Monday, March 7, 2011

Clonin' The Barbarian: Cinematic Copies of the Cimmerian

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, 
and to hear the lamentation of their women.

- CONAN THE BARBARIAN dialogue or Video Junkie mantra?

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. We are actually diving into another one of our patented Video Junkie theme week extravaganzas (and by “week” we mean a minimum of 14 days).  We’ve officially done blind guys (Blind Vengeance), a horror author (H.P. Lovecraft), eye-popping cinema (Revenge of 3-D) and a nearly soul crushing, face melting Spielbergian journey (Dr. Jones I presume?).  We think we’ve fully recovered enough from that last outing to once again dip our toes back into the cinematic wading pool of rip-offs.  And, like Indiana Jones, we’ve settled on another early 1980s cinema icon that is known worldwide – Conan the Barbarian!

Conan, the dark-haired warrior who worships the God Crom, was the creation of writer Robert E. Howard in the 1930s.  The first published work featuring Conan was “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which appeared in an issue of Weird Tales in December 1932.  The short story focuses on Conan the Cimmerian – master of war – being ill at ease with the political duties of being King of Aquilonia (he strangled the previous chair holder) and some assassins attempt to dethrone him.  The character proved to be popular with Howard serializing sixteen more adventures over the next four years before his untimely suicide in 1936 at the age of 30. Howard left behind four completed stories (published posthumously, bringing the tally to twenty-one) and four uncompleted drafts.

Of course, we should focus on how this character journey from the pages of a pulp magazine to the big screen. Howard’s works were collected in the 1950s and published in seven hardback volumes by Gnome Press.  The first five volumes had Howard’s stories (including the debuts of previously unpublished ones) while the last two featured new and/or rewritten Conan stories by other writers.  No doubt these volumes fell into the hands of future filmmakers and spurred their imaginations. Now if I had to lay my money down on what was truly the impetus of Conan getting to the silver screen, it would be the paperback issuing of Howard’s work beginning in 1966 by Lancer Books (and later Ace when Lancer went out of business) and lasting over a decade.  Not only did these put Conan’s adventures in chronological order (with, again, other writers providing new stories), but the releases featured cover art by Frank Frazetta that would become synonymous with the invincible barbarian.

In addition to the Howard stories receiving mass publication, the Conan character got more exposure via the world of comic books.  They are like books on steroids! Marvel Comics unveiled the Conan the Barbarian series in October 1970 and then parlayed that success into The Savage Sword of Conan, a more adult-oriented magazine, in August 1974.  No doubt this popularity amongst the kids (and the rise of popular sword and sorcery role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons) convinced Hollywood producer Edward Pressman that this was a viable commodity and he bought the rights to the Conan the Barbarian character and stories in the mid-1970s.

Pressman officially began work on the Conan film project in 1976 as he recruited Conan comic writer Roy Thomas and Ed Summer to write a screenplay adapting some of Howard’s stories into a big screen adventure. The duo was unsuccessful so the duties fell to Oliver Stone.  Stone’s work retained a lot of the Howard universe, but was deemed far too expensive to make.  Soon newly-attached director John Milius was on to collaborate and the duo did not get along.  Gee, a gun nut with a military fetish (Milius) not getting along with a guy who actually fought in a war (Stone)?  Shocker!  Anyway, Milius did a massive rewrite on the film, which was now a project for some scrawny geek who won Mr. Universe named Arnold Schwarzenegger. The rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN arrived in theaters in May 1982 and made just under $40 million dollars in the United States.  Not bad for an R-rated flick with an unknown in the lead.  The film has easily stood the test of time and is now considered an absolute classic.  It also effectively launched not only Schwarzenegger’s career (sorry California!), but the sword and sorcery genre, the modern day equivalent of the Steve Reeves HERCULES flicks where brawny men had no problem taking their broad swords to a variety of men and beasts.  And you know if something is popular with the public that the imitations are going to come fast and furious.  Like the earlier sword and sandal or spaghetti western genres, it appealed to greedy producers because it was cheap and easy to replicate.  All you really needed were some swords, a natural location (forest or rock quarry, preferably) and a big muscle-bound guy in a loin cloth.  CONAN THE BARBARIAN rip-offs began appearing in the very same year and ran the gauntlet from great to WTFville.  So join us as we attempt to swim in the carbon copy cinema of everyone’s favorite Cimmerian.  Hopefully we don’t drown in “lakes of blood.”

1 Reactions:

  1. An excellent introduction! While I do not want to take anything away from the Lancers, I think the biggest impetus for the filming of Conan the Barbarian, at least in the early '80s, was the comics. Superman had proven a massive success, and the Conan comics were rivalling even Spider-Man in the 1970s. In an early interview, before the film was even a blip on his radar, Conan said he would like to play Conan: the interviewer responded with "oh, the comic character?"

    That said, there was some sort of cosmic alignment going on with the Lancers: people were starved for the type of adventures Howard provided, the technology to mass-produce cheap paperbacks was attainable, and of course Frazetta's illustrations all played a part. We're probably never going to see a publishing phenomenon quite like them again.


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