Conan the Barbarian
Release Date: August 18
Conan isn’t just another book and film character. He’s a shorthand for a very particular way of seeing the world – one that divides problems neatly into those you drink, those you take to bed and those you hack apart with a sword. And so many other stories and jokes have been built on his bulging biceps – Weird Al Yankovic’s Conan the Librarian for one – that it was always going to be interesting to see what happened when Hollywood updated his iconic personality for the 21st century.
For those unaware of the existence of Conan – Yaarrrghhhhh! (picture a sword slicing through your computer at this point) – his story is based on a large collection of stories begun by Robert E. Howard in the 1930’s. They centre on a Cimmerian boy, the sole survivor of a massacred tribe, who rises to greatness through courage, keen wits and the power of his sword-arm. The first film version notably starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan, and just as notably dropped any reference to Conan’s intelligence. But it became the progenitor of many sword and sorcery films and TV programs, a tribute to the original script by Oliver Stone. In this latest version Conan is played by American heartthrob Jason Momoa – Baywatch, Stargate Atlantis and most importantly the runaway success Game of Thrones. But how does he do as a Cimmerian?
Conan the Barbarian is pretty much as you would expect to find it. Momoa spends two hours disdaining shirts, hefting sharpened iron and displaying feats of strength. But all the sweating and bleeding doesn’t make up for the thudding absence of an appreciable plot. Instead the characters follow the slimmest justifications from one fantastic location to the next where they engage in escalating and increasingly pointless battles. “But it’s what you’d expect, right?” said a friend of mine as Momoa held aloft his father’s sword and screamed at the sky. And I agreed, but not for the reason he was thinking.
Conan the Barbarian is exactly what happens when Hollywood fails to understand a character’s convictions. His or her worldview is sunk in sea of stereotypes as directors and producers stretch for every laugh or shock they can reach. You often see the same thing when Christians make it to the big screen. They end up either perpetually shocked prudes or all-embracing pluralists. Howard’s Conan was a thinking hero forged through hard times; Momoa’s is a sexist thug ready to be redeemed by the first smart woman he meets. But it’s worth remembering that just because someone doesn’t value our sort of civilization it doesn’t make them a barbarian. The next time you recognise a stereotype in a film remember it’s a sign the film makers know less about the character than you do.