Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Conan: The Barbarian" (1982) vs "Conan" (2011)

While all you normies spent your Christmas Eve with family or watching Die Hard for the umpteenth time (great movie, no argument there), I had an itch to scratch; I wanted to see the two Conan: The Barbarian movies back to back and see which one comes on top. I didn't have much of an interest in Robert E. Howard's high adventure masculine power fantasy for most of my life, but I started getting into the whole thing when I started reading the Conan Anthology on Amazon Kindle. I'm not even half-way through the massive collection, but there is a certain charm in the straight-up high-fantasy adventure series starring a no-nonsense scantily clad beefcake slashing men, stabbing monsters and poking damsels in distress. It's material that hasn't aged well for modern social sensibilities, but it manages to titillate on a basic, very fundamental, downright bestial level.

The two movies in question are the 1982 classic "Conan: The Barbarian" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and the 2011 flick "Conan" (later "Conan 3D" and finally retitled "Conan: The Barbarian") starring Jason Momoa. Which one is the better experience is largely subjective, but to my dismay, neither one of them is a particularly good adaptation of Robert E. Howard's creation, for different reasons.

Both films elect to start with Conan's childhood and frame the plot as a revenge story. None of the stories I've read ever explain Conan's origins in detail (and I hope none will in the future), so the similarities between the two movies tell me that either somebody has actually written that story or said similarities are due to the 2011 movie starting out originally as a remake of the 1982 classic. A revenge story is simple, to the point and it's relatable for an audience, so I can't fault either film for going that direction. Having said that, I can't help but feel like something's missing because of it. Conan is the ultimate adventurer fantasy. His adventures are based on personal gratification, be it power, wealth or women and, primarily, the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants. When your character's entire arc is informed by the single-minded desire to exact revenge upon one person, freedom flies out the window by necessity.
William Smith as Conan's Father in the 1982 classic
Ron Perlman took over as the hero's father in the 2011 film
The 1982 movie kills off Conan's parents fast, during a marauder invasion led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). His village is massacred and the children are taken to slavery. The 2011 movie follows roughly the same pattern, but it takes its time to establish the Cimmerian village and Conan himself first. The villain that invades the village is quick to actually give a clear motivation for the attack and instead of rounding the kids up for slave-labor, he leaves Conan to die with his father. Structurally, the 1982 movie works best; it gets to the point quickly and doesn't feel the need to make the story convoluted to justify an attack in a pseudo-historical setting in which such attacks happen regularly. I'm personally, however, more partial to the 2011 version. It's a little too silly and too overt, but it frames Conan better as a character. The 1982 Conan is just a kid that slowly hungers for revenge against Thulsa Doom and turns into a warrior to attain that desire. The 2011 Conan is shown to be a gifted warrior early on, but most importantly shows that Conan is fueled by sheer determination. Not only is this in line with the source material (determination is the primary reason Conan survives impossible situations), but it offers a foundation from which the character operates besides the simple-minded revenge plot.
The 1982 movie takes its time; it shows Conan growing up, being used for arena matches, being trained by "eastern warriors" and eventually gaining his freedom and turning to thievery. The story is simplistic, but classic. Around the second act, he meets up with Subotai and Valeria and they live well. He forgets all about revenge for a while, until he picks up Doom's trail again and he abandons his companions to return to the path of vengeance. The movie is really bad in terms of characterization; it takes the "barbarian" theme and runs with it fully. Conan rarely speaks and he doesn't portray any memorable characteristics or personality traits. His fighting style is brutal and his mind focused on violence. 
There is a sequel to that movie (and reportedly another one is currently being made), but for the purposes of this text, we'll pretend it stands alone; largely, because "Conan: The Destroyer" is just a poor follow-up to that first movie. But, in many ways, "Conan: The Barbarian" is a "Batman Begins" type of movie. Conan isn't really Conan until after he has beheaded Thulsa Doom. The "Riddle of Steel" is a central theme in both movies, but in the 1982 film this secret is that steel is useless without a competent arm to wield it. For the story of the movie, this steel isn't the iconic sword Conan's father made for him; it's he. Conan is the steel to Thulsa Doom's flesh. Thulsa Doom is the one that shapes Conan into a warrior, unknowingly, involuntarily.  Conan exacts his revenge in a sequence that comes full-circle and concludes his character-arc in that story. He takes Thulsa Doom's head the same way Thulsa Doom took Conan's mother's head; that final blow to Doom is Conan's graduation, his training now complete. At the end of the movie, there is the promise that the brainless bag of muscles will set his eyes on high adventure and eventually make himself King of Aquillonia.
Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of the movie's most iconic Conan moments.

The 2011 movie rushes through everything. First time we see adult Conan, he's already an adventurer. The "riddle of steel" for this movie is that steel needs both fire and ice to be shaped into a weapon. In the context of the story, this means that there is a character-arc hidden in the movie that Conan needs to learn when to fall back, to not give into his instincts and become a better warrior, but it never really comes up. He's exactly how he should be, per the instructions of the source material, with no lead-up to it. Once he starts looking for vengeance again, he doesn't waver. Ironically, this is detrimental to his characterization. The 1982 Conan wasn't a good character, but the conflict he experiences when Valeria asks him to not pursue Thulsa Doom and instead stay with her and the life they have together makes him human. The 2011 Conan, on the other hand, has a lot more color and personality, but doesn't really grow or experience true conflict in his story. Since he is already a fully developed character, his revenge plot is merely a distraction. This could work in the books, which were just collections of stories instead of a comprehensive, massive epic, but for a standalone film with little context for the average movie-goer, it makes the entire project feel phoned in. The relationships he builds in the story feel the same way; he already has a friend who'd make a great sidekick, but is mostly left away from the action and the love interest is an annoying stock character that was clearly shoehorned in to prevent girlfriends dragged into the theater from brutally stabbing their significant others during the showing. Where Valeria was an equal to Conan that joined in the action, the priestess Tamara to 2011's Conan is just a glorified damsel in distress. The trope isn't a problem in itself, but that she's worthless to the story and that even Conan fails to register as relatable character through his affection for her hurts the film irreparably.
Jason Momoa as Conan, the Cimmerian

The aforementioned priestess is also a major point of contention for me; a lot of the 2011 movie suffers from "film made in 2011 for teen audiences" and that character perfectly encapsulates that. The interesting question is, of course, how could one add a female character to Conan, without removing the story too much from the source material? As mentioned, the original stories really don't jive with our modern sensibilities of gender representation in media (entertainment or otherwise). Women in Conan are always driven by one desire: driving stick. It doesn't matter if they're whimpering priestesses or peasant girls or powerful queens and goddesses; some of them are actually very important and powerful and strong characters in their own right, but their end-game in all stories is fucking Conan. Conan himself is extremely willing to accommodate that desire-- that is, when he's not outright forcing himself on them.
One option is to do what the 1982 movie did and it'd work just fine. Barring that, a James Bond approach would work as well. Effectively, most of Conan's companions are your standard Bond girl stereotype in the books. If they elect to go that route (and assuming they don't particularly care risking a backlash), they can always draw female audiences in on the promise of softcore porn with a gorgeous muscle-bound dude. Say what you will about the overt sexism in Conan stories, but you'd lose count with the times Conan's sweaty bronze-skinned biceps and fiery blue eyes have been described in detail in those books.
Rachel Nichols as the priestess Tamara in the 2011 "Conan: The Barbarian"
If there is a part that the 2011 movie wins is in its cast. While in itself competent, the 1982 cast doesn't get to really shine at any point (maybe with the exception of Sandahl Bergman's Valeria). The 2011 movie not only has superior actors (even when they ham it up), but it features the better lead as well. Schwarzenegger, bless him, is not ideal for this part. He's dull, he looks passive even when he kills a vulture with his teeth (totally happens) and he's far too big. Conan, in the books, is big; but most importantly, he's nimble. He's constantly described as a panther and the reason he can out-stab everyone else, is because he moves really, really fast. It sounds like a nitpick that could be fixed by some old-fashioned suspension of disbelief, but Schwarzenegger's difficulty to move during the fight scenes is extremely evident, particularly in the slower training sequences. Momoa is visually more engaging when he's fighting and he encompasses the traits and the attitude of the character far better. Also, you can actually understand what Momoa is saying, which is always a plus. 
When I sat down to watch these two movies, I really wanted to come out on the side of the 2011 film. For anyone who likes the books, that film is more recognizable as a Conan movie. The aesthetic of the film is faithfully recreated and the story revolves around ancient Acheronian necromancy; there was magic and mysticism in the 1982 movie as well, but they were downplayed in favour of raw barbarian limb-chopping. Momoa is just a lot more fun to watch than Schwarzenegger as Conan and though both movies are products of their time, at least the new one doesn't stop dead in its tracks half-way through to make fun of hippies and have Conan seduce an old gay dude to steal his clothes.
Sandahl Bergman as Valeria in the 1982 "Conan: The Barbarian"
Undoubtedly, though, the Schwarzenegger movie is the better film. It's better plotted and better-paced. The script is a lot more effective in its simplicity and the story has a better build-up and a better pay-off. The fight sequences are the one thing the 2011 film should've done better, but it falters in that department as well; it's too loud, too CGI and the cameraman seems to be having massive seizures every five seconds. The fighting scenes in the 1982 movie aren't really good; they're basic and not particularly well-choreographed, but they're effective. Once in a while you can spot a punch not connecting or an extra bursting a fake-blood bag open on queue, but these moments only give the film a somewhat dated, junky feeling that adds to the charm. On top of that, even the action sequences have some juxtaposition that the 2011 movie sorely lacks. Contrary to the brutal swordsfighting, there are stealth sequences where the actors (especially Bergman) practically dance, giving the production the feel of a stage musical or a ballet. It's a sight to behold and it can really keep your attention focused, as opposed to the 2011 movie where all the action scenes just kind of merge together in a big ball of noise and nonsense.
The 2011 film had potential. The script wasn't good, but the main culprit for its mess was undoubtedly the director. The entire movie has the foul odor of music video, from the opening scene that shows Conan's father cutting the baby out of his dying wife's belly (for a point that could've been made more effectively through exposition than crappy CG) to the overly theatrical acting (which looks silly on camera) to the fight sequences. As it is now, the 1982 remains the far more enjoyable movie.
Unless you're a Conan: The Barbarian fan. In that case, you're shit out of luck.

Disclaimer: The pictures included in this article were found via Google and belong to their creators and/or copyright holders. 

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