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Battle of the Barbarians: Which Conan Script is the Victor?

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

CC2K compares two potential scripts that would bring back Conan the Barbarian. Which script holds the secret of steel?

ImageLet's turn back the clock six years.  It's 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger still plies his trade as an actor, John Milius has completed a script for a third Conan film entitled King Conan Crown of Iron, and the Wachowski brothers (of Matrix fame) are rumored to direct.  Return to present day.  It's 2009, Arnold is serving a second term as California's governor, Milius's script went unproduced, and word is the Conan franchise will get a reboot with a new, younger actor stepping into the role of the Cimmerian in a new film based on a script by by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer.  One of our writers here at CC2K has already taken a look at their efforts and given their script a favorable review, but I can't help but wonder.  Arnold's tenure as Governator will be over soon, and as some have argued I think he needs to return to acting.  What better way to re-launch his film career than by returning to one of the early roles that helped make him famous?  With that in mind, let's take another look at these two scripts.  In one corner, King Conan Crown of Iron.  In the other corner, Conan (the reboot).  Two scripts enter, one will be judged the victor.  To the victor go the spoils (and by spoils, I mean the endorsement of one writer for a pop-culture website who carries almost no weight in Hollywood, but damnit, we're going to have some fun with this anyway).  Let the battle begin!

Before I get into comparing these two scripts, let me preempt an obvious question: isn't Arnold too old to do right by another Conan movie?  To answer that, I want to consider a recent casting rumor that has since been debunked, specifically the rumor put out there by The Hollywood Reporter that Roland Kickinger has been cast as Conan in the planned remake.  Now as I said, this has been shot down by Latino Review citing a "super solid source," but I find this interesting because, as you might recall Kickinger stepped in as a body double of sorts for Arnold to appear in Terminator: Salvation with the help of some sweet CGI-effects (in case you still haven't seen the movie, you get catch a glimpse in the following TV spot):

The King Conan script does feature a younger Conan early in the proceedings, and as events unfold there is a passage of time in the range of 20 years or so.  Obviously Arnold can't realistically portray a young, spry Conan, but that's where Kickinger could come into play.  Granted, this would be much more than the few minutes of screentime in T4, and would be more challenging as you'd have to factor in realistic facial expressions and dialogue (which Arnold could provide), but allow for another couple of years of technological advancement and this could work.  And hopefully it wouldn't look as creepy as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan looked in X-Men 3.  Okay, on with the review!


Round 1: Respect for the Source Material

I'm no expert on the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, but the hardcore fans out there might be interested to know if the screenwriters took the time to mine Howard's body of work for ideas in crafting new adventures for everyone's favorite Cimmerian.  Though the bulk of King Conan appears to be an original story by Milius, he does open with a nearly complete adaptation of The Frost Giant's Daughter, with one significant change that forms the backbone of the rest of the script.  In the original story, Conan is enthralled by a beautiful, almost ethereal woman on a frozen battlefield in the region of Nordheim.  Conan chases the mysterious woman, intent on ravaging her, only to be whisked away by magic at the last moment before doing the barbarous deed.  In the script, Conan catches the woman, beds her, and fathers a child with her.  He then ventures to the great kingdom of Aquilonia where he joins their military, engaging in numerous campaigns and battles, rising in stature and rank.  Along the way he amasses a small fortune in precious gems, a ransom for the right to raise his son demanded by the Frost Giant's Daughter.  Conan then raises his young son, whom he names Kon, on the field of battle, teaching him of Crom and steel.

Yet Donnelly and Oppenheimer too have looked to Howard for inspiration in writing their remake Conan.  Their script draws, at least in part, from the original short story Black Colossus with perhaps some elements from The Hour of the Dragon thrown in.  The antagonist of their story is a warlord wizard named Khalar Singh, who has some parallels with the villain of Black Colossus, Thugra Khotan.  Singh wants to resurrect the pre-Hyborian empire of Acheron (referenced in Dragon), installing himself as it's new emperor and using it's dark mysticism to rule the world.  The character of Yasmela from Black Colossus, who is both obstacle to and object of desire for Thugra Khotan, plays a similar role to the character of Tamara in the script.  Conan is definitely less of a direct adaptation of any one of Howard's original stories, as compared to King Conan, though it still gets points for drawing inspiration from the character's earliest tales.

Decision: Draw

Round 2: Respect for the Original Film

Can we all agree that Conan the Destroyer was a lackluster sequel?  This is likely due in large part because John Milius, who co-wrote and directed Conan the Barbarian, had nothing to do with it.  Additionally, the gritty and gruesome nature of the first film earned it an R rating, while the gore and violence was toned down considerably in Destroyer to obtain a PG rating, probably to widen the audience base and bring in more revenue.   But Barbarian was good enough to demand the attention of these screenwriters as they were writing their scripts. 


I’ve been dying to see how Conan gets here since my first viewing circa 1990.

Obviously, King Conan is going to draw more from, and build further upon, the events of Barbarian as it is a direct sequel by the same writer.  It's not clear whether Milius intentionally ignored Destroyer, but I like to think that he recognized the same things I do about the film, and wisely chose to only give consideration to the first film.  In any event, King Conan largely builds on that iconic scene of Conan's destiny to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow that we saw at the end of Barbarian.  The Eye of the Serpent (the great jewel Conan stole from Thulsa Doom) appears in the script, as does Conan's great love Valeria.  Conan is given the crown of the barbarian kingdom of Zingara, and after years of growing fat and lazy sequestered in his palace, Conan ventures out in disguise to reacquaint himself with his subjects, and while out on one of these soirees, he meets a tavern owner who looks eerily like his lost love.  It's unclear if she is indeed Valeria reincarnated, but Conan sees her almost as a gift from Crom and a second chance.  They slowly fall in love, and are united by the end of the script.

On the other hand, while Conan has been called a remake of Conan the Barbarian, this is not a direct re-telling of the same story such as was done with The Omen, The Manchurian Candidate, or The Ring.  The driving force of the story, Conan's quest for revenge against the warlord who destroyed his people, remains and indeed, the opening of both stories share many parallels.  In both we meet Conan in his youth, though Conan actually begins with his birth on a battlefield.  Both include scenes of Conan's father teaching him of Crom and the Riddle of Steel, though it's never actually referred to as such in the remake.  And as I mentioned in both we witness attacks on his village.  But at this point Conan diverges significantly from Barbarian.  There's no montage of Conan's growth into a man, how he learns the arts of war and battle.  There's no mention of Valeria or Subotai or the old wizard, and Thulsa Doom has been replaced by Khalar Singh.  And really, I'm okay with this.  Conan the Barbarian is just so good, I'd rather the screenwriters take this route of writing a mostly new story rather than bastardize the original.  However, that being said the beginnings of these two films will be so similar, it will be impossible not to judge them against each other, and I can't see how Conan will be viewed as better.  Conan's learning of Crom and steel and the deaths of his parents and people may be like the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne for Batman.  You simply have to include it in establishing the character's origin, and changing it too much is sacrilege.  But, as Lance Carmichael said much better than I, those first 20 minutes of Conan the Barbarian are truly great cinema.  And from the screenplay I can already tell Conan won't match what Milius accomplished.

Decision: King Conan

Round 3: Respect for the Genre

The genre term "sword and sorcery" was actually coined to describe Howard's original Conan stories.  While both of the films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger include both of these elements, under Milius's guiding hand sorcery to a back seat to the sword.  That's not to say Barbarian was devoid of the fantastic, but Milius seemed to play the card with more subtlety than was done in Destroyer or likely many of Howard's original works.  Milius shows the same restraint in King Conan.  There are fantasy elements, the aforementioned Frost Giant's Daughter, her two frost giant brothers, a few witches, and – not to be left out – an Ice Worm, but again, the way Milius handles these, it's like he knows if he doesn't play these cards right the "low" in Low Fantasy really can take on a negative meaning.

This isn't really the case with Conan.  Donnelly and Oppenheimer appear to have mined Howard's works for every fantastic element and mystical incantation they could find, and included them all.  There are wizards that turn wolves into were-jackals, four-armed archers, chameleon-like "stealth guards," giants, telekinesis, magical oases in the desert, and mystical lost empires.  Reading this script my mind kept going to The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and Van Helsing.  I can't help but think that to bring this script to life flashy, ultimately cheesy and fake-looking special effects will be employed.  I'll be honest, that worries me.

Decision: King Conan