We went to catch Conan the Barbarian at a mid-day bargain matinee, well-attended by other layabouts too. The flick is sure to engender cascades of critical condescension, not entirely unwarranted, but I liked it better than any film review I ever hope to see, even this one. Let me straighten out the mandarins on a few points.
The Hearst reviewer calls Conan “the comic-strip hero,” but that’s misleading except as a display of the limits of his erudition. The literati never notice any kind of popular culture until it’s dead or dying (at their hands, as often as not), be it Elizabethan drama or punk rock. So it is with the pulp fiction of the 1920s and ’30s. The English professors have belatedly accorded a modest resting-place in their literary mausoleum to the horror fantasist H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps because he has no successors worth a damn. But they ignore his friend Robert E. Howard, notwithstanding the impeccable credentials of his antecedents such as William Morris and Lord Dunsany. Yet Howard created the sword-and-sorcery species of the heroic fantasy genus, which still has eminent practitioners (Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance) today; and his creation Conan is an archetype likely to lurk in popular awareness as long as Sherlock Holmes or Frankenstein.
Howard was at least as effective a story-teller as Lovecraft, probably more so, but what sets him apart from the other weird writers in his better work is a heroic fatalism which is utterly pitiless, stark and unromantic.
Howard, unlike his enfeebled continuators L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, stressed the sword side of sword and sorcery; the sorcery side is today an embarrassment, the playground of illiterates like Carter and lesbian doctrinaires like Elizabeth Lynn (the only important exception: the inimitable Jack Vance).
Howard’s obsession with violence — meaningless, yet a real “peak experience” in a world stripped of authentic adventure — is surprisingly “modern,” despite the pre-Atlantean setting. The movie is generally faithful to the Howard original, up to a point. The blood-and-guts are satisfying if (like me) you like that sort of thing. As Chris Estey says, it’s “hack work” in every sense. The limb-lopping is actually minimal compared to the Howard stories and, for that matter, most Peckinpah or samurai or recent horror movies. (However, it sufficed to render “confusing” to the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s snobbish, yet supersensitive reviewer a plot any eight-year-old can follow.) Essentially, the movie is the story of Conan’s revenge on the sorcerer who wiped out his clan and enslaved him. Arnold Schwarzenegger acts as well as he needs to (not very) as Conan. And James Earl Jones does Darth Vader again with his usual aplomb, this time as Conan’s nemesis, a 1000-year old Jim Jonesoid weresnake. There are some discordant notes — incongruous colloquialisms; a wrestle with demons who look like air-brushed Gumbies; some too-obvious rip-offs from Seven Samurai, the Star Wars movies and even Blazing Saddles — but nothing ruinous. As a story the movie works. Why wait 20 years till the critics permit you to watch a B movie when you can beat the rush now?
The real shortcoming, though you’d never know it from the usual corporate/“alternative” media reviews, is that the figure of Conan is diminished. To a degree, he’s properly portrayed as ferocious yet innocent, as untamed yet uncorrupted, amoral but not evil (offered an amulet against evil, he smirks, “I am evil”). But he’s too much the victim avenging villainy, despite incidental thefts, debauches and sacrileges. The movie will be likened to Star Wars — wrongly, since Conan fights for no cause but his own and couldn’t be more foreign to the antiseptic hightech bureaucratic moralism of the Lucas flicks, those warm-ups for World War III — for unfortunately it doesn’t fully reveal Conan as the barbarous-but-worldly adventurer.
The real Conan is a skeptic and hater of priests, but avoids gratuitous blasphemy likely to rouse dormant evils; the real Conan returns an injury with interest but isn’t an Ahab-like obsessive as in the film. Obviously Conan appeals to anyone stifled by social constraints; to those who’d like to strike out directly at oppressions and indignities assuming a conveniently tangible form; to s/he who wishes an individual could still make a difference by a personal act. Conan can be harsh but he’s no hypocrite. He might steal your jewels but he won’t pollute your soul.
Organizer-activoids dismiss fantasy as “escapist,” fully justifying J.R.R. Tolkien’s rejoinder: “What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape? Jailers.”
Fantasy and freedom: their organic nexus was evident to Charles Fourier; to the Marxist fantasist William Morris; to Russian Anarcho-Futurists who — anticipating Howard’s very nomenclature! — called themselves “Anarcho-Hyperboreans.” And yet the sectarians stood around stupified in 1968 when the French staged their epochal general strike and trumpeted the slogan “All power to the imagination.”
The notion of redemption through an individual act of willed violence is played out by now (though the inhibited may still find it therapeutic).
Insofar as violence has been collectivised and depersonalized, the passion has gone out of it, except for the spectators. In the South Atlantic, teams of technicians take turns obliterating each other by pushing buttons. “Smart” bombs blow away stupid people: it’s sheep fighting over sheep. Even as Maggie Thatcher doing Winston Churchill-in-drag fails to outdraw “Evita,” the junta learns it’s easier to make Argentine dissidents “disappear” than British troops.
Our times produce only ersatz barbarians. Intellectual jades may get off on the insensate fury of the Viking berserkers, but this century we have to settle for bureaucratic brutalitarianism impersonally administered by hacks like Alexander Haig, Pol Pot and Dianne Feinstein.
Pseudo-barbarian theatrics ended in a whimper: the Futurists went Fascist, the Surrealists went Stalinist, the punks went New Wave and re-entered art school. Why the attraction for imaginary barbarism? Because “civilization becomes more odious as it nears its end” (Fourier), and the barbarian nonalternative seems — cleaner.
Where is Conan when we need him?
Part III: Appeal To Treason