Sep 21, 2020
The Horn of Azoth, the original Conan the Destroyer screenplay: Marvel Graphic Novel #59
If you read the sixth and final part of my Conan the Destroyer recap last week (you did read that, didn’t you? No? Well, here’s a link to it. You’re welcome), you know I discussed a little bit about what the movie could have been. Originally, two writers were commissioned to pen the screenplay: Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway.
For those who know their comic book history, the two are veteran writers; at 19, Conway had a notable run on Amazing Spider-Man where he wrote the memorable death of Gwen Stacy, as well as co-created the Punisher with Ross Andru. He later went to work at DC Comics, where he had a long run on Justice League of America (remember my look at issue #200? Conway wrote that) and he scripted the landmark Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man (I recapped that, too!). As for Roy Thomas, there’s no one in the industry better at writing Conan the Barbarian in the comics medium.
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So, to craft a script for the follow up to 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, they had two creative guys, one steeped in Conan lore, and the other whose resume as a skilled and prolific writer is beyond reproach. Getting a screenplay out of these two should have been a no-brainer, right? And hell, they even had legendary artist Barry Windsor Smith doing concept art for the project!
Well, writing the screenplay wasn’t the problem. The problem was writing a screenplay that met the criteria of producer Dino De Laurentiis. Dino hadn’t originally hired the duo; Edward R. Pressman, producer of Conan the Barbarian had, but Ed sold the Conan rights to Dino. So now the two comic writers had a new boss with his own ideas, and one of those ideas was making the movie on a much smaller budget. And apparently Conway and Thomas, used to working in the medium of comics where anything was possible, created a sprawling epic that would have cost, well, a ton of money to produce. There were rewrites, and then director Richard Fleischer was hired and he had his own ideas, too. He brought in screenwriter Stanley Mann (The Mouse That Roared) to take over the scripting, and eventually Thomas and Conway got the story credit on the finished movie, while Mann got credit for writing the screenplay. I’m not going to throw Mann under the bus for Conan the Destroyer; the dude got hired to do his best with work produced by two other guys who, to be fair, simply weren’t a good fit based on the constraints they were forced to work within. Oh, and Barry Windsor Smith’s stunning art? Never used.
What was Conway and Thomas’ vision? What was their original story? Fortunately for us, Tom DeFalco, Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, thought it might be a good idea to show us, and in 1990 we got the 59th Marvel Graphic Novel: Conan the Barbarian: The Horn of Azoth, based on their screenplay for Conan the Destroyer.
Our story opens with images of flames and a narration and right away I’m hearing it intoned in Mako’s epic voice. Someone is laying some history down on some prince about a “timeless age” before man was around. Back then, gods stalked the Earth and we see a fight between two of them: one looks human and the other demonic. The fight ends when the humanoid god rips the horn out of the forehead of the other. So… the movie ended the way the original script began? Huh. The narrator says when the gods were “no more”, man showed up. Cut to the “present day” of the Hyborian Age, where the narrator speaks of the kingdom of Zamora, also known as “Shadizar the Wicked”. And in one of the drinking establishments, a pair of men can be found in a spirited contest.
The art is by the late Mike Docherty, who had worked on the Conan books for Marvel in the ’80s, with finishes by the late Tony Dezuniga, who worked mostly for DC and was credited in co-creating Johah Hex and Black Orchid. I’m not familiar with the former’s work, but all I remember of Dezuniga were the ultra-heavy inks he laid on Todd McFarlane’s work during Infinity Inc.
Conan is one of the two contenders and someone comes bursting in, telling him that a guy named “Gambinus” has been caught stealing and he and a bunch of others are going to be hanged. Conan cuts the fight short and tears out of the bar to get to the square, but he’s too late; Gambinus is already dead. Fun fact: Gambinus was originally Subotai in the script. Personally, I would have been pretty upset if that was the way he went out. Conan overhears some rich locals talk about how Gambinus stole from the wrong guy, a judge named Luda, who’s been watching the show from a balcony.
That night, Conan stealths his way into Luda’s bed chamber and introduces himself, telling the judge that Gambinus was his friend. It would have actually been cool if Luda had replied “Who?” thus enraging Conan even further. Luda’s response is to pull out this adorable little crossbow. He fires—
—but Conan’s a little better at the ultra-violence than Luda, and his friend is avenged.
Elsewhere, a pair watch the events via a magic scrying pool. A woman (I’m presuming, going by her hand seen in the shot) notes they found the one they seek, but she’s not so sure about his suitability, but her father, with his face seen in the reflection of the pool, notes they have to put their faith in “the dreaming one”. We discover, though, that the woman is seated by a pool with a large black man seemingly standing guard near her, and her father’s head is actually projected in the pool itself, like magic Instagram.
Back with Conan, he’s buying drinks for everyone, and talking about what a glorious bastard Gambinus was. The woman from the magic pool tries to get close to him, but gets cut off by a blonde who wants to make time with our favorite barbarian. Blondie and Conan make the smallest small talk and head on upstairs, but not before she warns Conan she doesn’t “do Kushite”. I… have no clue what the hell that means.
Later, she steps to the window naked, thanking the god “Mitra” that Conan’s finally asleep. She motions for some guards in the courtyard below to come on up. It turns out there’s a price on Conan’s head for whacking Luda. The guards try to arrest him but even semi-conscious, naked, and drunk, Conan is badass and he puts up a fight, until he slips on some spilled wine.
The mysterious woman and her companion look on as Conan is ignobly dragged off. Later, the woman visits Conan in prison, posing as his wife. She asks him if he wants to live and he says all men do, so she cuts him a deal: if she breaks him out, he must perform a task and he’ll “gain a treasure beyond imagination” to boot. Conan’s response is, “You think highly of yourself, don’t you?” Heh. The woman says that’s not what she had in mind, and uses acid on his chains. She tells him to give her a couple minutes head start and then follow. But first, Conan’s got some unfinished business with the jailer.
Soon Conan, now wearing a loincloth (and thank Mitra we don’t see the adventure explaining where he got it!) is hopping over the city walls to meet the woman outside. She introduces herself as “Natari, daughter of Karanthes” and she’s definitely not part of the deal; her eunich sidekick Strabo and his swords will see to that. The trio ride on out, leaving the city guards eating their dust.
After some travel, they settle down for the night. Natari explains Strabo used to strangle kids for holy sacrifice before he got converted to worshipping Azoth, AKA “the dreaming one”. Natari asks who Conan worships, and in a scene reminiscent of the one in Conan the Barbarian, he explains he worships Crom, who after breathing life into you, is pretty much done with you. Natari says Crom sounds cruel, but he notes all gods are. As he turns in for the night her expression is one maybe of pity for the ignorant savage, or sadness because deep down she knows he’s right. Later they ride to a lake, where…
Hey, it’s Thoth Amon’s dreaming castle! Well, they don’t call it that here. The woman shows Conan a schematic explaining how to get to the treasure. Soon, our Cimmerian swims inside, avoiding guards at the inner dock to get to an underwater tunnel. He pries open a grate to slip up into a cylindrical chamber where a cage dangles on a chain overhead. Conan uses some holes in the wall as handholds, but discovers they’re home to leeches. The small holes have small leeches, and the big holes have larger ones. So, what comes out of the biggest hole near the top?
Super Leech! After killing Super Leech, Conan uses the chain to scramble up into another chamber, and then retrieves what was in the cage, which looks like a cube. Maybe it’s some player’s lucky six-sider. He hears voices and discovers a father with his young daughter, and it looks like they’re playing some sort of magic RPG as she guides a tiny person through a maze.
Said tiny person gets crushed by a giant hand, and the father smiles and points out she picked the obvious path. He then notices Conan and that he’s got “the Eye of Ibis!” He calls out the guards, which are led by a woman named Shumballa. Conan points out he doesn’t kill women; she responds that a woman will kill him. Then Conan decides to throw his sword which, when it comes to stupid decisions made by comic book characters, ranks right up there with Peter Parker revealing to the world that he’s Spider-Man. Conan discovers a sword isn’t a very practical projectile when he accidentally kills the girl’s father. Then, perhaps realizing he’s made enough stupid decisions for one day, he makes for the leech room and dives over the edge right through the hole he came through, and goes splashing into the water below. Back above, the daughter swears rev—
—wait, that was a boy? Well, color me surprised. The boy swears revenge, but the palace guardian tells him that’s her job, and orders one of her guys to protect the kid. The boy kicks the guard in the shin and runs off, probably to become Hyborea’s version of Batman.
Outside, Conan surfaces and notes the guards are after him. He and his two comrades quickly ride off into cursed lands that Natari hopes will make the “black ones” fear to follow. Conan wonders who can say what men would do for revenge. Natari asks Conan if he fears the gods, and his response is epic: “I would not tread on their shadow.” Conan doesn’t admit he fears them, yet at the same time he admits he wouldn’t go looking for trouble. Conan also says wizards have a long reach and Natari says he doesn’t have to worry about “Rammon”, the guy Conan killed. She struggles with the small jewelry case containing the Eye of Ibis. Conan pries it open with a dagger (if he’s got a dagger, why is he throwing swords around?) and reveals the jeweled eye within. Conan wonders how you divvy up a jeweled eye and Natari backs out of their deal.
It looks like Conan is attacking her, when he’s actually pushing her out of the path of a falling boulder. He tells Strabo to guard Natari while he goes after her would-be killer. Oh look, he’s got another sword; hope he holds onto this one. As Conan heads out, Natari finds a pool and calls her dad. Conan finds a horse and the attempted killer, and it’s the boy. Dammit, kid, don’t you know you have to travel the earth for years looking for mentors to learn how to become badass before attempting your revenge? Conan finds out he killed the kid’s father and lets him go, telling him to come see him when he’s grown a bit and to fight him then, if he must. Damn, that’s reminiscent of Kill Bill. I wonder if Taratino read this. Or if Thomas, Conway, and Tarantino all watched the same movies.
Conan returns to camp to overhear Natari and her dad talking about killing our favorite Cimmerian. He comes down the cliff with a loud “Ho!”, pretending he didn’t hear anything. Natari says their next stop is the Kezankian Forest, but Conan’s heard nobody comes out of that place alive. Still, he’s got little choice because the dead wizard’s guards seem to have gotten over their supernatural dread and are riding hard towards them.
The next day finds them in the forest. The good news is they seem to have lost their tail. The bad news is the Kenzankian forest dwellers don’t like trespassers. Painted warriors down the trio’s horses, and they run to safety and eventually make their way up a slope to the “Crypt of Shadows”, where I’m sure nothing bad ever happens. The three steal inside to find a massive demonic statue of a head. But Natari knows what to do; she pulls out the eye…
…and with horn in hand, she says it’s time to return to Shadizar. Conan points out that there’s some sweet precious stones in the ceiling, but his avarice causes him to drop his guard and Strabo smashes him in the back of the head with a rock. Strabo explains to Natari in sign language that her dad ordered him to do this, and she reluctantly leaves the Cimmerian behind.
Later, Conan wakes up and discovers why the place is called the Crypt of Shadows when some come alive and almost kill him. He makes it out through a hole in the ceiling and is almost killed by the wizard’s son, again. Conan narrowly avoids getting split open by the kid, telling him his father gave him no choice. Well yeah, I guess that’s true; in D&D you always take out the wizard first. All the same, it seemed from the previous panel that the wizard’s death was accidental, and that Conan had been aiming at someone else.
The boy explains that the Kezanki are descendants of the people who guarded the crypt but hardly know anything now, other than their superstitious dread. All he had to do was quote the “seven names” and they lit out of there, which makes things easier for Conan. Still, the kid’s confused, because he thinks Conan is working for the dreaming god. Conan replies offhandedly that he’s a thief, not a priest, and leaves the kid literally hanging by his belt.
Nearby, Nataris stops by another pool of water to consult with her father, saying she wishes Conan didn’t have to die. But surprise! Conan dispatches Strabo with his sword and now it’s time for the girl to pay him what she owes him. But her father reaches through the pool and grabs his daughter with watery hands and pulls her in. Conan dives in and is disoriented by chaotic imagery of beings in conflict, and laughing men. Then he’s saved before he drowns—
—by Shumballa, captain of the guard. But she only saved Conan from drowning so she could kill him herself. Before she can finish him off, the boy comes out of the woods and explains they need the thief alive in order to breach “Haspera’s Temple”, because the bad guys have got the horn now. The kid shows Conan the box that the eye came in and that Natari discarded, and the lid shows the constellations above and they pretty much match up. When that happens, the horn can be used to wake Azoth. Since no mortal can destroy the horn, they could only keep it locked up. Shumballa’s people have been helping to guard the Eye of Ibis, which is the key to the horn, but all that went to crap when Conan stole the Eye.
The kid tells the Cimmerian when Azoth wakes up, it’s pretty much game over, thief. The Cimmerian replies that his name’s Conan, and if they’re going to ride and fight together, he better remember it. Meanwhile at Hasparas’ Temple atop a mountain, Natari has been doped up to prepare her for her part in the ritual. Another priest starts chanting, and once the sun sets, it’ll be time for the god to awaken.
Down in Shadizar, people are fleeing the weird colored sky. I’m guessing in the Hyborian Age, everybody has a sense of when something Magically Bad is about to go down. Our heroes wait for nightfall and sneak up the mountain and the boy has to lead the way, much to Conan’s annoyance. The reason why becomes clear, because the kid’s been briefed on what they find, like an illusionary walkway.
Damn, I saw that in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Now I wonder how many people read this screenplay. The kid explains that he doesn’t know all the tricks, since Conan interrupted his studies. So, the labyrinth thing we saw earlier? It’s not just a game; it was a test. As Natari is prepared for sacrifice, the gang reaches the last obstacle, which is the same one the boy couldn’t quite get. Shumballa offers to go first but Conan volunteers, saying he owes the boy. But one of Shumballa’s men pushes them aside.
So… that’s the wrong path, then. Shumballa says the name of “Dahomi” will be remembered forever, and Conan says that’ll sure make the guy feel better. The gang finds a room full of corpses, which is pretty much the place the “kind” monks dump the bodies they find in town. Meanwhile above, Nateri’s been stripped down and given the horn as the ceremony begins winding down, but Conan, Shumballa, and the kid (“Rammon, son of Rammon!”) as well as the other guards come storming up the stairs. Nateri’s dad tells the boy that some snot nose kid’s not going to stop him when he’s so close. He orders the temple guards to slay the invaders and a fight breaks out. Rammon tries to throw a knife at Nateri but her dad magic-deflects it.
Nateri sets the horn in place, and the god awakens!
Right away things go wrong, as Nateri’s Dad is impaled on the horn and his flesh melts away. Conan tries to pull Nateri out of harm’s way but the dreaming god’s bustin’ loose from the mountain and swats the Cimmerian aside, scooping up the girl. Priests get killed left and right. Shumballa stabs the thing with her spear as she rushes to protect Rammon, but gets snapped in two. It reaches for the boy, but Azoth counted Conan out too soon. He dives onto Azoth’s back before he can get to Rammon. The god drops Nateri and takes to the air.
Conan struggles with the beast, but he’s not in his element; it’s only a matter of time before he gets dropped, torn apart, or impaled. But Rammon calls out to him to go for the horn. Out of ideas himself, Conan rips it away.
Azoth crumbles to dust, as does his horn. Conan checks on Shumballa, who is truly dead. Rammon is ready to stab Conan in the back but reconsiders. Conan tells the kid and Nateri that as believers they belong together, and it’s time to get off the ruins of a mountain to see what’s left below. Later in Shadizar, Conan returns to his old stomping grounds, to the fight pit where the story began. He looks around, but while nothing here has changed, he certainly has. Without a word he gets on his horse and rides away for new lands and adventures.
So, that was Thomas and Conway’s original concept for a sequel to Conan the Barbarian. And it’s certainly an ambitious story. And one can see how hard it would have been to film it on any reasonable budget. It’s a damn good tale, and I do prefer it to what we got in Conan the Destroyer. Especially that ending, with Conan having grown a bit as a person, going from boozing, thieving brawler to… something else, and perhaps wanting something more. Thomas and Conway definitely did have a better idea in regards to what makes Conan tick, and I love how the ending reflects that we would be seeing the end of the thief and the beginning of the conqueror. It’s also interesting to see how some of their ideas were incorporated into the final screenplay, like the bronze demon head, the dreaming castle, and a mystic telling Conan to go for the horn.
And yet, I can’t lie; I miss the gang of adventurers from the movie. Even Malak… in small doses. I enjoyed their interactions, and I loved Bombaata as an antagonist. Oddly enough, I feel the movie had a stronger foe in Bombaata than the comic did in Natari’s father and Strabo. As weird as it may sound, as much as I enjoyed reading this comic, in a weird way it’s made me appreciate Conan the Destroyer just a tiny bit more. Do I wish we had gotten Roy and Gerry’s movie? Without a doubt. But maybe I’m a bit more grateful for at least getting the second Conan film we got.