FF58 - Conan the Barbarian

Intro by Adam Pranica

Take any of the war films we have discussed on Friendly Fire and try to think of one without a main character, a film purely focused on the macro, on war itself, documentaries excluded of course! Isn't it strange that for all the shapes and sizes that war can take and in all the places a war can exist, a war film story is inextricably united with a warrior proxy? You would think, and I would think, that the concept of war is so rich and its theme is so powerful that a storyteller would never need a crutch like a lowly person to help tell the story.

Get some model airplanes and submarines and blow up a couple of airplane hangars, get yourself a powerful voiceover and you are done. I did this literally every weekend from the age of 8 to 14. Now, stay with me here, as we do a little bit of reverse engineering. Since we know that an essential component of any war movie is the warrior, could it be that any film depicting a warrior's journey is a war film? Aha! Class, welcome to War Films 301, I am your new favorite teacher ever: Mr. Pranica. Only my TAs can call me Adam.

In today's class I will tell you why Conan the Barbarian isn't only a war film, it is a good war film. It has all the qualities we like on this show: It has a charismatic main character who almost loses everything at the beginning of the story, just like Mongol. Also: Our hero enlists ragtag team of criminals to fight against a formidable army of evil-doers, just like The Dirty Dozen. And: it also tells the story of a war that does not exist, just like Aliens. But the story inside the story is just as good: You have got the first big film for Arnold Schwarzenegger who at the time was the living embodiment of a pulp fantasy novel counterbalanced with Schwarzenegger's Conan, or Max von Sydow and James Earl Jones because you need real actors if your star can't speak English except phonetically.

On top of that they are reading the script that Oliver Stone wrote for John Milius to direct, which is kind of like if cocaine became sentient and wrote the script for an erectile dysfunction commercial. Also: all John Milius films are war films. Don't @ me! On top of all this is a movie score engineered specifically to make a person run through a brick wall waving a sword over their heads. It is bombastic, it is incredible, it is better than you think! You have got soup made out of a severed hands, arrows made of snakes, wizards and witches and cults and in the center of it all our warrior and his war. It is meant to be taken seriously, and we do. On today's Friendly Fire we discover. what is best in life as we discussed the 1982 John Milius extra-pulp fever dream Conan The Barbarian.


B: Welcome to Friendly Fire, the war movie podcast that is better than being crucified on the Tree of Woe, but only slightly.
B: I'm Ben Harrison and I don't know why we watched this movie
A: I'm Adam Pranica and I will try to defend why we did
J: I'm John Roderick and I am literally the Tree of Woe.

1970s pulp science fiction comics (FF58)

In the 1970s there was a whole genre of pulp science fiction magazines with Renato Casaro drawings on them, an extension of 1960s fantasy novels with the same imagery, like a 3/4 naked girl riding a dragon, some big muscle hero with a sword and a helmet with horns on it. She was generally at his feet, clutching his ankle. It produced a genre of magazine that felt like an extension of super-hero stuff, except way more sex driven, which then morphed into Heavy Metal magazine. John was not into that stuff for whatever reason. He didn’t like superhero comics when he was younger and he just wasn’t into this boobs and dragons thing. He liked the movie Heavy Metal a lot, but when he tried to read the comics in Heavy Metal magazine, he just got embarrassed. Instead he was headed into the National Lampoon direction. John didn’t mind swords if there were elves, but he didn't care for swords just as a penis extender.

Masculine role models changing the perception of this movie (FF58)

As Conan the Barbarian came out, it went just right past John. Anybody who liked it would have been in a different social group in High School. Watching it now John wished he had watched it in 1982 because he was weirdly charmed by it, which was absolutely the last thing he expected to feel about this weird strange Leni Riefenstahl movie. It wasn’t terrible! Right out of the gate he thought that within 5 minutes he would find this to be a codpiece fetish film, but it is framed as an epic and it wasn’t as dumb as he expected.

Adam grew up largely without masculine role models and one of the reasons he enjoyed films like Conan so much growing up was that they provided that for him in a fucked-up way. The super-heroic characters of Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger were something for him to aspire to, and as a tweaky weakling his fantasy was that if he could only be like that he would be safe or happy.

This was the first time Ben ever saw this movie. He was never drawn to oiled-up muscle-men based content in his childhood and a lot of these Stallone and Schwarzenegger things are new to him. On Friday nights when Ben’s mom took him down to the Blockbuster video to pick out a tape, he did not find himself in that section. He watched Fried Green Tomatoes as a kid, but he doesn’t think he has seen Steel Magnolias.

Ben had a pretty restrictive media diet and his parents had strict rules about how much TV he was allowed to watch, which restricted the amount of discovery that was taking place. He found Star Trek The Next Generation, of which there was one hour on TV most days, and that was pretty much what he watched. Talk about a high tee television show! Ben’s masculine role models were Commander Riker and Captain Picard.

Although Adam and Ben are similar in age, but they are not peers exactly. There is a difference between consuming this media in 1986 vs consuming it in 1996, and masculine role models had changed a lot between the time Adam was 10 years old and Ben was 10 years old.

John’s masculine role models were all in real life and they were putting out half of a cigarette in an unfinished Scotch and water before going outside into the snow to trade $400 in quarters to somebody for something. His sensibilities are far different as someone who’s masculine role model was Charles Bronson. John hated Charles Bronson! The 1970s masculinity and 1980s masculinity was so different! Clint Eastwood movies were popular with a lot of John’s peers, but he didn’t find anything in that energy either.

All of John’s masculine role models were lawyers, people in real life that he knew who were in politics and were making deals, which is also why John never conceded a single point when he, Adam and Ben disagreed on something. John definitely saw Conan as a proxy for people who didn’t have a clear way to become a young man and who saw the codpiece and were drawn to it.

Adam's childhood (FF58)

It is weird that Adam found something like this so aspirational and impossible to aspire to, but that was not a reason for him to reject it in a way that he clearly would as an adult. Had he been a little bit older at the time, these films would probably not have had any impression on him at all due to their impossibility. If Adam stood on a rocky crag right now an lifted his sword to the sky, would his wife kneel at his ankles and clutch them in a ripped dress? Maybe if she could hear his voice as she was walking away she might come back and humor him like that. They should set that up for Adam’s birthday!

When Adam was in High School and had problems, did he come back and ask his He-Man doll for advice? Stroke his codpiece? No, Adam would stay in the band room until all the busses had left. This is a very special episode of Friendly Fire and has been very confessional to Adam.

Ben's childhood (FF58)

Ben doesn’t know why he is incompatible with this kind of movie. He had friends growing up who were interested in playing with cowboy toys and Ben never understood any of the appeal of cowboy toys either. All of Ben's action figures had little tennis rackets! He had Ninja Turtle toys when he was a little kid and when Jurassic Park came out he made a radical shift to collecting dinosaurs. He had space-themed LEGO-sets, but he never wanted any of the pirate-themed LEGO-sets. Only sometimes did his space-themed LEGO-sets shoot each other and he was exploring the ice planet with them when he was visiting his grandfather in New York after it had snowed. They were exploring the ice planet, but not conquering it or shooting bad ice monsters or having sex with each other. Maybe that was because there weren’t monster figurines among his sets or maybe that just wasn’t a place that his imagination naturally went.

Violence was strongly discouraged by his parents. He was not bullied in a way that Adam often was, but he went to schools that were full of people who were like him. Obviously Adam’s enjoyment of these films was a response to his circumstances, but it is hard to disentangle because Ben doesn’t have any way to go back and change any of the variables.

John thinks that Ben is a product of a cultural attempt in American Leftist culture to build a new man. He had a baby doll in his room that was supplied by his mother on the logic of supplying toys of various genders and letting him pick whatever he wants to play with and to create a nurturing future man. He did get made fun of for having that baby doll by kids that would come over to play, but he wouldn’t say it rose to bullying. Adam finally caught Ben in a lie, because what kids came over to play? Ben didn’t say they came over again. Ben eventually successfully petitioned to have the baby doll removed from his room by nailing 95 thesis to his parents’ bedroom door.

When Ben was in middle school they discovered that there was a hill in the school yard that had clay in it and they excavated clay during recess and lunch and built a peaceful village out of clay on the hillside. No battlement, no defenses, no earthworks, but just houses and stores and things. No Vikings ever rode down in the village and set all the roofs on fire. It just wasn’t a part of the landscape. The world needs tennis coaches, too!

Ben was interested in swords in service of completing his Ninja Turtle costume, but he didn’t wave them around and hit things with them. It was an aesthetic and he was a peaceful swordsman. He was trying to use them for plow shears, but they were just pieces of plastic and he wasn’t able to cultivate the vacant lot two doors down. He was out with the other pre-teen boys ”Come on! Let’s sow the fields! I’m making my own manure!”

John's childhood (FF58)

John’s mom was a first generation feminist, while Ben’s mom was from the second wave. John’s mom tried very much to keep guns out of his hand, but she just couldn’t because every stick John picked off the ground became a gun. Partly it is because Vietnam was on the television and John’s dad was a WWII veteran and it was war movies everywhere. She couldn’t keep guns out of John’s hands and she eventually surrendered to the fact that guns were what little boys did.

John almost exclusively played cowboys, Starsky & Hutch, Vietnam and World War II. If they were exploring, it was only to find Nazis to murder. If there were dinosaurs, they were generally Nazi experiments gone wrong. There was almost no childhood problem that could not be solved by the application of bullets. John was not especially interested in swords.

John never imagined any of his girlfriends were Valkyrie really, but he always thought of them more as Golems, not as Gollums from Lord of the Rings, but Golems from the Synagogue of Prague, clay monsters with the wrong symbols written on their heads.

The cultural background of these kinds of movies (FF58)

As the movie unfolded, John thought that it was Bruce Dickinson fighting Nazareth, because Bruce Dickinson was wearing exactly the same studded wrist bands and the other dudes looked like a muscular Nazareth. They had the same haircuts and Danish leather look. As a teen or pre-teen boy in 1978 you were given a lot of this imagery. It was during the Malaise Era when Jimmy Carter was president and Americans felt ineffectual. This movie came out during the early days of the Reagan administration when America started to rattle their sabres again and there was this muscley super-capable dumb dad.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s a lot of movies found a way to take a girl’s shirt off, which was parodied in the movie Airplane where she just opens her shirt, but in this movie they are barbarians and of course you are going to take everybody’s shirt off at one point or another.

This was the era where spray-tanned muscle-guys became the dominant image of super-heroic men in film, but Ben doesn’t get the sense from women and gay men that this is a particularly attractive look to them, but this is a sexual image for straight men in an interesting subcategory of homo erotic. Adam argues against that because his enjoyment of these films predates his personal sexual awakening. He enjoyed these films as someone who enjoys comic books.

Occult parts of the movie as a reply to the early 1980s culture (FF58)

Parts of this movie were about the occult and the idea that this would be a technology that an antagonist would use. Something about the control that the Thulsa Doom character had over people was really upsetting. He could look at someone and make them jump from a cliff, which is a pretty terrifying thought. This occult power was a new kind of religion that was sweeping the world as a new thread. It was not an army coming, but it is this ”I will steal your sons and daughters by offering them some strange new religion!", which is a pretty complicated sub-plot for a loincloth movie, especially because Milius has used communism in so many of the things he has made, but even then the people on the side of the bad guys are always in service to a person and not an ideology.

In 1978 the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana had rocked the world. It was an American religious cult that operated around a charismatic figure named Jim Jones who ruled autocratically within the lie of socialist Christianity, and they decamped to Guyana because they wanted to build their unrestricted community and at the time before the massacre they were succeeding with that. Then they all drank the cyanid-laced Kool Air, that is where that phrase comes from, they fed it to their children and one by one they lined up and drank it and almost 1000 people died of suicide. The day it hit the newspapers it was all anybody could talk about for weeks and the photographs of bodies all piled up on one another outside this encampment were terrifying.

The introduction of supernaturalism takes the movie out of the realm of any clear 20th century paranoia, with the exception of maybe Idi Amin or some of the dictators in Africa who were appealing to superstition. Africa was now free of colonialism, but a lot of the original dictators were coming from a tribal allegiance and would attribute supernatural powers to themselves. The movie is playing on a lot of fears of the 1970s and early 1980s about a whole host of new enemies or new threads to civilization that didn’t exist in the 1950s. (Charles) Manson and devil worship was at the top of this. These are still contemporary fears, it was not that long ago.

Response to feminism (FF58)

This movie is clearly a response to feminism and the biggest bugbear is Milius saying that we were losing masculinity in American culture at this time. Bella Abzug and a young Hillary Clinton were going to Yale! The strong female character in this movie is a sword-wheeling thief, but we definitely see her boobs and at not point in the 1970s did we see Bella Abzug’s boobs. It is a return to the Playboy Magazine of 1969 universe, rather than the Ms. Magazine of 1979. Hot take!

Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s relationship to women in film was pretty chaste. Rambo never seduced anybody. For all of their physicality and oiled muscularity they don’t give off a lot of sexual heat and their interactions with women do not have a sexual or seductive component.

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