Oh Conan Yes!: Defending the new movie

Went and saw the new Conan movie last night and it was amazing!

Okay so number one a lot of people have been calling the Schwarzenegger movie a classic and “How could they redo it?” and on and on and on. So let me just say I own the first movie on DVD along with Red Sonja. So don’t try to bullshit me into this world where the original Conan is some amazing bit of film. It is camp, high camp (as if any movie with Arnold could be anything but) and not even James Earl Jones turns it into some amazing bit of art. And if I’m remembering correctly everyone dies in that version, Conan comes out the other side but not many other allies survive. Nostalgia can be a powerful thing and I like the original film but come on.

Now on to the new film. Will contain spoilers:

#1 It’s bloody, like really bloody as a good Conan movie should be. He is a warrior and in the first scenes when he’s still a child there’s a sequence that involves a mountain, an egg, bandits and HEADS. I LOVED IT. It was traumatizing and awesome in all the best ways. It’s Conan, if you expected kittens and puppies you came to the wrong movie. In fact as a child he cuts the nose of someone. This comes back around later as an adult it made me cringe and hide my face a bit but I expected that from this movie.

#2 People of Color abound! Yes, Jason Momoa is presented as the child of two very white folks but um…he’s clearly not. And yes there is the growly black man on the evil side who I don’t think speaks at all but there is also Conan’s black best friend who may fall into some of the traps of that sort of POC sidekick archetype but to me not the most horrible ones. Also their relationship is presented as a friendship not a subservient relationship.

The City of Thieves which seems to be populated by exclusively vaguely Middle-Eastern people is a problem but the thing is? They’re not actually presented in a bad light. Conan goes to one for assistance and the man risks his life to help because he owes Conan. The thieves and pirates (of which Conan is one) are presented as honorable in comparison with “civilized” men who enslave their neighbors. They have codes and respect. Does this make it less problematic, not really. It is however still quite a bit better than the dark skinned evil hordes who get cut down by the dozen that we usually get in these types of films.

(It’s truly unfortunate that the only images that come up for Tamara in Conan is either her chained up, looking over her shoulder or the actress in a bathing suit. I wish they had some of her asking to stay, fight and defend her home or killing folks with her dagger.)

#3 The Women know how to fight and not just once the hero shows them how. The female protagonist (Tamara) is shown disarming a warrior in one of her first scenes. And yes she has trouble lifting a heavy sword later but she kills two men with it and never shows remorse or guilt or has an “Oh My God, what did I do moment?”. In fact as the pirates cheer she smiles along with them. Also there are a couple nameless female fighters who show up in the evil army and I enjoyed that we had women in the evil army without commentary. It was just a fact that the women fought.

The evil daughter is an issue. I found her sort of awesome but I’ve always been sympathetic to decadent, depraved villains. It was camp, and played to the hilt as it had to be. With the hair and costume they have her in how could it be anything else? When she tries to seduce her father my friends and I started yelling at the screen. We were invested in it and it was over the top for sure but it worked for us.

Also she has power. It’s she who finds the pieces of the mask for her father, she who tracks shit down for him, who helps him win his battles. And she can fight, granted it’s Freddy Krueger style with her metal claws but she’s also shown wielding a sword at one point.

Now back to the beginning. Conan and his friends free some slaves and the women slaves are all barebreasted. However they don’t act ashamed of it and attention isn’t really drawn to it with the cinematography. In fact it took my friends and I a few minutes to realize all the women were topless. Still problematic I know but again not nearly as bad as women’s roles usually go in Sword & Sorcery.

I really liked that there was no hint of sexualized violence in the movie. The only sex scenes were completely consensual. Even when Tamara is captured by the evil army there’s no hint of it from the soldiers who grab her (one of whom she manages to kill before they take her down). There are no threats of it, no looks even that I saw and I enjoyed that. Also after she gets loose she’s smart enough to wrap the remaining bit of chains from her manacles around her wrist as a shield/weapon to fight the evil daughter.

#4 Barbarian culture was shown as just that – barbarian culture. There was no hint of Conan being stupid which some of the adaptions and derivatives can fall into. Barbarians are not “uncivilized” (whatever that means) but of a different culture. They have a different cultural perspective and upbringing which results in different ideals such as Conan’s penchant for freeing slaves because, “No man should live in chains.” There’s at least a little thought put into cultural difference here which I very much liked and rarely see.

And to combine this with the point above there’s a scene when Conan and Tamara are on his ship and she’s dressed in replacement clothes. He walks past her and say “You look like a harlot.” Problematic and misogynistic, yes. The interesting part is when he gets more direct. “Cimmerian women dress for battle.” He turns to his friend. “Get her leathers and armor.” Now this doesn’t make the approach less of an issue but the fact that they framed it as a cultural misstep? That he is used to women who are armed and armored was I thought a really interesting place to take it.

Also and this spoiler will be in white so highlight if you want to read: all the POC and women allies of Conan, FUCKING SURVIVE TO THE END OF THE FILM, HALLELUJAH! Also despite the sex that Conan and Tamara have there is no crying at their parting, they both walk away to their duty happy to have spent time together. Wow for an adult sexual relationship! Yes, I could have done with a little less screaming from Tamara throughout the film but overall I loved it.

Is it an instant classic? No, but I found it truer to the Robert E. Howard writings than the Schwarzenegger film and it made me want to go back and re-read all the original stories as well. It was chessey and over the top at times but magic was actually used fairly sparingly and for me in particular the pluses outweighed the minuses.

Maybe I went in with somewhat lowered expectations but for a Conan film I was thinking it was going to be all women topless in undies and violence. I went in expecting not a huge amount of characterization (which granted there wasn’t a whole lot) but there fun, action, fights, magic and Conan killing those who deserved it. I went in praying there would be no sexual assault or Women in Refrigerator moments, and lo and behold there wasn’t! So when I got more than that I was actually quite pleased with what it turned out to be. I might even go see it again in the theater and I recommend it and I’ll but it on DVD for sure.

2 responses to “Oh Conan Yes!: Defending the new movie

  1. Hey, thanks for this review!

    I was interested in this movie when it came out because I like Jason Momoa (I think he was wonderful as Khal Drogo on “Game of Thrones” and he actually comes from the same tiny Iowa town as me!! So exciting), but the review of it I saw was bad, so I didn’t bother seeing it in theaters.

    I’m totally renting it, though; I’ve seen the original, too, and from your review this one sounds like an improvement.

  2. I agree the new one was more like the books.

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