It’s been far too long since the last postings, and I have to plead “too many irons in the fire” and “too much of a [double overload each semester, along with summer teaching and overloads”] in my college professorship, and college student newspaper advising.
I’ve also been otherwise pulled into and along by my particular researches in Howard’s poetry, a subjective stylometric analysis of some of his work, and some new concepts in literary criticism theory in general.
So, enough for apologizing—I hope. There will be some updates in the REH-eapa website over the next few days, inclusive of new material such as Lee Breakiron’s fine continuing bibliographic series and a new zine by Gary Romeo—and some new stuff from myself as well.
I’d like to use this post also as a request for any readers to consider joining The Robert E. Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association (the world’s first online APA) and submitting an initial “zine” or e-journal for inclusion in the Winter Solstice edition of the APA. Visit the home page of the site to find the excellent accumulation of scholarly thought already assembled and—begin adding to it by “joining up.” There is room for 8 more members (4 slots taken currently out of 12 total maximum positions). “Replating” older material that has previously only been in print or on your own web sites, blogs, etc. is OK.
Cheers! and Onward!
Frank Coffman Official Online Editor, REHeapa, email@example.com
Three new postings of e-journals/e-zines by Lee Breakiron, Frank Coffman, and new REHeapa member Scott Sheaffer have been posted at the REHeapa web site: http://www.robert-e-howard.org/home.html
CALL FOR NEW MEMBERS!
8 places left for new members to fill our our complete potential roster of “The Twelve Paladins.” EMAIL Frank Coffman: Official Online Editor — firstname.lastname@example.org
It was with extreme sadness that I learned of the passing of Glenn Lord with the passing of the year. It makes the beginning of 2012 a much more solemn thing than any new year should be. But I’m pretty sure Glenn wouldn’t see it that way. It’s another year of opportunity for those of us who knew him to press on in his tradition and memory to further the causes of the promotion of the work of Robert E. Howard to a new generation of potential admirers and of the continuation of research into and discussion of Howard’s life and literary legacy.
I only met with Glenn in person on three occasions — all at Howard Days events. I’ll always remember him as a kind and friendly and completely approachable man, with none of the airs one might have taken in the position of preeminent scholar, early biographer, and literary agent for REH. He was a man of vast knowledge with a keen appreciation of literature — both prose and poetry. His successful work in the publication and popularization of Howard’s literature was due to that keen literary sense and masterly work in “time-releasing” excellently chosen anthologies and individual pieces. Especially with the poetry and his several early collections, his sense of selection was excellent.
I carried on a considerable email correspondence with Glenn, especially back when I was first researching and specializing in Howard’s poetry — about a decade ago. Glen was kind enough to send me photocopies of Howard’s portion of the planned poetry anthology, Images Out of the Sky, which was to have been a compilation of some of Howard’s work, along with sections by Tevis Clyde Smith and Lenore Preece. This collection was never published due to the “poor market for poetry,” but Smith later used that title for a collection of his work. Glenn also asked for my help (such as it was) in working out some of a Russian text relating to Howard. I’m afraid that my limited high school Russian wasn’t as much up to the challenge as I’d have wished, but just the thought that he would ask for some help from me on any subject was both humbling and gratifying.
In 2001, with the first (and only) awarding of my concept of the “Cleo Awards” — named for Bob’s favorite objet d’art (the refurbished original bust of Cleopatra still in the Howard house), there was absolutely no question when the balloting was tallied to whom the LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT award would justly go. I’m sure that small trophy would have no high place among the many accolades that Glenn earned over the years, but it was gratifying to me to simply be able to see it go his way.
And that was Glenn Lord — a lifetime of achievement. He was a fine man who had a significant effect upon his world and who blazed trails and set landmarks and standards of achievement for others to follow. What man could ask for a better legacy than that?
I’ve been away from this blog for too long, and an update on the REHEAPA web site is also forthcoming. We’ve got more great bibliographical stuff from Lee Breakiron, and I’m polishing up my own new contribution — already done in print in REHupa — on “The Bright Barbarian.”
I’ve recently been alerted by one of my great Howardist friends that Don Herron is at it again. “At it” in his usual and maybe ONLY mode—that is by praising his own prior efforts by patting himself on the back so hard that he almost breaks his arm, and disparaging anyone on Earth in Howard studies who dares to think differently or even who dares to think “NEW” on things Howardian. It even seems that he disparages anyone who dares to THINK — who is not he at least. And whether his recent rants display “thinking” is, perhaps, questionable, especially since Don has the bad habit of priding himself in being uninformed (not reading directly my stuff or Al Harron’s or whomevers directly, but, rather, preferring to get his info second or third hand).
The following offers some recent Don-ian ejaculations and my rejoinders to them. Now, anyone who has followed the Don vs. Frank wars over the years (especially on message boards like rehinnercircle), know that we have “a past.” The times I’ve met Don in person at past Howard Days (the only times we’ve met), we’ve actually gotten along reasonably well, sharing talk and debate over a few beers and even laughs. I don’t think that will be the case should we meet in the future. I thought we might have gotten beyond the point of his disparagement of me as a person legitimately and academically and scholarly interested in Robert E. Howard’s work. This hasn’t happened. Beyond that, he has looked askance at the work of various friends of mine in Howardian studies, and, typical of Don, looked askance without any merited rationale or supportive evidence.
Time and again, he’s criticized me for: 1) simply being an academic, as if, ipso facto, that de-legitimizes any scholarly capability on my part, and 2) being a “boring” writer. I’ll let any readers of my stuff make the final decision on both of these points.
So, to continue with some specific answers to some of Don’s recent effusions.
Some Herronisms [with some interjected rebuttals in ALL CAPS—not shouting, just differentiating (I wouldn’t want my words or ideas to be confused with Don’s in any way)]:
“The way I look at it, if I never do another word about the creator of Conan, my rep in that arena is secure.”
THIS, DON, IS YOUR GREATEST PROBLEM. YOU THINK THAT YOUR TWO ANTHOLOGIES AND SOME OF YOUR EARLY ESSAYS ARE THE BE-ALL AND END-ALL OF HOWARDIAN STUDIES. BY THE WAY, IF YOU WOULD DEIGN TO READ MY BOOK ROBERT E. HOWARD: SELECTED POEMS, YOU’D FIND THAT THERE (ALSO ELSEWHERE) I’VE CALLED THE DARK BARBARIAN A “SEMINAL WORK” AND GREATLY IMPORTANT TO HOWARDIAN STUDIES. THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT I THINK HOWARDIAN STUDIES OR DISCUSSION AND DEBATE SHOULD END WITH YOUR WORKS OR THAT ALL HOWARD RESEARCHERS OR SCHOLARS SHOULD BOW AND MAKE OBEISANCE TO YOUR MIGHTY SHADOW. THERE SHOULD BE ROOM FOR DISCUSSION AND DEBATE AND DISSENT FROM YOUR IDEAS AND THEORIES — OR WHAT’S LITERARY CRITICISM FOR?
“But I must compliment Al on another recent post he did — very funny, and spot on — concerning the upcoming book of essays Conan Meets the Academy, where the initial blurb says flat-out that it is the first scholarly investigation of Conan. The only way you could suggest that it is “first” would be if you consider the idea that the essays are written by academics (including Professor Frank) and that only professors can do litcrit (some people apparently believe that — the poor saps, the poor deluded saps).”
IF YOU WERE STILL A MEMBER OF THE INNERCIRCLE GROUP, YOU’D SEE THAT JEFF SHANKS AND I (TWO CONTRIBUTORS TO THE FORTHCOMING ACADEMIC ANTHOLOGY) OBJECTED TO AND COMPLAINED TO THE EDITOR THAT THE BLURB WAS GOING FAR TOO FAR IN SUGGESTING A “FIRST” SERIOUS ANTHOLOGY. MY SUGGESTED REPHRASING OF THE BLURB WAS AS FOLLOWS: “The first compilation [or ‘anthology’] of serious scholarship EXCLUSIVELY by academics ACROSS VARIOUS DISCIPLINES AND CRITICAL APPROACHES.’ or something like that or in that tone would, I think, be better.” SO, YOU SEE DON, I’M ACTUALLY IN YOUR CAMP ON THIS ONE. MANY ACADEMICS — ESPECIALLY THOSE NEW TO HOWARD CRITICISM OR STUDY, AREN’T FAMILIAR WITH THE MONUMENTAL WORK THAT INDEPENDENT SCHOLARS (SUCH AS YOURSELF, AND MANY OTHERS) HAVE ALREADY DONE. A FEW OF US ARE PRIVY TO THAT, AND WE’RE THE ONES WHO SPRANG IMMEDIATELY TO THE DEFENSE OF INDEPENDENT SCHOLARS — A FAVOR THAT YOU AND YOUR PROTEGE HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO RETURN, AS IT PERTAINS TO ACADEMIC RESEARCHERS.
“And somewhere in those long months I do recall Al taking the side of Professor Frank Coffman in a little dust-up I had with him — my only advice, Al, is that no one who really knows Howard Studies would ever side with Frank over me about anything. Honest.”
—quoted on Al Harron’s blog in part of their interactions
I TRY TO TEACH MY STUDENTS TO “BEWARE OF EXTREME WORDS” — WORDS LIKE “ANYTHING” IN THE CONTEXT ABOVE. IT SEEMS THAT DON IS ASSERTING THAT HIS OPINION MUST ALWAYS BE BETTER THAN MINE ON ANY SUBJECT UNDER THE SUN. I’LL LET READERS OF HIS BLOG AND THIS BLOG, HIS STUFF AND MINE DECIDE ON THE VALIDITY OF THAT QUESTIONABLE PREMISE.
“Someone tipped me off to a mini-rebuttal Professor Frank Coffman made to my dismissal of Conan Meets the Academy — a book Frank is set to appear in — as a throwback to the kinds of books L. Sprague de Camp used to assemble from material that had appeared previously in the fanzine Amra, edited by George Scithers. The Conan Reader (1968). The Conan Swordbook (1969). The Conan Grimoire (1972). Complete reliance on the name Conan to attract fanboy buyers — which may have worked for de Camp back when, but I don’t think will sell many copies of the new academic-oriented tome. They’ve made a big mistake commercially by putting ‘Academy’ in the title — they should have titled it Conan the Supercilious or something.
HOW ON EARTH CAN ONE CALL THE CONTENT “SUPERCILIOUS” PRIOR TO READING IT? ONE WOULD THINK THAT AN EAGER AND SINCERE “RESEARCHER” OR “SCHOLAR” WOULD READ EVERYTHING THAT COMES DOWN THE PIKE (TIME PERMITTED) IN THE HOPE THAT SOME NEW INCITES WOULD EITHER BE PRESENTED — OR PERHAPS EVEN STIMULATED, IF ONLY IN REBUTTAL AND DEFENSE OF ALREADY-HELD OPINIONS.
Frank’s rebuttal notes, ‘The stuff in those LSdC’s was from Amra wasn’t it?’
OF COURSE I KNEW THAT THE STUFF WAS FROM AMRA. I’M IN THE CAMP (NOTE: NOT DE CAMP) THAT BELIEVES THAT RHETORICAL QUESTIONS (erotema AS THE CLASSICAL GREEK RHETORICAL FIGURE IS OFFICIALLY KNOWN — SOMETHING THAT DON LIKELY DOESN’T THINK TO BE A WORTHWHILE STUDY) ARE STILL VALID TURNS OF PHRASE. THE FORTHCOMING ACADEMIC ANTHOLOGY ACTUALLY WILL OFFER SOME REALLY NEW PERSPECTIVES, BUT DON (WITHOUT READING IT, OF COURSE), KNOWS THAT IT MUST BE DERIVATIVE AND UNORIGINAL, SIMPLY BECAUSE ACADEMIC SCHOLARS WERE AT WORK. I WILL SUBMIT THAT THIS SORT OF CLOSED-MINDEDNESS IS NOT WHAT TRUE SCHOLARS AND RESEARCHERS BELIEVE IN. TRUE SCHOLARS SEEK DEBATE AND DISAGREEMENT AND CHALLENGE AND NEW IDEAS.
He adds, ‘Those books contained stuff about stylometric analysis and archeological connections for Conan? Did they suggest that Conan isn’t quite the ‘Dark’ barbarian that Herron maintains?’
I AM INDEED WORKING ON THE DEFENSE OF A BELIEF THAT THE CONAN WE SEE IN THE STORIES IS NOT THE ULTIMATELY “DARK BARBARIAN” OF THE LOVECRAFT-HOWARD (CIVILIZATION VS. BARBARISM) DEBATE. TO BE THE PROTAGONIST, CONAN (AND OTHER “BARBARIANS” OF HOWARD’S CREATION) ARE, OF NECESSITY SUPERIOR IN ENLIGHTENMENT AND IN SOCIALIZATION TO THE “BAD GUYS” THEY DEFEAT. MY FIRST EXAMPLE IN A RECENT REHUPA ARTICLE OF MINE IS THE CONAN SEEN IN “THE DEVIL IN IRON.” WE CAN ADD THE DECIDEDLY ADVANCED HERO FROM HOWARD’S FIRST PUBLISHED TALE, “SPEAR AND FANG” AS AN EXAMPLE. MORE ON THIS LATER.
“But what Frank is saying unwittingly is that, yes, the ideas put forth in The Dark Barbarian have come to be the standard accepted critical concepts in Howard Studies over the last couple of decades.”
WHILE I CERTAINLY HAVE SAID SOME THINGS “UNWITTINGLY” IN MY LIFETIME (AND WHO HASN’T?), I AM NOT SAYING ANYTHING “UNWITTINGLY” IN THIS CONTEXT, AND CERTAINLY I’M NOT SAYING WHAT DON SAYS I’M SAYING. I DON’T BELIEVE IN “STANDARD” CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES — WHILE I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THEY EXIST. THEY ARE THERE PRECISELY TO BE CHALLENGED AND MULLED OVER AND QUESTIONED — AND REFUTED, IF NEED BE. THE SCHOLAR WHO SAYS: “THERE IT IS! EUREKA! I’VE DISCOVERED THE TRUTH, THE ONLY PROPER PERSPECTIVE ON THIS SUBJECT! NO FURTHER INVESTIGATION IS NEEDED.” — THAT PERSON IS NOT A SCHOLAR.
“I touched on it briefly toward the end of a recent post, where I quote Professor Frank Coffman as asking, ‘Did they suggest that Conan isn’t quite the ‘Dark’ barbarian that Herron maintains?’
Apparently Frank is toying around with the idea of ‘The Bright Barbarian’ — if he can articulate the concept in an essay, maybe he thinks he can dethrone my idea as the dominant theory in Howard Studies of the last twenty years. I don’t know if Frank is up to writing an essay that would have to be That Good, but he’s definitely monkeying with the concept. I first noticed it mentioned in his review of the Jason Momoa Conan movie — if you want to look into it, feel free, but I warn you that Frank is one of the least readable figures in Howard Studies. You’ll have to plow through a lot of verbiage about how only elite intellectuals have the technical stylistic tools to do real criticism, and you’ll be blindsided by a comparison of Conan the Barbarian with Battleship Potemkin. Jeez.
I’M NOT JUST “TOYING WITH THE IDEA” OF THE “BRIGHT BARBARIAN.” I’M ACTUALLY RESEARCHING THE CONCEPT (NEW RESEARCH, SOMETHING THAT DON HASN’T DONE OF LATE). I DON’T “TOY” WITH IDEAS. I HAVE THEM OR CONSIDER THEM AND DECIDE IF I WANT TO ADOPT THEM OR REJECT THEM OR PURSUE THEM.
But for what it’s worth, that’s the first place I noticed the term ‘The Bright Barbarian,’ and now I await the onslaught in my impregnable redoubt. (I think I’ll have time to take a nap.)”
NAP TIME MAY BE CLOSE TO OVER, DON. BUT I WILL AGREE THAT YOU HAVE BEEN “NAPPING” WHEN IT COMES TO REH SCHOLARSHIP OF LATE. WHY DON’T YOU WAKE UP AND ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE OF SERIOUSLY AND LOGICALLY DEFENDING YOUR IDEAS — OR MAYBE EVEN ACCEPTING SOME NEW ONES — RATHER THAN CONTINUING AD HOMINEM ATTACKS ON THOSE WHO ARE SERIOUSLY RESEARCHING IN THE FIELD?
The Barbarians and the Critics:
A Review of Marcus Nispel’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN
by Frank Coffman
Professor of English and Journalism, Rock Valley College, Rockford, IL
I’ll begin by noting that this review is a bit different from most reviews in that it both gets into some technical cinematic jargon and also does some critiquing of the critics—at least in general—who have thus far commented on the film. I’ll begin by saying that my final estimation of the movie is quite positive with very few reservations.
First of all, to the raft of “critics” who have given us clichéd reactions like “two hours of my life wasted,” or “I wanted to leave the theater, but I had to stay since I’d promised a review,” or “gratuitous violence and sex,” for the former comments, my response is “strive for something original” and “if you don’t like your job, quit.” For the latter response, I’d like to ask what they expected to view at an action-adventure, heroic epic fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, R-rated flick?! Would these reviewers go to The Sound of Music expecting NOT to hear people singing? Would they see a Sherlock Holmes film and be surprised to find a classical detective story going on? Would they go to a Michael Moore documentary and expect NOT to see a fat-ass ultra-liberal ambush-interviewing people against whom he has an agenda, completely ignoring the journalistic principles of balance and fairness [this last example is optional for your consideration, depending upon your political slant]? You get my point, I’m sure. If you don’t know the genre of the book you’re about to read or the film you’re about to watch, do your homework first—worse still, if you already have an antipathy for the type of film you’re reviewing, then it’s only fair to announce yourself to the reader as a card-holding member of the opposition.
Second, to the gaggle of critics—unfortunately the majority, I’m afraid—who are members of the “high brow” intelligentsia, the self-righteous many who think all films “suck” [although most of them would not use that word] which are not fraught with deep significance, which don’t have any great message to convey, who believe that Entertainment should, if necessary, always be sacrificed on the altar of Enlightenment, you need to go back over the history of storytelling and discover what Story is supposed to be about: Entertainment is paramount, Enlightenment is optional. These folks are also likely “Realists” who, of course, believe in “Realism.” Strangely, they also think of themselves as “post-Modernists” who have decided that there is no such thing as true Meaning in language or in any Art. They have “deconstructed” themselves into their own strange realm. They have a clever lever (fabricated by de Saussure and Derrida), but they’ve left themselves no real place to stand—and Archimedes saw long ago that moving the Earth wasn’t possible without both.
Oh well, on to the film Conan the Barbarian by director Marcus Nispel. Right from the start and sustained throughout, as befits the genre, the film is highly Formalistic. It is a “director’s film” in every sense [although knowing—as some critics don’t—that the producers had a great deal of input and some power of insistence re: inclusions and exclusions or essences of character]. By this I mean that it is not, nor should it be, an attempt at realism or objective reality. It’s a fantasy world populated by fantasy characters, so a highly subjective director’s vision in script modifications, in storyboarding, in filming, and in editing prevails and should prevail. And Nispel also decidedly belongs in the Formalist School of directors, clearly demonstrating great influences from the Russian Formalists, championed in the art of film by Sergei Eisenstein and making use of “Montage Theory.” There are many transitions and “cuts” of various types in the film—all of them working according to Nispel’s vision of how the action should be portrayed.
Technically, the film uses an impressive, and I believe generally appropriate, variety of shots and camera angles. There are long shots, full shots, medium shots, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, crane shots, aerials, dolly shots, pans, tilts, high and low angles, etc. All of these are aptly and interestingly used, showing the virtuosity of storyboarding, filming, and directing. There are several extra long shots, not all for “establishing shots,” but many to emphasize the epic scope of the film—and this story of Conan IS an epic where none of the Howard stories actually fits that pattern. Again, folks, the film is nowhere near (nor did it ever pretend to be) a “literal” or even a “close” adaptation of a Robert E. Howard story. It is a “loose” adaptation, based upon characters created by Howard. Any reviewer “in the know” should not have expected a literal adaptation or story line.
I was most impressed by the use of 3D for “soft focus” shots—where the background is blurred in order to make the subject image “pop.” The “Law” in 3D photography (in which area I have some knowledge, having been involved in stereography for many years) is to use small-aperture “f-stops” in order to get clarity from near foreground through distant background (a great “Depth of Field”—think Ansel Adams). The idea is to have total clarity at the different distance planes (something, by the way, which the human eye can’t really achieve). But Nispel uses the “soft focus” with some interesting over-the-shoulder 2-shots where foreground character is blurred and the more distant person in focus, and one scene where Mamoa is speaking with Nichols in which, quite interestingly, we see his close-up profile in clarity with her slightly blurred in the background. This worked well.
What has been a bit off-putting for some “official” reviewers and other less formal commentators on the Howard and Conan discussion groups is Nispel’s use of many and frequent cuts and quick transitions. This is solidly in keeping with formalist montage theory pioneered by Eisenstein and others in the 1920s and 30s. Eisenstein even developed a classification scheme for the montage. Nispel uses both Metric Montage and Rhythmic Montage: the former being arbitrary cutting based upon simple time sequence, a cut every second or two, for example; the latter—and the technique used more frequently in this film—being also quick, but not arbitrary and based upon the content of the shot that the director wishes to emphasize and the time that takes to be seen clearly, if perhaps even a bit subliminally. In the close-fighting sequences, most prominently, we see bits of the action from a multiplicity of angles and a blend of close-up, extreme close-up, full shots, and medium shots. This helps to emphasize the fury and ferocity and quickness of the action.
The film demonstrates scenes in both “open” and “closed” form as far as mise én scene is concerned. Some shots are “framed” by scenery, by characters, by actual frames like doorways or structures. In other scenes we have the definite sense of openness and the perception that there is plenty of territory outside the frame of the screen.
The film uses CGI of course and some backgrounds that would be far beyond cost prohibivity [<my coinage, take it or leave it]. There is an opening illustrated sequence and, of course, the two voice-overs by Morgan Freeman that are used to establish the bases of the plot.
And speaking of PLOT or story line, some reviewers and commentators—including some from “within” the Howard enthusiast and expert communities have pronounce loudly about a “lack of plot” or, at best, a “weak plot” in this film. I’m not sure where these folks get their definition of Plot, but the classical paradigm is that a good story is based upon CONFLICT (and that we have in abundance: man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. self) that rises up through COMPLICATION to a CRISIS and thence a CONCLUSION. Actually, in this story, we have a splendid convergence of three plots: 1) Revenge—every bit as bitter and actual as that in Hamlet (“a father murdered” [and decidedly not as inhibited as in the story of Denmark’s prince]), 2) Quest—very much like a quest in another fantasy epic that is well-respected in which an evil object needs to be “unmade,” and 3) Rescue of the endangered damsel. The convergence of these plots is by no means contrived; they meld nicely in that the revenge can be and is accomplished in conjunction with the quest in which the endangered damsel is a necessary element. The mantra in Hollywood for several years now (Lucas’ Star Wars series is written and based directly upon the theory) has been The Hero’s Journey. This theory stems from the pioneering work of theorists and mythologists and folklorists such as Lord Raglan with his famous “22 points” and Joseph Campbell who maintained that there is a central and archetypal story that is innate within us: The Monomyth (see Raglan’s The Hero and Campbell’s Hero With 1000 Faces). Included in this sort of story, that is, indeed, the ever-repeated tale of all cultures and times, are elements such as: departure and return (There and Back Again—sound familiar?), helper(s) on the quest (for those who have curiously found fault with Conan’s ending up with a “sidekick” or two), and reward of some sort, often the princess’ hand (which Conan refuses, of course, instead riding off into the sunset and back to his father’s gravesite). Far from being a weak plot or a convoluted plot, these three plot lines converge with clarity from the get-go. They are another example of the archetypal master-plot within us all.
As far as editing continuity, the film works in following the story lines, the epic sweep of the transitions from place to place and the broad setting are befitting of the epic genre. The word adventure itself has travel and motion built right into it. The “-ven-“ infix is the same morpheme (unit of meaning) as we find in Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici,” or, for that matter, in the English words “wend” or “went” (old and parallel forms of “to go” [ever wonder why the past tense of go was went?]. So travel and movement are integral to adventure. We also have some static scenes with fixed and focused and narrower scope—even to a close-up sequence of love-making.
And for those reviewers who have argued that “Barbarians don’t ‘love’ or ‘Love’” — well, these folks have bought too solidly into the fabled—and erroneous—“Dark Barbarian” mantra which has attached itself to too much Conan and Howard criticism. Conan—both the Conan of this film AND the Conan of Howard’s literature—is NOT the ultimately “Dark” barbarian—benighted in ignorance, dull in intellect, violent indiscriminately, incapable of emotion. In other words, Conan is not a sociopath or a psychopath. The Cimmerians were capable of familial love, the love that can be part of friendship, love of country or clan or place—as well as physical love. They could feel the pain of loss: as in the deaths of Conan’s mother and father. They would not be recognizably Human if they did not, and in no way could they be heroic. There is a poignancy in the early scenes of Conan’s birth and in the death of his father.
George Macdonald pronounced upon this in his important essay, “The Fantastic Imagination.” Fantasy MUST convey things that seem physically and materially unbelievable in order to be fantasy in the first place and to present the supernatural, but in terms of morality, it MUST NOT pervert the nature of good or evil, right or wrong. In every Conan tale, and in this film, Conan is The Bright Barbarian, shining above the ultimately dark—or at least much darker—foil character barbarians. Compared to the characters portrayed by Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan, Conan is civilized. He hates slavery and fights against it, he frees the oppressed [albeit tangentially], he gets his revenge against those who have slain for ignoble purposes, he saves the endangered heroine. And the Conan of Howard’s stories is the same Bright Barbarian—always with villainous foils who show what true and darker barbarity is all about.
On the other hand, the Conan—both the boy and the man, portrayed excellently and accurately in this film by Leo Howard (young Conan) and Jason Momoa (the focus character), are much closer than the Conan of the previous movies and decidedly closer to the Conan of Howard’s imagining. This characer (young and adult) IS barbaric and violent enough to fulfill the expectations about the literary character when need be. He not only cuts off a nose, he spites the face. He collects heads to prove his youthful valor and skill. He cleaves, stabs, and chops his way through oodles of foes (the number of the slain would be very hard to count). He displays some grim humor. He proves again and again to be “the baddest SOB in the Valley.”
As far as casting and acting go, what does the viewer or critic want? Perlman stood tall (pun intended), Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan were spot-on as far as portrayal—with McGowan making me yearn for her character’s gory and painful demise early on and highly gratified when it occurs, Rachel Nichols is a true beauty and a fine, promising actress, and Mamoa should continue to be Conan in what I hope are more close, if not literal adaptations of Howard stories in future films. He is much closer to the Conan in my mind’s eye than the oafish, lumbering, sword-posing “Ahnold.” Morgan Freeman voice overs! Several of the supporting characters came off very well, especially impressive is a great performance by young Leo Howard as the young Conan, by Milton Welsh as the minion of evil who “gets the chair,” Bob Sapp as the sidekick Ukafa, and Steven O’Donnell as Lucius the monk. The casting and acting were successes. The set designs and costuming were appropriate and the former varied enough to help show the panoply of Hyborian Age places. We had a script that allowed us to see Conan as warrior, avenger, sort-of-pirate, monster-slayer, sorcerer-conqueror, and lover—covering many of his aspects seen in Howard’s stories.
And that’s what this film is primarily meant to do: convey to a new generation, the uninitiated of any age, and a definite new “target audience” (sort of like “ideal readership” in literature) an introduction and overview to the marvelous character Conan the Barbarian and his world. I think it succeeds at that. If anything, the film, perhaps, attempts to show too much of Conan’s world in one sweep, but better more than not enough. I think a thematic musical score could have been much better done—something distinctive and more frequently repeated and something that might serve in sequels (as the theme music does successfully with the Star Wars series or with Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings) But if this film brings new readers to “pure Howard” and the literature that inspired the film, it will have succeeded. I believe it will succeed in that way also.
And there is an interesting variety of homages in the film also—enough to make the viewer, at least on subsequent viewing perhaps, find a new level of enjoyment. In addition to the often-incorporated “Odessa Steps” sequence ,  (Eisenstein [The Battleship Potemkin]), there are clear nods to: Rapa Nui, Hamlet, The Mummy (modern versions), The Last of the Mohicans, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Niebelungenlied, Alien, Nightmare on Elm Street, Clash of the Titans (both), The Dirty Dozen, The Lord of the Rings, and The Return of the Jedi! What’s not to like? See this film if you like kinetic action-adventure heroic fantasy. It’s well-filmed, interestingly directly, masterfully acted, fast-paced and hits its target audience as intended. Definitely don’t heed the advice of those negative reviewers to whom the genre is anathema in the first place or who fault Fantasy because it’s “unrealistic.” There’s REAL and then there’s TRUE, and they are not always the same thing.
I’ve added a “favicon” to the REHEAPA website AND splash page. It’s the classic “formal” picture that Novalyne requested of Bob — the half-profile with the jacket and tie and fedora (admittedly made very small to fit into favicon requirements, but, for those “in the know,” they’ll recognize it even in miniature).
Cheers! and Onward!
I’m currently working on the final revisions on a book of Howard’s collected sonnets with the format: a general introduction and preface followed by the layout of each sonnet on a verso page with notes and critical commentary on the facing recto page. Further or additional notes on any given poem that requires more discussion would occur on the following two pages, with room for illustrations on those pages also. The title will be: The Sonnets of Robert Ervin Howard.
I’ve been intrigued by Howard’s skill at this difficult, but ubiquitous form (the most often attempted fixed poetic form in all of Occidental literature, originating in the early Italian Renaissance). I’m especially impressed by his use of the sonnet [he actually wrote mostly Italian or Petrarchan Sonnets—far more difficult than the relatively simpler-to-rhyme English or Shakespearean variety] as, not only a lyric poem, but also as a short narrative poem. Squeezing a story into 14 lines is a tough task. It’s not exactly new, but it is rare. Take for example Percy Shelley’s famous “Ozymandias”:
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Notice that this poem is not only a story, but a FRAME STORY, a story within a story—one told by a character in the framing narrative. The “I” voice begins and concludes the poem (lines 1 [and first two words of 2] and 12-14). The “traveler’s” voice tells us the tale, but we also have the quoted words of Ozymandias within the internal frame narrative.
Howard achieves this sort of narrative mastery in sonnets like “Miser’s Gold”*—one of my favorites from among his 700+ poems and fragments.
This is the second incarnation of a BLOG connected with the Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association (REHeapa). Postings will be by members of the Association. Check out our home web site for more information.
300 – Bob would approve, I think.
REPOSTING #2 – 12 March 2007
Eth xein, aggelein Lakedaimoniois oti tide
keimatha, tois keinon rimasi peithomenoi
— Simonides of Ceos
- Which is variously translated:
- O Stranger, take the message to the Spartans
That here we remain, obedient to her orders.
- Traveler, if you should come to Sparta say
That we lie here, obedient to her laws.
- Or my favorite, and the most poetic in English:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to her will, we lie.