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Conan (2011)

Well, if you’re going to write a review about Conan (2011), you have to start with the origin story, i.e. talk about Robert E. Howard. Now our Bob was not a run-of-the-mill spinner of barbarian tales. He could take everyday rubbish and elevate it to heroically bad rubbish. Because, not to put too fine a point on it, by Crom, he was a heroically bad writer. However, he did have one redeeming feature. He recognised that, if you’re to become a well-paid purveyor of heroic fantasy tales involving barbarians and their big swords, you must keep them short. Praise be to Bob the Merciful. Hence, almost without exception, all the Conan stories are thin adventure stories of only a few pages in length. That way we get the excitement before the boredom sets in. You see whereas ordinary humans have two halves of a brain to rub together to make fire, it’s doubtful Conan actually has a brain. He lives for his sword which, as those well-versed in metaphors will know, is that short, pointy thing you use to penetrate a woman.

Jason Momoa posing with his sword in Conan 2011

 

That said, I’m embarrassed to admit having read a fair percentage of the Conan stories (the best are those edited and/or written by Lin Carter, Sprague De Camp, Karl Edward Wagner, and a small army of others). Worse, I paid to see the Schwarzenegger films, the best of which is Red Sonja (starring Brigitte Nielsen) where Arnie played Prince Kalidor as if he was Conan. However, what remains in the memory is not our muscle-bound hero, but the voice (and presence) of James Earl Jones who was wonderful as Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian.

 

From all this, you will gather I’m delaying actually talking about Conan (2011). So, let’s put fear behind us and get to it.

 

After the voiceover monologue introducing the idea of wizardy goings-on in Hyboria, we’re led to expect a barbarian age. You should understand that all the worst sword and sorcery films have voiceovers. Just in case you don’t get the point, this film has two. The first bridges us from the great Darkness which is the cinema with the lights dimmed down, and introduces Ron Perlman who’s struggling in battle under the weight of too much hair. Having vanquished a few enemies with some swishes of his sword, he’s bearing down on his wife who, rather than go through labour in the heat of battle, insists on an instant caesarian section to bring Conan into the world. Fortunately Ron has also had a lot of practice with a knife as well as a sword.

Rachel Nichols looking virginal in Conan 2011

 

With the death of his mother, we move forward in time to the young Conan (Leo Howard). He’s a winner in the village fell running competition before the raid that will kill everyone else including his father. This is all mildly engaging with Conan displaying impressive fighting skills even before being taught to fight properly by his father — that’s Ron still sporting too much hair. Believe me when I tell you this is the only part of the film worth watching and it’s due in no small part to the screen presence of young Leo Howard. Then after another voiceover we’re into the main body of the film and we get our first glimpse of Jason Momoa. Essentially this is the same performance as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones but with a straight, not a curved, sword. I know Conan is supposed to be grim and somewhat unforgiving, but this performance is as completely humourless as it’s possible to get. I’ve had more laughs out of watching trees wave their branches about when a strong wind blows. To say this is a lumbering performance is to compliment the acting. To say this is a good fighting film is to praise the editors who managed to cobble sequences together where people die thanks to the sudden arrival of various weapons in their vicinity. Frankly, the Hollywood version of fighting is depressing when you compare it to the quality of work achieved in Hong Kong and China. It takes a skillful editor to hide the fact that none of the people on screen can fight properly using swords and the other weapons on display.

"Is this a mask I see before me?" asks Stephen Lang in Conan 2011

 

What passes for a plot is the usual episodic leap from one fight to the next. Conan shows he’s a good guy by rescuing slaves. Conan shows he’s a vengeful guy by rescuing a thief, allowing them both to be arrested and then killing all the guards in the slave camp (different slaves, different camp, you understand). Then he rescues the girl Tamara (Rachel Nichols) and just to prove love at first sight, he ties her up and stuffs a gag in her mouth as their first bondage session. The sex does come later but, in the version I saw, there was a very clumsy edit to remove the sordid details which, I assume, was the work of local censors.

 

Then we have a CGI-enhanced fight between Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), his witchy daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) and some sandmen. It’s at this point Tamara suddenly demonstrates she’s secretly been practicing self-defence because she pulls out a letter opener and proceeds to send a few sandmen back to ground. Later on in a fight on board a ship, she picks up a sword and kills a few highly trained soldiers with some timely thrusts. Her fencing coach would be proud.

Rose McGowan looking witchy in Conan 2011

 

After spilling all this blood, Tamara’s finally in the mood for sex but, after she’s reduced Conan to a slumbering hulk, she wanders into the forest where the witchy one (still channelling Charmed) captures her. Now she’s readied for the starring role in the big ceremony to bring back Mom from the underworld. Fortunately, Conan has time to drop into a nearby city, find the thief he almost got killed, and break in through the backdoor of Khalar Zym’s fortress. Having done so, our hero discovers the baddies have already left with their sacrificial victim. They must travel to the cliffs shaped like a skull — bit of a give-away that skull-cliff. It all comes out as you would expect in the big fight. Sorry, I should have put in a spoiler warning earlier, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised by the ending.

 

The best of the barbarian films are saved by their villains and some good fights. Stephen Lang makes a fair shot at being villainous until the director, Marcus Nispel, decides he should wear a balaclava — it’s supposed to be a bone mask come to life, but it just makes our poor villain look as if he’s wrapping up warm for winter. Rose McGowan is a complete failure at portraying evil. She’s just having a bad hair day every day. The fights are pathetic. So let’s say you don’t mind wasting your money, the thrill has gone out of knitting, and you feel the need for some real excitement in your life. Now, Conan is for you. Otherwise avoid it like the plague.

 

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Categories: Books
  1. August 20, 2011 at 6:41 am

    What an amusing post.

    I honestly don’t know if you’ve read a single Robert E. Howard short story, if you can possibly come away from them thinking LIN CARTER of all people was a better writer. I mean, The Library of America and Penguin Classics have to be told – they’ve allowed a “Heroically Bad Writer” into their hallowed collections. Either that, or you’ve read a lost set of Conan tales I’ve never had the “pleasure” of reading. Or perhaps you just haven’t read them in a long time.

    Conan not having a brain is certainly not the impression I got when I read his philosophical monologue in “Queen of the Black Coast,” or his searing criticisms of foreign policy in “Beyond the Black River,” or his Machievallian plotting in “The Black Stranger.”

    Also, short stories only a few pages long? Then why did he bother with novellas and novels, many of which are considered his finest work?

    • August 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm

      For a man who only finished twenty-one Conan stories, Robert E Howard has acquired a remarkable reputation. I suspect it’s because the character acquired a life independent of the author. Once you feature him in comics, which are then followed up by TV, film adaptations and games (both board and electronic), people are identifying with Conan as a character and not with Howard, his creator. I have to say this reflects the prose style and attitudes of the author. I take nothing away from him. In his own time, he was a success. Yet, his work has aged really badly. He was born at the turn of the last century. Not the most educated of men, he was, at times, clinically depressed which, in part, explains his suicide. I read some of the stories back in the fifties when I bought a run of Weird Tales. I later filled in the gaps as the Lancer/Ace collections appeared — thanks to the work of Lin Carter and De Camp, a more coherent view of the stories emerged. But, frankly, they were of their time. I’m faintly amused I can even remember them. Indeed, on balance, I think I prefer Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane although, in the 1970s, he did a remarkably good job in editing Howard into a more readable form.

      To answer your other point, the Conan stories were also short by modern standards. Today, almost everyone who gets into print writes far longer stories than the pulp writers of the 1930s. That’s why even the early Conan collections were able to include multiple stories in each novel length edition. For the record, Howard never wrote a Conan novel.

  2. August 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    I tried to read some of Howard’s Conan stories just a few years ago, and must admit to having found them rather dull. (Specifically, I read the first few hundred pages of The Conan Chronicles, Vol. 1, which covered however many stories two hundred paperback pages covers, before giving the book to a friend.) I wouldn’t have called Conan stupid, just simple. I thought his inflexible, just but barbarous morality was the most interesting aspect of the character.

    Anyway, this is an entertaining review of a film I only learned existed a few days ago – thanks for saving me the trouble and providing more amusement than the film would have!

    • August 22, 2011 at 6:59 pm

      It’s an honour to meet someone who managed to remain unaware of Conan‘s latest appearance until a few days ago. As to the Gollancz edition of The Conan Chronicles Volume 1, it contains 19 stories, some finished, others unfinished, and fragments. The remaining ten bits he wrote about Conan are in Volume 2. Gollancz promote these stories as “Masterworks” i.e. works written 70 and more years ago people might have heard of.

  3. Herb
    August 31, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Would any of you happen to know what model sword he uses in this movie before he gets his fathers back? Or if i can get a replica of it anywhere? The sword from the pic where he is posing.

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