Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Return of the King

News in the past fortnight that Arnold Schwarzenegger is to return to the role which made his name, that of Conan the Barbarian, prompted a fair amount of commentary on genre blogs and websites - most of it cautiously positive, if a little on the dismissive side. In 2014, the projected year of release for The Legend of Conan Arnold will be 67. Still, if anyone can fill the role that the first, best, Conan movie left us with of an aged king of the Cimmerians, it's Schwarzenegger - certainly it wasn't without trying, but was without success, that Jason Momoa tried last year. Ouch.

Which really just goes to say that Arnold invented the cinematic Conan, as separate from Robert E Howard's literary version as, say, Sean Connery's James Bond from Ian Fleming's. Howard's Conan is lithe, tall and muscular, but in a non-body building way; John Milius and Dino de Laurentis' version of the Barbarian is more about the bulk and the eye candy - the model for the Eighties cinematic barbarian. 
The barbarian was big in the Eighties, as much a reinvention of a previous movie type (the cowboy) as its other Eighties counterparts the 'road warrior', the ninja, and the cyborg. And it wasn't just movies, as the immediate appeal and recognition factor of the heavily-muscled, tanned and oiled Californian-style hero allowed the type to translate to other visual media - fantasy art, video games, album covers and videos, and of course comics. It may be that Milius' Conan was brought about in part by Marvel's line of Conan comics, but of course the baton was well and truly taken up by European titles like Metal Hurlant as well, and in the UK and in 2000AD Pat Mills too the Conan story and his Celtic roots in another direction again, combining the hero with those of Irish legend, Finn and Cuchulain to create Slaine.

Slaine was a genuine offshoot from Conan rather than a poor relation - Mills took great care in his appropriation of British and European folklore and legend, establishing his hero as a 'warped' warrior, capable of a battle frenzy that would transform him into an erupting, swollen, vicious monster in battle, reminiscent of Cuchulain himself. Here he is drawn by the great Mick McMahon, but through his life in the comic the titular hero would g on to be illustrated by some equally great names - Massimo Belardinelli, Glen Fabry, Dermot Power and most notably Simon Bisley, who would use the Seventies styles of Frank Frazetta and Casaro Renato (who produced the poster art for Conan the Barbarian) to nod back at his own influences. Like Conan, Slaine was never realised as a fully muscle-bound mountain of a man, but he sure as hell turned out that way, and arrived at around the same time as that type was being justly ridiculed by such  strips as Carl Critchlow's Thrud the Barbarian, first published in White Dwarf.

Not that there was anything wrong with Thrud - quite the opposite  I loved Thrud from his tiny pea-head to his massive furry boots, his tiny intellect and Critchlow's sharp satire not only of fantasy literature but of the tropes of RPGs. Which sort of neatly brings us to the other Eighties phenomenono, the role playing game. Both Conan and Slaine got the treatment, though Slaine's came much later, and for a while many of the popular fantasy games seemed to begrudgingly attempt to incorporate the Barbarian (and the ninja, for their sins) as a playable class. I never thought it was a great fit, even if Dungeons and Dragons is based largely on trying to fit disparate element together before handing them over to players and DMs to try to establish some final cohesion. I think that outside their own games, the barbarians of the RPGs I played were better off either as NPCs in their own world, or actually in their own game. maybe it was the way we played them as teenagers, but in a popular sense at least there's the real risk of treating characters like Conan as being one-note, and that's maybe why they never hung around for long in the games.

And so too the barbarian of cinema, as much wish-fulfillment to a generation of awkward teens as their more physically-inclined peers. There's something quite universal about the likes of Conan, his place as a wanderer in an untamed world, that befits a cinematic treatment, and indeed a revival. And just as Clint Eastwood was able to return to the western to portray an aged gunslinger brought out of retirement for one final glorious battle, I hope that those behind The Legend of Conan, Arnold included, will be able to do the same.

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