Thursday, September 01, 2011

Would The "Original" Conan Please Stand Up?

The new movie is a bit of a dog’s breakfast, but not so bad as to qualify for Worst Movie Of The Year (Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America would nudge Conan The Barbarian out of competition, and that's just citing examples I've had the misfortune to see). Conan's problems stem from being an origin story, which might seem like the natural place to start, particularly with a hero that most of the public is only vaguely familiar with. But exploring Conan's origins presents challenges unique to the Barbarian.

The obvious challenge applies to all origin movies: making the story contemporary without thumbing your nose at earlier incarnations. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man succeeded by dramatically linking Peter Parker’s “spider” powers to his adolescent sexuality. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins worked because the gothic spectacle of Bruce Wayne’s transformation was greeted with just the right smidgen of irony by movie’s end. And, to cite an example that sits closer to Conan, Disney’s recent incarnation of Tarzan worked (despite the presence of gorillas singing along to Phil Collins) by introducing movie audiences to the exhilarating sense of motion and spatial freedom that Edgar Rice Burroughs' books gloried in (contrast Disney’s tree-surfing with Johnny Weissmuller lazily swinging from one vine to the next). Lately filmmakers have erred on the side of caution, producing musty origin flicks that adhere too closely to stories that are decades old (see Thor or Captain America, for example).

But Conan's marketers also have to consider just which well to draw from: the original pulps, the comics, the Governator movies, the Saturday morning cartoons, the spin-off hack novels? Robert E. Howard's work appeals, since that's the embodiment that first took hold of the public imagination and never let go. But unlike Burroughs, Howard never devoted a novel's worth of print to divulging Conan’s past. Quite the opposite: the only Conan novel Howard wrote (in fact a “Kull” story Howard tweaked in hopes of salvaging a sale) occurs late in Conan’s life, when he’s been deposed from his kingdom. In the short stories when Conan or the narrator refer to the barbarian’s past, the references are perfunctory and oblique.

This isn’t entirely unusual, given the medium Howard was working with. Most pulp writers got their character’s origin story out of the way as quickly as possible, and dove into the action. Howard’s spin on this strategy was uniquely effective: make the action central, and the origin ephemeral. Drop hints, but never explicate.

The new movie explicates big time, a strategy that yields mixed results. The opening scene demonstrates at painful length how the age-old nostrum, "Show, don't tell," should probably have been reversed with respect to, “the boy was born on the battlefield.” Conan’s progress as a young barbarian, however, is successful entertainment: Leo Howard adroitly embodies an adolescent discovering how feral energy can be channeled into disciplined and fluid thrills on the battlefield.

The boy's interaction with his father, however, complicates things. The old man (Ron Perelman) is gruff and unyielding, allowing the audience to see the occasional glimmer of pleasure in his son’s natural ability, but offering no such indulgence to the boy. As I watched I couldn’t help but speculate on another reason why Howard skirted around origin stories: his own were a source of manifest discomfort, to say the least. Howard’s father was a bit of a cold fish. He kept his appearances at home brief, hectoring the young man to quit with the stories already and make something of himself, before disappearing again for days or weeks at a time to make the rounds as a country doctor. Howard’s tubercular mother was slightly more encouraging of his literary efforts, to the extent that she didn’t shut him down when he spent a night hammering and shouting out his stories. But I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that her own struggles with isolation and alienation and deferred intimacy played themselves out to unfortunate, if unintended, effect in her relationship with her son. When it came time to face the blank page, who could blame REH for skipping origins altogether and fleeing directly to a pulp backdrop where a lone hero can express himself with complete physical, sexual and spiritual abandon?

Which raises another weakness in the movie: we don't get enough such expression. Once the barbaric mum and pop are dispensed with the rest of the flick plays, rather herkily-jerkily, as a revenge narrative. Jason Momoa is as close to a Howard embodiment of Conan as we’ve seen in the movies (personally, I’ve always imagined a juiced-up version of the late Chuck Connors) and the script has flashes of what Howard invested in the character. But as a narrative foil, Conan works best when he’s a sword-wielding trickster — akin to Yojimbo's samurai, James Bond, The Man With No Name, Han Solo and countless others — who struts into a room full of uptight citizens, and announces, “I’m here to show you how things really work.” Conan doesn’t have that environment here. Everything is already unmoored and up for grabs; consequently his dressed-up quest for revenge comes across as an almost petty affair for an epic figure to trouble himself with.

Petty, but not unentertaining. I enjoyed myself, but would advise against 3D. Conan fans and the morbidly curious are encouraged to read Michael A. Stackpole’s novelization(!), which surely aligns closer to the screenwriters’ original vision. While it, too, has flatfooted moments it yields a much more satisfying narrative and motivation than the final on-screen product. Best of all, Stackpole proves himself a capable pulp stylist, embracing its enthusiasms without overindulging its purple excesses. He's got my money if he ever decides to write a follow-up to this adventure.

The movie is likely to do well internationally, where the market for “swarthy” heroes who dispatch extremely white villains is quite large. In the meantime, who knows? Maybe in another 25 years someone will get the mix exactly right.

Logan Hill wrote my favorite review of Conan The Barbarian. Mary Scriver asks, Would You Date Conan? And for more better Conan explication ("'Splication'?"), run, do not walk, to Steve Donoghue's eloquent and incisive Cimmerian 'Stravaganza.


DarkoV said...

I always hoped there would be later Conans, films in his regressing (regretting) years. And I thought Tom Conti, the diminutive and witty English actor would the appropriate foil to star in "Conan-The Barbarian...Not So Much"

Whisky Prajer said...

"Conti" -- yes! Howard's Conan was a figure who already carried regret, or maybe just latent depression. A later Conan is certainly conceivable.

DarkoV said...

WP, One of the reasons I think Conti woudl be our man for an older Conan is due to his dental condition, the traditional snaggle-toothed Brit.
Don't know about your knowledge base, but I don't believe that dentists were high up in career possibilities in the days of Conan. I'm thnking that dental care was a side-job for a blacksmith.
So..all of these movie Conans, including Arnold's gap-toothed version, disply way too much annual check-up status to fit the role of a warrior from long ago.
Give me a Conti with teeth splayed all over his dental base anyday.

Whisky Prajer said...

Cimmerians were fastidious flossers.