Tuesday, January 2, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*

Whenever I've viewed CONAN THE BARBARIAN, I've noted that the film was for the most  part well-written for a barbarian adventure, though one of its standout dialogue-passages—the famed “Conan, what is best in life” passage—has come in for endless mockery. CONAN THE DESTROYER is far more deserving of mockery. However, because the film has no standout lines of dialogue, good or  bad, it doesn’t generally get the “bad movies we love” treatment given to cinematic oddballs like TROLL 2 and the whole Ed Wood oeuvre.

Given that the same producers approved both BARBARIAN and DESTROYER, it’s tempting to suppose that they fundamentally had no understanding of the Conan  franchise, not unlike the relationship of the Salkinds to the Superman franchise. In the third Superman film the Salkinds seemingly did everything they could to reject all the elements that director Richard Donner brought to the table. Similarly, in CONAN THE DESTROYER, producers Pressman and de Laurentis seem to willfully reject John Milius’s Nietzchean warrior in favor of the blandest possible excuse for sword-and-sorcery thrills.

       The film’s utter failure even to deliver decent thrills is even more amazing when one knows that the core ideas for this lumbering bore came from two comics-writers, both at least familiar with the property. One of them, Gerry Conway, didn't set his hand to the sword-and-sorcery genre often—though he did pen a few issues of Marvel's KULL THE CONQUEROR title—but the other story-contributor was Roy Thomas, who was primarily responsible for bringing the whole Robert E. Howard corpus of works into the Marvel Comics domain. Thomas wrote the CONAN comic book for almost ten straight years, so one would think that he and Conway—with whom Thomas occasionally partnered on comics-scripts—would have cobbled together a really good story, whether a direct Howard adaptation or a reshuffling of Howardian motifs, like Milius’s BARBARIAN script. True, the final screenplay is credited to one Stanley Mann, but if he improved in any way on the original story, it was probably in the nature of polishing a turd.

While movie-Conan need not be in any every way a fairhful adaptation of the character from either the prose stories or the comic books, DESTROYER starts off with a pointless mischaracterization, wherein the dour Cimmerian, usually skittish about sorcery in any form, is persuaded to make a Faustian bargain with a sorceress. The film apparently takes place not long after the events of BARBARIAN, for the stoic hero is still mourning for his great love Valeria, killed by Thulsa Doom. Conan has also, for reasons undisclosed, teamed up with a shrimpy guy, one Malak, whose only talent is to provide unfunny comedy relief. The sorceress Taramis (Sarah Douglas) has a bunch of soldiers try to capture Conan and Malak, and Conan fights them off. Taramis then appears, not even bothering with the usual “I had to test your mettle” excuse, and offers her bargain: in exchange for Conan’s services, she’ll bring back Valeria from the dead.  This thin motivation doesn’t even really match up to the characterization of the Milius film, and seems designed to do no more than set the hero on his path as quickly as possible.

Hardly any background is devoted to Taramis or her plans, but she wants Conan to escort her niece, the princess Jehana (Olivia d;Abo), on a quest to steal a fabled magical jewel from a sorcerer. In what seems a loose borrowing from medieval myths of virgins and unicorns, Jehana is the only one who can handle the jewel without ill effects and bring it back to her native city for a special ritual. Little does Jehana know that the ritual calls for the sacrifice of the virgin princess. The jewel will also bring to life the evil dragon-god Dagoth, who presumably will enrich the mortals who revived him with some other Faustian deal. Conan, his dopey buddy, and Jehana are accompanied in their mission by Taramis’s soldier Bombatta (a sullen Wilt Chamberlain), but on the way Conan manages to pick up two more helpers. One is Akiro, a shaman seen in the first movie, and again played by Mako, while the other, female warrior Zula, is represented via the dubious thesping of Grace Jones Even for a sword-and-sorcery film, it’s a pretty motley crew, and the script doesn’t make any effort toward forging any “esprit de corps.” 

The real reason Jehana has to go along, of course, is that she has to fall for the allegedly “handsome” warrior, and he, to some small extent, with her. The raffish group finds its way to the sanctum of the wizard who holds the sacred jewel. The wizard proves to be a minor threat even for a secondary villain, for even when the heroes choose to camp out for the night, the wizard doesn’t choose to attack them in their sleep. He makes things easy for them by simply spiriting away Jehana, for some wizardly purpose of his own—after which the heroes penetrate his sanctum with ridiculous ease. The sorcerer’s only defense is a super-strong demon who manifests out of a hall of mirrors. The demon gives Conan a rough time until the barbarian lucks onto the creature’s weakness: smash his mirrors, and he dies. After that, Conan takes out the sorcerer himself. About the only good about this tedious sequence is the fact that when Thomas and Conway gave their catchpenny conjurer the name “Toth-Amon,” I think they were admitting that he couldn’t be compared with “Thoth-Amon,” the genuinely compelling villain of various Conan stories.

Even after the jewel has been obtained, the script then takes a page from various ‘sword-and-sandal” films by having the heroes get sidetracked several times. In the process Conan finds out that Jehana’s supposed to be sacrificed, so Bombatta betrays his princess by abducting her and taking her back to the city for the ritual. Conan and his loyal followers give chase, infiltrate the city, and invade the throne-room just as the dragon-god is brought to life. Their advent prevents Jehana from being sacrificed. However, evil Taramis—probably not a virgin—is suffers the somewhat phallic fate she intended for her niece, that of being gored on the horn of the dragon-god—for, just like the aforementioned unicorn, Dagoth has a single horn in his skull. Conan, though he hasn’t attempted to steal Jehana’s virginity during the whole film, earns his “destroyer” status by ripping off the god’s symbol of virility, thus vanquishing it. After the god has been banished and the villains defeated, Jehana tries to keep the barbarian with her, but he’s off to his next adventure—which never took place, at least as an actual Conan movie.

The best thing I can say about the film is that in 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger was still in his prime, so he looks great, particularly in his heroic battle against the dragon-god. Everything else, though, is largely a misfire, and, given the production budget involved, it seems a more egregious failure than even direct-to-video fodder like THESCORPION KING 3. Even the most intriguing psychological angle of the original script is botched. It’s a given that, whenever you have an older queen seeking to get rid of a young princess-type, it’s an “age vs. youth” conflict. But this aspect might have been enhanced if the standard release had included an early scene in which Taramis seduced Conan before sending him on his way. Of course, the rest of the film would not have devoted any attention to a competition between aunt and niece over Conan’s prodigious pectorals, but even the sight of the barbarian being tempted by both comely age and burgeoning youth would have added a little spice to the overall tedium.

Reportedly a script for a third Conan film was prepared, but was reworked for the 1997 KULL THE CONQUEROR, produced by Raffaela de Laurentis, daughter of Dino, who produced the first two Conans. This switch-over seems more than appropriate, since the first Conan film used as its villain a character given the name “Thulsa Doom.” In Howard’s prose stories, Doom was the foremost foe of King Kull, who lived ages before Conan and who may have been Conan’s distant ancestor, depending on who you ask. Further, the repurposed script is somewhat improved by shifting its attention from a roving barbarian who may someday become a king, to a somewhat settled-down barbarian who has already become a king and has to deal with all the resultant hassles.

KULL’s script also uses some elements from Howard’s only Conan novel, THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON. In this narrative, Conan has already become a king, and is forced to oppose a conspiracy that will unleash a long-dead sorcerer, and his long-vanished city Acheron, upon the barbarian’s contemporary world. KULL revises this scenario with some metaphysical tweaks: now Acheron, a city of sin, has been banished into limbo by the good god Valka, who allows an eternal flame to burn and to remind mortals of “godless times.” Movie-Kull (Kevin Sorbo), like prose-Kull, battles Borna, the current king of Valursia—the modern realm built upon the ashes of Acheron—and, after killing Borna, assumes Borna’s kingship. As in the novel, conspirators attempt to revive Acheron to its old evil glory, but instead of bringing an evil sorcerer to life first, the villains revive a sorceress, Akivasha (Tia Carrere), whose name is taken from a minor vampire-character in HOUR OF THE DRAGON.
In the Howard stories, Kull is a grim, brooding barbarian, and various conspirators in Valusia maneuver him into fighting King Borna, hoping that they will reap the reward after Kull does their dirty work. Instead, Kull seizes the throne, though his barbarian nature never sits well with the heavy responsibilities of kingship. However, the movie changes this scenario, not so much to be in line with HOUR OF THE DRAGON, but to make the hero more likable, in line with Sorbo’s heroic persona on the then-current HERCULES THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS teleseries.

These compromises in the film’s first third show the most interesting psychological motifs. Kull is first seen being inducted into the Valusian army by General Taligaro, who duels Kull while lecturing him on the superiority of nobility to the barbarian ethos. Then all of the soldiers are drawn to the Valusian palace by the news that King Borna has gone mad, killing all or most of his heirs. Kull fights Borna not for personal gain, but to preserve life. The dying Borna, who apparently has a quasi-paternal feeling toward Kull, bequeathes the crown to the barbarian. A lot of Valusians aren’t happy about having an outsider for a king, though this Kull, being a Hercules-type “good guy,” gains some traction by advocating religious freedom and the end of slavery.

Though Borna apparently had heirs before he killed them, nothing is said about Kull inheriting a queen or a consort of any kind. However, Kull’s court adviser introduces the hero to a harem full of slave-girls, informing Kull that they’re all his now. Being too nice a guy to take advantage of women, Kull only has eyes for one slave-girl, the prophetess Zareta. A vague backstory is cited, in which Kull apparently made advances on Zareta. It’s never clear if the late King Borna took advantage of Zareta’s charms—though she does mention, much later and in another context, that she’s not a virgin. However, it’s briefly mentioned that Borna “had a fit” when Kull tampered with Zareta, which almost sounds much like an irate father getting mad at his daughter’s ill-mannered suitor. By ceding the kingship to Kull, though, Borna also ceded the sexual right to Zareta or any other slave-girl. Again, Sorbo-Kull is too good-hearted a guy to take advantage of a woman, though he does try to follow up on his earlier advances. Zareta, though she reciprocates Kull’s feelings, shuts him out by affecting to be no more than an unenthusiastic slave.

Kull won't have sex with an unwilling woman, but he’s apparently still rather horny, for the next day he’s looking for his next queen among the available noblewomen. However, certain conspirators have revived the 3,000-year old corpse of the evil sorceress Akivasha, who then passes herself as one of the noblewoman. She ensorceres Kull into choosing and marrying her, and, on their wedding night, gives Kull a kiss that makes him seem to be dead. Later, after Akivasha has been acknowledged as Valusia’s new queen, she wakes Kull up and tells him she’s decided to honor him with her attentions after all. But Kull manages to get free and, allying himself with Zareta and her priest-brother, seeks to procure “the breath of Valka,” a magical power able to banish the ageless sorceress.

After this promising setup, the rest of KULL is just the usual sword-and-sorcery, adequately handled but never surprising, except for two elements. One is the highly unusual casting of comedian Harvey Feinstein as one of Kull’s old rogue-friends. The other is the climax, where, in order to utilize the “breath of Valka,” Sorbo-Kull has to kiss Akivasha in her form of a big ugly demon. Neither of these elements is anything brilliant, but they were at least eyebrow-raising. There’s also a subplot in that General Taligaro, Kull's former commander, is one of the conspirators, with whom Kull has a couple of lively fights, but as a character Taligaro is pretty routine.

In short, KULL THE CONQUEROR doesn’t set the barbarian bar any higher. But its medium-level thrills are a good deal better than most films in this genre.


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  2. Sometimes I'm OK with a movie doing its own take on a famous character, as long as it seems to me like the makers have really thought out their concept. Given that DESTROYER was a major shot for Thomas and Conway to write for movies, I'm puzzled that they offered up nothing more than a standard potboiler. Last I heard Conway did manage to carve out a scripting career in Hollywood, but Thomas is apparently out of the writing game once the New Young Turks took over Marvel and DC.

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  3. It's true that a movie made from the same script with all the Conan-references elided wouldn't come in for all the same comparisons. Yet the shadow of Conan spreads over almost everything in the sword and sorcery genre, so I might've still made a few negative comparisons. I did like the final dragon-fight, so an un-Conanized version of the movie might have still been better than the real bottom of the barrel, the ultra cheap TIME BARBARIANS.