have considerable issues in regards to race, but Howard at his best presented characters from non-European backgrounds with comparative sympathy, depth and complexity. Likewise, while there are unfortunate connections to fascism via Nietzche and Milius’ own political leanings,  Thulsa Doom, Subotai and Wizard are all-too-rare examples of memorable and important non-white characters in recent fantasy cinema whose presence is neither the result of cynical demographics-chasing or cowardly political correctness, but serve to enrich the setting and make it vibrant and authentic.

Keep the Hyborian Age Consistent

Milius’ Hyborian Age, unlike Howard’s, is predominantly at the Bronze Age level: the most opulent and advanced cities are reminiscent of the Mesopotamian structures of Babylon and Sumeria, and the cities are bustling with all sorts of people on a more even level of cultural development, where steel is a mysterious and valued commodity. The Hyborian Age as conceived by Milius and rendered by William Stout & Ron Cobb is a rougher, ruder time than Howard’s polychronia, and this should be reflected for the sake of internal consistency.

You aren’t going to find Knights of Poitain in gleaming gold-chased plate armour; there will be no hosts of Turanian Archers clad head-to-foot in steel mail and silk and gold; Conan will not strap on gorget, sollerets, jambes, cuisses and visored plumed sallet. This is going to be comic-book Conan, where “heavily armoured” translates to Greek hoplite or Roman legionary, lots of exposed skin on brawny arms, legs and torsos; high fashion will be classically-inspired; cities are composed of one or two huge citadels surrounded by scores of small houses and the occasional minor temple or administrative buildings; armies range in the hundreds, not thousands. No knights, courtiers, sergeants, seneschals, minstrels, barons, counts, high councillors, peers, men-at-arms, arches, spires, doublets, jupons, or anything remotely medieval.

This is another reason I’m against adapting “The Hour of the Dragon” for this film: it’s a novel absolutely steeped in Medieval atmosphere, Arthurian allusions, and evocations of western European legend which form a marked contrast to the ancient powers of Acheron and Stygia, as well as being highly reliant on the battle between feudalism and proto-democracy, a king’s duty to his people, and so forth. Rendering it in an ancient or even classical milieu severely alters that dynamic, just as moving Middle-earth to an Asian setting would alter that tale. Better to make a story suited for the world of Milius, Cobb and Stout.

Push the Boundaries

Few seem to realise how daring the 1982 film was in certain ways, even for today. Prior to 1982, most high fantasy films were either adaptations of fairytales or legends, or gladiator movies. They were straight, fun adventure movies which features muscular men in loincloths throwing heavy things: any philosophical depth or complexity was purely coincidental. John Milius took what could have been just another peplum movie, and tried to make it about something. He infused Nietzchean philosophy with Bushido and Norse lore; he referenced Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Pastrone and Ford; he insisted on a level of verisimilitude that saw every piece of leather or cloth dragged through the desert so it looked sufficiently worn, and took considerable risks with his actors and stuntmen for the sake of catching some of the real fear of injury or death on camera. Back in 1982, there was significant concern about the amount of gore and violence in the film, with fears that much would be cut: strange to think now in the age of mainstream releases that are practically drowning in viscera. And certainly the politics of CtB can be argued as oppositional to the generally liberal left Hollywood (no surprise given the director.)

Some have criticized the film for rising above its station, that Conan is meant to be mindless, dumb fantasy – certainly Roger Ebert thought so – while others say that it’s the philosophical core which makes Conan the Barbarian what it is. In order to be a worthy successor, this film cannot, must not, be Just Another Fantasy Movie. This is a film that needs to be daring in some way: politically, intellectually, cinematically, any way that puts the audience out of its comfort zone. Push the boundaries of what’s acceptable to show on screen, be it for an R-rating or PG-13. Challenge the audience to think about what they’re seeing. Whatever they do, they can’t afford to present a forgettable, mediocre waste of time.

But that’s not to say simply repeating Conan the Barbarian is the way to go: that would be just as staid and worthless, and runs the risk of shallow imitation a la Superman Returns. It’s already going to be difficult going without Poledouris and Mako, whose score and narration helped define 1982’s Conan, and even if John Milius returns to direct, that’s no guarantee either – just look at how Prometheus turned out.

Whatever they decide to do, one thing must be made absolutely crystal clear: this is the sequel to John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. Anything relating to Robert E. Howard’s Conan is purely coincidental. So whenever someone criticizes Fredrik Malmberg for calling Conan a Nordic Viking who believes in Valhalla, remember which Conan he’s talking about. It’s nonsensical to criticize The Legend of Conan for its lack of fidelity to Howard when it is explicitly based on Conan the Barbarian. When someone argues that this is perfectly in keeping with Howard’s creation, or that Conan the Barbarian was accurate to Howard, then is the time for a debate. But Conan, like James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, has a cinematic incarnation with its own universe and rules to follow. Until someone decides to reboot Conan again and actually base it on the stories, the only thing that matters in this film is the 1982 film.

*Seriously, I realise the Internet’s a den of iniquity, but how many people actually don’t remember the end of Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer showing a clearly old king Conan? For Crom’s sake, do they not even read the news items on which they comment, which state directly that Arnold’s playing an older Conan? Sometimes I’m genuinely taken aback by people’s refusal to actually read before they comment.