What is best in life? To revive a franchise, to turn it into a success, and to hear the lamentation of your rivals!
I really do wish Hollywood would consult with me before embarking upon certain film projects. I’ve no doubt my sage advice could save them endless money and embarrassment in regards to the making of the more expensive science fiction and fantasy sort of films. “What’s that Mr Executive? You’re thinking about green-lighting a film based on the game Battleship? No. Just no.”
Ah, but I sense you would like some proof of my ability to deliver such sage advice. Fair enough, let’s then consider that famous barbarian, Conan, by Crom! As a teenager I read at least eleventy-seven paperbacks featuring Conan stories (published by Sphere Books in the UK and by first Lancer and then Ace Books in the US) so I’m reasonably familiar with the source material. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve read any of Robert E. Howard’s stories but I think I can unequivocally state that neither attempt to put Conan on the big screen was unflawed.
Okay, I know that statement won’t sit well with the myriad fans of Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, but perhaps they will forgive me once I explain.
In fact the 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, is a watchable but overly generic fantasy film. And that of course is the core of the problem from my point of view. Howard gave Conan an origin, a history, a philosophy, and a detailed world to stride across but to me little or none of that is present in this 1982 epic. In particular the origin story included in this version, an origin in which his parents and all the other adults of Conan’s village are killed by mounted raiders and Conan himself put into slavery, bears no resemblance to anything Howard wrote (but is quite like scenes from so many other sword and sorcery movies of that period). Given the source material for Conan is uniquely detailed it’s a great pity the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation filled Conan the Barbarian with scenes that are indistinguishable from contemporary sword and sorcery films; films such as Hawk the Slayer (1980), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982), & Deathstalker (1983). At least once Conan’s origins are dealt with the rest of the plot is serviceable and doesn’t clash (at least as far as I can recall) with Howard’s creation.
Actually, given the tendency of the plot and settings towards generic imagery I do wonder if Conan the Barbarian would be more fondly remembered than, for example, Ator, the Fighting Eagle had the director of the former cast Miles O’Keeffe as Conan instead of the hugely popular Arnold Schwarzenegger? For that matter would Conan the Barbarian be so fondly remembered if Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t then go on to star in The Terminator? I think not because while Arnie made a pretty decent Conan (it could be argued that he was the best thing in the 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian) nothing about the rest of the film stands out. I suspect that Conan the Barbarian benefits from the fact that The Terminator is a film that drags every other part of Schwarzenegger’s career up a notch or two (well except for Hercules in New York, I’ve seen that one and you had better believe me when I tell you it’s beyond even the gravitational pull of The Terminator).
This is a great pity because I really do think Arnie worked well as Conan despite him not really being much like Howard’s vision. He certainly didn’t look like the magazine Conan, a character who I think is closer in looks to Frank Frazetta’s depictions on those Sphere covers above. The script also had him displaying the occasional flash of unconscious humour which while not canon I thought a necessary addition. Howard’s Conan is a very serious character, even a little pompous at times (especially when decrying the faults of civilisation), and I can’t imagine him coming out with anything like Arnie’s line about the lamentation of the women. Now while that level of seriousness is tolerable in Howard’s relatively short stories the occasional lighter moment is a welcome relief in a full-length action film. Also, the humour works because it’s clear that Schwarzenegger’s Conan isn’t aware of the fact that something he said or did comes across as funny.
All of which brings me to the 2011 reboot of Conan the Barbarian. First of all, given the comments above I doubt you will be surprised to learn that I thought the casting of Jason Momoa was one of the stronger points of this second version. I was also very pleased with the early scenes depicting Conan’s origin story. I would like to note here that some reviewers of the film have mocked the absurdity of the birth scene for being absurd. Which is true, it’s absurdly over the top but it’s absurdly over the top in the stories too. What these reviewers seem to have missed is how important this absurdity is to the Conan mythos. The fact that Conan was born on a battlefield is there to underline just how over the top the character of Conan is. I would bet good money that’s why Howard kept mentioning the born on a battlefield business in the first place, to make it clear that Conan’s over the top feats are possible because he’s already been established as an over the top character.
Unfortunately this version of Conan goes downhill once the main plot takes over. The whole villain who must be defeated or whole world will suffer plot was done to death long before this film was made. At this late stage the only way to make such a plot tolerable is to make the villainous threat secondary to other aspects of the story. If the film doesn’t concentrate on character interaction or include a major mystery to be unravelled then these ultimate evil plots do tend to be pretty boring. It also a bad plot to use in an action flick that intends to be the first of a series (as I assume they hoped the Conan reboot would be). Really, if you pull that trick in your first movie then what do you do in the sequel? Start with averting the end of the world and it becomes very difficult to produce a sequel that doesn’t feel like a let-down. Howard clearly knew that and avoided writing himself into such a corner. Which is another reason why this plot was entirely inappropriate for a Conan movie. Anybody familiar with Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan know he kept the stakes small in order to ensure that whatever he wrote didn’t eclipse latter stories. As far as I recall it wasn’t till he wrote the novel length story, The Hour of the Dragon, which is set towards the end of the Conan story arc, do the stakes become significantly higher than in stories set earlier in Conan’s career.
All in all as far as I’m concerned while each film version of Conan the Barbarian has some good features neither has enough to be a fully satisfactory movie. Interestingly though with a little judicious hacking and stitching I cold see the two plots being joined together to make a pretty decent Conan film. Begin with the origin story of the second film and continue on with the small-scale plot of the first and the end result would be at least adequate.
So why is this so? To me the obvious answer is that other than The Hour of the Dragon Howard never wrote any novel length stories featuring Conan. Howard was writing for the pulp magazines of course and in order to achieve the best possible financial return he focused on writing shorter stories in the hopes of achieving fast sales. The trouble is what worked for Howard doesn’t work when scripting a Conan film because stories of 30K or less he was writing just don’t have enough plot to fill out a feature length film. So the scriptwriters needed to create a plot from scratch and as we’ve seen not just in Conan but all those other sword and sorcery flicks the average scriptwriter just doesn’t have the right background to do justice to the genre. They either produce something dull and cliché ridden or venture out into the valley of the very dumb (and some especially gifted individuals manage to do both, go watch Wizards of the Lost Kingdom if you don’t believe me).
If it was up to me Conan would never have become a film property at all. To me the Conan stories beg for television treatment instead. Turn Conan into a series of 45 minute episodes and it becomes possible to tell the sort of stories Howard was writing without needing to recycle . Each week Conan would find himself in a different location dealing with some difficult but less than world ending situation. Like the original stories the nature of the situation would vary, some weeks he would be working for somebody in power, other weeks he would be carrying out some scheme as a self-employed ruffian, and sometimes he would just accidentally ride into a situation that requires a few heads be bashed together in order to achieve a satisfactory resolution.
Now to elevate this above the average villain of the week plotting there needs to be some ongoing elements to link the episodes and give them a little more complexity. Of course to do this would require a significant departure from Howard’s original stories but I don’t think it could be helped.
For the first series at least (yes, I’m assuming a lot here) this linking could be provided in the form of a quest.
As I really like the relationship Jason Momoa’s Conan had with his father I think I would employ something similar. So let’s have Corin, Conan’s blacksmith father, be highly regarded by his fellow Cimmerians and let his father’s standing frustrate Conan because like so many teens he knows he is destined for greatness and isn’t it about time everybody noticed this and accepted the inevitable. However Conan’s father doesn’t have the good grace to step aside so Conan decides the only thing to do is venture outside of the Cimmerian homeland to retrieve the Seven Keys of Pentuzler which the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom stole from the Cimmerians decades before. Conan’s reasoning being that if he returns with the keys his fellow tribesmen will have no choice but to acknowledge him as the greatest Cimmerian ever. So all he has to do to is search the kingdoms of the south, where no Cimmerian has ever set foot, until he finds the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom, kill said evil sorcerer, find where he has hidden the Seven Keys of Pentuzler, and return in triumph with the keys, easy peasy. Corin and the other men of the tribe would of course have the good grace not to raise even one eyebrow among them when Conan announces his intentions and it’s not until Conan is riding out of sight that the following exchange occurs:
Shaman: “How long before he comes to his senses?”
Corin: “Hopefully not before the south knocks some humility into that boy!”
Shaman: “Assuming the south survives the encounter.”
Corin: “Gaah! Now you’re sounding like him!”
I’d also like to diverge from the original stories by giving Conan a permanent companion to do a lot of the talking so Conan can concentrate on being moody and impulsive. A companion like Alvazar the wisecracking thief would also be useful for nagging Conan into revealing why a Cimmerian has come south and other important nuggets of information such as:
Alvazar: “You must wish this quest was over so you can return to your homeland given what a low opinion you hold of civilisation.”
Conan: “Maybe. I have some unfinished business first.”
Alvazar: “Really? What could be so important as to keep you away from the adulation of your people?”
Conan: “Before I leave I must defeat every warrior and empty every tavern. My honour is at stake.”
Alvazar: “You have a most frightening sense of honour Conan. Let me see, Zingara has a lot of taverns and swordsmen. We might as well start there.”
You’ll note that I gave sex the big swerve n that last exchange. Mostly because I think going even partway down the Game of Thrones path would introduce one too many changes. I would prefer to preserve as much of Howard’s original vision where I could so I’d rather underplay the sex angle. Besides, this is another opportunity for unconscious humour from Conan:
Conan: “Southerners are too soft! I will not lie with any woman who cannot knock me out with one punch and carry me to her tent!”
Alvazar: “I seem to recall Red Sonja managed something like that…”
Conan: “Bah! She hit me from behind with a cask of ale! That was cheating!!”
Such a series should also have a supporting cast of occasionally appearing characters such as Bêlit, pirate queen of the Black Coast, the wizard Thoth-amon, Taurus of Nemedia, Epimitreus the Sage and Red Sonja. If the series moves around the lands of Hyboria it seems reasonable to have the cast very a lot from episode to episode. On the other hand it wouldn’t seem out of place for Conan to team up with or go against certain characters multiple times. The evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom should in particular be a recurring character as Conan seeks to hunt him down.
Well, I could go on for pages outlining every little detail but I think you have the general idea now. Hmm, perhaps I should tell Netflix all about this next. It does seem like the sort of thing they would make.
And they do seem keen to cause some lamentations.