What is best in life?

By Razib Khan | April 28, 2011 3:42 am

I’m more a connoisseur of the trailers of summer films than a viewer of them. But I notice that a new Conan film is coming out, after years of delays which I was blissfully ignorant of. But honestly this is not a franchise I’d have thought would be up for a “reboot,” but here we are. I have never read more than one of Robert E. Howard’s stories, but the two 1980s films which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger I’ve watched half a dozen times each. They’re campy and silly, but generally fun if your tastes run toward juvenile, or, you are a juvenile. But the trailer for the new edition makes it seem overly serious, without the budgetary sizzle to render it palatable. Below is the trailer for the 2011 film, along with those for the two earlier ones.

Oh, and the answer to the question in the title? According to Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. This is reputedly a paraphrase of an assertion of Genghis Khan. If you’re an elementary school kid it seems kind of like a nonsense sentence, let me tell you….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Barbarism
  • vg

    The first Conan was well-choreographed, with some fantastic sets and great music. The second one was too juvenile. I hope this one is more like the former.

  • http://johnhawks.net/weblog John Hawks

    You do know that Red Sonja is the third Conan movie?

  • Ketil Tveiten

    If you haven’t read Howard’s original stories, I’d recommend that you do. Sure, they’re as cheesy as you’d expect pulp fiction to be, but still really good. Also, for historical reasons, it’s a good look at fantasy fiction before ‘shooting lightning from my fingers’ took over.

  • leviticus

    Robert Howard is best read with a sense of humor. Howard is one of those poor souls who is most amusing when trying to be serious or dramatic. But Howard intended his works to be serious, and I think the movie actually lightened things so if the new movie is more serious it would reflect a return to Howard’s vision. Conan in the stories is a morose, laconic figure, although “lusty.” It will be interesting to see how modern movie makers deal with Howard’s misogyny.

    Basil Poledouris’ soundtrack saved Conan the movie, that soundtrack remains one of the best things in life. If they had gone with a rock soundtrack the movie would have tanked, regulated to obscure references in shows like South Park, what happened to the movie Heavy Metal.

    For this score Poledouris was influenced by Reinhold Gliere, famous Soviet composer. Gliere was himself influenced by Azeri classical music when writing some of his pieces. With this in mind, we could say that Conan was an Orientalist piece in terms of plot (Howard) and music (Mugam to Gliere to Poledouris). I’ve a few recordings by Birol Topaloglu, Laz folk musician, and some Muqam pieces and the resemblance to Poledouris’ Conan score is very strong.

  • Jumblepudding

    My favorite part of a conan short story is when he is crucified and bites down on a vulture and sucks its blood to survive. The day I saw that on screen, I was a happy man.

  • http://www.eurasian-sensation.blogspot.com Eurasian Sensation

    Crushing one’s enemies is great, but hearing the lamentation of their women just gets shrill and annoying after a while.

    I haven’t read any of the books, but loved the movies as a youngster. One interesting aspect is the way that the world Conan lives in incorporates elements of various ancient civilizations and peoples from various continents, yet the blend is not jarring. Schwarzenegger, Wilt Chamberlain and Makoto Iwamatsu can all hang out together in a vaguely Central Asian locale and it doesn’t seem weird.
    For contrast, think about how lame “10,000 BC” was in its mish-mash of eras and civilizations, or how “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” somehow had Morgan Freeman in it.

  • Robert

    I found the film The Whole Wide World starring Vincent D’Onofrio as Howard and based on the memoirs of Novalyne Price Ellis (played by Renée Zellweger) to be far more interesting than any Conan movies. Howard was a pedantic, nerdy, and twisted soul, much like his fans at fantasy/sci-fi conventions, who as a grown man continued to live with his mother until he committed suicide.

  • bob sykes

    If the setting is the Russian steppe between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea 5000 years ago (which it seems to be), then the various racial groups and levels of civilization are really not that unreasonable. The setting is well within the range of the megalithic builders and neolithic city builders. The only jarring note is the presence of West African blacks. But, Hollywood thinks that all Africans are Yoruba and that they always have been Yoruba.

  • dave chamberlin

    “With a leap that would have shamed a hungry tiger, Conan sprung upon the back of the writhing dragon.”
    “Conan soon grew tired of native women.”
    Read the Conan books decades ago but still remember those corny lines. Good stuff.

  • Juan

    Conan the Brow Ridge. Looks odd. The actor has so far played a good barbarian rapist warlord in Game of Thrones. Hasn’t had to speak yet. Just rides a horse and rapes the beautiful blonde princess occasionally.

  • dave.s

    What Genghis Khan said: “”The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”

  • Zora

    Jason Momoa wasn’t raised in the islands but he’s part Native Hawaiian. Wikipedia article says half-Hawaiian, but there are few full-blood kanaka ‘oiwi left after centuries of intermarriage.

  • Chris Winter

    Can’t resist adding my paraphrase of the other viewpoint:

    What is best in life?

    The open steppe on a day of high summer. A fleet horse beneath you. A falcon at your wrist — and the wind in your hair.

  • http://www.theblogthattimeforgot.blogspot.com Al Harron

    “But honestly this is not a franchise I’d have thought would be up for a “reboot,” but here we are.”

    Whyever not? Conan’s a big franchise: scores of books, dozens of comic series, RPGs, video games, board games, action figures, television series and cartoons – yet there hasn’t been a Conan film for 27 years. I’d even say we’re overdue for a reboot.

    “They’re campy and silly, but generally fun if your tastes run toward juvenile, or, you are a juvenile.”

    Conan the Destroyer, certainly. But Conan the Barbarian aspires to something more than simple campy fun: it’s chock full of Nietzche allusions, and homages to Kurosawa, Kobayashi and Eisenstein. Not to mention Poledouris’ score is one of the very best ever composed. It isn’t completely successful, and it’s a flawed film, but it’s on a whole other echelon from “Destroyer.” Besides, too much sex and violence for juveniles – or, more importantly, too much symbolism and too little dialogue, so they’d probably get bored.

    “If you haven’t read Howard’s original stories, I’d recommend that you do. Sure, they’re as cheesy as you’d expect pulp fiction to be, but still really good”

    The Library of America, Penguin Classics and tons of critics, authors and scholars seem to think they’re pretty good.

    “Robert Howard is best read with a sense of humor.”

    Definitely when you’re reading the comedy stories, which account for a significant proportion of his work: the hilarious adventures of Sailor Steve Costigan and Breckinridge Elkins outnumbers all his fantasy fiction combined. Funny stuff.

    “Howard is one of those poor souls who is most amusing when trying to be serious or dramatic. But Howard intended his works to be serious, and I think the movie actually lightened things so if the new movie is more serious it would reflect a return to Howard’s vision.”

    … Oh, you mean all his work is amusing. Even the stuff that’s full of dark horror, cynical observations, and heartwrenching tragedy. Ok. Well, I guess the guys at the Library of America and Penguin Classics, not to mention countless scholars and literary analysts, seem to be suffering under some sort of delusion that Howard’s work actually *is* quite serious. Hell, even Howard’s critics appreciate his ability to turn a yarn. I’d love to see what you think was so allegedly amusing about the relentless cynicism and bleakness of “Beyond the Black River,” or “Worms of the Earth,” or “Red Nails.”

    “It will be interesting to see how modern movie makers deal with Howard’s misogyny.”

    What misogyny? The same misogyny that had Howard cast a female warrior as the closest thing to Conan’s equal, who’s described as being one of the fiercest warriors of the Hyborian Age, man or woman? The same “misogyny” that had him create multiple strong female characters who can wield a sword, politik, lead, debate and act in bravery just as effectively as any man? The same “misogyny” that had Howard lamenting writing things like “I am nauseated at the injustice of life in regard to women” in his letters? The same “misogyny” that compelled Howard to write a 1,000 word letter responding vehemently to the idea that there are no great women in history, citing countless examples ranging from Greek poets to modern suffragettes?

    http://theblogthattimeforgot.blogspot.com/2010/06/howard-what-he-really-thought-of-women.html

    Do not presume that Howard’s concessions to pulp mores in creating damsels in distress for his more commercial Conan stories has any bearing on Howard’s very forward-thinking approach to women. I can’t see a misogynist writing the likes of “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom,” “Red Nails,” “The Shadow of the Vulture,” “Sword of the Northern Sea,” and especially “The Sword Woman” and “Blades for France,” all of which feature intelligent, sympathetic female warriors every bit the equal – frequently the superior – of their male counterparts.

    “Howard was a pedantic, nerdy, and twisted soul, much like his fans at fantasy/sci-fi conventions, who as a grown man continued to live with his mother until he committed suicide.”

    You do realise that grown men living with their families was considered pretty normal back in 1930s Depression-era Texas, right? Especially considering Cross Plains was a small town of around 1,000 people, but the oil boom meant that number exploded to 10,000, leaving very little real estate for singles? And that REH was his mother’s primary caregiver, considering she was suffering from terminal tuberculosis? That if REH didn’t take care of her, she would’ve been shipped off to a sanitorium, which is as bad as sending her off to die? And that Howard had experienced suicidal tendencies from an early age?

    Howard was no more “twisted” than many creative souls. Artists, authors and poets have a much higher suicide percentage than the rest of the population. Howard was part of that percentage, just like van Gogh, Woolf, Plath, Hemingway and others. Nobody calls them “twisted.”

    Oh, and calling Howard fans “pedantic, nerdy and twisted”… well, if in doubt, resort to ad hominems. Nice. “Classy.”

    “One interesting aspect is the way that the world Conan lives in incorporates elements of various ancient civilizations and peoples from various continents, yet the blend is not jarring. Schwarzenegger, Wilt Chamberlain and Makoto Iwamatsu can all hang out together in a vaguely Central Asian locale and it doesn’t seem weird.”

    “If the setting is the Russian steppe between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea 5000 years ago (which it seems to be), then the various racial groups and levels of civilization are really not that unreasonable. The setting is well within the range of the megalithic builders and neolithic city builders. The only jarring note is the presence of West African blacks. But, Hollywood thinks that all Africans are Yoruba and that they always have been Yoruba.”

    The film is set in the fictional Hyborian Age, a hypothetical time before the dawn of modern history and the Ice Age, which Howard intended to be the original of myths and legends. The Aesir and Vanir of Norse Mythology, for example, are rendered as two warring tribes of Viking-like warriors whose battles are mythologized as the struggles of gods. Conan’s Cimmeria serves as the foundation for the Cimmeria of Greek Mythology, which was in turn considered the origin of the Gaels and Cymric tribes of Britain.

    (And personally, I find the presence of men who transform into snakes a mite more jarring than a few displaced black people)

    ““With a leap that would have shamed a hungry tiger, Conan sprung upon the back of the writhing dragon.”
    “Conan soon grew tired of native women.”
    Read the Conan books decades ago but still remember those corny lines. ”

    Neither line appears in any Robert E. Howard story I’ve read: you’ve probably read one of the horrible books written by subsequent authors.

  • http://www.riverellan.blogspot.com Tom Bri

    Al Harron, I’m with you. Just a few weeks ago I came across a few old, yellowed Conan paperbacks in my Dad’s attic. Brought them home and read them. Still great reading, fun. No surprise to me that they are pretty much constantly in print over a half-century after being written.

    Howard did tend to overuse plot devices and phrases, but this was pulp fiction, and it wasn’t meant to be read in novel form, but spread out over the course of months, so it probably didn’t jar the reader (a teen boy usually anyway) like it would now when you can sit and read the whole thing in a hour or two.

  • http://www.eurasian-sensation.blogspot.com Eurasian Sensation

    Robert E Howard’s vengeful spirit has returned in the form of Al Harron.

    Al, congratulations on conclusively proving that anyone who has a different opinion to yours about Conan must be WRONG.

  • Professor Booty

    A musical answer to the question posed by Conan: http://video.adultswim.com/robot-chicken/what-is-best-in-life.html

  • http://poderfriki.com Kike

    Eurasian Sensation: it is not a a matter of opinion. It is a matter of KNOWLEDGE.

  • Jumblepudding

    I admire Al Harron’s passionate defense of REH. I would also like to point out that, contrary to Conan always showing up onscreen in some kind of Eurasian steppe or mediterranean setting, he often finds himself in the original stories in areas that are more lush and northern for more of a Tarzan or Last of the Mohicans feel than the biblical sword and sandal thing the original movies had going on. If anything, Conan’s world is more alive than ours , and it would be interesting to see that reflected on screen.
    Going back to the genetic side of things, Yes, the ideal Conan would be a large man of some kind of “black irish” extraction that allows for blue eyes and jet black hair.(Daniel Day Lewis on steroids?) But different traits manifest themselves in various generations, so who is to say the ancient mythical ancestors of modern Irishmen didn’t somehow look like Hawaiians?

  • Onur

    I have always imagined Conan like a fully European looking (non-blond Balto-Slavic looking to be more precise) hypermasculine Sarmatian/Scythian warrior due to the Cimmerian connection (Cimmerians were probably not Scythian/Sarmatian but came from a similar source and had a similar horse-riding pastoral nomadic culture).

  • Robert

    “Oh, and calling Howard fans “pedantic, nerdy and twisted”… well, if in doubt, resort to ad hominems. Nice. ‘Classy’.”

    Rather than an arbitrary and unjustified ad hominem attack, it is a simple observation that anyone can make for themselves at a fantasy/comix/sci-fi convention. And nerdniks and fanbois are anything but “classy.”

    As for the suicides van Gogh, Plath, and Hemingway, most discerning people agree that they were all obsessively twisted in profound ways. Their biographers have all documented this in great detail.

    Woolf however, despite being a suicide, was merely second rate.

  • Sandgroper

    Scythians invented trousers.

    Conan never wore trousers.

  • Matt B.
  • Onur

    Scythians invented trousers.

    Conan never wore trousers.

    Conan was half-naked. This is extremely unsuitable for the cold northern Eurasian environment in which Conan was supposedly living. No sane person would ever wear like him in northern Eurasian history. In fact, Conan’s clothing (or rather unclothing) was/is only suitable and apt for a person living in the tropical zone:

    http://blogs.monografias.com/sistema-limbico-neurociencias/files/2010/02/kung1.jpg

  • Mark Finn

    Al and Kike are right. People on the Internet need to learn that opinions do not equal facts, and stating them as such does not magically turn them into truths. The reason why Al’s defense is so passionate is for the frequency that folks online tend to Get It Wrong by misattributing things that L. Sprague de Camp or the small horde of lesser writers wrote in the name of Conan novels or comic books. Looking at what Howard wrote, and actually separating those stories from the rest of the “saga” that was created to sell more books, is quite enlightening. Aside from being flat-out better written, you’ll find a marked lack of hoary old cliches (aside from the tropes that Howard invented in Conan that have now become par for the course) and a much more complex character than his pop cultural “persona” would have you believe. For Howard fans, it’s a lot like when people start mentioning Johnny Weissmuller to the the Edgar Rice Burroughs fans. Entertaining and enjoyable that “Me Tarzan, you Jane” may be, it’s not anything close to Burroughs’ Lord Graystoke.

  • Martin

    Mark Finn is prominent in current Robert E. Howard scholarship (Yeah, if Tolkien can have such a field, why not him), having written a well-received biography called Blood & Thunder, among other works. Al Harron (and Finn) used to blog for the adventure fiction site The Cimmerian.

    “Listen, if you have ears to hear. ”

    I’d agree that both the first Arnold movie and (even more so) the original Conan stories are deeper than the post gives them credit for.

  • amsterdamaged

    “Al, congratulations on conclusively proving that anyone who has a different opinion to yours about Conan must be WRONG.”

    The truth hurts, doesn’t it?

    “I have always imagined Conan like a fully European looking (non-blond Balto-Slavic looking to be more precise) hypermasculine Sarmatian/Scythian warrior due to the Cimmerian connection (Cimmerians were probably not Scythian/Sarmatian but came from a similar source and had a similar horse-riding pastoral nomadic culture).”

    Or you could just read the Conan stories and “The Hyborian Age” by Robert E. Howard. Then you wouldn’t have to rely so much on your own imagination.

    “Rather than an arbitrary and unjustified ad hominem attack, it is a simple observation that anyone can make for themselves at a fantasy/comix/sci-fi convention. And nerdniks and fanbois are anything but ‘classy.’ ”

    Riiiiight. It was “all the other” people who managed to show up at the comic convention who were the nerds and fanboys, but (cough cough) certainly not you.

    “Conan was half-naked. This is extremely unsuitable for the cold northern Eurasian environment in which Conan was supposedly living. No sane person would ever wear like him in northern Eurasian history. In fact, Conan’s clothing (or rather unclothing) was/is only suitable and apt for a person living in the tropical zone.”

    For the most part Conan only wears a fur diaper in the comics, a few Frazetta paintings, several bad pastiches, and in Conan the Destroyer. I assure you that in the original stories (and the first film) he wears whatever clothes happen to be suitable for the climate he’s in.

  • ackbark

    Conan takes place in a world without electric light so it shouldn’t look like it’s a product of jet-set glitz, like a James Bond movie, which is what Conan the Destroyer looked like.

    It should look like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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