Conan the Barbarian (1982), a recap (part 4 of 6)
When we last saw our hero, he had left his friends Subotai and Valeria behind to pursue his path of vengeance against Thulsa Doom. After a considerable ride, he came across pilgrims traveling to Doom’s “mountain of power”, as well as this guy.
The wizard claims he’s all powerful and Conan dare not harm him. Conan idly inquires whether or not the man can summon demons. I’m wondering if Conan wants to hook up with that crazy witch lady from the hut again and thinks maybe this guy can help him out. The wizard claims he can summon a demon “more powerful than any in hell!” The two share a laugh. And then Conan, just to be on the safe side, decapitates him. But no, that’s not what happens. Instead, the two have dinner together and I’m thinking it was maybe an inner coin toss for Conan as to whether or not this crazy old man lived or died. On the one hand, he’s potentially dangerous. On the other, Conan hasn’t had anyone to talk to other than his horse for days.
That night over a campfire, the wizard explains the mounds and cairns nearby have been around since “the time of the titans” and that great kings are buried there. He lives down in the wind because, as he explains it, “No fire will burn up there. None at all.” Thulsa Doom nearby doesn’t bother him, not even Thulsa Doom. Now why is that? Does Doom just not see this harmless little wizard as a threat? Or does the magic of the place act as some sort of blind spot and the wizard is hidden from Thulsa Doom’s sight? I’m not saying it’s a plot hole or anything, I’m just curious. And honestly, not every question needs to be answered; just the big ones.
Something occurred to me as I watched this movie again. At the beginning of the film, our chronicler spoke of a time when the “oceans drank Atlantis” and he talks here about titans and kings and heroes. Conan’s Dad talked about when gods fought on the battlefield and men discovered the enigma of steel. All of this has a Mad Max/Road Warrior vibe to it, like Conan is living in a post-apocalyptic age and what little civilization we’ve seen so far is just a shadow of the greatness before. That kind of makes Thulsa Doom and his minions low fantasy versions of these guys:
Conan listens to the wizard’s stories, then unexpectedly asks if flowers grow around here. Okay, I won’t lie, of all the things Conan could have said, that was probably near the bottom of the list of things I was expecting. The following morning, Conan has shucked off his armor and is holding a bouquet. He tells the wizard to water the horse and oil the sword, because he’s about to head off on a camel. The wizard asks if he’s ever ridden one before, and I’m surprised Conan didn’t mention that he once defeated one in fair combat. Hey, he was stoned at the time; that makes it a fair fight.
Our hero rides out, flowers in hand, and I’m digging his plan. The outfit he’s wearing covers up his massive muscles, and by trading in the horse for the mangy camel, he looks a lot less warrior-like. Okay, yeah, I saw Lawrence of Arabia and I know you can be a badass on camelback. But c’mon, which looks less threatening?
Soon he comes across a camp of pilgrims and they’re up to some weird hippie stuff, what with the chanting and candles and one dude balancing a rock on his head. I figure Stone and Milius must have called on their memories of the ’60s for inspiration. The memories they can remember, of course. A couple of kids help Conan park his camel, and he spots something in the distance.
Doom’s mountain of power! Conan spends the night by a fire alone, and as simple and brief a scene it is, I like how it showcases how isolated the big guy feels. He ain’t got his friends, and has no idea what he’s walking into. The next morning, Conan’s got his head under a sheet like a mini-tent, and he’s woken up by cultists on the move. Thulsa Doom has sent his priests to round up the faithful. Soon they’re tossing out white robes to the rubes and Conan’s looking a little confused. If he looks like a simple pilgrim, there’s probably no way he’s going to get close to Doom. Then he catches someone’s eye.
Conan confesses he’s scared, and a creepy, grope-y priest points out how well put together this poor befuddled pilgrim is. Conan’s got a pretty good idea what the man wants, and suggests the two of them go someplace a bit more private to (ahem) talk. The priest is all down with that. Soon the pair are alone, and God, I can’t help but laugh when Arnold says he’s shy. I swear, I don’t know if it was deliberately meant for laughs, but hearing him say that line always makes me chuckle. Conan makes sure the dude’s a priest, then he knocks him out and now Conan’s got a promotion.
He starts wandering through the camp and soon the rubes are on the move to the mountain. The line of pilgrims comes across a dude in black robes and Conan realizes that he left the priest’s necklace behind. All he’s got is the emblem he snatched from the snake pit. He quickly shows it to the dude and the man lets him pass. The pilgrims reach the mountain and start getting sorted out, and I’m guessing there’s probably a seminar coming up explaining where the port-a-potties are or something. Then out of the mountain come two familiar faces.
It’s Motorhead and Iron Maiden! Conan wanders around, getting the lay of the land and checking out a pool, and I’m guessing he was just stooping down for a drink. But a priestess in black chats him up.
Priestess: What do you see?
Conan: Uh… Infinity.
The priestess looks damn impressed and says, “Good!” and Conan can pass. Huh, guess reading the philosophy of Soong actually paid off!
Conan heads on up the stairs to the temple. He shows off his emblem to a guard who then takes it from him. Uh oh, looks like somebody fumbled their Bluff roll. The guard motions for Conan to head on up while the guard heads purposefully off elsewhere. I smell a guy angling for a promotion! Up at the head of the stairs, a woman comes out with snakes in her hands, and a voice is heard: Thulsa Doom speaks! Damn, there’s a reason why they say James Earl Jones is the best voice in the business—
Um… maybe second best? Anyway, Doom’s got the crowd enraptured and Conan settles in to hear the man speak. He’s waited more than twenty years for this, and he can wait a bit more. But just then he’s jumped by Motorhead and Iron Maiden. Conan is dragged away and not even his massive musculature is enough to help him escape. As Conan takes what may be his last trip, the woman with the snakes looks on. I have to say, she’s got the Manson Family psycho look down cold. Conan gets interrogated by Motorhead and Iron Maiden with extreme prejudice, and I’m glad Milius keeps the visuals to a minimum. I know some people are into torture porn, but I ain’t one of ‘em. Finally, Conan’s been softened up, and Doom shows up and says, “I wish to speak to you now.” He points out how Conan broke into his house, killed his people, stole his property, and slew his pets. Damn, Doom, you’re right! Conan’s the real villain here! You should kill him, make an example of hi—
…Damn, James Earl Jones’ voice is more persuasive than I thought. I might need to watch a few minutes of March of the Penguins to get my head straight. Thulsa is wondering what became of the “eye of the serpent”, and it’s no great stretch to realize he’s talking about the ruby that Valeria’s now sporting around her neck. Doom figures Conan gave it to some prostitute and our hero keeps mum about it, probably because he knows if Doom’s got a name then his girl is as good as dead. We find out Iron Maiden’s name is “Thorgrim” and… okay, that name is pretty badass. “Rexor” is the name fourteen year old me would have called my fighter, while “Thorgrim” is the name more sophisticated me would have called my Northland barbarian whose weapon specialization is the bastard sword.
It turns out Thorgrim raised that snake from the time it was born, and considering just how freaking huge it was, that sort of implies these dudes are pretty damn old. Conan screams that Thulsa Doom killed his mother and father and his people and Doom shrugs it off, figuring it was probably on one of his raids to find steel. This prompts Conan to mention the riddle of steel and Doom gets all excited, because now he gets to maybe do some good ol’ fashioned proselytizin’! He explains that steel isn’t strong, and flesh is. He proves it by pointing to a girl on the cliff face and motioning for her to come down and join them, and she jumps to her death. Doom asks what steel is compared to the strength in Conan’s body and the desire in his heart. He points out how he had given Conan that. Doom sighs sadly and laments about the waste, seeming to realize Conan is not going to be converting to the church of Doom anytime soon. Then comes one of my favorite lines ever.
Doom: Contemplate this upon the tree of woe.
Had anyone other than James Earl Jones (or Morgan Freeman) said those lines, it would have just come across as silly. Conan is taken away to be crucified. We cut to this beautifully shot scene of Conan pegged to this squat tree in the middle of a desolate wasteland, and it’s a fantastic little piece of cinematography. Conan’s seen some better days…
…and beaten, exhausted, and devoid of hope, he quietly waits for death as the vultures start to circle around. Fun fact: this scene is inspired by the Robert E. Howard story “A Witch Shall Be Born” where Conan is crucified on the “tree of death”. Yeah, “tree of woe” sounds much cooler. Sorry, Robert. The vultures start hanging out on the tree, waiting for their future meal to up and die. One of the vultures gets kind of impatient (there’s always one in a bunch), and starts to chow down on Conan. Only, it turns out Conan’s not ready to die just yet.
Conan: 1, Vultures: 0. Night comes and Conan passes out, and then morning comes and by now Conan’s too weak to fight off any more vultures. And then a familiar form comes jogging up over the dunes: Subotai! Conan starts to laugh like a madman, because it looks like dehydration has taken its toll and he’s hallucinating. Sure enough, Subotai has disappeared. Conan passes out, but then…
Subotai reappears! He wasn’t an illusion! We cut to Valeria, who looks over what’s left of her lover. She turns to the wizard and asks if the gods owe him any favors. If they do, the wizard’s not calling in any markers for our favorite barbarian. The wizard warns Valeria that there’s dangers and the spirits of this place extract “a heavy toll”. Valeria says she’ll pay the price and the wizard rushes off to prepare. Soon it’s night again, and the wizard has painted Conan from head to toe in symbols, while Valeria and Subotai have their friend tied down. Why do they have him tied down? Because later that night, the spirits come for Conan.
Valeria and Subotai hold their friend down and fight off the spirits, while the wizard cowers in his hut. And honestly, I can’t blame the dude; it’s not like Conan is his best bud or anything. Sure, he likes the guy, but not enough to get his soul devoured by… whatever the hell those things are. At last the fight is done and the spirits are fought off. They don’t explain how; maybe they only have a narrow window of opportunity to snatch souls, or maybe Valeria’s sheer force of will is too much for them. Whatever the case, Conan lives!
Valeria swears that nothing will separate them, and that if she were dead and he were fighting for his life, she would return from the deepest pits of hell to fight by his side. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called “foreshadowing”.
Next week: Conan and company return to the mountain of power for some payback.