Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Riddle of Steel

The summer of 1982 was the first season my movie habit really took off. It was the first time I had money and mobility enough to go to the theater on a regular basis and I abused it like you wouldn't believe. I was still too young to get into R-rated movies, but that didn't stop me. I was adept at sneaking into these by paying for PG movies and sneaking into the others. It was also really the first year that genre pictures--particularly fantasies--began to dominate the market. What a summer that was! You had Poltergeist, E. T., Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, The Thing, Cat People, The Dark Crystal, The Beastmaster, Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D, Quest for Fire, The Secret of N.I.H.M., and Tron. Some of these remain favorites. The movie I remember looking forward to the most in the spring of 1982 was Conan the Barbarian (directed by John Milius). It was rated R, too, but I didn't have to sneak into it. My dad took my brothers and I to a Saturday evening showing. It was a "dad" kind of movie.

The reason for my anticipation comes from comics, I suppose. I discovered Robert E. Howard in 1979 or so, with Marvel Comics' series based on the character. This was the iteration drawn by John Buscema and usually written by Roy Thomas, who would go on to have a hand in writing the second Conan film. Buscema's Conan was not thought of at the time as the archetypal comics version of the character, but I never saw the Barry Windsor-Smith version until much later, and I never really saw Frazetta's Conan as "my" Conan, much as I love Frazetta. This is the version of Conan I see in my head when I think of the character:

Buscema isn't well-regarded these days, which is a shame. He was a pretty terrific artist who defined the look of Marvel Comics almost as thoroughly as Jack Kirby did in the 1960s. His Conan was exciting and unlike any other comic on the stands at the time. I gobbled it up. Being the precocious child that I was, I also moved on to Robert E. Howard's stories, then being issued in paperbacks and relatively easy to find. These were weirder than the comics, and there were perverse themes in them that were only elided in the comics. Howard was a singular writer, and he poured not only his imagination into his stories, but his psychosis as well. There's a galvanizing otherness in those stories that has completely eluded Howard's legion of imitators. By 1982, I was kind of a Howard scholar. Or as much as a 15 year old kid in the suburbs of Colorado Springs could be. The comics, for their part, had been plugging the movie for quite some time when it finally opened and I know I wasn't the only kid in my neighborhood who was rabid to see it.

I remember that my initial reaction to it was one of disappointment. I nit picked that thing like only an obsessed 15 year old fan can nitpick. It wasn't faithful, was my complaint at the time. The 15 year old me fumed that they had used the wrong evil wizard as Conan's arch enemy, and that it didn't follow the story of Conan's youth through the pass of the Frost Giant's daughter and into the Tower of the Elephant. I didn't understand, I think, the limitations of a movie franchise to get everything in, so I was confused as to why they conflated Valeria from "Red Nails" with Belit from "The Queen of the Black Coast." This, of course, all stems from practical necessity, from the ruthless imperatives of big-budget filmmaking. My allegiance to the source material kind of blinded me to the very real virtues of the film (and its very real flaws). The 15 year old version of me DID respond to the scene where Thulsa Doom transforms into a snake (which gave a payoff that was a LOT more satisfying than the transformation scenes in Paul Schader's Cat People, which I saw a few weeks prior), and I was enough of an adolescent sadist to dig the myriad gore sequences and the copious nudity. But these are not what makes the film distinctive.

I don't remember the last time I watched Conan the Barbarian prior to my current viewing. Not since the 1980s, I think, though I may have watched it during my video store career. I don't recall. It's an interesting film against which to measure my own sensibilities, because the 15 year old boy who first saw it is NOT the forty-something woman who watched it last week. I remember being that kid, but it's like I'm remembering someone else. That kid already knew a lot about movies, but he didn't know enough about art.

The thing about Conan the Barbarian is that it actually does manage to capture the weird existentialism of the stories. It doesn't play the notes, as the saying goes, but it hits the music. And this in spite of some fundamental structural problems. My suspicion is that the tenor of the film grows from the collaboration between left-wing paranoid Oliver Stone, who wrote the film, and right-wing paranoid John Milius, who directed it after revising Stone's screenplay. I think it's more Milius's film than Stone's, but that depends on where you are in the running time. In retrospect, Milius's sensibilities are probably more appropriate to the character, because the sword and sorcery hero, like the lone gunslinger, is a fundamentally right-wing construction, though I think, in the end, Milius overplays his hand. I'll come to that.

On a very basic level, Conan is a power fantasy for the powerless, or, at least, for those who perceive themselves to be powerless, particularly young white men. Conan is an oppressed white man who is sold into slavery by a black man. He's a northern European, no less. The film's opening narration even makes an oblique reference to the word "Aryan:" "Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas..." Mind you, this all comes from Howard, and Howard, it should be noted was a paranoid racist who saw enemies everywhere. Conan, then, is Howard lashing out. Milius just takes this and runs with it. During the course of the movie, it devolves into an elaborate lampoon of the culture of the late sixties and the social liberalism it entails, with Thulsa Doom's cult of Set resembling nothing so much as a conflation of the summer of love and the Manson family. This is a point that even the 15 year old version of me picked up on, perhaps because it's such a broad caricature. For this viewing, I picked up on the homophobia of the film, particularly the scene where Conan comes on to the priest of Set as a means of getting him away from the crowd so he can swipe his clothes. There's a slight demonizing of gays in this scene, because the film's most overtly gay character is presented as a predatory priest of a demonic sect. As if being cannibals weren't enough.

This was Arnold Schwarzenegger's star-making role. He had been signed for the part as early as 1976, and he knew that it was his ticket to stardom. It's fair to say that Schwarzenegger wasn't much of an actor at the time and it's certainly fair to say that he was cast in the role solely for his physical presence, but it's a mistake to paint him with the Golden Raspberry he earned for the part. Schwarzenegger has that "it" quality that we associate with movie stars. When he's on the screen, you watch him. I said this about Schwarzenegger when I wrote about Conan the Destroyer a few weeks ago, but it deserves repeating: Schwarzenegger's friend and fellow body builder, Franco Columbu, is in this film and he doesn't even register as a presence. Columbu arguably has the same physical presence as Arnold, but he lacks the "it" quality. At this writing, I haven't seen Jason Momua as Conan, so I can't speak to how he compares. One of the signature pleasure of Conan the Barbarian is watching Schwarzenegger assume the mantle of stardom. I can't say that this is like watching John Wayne in Stagecoach--that would be silly--but it's not that far off.

And yet, Schwarzenegger's path to stardom is nearly outshone by his co-star, Sandahl Bergman. Bergman, for her part, was also cast for her physical attributes and was a similarly inexperienced actress. This inexperience shows in her line readings, but Conan minimizes a lot of this, so you're mostly left with her physical presence. Bergman was recommended for the role by Bob Fosse, who had used her as the lead dancer in the "Air Rotica" sequence in All That Jazz. Her dance background speaks to the choreographed nature of action filmmaking, because she's a natural for it. When she was in motion in Conan, she was the one thing on the screen that you watched at the expense of everything else, even Arnold himself. The personality of her character suited her not-conventionally-attractive face. When Valeria smiled, you understood why Conan fell so hard for her.

James Earl Jones, on the other hand, WAS a real actor and Jones's voice is as dominating a presence in the film as the physiques of its heroes. It's the voice of doom, if you'll pardon the pun, and the movie obliges him by giving him oratorios, in which he expounds on The Riddle of Steel: "Steel isn't strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks; a beautiful girl. Come to me, my child..."(coaxes a girl to jump to her death). "That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste. Contemplate this on the tree of woe. Crucify him!" Thulsa Doom has a range of emotions that would elude the other actors in the film (well, possibly not Max Von Sydow, but that's another story). The touch of petulance in his voice when he says to Conan, "You killed my snake," is unexpectedly pouty and unexpectedly delightful when it comes. Still, as fun as it is to watch and listen to Jones in this, I wish the film had cast a white actor as Thulsa Doom. The way this is slanted to allegorize the late sixties and to thrust a sword through it's belly, and given the soaring rhetoric it puts into Thulsa Doom's mouth, it's almost impossible to escape the notion that Doom is a Martin Luther King figure, or at the very least a Malcolm X figure. Is Doom's "Mountain of Power" a veiled reference to "I have been to the mountain top?" or am I reading too much into this. I don't know, but the fact that Doom's cult are cannibals only deepens the racist undertones. And given that the film's "solution" to Thulsa Doom is to have its northern European superman cut off his head at the end, you can see why critics of the film have long railed against its politics. The filmmakers could have sidestepped all of it with relative ease, which is a pity. There's a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in this film, too, given that Conan represents barbarism while Thulsa Doom is the Hyborian summit of civilization. I can't help but see the politics of the last thirty years in these themes, and I can't help but see this as some kind of prescient Tea Party critique of Barak Obama, which, of course, is crazy talk. The impression lingers, though.

The existentialism of the film kind of flows against the mainstream of the film's politics, though I guess it depends on which strain of right wing politics you're talking about. A true Randian is an atheist, and while I don't know if Milius is an atheist OR a true Randian, I can see a strain of both in this film. The gods in Conan the Barbarian are next to useless. The only one who actually influences anything is Set, the Snake God from whom Thulsa Doom derives his power. Conan's quest is as much a mission to smash a religion as it is a quest to take vengeance. Conan's own god is indifferent to him, and Conan's prayer at the end of the film is famous for its punch line: "That's what's important! Valor pleases you, Crom... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!" Meanwhile, Valeria articulates her search for meaning in an indifferent cosmos thus: "All my life I've been alone. Many times I've faced death with no one to know. I would look into the huts and the tents of others in the coldest dark and I would see figures holding each other in the night. But I always passed by." (This is, it should be noted, a speech that would carry more weight if Sandahl Bergman was a better actor, alas). And is there a more desolate vision of loneliness than that shot of the tree upon which Conan is crucified? That's an image that follows you. The answer to The Riddle of Steel for Conan, as it is for his father before him, is that you can only trust the sword at your side and the will to use it. There is nothing else.

Still, that's all at the level of subtext. The film operates on two other levels: its surface is an adventure tale that has deep mythic and cinematic roots. The other is as pure cinema.

As an adventure story, it's wedded to the hero's journey, complete with the descent into the underworld. The film may be the last major action film for a long while that takes Alexandre Dumas at his word when he begged for "l'action! l'amor!" The romantic elements of the film are a pleasant surprise, given that this film just reeks of testosterone. The film turns on a love story that defies death, when Valeria returns to fight at Conan's side at his most desperate moment. Again, this would work better with better actors, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

As cinema, as a cinematic art object, Conan the Barbarian is actually pretty sophisticated. The production design on this film recalls the design of certain silent epics, and the climactic battle is cribbed whole from Seven Samurai, which is all well and good, but it's the way the film is constructed that gives it its unique flavor. The grandiosity of the sets is very much of a piece with a number of other contemporaneous De Laurentiis productions, and you begin to see the art department asserting a bit of auteurial muscle in this film. While you could argue that the continuity of this element into Conan the Destroyer is a result of a franchise striving for brand uniformity, I think it's more likely that it reflects the sensibility of production designer Ron Cobb, seizing the spotlight away from his directors (who, it must be said, are smart enough to let him do it). In any event, the movie LOOKS great.

I've been talking about Milius as an auteur, but Conan the Barbarian isn't truly an auteurist film, because more of its character is derived from Basil Poledouris's score, and the way that score is conceived, than is strictly attributable to its director. This is a true collaboration, and I'm tempted to say that Milius and Poledouris are the equivalent of Betty Comden and Adolph Green in terms of what winds up on screen. The music and the montage and the mise en scene are often inseparable. Whole passages of the film--which if we are honest, consists of too many longeurs where characters run from place to place--are carried forward by its score. The scene where this is most evident is the heist of the Serpent's Eye, which is conceived in the tradition of, say, Rififi, but which is filmed and edited like it's a dance sequence. The music acts as a contra-punctual element for the individual cuts. The best example of this is when you see Valeria creeping up behind one of the acolytes. In most films, you would see her bean him and drag him off-screen, but Conan cuts at the beat to the crosscut sequence of Conan and Subotai in the serpent's lair, then cuts BACK to Valeria on the next bar of the music to find her taking the place of the acolyte. The whole movie is scored and edited like this and if you'd prefer not to think about how silly the story is or how troublesome the politics are, MAN, you can groove on how well it's made and how awesome it sounds. There's an added benefit to this, too, insofar as the score crowds out a LOT of dialogue, which is important in a film in which the leads are singularly inexperienced actors.

The forty something version of me cringes at most of the subtext in Conan the Barbarian. There's a reason this stuff is often called "juvenilia." It's hard to argue much of it away, either, though it's perhaps easier to take than Milius's red-baiting in his next movie (Red Dawn). But she also finds in this movie passages of great beauty and astonishing imagination, including one of the great film scores. It's an uneasy mixture, and I can't help but think that I'm still coloring my perception of the film with nostalgia. Seeing it all those years ago was a formative experience for me, and I have fond memories of that summer. Reflecting on how I viewed the film back then and how I view it now has been, well, cathartic, really, because I sometimes feel guilty about how I approach films these days. I used to be able to groove on movies without thinking too much about what they actually mean, but that experience may be forever behind me. What is the answer to The Riddle of Steel for me? That the blade cuts both ways...


Samuel Wilson said...

I can understand why some people view Jones's casting as a provocation, but it seemed to me that it was pure exploitation. Everyone knew he was Darth Vader's voice, so let's let him strut his villainous stuff in person on screen. But there are undeniable right-wing sentiments in Conan, e.g. "Hah! Time enough for the earth, in the grave!" I doubt Stone wrote that. And you're spot on about that existential loneliness. Conan brooding on the steps after killing the villain -- Milius's most blatant do-over of Apocalypse Now -- is just as effective for me as the crucifixion scene in getting the point across. This is a great review overall -- thanks!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Howdy, Uncle Sam.

Oh, I don't doubt that they cast Jones because they wanted Darth Vader, but that doesn't invalidate the subtext. Subtext isn't always intentional, after all.

I meant to mention the parallel scenes in Conan and Apocalypse Now, but I kind of wrote this in a dead heat and flat out forgot. Certainly, the end of the movie isn't nearly as triumphal as you would expect of a sword and sorcery epic. Hell, it's downright melancholy.

Mykal said...

Conan was always about loneliness, as was Howard. "I was a man before I was a king."

Ditto about Buscema's Conan being the Conan. Windsor-Smith's Conan was a smooth, lithe athlete compared to Buscema's dense, scarred, terrifying brute. I wasn't aware Buscema has fallen in stature - if so, it's a crime that should be punishable under the law. I consider the 1970s the zenith of comic book art, and Conan the Barbarian (those stories in the Buscema/Thomas era) some of the greatest comics ever done by any company.

Ditto on Howard. What an amazing writer. Upon going Kindle, among my first downloads were all the Conan titles. Have you read Howard's stories about the Crusades, sometimes called his "Oriental" stories? Fine, fine, fine. Bloody, lush and transporting.

I enjoyed your thoughts about Conan being, in a sense, about the anti-intellectualism of the barbarian vs. the intellect and civilization of Thulsa Doom.

I think you carry the point a shade far when placing things in an intellectual, right/left wing context, though (although it is fun to view it through that prism). Howard hated the way men shroud themselves in "civilization" thereby (as he saw it) allowing the cruel, weak and privileged to shuffle themselves to the top while disguising and muting a more noble, powerful, and barbaric humanity. Speaking for Howard is a fool's game, but playing the fool I don't imagine Howard would have seen a huge difference between President Obama and Rick Perry.

Another thought-provoking and excellent post.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal,

I've read most of the Howard that's available. I mainlined the stuff when I was a teen. I kind of agree with Robert Bloch, who preferred Howard's horror stories to his adventure stories, but that's a pointless preference given how good some of Howard's adventure stories are (and how much like horror stories many of them are). My favorite of his series characters was Solomon Kane (and I wish HIS movie were better, alas), but my favorites of all his stories are yarns (as he would have called them) like "The Black Stone" and "Old Garfield's Heart."

I think most of the political subtext I see in Conan the Barbarian flows from Milius.

Chris Hewson said...

Well when I watched the film, the subtext flew straight over my head, mainly because, for one-a guy's impression of watching Conan the Barbarian is basically "Sword! Grunt!"-and two-at that point, I'd seen all four Deathstalker films, most Ator movies, Beastmaster and Sword and the Sorcerer, yet I hadn't seen the film that started it all, so anything that wasn't the fantastic music and fun action was mentally sidelined.

Also, when I first watched Conan, I thought that at the end, Conan fought Thulsa Doom, who was in giant-snake-form, so naturally I was hella surprised to see the film ending the way it did! (Damn lying Wikipedia!)

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Chris.

Conan does actually fight a giant snake in the tower of the serpent, so you did get your payoff, even if it's not the climax and the snake's not Thulsa Doom. It's a pretty good giant snake, too, for a hydraulic puppet.

And, hey, grooving on films at a basic level of fantastic action and awesome music is a perfectly legit way to watch movies. I'm not wired that way anymore, though, unfortunately.

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: Milius - and the movie - of course. That was the topic of discussion, wasn't it? I'm afraid I let thoughts of Howard carry me away!

cinemarchaeologist said...

I think its unfortunate Milius decided to depart so radically from Howard and make the flicks about an uber-disciplined Aryan superman on a quest to save Patty Hearst from Charles Manson. And, of course, it must be shown that the cult of hedonistic hippies aren't harmless--turning them into cannibals is REALLY ham-handed.

I don't think it's nostalgia coloring your perceptions, though. CONAN THE BARBARIAN is a great, great movie, even with all its problems. There's a reason it spawned its own subgenre. One of the big reasons nothing else in that stream of movies ever topped it or even came near it is that it knew something they didn't; it knew when to take itself seriously, and was done well enough that it could credibly do so when it needed to.

As an aside, I strongly disagree with the idea that John Buscema has fallen from favor these days. That impression is generated by a lot of louder-than-thoughtful acolytes of Barry Windor-Smith who slink around the internet. For my part, I really like what BWS did with Conan, but there's no question his accomplishments have been obscenely overrated by this amen corner in recent years. His style, once he broke free of Kirby clone-dom, just wasn't well suited for Conan. He makes his stories look far too fairy-tale-like. Everything seems to glow. There are many moments in Conan where that's entirely appropriate, but that's how BWS did everything. He also had a terrible time with faces, settling, for most of his Conan time, on persistent manga-like distortions of the character's features (his Conan, in close-up, looks like a cave-man--a glowing cave-man). Conan should have a big presence, his mirths, melancholies, and meanness as big as he; his world needs both glamour and grit, his deeds power. This is what Buscema delivered, and part of why he's easily the best Conan comic artist.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, J. R.

I'm happy to see the love for John Buscema. A lot of the commentary I see on his work anymore describes him as "workmanlike" and as a "journeyman," and it depresses me that these epithets have negative connotations. As a working artist myself, I have no illusions that art is not work, that being an artist is not a job. As an aside, it warms my black little heart to see Buscema's granddaughter, Stephanie, carrying on the family business, though a more different artist I cannot imagine.

As for Barry Smith: I love his work, but I mostly love the work he did after he left comics. His art prints from the late seventies and early eighties are gorgeous and when he came back to comics after a long time off, his work was dramatically changed. I'm not really a fan of his work on Conan, but I'll tell you what, his send-up of Conan in late middle age in his Freebooters series was priceless. It wouldn't have been as funny without his early work.