Conan Movies: From Best in Life to Worst
- by ReuBen DeBord, 2 March 2016
While I am sometimes pretty choosy when it comes to what science fiction and fantasy stories I want to consume, I do have a guilty pleasure, and that is fantasy barbarian stories! I love me some fantasy barbarism! Film, prose, comics, it doesn’t matter what medium, if it’s got evil wizards, ancient monsters and bands of crude pirates, then I’m there! While you could arguably trace this genre all the way back to Ancient Greece with stories of Perseus, Heracles and Odysseus, these kinds of stories got their modern start in the 20th century when Robert E Howard created Kull of Atlantis and later Conan of Cimmeria, cementing the barbarian genre for the next several decades in print, and later in film as well!
In film, lots of movies have taken a page out of the book of the Howardian Barbarian, like Beastmaster or The Sword and the Sorcerer, or even more child friendly fare like Legend. But today I want to focus specifically on the Howardian Barbarian, and movies about Howard’s characters, and how good these movies are, and in what order they should be ranked. This means the 3 films about Conan the Barbarian and the film about Kull the Conqueror (no, I won’t be talking about the Brigitte Nielsen Red Sonja film. Even I have standards). Since Conan was just a redressed version of Kull when he was first created, this is a lot like me talking about and ranking all the films of one character!
And I should mention that I’ll be ranking these movies as films first, and I won’t really be judging them on how “accurate” they are to the characters presented in the Robert E Howard stories, since I’m mostly familiar with these characters through the films and the comic books based on Howard’s stories, and not so much from the stories of Howard himself.
While this is the best of the Conan films, that isn’t saying much, because this movie has lots and lots of problems, from a film perspective. For one, this movie is just way to long for what little plot we get. It’s just over 2 hours long, but it’s 16 minutes before we even get to see Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it’s 40 minutes into the movie before the meat of the story starts to unfold. Even if you’ve never heard of Conan, you don’t need 15 minutes to tell the audience that his village was killed and he was raised in slavery, and you don’t need another 20 minutes showing these little micro-adventures that have nothing to do with the tale of vengeance against Thulsa Doom, like Conan sleeps with a demon lady, or Conan learns to read while he’s a slave. In short, this movie coulda benefited from the Grant Morrison approach of keep it simple, stupid for the origin stuff. Boil it down to the absolute bare minimum, and lets get on to Conan beheading the scoundrels who murdered his village. But there’s a big problem with this movie. When you get past all that stuff in the first third of the movie, there’s just not much plot here. Conan meets up with his buddies, they steal stuff, they’re hired to rescue the King’s Daughter, they do it, Conan’s friend dies, Conan then goes and kills the bad guy. This sounds like enough plot to fit in a short story, but it doesn’t sound like enough to make an entire movie out of.
Beyond all the plot and narrative problems I have with this film, I also had a hard time latching onto Conan himself. The problem isn’t with Arnold himself (although I will say he’s had other movies where he acted better than he does here), but with the way Conan is written. Every time I watch this movie, I’m more interested in Valeria than Conan. She’s smarter and she’s always the one actually DOING stuff. She’s the one who rescues the princess, while Conan spills a cauldron of Nickelodeon slime. She’s the one who brings Conan back to life because he was an idiot who went and got himself crucified. It isn’t until the final act of the movie that Conan actually starts to feel like a protagonist of his own movie.
So why do I place this movie above all of the other Conan films? Because despite all of the narrative issues and the main character being more of a side character in his own movie, this film is barrels of fun. And as flawed as it is, we have this movie to thank for paving the way for all the other sword and sorcery films we’ve gotten in the decades since then, so it’s hard for me to stay mad at it, even when it does so much wrong.
Much like the Amazing Spider-Man movie, this film is a weird combination of reboot and remake. The very bare bones plot of Conan searching for the dude who killed his parents when he was a kid is all there, but instead of Thulsa Doom, it’s Khalar Zym. And instead of a bored cult leader who has outgrown his warrior ways, he’s trying to turn himself into a god and resurrect his dead wife. The rest of it is pretty different, but if you’re looking for a completely new and different Conan story, you might want to give one of the other movies on this list a chance.
And I will say that the big thing that keeps me from loving this movie as much as I probably should is that so much of it does feel copy and pasty. Like the first Conan movie, this one thinks that we need 20 minutes of Conan as a kid learning how to make swords and carry eggs in his mouth and stuff that roughly zero percent of audiences care about. You might think that Ron Perlman telling kid-Conan that ice and fire are both important in the creation of a sword is somehow going to pay off later in the movie, but it does not. Most of the first third of this movie could be cut and given to us in exposition between characters later in the movie, which we get anyway, so I’m doubly confused as to why we needed all of this, other than to pad out the movie.
But this one ranks pretty high on the list, partly because it looks amazing. What little I know about the world of Conan is that it’s a world that has monsters and demons and magic and things not found in our world. So we should get to see sand-zombies and giant tentacle beasts and creepy bald sorceresses as part of the norm of this world. That’s something that I think this movie “gets” more than any of the other sword and sorcery films on this list, even the first Conan film. Sure, that’s probably because that sort of thing is much easier to accomplish now than it was 30 years ago, or even 20 years ago, but still, it is a point in this film’s favor.
I also prefer Jason Momoa as Conan over Arnold, but that could be that by 2011, Momoa had more experience as an actor than Arnold, especially since many of the characters he’s played outside of this movie fall into the hunky barbarian role, like Ronon Dex and Khal Drogo.
This movie tries really hard to not be sexist, which is a very difficult thing to accomplish when you’re adapting characters, stories and concepts from a series that was pretty racist and sexist when it was first coming out. And I think it misses the mark a little bit. Just because you give your damsel in distress a knife and let her kill a sand zombie, that doesn’t erase all the Sexism going on here. Pretty much the only way to avoid sexism in a sword and sorcery story like this is for your female lead to be a warrior woman like Valeria or Red Sonja, which would get tiring if all of your female leads were that type of character. So this movie is basically in between a rock and a hard place as far as that is concerned. But it’s hard to excuse it when it’s got the priestess who Conan actually treats like property, and then sleeps with a day later after she suddenly likes him. I guess I should take some comfort that pretty much all of these movies aren’t as racist as the prose stories they’re based on. So we’re halfway there.
So this movie is made of cheese. I don’t think there’s a single moment that the movie takes seriously, nor does it expect the audiences to take it seriously. It’s a far cry from the tone of the previous Conan movies, and feels a lot more similar to something like the Brendan Frazier Mummy movies. Truthfully, this movie actually feels like a made-for-TV disaster. Where the first Conan movie felt like it had a truly epic scope, this movie feels like it’s got a 12 dollar budget with left-over costumes from the Hercules TV show (and borrowing Kevin Sorbo in between takes on Hercules).
But all of that stuff is part of the charm of this movie. No, it’s not a good movie or even an okay movie. It’s actually pretty awful. But it’s a step above the Conan the Destroyer movie because it has a plot that actually makes sense! Kull becomes king, he accidentally marries an ancient demon queen, she fakes his death, he has to go get a thingy to kill her, he lives happily ever after. (Sure, there’s some stuff that doesn’t make sense. We’re told that the entire kingdom used to be a hell on Earth, and then the god Valka got rid of it all, but left a tiny bit of flame left to burn for all eternity for some reason. But then the heroes have to go and get Valka’s breath to extinguish the flame. Why didn’t Valka just do that himself? Stuff like that permeates this movie, so if you get irked at plot stuff like that not making sense, you might want to skip this one.)
Where the Conan the Destroyer film (more on that below) felt like they wrote out a whole bunch of events, put them in a hat and drew them out at random, and that’s how they decided what would happen when, this movie actually makes sense from a narrative stand point. Yeah, the plot is maybe TOO simplistic, but I don’t think anyone in the world comes to a sword and sorcery movie expecting a fancy plot with lots of gripping turns. Most movies in this vein are about on par with this level of plotlieness.
One of my biggest gripes with this movie is that it was originally supposed to be the third Conan movie, but then Arnold said no, and Sorbo said he didn’t want to play a character someone else played. So they made virtually the exact same story they planned to make, but with the character’s name changed from Conan to Kull (the exact opposite of what Robert E Howard did decades earlier). That’s not my biggest gripe, though. Both of the Conan movies tease and hint that Conan will one day become a king, and I guess the makers of this movie figured they needed to finally pay that subplot off, so this movie opens with Kull being crowned king. It’s weird because the dying King who was minutes earlier trying to kill Kull doesn’t know Kull from Adam, so it feels extremely shoe-horned in. Like, the fans want this king subplot to finally happen, so let’s put it in the first 5 minutes of our movie to make them happy. But fans don’t want something to happen just because they want it to happen. They want it to be good also. There’s no reason this movie couldn’t have finagled some way to have Kull become the King closer to the end of the movie. Maybe it would have needed an entirely different plot, but honestly, would that have been a problem? If you’ve been hinting at this plot for 2 movies, then give it the attention it’s due! Devote an entire movie to Kull’s ascension. Then this movie might’ve ranked higher on this list.
Like I said, this movie is NOT good. But I can definitely see myself watching it again. Maybe if I was sick and I needed something kinda funny to cheer me up, this would be something I’d watch. I usually don’t believe in the “so bad it’s good” type of movies, but this might just be the picture definition of that phrase.
So while the first Conan movie had some problems actually getting to the story, this movie doesn’t suffer those issues, and just jumps right into things. Immediately, Conan is hired by Ursa from the Superman movies to guide her niece to go get a magic horn because the niece has a birthmark, so that things can happen. But plot twist, Ursa actually wants to sacrifice her niece for some sinister reason. And while she’s at it, she wants her lackey to kill Conan. Okay, so the plot doesn’t make any kind of sense at all, but at least things are happening in the first third of the movie and the film isn’t dragging its feet there.
And I like that the thing that propels Conan on his quest is promises from the queen that she’ll resurrect his lover from the first movie, Valeria. From what little I know about the Conan novels and comics, I expected these movies to have a sort of James Bondian consistency to them where you might get a reference to a previous story once in a blue moon, but for the most part, you could watch each story in any order you desired. But not so! I like that this movie isn’t James Bonding it, and that you’ve got references to Valeria dying in the previous film. Granted, after that one scene teasing us with the return of a more interesting character, there’s nothing else really done with this subplot except for a scene where Conan is almost to drunk to even walk, and he talks about how much he’s in love with Valeria. But still, it was a nice effort, I guess.
So why do I hate this movie? Well, probably because it does just about everything completely and totally wrong. Outside of the movie actually getting the ball rolling on the story within the first 5 minutes of the film, there is nothing redeeming about this movie. The cast just doesn’t work. There’s the painfully unfunny comic relief in the form of Tracey Walter, the baffling woman warrior Grace Jones, who makes Tracey Walter look good, because at least the comic relief bumbling idiot has a character. Bombaata, played by Wilt Chamberlain, coulda been cool. A guy working for the evil queen who’s one job is to guard the princess, and he is as strong and powerful as Conan. I almost got the sense throughout the movie that he had paternal instincts toward the girl, and that maybe watching the movie this time, he would betray the queen to protect his young charge, and along the way, he would realize that even if he doesn’t trust Conan with the girl, he is an honorable fighter, and he can’t let him die at the Queen’s command. Or something like that. But the movie is almost deliberately going out of its way to smother any nuance Chamberlain is putting into his performance, and makes him just a one note bad guy who does what the Queen says.
I know I complained that the first movie was too long, but the benefit of that movie being so long and having just 3 characters is that you had ample opportunities to get to know the main characters over that length of time. But this movie is 20 minutes shorter and has over twice as many characters for us to keep up with, plus various villains who maybe spend 15 minutes on screen total.
And as I mentioned, the story makes no sense. The evil aunt wants to sacrifice her niece. But why? The Aunt is already in charge of the kingdom. This isn’t a Jason and the Argonauts situation where the Uncle was unjustly in charge of the kingdom and he was afraid of his nephew, the rightful king, taking charge. This 80 pounds soaking wet girl from The Wonder Years poses no threat to Ursa, so I don’t get why she wants her niece dead. Or Conan, for that matter. Then we get a big action scene where Conan fights a gorilla-mutant inside a crystal palace and he kills a warlock with so little character motivations that he doesn’t even have lines. Then we get some really gross awkward scenes where the princess has a crush on Conan and is asking the Joker’s right hand man Bob where babies come from. Then there’s the thing where the Queen sends people to pretend to be the original owners of the magic horn thing, which is a cover story that makes so little sense, even Conan is able to see through it. Then Conan and crew rescue the girl, and she hires all of them to be her entourage, except for Conan, who wants to find his own path.
Oh, and then we get the exact same ending as the first movie. The exact same, guys. We see an image of old King Conan, and then Mako tells us he had many more adventures, and that story will be told one day (it still technically hasn’t). This movie almost feels like a placeholder until they could get around to doing that old King Conan story that people were interested in seeing. I’m gonna go with that, because I can’t believe any other reason why someone would make a movie so abhorrently disgusting.
So those are my choices for the rank of best to worst of the Conan filmography. What do you guys think? I don’t think I can comprehend any other way this list should be ranked, but if you have a different order, share yours in the comments below! In other news, I’ll be back next month for some other article thing! In the meantime, keep it trashy, muties!
Tagged: movies & TV.