“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
Like our President, I am a big fan of Conan the Barbarian. I don’t collect Savage Sword of Conan, however I am tempted. I was raised onthe movie incarnation by Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Milius, and I finally got around to reading the stories by Robert E. Howard- who managed to create Conan, Kull the Conqueror, Solomon Kane, Red Sonya, and an entire mythology out of the whole cloth by the age of 30. Howard was supremely talented storyteller, despite essentially living in his mom’s basement- he was a mama’s boy, and when she passed into a coma during her terminal run with tuberculosis, he killed himself. He did have a romance of a sort with a schoolteacher, chronicled in her memoir One Who Walked Alone, and the movie adapted from it, The Whole Wide World. Vincent D’Onofrio plays Bob in that, and I’ve tucked it in my Netflix Queue.
But he left us a legacy that influenced fantasy literature as much as Tolkien, even if he was more interested in commenting on the shackles of civilization than experimenting with language, myth cycles, and the battle between technology and nature. Whenever you see an image of a sword-wielding man with mighty “thews,” possible Howard’s favorite word, you are seeing the legacy of Conan. Magic was a Lovecraftian force, a devil’s bargain, that corrupted all who attempted to master it. Women were often damsels, but he also created characters like Valeria, the archetype for the unattainable battle mistress.
Sure, he was not beyond titillating his readers with scenes of women whipping each other, or my favorite, a savage king raking his bristly beard over Valeria’s breasts after he tears her shirt open:
Her shirt had been torn open in the struggle, and with cynical cruelty he rasped his thick beard across her bare breasts, bringing the blood to suffuse the fair skin, and fetching a cry of pain and outraged fury from her. Her convulsive resistance was useless; she was crushed down on the couch, disarmed and panting, her eyes blazing up at him like the eyes of a trapped tigress.
Steamy stuff. Makes me regret trimming my beard. I’ll have to test its raspiness on Firecracker and report back to you. So if you see me with black eyes, you know what happened).
The stories are iconic and still enjoyable 70 years later. Unlike much pulp and adventure fiction, they don’t feel dated- what was shocking then is still exciting now, and his cynicism suits the times. The movies seem quaint in comparison- they were considered gory, bloody and gratuitous when they came out, but compared to Howard’s stories they’re tame. Conan the Barbarian is the bloodier of the two, and based on a smattering of different stories. It takes Valeria from “Red Nails,” the black lotus (Stygian, the best) from there as well; the snake cult of Set is used in many stories, and Thulsa Doom is the name of a Kull villain, but based on Thoth Amon from “The Phoenix on the Sword.” His magic resembles that of “The People of the Black Circle,” and Conan’s raid on their airy castle is similar to his commando strike on Doom.
Conan the Destroyer is more a product of the ’80s than the perfect syzygy of Arnold’s rise to fame, John Milius’s obsessions with Conan, Nietzche, and Genghis Khan, and James Earl Jones going from Oscar-worthy performances in The Great White Hope to an infamous villain in Star Wars. Arnie seems goofy in the sequel; gone are the surfers from Milius’s Big Wednesday as Subotai and Valeria, replaced with comic relief like Grace Jones and Tracey Walter. At least Mako returns as the Wizard, and despite the dopey storyline, we at least get to see Conan battle with Wilt Chamberlain, and Andre the Giant in a Dagoth constume. We get the eye candy of Olivia d’Abo, but the film is strictly PG, a smarmy land that no Conan should be forced to tread, by Crom!
After years of development hell, it seems like we’ll be enduring a new Conan movie- but I am heartened by the choice of screenwriter, Howard McCain. He did a fine job with Outlander, taking a ridiculous concept- Vikings vs. Predator, essentially- and made a good movie out of it. On the other hand, putting it in the hands of bland-o-tron hack Brett Ratner assures that like Red Dragon, we’ll probably get an inferior product held together by the actors. With the proper choice of Cimmerian, we could have a good movie; Let’s hope they just throw us in the middle, like Howard would have- no need to rehash his origin, for Conan never really had one- he walked out of the hills of Cimmeria where barbarian tribes fought, and was a tiger among the livestock of civilized humanity. Give us bloody swordplay, give us scantily clad sorceresses, fearsome magic too terrible to contemplate. And never let Conan be the butt of any jokes. I hope there’s room for Arnie to make a cameo as an older king- perhaps a role similar to Max Von Sydow’s in the first movie- but it would be fine if he kept governating.
Who’s my choice of Conan? Because it has to be a big name, I’d say the obvious choice is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has both muscles and charisma. Give him the right haircut and make him forgo that easy smile of his for some blue contacts and a smoldering stare. That would give me hope. As for Robert E. Howard, tragedy made Conan and his other characters spring forth from his imagination- he wrote to pay the bills when his mother got sick, and his father’s business floundered during the Depression. At one time he was making $6,000 a year at 1 1/2 cents a word. Talk about prolific. Someday I’d like to visit the Robert E. Howard museum in Cross Plains, Texas, and see the tiny room he tapped away at his typewriter in.