Monday, September 30, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Conan the Destroyer" (1984)

A war was fought long ago between "high" and "low" fantasy, and it's an easy guess which one was laid low. Much of early fantasy writing and movies was of the "pulp" or low variety, while most everything we've seen over the last half-century -- from "The Lord of the Rings" to "Game of Thrones" -- is high fantasy.

Simply put, high fantasy involves macro events, while low fantasy is about micro events. High fantasy is kings and queens, nobility and great heroes, undertaking tasks of world-changing import. Low fantasy is more akin to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, where everyday adventurers seek glory and power for their own sake.

Robert E. Howard's Conan books were the definition of pulp fiction, published mostly in low-rent magazines or cheap paperbacks. His protagonist was a brawling barbarian who used his sword and brawn to seek treasure and fame. Eventually he would claim his own kingdom and trod somewhat into high fantasy territory -- something each of the three movie versions of Conan have noted as a bookend.

"Conan the Destroyer" was the ill-conceived follow-up to the highly successful "Conan the Barbarian," Arnold Schwarzenegger's breakout role. (The horrible 2011 remake starring Jason Momoa does not fit into the same continuum.) Both of the first movies depict Conan as essentially a self-serving mercenary, who only gets sucked into cataclysmic events through happenstance.

I like the idea of "Destroyer" more than the movie they actually made. It plays out like a deliberately more family-friendly version of the author's mythos -- Conan Lite. Howard's barbarian was unrepentantly bloodthirsty and lustful, something the first film did a decent job of depicting.

For some reason, the De Laurentiis family of producers decided the first movie was too violent, and wanted a milder version in hopes they could sell more tickets to teenagers. The script contained more comedy and less sex and fighting than "Barbarian," but when even that received an R rating from the MPAA, the movie was recut to get a PG -- barely sneaking in just a few days before the new PG-13 rating went into effect.

The stunt casting of non-actors Wilt Chamberlain (ex-NBA player) and Grace Jones (singer/model) pays some dividends, though it's easy to see why Jones' Hollywood career would continue a little further while Wilt's did not. The Stilt was as wooden as his nickname.

The physical contrast between the bodies of athletes Chamberlain and Schwarzenegger is pretty startling onscreen. Chamberlain, at 7-foot-1 and 275 pounds, was considered an overpowering behemoth during his playing days. But in a couple of shirtless scenes the NBA legend, who was then nearly 50, looks positively spindly next to the bodybuilder (who has admitted to being augmented by steroids).

Director Richard Fleischer does yeoman's work, and most of the fight scenes have a kinetic propulsion to them -- though he clearly does not have a taste for the testosterone-steeped material like John Milius did.

The setup is that Conan gets recruited by evil queen Tamaris (Sarah Douglas) to retrieve a magic horn so they can revive the stony form of their sleeping god, Dagoth. Her niece Jehnna (Olivia d'Abo), a pure virgin, is sent along as the only one who can touch the horn. Captain of the Guard Bombaata (Chamberlain) is dispatched to protect Jehnna from attackers, and from being deflowered by Conan.

(Given this and the skimpy outfits the princess wears, it's a little disconcerting when you consider that d'Abo was only 14 when the film was made.)

Along the way Conan recruits some companions, both old and new. Malak, a wise-cracking cowardly thief played by Tracey Walter, was his partner in various robberies and becomes his reluctant tag-along. I remember him clearly for his spiky hairdo, sheepish speech and favorite attack method of plunging two daggers into the kidneys of his victims from behind -- perhaps the only cinematic depiction of the classic RPG trope, the backstab.

Mako returns from the first movie as Conan's pet wizard/chronicler Akiro, whom Conan rescues from some cannibals who want to make a feast of him. Notably, sorcery in this world consists mostly of a bunch of deep-throated mutterings and telekinetic tricks -- opening doors and lighting torches, etc. Fireballs and lightning bolts? Fuhgeddaboudit.

And there's Zula, the frantic she-barbarian played by Jones -- wearing one of those ass-baring leather outfits with a cheeky cleft-concealing tail, which seemed to be popular in cinematic depictions of crazed marauders during this period (see Wez from "The Road Warrior"). She gets rescued by Conan and becomes his acolyte, wielding her wooden staff to great effect. Apparently, Jones was so enthusiastic in depicting Zula's raging fighting style that she seriously injured some stuntmen during production.

The story plays out as essentially one long chase scene -- first to retrieve a jewel from a wizard in an ice castle in the middle of a lake, then to another catacomb so they can use the jewel to open a dragon statue's mouth to find the horn. The horn is guarded by yet another wizard, who in a bit of casting sloppiness bears a great deal of resemblance to the queen's grand vizier, which leads you to believe they're one in the same.

One quibble -- other than the fact that the only thing wizards seem to do in this movie is hang around places guarding magical items -- is that the lake sorcerer is named Thoth-Amon. Although most of Stanley Mann's screenplay was his own concoction based on Howard's myriad writings, that moniker explicitly belongs to Conan's greatest nemesis, with whom he has an ongoing conflict through several of the later books.

Having him used as a quickie one-off opponent whom Conan quickly kills feels cheap and hasty. Imagine Professor Moriarty being just one of a number of thugs Sherlock Holmes dispatches in the course of a single case.

Schwarzenegger is once again terrific in the role of Conan, physically embodying the brute while giving him a stoic sort of grace. After a brief foray with "Red Sonja," he would leave behind the sword-and-sorcery genre in favor of guns and androids. Hollywood tried for years to put together another Conan movie for him, but his entry into politics effectively ended that, leading to the Momoa debacle.

I've said to anyone who will listen that I would love to see Schwarzenegger in another Conan flick. You might think his age (66) is an impediment, but Howard's books actually took the character out to age 70 -- and left his ultimate demise a mystery. With his term in the California governor's mansion ended, word has circulated that a new production is in the works, to be titled "Conan the Conqueror."

Hopefully if this does get made, they'll go back to the blood-soaked low fantasy roots of the original film and avoid the toned-down limpness of "Conan the Destroyer."

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