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    First Draft - 'King Conan: Crown Of Iron'

    Well, we ran out of Marvel movies for the time being so I'm here to welcome you to a brand new series of articles on TMT. If there is a running theme in every piece I write it is that of lost potential, of a single film or series that delivered only a fraction of what it could have been. Though I have had many problems with the Marvel movies, at least they actually got made. You are able to appreciate the fact that, with the truth of how hard it is to make any film, a studio was able to put the comics of your youth up on the silver screen.

    Far more frustrating is the potential of a film unmade, something that is so well written you can conjure the movie in your head and drown in its awesomeness, only to open your eyes and accept the truth that the film you wish existed only does so as a stillborn PDF document on your computer. In this new series of articles, we shall explore some of the great un-produced scripts of the action/sci-fi/fantasy genre. We shall ask ourselves whether they still hold up today, whether there is still hope they could be produced, and in some cases how they compare to the finished film. Looking back, I think I was far too angry throughout my Marvel series (a byproduct of having to sit through rubbish films I suppose). This new series, I hope, is going to be one of passion, love and hope.

    So there is no better subject to start with than, most likely, the film I wish to be made more than any other; 'King Conan: Crown Of Iron'.

    I absolutely adore the original 1982 'Conan The Barbarian' and have been pleased to see that the audience appears to grow for it as the decades go on. The film was an ironic victim of its own huge success in that it was followed immediately by a slew of lesser sword and sorcery movies (though I confess myself a guilty admirer of a few of them) which Conan was then lumped in with. A fair few people probably confuse the first film with its deeply inferior sequel 'Conan The Destroyer', a lighter, sillier movie which might as well have taken place in a different universe than the intoxicating, gritty world created by director John Milius in the original. We have never seen a return to the Conan I fell in love with.

    It looked as though this was going to change back in 2001 when Warner Bros. was gearing up to produce a proper Conan sequel with Schwarzenegger returning, the Wachowski Brothers producing and, most importantly, John Milius writing and directing the film. Milius' first draft of the script was completed in May 2001, went through subsequent revisions and then vanished without trace. But the movie gods were not even kind enough to simply pitch the project back into the fires of development hell. Thanks largely to Arnold's movie into politics, any chance of the film being made was obliterated there and then.

    All we can do is read, weep and curse Crom that we were denied something that, I believe, would not only have been a worthy successor to the original but would have gone beyond it as well as redefine the concept of what a 'sword and sorcery' film can be and maybe even bring that whole genre back from the dead.

    Though I am reliably informed that Milius' subsequent drafts of the script were much improved, I have chosen to focus on the weighty 167 page first draft. It's overly long, has a lot of unnecessary scenes, a few too many characters and lacks a proper three act structure. But it is also pure, unchained John Milius poetry. Like the original film, this is an epic which takes place over decades. Like the original, this is a film with something to say. Actually it has a lot to say. You get the feeling that Milius has been crafting this story in his head for the entire twenty year gap between the first film and this. He throws everything into it. Every theme he wants to explore, every line of dialogue, every twisted image, every action sequence he didn't put Conan through in the first film, is here.

    Though conventional screenplay logic equates one page equal to a minute of screentime, Milius' clearly does not submit to it. This is a three and a half to four hour juggernaut to rival the grandest epics of the 1950's, only with a lot more cleaving and whores.

    And I would not have it any other way.

    The Conan we meet at the start of the script, travelling the barren wilderness of the land of the Picts, is certainly an older and wiser one. He is wise enough at least to understand the mortality of man and the seeming futility of everything he does while the gods allow him to walk the Earth. This world is a dark and merciless place where men and women seem to emerge from the womb and straight onto the battlefield. We fight, we suffer, we hurt, we lose the ones we love, and that's if we are lucky enough to live that long. Then we can only hope that others will tell our stories after we are gone and that those stories are worthy to tell. Conan is looking for something to leave behind after he is gone, something to pass on.

    This is why, in what would seem an utterly bizarre scene coming from anyone else's typewriter, Conan meets a mysterious temptress in the very first scene referred to as the daughter of the snows who offers to bear Conan a child. Conan immediately accepts but is told that he must first 'bring her the jewels of an empire' before he can claim his son. Conan begins a career of piracy and pillage before his talents bring him to the attention of the mighty Aquilonian Empire and its tribune Gaius Metallus with an offer to fight for them.

    Years pass by in a matter of pages and battle montages as Conan rises through the ranks of the Aquilonian military machine and they conquer what is left of the free world. Eventually, not only does Conan have the wealth he requires, but his success in battle has made him well known and respected throughout the empire and allows Metallus, whom he now has a strong and respectful bond with, to rise in rank as well and become the right hand to the Emperor. Out of that respect, Metallus allows Conan to return to Pictland to claim his son confident that he will return to the empire afterwards having now been given command of his own legion.

    Even though it is not a great shock that he turns out to be one of the major villains of the piece, Metallus comes across as a very well defined character and we really enjoy the time we spend with him. Rather than trying to replace or top James Earl Jones' Thulsa Doom, Milius presents us with a much different villain. The enemy in 'King Conan' is not a sorcerer or a demented cult but the unstoppable tide of civilisation itself. The Aquilonian Empire not only consumes but seduces and transforms Conan from wild and untamed savage into civilised politician and patsy, and Metallus is its instrument.

    Over the course of their years in battle, Metallus slowly bestows rank and privilege upon Conan, getting him used to the idea of power. Like Conan, Metallus was an orphan of common blood who battled his way to success but, thanks probably to his imperial upbringing, is far more inclined to accept prestige. In Metallus we see what Conan would have become if he were so easily tamed. But in their scenes together we do sense the beginnings of what could have been a very powerful friendship had Metallus not put his empire before anything else. He says himself to Conan's face that he has lost his soul to Aquilonia and the way their bond disintegrates over the course of the story is quite effective. Metallus' character challenges the very meaning of honour and loyalty as, despite his betrayal of Conan, he actually holds true to his people and his empire right till the end. His last words to Conan (yeah he gets stabbed, are you shocked?) are not to beg forgiveness or spit in the face of his enemy but merely to state that. Conan offers the merest hint of understanding and respect which allows Metallus to die.

    Conan returns to Pictland with the riches for the daughter of the snows and even gives up his dearest treasure, the eye of the serpent (the last memento of his lost love Valeria from the first film), so desperate to claim his son. The daughter of the snows hisses that the boy is not really Conan's but he does not listen. In the eyes of Crom, Conan now has a son whom he names Kon. As Metallus knew he would, Conan returns to the empire to take command of his own legion and the bond between father and son strengthens amid the constant clash of bone, blood and steel.

    Though we don't get to spend that much time with them (an admitted problem with this first draft), the relationship between Conan and Kon is quite fascinating. Conan passes the same lesson onto his son that his own father taught him. Nothing in this world can be trusted other than the sword in your hand and one day Kon will have to break his father's sword (just as Conan eventually did in the first film) and rise above him. The only way Kon will outlive his father is to be stronger and more powerful than he ever was, something that Conan actively encourages. You begin to question exactly what were Conan's motives in taking a son. His heart has hardened from a lifetime of pain and loss and he does not seem capable of love. We at least get the impression that he respects his son and believes he has the potential to be greater. Unfortunately so does the Aquilonian Empire which really sets the story off.

    Practically without any choice, Conan is chosen to be ruler of the kingdom of Zingara while his son is taken far away to the empire's military academy to be properly trained. Kon immediately stands out in his class but this only leads to him being ostracized by the rest of the students, in particular the Emperor's son Tisus Fortunas. The son of Conan has to learn very quickly to survive and live for himself. He constantly writes to his father and vice versa but these letters are intercepted and destroyed by Metallus, determined to keep the two apart.

    The allure of a crown and all its power loses interest for Conan very quickly and he realises the mistake he made in letting Kon go. His situation now mirrors exactly that of the character of King Osric as played by Max Von Sydow in the first film. Osric was a lonely soul with golden halls and bottomless wells of treasure whose daughter had been taken by Thulsa Doom's snake cult. Offering Conan the treasure of an empire to steal her back, Osric told us that one day the gems lose their sparkle, the gold loses its lustre and the only thing left is a man's love for his daughter.

    Whatever hopes the Emperor has for Conan to cause little noise are quickly quashed when he actually starts using his title and makes peace with the savage tribes of Pictland, sworn enemy of Aquilonia. The fact that it is Conan they make peace with, not the Emperor, makes Conan an instant threat to the empire but his enemies take their time in plotting his downfall.

    No sooner have Kon and Fortunas left the academy than the Emperor dies and the latter takes the throne, leading to one of the script's main weak points. I'd really hate to think it but Milius might have been playing the DVD of 'Gladiator' while writing some of the script. Fortunas, our main villain technically, does come off as Commodus-lite. I mean he doesn't throw as many temper tantrums which is a good thing but he is still not a particularly strong villain. Milius at least allows us to spend a good amount of time with the character growing from teenager to man to emperor and the realisation that he never learns, grows or matures in all that time. His hatred for Kon is completely two dimensional and just from the way he is written you conjure this image of a skinny little despot who has no chance of survival in the eventual showdown between the two characters. Indeed, at the climax of the story Kon defeats Fortunas in a single paragraph of the script (with a spear to the face no less).

    Back in Zingara, the most interesting part of the story starts to unfold. With help from 'the wizard (Mako)', Conan disguises himself as a commoner to escape the confines of his throne and interact with the regular citizens of his kingdom. At this point in the script, Conan is almost full of self loathing. He feels a complete fraud that has lost touch with his true nature. One particularly touching moment has Conan coming across a street vendor selling all manner of sinful barbecued meats, food clearly too good to be served in his kingly estate. Conan takes out his gold to pay before thinking better of it. He then pretends to be a penniless beggar who offers to work for food. The vendor sets Conan to work chopping firewood all night and right into the morning and for the first time in what must be fifty pages, our hero comes alive again. A man with the keys to a kingdom, with untold riches, with his pick of daily concubines, and who never needs to lift a finger, spends the entire night chopping wood to earn food, just to feel normal again.

    These undercover visits become a nightly occurrence (or addiction) for Conan during which he brawls with thugs, listens to what the people really think of him as a king and even talks to a particular group about the possibility of assassinating himself. Things get to the point that the wizard tells Conan that he no longer requires a disguise. The king of Zingara has become so invisible to its people that he could wander its street completely unnoticed. Worse still, if Conan is still destined for Valhalla in death, Crom will probably not recognise him either. Any legacy Conan intended to leave on the physical plain has passed him by. At this point in his life nobody will tell tales of Conan the king, least of all his son who, unaware that his letters never reached his father and out of contact with him for years, has grown fiercely independent.

    As a final cherry on top of this legacy of misery, Conan meets a beautiful innkeeper in the city called Aledra, the spitting image of Valeria, and they begin to fall for each other. Their eventual coupling is beautifully written and almost bittersweet. Conan confesses to Aledra what happened to his lost love and how he always believed his reward in the afterlife from Crom would be reuniting with Valeria. Now he has drifted so far from his roots and his beliefs that he does not care to wait any longer. In accepting Aledra, Conan turns his back on Crom. As he embraces temporary love and companionship, he knows he has resigned himself to his fate. When Conan dies he will go into the ground and there will be nothing but shadows and darkness waiting for him.

    The plot kick into high gear when Conan murders one of the imperial guards and brings the might of the entire Aquilonian Empire down on his head. Kon arrives in Zingara and finally reunites with his father though he has no love or respect left for Conan. Metallus charges Kon to find the man who murdered the guard, seemingly part of a rebellion within Zingara that needs to be crushed. At the same time, Metallus hires a band of mercenary assassins to kill Conan in his chambers. In a surprising turn, Conan is told of the plot beforehand by Aledra and rather than fleeing he walks right into it so he may 'get what he deserves' in his own words.

    In the massive battle that follows Kon comes to the rescue and stays loyal to his father, forgiving him for his ignorance and stupidity, even though Conan will not forgive himself. Conan begins to embrace his political and military tactician side by orchestrating his own plot to fight back against the empire. Firstly he forces Kon to flee Zingara and then willingly drinks poison (which the wizard has been training him to build a resistance to for months) to give the illusion of his death. Conan's body is dumped in the river outside of Zingara and Fortunas takes power there. Just as Conan planned it seems, he allies himself with the Picts he previously made peace with and rallies them to battle. The stage is set for a final battle between the civilisation that sought to imprison Conan and the savage tribe he has always truthfully belonged to.

    Oh, and there is a whole sub-plot involving Kon fighting an ice worm that claims its his real dad.

    So like I said, this is pure, undiluted Milius. It's completely insane and quite self indulgent at times but every beat of this script has a message or strong character development to propel it through. Rather than a predictable quest to fight some evil sorcerer or retrieve a magical object which will allow him to become king at the end of the film, Conan wins his crown on page 25 and the real focus of the story is the consequences of everything that comes with it. It is a story primarily about identity; about our upbringing and what that makes of us, what the fates and/or gods will allows us to grow into and what they will prevent us from ever becoming. Conan is an untamed barbarian who becomes civilised and corrupted, who becomes a king but spends the rest of the film learning how to be a man again. Kon is brought into a world where opposing forces, both Conan and the empire, attempt to forge him into the man he will become as well as facing the truth of his parentage. And everything is wrapped in a blood soaked cocktail of loyalty, betrayal, lust, glory, victory, power, shame, fraud, revenge, and politics.

    There is absolutely nothing on screen at the moment which compares to the world Milius conjures in this script. One interesting thing to note is that the script is filled with Frank Frazetta's iconic artwork. Even though the original film was made intentionally as a believable pre-history story grounded in as much reality as possible, Milius may have intended to use modern technology to really bring those images to life in 'King Conan'. That only makes the fact that it was never made even harder to bear.

    As it stands, 'King Conan: Crown Of Iron' joins an elite pantheon of un-produced Schwarzenegger films such as 'Crusade', 'Commando 2', and his versions of 'I Am Legend' as directed by Ridley Scott and 'Planet Of The Apes' as directed by James Cameron. Would it shock you to find out that I consider 'King Conan' to be the greatest of them all? In order to prove it I may just need to take at closer look at those projects too.

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