Page to Screen: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan the Barbarian
based on characters by Robert E. Howard

conan2011

I have a deep need for shoddy fantasy, be it intentionally camp or unintentionally crap. I annoyed the daylights out of my MST3K-style comedy troupe in college because all I ever wanted to riff was incompetent eighties and nineties fantasy films with increasingly tiny budgets. (“What do you mean you don’t want to riff The Adventures of Galgameth?”) Where this comes from, I have no idea. I think it’s because I was a small child in the nineties without reliable access to network television. Because I never got any Xena, Hercules, or Beastmaster in my pop culture diet as a child, I crave it now. (Renay and I are working on that first one at the moment, which has been an absolute joy.)

Therefore, I was intrigued by Conan the Barbarian when promotional material began making the rounds. I’ve never seen the original Arnold Schwarzenegger film, so I had absolutely no allegiance there. (Although my need to see every fantasy movie produced in the eighties will eventually bring it in with the tide.) I’d never read the Conan stories, although I did give it a go and found it, well, pretty much as Arthur B at Ferretbrain did. The stories have their burly interest and are certainly of historical value to the genre, but the problematic elements tend to swallow them whole. And that’s probably why the adaptations, like the eighties film or the comics, loom large in popular memory; they allow us to embrace what there is to take from the original text while removing the bitter racism (Howard once refused to use human pronouns for a mixed-race gentleman he met), sexism, and other elements that are no longer acceptable. (Thank the Lord!)

So, having read a handful of Howard’s original stories, how did Conan the Barbarian stack up?

Not particularly well. Howard’s hero is already a pretty grim and dark fellow, so giving him a grimdark reboot turns the saturation almost entirely down, in both the literal and the figurative. True, Conan is a slave-freeing pirate, but this is also a film that finds ever more inventive ways to inflict violence. I mean, he punches a horse in the face with a chain at one point. But most of all, it feels joyless. Not that everything needs to be hunky dory, mind you, but after Conan leaves behind his slave-freeing and brothel-frequenting ways behind him, he spends the rest of the film glowering, as if he’s only saving the film’s (virginal, pure-blooded; how Howard of you, film) female lead because he has to. The appeal in Howard’s barbarian fantasy is that Conan is a creature of pure id—as he himself states in the film, he lives, he loves, he slays, and that’s it. But the film lacks that natural comfort Conan takes in doing whatever he damn well pleases; it comes off as either needlessly cruel or as homework.

Which certainly makes it a fantastic target for riffing (playing against tone is a time-honored riffing technique), but not an engaging watch. Instead, the most interesting thing about Conan the Barbarian is how it highlight, subverts, and reinforces (in various ways) the racial politics of the generic fantasy setting which the remarkably racist Howard undoubtedly influenced.

Multiracial Jason Momoa was the third choice for the lead, after Kellan Lutz (who is our latest Hercules, soon to be eclipsed by ) and Jared Padalecki (who is still on television). While his father is played by Ron Perlman, his mother is played by the Moroccan and Indian actress Laila Rouass. Conan’s piratical second in command, Artus, is played by Nonso Anonzie. This means that, so very and unfortunately rarely for a big fantasy film, we get to see men of color as the heroes, rescuing the oppressed, getting the girls, and looking cool (if unhappily so). It’s enough to make Howard, a man who once refused to use human pronouns to refer to a mixed race gentleman, revolve in his grave.

But because this wasn’t a deliberate choice on the part of the production team (the white villain Khalar Zym was originally supposed to be a Khalar Singh), the film doesn’t do enough with this marvelous opportunity. It’s still very focused on the sexual and racial purity of a young white woman, as well as the deviant sexual antics of Khalar Zym’s daughter, a witch who lusts after her father. (I adore Rose McGowan, ever since her turn as the young Cora on Once Upon a Time where she was basically possessed by Barbara Hershey, and I do like Marique’s unapologetically bizarre costume design, shaved hairline and all. Godspeed, McGowan.) Essentially, it’s a grimdark action movie that just happens to feature a man of color in the lead. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t be noteworthy; it would be part of the landscape. But in this imperfect world, it’s the closest thing we’ve gotten to to major representation for people of color in fantasy film in ages and ages.

Bottom line: Despite being that rare thing—a fantasy film featuring a lead of color!—Conan the Barbarian is too grimdark to be interesting or engaging. Pass.

I watched this film on Netflix.

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