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Classic CC2K: Conan the Barbarian

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

Lance Carmichael examines how John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger conquered the proto-fascist 80s.

Has there ever been an archconservative nut as goofily lovable as Conan the Barbarian director and co-writer* John Milius? A few more of him making movies, and educated Americans might happily accept George W. Bush and his cadre of right-wingers.

Though they’re typically made by rich liberals, the heart of the true Hollywood action film is a right wing fantasy: The hero assuming the will to power and claiming what’s rightfully his; usually, vengeance and a woman. It’s actually quite rare for an unapologetic proto-fascist to get the chance to make a big budget, prestige movie palatable by both sides of the jock/nerd split in American society. There are thousands of proto-fascist movies out there, and dozens made a year – direct-to-video marketed to the motorhead set – but you almost never see one with brains. The Dirty Harry movies, perhaps – but Milius himself had a role in creating the character, and is credited with the story for the follow-up, Magnum Force. Coppola’s masterpieces in the 1970s are all explorations of the dark side of the will to power, and, good paranoid liberal that Coppola is, they’re played as tragedies, rather than triumph, as Conan is.

But they do share the same DNA. Coppola’s endings to his great epics echo the same Milius heavy-is-the-head-that-wears-the-crown ending made literal at the end of Conan, where an aged Arnold sits stooped on his throne under the weight of a steel crown. Michael sits all powerful but alone at the end of the Godfather II; Marlon Brando’s Kurtz asks to be ceremonially slaughtered at the end of Apocalypse Now rather than carry on as a god-on-earth–a rather more unpleasant ending than his benevolent fascist predecessor Vito Corleone received. Coppola famously wrestled with the ending of Apocalypse Now, and it must have been his liberal conscience fighting an epic battle with the conservative tendencies of a director who dared try to start his own studio. In the end, his liberal side won, and Martin Sheen refused the temptation of stepping onto the throne of Kurtz, heading back down the river after tasting the fruit of living above morality.

It’s no coincidence that Milius co-wrote the screenplay for Apocalypse Now. And in Conan the Barbarian, he finally got the chance to do cinematic fascism his way. This is a movie that retrospectively not only justifies the Nietzsche quote pretentiously shown at the beginning (“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”), but makes it seem inevitable.

As improbable as it sounds, perhaps this movie should mark the end of the 70s as a movie-making era. Not only does it triumphantly and artistically turn its back on the hearty strain of leftist ideology on display in 70s films, clearing the way for all the Arnold movies and governorships to come, but it uses the tools of these lefty films against them. It’s made with the same delicious blend the great American directors of that era discovered: infusing genre pictures with the patience and freedom and maturity of European art cinema. They rescued smart pictures from the often paint-drying-ly dull creations of the Antonioni, Bergman, and Godard by working in the entertaining, recognizable safety of genre films … and rescued Hollywood movies from the straitjacket of repetition and formula of genre pictures by stealing the fire of these European gods and using their secrets to make entertainment. If anybody cared to note it anymore, this is a cut-and-dried example of the middlebrow stealing from the avant-garde to make kitsch, but rather than decry that practice – as art critics like Clement Greenberg did, fighting the hordes at the entrance to the temple of modernism in the high arts of painting and sculpture – us fans of the popular art form of the movies can and did and continue to embrace it.

Perhaps the greatest lesson these 70s American directors learned was patience. These movies breathe, they think, they take their time. And Conan is no exception. One of the true joys of 70s movies are the sequences of pure cinema. Long, dialogue-free stretches where the director tells the story in a purely visual way. De Niro’s stalking and murder of Don Cicci in Godfather II. The car-train chase in Friedkin’s The French Connection, or almost all of his unjustly maligned, outrageously underrated follow-up, Sorcerer. Every memorable, worthwhile stretch of a De Palma movie. Travis Bickle doing pushups, practicing his gunslinging, making holsters, and talking to the mirror in Taxi Driver.

Add the first 20 minutes of Conan the Barbarian to this proud pantheon. The beginning of this movie is flawless, perfect. In fact, there are very few missteps for the entire movie, but the opening 20 achieve some kind of secret, extra strength, super perfection. A glowing red sword is forged in darkness by the fathers of men as the credits roll. A father, straight from Leif Erikson’s general staff, explains to a young Conan – while theyre perched on a mountain – the story of the gods, and how the Secret of Steel is the key to life (pointing at a sword he made with his own Goddamned hands to make sure Conan doesn’t miss the point). Then the opening action starts. Wordless shots of snowy, woodsy, peaceful, barbarian village, intercut with horrible armored men on horses galloping towards it. The village is destroyed, burned, the men are killed, and finally Conan’s beautiful mother, holding her husbands sword, is all thats left to protect the boy Conan. James Earl Jones – as Thulsa Doom (!) – steps off his mighty horse, takes off his mighty helmet, is handed his mighty sword … and just stares sadly into her eyes. Mesmerized, she drops her sword to the ground … and is beheaded.

Conan: Without force, life is impossible. Got it yet?

What follows is a wordless montage of archetypal images. Conan is taken away in a chain gang of children to The North. We then get one of those great boy grows into man montages that are almost always a pleasure to watch, from The Lion King down. This one takes place as Conan pushes one of those big slave wheels around and around in a circle. He starts as a boy, one of a big team of men pushing the wheel. By the end of the montage, years later, he is now a fully-ripped Arnold Schwarzenegger, pushing the wheel all by himself, his never-ending wearing a deep groove into the ground at his feet, possibly never resting once in all those years, through heat and snow.

Conan is then bought by another slavemaster and turned into a gladiator – at first hesitant and unsure, and by the end a killing machine. He’s then taken to the East, learns the sword from an old Asian guy, reads poetry and philosophy, is studded out to other slave women … need I go on? Have you made the decision to buy this yet?

Arnold’s first line of the film – or one of his first lines, if not his first then his first memorable one – is a doozy. In an unexplained, uncontextualized slave bar, his master asks him, “Conan, what best is in life?”

Arnold, even more woodenly than normal, this being his first starring movie role: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!” This pleases his slavemaster so much that he tearfully cuts Conan’s chains with an axe and sets him free, his prodigy well on his way along the path of enlightenment.

Arnold’s ming-bogglingly unlikely career – the perfect head-scratcher for highbrows bemoaing the insanity of 1980s Hollywood – begins here, at this very line. As if his movie career is an academic paper, it correctly begins stating its entire premise. Rewatch this movie – in particular this opening 20 minutes – and all is made clear. Arnold came out like gangbusters as the perfect noble fascist for the Reagan 80s – he even had an Austrian accent! This movie may more or less mark the first time a Teutonic accent had been used by a hero in an American film since WWII.

Conan also exemplifies Arnold’s other singular genius: improbably finding a string of roles perfect for a stiff-faced muscleman who couldn’t even speak English without an accent. Conan and the Terminator – two roles requiring mute thuggery – made him believable as an actor at all to Americans, establishing him for a run of truly mindless, fascist movies, ending in Red Heat and starting with the most mindlessly genius fascist flick of the entire 1980s, Commando – whose body count is so high it has to be seen to be believed.

After those hits set him up at the box office, he rode a ten-year wave of lightly parodying his persona, beginning with Twins and Kindergarten Cop, culminating in True Lies, and ending unremarkably in Jingle All the Way (is there any other possible result when you’re paired with Sinbad?). From there, it was a string of box office disappointments until he found himself put in charge of the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Long before The Lord of the Rings legitimized the sword-and-sorcery genre, there was Conan, a movie whose minor reputation is doubly unfair: it’s both relegated to the sci-fi/fantasy ghetto of the video store – instead of classily packaged in a three-disc Criterion Collection edition, as it would be if there were any justice in the world; and its thought of – in the rare times when it is – as one of the more comical opening images of Governor Arnolds career. But where Lord of the Rings has Tolkien’s hugely dense books to cover, forcing it to move at a near-manic pace to get all the exposition out of the way, no exposition is required for Conan. It’s an austere, elegant staging of the monomyth. And the monomyth – the telling and retelling of the founding of civilization across our cultures – is usually a pretty bloody affair. Civilizations just don’t found themselves.

Nietszche would be proud.

* This movie is co-written by Oliver Stone. I don’t even want to begin trying to get into the implications of that …

Author: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

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