Most stories have a kind of endoskeleton: a theme that lies inside them like bones. Sometimes it’s the same set of bones as another story: autopsy Lord of the Rings or Star Wars and you’ll find the skeleton of Campbell’s Heroic Journey. Autopsy a random romance novel from the 70s or 80s instead, the skeleton will probably be the Three R’s (Rebellion, Ruin, Redemption). Some stories are thin, their thematic content close to the skin, while others are fat: you have to dig deep through the narrative’s flesh and organs before you find it.
But then you have stories that have exoskeletons: their bones are on the outside. The theme clearly came first. There’s no need to autopsy such a body to discover its skeleton: it exists in plain view, and often it’s the only thing you can see.
Conan the Barbarian is an exoskeletal movie, virtually all theme and zero story. Every character is an archetype, every plot point is as predictable and portentous as the movement of the stars, and the symbolism is blunt and obvious – a Freudian psychoanalysist would suffer coronary thrombosis comparing swords to phalluses in this movie. It’s a stirring and powerful experience. Every scowl, drawn blade, and bombastic orchestral sting exists in service of myth. Conan the Barbarian is held up by mighty iron pillars of theme.
In ancient Hyboria, a tribe of Cimmerians is massacred by cultists of a dark snake god, and a blacksmith’s son is taken captive and sold into slavery. He grows to adulthood chained to a mill, revolving in endless circles. In an absurd touch, this turns him into a muscular titan. Real slaves look haggard, emaciated, and old before their time: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body was clearly wrought by gym workouts and steroids. But that doesn’t matter, because we see the thematic through-line. “Conan has performed great labors and become mighty, so he might escape and seek vengeance against Thulsa Doom.” That’s the important part. The theme holds veto power over logic and realism.
Conan the Barbarian is not faithful to any one Robert E Howard’s story (the Conan of this movie has more in common with Kull the Conqueror), but it’s faithful to Howard’s storytelling. It’s the sort of thing Howard would have written.
Howard, more so than the others of the “Weird Three” (Lovecraft and Smith) was indebted toward the lower side of pulp. He wrote action well, and his stories tend to rely on energy, heft, and speed for their impact – they’re as fast and streamlined as the mechanical rabbits greyhounds chase. Lovecraft and Smith would carefully construct a setting: Howard threw up plywood constructs and then smashed them beneath stampeding Hyborian horses. Here’s what I mean:
Chunder Shan, entering his chamber, closed the door and went to his table. There he took the letter he had been writing and tore it to bits. Scarcely had he finished when he heard something drop softly onto the parapet adjacent to the window. He looked up to see a figure loom briefly against the stars, and then a man dropped lightly into the room. The light glinted on a long sheen of steel in his hand.
‘Shhhh!’ he warned. ‘Don’t make a noise, or I’ll send the devil a henchman!’
The governor checked his motion toward the sword on the table. He was within reach of the yard-long Zhaibar knife that glittered in the intruder’s fist, and he knew the desperate quickness of a hillman.
The invader was a tall man, at once strong and supple. He was dressed like a hillman, but his dark features and blazing blue eyes did not match his garb. Chunder Shan had never seen a man like him; he was not an Easterner, but some barbarian from the West. But his aspect was as untamed and formidable as any of the hairy tribesmen who haunt the hills of Ghulistan.
‘You come like a thief in the night,’ commented the governor, recovering some of his composure, although he remembered that there was no guard within call. Still, the hillman could not know that.
‘I climbed a bastion,’ snarled the intruder. ‘A guard thrust his head over the battlement in time for me to rap it with my knife-hilt.’
‘You are Conan?’
‘Who else? You sent word into the hills that you wished for me to come and parley with you. Well, by Crom, I’ve come! Keep away from that table or I’ll gut you.’
The setting is ancient, but the prose is incongruously modern. The dialog reads like banter from a hardboiled detective novel, and it’s littered with anachronisms (“the devil”, “parley”) that don’t sit well in a tale of a vanished age.
For better or worse, this is something the movie adapts. Take away Conan’s mythic grandeur, and what’s left? “A rich man hires a tough to rescue his wayward daughter.” That’s a detective story. In fact, it’s the plot of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Everything beneath the exoskeleton is pure pulp.
Likewise, the movie captures Howard’s eclecticism of setting. Low-budget grindhouse films had a reputation for shooting with whatever props and costumes were available (leading to ridiculous movies about roller-blading samurai, etc) and Howard’s stories have a similar feel. In The People of the Black Circle (quoted above) we see a weird amalgamation of real-world cultures, and Conan likewise throws together Mongols, Vikings, Indians, and everything in between. As Zack Stenz once pointed out, the movie owes quite a lot to 70s California beach culture. The story, written another way, could be phrased as “a Venice Beach bodybuilder and his hapa buddy do drugs, get laid, and fight a cult that exploits hippies.” Gerry Lopez (Subotai) was a surfer friend of director John Milius. Most of the remaining cast are athletes.
Some roles are oddly cast, but the most important one – that of Conan – is dead on. No role has ever suited Arnold more, except perhaps the Terminator. His overwhelming physicality sells him as a mightly-thewed barbarian, and his uncertain, rumbling, learning-to-talk diction adds extra verisimilitude. When you listen to Arnold speak, you don’t doubt that you’re hearing the beginnings of human language.
There are depths to Conan, but the surface is pretty predictable. Its characters are so archetypal that they can’t do anything interesting or surprising. All of their motives are clearly spelled out, and the viewer is never in any doubt about what will happen – what must happen. Some movies are like taxis, slyly taking you on the scenic route through town if you’re not watching the meter. Conan is more like a train, pulling into the station, then leaving at a certain time on a fixed path. And since Conan is hardly the first film to adapt such mythic material, the train’s travelling down a route you’ve seen many times before.
But most people consider regularity in their chosen form of transportation to be a virtue, not a vice, and maybe they think the same about stories. For the rest of us, Conan the Barbarian’s the perfect movie to watch if you’re twelve, or want to remember what it was like to be twelve.