Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Conan the Barbarian”

Dear Frank,

Thank you so much for telling me about My Neighbor Totoro last week! Miyazaki has always been a director I’ve struggled to appreciate, but there is the slightest chance that I now get what the big deal is.

I can only hope I bring that same level of joy to today’s retelling of the 1982 classic Conan the Barbarian. Because let me be clear here, Frank — this movie is a delight. It’s a weird, slowly-paced flavor of delight, but its blunt, hypermasculine telling of a legend I have done absolutely no research into prior to writing this is downright arresting.

Lest you had doubts about this movie’s politics or message, Conan opens with a quote from Nietzsche about his beloved Ubermensch philosophy. When we meet the titular Ubermensch, though, he is but a little boy being raised by his father to believe in the god Krum, who lives in the ground and is responsible for all good things.

Life seems good for Li’l Conan, but then (because these are barbarian times) his home village is raided by an outside gang of troops, and they kill his parents and enlist him into slavery. Eh oh. Conan’s particular brand of slavery involves being chained to a wheel he has to push forward, but soon he is the only slave pushing it, and he is a grown man! A grown man played by Ahnuld Schwarzenegger. That is a lot of wheel-pushing, especially when you consider that the movie never explains what the wheel is for.

Because of Conan’s stunning intellect (hahahahah that was a funny joke no it’s entirely because of his physical strength) Conan gets a slavery transfer to the Gladiator department. With some fancy ninja training under his belt, Conan quickly becomes a killing machine — killing and killing and killing all who dare challenge him.

There are maybe three things, Frank, that you and any casual reader of this post should be sure to retain — knowing about and being able to reference these elements will get you through any Conan-related conversation in the future. Here is Number One: During a party celebrating how good Conan is at killing people, Conan is sitting on a table, and someone asks him “Conan! What is best in life?” The answer:

It’s an incredible moment, especially because it comes about half an hour into the movie — and it is Ahnuld’s official first line of dialogue. That’s Know This #1!

(Quick note: If you’re ever reading Warren Ellis’s blog and you see a post titled “Conan! What is best in life?” DO NOT CLICK THE LINK. You will live a happier and fuller life that way.)

Shortly after our big lamentation moment, Conan gets kicked out of the gladiator club and goes to wander free. He literally wanders the countryside, finding a sword in a dead king’s tomb (“Steel, you can trust!”) and getting seduced by a weird witch lady at some point — though when she goes all witchy mid-coitus, he throws her into the fire and she burns to death. Not a gentleman, our man Conan.

Shortly after this, Conan meets a guy who I just remember as “That Thief,” and so he teams up with the thief to do some thieving. In many ways, this movie lacks a strong central narrative, which is why many plot developments are summarized like so: “Conan just does some stuff for a while.” The downside of this is that it took me three days to watch this movie, because I kept falling asleep. The upside is that RIDICULOUS things happen when Conan just wanders around. Like, oh, god, I can’t do it justice, just watch what happens when Conan and the thief guy get stoned on some high-quality barbarian drugs:

That right there? That is Know This #2.

So on a thieving expedition, Conan and thief guy infiltrate a snake cult lead by James Earl Jones to steal their jewels — but while they’re at it they encounter a sexy blond lady thief. Reluctantly, they work together, and it seems to go well — especially when Conan and lady thief celebrate by boning. (Good or evil, if there’s a lady in this movie Conan most likely bones her.)

Things seem sunny, with the happy trio celebrating their successful theft by getting super drunk, but then the King of whatever region they’re in has them summoned. See, the King’s daughter has fallen in with this snake cult and/or James Earl Jones, and he wants them to bring her back home. The thieves aren’t really interested — they’re, you know, thieves, not princess-rescuers — but Conan has had a REALIZATION! While it’s been perfectly obvious to us the audience this whole time, he just figured out that James Earl was the guy who lead the attack on his family’s village — and personally killed his family.

Oh, by the way? James Earl can turn into a giant snake. This movie is really fucking weird at certain points. Also, “James Earl Jones leads a snake cult and can turn into a giant snake”? Yep, that’s Know This #3!

Anyways, Conan ditches his thief friends and goes to infiltrate the snake cult. He gets some robes off a gay snake cult priest (this movie has a strong opinion on what you should do to gay people, by the way: beat them up) but he is otherwise terrible at cult infiltration — James Earl catches him and YIKES crucifies him. Fortunately, they do it wrong because instead of choking to death (yes, that is generally what kills you when you’ve been crucified), Conan lives long enough for his friends to rescue him! Hooray!

Of course, then they need to bring him back to life, which they do with the help of an awfully eager wizard dude — who, it’s established at some point, is the one providing the ultra-breathless narration of this film, but his role as narrator is ultimately irrelevant to this film. Lady Thief, who seems more into Conan than he is into her, goes all out trying to bring him back to life, saying that she knows there will be consequences for that. WHOOPS SPOILERS.

Once Conan is better, he insists on going back after the snake cult, because of his lust for revenge. His buddies accompany him, and they do manage to rescue the princess.

But WHOOOPS as they’re riding away Lady Thief gets shot by a snake arrow that James Earl fires at them. What a dick! He totally kills her! She dies in Conan’s arms (literally saying “Let me breathe my last breath into your mouth,” um, did I mention how weird this movie is?) and it is very sad.

I’m not going to hold this film up as an example of progressive feminism — I’m pretty sure Conan rapes at least two women during it — but Lady Thief was a pretty awesome character with a pretty solid catchprase (“Do you want to live forever?”), and she will be missed. UNLESS SHE COMES BACK UM SPOILER ALERT.

With Lady Thief dead, that just leaves Dude Thief and that wizard to help Conan create a fortified base to defend themselves against… The snake cult and its army? I guess they aren’t thrilled about Conan retrieving the princess. Go figure.

As the snake army rides towards them, Conan prays to Krum for the first time, asking for help with his revenge. And lucky for him, Krum is a vengeful god, because hhe defenses work! “Two stand against many” (turns out the wizard doesn’t count?) and win! There are some excellent booby traps involved — a theme with Ahnuld movies, it seems.

Oh, but this battle might not have gone so well had the ghost of Lady Thief, in full Valkyrie ghost getup, not shown up just in time to save Conan. She gets one last opp to spout her catchphrase before fading into the mist.

James Earl survives the battle but retreats — however, Conan just takes that as an invitation to follow him back to the giant snake temple. There, Conan truly confronts him, while James Earl tries to talk him down, telling Conan that everything he is, he owes to him, and calling him “my son.”

To me, it seems like a bad idea to call someone whose dad you murdered “my son,” and I am right about because Conan then flat out chops off James Earl’s head and throws it into the crowd. EH OH! That, I suppose, turns out to be all the snake cult needs to disband; the followers extinguish their torches and wander off. Even the princess (who by the way has remained devoted to the snake cult since her capture) gives up and bows to Conan.

Conan, having successfully achieved vengeance, takes a moment to sit and think about everything. Frankly, watching Ahnuld “think” is easily the least convincing moment of the movie. And a lady came back from the dead to have a sword fight.

Oh, and then you see Old Man Conan — you can tell he’s old, because of the beard — sitting on a throne, also thinking (this is more convincing, because of the beard). The narrator says that he eventually became “a king by his own hand,” and that that is an adventure that will also be told. Allegedly, that happens in Conan the Destroyer, which perhaps I will tell you about at a later stage. Right now, though, I’ve spent the last three evenings with Conan, which is more than sufficient.

“Liz! What is best in life?” “Sleep.”

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on March 22, 2011, in All the Spoilers, Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Yo, Liz, I like the blog! Just wanted to throw in my personal theory on this ridiculously amazing film.

    I’m a firm believer that Conan the Barbarian was meant to be satire. The score is so over-the-top. The violence and sex are so over-the-top. Conan and his companions run EVERYWHERE, constantly. Hours and hours and hours apparently these guys run. People identify themselves like, “Hi, I’m an archer and a thief.” And then, of course, there is the greatest piece of satire ever made: Arnold himself. Playing the role so friggin seriously because he doesn’t realize realize he IS the joke.

    That is all.

    Sameer Ketkar

  2. That Poledouris score still gives me the happies. I love that score like fire. It helped me sell my parents’ house in a very soft real estate market.

    There are so many other things to love in this film, too. I love (in no particular order):

    1. Giant Hammer guy and Very Long Head guy
    2. The sound the rubber mask stand-in for James Earl Jones’ head makes as it thuck-thucks down the stairs. Seriously, no foley!
    3. *Anything* that has James Earl Jones as a bad guy calling the intrepid young hero “my son”
    4. The ginormous vat of Opaque Gray Human Bits Soup
    5. The least interesting orgy scene in all of cinematic history
    6. The moment right after Conan finds the sword and uses it to clang-off his ankle shackle, when he’s standing on top of the rocky crypt and looking off into the distance in 3/4 profile, he looks EXACTLY like Katrina from the “Walking on Sunshine” video. It’s uncanny.

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