Sunday, November 06, 2005

Conan Crisis

I must not have watched my DVD of Conan the Barbarian before, only the bonus features. I was in for a big shock.

Many of you may know my affection for this film, which extends from childhood and has more or less held up. I make no claims that Schwarzenegger & Co. are fine actors (in fact the majority of the actors with major characters weren't even "actors first"--bodybuilder, NFL star, Fosse dancer, etc.). There is a lot of undeniably goofy material here, and its execution is often stilted to say the least. (Then again, in ten or twenty years let's all look at those cinematic Tolkien masterpieces and see how goofy they seem to us then...) But it's good fun, and it has the virtue of its brilliant climactic scenes which transform this object of good fun into something with a measure of profundity. I kid you not.

The final scene of the film (if you haven't seen it and don't want to know, read no further!) is effectively a coda that depicts our musclebound hero at the mountain fortress of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), where he fulfills his lifelong goal by butchering the villain who murdered his family and village decades ago, and forced Conan into slavery as a child. As Thulsa Doom speaks thunderously to the gathered crowd of cult followers at the foot of his lair, torches blazing in the night, Conan appears from behind (he's come from inside the lair itself) with the hilt and broken blade of his father's making. (One of Doom's lieutenants took the sword Conan's family makes at the film's opening: though it's not underlined by dialogue or even close-up shots, the mildly observant viewer will notice that Conan, in defeating the lieutenant in battle and breaking his sword, in fact breaks the very same sword his father crafted, which he takes up again as his weapon of choice.) Decapitating Thulsa Doom (an echo of TD's decapitation of Conan's mother) he flings his head down on the steps before the cultists, then tosses down the broken sword. The cultists slowly disseminate, distinguishing their torches, and the editing has Conan simply sitting around in the empty night, making his way down the fortress steps. In a final Herculean effort he throws another torch up onto the fortress entrance, where it catches fire. Thulsa Doom's power is destroyed; his palace burns in a long shot of a desolate night. End of the film, except for a still shot of Conan sitting on a throne, with Mako's voice intoning vaguely about the immediate and long term aftermath. ("So King Osric's daughter was returned to her father, and Conan and his companions went West ..." etc.)

This scene is dark, sad, spartan, and bitterly lonely. It's, by miles, the best bit of filmmaking in the entire movie. What makes it so important, and what gives Conan the Barbarian the majority of its very real philosophical heft, is that in its process surges up deeply buried subtexts to the surface. It's one of the biggest "what now?"s in the history of the cinema. We've just fewed the negation of everything the film's mythos (and, truth be told, John Milius' Weltanschauung) would appear to uphold--the power of gods and fathers, the nobility of quest, the purpose of storytelling itself. Milius lets tip his Straussian hand and for this haunting coda we see a completely unexpected depth and honesty wherein all of the myths of this film are exposed precisely as myths. Conan has fulfilled narrative expectations for revenge; he has sated his psychological drive; he has murdered his symbolic father who had (as Thulsa Doom points out) subsequently given Conan's life all meaning. And it's so powerful precisely because it is unexpected--this film does not lead you to believe, for its preceding two hours, that there is much going on philosophically in it. And for those first two hours, there isn't. But, as I said, subtext bursts through into immediate, immanent text and theme, which makes for an unforeseen and genuinely unsettling experience, rather than an intended and coded unsettling experience.

But. In the "restored" sequence at the end of the film, we see footage of the Princess ("King Osric's daughter"), who was the one presumably who led Conan back into Thulsa Doom's fortress (she was one of his followers), and with whom Conan wordlessly "shares" his unnamed existential moment.

In addition to effecting the color palette (the princess' pale skin tones and purple clothing) and drastically rupturing (and harming) the editing rhythm of the scene for those accustomed to its original cut, the insertion of the Princess does two things that partly ruin the power and meaning of the ending as it was cut for so long: 1) it destroys the sense of solitude and inscribed reflection that we/Conan have, and 2) it reinforces the existence of the continuing plot, making the scene pedestrian rather than ethereal.

I was seriously disturbed after seeing this yesterday.

1 comment:

Aaron W. Graham said...

Zach, Aaron here:

Just catching up with your last couple of posts when I came across your appraisal of the final moments of CONAN.

I actually don't think I've watched the film on my dvd, so I was unaware of these changes as well. My copy's in transit at the moment, but I'll be sure to look into this matter when it arrives. I must say that discomfort set into my stomach as I followed your post hoping that one of the most perfect closing moments wasn't toyed with...

Upon taking a look at some sites online, it seems that the US theatrical cut we're familiar with had been previously released on Region 1, so it may be a good idea to pick that one up.