Monday, 29 August 2011

Conan The Barbarian

Something familiar, Something peculiar, Something for everyone: A CROMedy tonight!

Conan The Barbarian 2011 USA
Directed by Marcus Nispel
Screening at UK cinemas

Ok... so last night I saw a new peplum called Conan The Barbarian. True, it’s not a peplum in the absolute strictest sense of the word (just like John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars and Assault on Precinct 13 aren’t technically Westerns, although you’d be hard pressed to find anyone refuting that claim) since it’s an American made tale of the mighty Cimmerian... and this is fitting since Conan was created, after all, by a young man by the name of Robert E. Howard of Cross Plains, Texas in 1932.

The movie I watched, however, does harken back to the traditions of the Maciste and Hercules pictures that were churned out year after year by the Italian film industry. Granted, it’s not as close in style to these movies, perhaps, as the original 1982 movie of the same title, but it’s certainly another stab at the US sword and sandal epics that kickstarted the whole peplum cycles in the first place (right back in the silent movie era if memory serves me right... and I know if it doesn’t then one of you lot will jump on here and have a moan at me in the comments section, I hope).

And it gets better. Not only was it a fair to middling peplum... although very much with a modern (or should that be postmodern?) flavour, but it’s also not a terrible version of Conan, so that’s not so bad then. Granted, it’s not quite got the feel the original stories had when they were published in such pulps as Weird Tales, but the character has certainly been injected with a certain gutsiness which is pretty basic if you’re going to make a movie about this kind of character.

The classic image of Conan is not that of the ones depicted on the occasional cover of Weird Tales magazine, who may well have been best represented by an actor like Victor Mature, but those put out by both Marvel Comics in the 70s and in the illustration work of the late, great Frank Frazetta. Which is fine because that was also closer to Howard’s Conan than the images depicted on the pulp covers.

This Conan is, thankfully, not a straight remake of the 1982 movie, however it is also nowhere near it’s equal and, unfortunately, makes some of the same mistakes as that one did... and when I say mistakes I am merely commenting on the faults of the process of adaptation as I see them applied here.

Now Robert E. Howard’s stories are the way I knew Conan as a kid... and for some reason the quote “I’ll split your head like a ripe melon” is spiralling it’s way back from the past to me. I have to say though, if this phrase were the only qualification to make a great movie from the Cimmerian’s adventures then both the Conan The Barbarian movies are excellent adaptations (I’m gonna forget about Conan The Destroyer because the Conan’ness of it was torn from it and it was reduced to being a second rate Sinbad movie... with Grace Jones in it). However, what I remember from these stories is that they were all fairly short. If my hazy memory serves me well then I think I’m right in thinking that Howard only wrote one full novel... one set much later in Conan’s chronology, when he was a king and had a son. The shorts were always quite episodic and although a rough chronology could be put together from them, they were mostly never a part of a larger arc and usually started when Conan was always just on his way to or from somewhere else where he’d had untold adventures.

The films are therefore not the best format to adapt this character to because you have to impinge your own narrative structure on them. Howard’s other character Soloman Kane had a whole movie made a year or so ago about a back story that he never wrote... but that one at least was on a level with the 1982 Conan movie in terms of watchability. Both the 1982 and the 2011 movies have gone for a revenge story surrounding the death of Conan’s parents when he was a child (indeed, the new one makes the death of his father into almost the reveal of Charles Bronson’s character in Once Upon A Time In The West)... both run in slightly different directions and both properly bring in black magical arts and sorcery, as they should. It has to be said though that the new Conan The Barbarian also uses a ridiculous and tired old concept of a divided symbol or talisman (in this case a mask) of which the restoration of all the pieces will allow a sacrificial ritual to be performed and evil to rise. In the pre-credits sequence (which actually uses a few dialogue lines in voice over which were used in the 1982 movie’s pre-credits sequence) we are even shown the mask smashed into uneven segments. Funny then, I thought to myself as the bad guy in this movie did his thing, how those segments just snap back into place like an old Aurora model kit with no glue or anything needed... considering it had been, you know, smashed into pieces and all.

This Conan, like the 1982 version, has various set-pieces linked together by the underlying narrative but each of these set-pieces does follow a progression (unlike the 1982 original which had a few things going off into their own tangents) and while this probably makes for a stronger movie for some audiences, I somehow found it a bit of a turn off and another step away from the spirit of Howard’s Conan. That being said, I’m sure Howard would have gone on to write many more, tightly structured Conan novels had he lived... but he shot himself at the age of 30.

There were a fair few Conan novels written and published by other writers in the 70s when I were a lad (it was almost impossible to go in any bookshop in those days and not see 30 or so different novels depicting a half-naked Conan attacking some foul creature of dark sorcery while a similarly half-naked girl looked on). However, I can’t really look on these as official Conan stories and so I can only compare the film to the original novels and, obviously, films in a similar vein from the past.

Where I stand with the new one is that it gets a few things right and a few things wrong... and we’re left with something which is not quite Conan but enjoyable all the same... although, to be fair, it does drag in some places.

So what did it get right and where did it go wrong?

Well it was pretty violent, Conan was pretty ruthless and there was mention and obvious links and references in the movie to his days as a “freebooter”. This is all good stuff. Unfortunately, for all this it still got a bit boring in places and there were not enough examples of monsters or sorcery. The one big scene where Conan had to fight invincible soldiers spawned from the sand drags on far too long and just was not a great action sequence. He needed to fight a skeleton or a snake humanoid or something more Conan-ish I fear... and possibly find himself seduced by an evil enchantress. This one didn’t quite cut it because it felt like everything in this movie had to have a reason for happening... and Conan was never really like that as far as I can remember. Things just happened to him.

Also, Tyler Bates score is quite competent and useable but it's not the absolute masterpiece of scoring that we got from the late Basil Poledouris for the 1982 movie. That one is constantly flagged up as being one of the greatest movie scores ever written, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the more famous scores by Rosza, Herrmann and Bernstein so... well really, Tyler Bates had a lot to live up to and he does a serviceable job.

So I’d recommend this movie to a point but I’d have to say that this one didn’t nearly nail it as much as the 1982 movie did and also I’d have to personally proclaim this as one of the noisiest action movies ever. This continues the tradition of movie sound effects started in From Russia With Love of having the thuds, clangs and suchlike turned up way past their natural sound setting. Yep, all the sounds are dialled up to 11 on the mix in Conan The Barbarian. So you might want to have a think about giving your eardrums the gift of cotton wool before you go into the cinema. Also... the 3D was, as usual in contemporary movies, completely unnecessary. So there’s that.

All in all then, a mostly fun, enjoyable film but it’s not nearly as much as being in the spirit of the original Conan stories as the original movie was (which is a hard act to follow since that one was written by John Milius and Oliver Stone)... or even as much of a Conan movie as The Scorpion King was to be honest. Recommended with caution on the understanding that this is only the second best Conan movie ever made... like I said, we don’t mention Conan The Destroyer around these parts.

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