Here’s my real problem with Conan the Barbarian: it’s called Conan the Barbarian. I find this problematic, as the title immediately recalls the John Millius film from 1982, but more importantly, I find the title problematic because the film only barely resembles the literary creation which it purports to adapt. This too reminds me of the 1982 film.
But I was expecting that, and entered the film hoping that it would at least be a fun diversion, like the movies that came in anticipation or in the wake of the Millius Conan -- movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer. In that respect, I think that a lot of people will like this film. It’s gratuitously violent and self-consciously politically incorrect. The film is intermittently silly; so silly, at points, I suspected its tongue firmly planted in somebody else’s cheek.
Conan the Barbarian features a non-plot comprised of premises borrowed from other fantasy films – not even from other fantasy stories or novels. Its narrative events are set-pieces, all. Dialog, what little of it is there, is often badly conceived and delivered worse. Visual elements are lifted whole-sale from other films. Khalar Zym and his daughter Marique, the film’s villains, travel in a boat carried across the land by slaves and elephants, in a similar manner to what Werner Herzog staged without the benefit of cgi in Fitzcarraldo. The Cimmerians have a race where each contestant holds an egg in his mouth and tries to reach the finish line without breaking it, as also seen in the Kevin Reynolds directed Rapa Nui. A forest set carriage chase is set up and plays out rather like a similar chase scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A character is tied to a wheel like the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, again, with similar results.
It’s all familiar. It’s all stuff that people generally like.
Imagine if somebody tried to make a Conan film based on a few plot synopses of Howard’s stories, the knowledge that the character had become a comic-book staple, and a few viewings of the classic with AH-Nold. That’s what this is like in terms of fidelity to the source texts. The less said about the disparity between the literary Conan’s treatment of women with this film’s Conan, the better.
Does this sound less like an actual review – that thing in which I tell you what was in a movie, and then tell you what I thought about it – than it does the ineffectual ranting of a wanky fan? It does. But please understand: I never intended to write a proper review of Conan the Barbarian. I meant to write something like what Theodore Dalrymple did in 2009 on the occasion of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and again in 2010 with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
I intended to write a tribute to the author. It would explain his importance to the fantasy genre, how his life reflects certain aspects of depression era Texas, how he understood something about civilization that was as pertinent in the twentieth century as it is in the twenty-first. And I would illustrate that last point with a quote from Theodore Dalrymple's Our Culture, What’s Left of It: “The fragility of civilization is one of the great lessons of the twentieth century.” I really, really wanted to end with an assurance, as Dalrymple did, that no movie, however bad, could sully the writing of so accomplished an author.
But I can't. The writing may not be sullied, but it does little good when people use a bad film adaptation as evidence for why they shouldn’t bother reading it. I cannot assure anybody that this Conan the Barbarian will not perpetuate stereotypical complaints made about Robert E. Howard's supposed sexism, no matter how different this movie is from his writing, or how different his writing is from those people's assumptions. People will use this film to further push Howard into the ghetto of critical antipathy, labelled, at best, as puerile "for-boys" wish-fulfillment. At worst, that ghetto also bears signs that say "racist" and "misogynist."
Did I like anything about Conan the Barbarian? Yes. I though Jason Momoa did a fine job with a bad script. At some point during the re-writing process, somebody saw fit to sneak in references to actual Robert E. Howard stories. We find out, for instance, that the events of the film happen after the events of “The Tower of the Elephant!” A couple of bowdlerized lines from some of the stories can be heard. And as far as dude-bro entertainment goes, this hits the right notes. As in: there’s blood’n’titties.
Call it something else, fellas. Bronan: As on the Tin. That’s my pick.