This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
So recently I invited Dan and Kyra to come watch the new Conan the Barbarian movie with me, and they agreed because friends don’t let friends go into that sort of situation alone. It gave us a lot to think about and process, and you can rest assured our post-match analysis was pretty animated, but it’s only now that I think I’ve got my thoughts about the film in some sort of logical order.
Spoiler-free summary: it’s so bad that after it was over I went out and immediately bought the blu-ray of the original film so that Arnold Schwarzenegger could take the pain away in glorious high-definition.
But to understand just how much of a failure it is, we need to go right back to the beginning – to the original Dino DeLaurentiis-produced series of Robert E. Howard-themed movies, which spawned a horrifying tidal wave of second-rate imitators. Now, to be fair I’m not averse to 80s barbarian B-movies, but it’s a “so bad it’s good” sort of deal – they’re bizarre, badly acted and bizarrely-costumed cultural wreckage from a particular era and fun to watch when you’re in the mood for something completely fucking laughable, though they’re sufficiently offensive that I wouldn’t blame anyone for reviling them. The new movie is horrendous not just because it fails to replicate the success of the original, but it fails to be entertaining even on the lowest common denominator level of the imitators. Before I get to reviewing the remake, though, I want to give mad love to the original, and give its two sequels a kicking along the way too. Partially because there’s something comforting about shooting fish in a barrel, and partially to put this new failure in context.
In case you didn’t know, by the way, Red Sonja‘s premise and script are based largely on rape. So, Fantasy Rape Watch tag gets ticked, those as are likely to be triggered be warned.
Conan the Barbarian
The original and best cinematic outing for the Cimmerian was, of course, the film that secured Arnie’s transition from bodybuilding icon to lead actor and action hero. It’s also director John Milius’ best film of the 1980s, which sounds like damning with faint praise considering that the competition includes Red Dawn but I don’t mean it that way. Introducing Conan as a youth orphaned when his village was sacked by the bandit forces of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones, enjoying himself immensely), the film rushes through his growth to adulthood after being sold into slavery in the space of about 5 minutes or so. The action kicks off when Conan’s owner, who has used him first as a gladiator and then has toured the East with him as a curiosity, gets drunk and morose one day and decides to release Conan rather than keeping him cooped up. Free for the first time in his adult life, Conan sets forth to avenge himself on Thulsa Doom and, if possible, enrich himself into the bargain.
This proves to be a taller order than expected. Doom has turned his serpentine hand to being a cult leader, the Temple of Set raising its towers in every city in the land, and indoctrinates its members so thoroughly that they would slay their parents, their friends, even themselves if Doom wills it. Even the wise and powerful King Osric (Max von Sydow) is helpless to stop them – not least because his own daughter (Valérie Quennessen) has joined the cult. When Conan and his accomplice Subotai (Gerry Lopez) mount a successful burglary of the local temple – running into and joining forces with fellow warrior-thief Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), who had hit on the same idea – Osric offers them fabulous rewards if they will get his daughter back from the cult. Valeria and Subotai want to cut and run, but Conan is determined to get his revenge – and with their aid and that of a mysterious sorcerer they encounter (Mako) he might just get it.
Given that John Milius is not exactly an ideologically mellow soul – legend has it that John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski is based on him – it’s surprising the extent to which the film offers a range of interpretations. You can read it as a hyper-Republican, hyper-masculine anti-hippie screed, especially considering that many of Doom’s cult seem to dress and act like 60s flower children. On the other hand, I like to interpret it as a tract in support of multiculturalism – granted, from a libertarian-leaning viewpoint, but with a greater degree of tolerance for other cultures and viewpoints than it’s often given credit for. Conan, though his early childhood in a Cimmerian village, is in many ways a citizen of the world – once he becomes a famed gladiator he essentially goes on a world tour, learns combat under teachers in far-flung lands, and eventually becomes prized as much for his command of philosophy as combat. Yes, that philosophy includes the “crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women” scene, but the film goes out of its way to point out that Conan actually becomes literate and studies poetry and philosophy in his spare time.
More than that, once he is free Conan is more than happy to throw in with people from entirely different cultures. Subotai and Conan can sit around the campfire and pass time talking about their gods and getting into good-natured pissing contests, and this is depicted as an excellent model of friendship and mutual understanding: they don’t agree theologically, but they don’t find their disagreement threatening. Conversely, Thulsa Doom imposes a single culture on his followers through his cult, and towards the end of the film declares explicitly that the cult’s goal is to purge all others from the face of the Earth in fire and flame. Now, it’s possible that Milius might have been thinking of VILE LIBERALISM when depicting Doom’s cult, but it is presented in a fuzzy enough way that it could equally be a stand-in for terrifying fundamentalist Christianity, and it’s sufficiently unlike any major real-world religion (its major defining characteristics being torchlight processions, banditry, human sacrifice and snakes) that it could represent any faith or movement which cannot abide the idea that people who do not accept its creed are drawing breath.
This is testament to just how smart the script is, which is probably thanks to the involvement of Oliver Stone in its writing. It has genuine aspirations to being highbrow which at points lends it to becoming needlessly oblique – for example, it took me a couple of viewings to realise that the reason Conan’s mother puts down her sword and allows Thulsa Doom to kill her without a struggle in the opening scenes is because Doom was able to exert his will over her with his hypnotic powers. But by and large, it does well not least because it accomplishes a hell of a lot more through imagery and action than it does through dialogue – and what dialogue exists is endlessly quotable, and if you listen attentively it’s actually much smarter than it’s given credit for. (And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!)
I was also surprised in rewatching it just how excellent Sandahl Bergman’s performance as Valeria is. I’d be willing, in fact, to say that she’s one of the least faily heroines in any 80s action movie. She gets a lot of the best stunts (especially during the burglary of the Tower of Set in which she first encounters Conan and Subotai), and throughout the film it is very clear that she is Conan’s equal in fighting, thieving, boozing and fucking, which more or less covers all of their interactions. Conan’s equal in fighting, thieving, boozing and fucking. Granted, she falls totally in love with Conan to the point where she fights her way back from the afterlife just to save him, but unlike so many action movie love interests she doesn’t fall in love with him just because he saves her life – their whirlwind romance is based on a shared love for breaking into places and stealing heaps of loot, and on shared experiences in doing precisely that. And in fact, she saves his life several times – not least when she berates the spirits of the afterworld to force them to allow Conan to remain in the world of the living – and she never really needs his protection. Her portrayal is not perfect, but it does put most films in the subgenre (such as Red Sonja or The Warrior and the Sorceress) to shame. (That said, women who are not Valeria are exploited like you wouldn’t believe, a blemish on the film which it would be wrong to deny or condone.)
But let’s face it, the main thing you watch Conan for is egregious violence, and the film delivers in spades. Some of the fight sequences are a bit goofy – in particular, the trap that kills one of Thulsa Doom’s main henchmen is gloriously silly – but at the same time others are absolutely fantastic. The raid on Doom’s harem is particularly awesome, not least because it involves great stunts from all the party members and the spectacle of James Earl Jones turning into a snake – which might not help, but doesn’t hurt either, and the special effects involved in the transformation remain wonderfully creepy. As a matter of fact, the portrayal of magic in this film is perhaps the most interesting of any fantasy film; most sequels and imitators would restrict magic to monster-summoning and shooting lightning bolts at people, which is all fine and flashy and exciting but isn’t particularly varied or nuanced. Conan presents a much more low-key vision of magic: the flashiest bit is the aforementioned sequence where Conan is brought back from the brink of death, which is terrifying and dramatic and awesome, whilst Doom’s magic boils down to hypnotism, and snake-related stuff, which manages to walk this fine line between being incredibly goofy and being alien and horrifying.
I’m not going to claim that the film wasn’t conceived as a guy film for guys or that it’s without problems, but it’s the best film of its type by several orders of magnitude and has an iconic status which is difficult to beat. Conan is a film where you can instantly see why it spawned a horde of imitators, and at the same time why none of the imitators really feel like the original. It is, at the end of the day, easy to put a bunch of people in silly costumes and shepherd them through a bunch of fight scenes. (LARPers do this on a regular basis.) It is not especially taxing to create a testosterone-soaked action film packed with ridiculous amounts of violence. It is much more difficult to establish the sort of epic, mythic atmosphere which the film attains. To do so, you need to put a little more thought and creativity into your script and direction than most of the film’s successors were ever able to muster.
Speaking of which….
Conan the Destroyer
I’ll say this for Conan the Destroyer: it gets off to a good start. A credit sequence in which sinister warriors ride forth beneath a blood-red sky to Basil Poledouris’ stirring soundtrack is absolutely the right way to kick the proceedings off. There are, in fact, flickers of the film which could have been popping up here and there over the course of the movie, only to frustratingly slip away when the writer and director screw something up yet again. The original story treatment was apparently written by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, but then completely rewritten by Stanley Mann, to an extent that Thomas and Conway were so annoyed with the changes they adapted their original story into a graphic novel just to get it out there; I have never read the comic in question, but it’d have to go a long way to be worse than the story presented here.
It isn’t helped that the film is amongst the last ones directed by Richard Fleischer. Now, Fleischer was directing movies since before John Milius was born, and his filmography includes the occasional well-regarded gem like Fantastic Voyage or Soylent Green, but I think his involvement is part of why the film fails to recapture the spirit of the original. John Milius and Oliver Stone were part of a new generation of filmmakers who were part of or influenced by the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s spearheaded by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and then brought that sort of treatment to a genre B-movie concept, creating a strange melange of sword and sorcery and Apocalypse Now. Fleischer, conversely, does not continue their attempt to break new ground in fantasy films, but instead creates a flick which in execution isn’t that much different from mediocre sword and sandal movies from prior decades. Far from being an auteur like Milius is (which has its own advantages and problems), Fleischer was a workmanlike B-movie director of the old school, the sort whose talents mainly lay in shooting the script that was given to him in an efficient manner without going over budget, which explains why his output was both very prolific and incredibly inconsistent.
This becomes apparent early on in the film when we are introduced to Malak (Tracey Walter, AKA the spacey mechanic from Repo Man, AKA that guy who looks a lot like J.S. Sebastian from Blade Runner even though it’s a different actor), the new comedy relief character who is thrown in because fantasy films from the sword and sandal era always included a tiresome comic relief character. Malak takes the same thief role that Subotai took in the original film, but whereas Subotai was a thief in the same sense that Conan was – in that he was a person who broke into places and stole stuff but also got into fights with people – Malak is a thief according to the terms of Dungeons & Dragons (as it was played at the time), someone who is handy at lockpicking but isn’t particularly good in a fight unless he’s backstabbing people. The erasure of Subotai is rather galling, and occasionally leads to nonsensical situations: for example, at one point Conan and Malak are riding into the city when Conan notices a camel, who is meant to be the camel that Conan punched out in the first film. It spits at him because Conan the Destroyer is absolutely addicted to moronic comic relief, but not before Malak points it out and mentions that it looks familiar. How in Crom’s name is Malak supposed to recognise that this was the same camel when he wasn’t even there when Conan punched it out?
The plot of Destroyer is fairly simple: Conan and Malak are ambushed by the forces of the evil Queen Tamaris (Sarah Douglas), who reveals that she wants to give them a job – which means that attacking them was a stupid thing to do because hey, what better way to guarantee that they’re going to mistrust you, but I guess not understanding that sort of logic is why I am a petulant reviewer and not an evil Queen. Convincing Conan to take on the job by saying that she can resurrect Valeria if he pulls it off, she reveals that it’s a simple escort quest – Conan and Malak have to accompany Princess Jehnna (Olivia d’Abo) on her coming of age quest to track down the legendary horn of Dagoth, the Dreaming God. Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain), Captain of the Guard, is sent along to make sure there’s no funny business, and naturally several more party members are recruited along the way and it turns out that the evil Queen is, in fact evil and blah blah evil demon-god from dawn of time blah.
Nothing wrong with any of that in principle, but in execution it’s horrendous. Jehnna is a horrifying sexist caricature, Fleischer and Mann deciding that a young woman who has been reared from birth to go on an epic quest would be a whiny, crying little brat who from the beginning is daydreaming about sleeping with Conan. The devotion to crafting the most offensive sexist stereotype is horrifying, and there’s no really compelling reason why it had to be that way beyond a desire to titillate the audience as much as humanly possible. Of course it makes it easier for the evil queen to exert her control over Jehnna if she is kept unworldly and helpless, but why default to the “spoiled bitch” archetype when her naivety could manifest as – to pluck an example out of thin air – wide eyed, uncritical faith in the teachings of Dagoth? Oh, right, because a sexy princess dressed up like a pretty pretty doll is more exciting for the intended audience than a puritanical nun.
So, we’ve got a blushing virgin, we’ve got a sexy witch-queen, what’s needed to add a twist to the otherwise standard angel/whore dichotomy we’ve got going on here? I know! Let’s throw in the only female character of colour of any significance in the film and make her a screaming savage. Said individual is Zula, played by a manic Geace Jones; she’s introduced as a crazed bandit, and her character doesn’t get much development beyond that aside from a horrible comic relief scene where it turns out she’s scared of mice (because merely being racist wasn’t enough for Fleischer and Mann, they had to go for lame 1950s sitcom sexism too). Oh, and her costume has a goofy little tail, so I guess dignity is out of the question this time around.
Despite all this, Jones kicking ass in Barbarian Land is probably the best aspect of the film, mainly because she’s the only person who seems to be having any fun at all. Even though her role doesn’t exactly call on her to act very much, she shows more enthusiasm and energy than anyone else involved in the project, which means that her performance blows everyone else’s off the screen. Early on, the evil Queen prompts Conan into remembering Valeria; Arnie expresses this by staring into the distance as though he were struggling to remember his lines. There’s another bit where Grace and Wilt Chamberlain are wrasslin’ and they’re clearly trying (and failing) to suppress the giggles. Perhaps they were laughing at how bad the fight choreography is; for instance, when Grace springs at Wilt from the back of her horse, why does he drop his sword when if he’d kept hold of it he could have easily cut her down in midair?
But if I start picking at those threads, I’ll never get done. The fact is that the acting and choreography in this movie stinks. Fights lack the punch-to-the-gut rawness of the violence of the first movie, and the actors seem to have been positively encouraged to play their characters as one-dimensional stereotypes. One who suffers particularly badly from this is Mako, whose wizard character is the sole person from the original film aside from Conan to return; whereas he hit an interesting compromise between mysterious and comedic first time around, this time Fleischer and Mann seem to expect him to act as a spare comic relief character, as though one weren’t enough.
The aesthetic presentation of the film is likewise sloppily done, half the time abandoning the iconic look of the first film for a lame fantasy melange, the other half mimicing it without really understanding the thinking behind it. Conan, for example, is in loincloth mode almost constantly, whereas in previous films he would wear armour given the opportunity, but perhaps this is because the other costumes on offer during the film are horribly, horribly lame. (At one point, the Queen is wearing what looks like a squashed bird.) Many of the films are presented with a baffling soft focus of an extent not usually seen outside bad porn movies, possibly to cover up how bad the scenery is – many of the cave interiors are shoddily done and completely fail to convince the viewer that they’re made of anything other than plastic, resembling Games Workshop terrain pieces that haven’t been painted.
But the failure of the film can’t be blamed on lapses into racism or sexism – although there are many – or crappy acting, or the occasionally shonky visual presentation. There are points where despite all of these things the film threatens to become a functional and entertaining barbarian flick – nothing with the gravitas that its predecessor somehow managed to muster, but good fun nonetheless. It succeeds best towards the end, in the final fight with the resurrected Dagoth. To give the special effects people their due, as far as rubber suit monsters go Dagoth (played by an unrecognisable Andre the Giant) is pretty good; the fight sequence itself is fun because more or less all the good-aligned party members get to contribute to Conan’s victory somehow (except Jehnna, which is only to be expected considering Mann’s contemptuous treatment of her thus far), so there is after all some sort of point for all of them being there.
What drives the nail hard into the film’s coffin is the combination of the appalling script and the constant sabotaging of any attempt to establish a fantastic or mythic atmosphere. Although some viewers may be suckered in by the opening scenes into thinking that this might not be too bad, it is clear that there’s little hope of the film coming close to achieving its goals when the party reaches the castle of the sorcerer Thoth-Amon (Pat Roach), who holds the key to opening the way to the Horn of Dagoth. His castle, and the bit where he turns into a dragony thing in order to abduct the princess, look appallingly fake and cartoonish, and once he’s acquired the princess he provides her with an awfully modern looking pillow and duvet for her bedding. There’s then a fight between Conan and a guy in a rubber monster suit so cheap that they didn’t even bother to provide proper coverage for the arms or torso. After that the adventuring party meanders from encounter to encounter, the film barely pausing to explain what is going on before shoving in the next fight or comic relief segment.
As well as being haphazardly structured and possessing no dialogue comparable with the awesome one-liners from the first film, the script also features the occasional honking great plot hole. For example, there’s a part where the Queen’s guards attack the party for no reason I can understand. Conan outright asks “These are the Queen’s guards, why are they attacking us?”, and Stanley Mann can come up with no reasonable answer. It seems that she doesn’t want the party to make it back alive aside from the Princess – but given the dangers that exist in Barbarian Land, wouldn’t it be in the Queen’s interests to just let the party get home safely and then do the Dagoth ritual behind their backs before they realise something’s up? After all, if she weren’t regularly trying to kill them there’d be no reason for them to suspect she was going to sacrifice Jehnna, so she could just kill her whilst the others were sleeping and then Dagoth will have returned and there’d be nothing anyone could do about it.
But above and beyond niggling plot holes, between them the script and Fleischer’s direction conspire to turn the film into an utter farce, mainly because the massive overuse of comic relief. It baffles me how a director such as Fleischer, with decades of experience under his belt, could have misused comic relief in such a way – unless he was just doing what the producers were asking of him and they intentionally wanted a light-hearted comedy as opposed to anything resembling the previous film. As I understand it, the point of comic relief in a film which is otherwise non-comedic – the reason, in fact, it is called “comic relief” as opposed to just “comedy” – is that it’s a funny intermission between serious stuff. For large sections of Conan the Destroyer, the film just throws comedic scene after comedic scene at the audience to an extent that wound test anyone’s patience. The inclusion of Malak as a comic relief character (and the redundant conversion of the wizard to another such character) seems especially baffling when more or less every character involved in this shambles is fodder for comic relief at one point or another.
The bit where the party members try to explain sex to Jehnna is bad enough, but the worst part of the film is the drunken campfire sequence, which consists of horrible, lame, offensive jokes strung together one after the other until the audience just wishes everyone involved would die. The nadir of this scene is the bit where Malak starts applying healing ointment to Grace Jones’ inner thigh and starts moving his hand further and further up, though at least once she realises what he’s up to she rips her throat out with her teeth and tosses his lifeless corpse onto the campfire, the other party members roaring with approval before riding forth on flaming steeds under a blood-red sky to bring terror and destruction to the countryside.
No, wait, that’s not what actually happened. It’s just what I wished would happen. Grace Jones tells Malak to fuck off, and he does. And the scene drags on, much as the film drags on: interminably, with jokes which make you want to punch the writer every single time he tries to go for the laughs. I can only conclude the film took this bizarre direction, which does not even attempt to follow on from the original, as part of a misguided attempt to produce a tamer film which would get a less harsh certification from the censors and thus do better at the box office, but the horrible result is the worst of both worlds: a film could neither satisfy the original movie’s audience nor win over a new one.
You know you’re in for a bumpy ride when the opening of a film has clearly been hacked about and edited and some explanatory narration is jammed in to cover the material that’s been skipped over. In this case, returning director Richard Fleischer (working from a script by Clive Exton and George Macdonald Fraser, of all people) tosses in the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz in a particularly Wild at Heart move to narrate the first scene in order to trim back the trauma and rape that starts off the story – but though said trauma and rape is still present and clips of it are shown all this really achieves is trimming down the running time.
Anyway, apparently there’s this evil Queen called Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) who, when she’s not seeking occult power in order to take over the world, likes to spirit away random peasant girls to stock her harem with. “Disgusted”, Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) refused Gedren’s advances, so Gedren burned down Sonja’s house, killed her family, and had her soldiers rape Sonja. The Good Witch popped down from Oz to daintily prod Sonja on the head with her sword, which magically gives her super swordsmanship powers. This part is completely baffling, since Sonja clearly goes out and gets training later on anyway, and there are plenty of women who are capable fighters elsewhere who can’t all have been visited by the good fairy – including Sonja’s sister – so why Sonja needs a special blessing in order to get good at fighting is absolutely beyond me.
Whilst Sonja is off getting super sword powers by default, Gedren raids a nunnery wherein is kept the magic talisman with which the Gods created the world, and which in the wrong hands could destroy the entire world. The nuns are planning on sealing the thing away in eternal darkness so that it will be starved of the light that powers it and eventually become inert, so obviously Gedren massacres the nuns (who turn out to be sword fighty nuns who are actually reasonably good in a fight – dunno whether this is down to training or because a nice fairy visited them) and steals the talisman. The only nun who escapes turns out to be Sonja’s sister Varna (Janet Agren), and she manages to get a warning to her with the help of the heroic Lord Kalidor, who is played by Arnie. Schwarzenegger didn’t want to play Conan this time around, so instead the writers give him a character who behaves more or less exactly the same as Conan except he doesn’t have his desire for Valeria and a kingdom of his own to make him interesting and he wears a shirt. Anyway, Kalidor tracks down Sonja and takes her to where Varna is dying underneath a giant yak; with her dying breath, Varna urges Sonja to go reclaim the talisman. Sonja wants to go off and do it on her own, Kalidor insists on following on after her despite her requests not to. Guess who gets his way?
The problem with any Red Sonja adaptation is that the character’s based on an entirely misogynistic premise – she’s sworn to only make sexytimes with a man who’ll defeat her in combat, as though “able and willing to punch me in the face in order to get what he wants” were sensible criteria for choosing a partner. The script attempts to alleviate this issue through a number of means, all of which are mildly faily. Apparently, only women can touch the god-orb, an utterly pointless fact which never becomes relevant and which I assume was thrown in as some sort of lame attempt at a quasi-feminist allegory, though what point they are trying to make there eludes me unless it’s some sort of women = mothers = creators nonsense. But beyond token gestures such as that, the filmmakers seem determined to rob Sonja of whatever agency they choose to give her. There’s all the rape, of course. As well as being raped in a flashback at the start, Sonja is threatened with rape at other points in the film – for instance, the fearsome Brytag (Pat Roach) is some sort of bandit who controls the way through a particular mountain pass or something, and demands his toll in rape dollars. In addition to this, until she decides to travel with him Sonja’s adventures are regularly disrupted by Kalidor popping up in order to fight her battles for her, and eventually he gets around her oath by challenging her to a duel whilst pointing out that he’s sworn to give himself only to the woman who defeats him in battle (so whoever loses, they both win). So essentially, the film is all about how Kalidor knows best at more or less every turn and Sonja just needs to get over this whole “independent thought” kick she’s on and just do what he says. Niiiiice.
Beyond the axiomatic misogyny, the script is also incredibly mediocre, and at several junctures is just plain bad. Gedren’s motivations with the talisman are absolutely baffling. Once she’s stolen it she keeps it in a room full of candles to crank the power up to 11, not caring that this will result in the world being destroyed to… really little benefit to her. It’s not as though she gets much power or benefit from it being there, it doesn’t let her cast spells or do magic, it just sits there destroying the world by its very presence whilst she cackles over it. It’s implied that she uses the talisman’s power to lash cities with storms, which aids her forces in invading and sacking the place, but since the budget is entirely too modest to show her actually using the talisman for this purpose it all happens off-screen, so the talisman never displays any on-screen utility.
As part of the apparent attempt to make Howardian barbarian flicks kid-friendly, the writers throw in Prince Tarn, ruler of the first city to get blasted with magic off-screen, who’s a horrible, spoiled little brat who constantly belittles and abuses his ever-loyal servant Falkon (Paul L. Smith). This, I imagine, is supposed to be comedic, and of course allows for a theoretically heartwarming reversal when he learns to have something resembling gratitude, but child actor Ernie Reyes Jr. clearly enjoys shouting abuse at adults without being told off for it entirely too much because he just ends up being profoundly irritating. Normally I’d balk at dialogue like “put him over your knee and beat some manners into him”, but in Prince Tarn’s case I’m more than happy to make an exception.
As far as everyone else’s performances go, Ronald “I was the Gestapo agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark” Lacey is a lot of fun as Gedren’s right-hand man Ikol, and Sandahl Bergman as Gedren herself is probably the best thing about the film – I don’t think either she or Sonja fights in an at all realistic or sensible way in their duel at the climax, but Gedren’s the one who looks like she knows what she’s doing. Bergman was actually offered the part of Sonja but rejected it because she thought Gedren would be more fun, and she certainly enjoys the opportunity to indulge in some scenery-chewing villainy. I despair of the whole “homosexuals will try to force you to have horrible, beastly homosex with them and will kill your family if you refuse” deal, but if you took that out and gave her a plan that made sense Gedren would be an awesome villain; as it is, she’s hamstrung by the nonsensical script.
The rest of the cast struggles. Arnold would clearly rather be making anything other than another sword and sorcery B-movie, whilst Nielsen had no screen experience prior to making this movie and dear god it shows; the fight scenes involving her are stiff and clumsy. Everyone else is cast in absolutely two-dimensional stock roles, offering them no real scope for doing anything resembling acting in the first place.
Although there’s the occasional blunder with the scenery – the “secret door” in the nunnery was clearly made of polystyrene or something – the look of the film by and large is much better than Conan the Destroyer, Fleischer realising that not having a coherent aesthetic was really damaging to that film. The costuming is much better – Gedren, in particular, actually dresses like a warrior queen instead of flouncing around in lingerie like Tamaris in Destroyer – and the landscapes and scenery is generally decent and at points is proper awesome. For instance, there’s an enormous chasm bridged by the skeleton of an enormous horned beast, which along with the giant yak is a really nice “you’re not in Kansas any more, viewer” moment. The backing music, however, is less interesting – rather than getting Basil Poledouris in to replicate his excellent work with the Conan films, DeLaurentiis got Ennio Morricone to phone something in.
If it weren’t for the rape, misogyny and homophobia, Red Sonja would simply be a mediocre, forgettable mess, the sort of film that gets made when nobody involved feels especially inclined to make an effort. I guess this means that if you’re a big old gay-hating sexist Red Sonja is a better film than Conan the Destroyer, whereas if you’re more of a racist sexist then you’ll probably prefer Destroyer, but as it is I don’t feel particularly charitable towards either of them. The best thing about Red Sonja, aside from Sandahl Bergman doing the warrior-queen in sensible armour schtick, is the fact that it bombed at the box office, convincing DeLaurentiis not to beat the Howard dead horse any more.
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
The Conan reboot opens with the same premise as the first film. Well, actually it opens with us learning that in Cimmeria it’s not only entirely OK for heavily pregnant women to ride forth onto the battlefield – in special maternity armour, no less – apparently you can perform a makeshift Caesarian birth right there on the battlefield and none of your enemies will try to stab you in the back whilst you’re doing so. Anyway, Conan’s dad Corin (Ron Perlman) lifts the baby aloft on the battlefield and roars, heralding a transition to some 14 years in the future. (Large gaps in time are usually heralded in this film by someone holding something aloft and roaring.)
So: Cimmerian village, raiders, remaining parent killed. Those are the only three major points that need to be conveyed during Conan’s childhood, but that doesn’t stop it from taking far longer than it needs to; the childhood sequence is padded out with a bit in which the 14 year old Conan (Leo Howard) competes with the other boys to see which of them will be picked to join the warriors that year (apparently only one per year makes the grade… which isn’t a policy likely to lead to enormous barbarian armies of the sort they apparently regularly field, but never mind). Specifically, he runs in an egg-and-spoon race with them, only they have not invented spoons, so the lads all have to carry the eggs in their mouths and are disqualified if their eggs break. Obviously, only Conan succeeds, stopping along the way to kill an ambushing party of four grunting punks in assless chaps. Yes, really. It’s a relief when the raiders finally arrive.
This time, the raiders’ leader, Khalar Zym (played by Stephen Lang, and referred to as “Zym” often enough in the film that I started to involuntarily think of the guy as Invader Zim), is after a piece of a bone mask made of the skulls of ancient kings, that was shattered years ago by the barbarian hordes that tore down the empire of the necromancers. The pieces were divided amongst the victorious clans to prevent them ever being brought together again, due to the godlike power imparted by the mask. Presumably, there’s some sort of carefully-considered explanation as to why it was possible for them to shatter the mask into seven pieces but not possible to just grind the pieces into dust which was cut from the movie due to time constraints, because clearly scriptwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood were far too canny to simply leave this contradiction standing. Anyway, the last piece they need happens to be in Conan’s dad’s forge, so they go in, get it, and set up a convoluted deathtrap where both Corin and Conan are stuck under a crucible of boiling metal suspended from the ceiling which they have to hold in place by tugging on chains attached to it, and if one of them stops pulling the other one will die a horrible death.
Obviously, Ron orders Conan to let go and gives his chain a mighty tug, escaping from the movie with dignity and paycheque intact. Conan picks up one of the nearby swords, holds it aloft, and roars, signalling a transition to the future, when the adult Conan (Jason “I made this film during my lunch breaks whilst making Game of Thrones” Momoa) and his buddy Artus (Nonso Anozie) are travelling around raiding slaver ports and incidentally keeping an eye out for the people who took down his village. Eventually he discovers a lead, but in chasing it up discovers that Invader Zim – and his witchy daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) – need the blood of a direct descendant of the necromancer-emperors to ritually reawaken the mask, and the last descendant, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), needs his help.
Now, let’s talk about Tamara, because it’s here where a big dose of horrifying failure sets in – the whole sexism thing is, in fact, an area where the original film just plain did better than this one. Tamara starts off as an interesting character. She lives in a monastery (and describes herself as a monk, not a nun), but apparently her monastic order doesn’t adhere to a theology which gives her many qualms about getting involved in violence. When the monastery is attacked by Invader Zim’s forces, granted, she’s told to get into a carriage and ride straight to her homeland, but when things start going awry during the carriage ride her first instinct isn’t to hide under the seat, it’s to pull out a knife and make ready to stab the first fucker that touches her. During the subsequent chase sequence, she takes control of the carriage, then jettisons the carriage to do some chariot riding, then mounts one of the horses and makes off on that, and in general does enough stunt work to establish that she’s competent to handle herself in a crisis and should be able to hold her own in combat. The film hits a more or less perfect balance between showing that she’s caught up over her depth in a situation too big for her to handle alone, making her alliance with Conan necessary, whilst and at the same time making sure that she doesn’t come across as being utterly helpless and pathetic.
Then when one of Zim’s goons rides up Conan outright declares that Tamara isn’t Zim’s woman, she’s his. The next scene, a night shot, opens with a long shot of a campfire at night. The first line is Tamara saying “Why do I have to be tied up?” with such an unflustered and deadpan delivery that Dan, Kyra and I laughed for a good minute or two and probably pissed off our neighbours in the cinema horribly, but this sets a pattern for how the rest of the film pans out: Tamara enjoys periods of freedom of varying length, interspersed with titillating bondage situations in which she ends up basically helpless, whilst all the while Conan claims to care about her whilst at the same time regularly belittling her. At one point, she strolls out onto the deck of Artus’ ship wearing a perfectly reasonable costume which covers most-to-all of the flesh you’d expect regular everyday working clothes to cover. Conan declares that she looks like a slut and demands that she put on the (mildly more titillating) leather armour instead. And, of course, the climactic battle includes a sequence in which Invader Zim and Conan fight on top of a wheel to which she is bound. This is arguably true to the original stories and the Weird Tales covers that promoted them – the Tales audience loved them some bondage and Howard was only to happy to check that box if it’d sell a story – but it’s undeniably orders of magnitude more degrading than more or less anything that happens in the first movie.
The climax of the film follows the grand old 80s barbarian flick tradition (as espoused by more or less every barbarian film that came out following the original Conan) of making absolutely no fucking sense. Tamara gets captured because when Conan went off on his own to kill Zim and left her behind on the ship Artus let her go ashore, without an escort (despite the fact that she’s being hunted by Zim’s men), so that she can catch up with Conan and they can have the film’s sole sex scene in some random cottage that they just kind of stumble across, and then she can head back to the ship, again without an escort, at which point she is captured. (Conan works out what happened when he finds one of Marique’s steel claws that she wears because it’s a totally cool and original and not something you can see at any goth nightclub… why she’d discard it there in the first place is left as an exercise for the viewer.) Then Zim and Marique hold Tamara captive for a bit in Zim’s penthouse apartment atop his tower of doom, during which Tamara looks absolutely bored whilst Marique makes clumsy small talk, and Conan and a thief ally of his break in to work their way up to the penthouse. One overlong fight with an octopus later, and they end up stood at the penthouse watching Zim, daughter and Tamara with attendant cultists heading up to a big old cave shaped like a skull where the actual sacrifice is going to take place, making the whole break-in sequence – which constitutes something like twenty to thirty minutes of the film – a spectacularly pointless bit of padding.
Oh, but it gets better friends. See, at some point in the fight Tamara gets free and she ends up running around in the dungeon that was for some reason built under Skull Cave but over the volcano which is beneath Skull Cave, and she gets into a fight with Marique. Chance for her to do something of significance? No, not really, she ends up needing Conan to come help her out, her most game-changing contribution to the fight being prodding Marique off a cliff after Conan’s already hacked Marique’s hand off. So, in conclusion, having established Tamara as a viable and interesting character, the film does its level best to sideline her as much as possible except when she’s necessary to dangle as the McGuffin to drive the plot, which has something to do with Zim reactivating the mask and then using its dark necromantic powers to bring back his dead wife’s spirit and make her possess Tamara so that she can teach him the dark secrets of necromancy that he presumably already knows because otherwise how could he make the mask work.
By the way, in case you were wondering why Zim didn’t just get his witchy daughter to learn the dark secrets of necromancy – secrets she declares are festering within her dark soul as part of her inheritance from her mother and are totally within her power to impart to him – it’s because his daughter is really creepy about it and imparts the scene in which she raises the point with an utterly repulsive incest-vibe, so Zim’s kind of obliged to say “No, take your succulent and pouty lips away, only my actual wife will do.”
The Conan remake was directed by Marcus Nispel, a name which I thought was familiar before I watched the movie – but it was only afterwards that I looked him up on Wikipedia and found that he directed Pathfinder, one of the most boring pseudohistorical action flicks I’ve ever suffered through. This explains why the direction of this remake is so appallingly wretched. Nispel worships the original film to the point where he references the classic “molten steel flowing into a mould for a sword” sequence from the original’s title credits multiple times over the course of this one. The hilt decoration on Conan’s father’s sword is almost exactly like the one on the sword forged at the start of said film. There are references to “the mystery of steel” – not the Riddle of Steel, then Oliver Stone might ask for royalties. There’s the whole “village raid, raider leader becomes powerful political/religious figure, Conan tracks him down after he grows up” plot point which is essentially cribbed from the first movie, not from Howard.
This is not to say Howard is abandoned, of course – there’s the occasional bit where Conan does something kind of extreme and amoral – Howard fans tend to characterise the original tales as being amoral because whenever Howard’s personal mortality expresses itself in the tales the results are usually reprehensible – and dialogue concerning Conan’s past adventures with Artus includes nods to stories like The Tower of the Elephant. The problem is that beyond mimicing the trappings of the original film and making regular Howard references the film brings nothing new to the table that it didn’t crib from lesser barbarian flicks.
One of many examples Nispel at once trying to emulate aspects of the original and yet at the same time missing the point is the use of symbols; Invader Zim’s people use depictions of the tentacular death mask of death as a symbol much as Thulsa Doom’s raiders use his two-headed snake motif, but whereas in the original this was just to provide Doom with a serpentine symbol Conan could use to track him down, here it is the symbol of the very source of Zim’s power – the magic tentacle mask.
Except, of course, when it is used by completely unrelated people for no good reason. Remember that bit where Conan first encounters Tamara and she’s fleeing Zim’s forces in a carriage? The reason Conan pays attention to the carriage she is in is because it has an enormous tentacle-mask symbol on it. This, mind you, is the carriage that the other monks put her in so that she can ride off to her far-off birthplace. It is not one of Zim’s carriages that the monks captured – they are clearly in no place to mount daring raids in order to capture material. It also clearly isn’t something the monks scrawled on there quickly to help Tamara pass herself off as part of Zim’s retinue whilst sneaking out through enemy lines – the carriage is not sent off in a sneaking-away manner, it’s clearly trying to ride away from the enemy as quickly as possible, and Tamara is confused that Conan assumes that her carriage is one of Zim’s and if the point had been to disguise the carriage as one of Zim’s she would have realised that some folk may conclude that it is, in fact, one of Zim’s.
So, whose coach is it? If it belongs to the monastic order, well, I could buy the idea that the place might have been founded by members of the old necromancer empire regime filled with remorse over what the empire had done and wishing to retire from the world to live out their days in peace, but you’d think part of that would entail divesting themselves of the symbols of necromantic power. Equally, it might be a coach belonging to Tamara’s family, who are after all descended from the rulers of the empire, but you would think that the first thing you’d do when going into exile after the fall of your regime is dispose of any family crests of the sort which might scream out “Hey, barbarian hordes overrunning the civilised worlds, check us out! We are tyrants and necromancers and war criminals, you should kill us, our loved ones and all of our descendants just to make sure our dark empire never rises again!”
I mean, imagine this situation: you are a Nazi officer and the war is over. Thanks to your pals in ODESSA you’re all set up in South America with a nice shiny new identity. You know full well that the whole fascism deal is a bust and whilst others in your position might be inclined to stick their necks out, you’re not one of them. No, you just want to live out the rest of your life in peaceful obscurity; you are, after all, terrified that Simon Wiesenthal or Mossad or any one of a number of persons and organisations out to hunt down war criminals will identify you. Your personal survival hinges on not drawing attention to yourself or your previous connections.
Under those circumstances, are you going to paint an enormous swastika on the side of your car? Fuck no. But we are expected to accept that elements from a regime deposed by angry rampaging hordes of Cimmerians kept this coat of arms around and were happy to have it displayed on their carriages for anyone to see.
There is only one coherent reason for Tamara’s carriage to have that symbol on it, and that is that the scriptwriters needed to give Conan some reason to tear off after the caravan instead of going straight towards Invader Zim. This should give you some idea of the abject laziness of the script, which shows a level of incompetence which makes me angry that people were paid actual money to write this shit. There’s a bit towards the end where Conan is once again holding onto a chain where, if he doesn’t let go, someone he loves will be killed, and Invader Zim laughs at him and points out that once again Conan is in a situation where he must hold onto a chain and if he doesn’t let go someone he loves will die. Dan pointed out after the viewing that at that point Zim might as well have just launched into a lecture about parallelism and its uses in cinema, but on consideration I disagree – I see nothing to suggest the scriptwriters understand the first thing about cinema, so asking them to write a brief essay on parallelism is a bit of a tall order.
Visually speaking, the film does a lot better, clawing its way up to the standards of a mediocre Dungeons & Dragons manual of a recent vintage. The 3D – added, naturally, in post-production – contributes nothing, but occasionally the film will present you with a visual which almost works – for example, Invader Zim bods about the land in an enormous sailing ship on wheels (Howard meets Herzog?), which is so amazingly silly it’s almost awesome – except you never really see it again after the first half of the film. The best special effects are rolled out in what is actually the best part of the film – where Rose McGowan conjures up creepy sand people to attack Conan and Tamara. Reviewers have derided the sand creatures as being weak – they crumble back to dust after one hit – but it is clear from the scene that the danger they represent is based on their numbers and tenacity, not their individual strength, and the way they just keep coming again and again at the heroes is genuinely exciting.
Then Nispel succumbs to action movie convention and throws in a big explosion solely so Conan and Tamara can do the action hero outrunning an explosion bit, a moment more cliched than anything in Conan the Destroyer or Red Sonja and which underlines the point that the writers and director just don’t have any interesting ideas.
The basic, overriding blunder, the one which dooms the film utterly, is that the filmmakers decided that the best and most useful approach they could take – the best way to take advantage of the rare opportunity they had with the reboot to return to the standard set by the original film, or even take things in a completely new direction, and to finally exorcise the spirits of both the original film’s terrible sequels and the godawful tidal wave of hilariously bad barbarian flicks that it unleashed… the best and absolute most appropriate approach they could possibly take when handling this material… was to stick to the Red Sonja and Krull playbook, except with post-Lord of the Rings pacing so everything takes twice as long to happen as it needs to. In other words, they make every single mistake that every other Conan rip-off or sequel did and a couple of brand new mistakes fashionable amongst fantasy directors of Nispel’s miserable calibre these days.
Consequently, the film doesn’t even qualify as being so-bad-it’s-good. The material it’s imitating often is, of course, but that’s just it – it’s really extraordinarily difficult to do “so bad it’s good” on purpose. I think the Underworld series manages it – Len Wiseman and Kate Beckinsale make knowing references to Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the DVD commentary so it’s possible that not even they take their ridiculous White Wolf saga seriously – but otherwise if you try too hard to go for the cheesy movie crowd, it becomes obvious that you’re trying too hard, at which point it’s no longer funny. The best “bad” films are those whose exude an air of sincerity, where the audience is convinced that the director intended the material to be taken seriously, or to be sweeping and epic, or to be mysterious and suspenseful, or to be whatever it is it hilariously and spectacularly fails to be. However, the thing that the 2011 Conan the Barbarian tries hard to be, and fails to be, is a so-bad-it’s-good crappy fantasy flick that viewers love to laugh at. The basic failure of the film is that, unlike the original, it doesn’t hope to be anything more than that.
What is best in life?
To waste your time with another lazy retread of a film which only succeeded because it represented a bizarre confluence of cinematic talents coming together in one project and elevating it beyond its humble B-movie status into a genuinely evocative and powerful piece of cinema?
Wrong! Conan, what is best in life?
To shun the remake, see it bomb in the charts, and to hear the lamentation of the studio!