Monday, 23 September 2013

Conan the Barbarian (2011): sexual symbolism in a film of two halves

I watched the 2011 Conan the Barbarian on Channel 5 last night (23.09.13). It’s a film of two halves – the good half and the hackneyed slide towards an underwhelming conclusion that chucked in unnecessary drama until enough time had passed to prevent the film ending too soon.


The beginning sets things up nicely. The info dump prefacing the film is short, to the point and narrated by Morgan Freeman. Job well done.

Conan’s ‘birth’ is suitably violent and fits the quasi-mythological hero cycle of the story. He’s literally ‘born of war’. His mum isn’t a weak victim, she’s in heavy armour and wielding a sword while almost at full term of her pregnancy. Battle is clearly a constant feature of Cimmerian life (although not for everyone, but more of this later). When fatally wounded she refuses to die as a victim, takes control and dies on her own terms once she’s performed her motherly functions within a classic hero myth – i.e. confirming her love for him, naming him, sacrificing herself, then getting out of his way.

In the medieval Arthurian myth-legend of Percival/Parsifal, the hero’s mother shelters the boy until he comes of age, protecting him from the violent world of knightly combat out of motherly concern for his life. His father and brothers having all been knights that died in combat, she tries to prevent him from ever finding out about knighthood (i.e. manhood) and treats him as the niaive boy he will remain until he escapes. When at last he leaves ‘the realm of mothers’ she collapses in grief and in effect dies as she never appears in the story again. This is a mythological trope that allows the hero to become a man as he leaves the world where his mother dominates. She is no longer able to influence him except where he draws upon the wisdom she imparted to him as he grew up. In Star Wars Luke loses his mother twice; once when he is born, then again when Aunt Beru is killed; enabling him to follow Ben on his “damn fool idealistic crusade”.

Conan’s mother dies a warrior’s death as he is cut from her. This tells us without doubt Conan is a man from the moment of his birth. More than that, he is born of a very manly man and a very manly woman and plunged into a man’s world with no maternal influence. He is manliness-cubed. We see this confirmed in the next scene.

The intro to Cimmerian culture is nicely done. Ron Perlman is great as Conan’s chieftain father and the initiation of the new warriors is a good way to show the audience the barbarians’ way of life without resorting to another info-dump. Conan is far younger than the other boys. He’s finished the chores his father gave him, meant to delay him and prevent him from competing, and stands quietly accepting his father’s reluctance to let him join in. It’s this quiet performance of his duties that tells the chief Conan is ready. He’s earnt his egg so off he goes. A few minutes later we see just how much of a hero young Conan already is. All the other boys run from the fight, many have lost and broken their eggs. Conan runs TO the fight, takes on many enemies at once single-handed and wins. 

The enemies roar like animals, they’re not men. This is another myth trope. The hero must defeat the bestial to become a man. So far so good. We’re on track. The hero cycle is underway. Conan returns to his village carrying the severed heads of his enemies and has kept the egg unbroken in his mouth. We are in no doubt he is a man despite being perhaps twelve years old. But he’s far more than that as well, all the signs are there. He’s an honest to goodness mythological god-hero.

His father teaches him the mysteries of steel (a nice nod to the Schwarzenegger film) and instructs him how to become like steel by harnessing fire and ice together. A lesson Conan utterly fails to learn. The boy fails to beat his dad in combat because he’s “all fire” and this is underlined by his dad chopping up the frozen river they’re fighting on and dumping his son in the freezing water, exactly like the sword was quenched in ice a few minutes before. His dad tells him he’s not yet worthy to wield that sword. We the audience are now shown the quest. Conan’s McGuffin is the sword, or rather the worthiness to wield it.

Parsifal has to become worthy of the Grail before he can approach it. His journey, once he becomes a knight, is to transcend mere knighthood. Marvel’s The Mighty Thor loses the right to wield his mystic hammer and it’s given to another to teach him humility. 

Conan, already a man, must become something more. He must learn to calm his temper, to become the ultimate warrior using guile and strength, because strength alone is insufficient. The army of darkness turns up soon after. Cimmerian villagers are standing about in a way that jars with their warrior philosophy. They seem too ordinary, too domestic. They look like farmers, and they scream when the enemy attacks. I don’t get it. This shouldn’t happen. We know Cimmerians don’t fear death and are tough as old boots.

We see a woman with a helm that covers one eye shoot an arrow into Conan’s dad and take him down. In myth-speak the missing eye alludes to deeper vision, an archer that sees beyond our world, her knowledge allows her to defeat a great opponent even if it is by deception and lacking the honour of melee combat. She seems significant, but isn’t. She dies pathetically in the second half of the film and has only one or two brief appearances in-between. Her armour has been styled to make her stand out yet her character is non-existent.

An archer with no depth perception is a statement. But of what?

Conan’s dad dies by killing himself to thwart the villain’s evil plan while saving Conan’s life. Both parents die proving their love in the most violent ways possible. For Conan love and suffering, life and battle, are the same thing. He can’t see it any other way. The next we see of him he’s a giant of a man, heavily muscled and half-naked. He’s also Drogo from Game of Thrones, without the beard and makeup.

A few scenes follow telling us the current state of play that will eventually lead to the film’s climax. We see Conan is confident and more than capable. He gets himself imprisoned so he can capture the prison boss who knows where the Big Baddy is. Things get a bit daft now. They chain him up, but the chains are so long he can easily fight the multiple guards who line up to attack him one at a time. He meets the obligatory thief character that in Conan stories represents fear, caution, guile, sneakiness and success by indirect methods – all things Conan is incapable of. As Conan rides off the thief shouts to him his name and where to find him, pretty much saying “See ya later ‘cos I’m the plot device you’ll need in the third act!”.

There are three McGuffins in this film by my count: the sword/worthiness, the magical mask that will make the wearer a god, and the young woman whose pure blood is required to activate the mask. Conan finds the young woman before the villain does, setting up a clash where the villain’s power is revealed – his daughter is a sorceress and he himself is a highly skilled swordsman who easily defeats Conan. Conan and the pureblood escape more by luck than ability. Nice ‘sand elementals’ in this scene, but unfortunately it’s the only decent bit of magic we see in the whole film.

From here the film goes dramatically downhill. It's like the director left and they had to finish the film as best they could with no clear vision. Conan and the woman escape to a ship commanded by Conan’s best mate. There’s a scene where Conan describes his failure and swears to try again, his warrior friend swearing to assist. At this point my wife turned to me and said “Ham AND cheese in that scene.” The narrative seemed to dry up completely, nothing on screen advanced the plot and we found ourselves chatting about the weekly domestic chores. I don’t know about you, but if I find myself discussing unloading the washing machine during an action film it’s a bad sign.

The ship is pointlessly attacked, seemingly to give the woman a reason to fall in love both with killing people and with Conan (the former surely a requirement for the latter). Despite being a peaceful monk up until this moment, her whole life spent in a monastery dedicated to the sacredness of life, she picks up a sword – a big one – and starts killing fully armoured professional warriors.

During this scene the one-eyed woman is nonchalantly killed by Conan as if she were one of the faceless minions.

Afterwards, the pureblood has sex with Conan in a cave, and in the morning inexplicably (although I may have missed the reason) sneaks off early. Immediately outside the cave (i.e. outside the manly protection of her violent lover) she’s caught by baddies who were somehow waiting for her. Her character has developed from spirited monk to joyful warrior to sexual being, then after three seconds of independence she becomes a peril-monkey. Now she is Conan’s new McGuffin, his stated reason to track down the villain that he’s already been tracking since boyhood. Later when the thief asks him why he must enter the city of bad guys Conan replies “There is a woman in there,” and this is sufficient explanation. Nothing is said about the king who killed his tribe and who has a mask that will give him godlike powers so he can lay waste to the world with forbidden magic and resurrect his dead wife so she can tell him the secrets from beyond the grave. All of the stuff we the audience have been fed constantly since Morgan Freeman’s intro speech.

From the moment Conan is on the ship until the end of the film, the scenes feel disconnected and the narrative is almost entirely missing. Drama, sex and sword fights plug the gaps for those people disinclined to look for a story (and there are many). It’s like a different director took over, or the writers gave up after running out of ideas. This is the time when the hero has failed and lost everything and we the audience should feel the tension, wondering how the inevitable victory will be achieved from this low point. But it’s come too early. We should be three quarters of the way through, yet we’re only halfway. I was expecting Conan to be captured so the film’s pacing would stay interesting for another hour and give him a chance to soak up some post-hubris humility.

The film’s first half set up the journey, using ice as a metaphor for some vague quality and showing the sword (now in the possession of the villain and his witchy daughter) as a marker for when he attains that quality. What does the ice represent? Intelligence? Humility? Patience? Some missing ingredient, perhaps, that empowers a warrior beyond being merely strong and formidable. What we should be seeing here, after the grand failure, is the hero’s realisation of how far he still has to travel. It should be the beginning of the journey of transcendence to achieve worthiness. It doesn't have to be intellectual, just meaningful and resonant. Instead we see more of the same. Hot-headed brawn winning inconsequential victories, ticking off the last of the characters we saw standing about at his father’s defeat. Very basic revenge. They are monsters and demons, one has his own pet tentacle-monster appearing in a scene so pointless it becomes ridiculous when it should be awesome. The monster is unleashed and the guards are sent in, only the monster can’t tell the difference between friend and foe so eats the guards then kills its master. It illustrates how meaningless the scene is. Pure filler. It doesn’t matter who kills whom as long as lots of people are being violently killed. Peril, drama, violence, spectacle. Ten more minutes ticked off.

This whole section is beyond cliché. The bad guys have hunted the pureblood for twenty years and now taken her to the city of darkness for the sacrifice. Conan meanwhile rides off to find the thief who will help him get into the city. The time it takes him to find his ally and get to his destination happens to be exactly the same amount of time it takes the villain to get round to sacrificing the pureblood, enabling Conan to arrive as the cavalry. The thief disappeared at some point. I have no idea what happened to him. His function performed, he just seemed to fall out of the story.

And on to the climax. Conan faces the villain, the peril-monkey is chained to a sacrificial device, spread-eagled and incapable of moving. The villain gets the blood in a disappointingly undramatic scene as they only seem to need about half a cupful. He dons the mask – the terrifying magical mask we’ve been told to fear since the very beginning – declares his intent to summon the spirit of his long-dead wife in the pureblood’s body and then ... has a shoddy swordfight with Conan. No magic, nothing godlike. The villain uses Conan’s dad’s sword to fight him, the sword Conan wasn’t worthy to wield, and he seems unable to do much with it. Conan has done nothing to transcend his warrior-boy beginnings up to this point and has no reason to be able to fight any better than when he was beaten so soundly before. He’s a hero-god of battle and his enemy is the dark shadow of himself and his family – a warrior/father/god driven by the loss of a loved one and by revenge, willing to use magic (usually a stand-in for womanly whiles, dishonesty and the dark side; those resorting to sorcery often losing their manhood in some way and becoming corrupt, demanding to be destroyed by the hero so that the balance can be restored, sorcery can be banished back to the dark world of womanly mysteries and the men can get back to man-business as usual) – yet this time Conan is fighting better than the villain.

The villain, Zym, is an interesting character. He’s a man who’s lost his way and fallen into darkness. The implication is that marrying a witch is a bad idea. But what does the witch stand for? We see her die, burnt by pious monks as her husband and daughter look on. At this point Zym is a loving father staring in horror at the act of atrocity being performed and ripping apart his life. We have a moment, just that, of sympathy for Zym. But it’s stripped away when we remember the fairly clear evidence he has an incestuous relationship with his daughter. She too is a witch and now looks just like her mother did at the point of her death. Witchy women are interchangeable in this story, and when a man walks into the dark forest their power surrounds him and he can either leave, fight or embrace them. Heroes tend to leave (Sir Gawain is an exception, but that’s another story), villains tend to embrace, compromising their masculinity and becoming in effect a force for the 'feminine'.

There was a possible sub-plot here that would’ve made this a better film. The daughter aided her father in his plans to gain power over life and death and resurrect his wife, her mother. To do so the daughter effectively became her mother, taking her place by Zym’s side as sorceress and lover. What would happen if the mother had returned? The darkness would have to oppose itself, two equal powers ostensibly on the same side, but competing for the same space and cancelling each other out. A hero cycle in its own right, but a dark reflection of the classic male cycle. Possibly misogynistic, but the overt anti-feminism could easily be avoided and the result would’ve been less offensive than what did occur.

Zym fights Conan while standing over the chained peril-monkey. If you want to get deep over this bit of symbolism, we have the two warring sides of manhood slapping big swords together above a bleeding (i.e. fertile) woman whose legs are spread open and held there with chains at the bottom of a dark, hot cylindrical pit, and whom Zym plans to force into becoming his wife. 

The woman is reduced to her reproductive functions and the two men, in THE most basic struggle, compete for breeding access. There is no plot here, the narrative has left the building. Zym fights badly, Conan fights as well as usual, Zym is losing. Perhaps there’s one shred of plot hidden in this otherwise inexplicable scene – Zym is using Conan’s father’s sword. If the swords are the male principle here they are masculine violence as well as male reproduction and a phallic method of penetrating enemies and lovers alike.

Not buying this idea? Well, remember Conan’s dad sticks a knife in his wife early on in this film and a baby pops out. The dad educates the boy on becoming a man by telling him how to use his sword not in rage but with a cool head. The sword is a symbol of manhood and fatherhood throughout the film. And don’t forget many male social animals, including humans, bugger subordinate males to make sure their position of dominance is understood. Penetration has a spectrum that goes from love all the way round to hate. In it’s most basic, thoughtless form it’s reduced to an amoral function of the male anatomy. As if men are merely penetration facilitators and penis conveying devices. This is in direct opposition to the lessons Conan’s father tries to teach him and which the unworthy boy has constantly failed to understand. Only now the film sides not with the wise father, but with the hot-headed boy not fit to wield a man’s sword.

Conan’s father’s name is Corin, from the Latin Quirinus, meaning ‘spear’. A weapon even more phallic than a sword.

Oh, and the peril-monkey’s name? Tamara. It means ‘date tree’ and is used in the East to mean ‘fruitful’. When I started writing this I couldn't remember her name, but when I found out what it was I decided not to go back and add it as the actual name is just a label of her purpose and 'peril-monkey' is more accurate.

Zym is much older than Conan. Possibly there’s a sub-text of youthful virility versus old wiliness. A no-nonsense young man in his prime against an old man whose power is not only waning but located in his feminine accomplices. The second Conan/Zym fight scene has several differences: Tamara is incapacitated. Zym fights with Conan’s father’s sword. Zym’s daughter, the sorceress, isn’t there. Zym has gained the blood-filled mask. Zym is in the process of bringing his wife back from the dead.

You’ll perhaps notice all the differences are to do with Zym. He has committed to the womanly world and is unable to effectively wield the sword of transcendent manhood. Conan hasn’t changed one bit. He does what he does and this time gets the advantage. He cuts Tamara’s chains (how is it steel swords are so good at cutting steel chains?) and somehow she falls sideways about twenty feet onto a ledge. From there she gets into a fight with Zym’s daughter.

Zym’s daughter is called Marique (ma-REE-kay). Loosely translated it means “and by sea” (as in ‘terra marique’ meaning ‘by land and sea’). I’ve also seen it translated as ‘wished for’, ‘star of the sea’ and ‘bitterness’. I’m going to go ahead and say this character is a dark wish fulfilled at a terrible cost. Zym wants his wife back from the dead and never gets her, except in the near identical form of his daughter. The mother is called ‘Maliva’. ‘Mal’ means ‘bad’ in Latin. Marique is powerful, dangerous, without mercy and mysterious, like the sea and like many powerful women in classic misogynistic patriarchal myths. She is the independent female principal in this film and she is the enemy. She and her dead mother have unmanned Zym and made him a puppet, but still they aren’t dominant. The women rely on Zym for everything and are nothing without him.

Marique’s claws are prominent. She wields them frequently. Perhaps symbols of her inhumanity and lack of civilised weaponry such as the phallic sword Tamara learns to use. The claws are violent and threatening, but ultimately do nothing but scratch, which is how female power is shown throughout the film – scary and unpredicatable, but nothing to worry about in the end.

Marique, separated from Zym, gets into the inevitable woman versus woman fight and resorts to using her fists, claws and any heavy nearby object in an attempt to bludgeon Tamara. This, remember, is the powerful sorceress with a knowledge of forbidden lore. She can conjure allies from the ground, yet doesn’t. But even now, Tamara doesn’t beat her without help. Conan shows up and chops off the animalistic clawed hand, weakening her, then Tamara kicks her off a ledge where she falls to her death by landing on a big wooden shaft that penetrates her whole body, killing her instantly. Death by penetration for the dark, badly behaved woman.

Zym’s death is pathetic. Standing on a rickety old bridge he boasts of how he now has the power of a god, dangles Tamara the peril-monkey on a chain gripped in Conan’s eversostrong hands and forces him to make the comparison with his father’s death. Zym seems to think he’s put Conan in a position where he can only dramatically and devastatingly fail, but in fact he’s given Conan all the motivation he needs to succeed. Bewilderingly, Zym chooses this moment to summon the spirit of his dead wife into Tamara’s body. Zym knows his daughter is dead so now his only chance of filling the gap left when his wife died is to steal Conan’s woman and replace her soul with Maliva’s. And he does this at the moment Tamara is in the most danger and when her only chance of survival is if Conan taps into his hero powers and goes all badass. Which he of course does. Zym falls to his death when Conan uses his sword to chop away the wood of the bridge they’re standing on. This is a parallel of Corin’s lesson to Conan as a boy while admonishing him for not being ice as well as fire. Perhaps we’re meant to see this as Conan accepting his father’s wisdom, but that isn’t quite what’s happened. Corin chopped the ice from under Conan as a punishment for his foolhardiness. Conan chops the wood from under Zym, copying his father but not in any way adopting warriors’ cunning as a skill of his own. And he does it in anger and revenge, calling on his father’s prediction that Zym would fall. Both men used swords to dish out punishment by the backdoor and make the lesser men fall. Conan didn’t use any new tactics until this moment. This isn’t a boy in a man’s body finally becoming a man in spirit, it’s a male of the light punishing a male of darkness who dared to put womanly ways before the ways of men. Corin is still alpha male, but Conan has shown Zym he’s on the bottom rung. Zym plunges screaming into the dark, and we are left wondering what happened to the god-like powers of the mask Morgan Freeman told us about a couple of hours back.

Conan drops Tamara off at home, then visits the ruins of his village. The remains are still lying about after ten or twenty years as if the attack had only just happened. He finds the mould Corin used to make the sword and he speaks to it as if it was, or was possessed by, his father. We are, I’m sure, meant to assume Conan is now worthy to wield the sword because he avenged his father’s death. Despite the fact he did so hot-headedly and almost entirely without cunning. This should’ve been the moment of reconciliation, the hero-moment when it all pulls together. His goals achieved by becoming ice and fire at the same time, he should’ve transcended the merely masculine and become the true hero that is beyond such limitations. But he didn’t, so instead we have a manly man very much in the ordinary mould. He plunges his father’s sword aggressively into the ground where Corin’s burnt body must be. Is this final penetration the son dominating the father to prove his superior manhood? I can’t see it any other way. Conan leaves the sword there and we cut to the credits. The sword now penetrates his own name on screen. He has, with the final thrust, become the weapon, the phallus. 

Instead of following his father’s path he has destroyed it with his own. The film ends with the journey ongoing, which was surely always part of the plan. The final message is that there will be no character development for Conan. He is a manly man and all who attempt to obscure his path with feminine nonsense will suffer the same fate.

Instead of a hero cycle in the classic form we have a hero loop, the protagonist endlessly travelling the same route to nowhere, enabling film studios to churn out more of the same if they see a profit in it. But of course such tales hold little interest and people don’t clamour for more of them. The initial spectacle wears off and a planned sequel is shelved. In this case the ‘sequel’ due to be released in 2014 ignores the whole film and instead uses the 1982 far superior Schwarzenegger film as it’s backstory.

And that says it all.

No comments:

Post a Comment