Thursday, October 13, 2016

Cimmerian Week, part I: The riddle of steel


Blessed with a director, a composer, and a team of designers all operating at the very height of their powers—and blessed further by a cast with all the right skills to pull this story off—Conan the Barbarian set fire to the box office back in '82, and it's no mystery why.

Directed by John Milius
Written by Oliver Stone and John Milius
With Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan), Sandahl Bergman (Valeria), Gerry Lopez (Subotai), Mako Iwamatsu (The Wizard of the Mounds), William Smith (Conan's Father), Nadiuska (Conan's Mother), Max von Sydow (King Osric), Valerie Quenessen (Osric's Daughter, The Princess), Sven-Ole Thorsen (Thorgrim), Ben Davidson (Rexor), and James Earl Jones (Thulsa Doom)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Conan the Barbarian, arriving after a long and fragmented development, was not the very first attempt to bring sword-and-sorcery into the 1980s; and, obviously, its roaring success—$130 million in returns, upon a mere $16 million budget—meant that it was not ever going to be the last.  But despite its many imitators, from the big-budget American studio pictures greenlit in its wake, to the numberless hordes of Eurotrash knock-offs—amongst which even its own sequels must be counted!—Conan has never been displaced as the standard by which its competitors must be judged.  (And we mostly judge them harshly, for this has never been our favorite genre.)

We can say it began with Edward Pressman, who'd acquired the rights to Robert Howard's barbarous warrior, thief, pirate, and king back in the mid-1970s—and who ran his production company to the verge of bankruptcy trying to get a movie about him made.  Eventually, Pressman managed to get a functional script, by no less a figure than Oliver Stone, although this script was estimated to cost at least $40 million to realize, a ludicrous sum that nobody on Earth was willing to pay.  Nevertheless, Pressman was still able to find a director who thought he could make it all work—if only by rewriting Stone's script until there was barely anything left but his name on it.  That director was John Milius.  And this is where a certain producer-of-note stepped in, too—thereby slathering his name all over the gold and the glory alike, as our good friend Dino De Laurentiis was always quite noticeably wont to do.

Welcome back to his wonderful world.

The film itself, however, remained Pressman and especially Milius' creation.  We know Milius as perhaps the most talented paleoconservative who ever managed to get a foothold in Hollywood—aside from his involvement in Apocalypse Now, he was a writer on Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, and the future author of Red Dawn.  It was probably inevitable, then, that Milius would imbue Conan with all the notions he personally held dear.  And so there's that characteristically sober brand of hyper-masculinity; that passionate disdain for externally-imposed rules and norms; and that interest in violence as a form of social commentary.  But, especially, there's that totally foundational idea—that the world is a terrible place, that must be opposed by men (and occasionally women) of strength and integrity, if you want anything good to come out of it at all.

Thus was Milius' temperament simply ideal for just about any barbarian movie—but better yet is exactly how Milius went about crafting this barbarian movie.  Now, firstly, it's surprising enough that Conan comes to us in 2016 as a barbarian movie that can't be meaningfully condemned, not even by the most austere of moral scolds.  (That is, unless you really don't think movies ought to have either nudity or decapitations; but if that's your position, then I don't know how to speak your language in the first place.)  Secondly, and more surprisingly still, Milius set about the task of writing and directing his barbarian flick with an actual degree of subtlety and philosophical remove—although this sort of praise almost sounds backhanded, as if Conan were somehow less interested than its genre-mates in ruthlessly exploiting the collective id of its presumed audience of teenage boys.  And, God knows, that's certainly not true!

So perhaps you'll be kind enough to permit me to tell you of the days of high adventure.  Our narrator sets the scene, returning us to a forgotten era of truly elemental antiquity.  In the wintry north of this old world, there is a village, and here we find our hero, Conan the Cimmerian, in his childish youth.  His father is the village blacksmith; and, naturally, his mother is a model in furs, looking just tremendously out-of-place, in the best-worst tradition of all sword-and-sorcery narratives since the genre was invented.

Well, Conan is soon initiated into the mysteries of life by his father, summed up in the so-called "riddle of steel."  And after a band of ravaging warriors arrive upon Conan's village, this shall be all young Conan retains—the certainty that nothing can be trusted in this world, not people, not animals, and the gods perhaps least of all.  But the strength of a good blade, his father says—that is to be trusted.  Conan, still a boy, can be forgiven for failing to recognize any irony in his father's words, when it's the blacksmith's own strong sword that beheads Conan's mother right before Conan's eyes—and which rather blatantly symbolizes the decades of dissolution that our champion must endure before breaking the mold and becoming his own man.

For now, though, Conan is lashed to the Wheel of Pain along with a dozen other slaves.  The boy grows, as boys do.  But in time, it is Conan alone who pushes the Wheel, his fellow slaves dead and gone.  Now the sheer might of the young man must be recognized—whereupon his masters send him to fight in the gladiatorial arenas for their dark pleasure.  And it is in the pit that Conan discovers a truer version of himself, if not the truest one: the slayer of men.  Granted dubious dignity by his survival within the arena, he finds himself elevated to the status of celebrity.  He is placed under the tutelage of the finest swordsmen; bred like a horse for his progeny; uniquely, he is even taught to read.  It is some years after his transformation into a slightly more cultured kind of barbarian that Conan's master frees him, sending him alone into the wasteland, without ever even telling him precisely why.

...And, if this does not sound anything like a tight narrative to you, then you have identified what turns out to be one of the most compelling things about it, even thought it probably shouldn't be.  Ultimately, a plot does develop—but not till nearly an hour into the proceedings, long after any ordinary motion picture would have stomped one's initial enthusiasm into the dirt.

The actual plot of Conan goes like this: after several more miniature adventures, Conan acquires two fast friends, Subotai and Valeria.  But when they launch a heist against a cult of snake worshipers, Conan recognizes one of the snake sigils within its walls, reminding him that what this movie is supposed to be about is Conan's vengeance.  Soon, despite the reluctance of his comrades, they are tasked by the King of these parts, one Osric, to forcibly return his daughter from the clutches of the snake cult's charismatic master, a monstrous wizard named Thulsa Doom—who, of course, is also the man who once came upon a certain northern village, years ago, and burned it to the ground.

There is, obviously, nothing wrong with that story, once we get around to it: it's a magnificent tale of revenge, made significantly more magnificent by the sublime villain turn at the heart of it.  Doom may not be possessed of a particularly subtle name, but his enigmatic history gives the audience a singular chance to fill in the blanks with all manner of evil deeds and perverse machinations, if only to make sense out of his completely-offscreen rise to power.  It's so intriguing that Doom would almost be good enough even if he wasn't also brought to life by a performance of the first order; but since he is, Doom winds up one of the 80s' most extraordinary malefactors, made all the more wicked and detestable by James Earl Jones' decision to play his sorceror as largely devoid of the usual cackling theatrics.  Instead, Jones gives Doom the most perfect expression of placid serenity imaginable, at least in a movie that's mostly about half-naked men swinging swords either at one another or at giant snakes.  (Meanwhile, the rest of it is about fully-naked men sex-wrestling with naked women.)  But Jones doesn't merely convince you of Doom's vast power—for that is all quite self-evident anyway.  Jones' performance underlines Doom's most important aspect: his apparently sincere belief in his own divine sanction.  And that's what makes him actually a little bit scary.

Insofar as Conan is a very famous film—famous in part for the way it created from the hugely-muscular air one of the most indispensable movie stars we'd ever have—it probably goes completely without saying that Jones is not joined on this rarefied level by anyone else.  (True, Max von Sydow's in this movie, but not so much that you'd notice.)  Instead, the rest of the cast seems to be engaged in a odd game of who can give their line reads the strangest, least-expected spins; although in the case of Mako Iwamatsu's narrator and old wizard, this at least seems intentional.

But this gets us to the hypertrophic heart of Conan, the barbarian himself—Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first signature role.  And let's face facts: he acquits himself with all the nuance and skill you would expect from a man only tenuously fluent in English (and whose idea of yelping in pain is, on occasion, so outright unintentionally hilarious you can't keep a straight face if you tried, and I did).

Nevertheless—and you know this as well as I do—complaining about the way these actors "read the script" is missing a splendid desert for an occasional Tree of Woe.  For Conan is bound to be a man of few words, anyway, as are his companions.  And Milius—whether because he always intended to do so, or whether he saw his actors, and elected to work around their patent limitations—opts to direct large stretches of Conan as something curiously close to an outright silent film.  And it's one stunning silent film, at that, engaged in complex, balletic sequences of suspense and action, always intimately concerned with the physicality of spaces and the people within them.  Milius gets a lot of mileage by tantalizing and teasing us with the way these actors array themselves across the frame, before the first sword is ever swung.

So, despite the many miles Schwarzenegger still had to go before he became anything like a well-rounded actor, you could surely never ask for any better wildling from beyond the wall.  Beyond his sheer credibility as the living, breathing incarnation of a Frank Frazetta painting, he's already mastered a certain facility with conveying emotion purely by way of his physique, making him perhaps the most ideal fit possible for a story of magic and steel like this one.  Lopez and Bergman are doing far better work than their vocal performances might indicate, too: indeed, it wasn't for nothing that all three actors did most of their own stunts.  And Bergman, a trained dancer, is the picture-perfect valkyrie, beautiful and (very) believably strong.  She's also one Milius has the basic decency to frame as the only person in this land who might be Conan's equal.  Finally, and against all the odds, Schwarzenegger and Bergman together manage to make a shockingly heartfelt pair of interlocking Teutons.  And that's a very good thing: for it's the love between Conan and Valeria that serves as this film's soul, in a way that steel alone rather pointedly doesn't.

This hints at Milius' cleverness behind the typewriter.  Conan is not a sentimental film; but its detours into sentiment wind up feeling all the more sincere because they come at such right angles to its stoic beast of a hero.  Take Subotai as an example: he's as abjectly a functional a sidekick as there's ever been—that is, right up until the moment that Milius has him weep for Conan's lost love, because Conan, by his people's code, cannot.  (Likewise, Conan is not a funny film; but when Conan gets high and punches a camel, well, that is comedy—and it's still not as humorous as the film's best laugh-out-loud moment, a simple jump cut from a shot of Conan facing a pack of wild hounds, to a shot of the barbarian striding across the desert in his brand new dog-fur coat.)

And we could get overenthusiastic about Conan's take on religion, if we wanted, reflecting Milius' own militant dislike of people telling him what to believe in.  The villain, after all, is a jumped-up charismatic preacher (or, even more accurately, a countercultural svengali), who's built his empire on the most odious sins.  The supernatural is very real in Conan's world, to be sure—but there's a fascinating cynicism behind its invocation, the suggestion that the absolute best you can ever hope for from heaven is an arbitrary boon, and even then only if you happen to temporarily capture its favor.

But that is backdrop.  It is Milius' cleverness behind the camera that's Conan's real triumph.  And the finest thing Milius ever does here is to place Conan's very simple story—which could have been told in something like half the time, if Milius had wanted—within a form that mimicks, as well as any film ever has, the style and pace of the world's most lavishly-illustrated pulp novel.

Now, it's a phenomenally good-looking movie by any standard.  Conan's production design, by Alien's Ron Cobb, is an obvious marvel, exploiting Spain's rocky countryside to its fullest extent, and serving up all manner of monumental set-pieces, while tending to eschew (as much as possible) the cheesy optical effects of its era—except, of course, when their very unreality is intended to be the point.  John Bloomfield's costumes are both totally of a piece with Cobb's work, and arguably even better, and Duke Callahagn's soft, dusty cinematography keeps up, too.  Let's just say that there are majestic images here.

But the real spirit of the thing lives in the invisible spaces between all those images—a cutting scheme so loose that, sometimes, it only suggests that Milius is here to tell you a story.  The first hour of Conan, especially, is almost exclusively montage, scenes from the life of a barbarian.  Horizontal wipes, possibly a holdover from Star Wars but recalling the turn of an actual page, are Milius' very favorite transition; and dissolves make their force known too.  (Of course, the best piece of editing of all is a simple series of cuts that obliterate twenty whole years in just a moment, hinting at Conan's own oblivion as he comes of age upon that wonderfully-inexplicable Wheel.)  Combine this with the fact that this story is already being told in the past tense, by a narrator who makes it clear from the outset that this is not the last of Conan's many adventures; consider too the coda of the film, the pulp apotheosis of King Conan upon his future throne: "And this story shall also be told."  Altogether, the effect is one of immense and unfathomable distance.

Watching Conan is thus like watching an old legend come blazing back into life, but only in very fragmentary pieces—as if we were discovering this ancient Hyborian saga for ourselves, much like Conan discovers his mighty Atlantean sword, after it has spent countless intervening centuries buried within some nameless, forgotten crypt.  (And the fact that Conan seems so completely integral within itself is one serious irony, when you consider just how brazenly Milius is stealing ideas from everyplace he possibly can, from Japanese jidaigeki to American Westerns to German operas to the Bible itself.  Conan, it turns out, is the most syncretic barbarian myth.)

But here is where Milius finds his most indispensible ally of all, beyond Schwarzenegger, beyond Cobb, beyond editor Tim O'Mera—hell, perhaps beyond even himself.  Yes, you know damned good and well I mean Basil Poledouris, whose score is so totally inseparable from the film's epic pretensions that it is not now possible to say whether Conan is great, or even good, without it.  Personally, I could be convinced that Conan would still be a perfectly enjoyable movie with nothing more than a competent score; but with this score, with Poledouris' score, with a score that cannot be contained within an adjective as useless as "great," Milius' 130 minute film moves like a fleeting dream, each moment as searing as the last.

Obviously, Conan becomes more conventional in its final hour, as it must; after all, Milius' endless ellipsis and mythic impressionism cannot last forever, for this isn't Terry Malick's Conan the Barbarian.  (And yet that first hour is, in all seriousness, kind of like Terry Malick's Conan the Barbarian.)  But even once the plot imposes itself upon the proceedings, it's still Poledouris who drives the sheer urgency of the film, straight through the action overload of its dual climaxes: the barbarian pell-mell at the Battle of the Mounds, followed by the final confrontation with Doom, staged by Milius as a canny hybrid of overwrought grandeur and swift, brutal simplicity.  (And, if it is rather plainly a riff on Milius and Coppola's ending for Apocalypse Now—interestingly, another Milius movie about a mad prophet—well, it's still all the better for it.)

But there truly is a kind of legitimate genius here: when offered Poledouris' once-in-a-lifetime score, Milius bows to it.  Milius' great inspiration was to let the imagery and mood make this movie for him, while he never deigns to get too invested in mere talking and plot, even when his favorite themes are right there on surface to be talked about.

The result is maybe the finest cinematic high fantasy they ever made: rough and sweet in equal measure; stupid and smart at the same damn time; utterly pure in its self-mythologizing intent, yet stained with intellectualism and always deeply, deeply mediated, in very much the same way all our real myths are.  It is, almost without a doubt, the finest high fantasy they ever showed in theaters—the sexless hiking and jewelry-based histrionics of Lord of the Rings leaves me colder each year, and while I'm certainly as partial to Game of Thrones as anyone else, that's just a TV show (and, furthermore, I adore it for almost precisely the opposite reasons I adore this).  So: even if it is mostly just the imagery and mood that Milius offers us here, I counter with this—what imagery! and what mood!

Score:  10/10

Other reviews in this series:
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Conan the Destroyer
Red Sonja
Kull the Conqueror
Conan the Barbarian (2011)  


  1. The only point on which I disagree with this excellent review is that I also love THE LORD OF THE RINGS quite as much as I love CONAN: Fantasy would be infinitely impoverished were it to lack either.

    1. Thanks for the compliment! I don't have anything against The Lord of the Rings movies, I'd even say I like them (though being amongst overindulgent LotR fans, I'm still sort of "off" them), and I was maybe being unnecessarily combative here.