The Conan and Robert E. Howard Website
Conan the Barbarian
by David C. Smith
(Copyright © 1996 David C. Smith.)
As the webmaster of the Barbarian Keep, I was once asked by a admirer of this site, "If you are a fan of the first Conan movie, why don't you have more information about the film at the Barbarian Keep web site?" My answer was simple: because nearly everything that could be imagined or written on the movie has already been done. There have been tens or hundreds of articles written on the film, and currently there are numerous web sites on the internet that focus exclusively on the Conan movie -- so there seemed little need to create yet another Conan movie site. Paradoxically, there also was a complete void of information on the Conan character as it was originally conceived by Robert E. Howard. So, I decided to stake out my own corner of the internet and dedicate this web site primarily to the original Conan (which is still the best). I couldn't resist, however, to pay a little homage to the movie with my pages and interviews about the swords used in the film, and of course the page of sound bites from the movie. Yet, the fact that I didn't have anything at the Barbarian Keep specifically on the film itself began to nag at me. What I needed was a good review of the film. No, not just a good review, an excellent review.
Presented here is one of the most interesting and in-depth articles ever written on the film, Conan the Barbarian. This article is well researched, informative, and best of all... insightful. Using the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche as the framework for his exploration, David C. Smith exposes the central, overarching themes that has made Conan the Barbarian an enduring classic and one of the best heroic fantasy films yet made.
David C. Smith was born on August 10, 1952, in Youngstown, Ohio. He is the author or coauthor of 18 adventure-fantasy and horror novels. He has also written Understanding English, an English grammar textbook, and many short stories. He and his wife, Janine, live just outside Chicago, Illinois, where Smith works as a medical editor.
This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Bocere, volume 1, number 3 (August 1995) through volume 2, number 1 (April 1996), as a contribution to the Robert E. Howard United Press Association.†
††††† Goldman is, of course, wrong.† If any movie this side of The Birth of a Nation has a subtext and was written to promote that subtext plainly and unequivocally, that movie is certainly Conan the Barbarian, renegade writer-director John Miliusís interpretation of Robert E. Howardís heroic fantasy tales.
††††† Milius very much wanted to make the movie, and he jumped at the chance to direct it when the opportunity presented itself.† He rewrote an original screenplay drafted by Oliver Stone  (in which the action takes place in a post-nuclear holocaust future) and set the story firmly in Howardís own Hyborian Age, and meanwhile brought to the reenvisioned movie the nobility of the samurai bushido code of discipline, duty, and honor and an appreciation of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzscheís late-Romantic era concept of the Łbermensch or overman.† The synthesis works well even though the idea of Conan as fascist strongman is counter to Howardís own political sensibilities.† (Howard was an early critic of the fascism that developed between the wars in Germany and Italy, and he expressed his mistrust of such far-right doctrinism at some length in letters to H. P. Lovecraft, who was initially sympathetic to the national-socialist agenda.† A contrary, independent, and intelligent man, Howard understood immediately that an outlier such as himself would not have been particularly welcome in such lockstep, dull-normal, groupthink societies.)† So unqualified was Miliusís enthusiasm for the project that he was able to stamp the movie with his persona and create an iconography whose influence still reverberates in our popular culture.† The Wind and the Lion, which just as certainly promotes Miliusís pre-Enlightenment values, may be a more polished movie, but the echoes of Conan the Barbarian, its "That which does not kill me makes me stronger" and "Crush your enemies," its lone-gunslinger sympathies and its posturing manliness untouched by irony, have persisted for many more summers than anyone would have thought possible in 1982 when the movie was released.† John Milius caught, and continues to influence, the Zeitgeist.
††††† This may not be surprising, given that Conan came from the man who has proffered us such popular lines as "This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world," "Do you feel lucky, punk?" and "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," and such memorable dialogue as Robert Shawís grim recollection in Jaws of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, which fellow University of Southern California film school chum Steven Spielberg asked Milius to write.† He started out, after earning his degree in English, as a screenwriter and script doctor; his work for Francis Ford Coppola, another USC contemporary, on what would become Apocalypse Now is legendary.† A portent of things to come in Miliusís career was the reaction to his script for Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the story of the notorious frontiersman Liver-Eating Johnson, who waged a one-man war against the Crow after his family had been massacred.† The screenplay was heavily rewritten because director Sidney Pollack was dismayed by the violence in Miliusís original draft.† (Pollack was quoted in 1982 as saying, "[In the Milius script,] Johnsonís reaction when his wife dies is to run out and eat a tree.† That just isnít my style.")† Miliusís directorial debut, Dillinger (1973), accented his signature motifs:† violence, outlaw glory, and a lonerís self-contained code of chivalry and integrity in a world of hypocrisy.† The Wind and the Lion (1975) followed, then Big Wednesday (1978), a heartfelt, strongly biographic story of Southern California surfers on the eve of the escalation of the Vietnam war.
††††† Just because Big Wednesday is a touching piece of Americana and so personal a movie, it is atypical of Milius, who in a 1991 interview recalled with pride that the most memorable compliment paid him was by John Huston, who said of him, "Heís not of this time."† Milius has used to his advantage the opportunities Hollywood has afforded him to speak his own mind relentlessly on film, and seldom has he compromised.† (For writing Dirty Harry, he requested as payment, in addition to his agreed-upon fee, a Purdy shotgun because "I do not consider paper honorable.")† He decided as a young man that he faced two paths and chose to be his own person, "be a bit of a rebel and reject materialism," rather than fall into line with a safe career.† This says much for him, as does his acknowledgment that the filmmakers who came before him--Ford and Huston, Hawks and Kurosawa--"were the guys who had really done it.† We [younger directors] were very derivative."† But those esteemed filmmakers, of course, borrowed from and built upon the work of the first generation of moviemakers.† Milius has consistently paid homage to those craftsmen he respects.† This is as it should be.† In the arts, we stand upon the shoulders of those whoíve come before us, the better to see where we might try going next.
††††† Conan the Barbarian was John Miliusís chance to manage a large-scale, big-budget (for the time--$17 million), world-class motion picture, and he took charge of the situation with relish, remaining as centered as any of his admired Japanese warriors clacking away at kendo practice (although he did suffer a postproduction heart attack, which gives some idea of the strain Milius and everyone else associated with the movie underwent).† Kendo, in fact, has much to do with the attitude of the film.† Milius said in an interview at the time of the movieís release, "The whole idea was that if the actors had a real foundation in kendo, no matter what was thrown at them, they would know how to handle it . . . .† They couldnít make a wrong move; they were always their characters."† He deliberately chose Gerry Lopez, a friend and champion surfer, and dancer Sandahl Bergman for their roles because, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, neither was a veteran performer with a movie star-sized ego to be catered to.† All were athletic, as well--absolutely an essential requirement.
††††† Milius variously coached, coaxed, cajoled, and bullied the three to get from them the performances he wanted.† He drilled them constantly, training them as he had his hunting dogs, so that during filming, "while the camera was running . . . my voice was in the back of their minds."† He wanted them to think as Zen warriors.† "[Arnold] never lost his self-esteem or his ego," Milius said.† "Someone who would have fought me would have lost his ego.† But Arnold used the Oriental approach: ĎI am a river being directed; I must flow where I go.í"† The three spent rigorous months specifically in preparation for the film--kendo practice, horseback riding, dance.† Schwarzenegger, in fact, had been getting ready for the movie off and on since 1978, when he had signed an exclusive contract with producer Ed Pressman that prohibited the bodybuilder from making any other motion picture during the lengthy preproduction period.† Schwarzenegger, Bergman, and Lopez also studied Akira Kurosawaís samurai films; asked in a 1982 interview what had impressed him most about those movies, Schwarzenegger replied, "I learned the expression of serenity in combat."
††††† This is not exactly Robert E. Howardís Conan.† The character created by the young Texan writer is one tough mother, an animal in human form, with the instincts and reflexes of the wild, a shrewd, devious fighting man formed in equal measure by heredity and experience.† He is a superman, but one with a paternity reaching straight back to Beowulf and Enkidu, Siegfried and Attila, Alexander and Genseric.† John Miliusís Conan is a northland barbarian youth reborn with the soul of a samurai warrior.† This works well in the context of Miliusís revision, but it dramatically changes the focus of Conanís warriorhood as it reshapes the essence of the character himself.† Howardís Conan is a brawler and a brute, lucky to be alive, forged by his adventures into a quasiclassical warrior-king; but Miliusís Conan is of a new order altogether.† For the character in Howardís stories, a sword is a tool; in Miliusís film, a sword is the warriorís spirit and is richly symbolic of the warrior as a self-actualizing, self-overcoming new man -- the overman.† In most of Howardís Conan stories, women are prizes or wenches; in Miliusís film, Valeria is the woman of women, special and elevated, the new manís equal, the other half of his soul.† The schooling in the art of sword mastery and the rigorous self-discipline Conan attains in the movie are pure Musashi by way of John Milius, as is the reverance for the sword itself, for steel, their importance taking on a spiritual dimension--weapons "as an expression of the will directed towards a certain end," according to Jung (as quoted by Ania Teillard in Cirlotís study of symbols).† Weapons as extensions of the self, mastery of the self, the overcoming of the self--the will to power.
††††† Which brings us to Nietzsche.
††††† Miliusís Conan is a literal translation of Nietzscheís Łbermensch, the philosopherís personification of the will to power, the expression of human existence superior to that of the conventional, sentimental, bourgeois moral majority (to use a contemporary term) whom Nietzsche held in contempt.† Nietzsche "attacks manís moral principles," William Hubben writes in his survey of modern philosophers.
Or, as Nietzsche himself wrote (in Thus Spake Zarathustra:† Second Part):† "Hungry, violent, lonely, godless:† thus the lion-will wants itself.† Free from the happiness of slaves, redeemed from gods and adorations, fearless and fear-inspiring, great and lonely:† such is the will of the truthful."
††††† Conan the Barbarian is John Miliusís recipe for creating the Łbermensch, and he makes very clear in the heading that opens the movie the secret ingredient required for cooking up a super self-overcomer:† "That which does not kill us makes us stronger," his paraphrase of maxim 8 from Nietzscheís Twilight of the Idols (which, in full, in Kaufmannís translation, is, "Out of lifeís school of war:† What does not destroy me, makes me stronger").† Thus does John Milius marry Nietzscheís dream of the self-actualizing, self-creating overman with the means by which to accomplish this overreaching goal, the self-discipline, the mastered ego, the directed will of the samurai warrior.† This is not Howardís Conan, but it is nonetheless a Conan he could have appreciated and understood.
††††† Despite its modification of Conan into a Nietzschean, Hyborian Age protosamurai, John Miliusís Conan the Barbarian succeeds superbly as Howardian heroic fantasy (and of course as generic sword and sorcery) because Milius himself is thoroughly at home with the pagan worldview of Howardís fiction.† Milius understands the conventions and motifs fundamental to Western heroic mythology; they are, after all, the material from which he has crafted his own screenplays and movies.† He appreciates the sentiments inherent in heroic fantasy:† the keenness of life lived from moment to moment in perilous circumstances; the inherent dignity of the individual who lives life on his own terms; a heart-deep sense of aloneness, and the integrity that comes from it.† And although the element of fantasy was new to Milius with this movie and is a device he has not used since, he was equal to integrating it into the structure of Conan the Barbarian.
††††† In Robert E. Howardís stories, sorcery is the expression of ungoverned or unnatural forces, an affront to be held in check, and Conanís reaction when confronted by sorcery is one natural to the primitive:† run away or get out of the way or, if that is not possible, meet it head on and kill it, or go down trying.† Milius, using sorcery as a dramatic device within the practical restraints of a self-contained motion picture scenario (in contrast with Howardís open-ended series of picaresque short stories), shrewdly portrays Conan and Thulsa Doom not simply as warrior and sorcerer or as hero and villain, not just as created and creator, but as life forms for whom coexistence is manifestly impossible.† By developing a dramatic situation (one with eerie Oedipal undercurrents) in which Thulsa Doom is indirectly responsible for Conanís very existence and thereby, a figurative father, responsible for inviting his own death at the hands of his putative son, Milius makes of Howardís exotic Hyborian milieu a formal and very carefully structured stage for pitting the new order against the old, for presenting Conanís successful revenge as the ascension of Nietzscheís triumphant Łbermensch.
††††† Conan is man--humanity--at the pinnacle, the embodiment of the greatest that can be achieved:† the survival of the fittest, a keen mind in a superlative body, and that body a physical mechanism mastered by and answerable to a supremely trained will.† Thulsa Doom by contrast is the lowest, the animal--indeed, the reptile--that which we have left behind in our rise toward humanness.† He is the gutter; he is a cannibal; he is a shapeshifter, mocking Conan and us with his pretense of being human while relying on attributes that are not skills won by hardship, self-discipline, and a triumphant will but that are simply emanations of his own bestialness, his own reptilianness.† He stares, and his serpentís eyes transfix his victims; no challenge is met, no contest won.† His mind is keen with animal cunning, and he lures his victims, his followers, with the promise of easy answers, mysteries explained by platitudes, the paradoxes of life dismissed as superfluous to the ready-made convenience of his doctrine.† One need not work; one need not master oneself; one need only follow and accept what is, for this is all life has to offer.† And by doing so, one avoids causing trouble that one canít handle.† "People have no grasp of what they do," Thulsa Doom tells Conan, and it is an accusation hurled at a young man who wonít follow and accept, a troublemaker who shows no respect for the sorcerer who has made Conan into what he is.† Actions have consequences, in other words.† To take action means to take responsibility, confront peril, defy failure, rely upon oneself and trust oneself.† Conan can appreciate the simple truth of these things because his life has been a series of arduous drills in the reality of them--and being beaten into a bloody pulp by Doomís personal guards is only the latest consequence in the series.
††††† And Conan understands, too, implicitly if not explicitly, the riddle of steel, the enigma, the paradox that his father had tantalized him with when Conan was very young, the obvious explanation of which Thulsa Doom, his spiritual father, supplies:† "Steel isnít strong, boy.† Flesh is stronger."† He motions to a young woman standing on the cliffside overlooking them, and she steps forward at the command of the sorcerer to fall to her death.† "That is strength, boy!" Thulsa Doom exults.† "That is power!† The strength and power of flesh!† What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?"† In illustration, Doom clenches one of his own hands, just as the reinvigorated Conan himself will do later on the shore of the Vilayet Sea, when he will sense that which the jealous Thulsa Doom can never know:† the will to power of living human flesh.† What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?† The answer is plain:† steel itself is nothing; the sword itself is not powerful; its power comes from the mastered will that directs it.† When did a sword (or a reptile) ever have a will to be mastered?† Only human beings have that strength, not swords, not steel.† The riddle of steel is that, as strong as a sword may be, it is not nearly so strong as a human beingís will to power, and that, without a will, steel is certainly unable to relinquish voluntarily that which it does not have, to sacrifice itself in the service of a creature less than itself.† (The will must be mastered and directed; otherwise, it will turn upon itself.† People have no grasp of what they do.)† Steel isnít strong; flesh is stronger.† Flesh can deny itself; flesh can die; flesh can be killed; but flesh has a will.
††††† Conan the Barbarian is thoroughly suffused with a pagan spirit.† It revels in this paganism, celebrates it with gusto, and explores it with the delighted enthusiasm of--well, of a Conan set free of his chains and able at last to romp and run unfettered by the choking restrictions of authority, manners, politesse, duty--civilization, in a word.† It is John Milius who is enthused; it is Milius romping.† "Howard," he said in an interview at the time of the movieís release, "seemed as highly suspicious of civilization as I am.† You know, people ask me how I could be interested in pagan, Teutonic cultures, and I tell them I cannot help myself--voices sing to me.† I tell them there might be something we can learn from them."† The illusion in the movie of a prehistoric era is complete, conveying the satisfying sense of a re-creation of a bygone time rather than the novel creation of an epoch that did not exist.† Diverse cultures and customs shouldering one another in frontier towns and cosmopolitan cities, witches and subhumans still alive and kicking on the fringes of slowly expanding civilization--Miliusís Hyborian Age, like Howardís, is a dramatic character in its own right, not merely a makeshift backdrop.† Milius and designer Ron Cobb concocted the Hyborian era from scratch.† "We decided to make a picture as though there was a [sic] Hyborian world," Cobb said in an interview in 1982.† "Howard didnít just imagine it.† It was real."
††††† The celebration of paganism that so dismayed some critics is precisely the element that is so alluring about the movie.† Although its sense of rightness or correctness, of truthfulness, is jarring to refined, modern sensibilities, this paganism sounds deep chords of archetypal resonance, of primitive honesty about the world and us.† As Jung wrote:
††††† Every age has its built-in paradigms, its foundation of assumptions, its sacred cows; among the most sacred of cows in our time is the conceit of rationalism, the "culture of abstract intelligence," the presumption that human beings essentially are stable, thinking beings (despite evidence all around that refutes such idealism).† "Rationalism," Ortega y Gasset wrote,
††††† It is this primitive spontaneity that Conan the Barbarian celebrates, and John Milius, with unrestrained bravura, even at times with condescension, reminds us every minute that our self-assured reliance on the "tiny island" of abstract reason is a fiction--reminds us every minute that Ortega y Gassetís perilous "sea of primeval vitality" and Jungís mystical, natural "halo of unconscious associations" define us far better than our presumptuous rationalism does.† Snakes.† Swords.† Sorcerers.† Wolf-witches and lifeís school of war, blood and loss and suffering and death and resurrection, friendship and codes of honor, self-discipline and vows of revenge--this is where we live, this is who we are.† Our conscious rational life is only a small part of us, perhaps the least part, perhaps no more than an affectation, and certainly no more than an adjunct to the will to power.
††††† Not even the gods count for much in such a vitalistic, willful world; in fact, the gods probably do not exist, or if they do, then they are no better than we are:† "Battle pleases you, Crom, so grant me one request.† Grant me revenge.† And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!"† "The old values have lost their force," E. L. Allen has written, discussing Nietzsche.
Which is precisely what Conan does and what he represents in the movie, new values for a Hyborian world fallen into decadence:† Osric the conqueror besotted on his throne, his daughter one with her generation in following a false god.† New values embodied by the new man--or at least time-tested values and virtues, as John Milius presents them.
††††† E. L. Allen is referring specifically to the death of God (as announced by Nietzsche) when he writes that "the supernatural has gone," but he could as well be describing Conanís murdering Thulsa Doom and his freeing Doomís followers from the monsterís seductive hold on them.† "When Doom is undone, itís almost as though he has to do it," John Milius said in an interview in 1982.† "He realizes, just a bit, that heís helping fulfill his own destiny.† That another force must replace him."† He elaborated:
Conan deprives Doomís cult of its security in their false god and deprives himself, as well, of the enemy who has given him his purpose in life.† Now he is staring into the abyss; now he is the rope hanging over the abyss; but now he, the Łbermensch, facing nihilism, facing the nothingness, the emptiness, that results from his defiance, is free to create himself howsoever he will.† He has accomplished that which he as Łbermensch necessarily had to do: fulfill a transvaluation of values (the phrase is Nietzscheís).† "The currency of moral judgment," Allen writes,
††††† And what new values will replace those that have been overthrown?† "[T]he final stage," Allen writes, "is not the self-conscious assertion [ĎI willí]:† it is a new naturalness and spontaneity, to accept and live out oneís life in simplicity and directness."
††††† Simplicity and directness--as concise a description of Conan, Howardís or Miliusís, as one could ask for.
††††† True, too, to its pagan spirit is the manner in which Conan the Barbarian portrays the redemption of the hero at the conclusion of the movie.† "In the classical monomyth," Jewett and Lawrence explain in The American Monomyth,
††††† Conan the Barbarian fulfills this pattern perfectly because Milius has constructed a story firmly grounded in the traditions of Western heroic mythology.† Closure such as this may not seem particularly unconventional or unusual until we reflect upon what has been the typically American pattern of redemptive denouement--Christian, moralistic, and self-righteous, its roots in Victorian-era popular entertainment.† "The [American] redemptive scheme," write Jewett and Lawrence, ". . . has nothing to do with the maturation process.† It fits rather the pattern of selfless crusading to redeem others."† Their definition of redemption is that it is "the decisive rescue of [an] individual or community from the threat of evil"--which momentarily sounds like the plot of Conan the Barbarian except that Conan is not motivated by the moral impulse to free anyone from evil; he is motivated by revenge.† Neither does Miliusís (nor Howardís) Hyborian world resemble the requisite monomythic Eden, a threatened "benign community" rescued from imminent peril not by coming to terms with the matter but rather through the intervention of an outsider who represents order and moral certitude.
††††† On another level, cloying, self-satisfying, personal redemption can be taken, as it frequently was in American big-budget studio dramas of the 1930s and 1940s, to an ultimate "transfiguration," as Ian Hamilton calls it:† "the redemptive personality change, instantaneous, visible, and putatively cleansing for those who get to witness it."† He lays the blame for these "sheer Hollywood, mawkish, melodramatic" scenes on Dudley Nichols, an enormously successful screenwriter of the period and author of scenes such as the climax of The Informer, for which he wrote the script:
††††† Not exactly Conan cutting off the head of a snake with his dadís sword, is it?
††††† Milius may not be treading terribly thin ice with his classically inspired, guilt-free, beyond-good-and-evil ending for Conan the Barbarian, but that ice nevertheless is not as solid as it could be.† Itís the same slippery terrain that Martin Scorcese and David Lynch stand on and on which the late John Cassavetes prowled, that frozen patch of water of the sanctimonious, have-oneís-cake-and-eat-it-too variety that is so commonplace in corporate Hollywood movie scenarios being prepped for the multiplex.† Quentin Tarantino, no stranger himself to playing fast and loose with the rules, explained this built-in hypocrisy in an interview with Dennis Hopper:
††††† Not a single anchor is to be found in Conan the Barbarian, not a one.
††††† John Milius is not a particularly polished film director.† Primarily a writer--he understands the three acts and a conclusion better than most other storytellers claiming the label do--his movies feel a little old fashioned, more solid than fluid, without much of the panache or high gloss usually associated with Hollywood product.† But this tendency to never mind the rough edges or the stagy bits has worked to his advantage because of the virile nature of his movies.† By emphasizing story content and character and not worrying about the seamlessness of the montage, Milius seems to be closer in spirit to international filmmakers, especially those of the generation just before his, than to the flashy auteurs who fabricate smoothly honed Hollywood goods.† Conan the Barbarian is not eye candy, and John Milius is indeed not of his time.† (This is, after all, a writer who resurrected in his screenplay for Conan the World War I battle cry "Do you want to live forever?"--and gave the line to Valeria.)† Milius is a throwback to the directors he admires, John Ford and John Huston and Akira Kurosawa--masculine, literate storytellers and filmmakers who produced reflective movies emphasizing points of view that are cool and sober rather than warm and superficial, challenging rather than comforting.† In their stories, events occur because of an inherent causality that human beings bring with them in their lives, not because an explosion or chase scene is required to keep audience interest from flagging.† "Ford is the consummate filmmaker," Milius said in 1982, "and with Ford, technique is simple.† He tells the story and gets his own personality and views into the film."
††††† Miliusís movies are identifiable by his signature epiphanies, as they have been called--moments of isolated effect or style or display that serve as punctuation marks in his stories, as climaxes to individual sequences, or as cues to developments to come.† Sometimes these epiphanies are forced and artificial, but just as often they are simple, honest, and direct--almost spontaneous.† They are the visual counterparts to Miliusís taglines, his popular one-liners.† (Without much effort, we can imagine Conan holding the edge of his sword to the throat of a defeated antagonist and, contemplating the wretch with more cool than a polar ice cap, saying, "This is a Cimmerian longsword, the most powerful weapon in the world.† So you have to ask yourself, ĎDo I feel lucky today?í† Well, do you, punk?")† Conan the Barbarian is chockful of these epiphanies, right from the start:† Conanís father, the Master, the swordmaker of the Cimmerian village, sitting with his young son on the height of a mountain, explaining that in this world, one can trust neither man nor woman nor beast but--holding up the latest, finest example of his workmanship--"This you can trust."† The boy Conan staring at his motherís hand as she falls dead, beheaded by Thulsa Doom.† Conan the pit-fighter, arms raised in victory, now with "a sense of his own self-worth."† Conan cutting away his chains with the Atlantean sword he has found and, with the tables now turned, cunningly eyeing the wolves that chased him across the steppe.† Conan, revived from near-death and a changed man, as grim and unforgiving as a deathstroke, sharpening his sword at the campfire and giving no reply other than a scowl and the scraping sound of his whetstone to Subotaiís "We kill Thulsa Doom another day, agreed?† Conan?† Agreed?"† That same scowl not long later when Conan, Valeria dead in his arms, looks back in the darkness toward her killer, the unseen Thulsa Doom.† The immolation of Valeria on her funeral pyre, accompanied by Subotaiís "He is Conan, a Cimmerian.† He wonít cry.† So I cry for him." † And, after surviving the Battle of the Mounds, Conan bowing in deep respect, as he did when he was a pit-fighter, to Valeriaís ashes because she returned from the dead to aid him during Conanís showdown with the murderous Rexor.
††††† Other evocative scenes abound.† Because of John Miliusís mastery in highlighting the dramatic moments of even relatively brief sequences, the episodes he adapts from Howard stories are knit well into the fabric of the movieís narrative:† the Wolf Witch sequence, likely derived from a scene in the Bran Mak Morn short story "The Worms of the Earth" (but surely based, as well, on a similar development in Kobayashkiís Kwaidan); the crucifixion on the Tree of Woe, well known from "A Witch Shall Be Born"; the ghostly return of Valeria, based on BÍlitís supernatural reappearance in "Queen of the Black Coast." † Sequences inspired by Japanese movies also succeed:† the resuscitation of the nearly dead Conan by the demon ghosts, based on a similar episode in Kwaidan, and the Battle of the Mounds, a homage to Kurosawaís The Seven Samurai (as, indeed, is the character of the Wizard, to no small degree influenced by Toshiro Mifuneís portrayal in that early Kurosawa masterwork).† Some of the most impressive lines in the movie are those of King Osric, spoken during his interview with the three thieves when he hires them to "steal my daughter back":† "There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a fatherís love for his child."† Impeccably delivered by Max Von Sydow, the words are purely Howardian in spirit and cadence, reminiscent especially of the melancholy opening of "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune":† "Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab.† The gems in the diadem sparkle drearily . . . ." 
††††† In another sequence, a quiet montage presented almost exactly at midpoint in the story, separating what has been from what will be and, for Conan, what he is from what he will become, the warrior rides alone to find and confront Thulsa Doom.† He has made an important decision, although he surely has no choice other than the one he has made.† He is riding to his death, no doubt.† He has left Valeria (pregnant?) and Subotai because they clearly prefer to keep King Osricís jewels and forgo a confrontation with the sorcerer to rescue the princess.† But Conan now requires more of life than material wealth; he is motivated by memories and by an ambition presumably outside his companionsí experience and ken.† A knight errant on a quest for revenge (and, whether or not he realizes it, on a path leading to a "transvaluation of values"), Conan on horseback is an image straight out of the legendary American West--and straight out of the dawn of storytelling.† Unavoidably, he is searching for his grail, looking for his father, seeking the meaning of his life--or at least fulfilling his self-imposed purpose in life.†He is Nietzscheís Łbermensch, the spirit undergoing the three metamorphoses described in Thus Spake Zarathustra:† First Part:† "the spirit becomes a camel; and the camel, a lion; and the lion, finally, a child."
††††† The parallels between this famous passage of Nietzscheís and the general theme of Conan the Barbarian are distinct:† Conanís evolving from a slave, a "beast of burden," into a lion who challenges and defeats the dragon representing "all value of all things"--tradition, the values and sentiments alluring to and held sacred by the "much too many," Doomís followers--then Conanís further development into the child, "forgetting . . . a self-propelled wheel . . . the spirit [that] now wills his own will."† Is it too much to read into Miliusís Conan that the "freedom from his love" means for the character freedom from the parents and tribespeople he remembers, freedom from the disciplining yoke of "thou shalt" that forged him into a supreme warrior, freedom even from Valeria, who would hold him back from his righteous quest?† Certainly Conan is seeking out "his last master . . . for ultimate victory."† Certainly he is creating himself, conquering his own world and willing his own will, when he beheads the Thulsa Doom who beheaded his mother and uses his fatherís sword to do it, to kill the Thulsa Doom who is his spiritual father, who created Conan in every way except literally.† And the sword is broken.† ("This you can trust."† The sword itself is not powerful; its power comes from the mastered will that directs it.)† Conanís last link to what he was and where he came from is broken, and he is indeed free, the new man, the past behind him, ready to utter the sacred "Yes" and move on.† He has honored his father, his actual father, the Master, by avenging his death, but Conan has also slain his father, his spiritual father, Thulsa Doom, and has thus made of himself something unique, something new, a new man and a new type of man--"violent, lonely, godless . . . redeemed . . . fearless and fear-inspiring, great and lonely"--the Łbermensch.
††††† The lion, now reborn and awakened in his own world of his own making, is a child, "innocence and forgetting," first cousin to the archetypal Holy Fool or Wise Fool of folklore, a figure divinely inspired but having little to do with the commonplace affairs that motivate most citizens, the "much too many."† The Wise Fool is in the world but not of it, in Hazlittís well-known phrase.† John Milius in interviews published at the time of the movieís release stressed that he saw Conan as this sort of innocent:† "While he was on the Wheel, he was like a beast who never really knows what is happening to him.† When heís thrown into the pit to fight, heís still very innocent, but he begins to learn . . . .† I tried to make Conan as innocent as possible, continually stress his wonderful naivetť; Conanís a child in a world of savages."† Certainly Milius deliberately portrays the character as progressing from this beast of burden to the lion, disrupter of the status quo.† Ron Cobb said in a 1982 interview that John Milius "is very disillusioned with civilization, and inherently believes that all civilizations are corrupt.† He romantically sees destructive rage as dignified and correct . . . .† And in Conan, he can vent these feelings."
††††† Accompanying the knight-errant sequence is composer Basil Poledourisís sensitive and melancholy "The Search," which well evokes the loneliness of Conanís spiritual quest.† Poledourisís score is critically important to Conan the Barbarian and as inseparable from it as Maurice Jarreís is for Lawrence of Arabia and Sergei Prokovievís for Alexander Nevsky.† From the pounding, elephantine introduction to the subdued, elegaic conclusion, with its reminiscences of Holst and The Firebird-like coda, the music is a sustained series of leitmotivs and thematic developments that echo and enrich the storyís events.† The composer wrote "two hours of music for Conan," he said in an interview in 1982.† "It was always in Johnís mind that Conan would be solid music--much like an opera . . . .† From the first frame of reel one to the end of the Wheel of Pain sequence, somewhere in the middle of reel three, is one long cue without any break.† I was terrified when I first realized that."† Poledouris was intimidated too by the thought of having to equal the music of great composers--Wagner, Prokoviev, Stravinsky, Orff--excerpts from whose works Milius had originally intended to use.† But John Boormanís Excalibur, released while Conan was shooting in Spain, used the same selections from Carmina Burana and Wagnerís Ring cycle that Milius had meant to rely on for the Conan soundtrack.† Poledouris was equal to the challenge, however; Milius, watching the final cut of the movie in Rome, where Poledouris was recording the finished score, told the composer, after seeing the raid on the Cimmerian village with full orchestral accompaniment, "Prokoviev would be proud."
††††† Prokovievís powerful score for Eisensteinís Alexander Nevsky (1938) greatly influenced both Milius and Poledouris, not least in the employment of a chanting chorus.† In Conan, the chorus provides background commentary on Thulsa Doom; the somber choral sections seem to follow the sorcerer and hover near him like ghostly voices of his victims.† When Milius decided not to use sections of Orffís choral cycle Carmina Burana, Poledouris, inspired by the German composerís settings of twenty-four medieval verses, "started looking into a lot of Gregorian chants, and also into some of the Catholic masses.† The secondary theme of Doom is actually the Dies Irae."† Poledouris wrote the lyrics for the choral passages in English; they were then translated into Latin.† "Farewell, skies.† Farewell, snows," intones the chorus during the slaughter of the Cimmerians.† "Farewell, earth.† We are dying; / we are dying for Doom."† "Doom approaches, / bringing the Gift of Fury," announces the chorus as the young Conan watches his motherís severed head fall to the ground.† "Darkness reigns."
††††† As sincerely conceived and executed as Conan the Barbarian is, still, it is not flawless.† John Miliusís sometimes-awkward mise-en-scŤne makes us wish at times that he had asked for one more retake.† Some of the special effects are wanting, particularly the cartoonlike demon ghosts.† And Arnold Schwarzenegger, who seems ideal for the title role, ironically proves to be a detriment rather than an asset in some scenes.† Physically perfect for the role, Schwarzenegger appears so daunting that it strains credibility to see him in situations in which he is overpowered, even by Doomís guards (Ben Davidson and Sven Ole Thorsen), two men as imposing as himself. 
††††† More equivocal are Schwarzeneggerís age and personality.† Following the introductory material, Conan reaches about age 16 or 17 in the movie; but Arnold Schwarzenegger, born in 1947, was approximately twice that age at the time of production. It shows.† Accepting the movieís Conan as an adolescent, especially in those scenes in which Thulsa Doom addresses him as "boy," strongly tests our suspension of disbelief.† Just as ambiguous are Schwarzeneggerís own self-confidence and self-awareness.† The actor is himself so positively motivated, so successful the competitor, entrepreneur, and self-promoter, that the forcefulness of his presence undercuts to some extent the verisimilitude of Conan as an innocent gradually awakening to his inner resources and capabilities.† On the whole, however, Schwarzeneggerís performance is commendable, not least because he appears in nearly every scene and must, if the movie is to succeed, carry the whole story.† Although his previous forays into acting had yielded him general praise for small roles (in the offbeat Stay Hungry, in The Villain, and as bodybuilder Mickey Haggerty in a made-for-television biography of Jayne Mansfield), Conan, tailored for him, was Schwarzeneggerís bid for international stardom and celebrity.† Itís to his and John Miliusís credit that Schwarzeneggerís work overall in the movie is as good as it is.
††††† What hurts the movie more than anything else, however, is that it was cut by approximately twenty minutes after its initial audience previews. † The material snipped out--a line or two here, half a page there--indicates that the full-length directorís cut of Conan the Barbarian was a much more sophisticated movie than the general-release version is.
††††† John Milius wrote three drafts of his screenplay.† The second, filed with the Writers Guild in November 1980, is substantially the movie as it was filmed.† The major differences are that, in the second-draft script, Conan, not the Wizard, narrates the voiceover ; Thorgrim is not present, nor is the bit of business in which he figures at the Battle of the Mounds, his impalement on Conanís spiked, counterweighted contraption, although a character named Yaro, "a huge black priest," fulfills some of what is given to Thorgrim as well as matter scripted for Rexor in the completed movie; and Rexor (the character Milius said he himself most identified with) is named Brak.† Otherwise, the November 1980 draft of Conan the Barbarian is a fairly faithful guide to sequences deleted from the general-release prints.† (In fact, production stills of some of these omitted scenes were published at the time of the movieís release.)
††††† Cut from the opening father-and-son sequence is the Masterís presenting the young Conan with the sword forged during the opening credits.† "Learn the riddle of steel," he tells the boy, "and you wonít need Crom!"† He puts Conanís hand on his and together they hold the weapon.† "Here.† Your sword."† The sword that Thulsa Doom takes, then, is as much Conanís as it was his fatherís.† Thulsa Doom steals Conanís own property, a development that emphasizes the hypocrisy of the cult leader and adds an even more personal dimension to the subtext linking warrior and sorcerer.
††††† Quite a lot of material was clipped from Conan and Subotaiís exploration of Shadizar, including Conanís lopping off the hand of a thief who tries to steal his sword, John Miliusís cameo appearance as a "lizard-on-a-stick" fast-food vendor,  and a street procession of Thulsa Doomís followers, including what would have been the first appearance of the princess:
††††† A few pages later, when Conan and Subotai prepare to climb
the tower of Set, they confront Valeria--whose dialogue identifying herself
was left on the cutting room floor:
With this scene removed, not once in the movie is Valeria identified or addressed by name.
††††† Also cut from their break-in of the tower is an encounter with a three-eyed "hell-thing" that Subotai kills.
††††† Lines trimmed from the thievesí appearance before King Osric portray a political situation more complex and unstable than that indicated in the final cut of the movie:† "Everywhere these evil towers," Osric tells the trio.† "They take our youth and turn them into reptiles, vipers.† My own soldiers dare not stand in their path.† My fiercest warriors turn from duty . . . .† Anyone who stands against them has been murdered."† "Why do you not fear a dagger in your back?" Conan asks him.† The question is prophetic.† Doom means to be rid of King Osric, as indicated by a later, deleted scene:
††††† When Conan is captured by Brak and three of Doomís neanderthal
guards, the vengeful Cimmerian is forced to endure a long speech by the
sorcerer, an address to his followers that is an explicit, Charles Manson-like
bid for power and social upheaval:
††††† These situations place Conanís murder of Thulsa Doom in a far more volatile political environment than that shown in the movie as released, and they anticipate in an oblique way Conanís eventual assumption of a throne of his own, on which he might prove to be a worthier monarch than Osric.
††††† Some cuts, of course, helped rather than hurt the movie.† John Milius said in 1982, "In one scene, Conan killed a couple of women--and we didnít want him to do that because heís a chivalrous fellow.† I took the scene out.† There were a couple of other bits with Zen touches, like where Conan thanks the Wheel of Pain when heís released from it.† It slowed up the film. †In a way, you still get the idea."
††††† Dialogue between Conan and Subotai when the Hyrkanian arrives to
rescue the brutalized warrior from the Tree of Woe was left out, to the
movieís improvement.† Subotai, the ever-hungry thief, canít let the vulture
Conan has killed go to waste:
Itís a witty exchange that helps to define the characters, but cutting directly from Conanís delirious vision of Subotai to the magic ceremony that will revive him maintains the integrity of the implication that Conan has been brought to deathís door because of the torture he has suffered.
††††† Conan, Valeria, and Subotaiís furtive entry into Doomís Mountain
of Power to rescue the princess is a more strenuous and bloody effort
in the second-draft screenplay than is the edited escapade that made it
to the screen.† Once they have covered each other with camouflaging pigment,
they approach Doomís fortress by floating down a river while hugging onto
inflated goatskins.† Caves, tunnels, and a bridge are patrolled by mutants
and neanderthals that must be confronted and dispatched.† (Are these mutants
a story element left over from the Oliver Stone script?)† Conan spies
his fatherís sword hanging on the wall behind Thulsa Doomís throne in
the orgy chamber but is unable to retrieve it during the melee that erupts
when he and the others charge in to rescue the princess.† Miliusís writing
rings with the authenticity of a talent who could write some fine sword-and-sorcery
if he had a mind to:
Conan grabs the princess, who is
given the single pronoun that, in the final cut, is uttered by Rexor;
and her identifying him is because of a very different association from
that of Rexorís:† the princess recognizes the young barbarian from the
street procession in Shadizar:
†††† Backhanding her to knock her senseless so that she wonít
cause further trouble, Conan throws the princess over one shoulder and
escapes with Valeria and Subotai, swords flashing and bowstring snapping
all the way back to the river, where Thulsa Doomís viper arrow strikes
Valeria.† She survives the return trip upstream and dies in Conanís arms
while Subotai maintains a watch on the princess.
††††† The flashback is one of several that Milius indicates in the second-draft
screenplay; all but one, serving as a memory triggered when Conan sees
Thulsa Doomís standard in the well that houses the giant snake in the
Temple of Set, were eliminated from the final release print.† These deletions
are unfortunate.† Despite the convention that flashbacks are best avoided
in cinematic storytelling, their judicious use by thoughtful filmmakers
can add depth and strength to a story.† Milius inserted a number of them
during the Battle of the Mounds,  where they add
a very satisfying dimension of closure to this biography of a vengeful
†††† The conclusion of Conan the Barbarian allowed Milius to employ
the finale he had originally envisioned in his script for Apocalypse
Now, the battle between a modern man and primitive warriors, and the
assassination of an authoritarian degenerate.† "This time I had the chance
to do the ending of Apocalypse Now the way I wanted it," he said
in 1982.† Having prevented Doom from regaining the Princess Yasmina and,
with the help of Subotai and the Wizard, having successfully defeated
the sorcererís small army (and having done it on sacred ground, atop the
ancient burial mounds and among the monumental cromlechs that have stood
since the "days of the titans," warriors and supermen of the dawn of humanity),
Conan has at last cleared a path to the monster against whom he vowed
revenge so long ago.† The grim years have forged Conan into the Łbermensch,
into the new man unlike other men.† He stands on the brink of the future,
his own as well as humanityís.† What has he learned?† Has he truly mastered
himself?† Is his will to power equal to, superior to, the reptilian seductiveness
of the inhuman Thulsa Doom?† And if he slays Doom, what then remains for
him, what meaning, what sort of life?
††††† This is where John Milius ends his movie, his interpretation of
Conan and of Robert E. Howardís visionary Hyborian Age, with the warriorís
vengeance fulfilled and Conan, the new man, the Łbermensch, now
beyond good and evil, in a contemplative posture--a final nod to Howard--as
Thulsa Doomís duped followers awaken from their entranced fascination
and wander away, free.† "What was silent in the father speaks in the son,"
Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zaeathustra:† Second Part.† And:†
"Only where there is life is there also will:† not will to life but--thus
I teach you--will to power...."† Cut was a concluding scene in which Conan
leads the princess back to Shadizar, and never filmed was a quiet epilogue
in which Conan and Subotai make their goodbyes:† "I will see you again,
Conan," Subotai tells him, "when we both hang from the gates of Hell."
††††† Conan the Barbarian is an old-fashioned movie told in a conventional way.† It does not exhibit the manipulation of cinematic devices and audience expectations that since the mid-1970s has progressively been the hallmark of action movies, a reflexive instant gratification that promises audiences everything and delivers it, too.† In an article published shortly before Conan was released in 1982, Stephen Schiff refers to the "repeatable experience" that formed the appeal of genre movies--Westerns, films noir, war pictures, screwball comedies--during the heyday of the Hollywood studios and points out that "true genre movies donít exist anymore" because so-called genre movies produced today are more about a genre as defined in retrospect rather than of a genre:† "Itís a matter of ontology.† When a being is aware of itself, it becomes a different being.† And even though Body Heat is a very good movie, itís not a true film noir because itís too much about the form--as Double Indemnity and D.O.A. and Out of the Past never were and never could be." 
††††† In the 1970s, Schiff says, such directors as Robert Altman and John Miliusís film school contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas "began to use genre as if it were a recombinant nucleic acid--to create new forms."† A "recombinant-genre" movie such as Star Wars
†††† The secret junkyard of postmodernism, that is (the term was not yet commonplace when Schiff wrote his essay).† Postmodernism is concerned with demographics more than it is drama, with form more than function, with the mechanical more than the natural.† It is cynical, relying for its effects on the automatic identification and instant appeal of known quantities, the "junkyard" of images, icons, motifs, and gimmicks that have developed in the kinetic, commercial, American twentieth century. Postmodernism is the sound bite, the bumper sticker, the high concept:† content removed from its context and now accepted in and of itself, one dimensionally. † Postmodernism does not reinterpret; it merely reiterates.† Purveyors (one hesitates to use the word creators) of postmodern entertainment do not as a rule respectfully borrow from and build upon the work of their artistic forebears or stand upon their shoulders; they simply take.† Postmodern narrative is a series of non sequiturs lined up like so many separate squares on a game board.† Cut to the chase.† Go over the top.† Use stick figures who do not grow or mature but who transform.† Astonish with sudden shocks, or persist in ratcheting up precalibrated shocks; do not enlighten with outcomes of gradual revelation.† Above all, be impatient. 
††††† †Schiff was prescient.† His essay was written before MTV signed on via cable television, before our summer entertainment became dominated by big-budget, lighter-than-air action-adventure movies at the metroplex, before word-processing authors of popular fiction became corporate profit centers (just as their stories became assembly-line widgets that either enhanced the bottom line or were dropped to make room for more successful, more appealing products), and long before the personal computer revolution, pushed into fast forward by Bill Gates, digitized everything from payroll checks to the Five-Foot Shelf to pin-ups on the Internet.† Schiff saw that Star Wars itself was the source "of a genre that transcends cinema:† the video game"; little could he know that just on the horizon were new and improved, vastly more sophisticated video games as well as Dungeons and Dragons, a product that begat a whole new sensibility in action-fantasy novels, movies, and games that in turn begat such hybrid, more-context-than-content corporate falderal as the syndicated television programs Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess--recombinant-genre products no doubt designed that way from the first strategy session.
††††† The ease with which images and token concepts are digested and burped back up in our accelerated, manic, postmodern "communications" culture trivializes everything.† As a filmmaker, John Milius is constitutionally incapable of creating such cross-pollinated, live-action cartoons as the Indiana Jones movies or Xena, Warrior Princess.† Conan the Barbarian is indeed a genre movie, albeit of a genre only sporadically represented on the screen until the 1980s and not universally identified as a cinematic genre until then.† It stands on solid storytelling ground and is very different movie from, for example, Return of the Jedi, with which it is more or less contemporaneous but which is little more than a marketing tool posing as a feature film.
††††† Conan the Barbarian was not cast in the same mold as the post-Star Wars recombinant-genre movies have been.† It has no secret junkyard; it is content rather than context; it is old fashioned because John Milius is himself an old-fashioned filmmaker.† He is inspired by storytellers who came before him but he does not steal from them; he takes down carefully from the shelf, blows the dust off, and incorporates, borrowing sensibly and with gratitude.† Conan the Barbarian ushered in or helped to usher in a tidal wave of audience-tested, audience-approved cinematic, computer, and video products--Sword-and-Sorcery Lite, Heroism Lite, Swordplay Lite.† The antics displayed in these no-brainer time-wasters are not Miliusís style.† Compare Conan with the action-fantasy offerings that have been produced since its release (and which have been so powerfully influenced by it), recombinant-genre movies that move but do little else.† They are the effluvia of marketing department strategy sessions; they are corporate products helping to hold the bottom line with their embarrassingly unimaginative hunks du moment, laughable anachronisms, reckless, ninjalike acrobatics, and insipid dialogue.† We can imagine John Milius regarding this parade of imposters and bastard offspring, shaking his head and smiling to himself.† Kids today.† What they donít know.† You think this is good?† You think this is what itís about?† You take a look at The Seven Samurai.† That is strength!† That is power!† The strength and power of the old masters!
††††† Changes are inevitable when fictional cult characters are mainstreamed into the popular culture, taken from their particular media and adapted for others:† witness the periodic incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Zorro, Superman, Batman, Buck Rogers--even Popeye.† John Miliusís Conan is not Howardís Conan, true; yet the directorís translation of the character, albeit done to suit his own agenda, is generally respectful of Howard and is sincerely motivated.† Milius presents us with a tradeoff:† an honest if imprecise, large-scale action-fantasy movie with better production values than might have been hoped for, with the character Conan portrayed ŗ la Milius, as a barbarian but more child, more stranger in a strange land than renegade wolf in manís skin, and destined to become a hero, destined to fulfill a role (and a philosophical argument), rather than presented as an outlander savage carving his way through life as he pleases with no guaranteed outcomes.
††††† John Miliusís Conan has a godlike aura not present and not even hinted at in Howardís fiction.† Miliusís Conan is destined for greatness:† he is the Nietzschean superman with a "secret nobility . . . of an aristocratic elevation."† We watch as this Conan suffers his successive stages of life experience, becoming stronger through each hardship that does not kill him, his learning curve right out there for all of us to see as he gains inner resourcefulness and heightened awareness, transforming from object to subject, from being acted upon to taking action.† Miliusís Conan is closer in conception to the fated heroes of Greek tragedy, the superheroes and gods of Wagner, or even the kings of Shakespeareís history plays, all of whom guess at that which we, observing them, know already:† the outcomes of their fortunes.† Howardís Conan, despite the storiesí pop-exotic milieu, is the archetypal American, full of gumption, restless, wandering, as cynical and knowledgeable, as predatory and deadly as an Indian fighter or gunslinger (with some gusty laughter thrown in), a literally pagan Huck Finn lighting out for the frontier.† Miliusís Conan is European in character, part medieval knight on a quest, part Teutonic warrior (even if schooled in samurai arts), reflecting the rich, violent, hampered, many-fabricked quilt or multifaceted mosaic of a milennium of continental history and culture.† Howardís Conan is a New World individual, a brash commoner; Miliusís, an Old World lord, however unlordly his formative experiences.† Each, however, is heroic and a hero, exhibiting the skills and personality we expect of heroes in the Western tradition, and each inhabiting a universe of conventions we expect in tales of epic fantasy.
††††† Aside from this reinterpretation of the character, however, Conan the Barbarian is successful because it exhibits an internal consistency noticeably forgone in other sword-and-sorcery movies.† Milius and his production crew achieved the most deliberate evocation of heroic fantasy as a genre on its own terms that Hollywood has yet given us.† Three equipoised elements--Conan, the pagan milieu, and the musical score--sustain the movie and each other to provide the internal balance for what is essentially the biography of a personified idea, that of Nietzscheís Łbermensch.† Conan is Miliusís ideal heroic character.† He and his companions--Valeria, Subotai, and the Wizard--are each strong, unique individuals.† They matter.† They operate outside the law (as do most Milius heroes) but they represent personal values, earned through hardship and awareness, that the degraded civilized world scorns.† The milieu, the Hyborian world, poses every unfair advantage to these strong people; it would prefer to chew them up and spit them out, as it has King Osric.† Semicivilized, with pockets of savagery and sorcery giving the lie to its pretensions, and unstable because of Thulsa Doomís political aspirations and the disabling influence of the age- and drink-weakened Osric, Miliusís Hyborian world is Conanís foil.† Osric, another dead father figure for the hero, must hire thieves to do what he himself as king should have done long before:† deal with his enemy face to face, anticipate what was coming and prepare to manage it.† Thulsa Doom is Conanís shadow, what the hero--or Nietzscheís spirit in the desert--must overcome to attain that of which he is capable, his development to the status of overman, superseding all that is in the world he was born into.† The musical score is our guide to and an emotional commentary on these events and characters, unifying the saga, illuminating the stages of the heroís life and struggle, accompanying the operatic storyline in a manner not unlike that of the leitmotivs in Wagnerís Ring cycle.† All these elements contribute to the thematic honesty and internal consistency of Conan the Barbarian, to the movieís folk-epic emphasis on self-reflection, memory, and fatefulness.
††††† "Write with blood," Nietzsche says in Thus Spake Zarathustra:†
First Part, "and you will experience that blood is spirit."† Robert
E. Howard understood the truth inherent in this sentiment; so does John
Milius.† To damn an artist for not doing what he or she never intended
to do is fruitless.† John Milius did not intend to produce Conan the
Barbarian as a letter-perfect (or frame-perfect) rendition of the
Robert E. Howard stories (not that a wholly faithful translation from
one medium to another is possible, anyway).† What he has provided us,
however, is a heroic-fantasy movie whose characters and motivations and
whose milieu were built carefully and thought through thoroughly, as a
good novelist puts a good story together.† Conan does not cheat
us by taking for granted the powerful and fantastic (but easily trivialized)
elements of heroic fantasy; it does not pander to the lowest common denominator
of audience expectations.† With Conan the Barbarian,
John Milius achieved that which less imaginative and less caring moviemakers
have not, that which Howard himself provided with his original short stories:†
heroic fantasy to be taken seriously and regarded respectfully.
††††† 1.† The first screenplay for a proposed Conan movie was in fact written by Roy Thomas, at the request of Ed Summer, during Summerís and producer Ed Pressmanís initial, lengthy negotiations from 1975 to 1977 to secure film rights to the character.
††††† 2.† Actor Sab Shimomo, who dubbed Gerry Lopezís voice in the movie, pronounces the "c" in "Cimmerian" as a soft "s" rather than as a hard "k" sound.† "Cimmeria" in all its inflections, however, should be pronounced with a "k" sound.† The word is spelled with a "k" in Homer, and the historical Cimmerians were known to the Assyrians as Gimirrai.† (Previously, the Cimmerians were regarded by scholars of Scripture as descended from Gomer--"Gomerians.")
††††† 3.† Other elements of the Conan canon in particular and Robert E. Howardís stories in general that were adapted for the movie are Conanís being chased by the wolves and taking refuge in the cave where he finds the Atlantean sword ("The Thing in the Crypt") and, plausibly, from The Hour of the Dragon, "Iíve trusted no one too far, man or woman" (Chapter 6); Conanís slaying the giant serpent (Chapter 17); his disguising himself as a priest of Set to enter the temple (Chapter 18); his encounter with the seductive vampire, Akivasha, who, in a line suggestive of that of the Wolf Witch, tells him, "There is strength in you--great strength . . . ." and who is described by Howard in language that could as well suffice for the noxious Thulsa Doom ("This foul perversion was the truth of everlasting life.") (also Chapter 18); and Conanís sneaky entry into the temple (Chapter 19), which parallels the break-in of the Mountain of Power.† Borrowed from the King Kull stories are the name Thulsa Doom ("Delcardesí Cat") and the concept of a shape-changing serpent-man ("The Shadow Kingdom").† The name Subotai is that of a character in "Red Blades of Black Cathay."
††††† 4.† John Milius said in 1982 that, of Howardís fiction, he likes "the Bran Mak Morn stories.† I was really fascinated with those.† I liked the Bran Mak Morn stories the best.† My favorite Howard story isnít even about Conan.† Itís a King Kull story called ĎBy This Axe I Rule!í† Thatís a great story.† It has some beautiful shadings."
††††† 5.† Although it is convenient to visualize the overman as literally a perfect physical specimen or superman, this is an oversimplification of Nietzscheís concept.† True, the German philosopher championed the pagan ideals of classical Greek culture, but his emphasis was on the new manís intellect and creativity, his autonomous self-creation, his will to power.
††††† 6.† Mike Mayo, in an article published in 1983, wrote, "Violence is not the only thing cut from the American release print of Conan; the European release print is some twenty minutes longer than the truncated American version."
††††† 7.† Mako, who reads these lines in his persona as the Wizard, neglects to supply the verb "came" in the second sentence:† "And onto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia . . . ."† It is possible to interpret the line as without a verb--"And onto this--Conan . . . ."--but Howard, in his The Nemedian Chronicles excerpt, presents the sentence as "Hither came Conan the Cimmerian . . . to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet," and John Milius, in his second-draft screenplay, paraphrases Howard:† "And hither came I, Conan, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth beneath my sandaled feet."
††††† 9.† As Oliver Stone had in his screenplay, Milius in his first-draft script of Conan the Barbarian plotted a large-scale battle for the movieís conclusion.† Ron Cobb said in a 1979 interview:† "The battle scenes that have been structured are massive and sweeping, but John wants an emphasis on Conan as a strategist, working out logistics, luring armies into deathtraps.† At this stage, he is blocking out the battles, and the tactics are very important.† Conan and his freebooters and his Zamoran army are all out-numbered, so he has to be very clever."
††††† 10.† This is precisely what ails lackadaisical or insincere sword-and-sorcery fiction.† As soon as the story becomes an issue more of supplying its required elements rather than discovering or investigating those elements, a matter more of painting by the numbers rather than experiencing what the colors can do, a means more of exploitation than exploration, we are no longer enjoying a genre for its vital, creative possibilities but appreciating it for what it is, for how we have defined it, limited it, domesticated it, ossified it, killed it.† We are nibbling rather than devouring.† We are witnesses rather than participants.† We are following rules rather than making or breaking them.† We are within the closed room of the classical, not out under the open skies of the romantic.
††††† 11. Compare the undemanding, immediate acceptance by popular audiences today of such icons as the Smiley face and Ronald McDonald, or the unquestioning accommodation of plot holes and shallow characterization in a postmodern, popular summer movie such as Independence Day, with the wealth of allusions to Scripture, Shakespeareís plays, Aesopís fables, and Greek and Roman myths, as well as to modified West African folk tales, Scots-Irish ballads and tall tales, and native American stories, to which the forebears of todayís popular audiences responded.† The first are accepted unquestioningly and forgotten in the blink of an eye; the latter inform and instruct as they entertain (and certainly not always with lofty ideals or sanitized morality), and they resonante with a cascade of associations to serve a lifetime.
††††† 12.† It is important to clarify why Robert E. Howardís creating the genre or subgenre of heroic fantasy or sword-and-sorcery does not constitute his merely developing a recombinant-genre form by repackaging the popular story elements of his own time.† Howard incorporated fantasy, horror, adventure, historical, and even mystery fiction elements into his new kind of story (much as H. P. Lovecraft combined traditional horror story elements with scientific rationalism to create what has been called cosmic horror fiction or Gothic science fiction), but "parts of old genres" do not "replace the nuts and bolts of narrative" in Howardís stories.† He could not have successfully marketed such insubstantial work, in any event, given the literacy of the editors and readers of his period.† Just as importantly, the recombinant-genre form of storytelling Schiff identifies could not have come into existence or been accepted wholesale until the last quarter of the twentieth century--that is, not until the elements of genre stories had saturated public consciousness to such a degree that these storiesí icons, devices, and formulas could be offered out of context as self-explanatory images to postliterate audiences.† The actual precursors of postmodernist storytelling are the German Expressionist films of the 1920s--The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Siegfried, Kriemhildís Revenge, Shadows, and others.† In these films, characterization and narrative are minimal or even forgone; image is paramount.† The worlds of these movies, like those of Georges MŤliťs, Ed Wood, and underground experimental filmmakers from Salvador Dali to George Kuchar, exist in their own dreamscapes, far removed from the literal constraints of ordinary time and space that even the weakest of formulaic genre stories still grudgingly accepted.† Like most advances in American popular entertainment in this century, postmodernism is rooted in technologic innovation--movies, videotape cassette players, cable television, personal computers--and emphasizes style over substance just as it emphasizes image over the written word.† Postmodernist trends in print fiction developed once these innovations were under way.
Allen, EL.† From Plato to Nietzsche.† New York, NY:† Fawcett World Library, 1970.
Cirlot, JE.† A Dictionary of Symbols.† New York, NY:† Philosophical Library, 1962.
Conan the Barbarian.† Universal, 1982.† Motion picture.
Goldman, William. †Adventures in the Screen Trade.† New York, NY:† Warner Books, 1983.
Hamilton, Ian.† Writers in Hollywood:† 1915-1951.† New York, NY:† Carroll & Graf, 1990.
Honeycutt, Kirk.† "Milius the Barbarian."† American Film, May 1982.
Hopper, Dennis.† "Blood Lust Snicker Snicker in Wide Screen."† Excerpted in:† "Hollywoodís Fear of Revenge."† Harperís Magazine, August 1994.† Interview with Quentin Tarantino.
Howard, Robert E.† The Hour of the Dragon.† Wagner, Karl E, editor.† New York, NY: GP Putnamís Sons, 1977.
Howard, Robert E.† "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune."† In:† Kull.† Riverdale, NY:† Baen Publishing, 1995.
Howard, Robert E.† "The Nemedian Chronicles."† Quoted in:† Carter, Lin and L Sprague de Camp.† "The Thing in the Crypt."† Foreward.† In:† Howard, Robert E, L Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter.† Conan.† New York, NY:† Lancer Books, 1968.
Hubben, William.† Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka:† Four Prophets of Our Destiny.† New York, NY:† Collier Books, 1966.
Hutchison, David.† "Music for a Barbarian."† Starlog, September 1982.
Jewett, Robert and John Shelton Lawrence.† The American Monomyth.† Garden City, NY:† Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977.
Jung, Carl G.† "Approaching the Unconscious."† In:† Jung, Carl G., editor.† Man and His Symbols.† New York, NY:† Dell, 1968.
Kaufmann, Walter.† The Portable Nietzsche.† New York, NY:† Viking Press, 1968.
Larson, Randall D.† Musique Fantastique:† A Survey of Film Music in the Fantastic Cinema.† Metuchen, NJ:† Scarecrow Press, 1985.
Mayo, Mike.† "ĎEdited for television?í† ĎGlad to hear it!í"† Video/Hi-Fi Buyerís Review, Spring 1983.
Milius, John.† Conan the Barbarian.† Screenplay.† Second draft, November 1980.
Mitchell, Blake and Jim Ferguson.† "Conan:† An Interview with Production Designer Ron Cobb."† Fantastic Films, June 1982.
Naha, Ed.† "Conan the Barbarian."† Starlog, June 1982.
Ortega y Gassett, Jose.† The Modern Theme.† James Cleugh, translator.† New York, NY:† Harper & Row, 1961.
Price, E Hoffman.† Introduction to The Last Celt:† A Bio-Bibliography of Robert Ervin Howard.† Lord, Glenn, editor and compiler.† West Kingston, RI:† Donald M. Grant, 1976.
Rensin, David.† "20 Questions:† John Milius."† Playboy, June 1991.
Sammon, Paul M.† "Cobb the Designer."† Cinefantastique, April 1982.
Sammon, Paul M.† "Cobb the Designer."† Cinefantastique, April 1982.
Sammon, Paul M.† "Conan the Barbarian."† Cinefantastique, May-June 1982.† Movie review.
Sammon, Paul M.† "Filming Robert E. Howardís Sword & Sorcery Epic."† Cinefantastique, April 1982.
Sammon, Paul M.† "Milius the Director."† Cinefantastique, April 1982.
Schiff, Stephen.† "The Repeatable Experience."† Film Comment, March-April 1982.
Steranko, James.† "Conan Speaks, Part 2:† Exclusive Interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger."† Mediascene Preview, June-July 1982.
Steranko, James.† "Conan the Film:† An Exclusive Interview with Art Director Ron Cobb."† Mediascene, July-August 1979.
Steranko, James.† Interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger.† Mediascene Preview, April-May 1982.
Steranko, James.† Interview with John Milius.† Mediascene Preview, June-July 1982.
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