Kyle B. Stiff’s Favorite Movie: Conan the Barbarian

It’s always a downer to hear some dimwit talk about his all-time favorite movie only to find out that he seems to love whatever macho bullshit Hollywood has been pushing for the past year (and will soon be replaced by something eerily similar next year), or listen to a pretentious fop wax philosophical about a foreign director in a vain attempt to cultivate a personality that appears deep and nuanced and perhaps even a little “quirky”. Unfortunately I’m going to look like an idiotic combination of the two (an enlightened meathead?) by polluting the internet with an accounting of my favorite movie… CONAN THE BARBARIAN.

king conan 2

First, there’s the soundtrack. Here it is in its entirety.

 

Want to hear the most powerful and moving track from the movie? No problem: Just play the soundtrack from the beginning or simply skip to any random part. All of it is made of gold. If you have even an ounce of the “will to power” or wanderlust or love of mythic storytelling, then Basil Poledouris has created a masterpiece just for you. It’s perfect for relaxing or defending your home from armed assailants (or both at the same time if you’re hard-as-nails like me).

Basil Poledouris has done some other noteworthy music. Ready to defend your homeworld against alien invaders? Here you go:

 

And here’s something from Robocop, a story about a man who ceases to be a man, becomes a perverse ideal, and then goes on a long journey to become a complete human being once again. They don’t make ’em like this anymore!

 

As for Conan the Barbarian, I’ve heard that someone wanted to use contemporary music – that is, whatever crap people listened to at the time. Can you imagine how insufferable Conan the Barbarian would be if his journey through a magical landscape was marred by radio-friendly cock-rock and hair metal? As it is, the music is timeless and powerful. It speaks to the soul.

Frazetta-chains-and-serpent

One charge that could easily be laid against Conan the Barbarian is that none of the actors are in any way noteworthy, except perhaps for the fact that none of them could ever be considered “great” or even “good” actors. Well, to answer that charge, here’s a little secret about me: I don’t give a shit about great acting. When I was young and still investigating the wide world of movies, I was always drawn to directors rather than actors. As I get older, acting only seems more and more ridiculous; to me, it’s almost as if we’re still in the era of silent film, and acting is really over-acting. It’s easy to point and laugh at actors who look to the heavens and scream “NOOOOO!!!” when their love interest gets blasted to smithereens, but the equivalent of that act is all over the place in seemingly respectable movies. For me, I’d rather an actor just put his grandiose ego aside and say his lines without looking like a jackass and drawing a lot of attention to himself and then pass the torch to whoever speaks after them.

I mentioned ego, and it could be argued that no one has ever accused Schwarzenegger of having a small ego, but plenty of scenes go down in which Conan remains non-verbal. How many recent action movies build up tension right before one of the heroes takes out a bad guy only to undermine the tension by having the hero say some trite one-liner? Joss Whedon is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to this annoying action movie cliché, and while no one faults him for it now, they will years from now. This silly thing started, I’m sure, with either radio dramas (in which all action had to be verbalized for the listener) or comic books (probably because the writers were terrified that a single panel might go by without reminding us of the writer’s brilliant contribution to the narrative). Conan never turns and winks at the camera right before swinging an axe into the back of some guy’s head, and yet the film somehow still works.

conan frazetta

At its core, Conan the Barbarian is an action movie. Seems inevitable that it would feel dated, right? Wrong! As an action movie, Conan the Barbarian has aged like a bottle of Coke that was opened long ago but the lid was twisted back on with enough force to surprise anyone with the guts to take a sip weeks after the sell-by date. The story has a natural flow of rests punctuated by moments of extreme, cathartic bloodletting. Whereas the new Conan movie has an endless series of faceless, nameless goons getting demolished to the point where it all becomes meaningless, the original Conan movie contains action that serves a narrative purpose. After scenes of dialogue and planning and sneaking and journeying, there’s an incredible building of tension that explodes by showing bad guys getting hacked open and – get this – real bags of blood are torn open and spray all over the place (although not as much as you would see in an over-the-top Japanese film). I think it’s pretty well established that people don’t like to see fake computer-generated blood, but we see it all the time – which of course begs the question concerning why so many modern action movies even bother with CGI blood. Is it really so difficult for a stuntman to hold a bag of red dye? Do we really need a high-tech app when a leaky plastic bag will do?

Then there’s also the antagonist: Thulsa Doom.

 

He’s a great villain, but this movie is so epic that we get to see the villain being a complete and total shit during two totally different stages of his life. When he was young, Thulsa Doom was a wild hog of a psychopath who would lead his gang from village to village, taking what he wanted and killing indiscriminately. He felt no empathy, had no conscience, and didn’t even remember most of the atrocities he committed. He simply had that bottomless hunger that all soulless monsters have, so he roamed the world and took and then took some more. The child Conan grew up in a happy little village, but his path in life was scarred and transformed by the memory of Thulsa Doom taking all that he had and destroying it in a senseless act of violence.

(Also, note that when Thulsa Doom killed Conan’s mother, the scene was completely “minor key” in tone. Young Conan didn’t look up and scream, “NO-O-O-O-O!!!” while the music swelled and Thulsa Doom cackled like a clown. Young Conan simply stared in mute horror while Thulsa Doom turned away, already bored after putting another notch on his kill-count.)

Years passed. Conan endured a childhood shackled to a grinding mill, then he became a slave forced to fight and kill in an arena where life had no meaning, and then he gained his freedom and had to survive by his wits and his strength. Thulsa Doom stayed busy refining his tools of manipulation, telling people what they wanted to hear and turning them into tools for his own use. He used New Age pseudo-spiritual slogans like a corrupt televangelist, perverting people’s need to believe in the unseen and reducing everything into a meaningless zero. Thulsa Doom took the complicated spiritual idea that “life is but a dream” and used it to trick people into killing themselves for his amusement.

The wayward daughter of King Osric.

The wayward daughter of King Osric, a thrall of Thulsa Doom.

To Thulsa Doom, life is inherently meaningless; of course, if life truly is meaningless, then the ultimate path in life is one of manipulating others and taking whatever you can however you can. In a meaningless existence, a psychopath is the highest form of life, an apex predator who views others as sheep or, at best, competitors.

But if the meaning of life is to find out the meaning life, then Conan’s tale is heroic and amazing. He grows up dreaming of revenge, then meets someone that he could make a beautiful life with – but only if he gives up on his old dream. He has to choose between dreaming and being content, or between having meaning and being happy. He ends up getting high and punching a camel. He is crucified, dies, and is reborn. His most hated enemy, his opposite in every way, teaches him a philosophy which may be superior to his own beloved father’s guidance. Then he punches a priestly sexual predator, infiltrates a Bohemian Grove-slash-Illuminati sex party, gets involved in a conspiracy with reptilian undertones, then he prays to God for the first time in his life and asks for the strength to kill his enemies – and then things get really crazy.

What a movie!

Pops ruminatin' on the Riddle of Steel.

Pops ruminatin’ on the Riddle of Steel.

I have to say one last thing. I’ve heard some people claim that the books by Robert E. Howard are better than the movie. I must respectfully say that this has to be bullshit. I haven’t read any of the original Conan stories, but I’ve tried to read many other Howard stories. They’re not very engaging. I’m not looking down on him from some lofty perch, as I’m a pulp writer, too. I’ve heard people say that Conan is a balls-out badass in the stories, and does whatever he wants all the time. That sounds amusing in theory, but in practice I’m going to take a stab and say that it’s probably moronic. I don’t want to see some huge lumberjack of a linebacker push people around and then get drunk and have sexual relations with some skank’s hind end. The protagonist in Conan the Barbarian is a hero. That’s what I want to see.

Don't worry, I would never talk shit about Frank Frazetta.

Don’t worry, I would never talk shit about Frank Frazetta.

Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.

9 responses to “Kyle B. Stiff’s Favorite Movie: Conan the Barbarian

  1. Pingback: Kyle B. Stiff’s Favorite Movie | kylebstiff

  2. I’d really like to know which Howard stories you’ve read to come to the conclusion that the Conan stories couldn’t as good as the film. I’m frankly amazed that you’ve gone to the effort of reading a lot of Howard stories *except* Conan. There’s no accounting for taste, but given just how much other pulp writers admire Howard’s work, it might just be that it isn’t for you. That said, Howard’s Conan is more nuanced than “he does what he likes,” and he’s definitely a hero in the classical sense (going by Greek mythology, not modern ideas where hero and paradigm-of-virtue are interchangeable). The pop cultural Conan is a very different beast from Howard’s Conan.

    There obviously is no imperical way to measure whether one story is inherently better than another, but Howard’s best Conan stories are rich with complexity, imagination, social commentary and mythic power, albeit frequently of a very different sort from Milius. Milius is interested in Nordic and Eastern ideas with a touch of the Western: Howard is the other way round, dominated by Western and flavoured with Nordic, Eastern, African and other influences.

    I like Conan the Barbarian a lot as a sort of alternate universe Conan, like how I can enjoy the many variations of Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and so forth, but Howard’s Conan stories are just another thing altogether. In my opinion, of course.

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    • Addendum: I think what people mean by “Conan does what he wants” is that Conan is a self-determined hero who is not in thrall to tragedy or revenge like Milius’ hero, not that he’s some mindless brute. Far from it: Conan’s very intelligent and undergoes a subtle character arc that takes place over the course of his lifetime.

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      • Hey alharron, I knew someone would call me out on the stupid shit I said about Robert E. Howard’s version of Conan. I can’t say I don’t deserve it; in fact, anytime some blowhard starts spouting off bullshit on the internet, someone with some sense is totally justified in calling them out. I’ll say a few words in my defense, but believe me, it’s going to be a pretty weak defense.

        So the thing is… I’ve never read any actual Conan stories by Howard. Conan the Barbarian has been my favorite movie for about half of my entire life, but about six or so years ago I finally realized that I needed to read some of the actual source material. I was already a fan of Lovecraft, so I didn’t have any pretensions about being too good for pulp fiction (the medium, not the Tarantino movie). I did a little research and Howard’s Solomon Kane series sounded awesome, so I decided to try out both. But I was poor as hell at the time and I could only get books at the library. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that the only Howard book available was a random collection of his short stories that had nothing to do with Conan or Kull or Solomon Kane or that Viking character or ANY of his well-known characters. This book showcased his B-list work. I vaguely remember one story had to do with a modern Anglo-style explorer who ended up wrestling with some natives in a jungle; overall, the stories were tedious. I never felt drawn in or excited. Having read Lovecraft, I guess I assumed that all pulp stories tended toward frenzied, breathless narratives about characters constantly hanging on the edge of total destruction. This stuff definitely wasn’t.

        Years later my financial situation improved to the point that alarm systems wouldn’t go off when I left bookstores, but by that time I had already been in numerous conversations in which others would find out that Conan the Barbarian was my favorite movie, and if they didn’t write me off as a total meathead, then inevitably they would respond with 1) I had to the read the books, and 2) the books were superior to the movie because Conan is a badass who does whatever he wants. This only turned me off. In fact, you’re the first person to ever describe Howard’s Conan as a hero in the Greek (or at least “old school”) sense of the word AND said that he does in fact have a character arc that changes over time. I think that’s awesome. In fact I’m surprised that this is the first time I’ve ever heard that, seeing as I’m old as balls now, and it makes me think that I’ve probably only ever talked to power-starved dimwits about the matter.

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  3. best thing i’ve read in a long, long time. love me some conan. also, your thulsa doom spotlight here is 100% awesome. plus “pops ruminatin’ on the riddle of steel” lolol

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    • Thank you! And wow, that’s a really good way to put it. That’s definitely the tone that draws me in. I wish more movies had that. Newer movies often have a dopey kind of humor shoehorned in that doesn’t always need to be there. I love to laugh but there’s something sacred that can be lost when everyone is making strange oinking sounds in the middle of a big production, you know?

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