Friday 10 February 2012

Conan: the LARP years

Films don't have to be spectacular box office successes to inspire legions of knock-offs. Conan the Barbarian doubled its $20 million budget domestically, grossed almost $69 million worldwide and turned Dino de Laurentiis's flagging fortunes around for a few years, but it was by no means an international smash. What attracted the vultures, instead, was Conan's readily replicable formula: wizards, leather-clad strongmen, and fanservice in furs.

In the 1980s, Conan copies like The Beastmaster and the Ator films multiplied on both sides of the Atlantic. The great Italian rip-off machine, no stranger to casting bodybuilders in garish adventures since the 1950s, was particularly reinvigorated by the Styrian's signature role, but Conan's influence was widespread and long-lasting. From Hercules: The Legendary Journeys to - just maybe - The Lord of the Rings, John Milius's film changed history.

It was inevitable that there should be a sequel. 1984's Conan the Destroyer enjoyed healthy box office takings, a fact that directly led Schwarzenegger to team up with Dino de Laurentiis for the following year's ill-fated Red Sonja. It was, however, widely disliked upon release - and rightly so, for Conan the Destroyer is a very bad film. It feels in every way like a made-for-TV knock-off rather than a sequel to Conan the Barbarian.

An unspecified amount of time after the events of the first film, Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his new sidekick Malak (Tracey Walter) are ambushed by goons who try to capture them in nets. After some slaughter, Conan is approached by the enemies' leader, Queen Taramis of Shadizar (Sarah Douglas), with a proposition: he is to escort her niece, Princess Jehnna (Olivia d'Abo), on a mission to retrieve the horn of the sleeping god Dagoth. Learning that this will involve confronting the wizard Toth-Amon, Conan initially refuses: 'What good is a sword against sorcery?' (That's a question which I thought the ending of Conan the Barbarian answered sufficiently, but whatever.) He relents, however, when Taramis promises that she will resurrect Conan's dead love interest Valeria. (In one of the oddities of continuity, Valeria is never named in Conan the Barbarian but regularly name-checked in the sequel.)

Conan accepts, and sets off on his quest - without having sex with Taramis, which I suppose counts as character development - accompanied by Jehnna, Malak, and the captain of Taramis's guard, Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain). On their way to the evil sorcerer's castle, they pick up the wizard Akiro (Mako) of the first film, as well as the warrior woman Zula (Grace Jones). The party thus complete, they confront the illusionist Toth-Amon, defeat him, and retrieve the jewel that will allow access to Dagoth's jewelled horn.

This is about forty minutes in, and there's enough material left for perhaps fifteen minutes. Bombaata's real task is to kill Conan and abduct Jehnna so she can be sacrificed to Dagoth, but instead of getting on with it the padding kicks in: now our heroes have to travel to a temple where Dagoth's horn is kept, and this gives the filmmakers time to put us through long, gruelling dialogue and 'comic relief' regarding Jehnna's crush on Conan. That slack second half is in precise contrast to Conan the Barbarian, which accomplished its bumbling early on and then gained steam.

Conan the Destroyer feels less like the 1982 film than its knock-offs because, of course, it was penned by knock-off writers. No, not screenwriter Stanley Mann of Damien: Omen II, Firestarter and little else, but the duo who developed the story, Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, who'd previously churned out the animated sword-and-sandal picture Fire and Ice and, in Thomas's case, worked on the television series Thundarr the Barbarian. Their work is inferior to that of John Milius and Oliver Stone in the original film in every respect, but let's start with the villains. Conan the Barbarian had Thulsa Doom, a terrific baddie played to perfection by James Earl Jones. In Destroyer, our heroes are menaced by this guy:

He turns into this when he wants to be extra-terrifying:

Need I say more?

Did Thomas & Conway - or anyone else, for that matter - really leave Conan the Barbarian thinking, 'This was pretty cool, but I wish Conan talked more/had a bunch of sidekicks/made more jokes?' Dino de Laurentiis apparently thought the first film's box office take had been hurt by its R rating, and subsequently worked hard to make Destroyer PG-13 by removing the nudity and gore of the original, but that's not where the problem lies. That would be sticking Conan into a tedious, padded story with limited personal stakes (no real effort is made to convince us of Conan's desire to bring Valeria back), and the sidekicks.

Ah yes! For this film replaces the mostly silent trio of the original (Conan, Subotai, Valeria) with, well, a party. It really does feel like a particularly unimaginative role-playing campaign, although at least they don't all meet in an inn. There are scenes that feel particularly Dungeons & Dragons: the ape-man at Toth-Amon's castle, for example, who can only be defeated by smashing all the mirrors in the room.

Mako as the wizard Akiro is a welcome presence, as is Wilt Chamberlain's Bombaata. I'm on the fence about Grace Jones as Zula: she's awesome, but her archetype - the savage warrior woman - is pretty racist, especially when contrasted with the exceedingly Aryan princess Jehnna. Malak, however, is perhaps the most wretched comic relief character before Jar Jar Binks. Tracey Walter, who's since carved out a very respectable career on television, is visibly miserable and unconvinced by the role. No-one could blame him: it isn't easy for actors to find work. Blame, instead, falls once more to Thomas & Conway, who should have remembered that comic relief is generally intended to be funny (hence 'comic').

Undone by an awful, meandering script, Conan the Destroyer holds up pretty well in other departments. Richard Fleischer, director of The Vikings and other sword-and-sandal pictures of the 1950s and 1960s, does his best to make the film no more boring than it has to be, and he's helped by the director of photography, fellow Vikings alumnus Jack Cardiff (who also shot the 1951 Bogart-Hepburn classic The African Queen). There is, in fact, a whiff of a last hurrah for the old guard surrounding Conan the Destroyer: the sword-and-sandal film of a previous generation going down in a blaze of sleepy non-glory. But in any case, they go down with some honestly pretty pictures:

Conan the Destroyer's budget was less than Barbarian's, and it seems more than once that being unable to afford something like the first film's majestic Mountain of Power they settled for a bunch of people bumbling around cheap-looking sets. But again, it's the fault of the writers who decreed that there must be crystal castles and temples covered in runes. In truth, Pier Luigi Basile's production design is good, great in the case of Queen Taramis's impressive throne room; and the same goes for the costumes, although there are some unconvincing wigs.

The single most disappointing aspect of the whole affair is that composer Basil Poledouris apparently zoned out. Poledouris's score for Conan the Barbarian has become a classic in its own right, but his work on the sequel is just tired. When he isn't plagiarising himself - the music from Barbarian's human soup scene is recycled for Destroyer's offering to Dagoth - it's just decidedly less exciting. Where Barbarian's music screamed epic!, the Destroyer score mutters, 'I was made for Saturday afternoon reruns'.

It's as if they went out of their way to remind the audience that Barbarian was a better film. When Malak says, and I'm quoting from memory here, 'LOOK, CONAN, IT'S A CAMEL, JUST LIKE THE ONE YOU PUNCHED IN THE FACE IN CONAN THE BARBARIAN' it would just be a clunky continuity nod - were it not for the fact that, being kicked off by a character not present in the original film, the scene suggests Conan boasts of his ignoble history of animal abuse to his companions.

If ever the title of a film improved upon Conan the Barbarian, surely it was Conan the Destroyer; but alas, reality proves otherwise. Not only does the promised destruction fail to ensue, we still don't learn how Conan became a king by his own hand, let alone what manner of crown he wore upon a troubled brow. The film's thorough failure is perhaps best summed up when Queen Taramis says,'What is there, Conan? Think!', and her suggestion does not strike us as self-evidently ridiculous. As for Thomas & Conway: fine writers you are - go back to juggling apples.

In this series: Conan the Barbarian (1982) | Conan the Destroyer (1984) | Red Sonja (1985) | Conan the Barbarian (2011)

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