Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Watcher - The Legend of Conan

If you have seen the trailers for this week’s big release, chances are you know what to expect. In a summer dominated by shiny super-heroics, ‘Conan the Barbarian’ promises swords, sandals, sorcery and violence galore. But can Jason Momoa (Games of Thrones, Stargate: Atlantis) as the titular barbarian, not only beat the superheroes at their own game but also steal the crown of the original big screen Conan, Arnold Schwarzenegger? The Austrian Oak casts a mighty big shadow, but whether or not you consider Arnie’s breakout performance in 1982’s ‘Conan the Barbarian’ as a classic, hopefully the new film is more than just another cynical remake.

For starters, the legend of Conan is bigger than any one man, having proved to be an enduring pop culture hero who counts iconic fantasy figures such as John Carter, Tarzan and Buck Rogers among his contemporaries. In the nearly 80 years since the publication of creator Robert E. Howard’s first Conan adventure ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’ (1932) in the pages of Weird Tales magazine, the world of Conan has amassed a vast mythology through countless books, comics, television series as well as three big screen adventures.

Despite seeing only 17 original Conan stories in print before his suicide 1936, Howard had laid the foundations for an epic fantasy that would inspire generations of writers and artists to come. On reading the original stories, the secret of the character’s longevity becomes clear. Conan is a classic hero in the vein of Arthurian romance - as intelligent as he is strong - who strides through the ancient world in countless guises as thief, mercenary, swordsman, lover and eventually King. Moreover, the mythical ‘Hyborian Age’ in which Conan dwells is also more than simply a setting for violent fantasy, a world as vast and timeless as Tolkien’s Middle Earth and equally as rich in storytelling possibilities. Intriguingly, thanks to Howard’s friendship with Weird Tales stable-mate H.P. Lovecraft, there were even several hints that Conan inhabited the ancient world of Lovecraft’s own ‘Cthulu Mythos’, adding a further dimension to the original stories.

In the decades that followed, countless writers added dozens of new stories to the Conan library, but surprisingly, it was not until 1970 that the stories were first adapted for other media, with the publication of Marvel Comics’ long running comic series also known as ‘Conan the Barbarian’. The title is described as very faithful to Howard’s original stories and featured many notable writers and artists including John Buscema, Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon. In what be one of the longest running comic titles outside of the superhero genre, Marvel’s series and its related titles including acclaimed ‘Savage Sword of Conan’ ran for over thirty years and have recently seen a collection of reprints thanks to current licence holders Dark Horse Comics.

In many ways, comics had provided the ideal outlet for an expansion of Howard’s tales where the perceived gratuitous violence and daunting backstory had long precluded the possibility of a film adaptation. Inevitably however, the Eighties provided the ideal wealth of vision and talent to visualise the epic story of Conan. Produced under the auspices of Dino De Laurentiis and adapted by none other than Oliver Stone and director John Milius, ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982) is an epic fantasy tale that encompasses the many guises of Conan in its vast sweep.

The story sees Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan struggle from boyhood slavery in an epic journey of revenge in search of the aptly named Thulsa Doom, in an understated performance from James Earl Jones. Despite the overly serious tone, the film is vintage Arnie in many ways - providing early hints of the actor’s knack for self parody with drunken camel fisticuffs, ending a prayer to his deity Crom with the words, “to Hell with you!”, and proving that gyms are a waste of money by gaining a Mr Universe physique through a lifetime of slavery powering a giant coffee grinder. Violent and very long, the film is nevertheless regarded as a cult classic, with only an inferior (i.e. boring) sequel sullying its mighty reputation.

Perhaps however the sign that Conan had truly earned his iconic status was the bestowing of the ultimate honour in the form of Saturday morning cartoon ‘Conan The Adventurer’ (1992). Playing like a mix of Ulysses and He-Man and featuring a high fantasty content and typical Saturday morning sense of fun in place of gratuitous violence, the series proved a hit - and if the clip below doesn’t show you why, you obviously had no childhood!

So can Momoa conquer all this Summer? You decide!

Robert Barton-Ancliffe once punched a bloke in the face once for saying "Hawk the Slayer" was rubbish...

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