Is Conan the Barbarian a Superior Reboot of Apocalypse Now?

We find ourselves in a small village out in the countryside. Tomorrow it will not exist. An army approaches, an invincible juggernaut bearing down on a tiny community of people who have no idea that their way of life is about to come to an end. The villagers are not pacifists. Indeed, they are a martial race with warrior gods, a nation of people who are skilled in the use of arms, a civilization that has survived for hundreds of years, perhaps since the beginning of recorded history, and they put up a brave resistance, but they have no chance. The invading army has not only has caught them off guard, they attack with a ruthless efficiency that makes the outcome all but inevitable, the slaughter merely a formality. At the end of it all, we meet the invading army’s commanding general, a cruel sociopathic man with no mercy or compassion, a would be god who sees the defeated villagers as an inferior species of animal put on earth for his sadistic pleasure. Genocide is just another day at the beach.

Which scene from which movie am I talking about?

a.) The helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now?

b.) The opening of Conan the Barbarian?

In 1975, a 30 year old director and screenwriter named John Milius, a far right wing California surfer dude who had, quite predictably, avoided military service in Vietnam, and just as predictably developed a deep admiration for the United States Marine Corps, broke into Hollywood with The Wind and the Lion, a deeply confused movie about Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, a Berber Chieftain in Morocco, played by Sean Connery, who kidnaps an American woman played by Candace Bergen, and holds her and her children hostage for reasons that we can never quite figure out. The historical Raisuli kidnapped an American businessman and held him hostage until a very specific list of demands was met. In The Wind and the Lion, which opens up with a cavalry raid very much like the one that opens Conan, Milius seems more interested in the romance of the North African way of life, and its reflection in Teddy Roosevelt, America’s “rough rider” President, than in any kind of political agenda. Milius would later go onto direct the paranoid, right wing cult classic Red Dawn, which, and I hope your starting to see the pattern, opens with a surprise attack on a small town in Colorado by a ruthless, genocidal host (this time Russians).

While John Milius is listed along with Francis Ford Coppola is the co-writer of Apocalypse Now, it is unclear which man was the driving force behind the iconic helicopter attack. What’s not unclear is that it’s by far the best sequence in what is in many ways an overblown, confused mess. I think most people would agree that after Robert Duvall exits stage right after declaring that “Charlie don’t surf” the film dearly misses his presence. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s short novel Heart of Darkness, which re-imagined King Leopold’s genocide as a journey into the heart of European arrogance and hypocrisy, Apocalypse Now has two big problems. The first is that the motivations of Captain Williard, the lead character played by a rather glum Martin Sheen — who had a heart attack during the film’s production — are never entirely clear. Unlike Conrad’s alter ego Marlowe, Williard, a CIA operative charged with assassination a rogue counterinsurgency officer played by Marlon Brando, has no consistent point of view. He accepts the mission out of some deep need to be a part of a CIA black op, but unlike Colonel Kilgore, the wonderfully insane “Air Cavalry” commander played by Duvall, he doesn’t seem to enjoy death and destruction for its own sake. He has no real axe to grind with Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, the rogue Green Beret played by Marlon Brando who established himself along the Cambodian border and set himself up as a demigod over a cult of native admirers. Indeed, he even wonders why the army even wants Kurtz dead.

The second problem is Marlon Brando himself, who phones in a performance so lazy and uninspired he seems to be making fun of us. At least when Orson Welles did wine commercials because he needed the money he put in a halfway credible day’s work.

My guess is that both the liberal Coppola and the reactionary Milius would have liked to have made Apocalypse Now from the point of view of the Vietnamese communists, those incredibly brave warriors who defeated both the French and the American empire in less than two decades. Both men, however, liked to play with big budgets and expensive military hardware. The helicopter attack was only possible because Ferdinand Marcos, the anti-communist dictator of the Philippines donated the helicopters and the pilots. Had Brando not been such a fat, lazy cunt and actually decided to act instead of just mumble, his portrayal of Kurtz might have emerged as a loosely fictionalized dramatization of Pol Pot, the genocidal, and by the way American supported, dictator in Cambodia who transformed an ancient civilization into a death cult that put Jim Jones to shame. Instead we are left with a film that is brilliant in many of its individual scenes, the USO show that turns into a riot, the emergence of Williard as a war criminal willing to shoot a teenage girl through the head rather than risk a mission he doesn’t really believe in, the lurid night combat along the Cambodian border, but a story that never quite comes together as a whole, 3 hours sailing up a far off river, not into the heart of the American darkness to confront an evil, but charismatic cult leader, but into one of the worst performances a great actor ever gave in his career.

Conan the Barbarian, over which John Milius had complete control after cutting out Oliver Stone from the film’s production, presents no such problems. While nobody would rank Milius on the same level as Francis Ford Coppola, there’s no question that the man knows how to make an engaging movie. What’s more, by recasting the Vietnamese as a fictionalized tribe of northern Europeans, and Captain Williard as Conan, an Aryan superman played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Milius removes all of the irritatingly self-indulgent ambiguity from the plot. The helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now ends with a picnic on a Vietnamese beach while an insane American army officer enjoys “the smell of napalm in the morning.” The raid that closes the opening scene in Conan the Barbarian ends with Thulsa Doom, played by an inspired James Earl Jones, decapitating Conan’s mother right in front of his eyes. From that moment on we know that Conan will eventually seek his revenge and if lucky kill the man who destroyed his people and murdered his mother out of no real motivation other than the urge to play God. What’s more, while Apocalypse Now tells us that Brando’s Kurtz managed to found a suicidal death cult in the jungles of Cambodia, we never really get to see much. In fact that idea is vaguely racist. Brando shows no real charisma or even desire to establish his rule. We’re simply expected to assume that any moderately talented white man can simply wander into a country that beat both the French and American empires and trick the people into worshiping him as a God.

No such problem exists with James Earl Jones, who I might venture to say is a better actor than the overrated Brando and who was at the height of his powers in the early 1980s. Thulsa Doom, a black man who rules over an adoring cult of dumb, white suicidal hippies, a cult that recalls both Manson and Jim Jones, enjoys every moment of his godlike power, and Jones clearly relishes the part. When Jones can’t help by laugh at Schwarzenegger’s thick German accent, he somehow manages to transform the gaff into such a vivid depiction of evil enjoying itself for being evil, that Milius simply kept it in the film’s theatrical release. When Schwarzenegger finally beheads Thulsa Doom in front of a crowd of Doom’s adoring slaves, he not only liberates all of those dumb fuck white hippies from their fate as air-headed human sacrifice, he avenges his beautiful young mother, played by the long forgotten German actress Nadiuska, who makes such a vivid impression as a courageous woman defending her child against pure evil in only a few minutes of screen time it’s hard to imagine why she never had a more extensive career.

In Conan the Barbarian, not only does the Aryan superman Arnold Schwarzenegger become the avenging angel of a small nation ravaged by a genocidal dictator, the heroic Vietnamese communist who defeats the American Empire, the black man James Earl Jones becomes the face, and above all the voice, of European colonialism, and ultimately civilization. In an interview with Dick Cavett back in the 1970s, Jones once expressed a desire to play Ludwig Van Beethoven. Cavett’s, genteel racist audience laughed uncomfortably at the idea, but in retrospect, James Earl Jones in his 30s or 40s would have made an ideal Beethoven, an actor truly able to express the massive, revolutionary passion Beethoven managed to channel into his music. Who cares about his race? Beethoven doesn’t belong to Germany, or to Europe, he belongs to the world. Jones would, of course, go onto play one of the most iconic villains in American cinematic history, the only reason, along with Alec Guinness, for anybody over the age of 25 to see Star Wars. While our culture would probably be better off had the entire Star Wars franchise never existed, Jones’s portrayal of the “Jedi Knight” turned to the dark side of the force is a better dramatization of the central idea of Heart of Darkness, the man of superior culture and technology setting himself up as a genocidal god, than Apocalypse Now. It’s just too bad Jones never got a chance to play the liberating impulses of western civilization embodied by Beethoven as well as he got to play an evil space wizard in a silly children’s movie.

4 thoughts on “Is Conan the Barbarian a Superior Reboot of Apocalypse Now?”

  1. Contending parties, heavily armed, each possessed with absolute belief systems.

    “If it made sense,it wouldn’t be a religion, see?”
    Nuns On The Run

  2. You reminded me of my disappointment with “Avatar” – remember the blue people? The invasion and military destruction at the climax made me angry at the entirely “normal” ending of a “US Cavalry” indigenous massacre. I thought something radically different was going to happen – what a letdown.

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