My Tribute to Robert E. Howard
The new ‘Conan the Barbarian’ movie opened this weekend in theaters. I’ve read several reviews from widely divergent on-line sources, and the great majority of them say the film is pretty bad. I haven’t seen the movie myself, but from the previews I’d watched recently I already had a bad feeling about the new ‘Conan’. The reviews so far have confirmed my fear that this movie is another special effects gore-fest that’s big on visuals and severely lacking in character development, story and dialogue, as I’ve come to expect from ‘Hollywood’ films.
And you know, it really pisses me off!
When I read many months ago that a new Conan film was being made, and that it’s creators wanted to get back to the spirit of the original Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, I started to get excited! I rather enjoyed the original 1982 ‘Conan the Barbarian” film with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a little trippy, a little cheesy; but it had a good heart. It had humor as well as bad-ass sword fights. It had violence and gore (in the spirit of Howard’s stories) but not the totally over-the-top CGI buckets of blood that everything these days seems to employ (ie; Spartacus: Blood and Sand; The 300). It had one of my favorite movie soundtracks of all time by Basil Poledouris. And, I think Arnold did a decent job playing the stoic Cimmerian; speaking little and only when he had something to say. But still – the idea of a modern movie that could better capture the true spirit of Howard’s iconic character and the dark sorcery and wild diversity of the eldritch world of Hyperboria really got my hopes up for this new film. Only, it seems, to be dashed once more!
When I was in my late teens back in 1973-75, I loved Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. They were the pinnacle of swashbuckling, testosterone-stirring adventure! (And the genesis of the ‘Sword and Sorcery’ genre, I would later learn). I also loved the Conan comic book series by Marvel in the 1970s. But more than that, I loved the atmosphere of Howard’s stories. They took place in a vast and mysterious prehistory that was completely unknown; ripe with magic that seemed like ancient vestiges of a forgotten science. A kind of post-apocalyptic Dark Age reminiscent of Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ stories or Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of the New Sun’ about a far future Barbaric Age where the glories of a superior technology were almost, but not quite, forgotten. So really, anything was possible! It was a world as wild and untamed as imagination; both strangely familiar and utterly mysterious.
“Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars. . . . Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand . . . to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.” That kind of says it all.
For a few years before I discovered Robert E. Howard, I had been immersed in reading the great science fiction authors like Asimov, Arthur Clarke, James Blish, Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Philip K. Dick, etc. The myriad possibilities of the future and life on other worlds; and how science, politics and religion might shape human destiny were what I grew up on. And most of these writers were scientists and wrote about what might be theoretically possible. So when I found this new genre of primal savagery, heroic exploits and sinister sorcery (not to mention scantily-clad babes) it appealed to another aspect of my adolescent psyche that had been previously unattended-to. And the stories of Conan’s adventures are just plain fun! As were other authors I soon discovered who inspired or were inspired by Howard; like L. Sprague De Camp, Lin Carter and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
It looks like it could be interesting, and hopefully more in the style of the books than the Conan movies have been so far. One can only hope!
But there’s one thing I must realize: A movie is never going to be as good as a book. And that’s just the way it is. A motion picture is a completely different animal than a book. And that’s OK.
But I really wish someday someone would use one of Robert E. Howard’s wonderful stories to base a Conan movie on. Or combine a couple of stories. Conan was a well-developed, interesting character who changed and evolved over many years and adventures to finally become a great king. Heck, there are a wealth of great Conan stories by the man who created him; why not attempt to base a film on that?!
Alright, my rant is coming to an end. For now. I just wanted to let whomever may read this know that Conan is much more than what you see in the movies. And Robert E. Howard was a writer of great talent who found a niche and launched a new literary genre. And tragically, he died way too soon, by his own hand. Below I’ve arranged a few links about Howard and his life. Check them out; I think he’s worth getting to know.