Gigantic Melancholies and Gigantic Mirth - Conan in the '80s

I wrote two articles for Tor on the Conan movies from the 1980s - here are some teasers, along with the links, seeing as I won't be able to comment on the new Conan movie for a week or so, as I have an out-of-town (I mean, in the woods!) speaking engagement this next week.

Gigantic Melancholies: Conan the Barbarian

I saw Conan the Barbarian late in its theatrical run, despite being only eleven years old, thanks to my father’s willingness to smuggle me in to a drive-in showing beneath a sleeping bag in the king-cab of his truck. Dutiful father he was, he made me close my eyes for the nudity, and murmur something like, “Don’t tell your mother about that,” for all the gore.

I remember being rather taken with the spectacle of the film, but unable to articulate why it didn’t bear the same ad nauseum repeat viewings that the far inferior, but more fun Sword and the Sorcerer did. If you’d given me the choice between watching Albert Pyun’s splatterfest of schlock and sorcery  and Milius’s brooding barbarian bent on vendetta, I’d have chosen the triple-bladed-sword every time. Repeat viewings of both, along with the eventual dog-earing of my Ace Conan paperbacks lead me to the conclusion that I’d be hoping to see Conan on the screen when I went to see Schwarzenegger. What I got was a somber Cimmerian, and so was disappointed. I had no expectations of Pyun’s hyperbolized hero, Talon (played by Lee Horsley of Matt Houston fame), but got a character who, while lacking the mighty thews we’d come to expect of Conan (thanks largely Frank Frazetta’s cover paintings, and then John Buscema and Ernie Chan, who put Conan on a regimen of steroids), had the sharp mind of the thief, the propensity for violence of the reaver and slayer, and a combination of melancholy and mirth that Conan exhibited throughout Howard’s writing. In short, I realized that Milius’ Conan wasn’t necessarily Howard’s Conan, despite the film’s narrative nods to Howard’s stories, from the crucifixion scene (“A Witch Shall Be Born”) to Valeria’s promise to return from the grave (“Queen of the Black Coast”).

This isn’t a bad thing: by the time Conan the Barbarian hit theaters, Howard’s character was half a century old, and had taken on a life of his own beyond his creator’s writing. First we had the pastiches, edits, and new tales of L. Sprague De Camp, Bjorn Nyberg, Lin Carter, and later a host of other fantasy writers, including SF heavyweight Poul Anderson. Then came the Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic series and its adult contemporary, Savage Sword of Conan, which adapted both the original REH stories as well as the pastiches, in addition to adding its own new stories and characters to the Conan mythology. So despite protestations by REH purists, by the time Oliver Stone and John Milius wrote the script for Conan the Barbarian, there was no uniform character anymore, but rather a toolbox to draw from: within the comic books alone there were multiple Conans to choose from: the lean, wiry youth of Barry-Windsor Smith, or the hulking bearskin-clad brute of John Buscema?

Read the rest of the article here, at Tor. com

Gigantic Mirth: Conan the Destroyer

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired [badly wigged], sullen-eyed, looking mostly confused, sword in hand, [with] a thief, a reaver [former NBA star], and slayer Grace Jones, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet [and amazing jockstrap].

If you watch Conan the Destroyer back-to-back with Conan the Barbarian, it should take you less than five minutes to divine know how bad this movie is going to be. In the thirty years since I last saw it, I’d forgotten just how terrible it is. The Carmina-Burana-like “Anvil of Crom” theme that started the original has been replaced by a more upbeat adventure theme; the forging of a sword is now footage of horsemen wearing armor that looks suspiciously like armor from the first film; and we’ve been informed that Wilt Chamberlain is playing a role, and may be speaking lines. Things go rapidly downhill from there, and never recover.

Conan has lost his leather trousers, and is now clad in just his underwear, or what is quite possibly the jockstrap David Bowie wore in Labyrinth. Despite being nearly nude, he’s adopted a form of Hyborean Puritanism, pining away for his lost love Valeria, and having nothing to do with any other women (although this wasn’t the case in the original cut — just the PG version that we ended up with). He’s just a big sweaty tease.
This whole movie is an exercise in what happens when you take an R-rated character like Conan and try to make him PG. There are some moments that scream for Tom Servo to make commentary, like when Sarah Douglas, as Queen Taramis, rushes to her teenage neice’s bedroom to find her screaming, clad in a slinky little number. Wilt Chamberlain, the man who boasted of having had sex with 20,000 women, is already there. Creeeepy.

Read the rest of the article here, at Tor. com


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