Medieval Matters

Jason Momoa Meets Robert E. Howard: Conan the Barbarian (2011 Remake)

So, Justice League is coming out soon. I’m semi-excited since (1) I friggin loved Wonder Woman, and (2) I hated most of the other DC movies. I’ll probably be seeing Justice League, though. Mostly because (1) I have a crush on Gal Gadot, and (2) my wife has a crush on Jason Momoa—though she does want me to note, for the record, that she likes the frontiers-y Momoa more than the clean-cut version. YMMV.

Anyway, in honor of this coming appearance of The Momoa, I sat down to watch 2011’s Conan the Barbarian, a remake of the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film — this time starring Momoa as the titular hero from Robert Howard’s pulp-age novels. It was Momoa’s first big starring movie role, helped him land his fame-making role in Game of Thrones, and is your chance to see Khal Drogo Aquaman Conan shove his finger into a noseless man’s face.

So let’s head on back to the Hyborian Age, which Morgan Freeman introduces us to via voice over.

That’s right. Morgan friggin’ Freeman. And I assure you that no-one can say “Acheron like Freeman.

Yes you are, Mr. Freeman.

So right away we’re introduced to barbarians doing barbarian things in the midst of a barbarian battle. There is lots of growling and rahring and squishy/crunchy sounds of death.

And whose wife is it who has gone into labor in the middle of it all? Why it’s Ron Perlman’s! He is very big and very dirty and very beard-y. And he also growls a lot. He performs a brutal C-section in the middle of the battle, and his dying wife names the child Conan. Perlman lifts wee Conan’s baby-butt to the sky a la The Lion King — “Rahr!” quoth Ron — and the Circle of Life is underway.

Born of battle.

Fast-forward, and Conan is an adolescent. He’s living amid his barbarian peeps, who are clearly identified as such via their furs, long hair, long beards, rickety wooden structures, and ability to growl and yell “Rahr.”

Also, there are goats. Lots and lots of goats.

Conan is smaller than the other boys and doesn’t talk much — or bathe much, either — but when he runs into some rival barbarians in the woods he’s remarkably adept at gruesomely dispatching them single-handedly and then beheading them for trophies.

His young son’s actions impress Ron, who makes him a sword by pouring molten metal into a mold, which is generally speaking about the worst way to make a really legendary blade of the ages and such. Ron won’t give him the sword, though. The lad’s got to earn it, because these are barbarians and barbarians don’t do participation trophies, kids.

Unless it’s participating in beheading enemies and the trophies are those heads, of course. That’s barbarically legit. Rahr.

An army of bad guys shows up, led by the crazy general guy from Avatar. Whether in the jungles or Pandora or the hills of Cimmeria, Stephen Lang is great at being batshit crazy.

Aaaaaaand Conan becomes an orphan. And he’s taken up growling. Rahr.

Fast-forward again via another Morgan Freeman voiceover, and Conan is (at last!) a little less growl-y and a lot more Momoa-y (though not, to my wife’s sorrow, beard-y).

Conan is a pirate these days, but he still wants to avenge his dead father and finally earn that sword. This launches him into an adventure of plot points that pits him against Khalar Zym, the aforementioned leader of bad guys, who is seeking the last “pureblood” descendant of the ancient sorcerers of Acheron. By sacrificing her—because of course it’s a her, and of course she’s young and attractive—Zym can unlock the powers of the Mask of Acheron and bring back his dead wife and become an immortal god and whatnot. Zym is aided in this quest by his daughter, Marique, played by Rose McGowan. She’s a witch-priestess whose hairstyle reminds my wife of Cera, the triceratops in The Land Before Time.

Also, Marique and Zym seem really uncomfortably close with each other.

Howard set his Hyborian Age in our distant past, but he was careful to define it as a “vanished age.” This timelessness allowed him to use real historical influences but also not worry about getting the history right. It was a clever move (Tolkien does something quite similar with Middle-earth, in fact), and the filmmakers here are definitely on the same track: the people and technologies that Conan encounters on his adventures are a bewildering mix. Folks with recurve bows are fighting alongside Neanderthal-looking dudes while crazed tribesmen run amok. Conan’s buddy has a ship that looks like a 15th-century caravel. The swords and armor are … well, I’ll just say that they’re a hodgepodge of crazy. I mean, just try to imagine the actual practicality of this on the field of battle:

CONAN not need shield. CONAN wear shield. CONAN not own shirt.

Conan just wants to kill Zym. His pirate buddy wants to help him, but everyone knows that Conan’s pecs travel alone.

(Well, together. With each other.)

And with the young and attractive pureblood girl, when the time comes.

All told, this is a pretty bad film: predictable, blandly acted, and rudimentary of plot. Even Momoa’s muscles couldn’t save it.

Let’s hope the same won’t be said for Justice League.

Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Culture at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy trilogy set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of HeavenThe Gates of Hell, and the newly released The Realms of God, is available from Tor Books.


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