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    « One Crazy Warner Bros Summer | Main | Spielberg Won't Be Seeing Giant Invisible Rabbits After All »
    Friday
    Dec042009

    Memo To The Executives: Conan

    Yes folks, on this edition of ‘memo to the executives’ it’s time to pitch the best way to reboot ‘The Tonight Show’.

    On second thought, why don’t I pitch something I actually care about; Conan the barbarian.  As my good friend Jamie knows, I’m a sucker for the sword and sorcery genre, that wonderful breed of film which seems intrinsically part of the 1980’s and never made it out of that decade.  I suppose if you did try and make a film like that today (and I really don’t count ‘300’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ as such), it would seem quaint and passé.  You could also argue that the genre has a pretty abysmal track record as far as producing quality films.

    But one of those, and maybe the best, is the original ‘Conan the barbarian’ from 1982.  It has a classic revenge story driving it, peppered with the philosophy of Genghis Khan and Friedrich Nietzsche, a great villain in James Earl Jones, really brutal and savage swordplay, wonderful cinematography and it makes, debatably, the best use of Arnold Schwarzenegger of any of his films.  The movie made the promise of future instalments which would eventually see Conan made a king by his own hand and director John Milius was very keen to make this happen but, for reasons that are still unclear (apparently producer Dino De Laurentiis hated him for one), they never came to be.  The actual sequel ‘Conan the destroyer’ was that typical 80’s follow up, rushed into production, made by a different crew armed seemingly with no knowledge of what made the original work.  While the first film had the logic to show Conan wearing clothes, the second had the character prancing around a frigging ice castle in nothing but his underpants; that’s the kind of descent into camp we are talking about and it prematurely ended the series.

    A few years back it seemed Milius might get another shot at making those lost films when he wrote a script entitled ‘King Conan: Crown of Iron’, presumably to be directed by him, to star Arnold once more and to be produced by the Wachowksi Brothers fresh from their success with ‘The Matrix’.  Drew McWeeny aka Moriarty at AICN (as big a fan of the original film as myself) adoringly gushed over the script in a piece you can drool over here.  Clearly too awesome to ever get made, we got hit with the old ‘creative differences’ shtick again as Milius and the Wachowski’s parted ways and Arnold become the Governator, never to wield a sword again.

    I could spend the rest of this article just detailing the number of stops and starts the new Conan film has had in the last few years but I’m not going to.  I have actually resigned myself to the fact that, like the proposed He-Man remake, I just don’t believe Conan will reach the silver screen again.  But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming as it has the potential to be such an enticing, maybe even unique, project.  I initially started thinking about the legitimate possibility of a new Conan film after watching Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Beowulf’.  Just seeing the sheer amount of violence they got away with in a PG13 made me realise you could make a Conan movie with a commercial rating and, utilising the same technology, Arnold could conceivably return to play the part, regardless of old age and pot belly.

    I will concede now that any chance of a sequel to the 1982 film and the story of Arnold’s Conan as king has come and gone.  But for once, the idea of starting over from scratch may be even more exciting to fans.  Regardless of how good a film it is, the 82 movie was not a completely faithful telling of the original Conan stories.  John Milius wanted to make a Viking story, something which could have actually happened in our history and that’s what he did (James Earl Jones turning into a snake withstanding).

    There is a whole other version of Conan which, I guess, cinema has never had the power to realise before.  Fan as I am of the film, when you say the word ‘Conan’ to me I immediately think of Frank Frazetta’s artwork and that is what needs to be brought to the screen.  Forget grounding the story.  Sure, give us strong characters and exciting storytelling first, but also give us hordes of demon mutant creatures, mountains of corpses and skies of blood red fire.  I don’t mind if it is done on a green screen sound stage as long as you are able to bring his paintings to life.  I will maintain that if a filmmaker could pull that off, they would have a live action film that looks like no other.*

    I think if you are going to tell a new Conan story, it must not fall into the clichéd plot of going on a quest to retrieve some magical dohickey; something which is all style and no substance.  This is not ‘Dungeons & Dragons’.  I think you should take the basic story of the original film and reconfigure it.  Rather than telling a straight forward origin following Conan from boy to manhood, it would start with him as an adult, already a well established thief.  His family and people were killed when he was a child but he can barely remember it.  Nor does he remembers any special connection or bond to his family, or any teachings or wisdom they passed on to him.  As such, Conan has grown up having to discover his own philosophy on life and his own purpose.  That philosophy is that life itself is a vicious killer which delights in hunting men down and taking them before their time.  Conan only response is to be a vicious killer himself,  He does not wait for good things to come to him.  He takes as much pleasure as he can and aims to get as much from life as he can before the world decides to chew him up and spit him out.

    He also, in order to earn the gold needed to sustain this pleasure, earns a reputation as a formidable mercenary warrior.  We cannot have a watered down Conan in this film.  In battle, he is a savage animal and since his whole life is one long fight, that doesn’t leave any room to be sensitive or caring.  It is this ruthlessness and efficiency which brings him to the attention of our villain; a powerful sorcerer.  You can call him Thusla Doom or Toth Amon or whatever you like; just pick a name, it doesn’t matter.  Having uncovered an ancient evil force which threatens to consume the world, he informs Conan that he has managed to suppress the beast  so far with human sacrifices.  The more that are sacrificed, the more time he has to figure out a way to use his magic to stop the evil for good.  All our villain asks is that Conan be the one to bring those sacrifices to his altar, each body worth its weight in gold to the barbarian.  Having always been wary and distrustful of magic and sorcery, Conan readily agrees.

    Conan starts the body count by hunting down the undesirable elements of the world, the killers, thugs and lowlifes that won‘t be missed.  It isn’t long, however, until the killing becomes so mundane and such a regular routine that Conan thinks nothing of it.  He doesn’t realise that he is being slowly, brilliantly manipulated by the villain the whole time.  The lines become so blurry that Conan begins to slaughter innocents all for the greater good of saving the world from destruction.  After a particularly brutal raid on a peaceful village, Conan sees a young boy in front of him standing over the bodies of his slaughtered family which triggers what memory he has of his own family’s death.  Conan realises to his horror (probably the first time he has felt such a thing) that it was our villain who was responsible for the death of his people, but even worse, the actual killing was probably carried out by a mercenary for hire, a man with no conscious, a man ready to justify his actions by saying it was all for a greater good but in reality, destroying lives for just a little more gold...........a man just like Conan.

    Conan turns his back on the villain’s bidding but by now it is too late and too much blood has been spilled.  The villain was obtaining sacrificial lambs in order for the evil power to regain it’s full strength so as to cover the world in darkness and that goal is now in sight.  Conan heads off to face his enemy against unspeakable odds.  But even after cutting down an army of freakish undead creatures, the sorcerer and the ancient evil, Conan must face himself.  His quest is not for revenge or even to save the world but to save his own soul.  Only after he has accomplished his mission can he continue with his life content that he finally did the right thing after years of being the very thing he would normally kill without hesitation.

    After about 30 minutes of magic and demon slaying carnage, Conan has won and the final shot of the film mirrors Frazetta’s most famous portrait of the character, standing upright on a mound of victory, sword in hand and the last man standing.  The audience (hopefully) cheers.  So you have a story of character growth, of a man facing himself and changing his entire outlook on life.  You throw in a sexy lady, colourful locations, villains that are really scary and repulsive to look at, hard R rated action and you have a film.

    But enough about what I want.  Conan is many things to many people and if you are reading this I’ll bet you are more fluent in your Robert E. Howard than me.  What do you want from a new Conan film?  Feel free to mock my ideas in the comment section.  Just bear in mind…

    …ifff you do nat liszten..............DEN DA HELL WITH YU!

    *Of course I’ve just remember that Frazetta also did work on ‘John Carter of Mars’ which is in production right now and if I were a betting man, I would say that his art will have a big influence on the look of that film.  Oh man, now I have a boner from anticipation and must excuse myself.  I’ll see you next week.

    Reader Comments (22)

    Conan is not on a revenge mission. His people were not slaughtered. He went out into the world out of boredom, wanderlust and naked ambition. Cimmerians are not so easily crushed, and are generally avoided as adversaries by pretty much everyone.

    The idea that Robert E. Howard's Conan -- a cunning, wild wolf of a man -- would be fooled by some sorceror into being a self-betraying cutthroat lackey is so far off the mark, you might as well change the name (like they should have done for that lumbering, crybaby slave boy that Arnold played). If any movie ever comes along that offers any sort of accurate portrayal of REH's Conan and his world, Arnold, Milius, and that stupid "riddle of steel" will be quickly forgotten, I promise you.

    12-4-2009 | Unregistered CommenterHead-On-A-Pike

    Why they can´t adapt a Robert E. Howard tale? WHY????

    12-4-2009 | Unregistered CommenterKike

    Boy, tell me what you really think, ha ha?

    In seriousness though, you have to think about how these properties are going to work best as films. The main character has to go on a real journey. They have to develop and grow. If the film starts with the Conan you suggest and ends with the Conan you suggest, where is the development? Now I won't deny that a true representation of Howard's Conan hacking and slashing for two hours straight would appeal to me but I don't think it's going to stretch to a very large audience.

    Secondly, that's exactly what Milius film did. It took Conan on a journey of personal growth. It dealt with themes. It was about something. And people loved it and it made tons of money.

    Finally, as I said in the article, another Conan film will never get made so you're going to have to learn to live with the Milius film.

    Thanks for reading though. I appreciate the passion, truthfully.

    12-4-2009 | Registered CommenterPhil Gee

    1. Stop the current production.

    2. Get a Robert E. Howard expert in the same room with the scriptwriters. Have them read the books and instruct them that the Conan stories will serve as the building blocks for the movie, and nothing else.

    3. Use this film as a chance to reinvent the pop cultural idea of Conan.

    Look at Casino Royale. Batman Begins. Pirates of the Carribean. All of these films took dead characters, dead franchises, and dead genres and reinvigorated them by not playing it safe. Even fans of Conan the Barbarian don't want a rehash of that. We are twenty years older now, and we need something more sophisticated. Bryan Singer learned that the hard way with Superman Returns. This can NOT be a nostalgia project.

    For what it's worth, there is a petition: http://www.amrathelion.com/index.php/Nemedian-Chronicles/An-Appeal-To-Paradox.html

    Sign it and we'll send it to them by Crom!

    12-4-2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmra The Lion

    >>The main character has to go on a real journey. They have to develop and grow. If the film starts with the Conan you suggest and ends with the Conan you suggest, where is the development?

    Do the characters that Clint Eastwood played in the Spaghetti Westerns, like the Man with No Name, develop and grow? Some students say that Conan is a deus ex machina. I say he is a perambulating monkey wrench. What happens when you drop a tool-steel monkey wrench into a vast, complicated machine full of moving parts? The machine destroys itself as it tries, and fails, to grind up the monkey wrench. Likewise, Conan's enemies destroy themselves as they try to chew up Conan and spit him out. Over his lifetime, Conan indeed grows, but does not change. His enemies are changed.

    12-5-2009 | Unregistered CommenterIronhand

    Very eloquently put. As I said in the article, Conan is many things to many people. I'm just pitching what I think a mass audience is going to best respond to.

    Look back at Casino Royale, Batman Begins, Star Trek (maybe you can throw Sherlock Holmes into the pot as well from the looks of it). They are all stories which deconstruct an iconic character and rebuild them through the course of the film until they finally become what the fans recognise them to be from the source material. We do not live in that world anymore where you can just churn out five Dirty Harry films for example. If Conan isn't going to develop, he's going to wear out his welcome pretty quickly.

    12-5-2009 | Registered CommenterPhil Gee

    "We do not live in that world anymore where you can just churn out five Dirty Harry films for example. If Conan isn't going to develop, he's going to wear out his welcome pretty quickly."
    Funny, the last Indiana Jones film was quite a success, even though he is a Dirty Harry, Man w/ No Name, Conan, type of unchanging character. Just because the movie world has turned into some formulaic swamp doesn't mean we shouldn't expect something different. As a matter of fact Hollywood storytelling has become so mundane and cliched that Howard's original Conan stories would be slightly groundbreaking in way that the Indiana Jones films were at the time of their release.

    12-5-2009 | Unregistered Commentersinisterguido

    Here's a character arc if you really need one: Country boy comes down from the hills to make his way in the world, and learns the hard way that city people are generally not to be trusted. A lesson which -- in the end -- allows him to find a way to apply his natural wiles to the "civilized" world of men, thereby learning to better navigate his way to the destiny he has chosen for himself. In a very bloody way. With women, treasure, sorcery and monsters.

    I've always said that the mistake with trying to turn Conan into a film is thinking that he had to be central to the plot of the film; that the real character arcs couldn't belong to characters whose names aren't in the title, leaving Conan to be the force of nature that moves the plot incidentally through his own pursuits, much as described above by Ironhand. It's a very atypical form of storytelling to be sure, but so what? It would still work. Nothing wrong with giving people what they don't know they want every once in a while. This is how real blockbuster are made. Sure, it's a gamble, but I'm not here to talk about how to create success for a movie studio; I'm here to talk about how to make a good Conan movie.

    A clever filmmaker or screenwriter would keep Conan where he belongs and use other characters to satisfy the expectations a "very large audience" might have in terms of character development. It's been done before, and the material already lends itself to that approach. There is a serious shortage of creativity and imagination connected with this particular film property, and it comes from not being driven by a belief in the material, so much as a belief in the marketability of a brand, coupled with a slavish, creatively paralyzing devotion to textbook screenwriting rules.

    There is not one truly creative, visionary mind involved with the Conan movie. It's such a shame, because these great stories just keep getting the short shrift over and over again whenever someone decides to exploit the brand.

    12-5-2009 | Unregistered CommenterHead-On-A-Pike

    Not to keep flogging here, but I would like to add that -- as was also mentioned above -- the difference between, say, the Dirty Harry series and a faithfully adapted Conan series is that Conan IS different in every film, and DOES develop as a character, learning to be more practical and strategic, and to be a leader of men, and even to truly love a woman, among many other lessons, often quite harsh or philosophically challenging. All while maintaining his core principals, and never finding himself on a hackneyed revenge quest.

    In fact, the various stages in Conan's life could be very comfortably fitted to an ongoing movies series, and offer a different flavor with every installment, in a very organic and satisfying way.

    12-5-2009 | Unregistered CommenterHead-On-A-Pike

    >>If Conan isn't going to develop, he's going to wear out his welcome pretty quickly.

    The way Robert E. Howard's Conan has worn out his welcome?

    12-6-2009 | Unregistered CommenterIronhand

    You're right, I'm wrong and I concede. I should be more concerned about what is going to make the best film rather than what will be the most successful and you make a very good case.

    But I did throw in the last paragraph for that very reason. I knew some of the Conan fans weren't going to like it. How many of these types of opinion pieces do you come across which openly invite you to rip the writer apart? Not very many I should think.

    12-6-2009 | Registered CommenterPhil Gee

    You get nothing but respect from me for putting yourself out there, Phil. And why would any real REH/Conan fan feel anything but gratitude toward anyone who opens up the floor for us to sound off on the disgraceful, short-sighted, creatively deficient way they are once again treating our beloved character?

    It's worth remembering that some of us speak just as much from a love of great, singular film-going experiences as we do from our love of the original stories of Robert E. Howard. I am of the belief that Milius' Conan the Barbarian would be a very good genre offering -- full of the director's personal philosophical ruminations and cultural fascinations, and having nothing to do with Howard's views and visions -- if it was only called something other than Conan. The character is just fundamentally NOT Conan. And there lies the rub: we fanatics are not devoted to the trappings of the genre as found in the stories (of course, we do love swordplay, and wenches, and sorcery and all that other stuff), so much as we are the character, and what he stands for. Who he is, and how that shapes the way he meets every challenge, triumph, conflict and setback in his life.

    By changing his personal quest and rewriting his personal history, Conan becomes another character entirely, in a movie that seems designed as a greatest hits of all the genre clichés the screenwriters could come up with (I know, I'm reading what purports to be Donnelly and Oppenheimer's latest draft right now).

    So again, thanks for doing this piece, and letting us fans have at it. I have added this site to my favorites.

    12-6-2009 | Unregistered CommenterHead-On-A-Pike

    And that's the best compliment we could recieve on the site. Thank you!

    12-7-2009 | Registered CommenterPhil Gee

    " We cannot have a watered down Conan in this film. In battle, he is a savage animal and since his whole life is one long fight, that doesn’t leave any room to be sensitive or caring...

    Conan also had a sense of humor in the early books; he also had a sense of loyalty to the friends he did have. He also had little in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger in appearance as described by Howard. He also was a strong leader and used his brain as much as he used might and agility. So I slightly disagree with you on that note Phil. In addition, while some fans of the genre (and Conan in general) might want a one-note bloodlust savage with no distinct personality other than that- that sort of character does not work on film. Never has. In one corner, you have a fanbase. In another, the mass filmgoing audience. The mainstream audiences cannot fully relate to such an abstract character. There has to be some aspect of the character that an audience can hang thier hat on. The 1982 film was somewhat successful in that regard.

    Given the notion that Marcus Nispel is directing, it is slightly disappointing, given his best known films are (bad) remakes of horror films- although I understood where he was trying to go with Pathfinder -even if that film sucked chicken eggs. But I'm still holding out some hope. After all, you and I know the man will follow this creed:

    "To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

    12-7-2009 | Unregistered CommenterDarren J Seeley

    I like the indiana Jones analogy. There is a man who never really changes despite the err....things that happen to him in his life. He's on a constant mission for something. Same with Conan imo. Perhaps it is not interesting anymore if a character goes through a forced set of circumstances and happening in a movie in order to bring him to a more noble standing than he was at the start of the film. Conan does not compromise, and should not be forced to undergo massive shifts of perespective in 2 hrs. Indiana Jones never really evolved from films 1-3, yet we saw such an array of emotion and perspective it didn't matter that he was the same guy at the beggining of Doom than he was at the end of Crusade. I think however Conan's status in society should change, and therefore we have the amusment of seeing this 'thing' act out and behave in all different levels of it. Of course, lessons need to be learnt, but for Conan to become a different man by the end of the first film does not sit well with me.

    12-11-2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoba

    Wow, now you've made me remember my olddays, when I was just six years old and lived in Utah. I loved Conan and I remember I had this wooden sword and I played I was Conan all day long, swinging my sword as if I was killing enemies. Nice memories. Thank you man. Nice post. Hey, what is that viagra online pop-up message over my screen? It seems like I can't take it off!

    09-14-2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

    A good adaptation of Robert E. Howard's mythopoeic series should suffice.

    10-7-2010 | Unregistered CommenterNave Torment

    You're right Conan has t be the best and only time where Schwarzenegger has been used in a film and delivered exactly what he had to deliver, not even Terminator was able to do that, and I think is the only time also we don't believe he did a movie to get Cheap Viagra

    10-15-2010 | Unregistered CommenterOliver

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