FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*
To date the first CONAN film, despite all the changes it made to the Conan mythos of Robert E. Howard, remains the only sword-and-sorcery film to delve into the mythic symbolism of this type of otherworldly fantasy. Naturally the icon of Conan was made possible in an immediate sense by the perfect casting of bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, the script by Oliver Stone and director John Milius is most responsible for the deeper aspects of the film, whose lack would become apparent in Schwarzenegger’s only sequel, to say nothing of dozens of other empty-headed barbarian flicks.
The film wears its lofty soul on its sleeve, opening with a Nietzsche quote, images of fiery sword-crafting (in which both Conan’s father and mother participate), and narration by the actor Mako, identifying himself as the “chronicler” of Conan’s rise to prominence. It also proves to be one of the few films that, though replete with father-images, shows an orientation more Jungian than Freudian.
In the opening, Conan’s father provides his son with a vision of a world where strength is a gift from the gods, incarnate in the forging of steel. Crom is a distant, uncaring god who lives deep in a mountain, but in olden times certain “giants” stole the Promethean “secret of steel” from Crom. Crom responded by killing the giants. Mortal men inherited the secret of the dead giants, and Conan’s father claims that only steel can earn Conan’s trust, unlike men or women. Conan’s later experience with fast friends Valeria and Subotai will disprove this, but only because they, like he, have made their souls as strong as steel.
Enter the villain; Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), a ruthless warlord who in Jungian terms takes over from the young barbarian’s father by demonstrating his greater strength. Doom leads a small army of raiders and decimates Conan’s Cimmerian village, apparently (though it’s not stated) to purloin the magnificent forged steel of Conan’s father—though much later, Doom will reveal that he lost interest in the secret. To further displace Conan’s father—ignominiously killed by Doom’s trained dogs—the evil wizard himself subdues Conan’s mother, who is prepared to swordfight anyone who threatens her son. Doom hypnotizes the unnamed mother into yielding her throat to his sword, which some authors might equate with a sexual violation. Doom shows nothing resembling lust, though.
Young Conan is implicitly traumatized by the loss of his world. The narrator tells us that the village’s devastation is so total that “no one would ever know that my lord’s people had existed at all”—a sentiment very much in tune with Robert E. Howard’s reflections on the transitory nature of even great races. Conan submits to the yoke of slavery for the next decade or so, until a new father-figure—billed only as “Red Hair”—purchases the barbarian to use as a pit-fighter. Conan proves such an excellent fighter that he’s given martial training in the East, taught how to read, and given his own slave-girl-- whom he treats gently, indicating that he hasn’t descended into total bestiality. Not long after the mature Conan utters the film’s landmark line about “what is good in life,” Red Hair apparently becomes so paternally inclined toward the barbarian that the slave-owner cuts Conan loose and drives him into the wastes to seek his destiny.
Two more encounters take place before Conan even seems to remember his sufferings at Thulsa Doom’s hands. First, the barbarian flees a pack of wolves and fortuitously stumbles into a cave. Within the cave lies the remnants of an ancient Atlantean city, where Conan claims a great sword from an enthroned skeletal warrior. It takes no great leap to see the dead warrior as one with the dead father, once more bestowing the power of steel upon the young warrior.
Second, Conan comes across the hut of a sexy young woman, identified as a “wolf-witch” by Milius on a DVD track. Only once Conan meets this temptress does he start asking about the “serpent-standard” of Thulsa Doom. She offers to exchange information for sex. Conan is happy to oblige, but is more than a little concerned when the witch takes on wolfish characteristics during coitus. The witch manages to spout a few sibylline prophecies before she tries to tear the warrior to pieces, and even after he flings her into a fire, her spirit survives, zooming away into the night like a will-o’-the-wisp.
In addition to getting directions to the city of Zamora, Conan also meets and liberates Subotai, apparently being kept as food for the witch’s friends the wolves. Subotai, being a thief, leads Conan to make an assault on the treasure-room of the Tower of Set in Zamora, where they meet and join up with the lady thief Valeria. After a deadly battle against the snake-cult of Set and a giant serpent, the three escape the tower. Then they are captured and recruited by King Osric—himself yet another father-figure, since he was “once a powerful Northman” comparable to Conan’s Cimmerian people. Osric’s daughter has been drawn into the brainwashing cult of Thulsa Doom, and the king wants her freed. Valeria (who has become Conan’s lover) and Subotai want no part of such an adventure. Conan sees the mission as his chance for vengeance.
At the “Mountain of Power,” Conan encounters the cultists of Thulsa Doom, who are patently a satire of the hippie movement, in that they walk around chanting and carrying flowers. Conan befriends a local shaman (Mako), who makes his home amid a graveyard of standing skeletons and menhirs, who becomes important later in bringing the barbarian back from the death given him by his “evil father.”
Pretending to be a flower-child—easily the film’s funniest scene—Conan infiltrates Doom’s temple on the Mountain of Power. Doom’s lieutenants Rexor and Thorgrim—also present during the devastation of the village—find him out. After Conan’s been captured and beaten into helplessness, Doom confronts him, having forgotten their earlier encounter and whatever interest he once possessed in “the secret of steel.” The villain boasts that he’s found a greater strength, “the strength of flesh”—which ironically, actually connotes Doom’s ability to manipulate humans through the weakness of their will. For instance, the wizard demonstrates “the strength of flesh” by commanding a random acolyte to dive to her doom. He also claims credit for the strength that Conan has gained through adversity, as per Nietzsche’s famous “what does not kill me” quote.
Doom sentences Conan to be crucified on a tree in the wilderness. This scene is the one most clearly derived from one in a Howard short story, down to Conan killing a vulture with his teeth. However, in contrast to the Howard story, Conan is rescued from death by his friends, Valeria and Subotai. Even then, the barbarian remains close to death. The shaman observes that the death-spirits will come for Conan unless they can be driven away by mortals. Valeria accepts the mission, even after the shaman’s warning that the gods may levy a price for her defiance.
Valeria succeeds in driving away the death-spirits, and Conan survives as he slowly heals from his ordeal. Once he is recovered, Valeria and Subotai agree to help Conan storm the temple—though again, as professional thieves they’re not willing to fight Doom; only to liberate Osric’s unnamed daughter. Conan implicitly agrees, though it’s also a given that he plans to attack Doom if he can.
The raid on the temple—where it’s revealed that the real purpose of Doom’s “enlightenment” is to turn his followers into cannibal-broth—succeeds. There’s a cost, though: as the liberators ride off with their prize, Doom borrows a trick from the books of Moses: causing a snake to go rigid and using it as an arrow to impale Valeria during her flight. Valeria perishes but promises her lover that she’ll return if he needs her.
At this point Subotai yields to Conan’s desire for vengeance. Instead of fleeing, the two warriors stake out the princess on one of the menhirs and wait for Doom’s army. Doom, his lieutenants and a handful of other soldiers duly attack, only to be decimated as was Conan’s village—though Conan gets some brief last-minute aid from the ghost of Valeria. Doom survives, but he finally shows his true colors to the princess. He tries to kill her with another snake-arrow, but Subotai saves her.
Strangely, Subotai is absent from the final scene: Conan enters the temple once more with the help of the princess (though she’s absent in the original release-version). As Doom addresses his mindless followers, Conan confronts him. Once more Doom tries the old “I’m-your-true-father” line—an idea possibly indebted to Jones’ previous incarnation as another “evil father” in 1980’s THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Conan is briefly enthralled by Doom’s hypnotic influence, but still manages to behead his enemy, scatter his followers and destroy the temple. The film ends with prophesizing more adventures of Conan as he progresses toward his destiny—though the only sequel with Schwarzenegger doesn’t accord with any aspect of Milius’ vision, much less Robert E. Howard’s.
Often when critics deem films to have a Jungian orientation, they mean that it’s full of many dreamlike fantasy-images. This is not the case with Milius’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN. However, Milius uses the sanguinary Howard-esque imagery to show a definite progress of Conan’s soul from his traumatized beginnings to his triumph over the negative image of his father. “When I am gone, you will have never been,” asserts Thulsa Doom to Conan. This assertion captures Freud’s notion of the male psyche, eternally enthralled by the influence of the father. But Conan has internalized his real father’s message as to the “rule of steel,” an internal toughness that goes beyond mere violence, so that he can refuse Doom’s false tidings.
There are other leitmotifs in Milius' version of the mighty barbarian that could reward Jungian investigation, particularly his quasi-Wagnerian uses of fire-imagery. But this review can't investigate them in detail.