Sunday, August 28, 2011


I entered the theater to see the new film CONAN THE BARABARIAN with very low expectations. This was the correct way to sit down for a viewing of this film if you have seen more than 25 or 30 movies in your life. I can imagine a teenager, just out of the house with friends for the first time sneaking into a screening of CONAN on a dare because it’s an R rated film and being utterly dazzled. There is nothing wrong with this (other than whatever guilt the universe serves up for the ‘crime’ of watching age inappropriate cinema) and I could understand how a young lad might love the film with its wizards, pirates, naked breasts, fierce bloodshed and even a multi-tentacled monster. Twenty-five years ago I would have been that bright-eyed boy, happy to see some of the things I read about in adventure fiction come to life onscreen. But that was then and this is now so lowered expectations saved the day.

I have officially given up on there ever being a faithful adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s literary character of Conan of Cimmeria. Conan has become far too much a part of the wider pop culture landscape for the brutal pulp fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s to ever be translated to the big screen with real fidelity. But I’m fine with that. For years I had hopes that I might one day see such a film but this new movie has made me come to terms with the fact that I’m wishing for the extremely unlikely- and that’s OK. I understand how a Howard fan could be disappointed or angry that once again Hollywood has missed the chance to put the great warrior onto forty foot tall screens but I am not one of them. I now know that, although it would be great, I will never see it. After the 1982 film, a television series, an animated series, hundreds of comic books and even toys Conan is now and forever part of the larger entertainment environment. There will always be a place for the Barbarian but he will rarely be recognizable as the creation of REH. But that, once again, is OK. The original stories and one novel penned by that young Texas writer will always be waiting on bookshelves (both literal and electronic) for the rest of eternity and his work will be discovered by many a curious lad from now until the sun dies out. For me that is enough.

As for the new film- it’s not terrible. It starts off well with Conan’s birth on a battlefield as he is welcomed into the Hyborian Age by Ron Perlman playing his father. Nice! Any time you include Perlman in your cast I’m already on your side. The early scenes of young Conan proving his strength and sword skills are impressive as is the sequence that takes away his father and sets up the long term plot the film will follow. Overall I liked more of the film than I disliked and one of the things I liked the most was the upfront use of wizards and evil magic as central to the story. This gave a good feeling of threat to the proceedings as it also provided juicy opportunities to showcase some effective CGI work. The fight between Conan and a group of magically conjured Sand Warriors was well staged and quite exciting.

Sadly, there are three spots where the film looses its grip through a combination of poor editing, sloppy scripting and a bad choice in staging a section of the final confrontation. I won’t spoil things but I’ll just say that there was no need to make a certain escape quite so silly in execution by invoking the image of a playground see-saw. Still- the film managed to keep me happy for the most part and one of the main reasons is a bit of a surprise- I really liked the cast. Jason Momoa as Conan was very good at getting across complex things with few words and physically he was very believable in the well done fight scenes. The young actor who played Conan in the early part of the film was good as well but I would have left out the final scream of rage that signals his last moment in the film. Stephen Lang as the madman in a decades long quest to become a god and resurrect his dead wife is fantastic as is the suitable evil Rose McGowan as his wizard daughter. Everyone plays the film straight up the middle with no winking at the camera and for that I was very grateful. The film’s tone was serious and anything that might have disrupted this was wisely left out.

So, in the final analysis, CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011) isn’t too bad and is actually better than I feared it might be. It’s not great and I still prefer the seriously flawed 1982 film but maybe that’s because I was 14 when it came out. I should really thank my Dad for taking me to see that one at such an impressionable age.

It’s time to pull those new editions of the Howard tales off the shelf for some late summer pulp fiction reading.


shloggs said...

I felt much the same way about the film. I too, saw Milius' Conan as a young man and will always have nostalgic reverence for it, but this was enjoyable, trashy fun that doesn't deserve to raked over the critical coals as much as it has been.

Rod Barnett said...

Wow! I consider this high praise and I'm thrilled to be in the same critical spot as you. Thanks for stopping by and reading my scrawls.