I was tempted to create a new category for this one: Ruined by Hollywood. But of course, that’s a hole with no bottom.
Conan the Destroyer was a bad movie and it didn’t need to be. The original script would have been a superb sequel to Conan the Barbarian. But a string of terrible decisions ruined what could have been a great movie in the name of maximizing its box office appeal.
The original Conan movie did well but the studio felt there was room for improvement in the bottom line.
I’m going to raise a few eyebrows with this statement: Conan the Barbarian is one of the greatest fantasy movies of all time. No, really, it is. Because it is one of the few good examples of its genre in existence. Sword and Sandals movies have gotten very little respect from their makers. There was a slew of them in the Eighties and they all revolved around B-film actresses in leather studded bikinis getting their tops ripped off by Gruundar the Defiler.
It didn’t need to be this way.
Conan the Barbarian made $70 million against a budget of $20 million. In 1982 terms this was both big-budget and big payoff. And the reason it succeeded was simple enough, it was true to Robert Howard’s source material.
Now, I know there are a lot of you who will say, ‘no, it absolutely wasn’t true to the source the material.’ In Howard’s books, Conan spent his youth in the mountains of Cimmeria. Every day would bring a new struggle for his survival. Every night something would try to kill him. He lived a savage hand to mouth existence for his entire childhood and on into his youth. He was simply, a barbarian.
The Conan in the movie was a slave. And aside from his occasional bouts in the gladiator pit, a rather pampered one. He was clearly well-fed. He was given beautiful women for his pleasure. He joined the masters at their table. He was even made literate and given writing and poetry to expand his mind. Not. A. Barbarian. They didn’t even get his worst enemy right! Thulsa Doom wasn’t a Conan villain, he was from the Kull stories!
And these are all valid points, and they all collapse before one thing.
It felt like a Conan story.
It was a tale that seemed to belong to a world that predated dynastic Egypt and has completely vanished without trace now. A place where Atlantis had been real and had been lost beneath the waves. It was a setting where a Barbarian hacking his way on to a throne by the skill of his sword and the strength of his will was believable. Conan the Barbarian delivered on the dark, savage world of Robert Howard.
Robert Howard’s work is akin to Tolkien’s in that every author who works in the field of fantasy has to consciously accept or reject what he added to the genre. He brought that much to the table in his brief career as an author before he blew his own head off at the age of thirty.
Howard was very much a product of his environment. When he was born, Cross Plains, Texas was a sleepy, little rancher’s town of something like a thousand people. Howard’s father was the town doctor. His mother viewed herself as a fallen, small-town princess who had married down when she wedded Isaac Howard. During Robert’s boyhood, Cross Plains exploded into an oil boomtown and the population soared ten-fold. Along with hard-bitten oil-roughnecks and roustabouts, came whores and gamblers eager to feed off poor men who suddenly had pockets bulging.
As the son of the town doctor, Howard saw the results of easy violence on a daily basis. He saw blood running red and heard strong men trying to bite back screams when his father would set broken bones. He knew what pistol fire sounded like and what the results of those reports would be. The men he knew had memories of Indian raids that were no more distant than our memories of the Gulf War.
Howard had one foot in two different worlds.
In one world, he knew full well what the results were of being the second toughest guy in the room. He took up boxing and considered a career at it. He spoke of the times he was in barroom brawls. He knew he had to live tough because he was aa Texan.
In the other world, his mother’s class insecurity was focused with laser-like intensity on him. She encouraged his efforts at more refined ways of making his way in the world. She also discouraged any kind of relationship with women she viewed as being beneath him. Which was every single woman in Cross Plains, Texas. For that matter, she didn’t like his male friends either. And used her protracted illness from Tuberculosis to isolate him as much as possible.
Sadly, the results of these two worlds produced a man with the socio-sexual rank of Omega.* When his mother finally died he lost half of his identity, his social jailer, and his biggest fan. And that was the end for him.
His heart broken father had only his son’s words as a legacy. And so, he created an estate to guard and preserve them.
The original Robert Howard collection had its run through the Depression and then went out of style when the War Years began. During the fifties, there was a revival of interest from fans that had been boys and were now men, who needed replacements for their tattered, dog-eared copies of Weird Tales.
The books sold well enough that the long-dead Robert Howard acquired the first of his many post-humous co-authors; L. Sprague De Camp. He started editing Howard’s stories and then moved on to heavily rewriting them. Turning Howard’s non-Conan stories into Conan stories. Finally, he started producing his own original works of Conan pastiche.
During this period Frank Frazetta’s cover art was creating a face and form that became the figure we all recognize as being Conan’s. Howard’s words were taking on another life.
The fifties run created a new market for Conan in the Sixties. Fans of the savage Cimmerian began pelting Marvel with requests to run a comic book of his adventures. Stan Lee weighed the letters, decided the pile was heavy enough to pursue the matter, shrugged, and handed the whole business over to Howard’s next big co-author; Roy Thomas.
Thomas went to the Howard estate and made his pitch. Which basically came down to, “look I can’t pay you much of anything, but you will be introducing Conan to a new generation of readers. This is an investment in the brand’s future.” And Howard estate’s agent proved to be smarter than the average bear and accepted the deal.
Of the two co-author’s I honestly feel that Thomas had a much better grasp of the material than De Camp did.
This kept Conan alive and expanded the market enough that Hollywood started sniffing around the fifty-year-old property.
The tale of Conan the Barbarian’s production is torturous. The rights were all over hell. The first script by Thomas got chucked. Then came Oliver Stone’s script which was mostly chucked. The producers got bought out and the only thing anyone could agree on was that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the only guy who could play the part.
Oliver Stone’s script found here was true to Howard and Conan’s world and would have been impossibly expensive to film in 1982. John Milius the director of Conan, heavily rewrote Stone’s script.
A lot of the changes were necessary. Expenses had to be reduced. And Conan’s lines needed to be eliminated wherever possible. Arnold’s acting was weak, and his accent was almost incomprehensible in those days.
Yet, the result was a great film with very strong themes that couldn’t get made today. The A-story was straight forward enough one of, revenge on the man that killed his parents, his village, and enslaved him. The B-story was something very unusual. Normally a B-story is something like, the protagonist has something he wants versus something he needs, these two things are diametrically opposed, and eventually, he discovers what he needs is more important than the thing he wanted. There are lots of variations on how this is resolved but that is the formula.
In Conan the Barbarian, the B-story revolves around a riddle. The Riddle of Steel was the central question of his life and the pursuit of an answer to it, sent Conan on an odyssey that repeatedly took him to the brink of death and left him stronger for it each time.
This is something unique in film making.
Also, the sound track was pitch perfect for the character. Pounding, stark and stoic.
It was a hit. And so, it was proclaimed that a sequel would have to be made. One of the things that Conan had going for it was that neither the studio nor Dino De Laurentius was paying all that much attention to it when it was being made, they had bigger films to worry about.
But now they could pay attention to it and the project suffered badly for this.
The first and biggest mistake was made by Universal’s accounting wizards who proclaimed in their infinite wisdom that Conan the Destroyer would make thirty percent more money if it had a PG rating instead of an R.
Sure, Conan had made them a lot of money but E.T. had made a shit-ton more. Consequently, Universal was all about moving in on Disney’s turf.
This was nothing short of abject stupidity. Making Conan, lighthearted family-friendly entertainment was going to alienate the core audience. Schwarzenegger knew it and objected strenuously to the new direction, but he wasn’t big enough to make his impact felt back then. So, the gore and the nudity were both out.
Another problem the movie had was that Conan the Barbarian was a stand-alone story with no real room for a sequel. Conan, Subatai, and the Wizard were still alive but that was all they had to go on.
Roy Thomas got to write the first draft called, Conan the King of Thieves. Which bears only a superficial resemblance to the finished film. Honestly, the story had its weaknesses, but it was certainly better than the final product. You can judge for yourself. Thomas published his script as a graphic novel, The Sword of Azoth. You can read it here.
The other problem it had was that Dino DeLaurentis decided to be a lot more hands-on with this production. Despite not having any background with or love for the property. He just kept inserting his ideas here and there, no matter how bad his ideas were. And no one could explain to him why they sucked because he was Dino and he wouldn’t listen. As a prime example, he came up with the clown-thief that replaced Subatai. The biggest problem the film had was that John Milius was not brought back to direct. Richard Fleischer, (who hadn’t worked in ten years) was brought on board. This was probably the biggest problem the film had. While Fleischer was competent he wasn’t exceptional, he didn’t have any kind of a vision for the project and since he was happy to be getting a paycheck again, he didn’t buck Dino on any of his “improvements.”
Next; the actual review, since my two paragraphs of background material, took up about 2000 words
Okay, I’m done here.
*I completely reject the Oedipus Complex theory. This was a hypothesis generated by armchair psychoanalysts who barely remembered anything from Psych 101. Also, the chief proponents were both Gammas and were jealous of Howard. Trust me, I was an Omega. A wolf can smell one of his own.