Growing up in the 1980s was a pretty good deal for sci-fi movie fans. The epochal success of Star Wars led to a glut of knock-offs, wannabes, and bandwagon jumpers. The quality of these efforts ran the full gamut, from B-grade baloney (Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone) to unexpectedly witty throwaways (The Last Starfighter) to competent space opera (Star Trek II) to indelible, haunting visions (Blade Runner). There was a lot to sift through, a lot to feed a hungry and not too discerning imagination.
Not quite so with sword and sorcery. Though popular fantasy literature exploded in the wake of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, relatively few tales of wizards, dragons, and derring-do made it to the silver screen. Those of us for whom Dungeons & Dragons was a regular habit, and who yearned to vacation in the fantastic realm of Middle Earth or similar destinations, had little to satisfy us at the movie house. One might have thought that the phenomenal success of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films would have altered this, but there hasn't been a comparable avalanche to what followed Star Wars. Fantasy die-hards still find themselves forced to pick and choose from among a limited selection of films, and often must embrace flawed movies that contain a few scenes capturing the essence of this genre's appeal.
I've been a sucker for fantasy for as long as I can remember, yet it's hard to articulate precisely why. It would be easy to chalk it up to straightforward wish-fulfillment, I suppose -- the nerdy boy projecting his personality into the hulking, indomitable barbarian or the nigh-omnipotent wizard, that sort of thing -- but personally I never identified much with most fantasy heroes, with the possible exception of Rings's ambivalent, physically weak, eternally exhausted protagonist Frodo, who only succeeds in reaching his destination because he has friends loyal enough to drag him there. That's something I can relate to. More central to the genre's fascination, I always felt, was the way it projected me into a pre-modern world, a world denuded of cars and telephones and Saran Wrap and insurance forms and sample ballots. My older brother used to complain about the "little bits of paper" that swarm around you in modern life and seem to stifle your every impulse, death from a thousand papercuts. Fantasy clears away all that mundane bric-a-brac and presents a world of landscapes, of grand gestures, of imposing architecture, and of limitless powers as nebulous and instinctual as thought. That much fantasy is politically regressive (all that yearning for monarchy!) and psychologically simplistic is at right angles to its appeal. Viewed cinematically, it's also uniquely capable of inspiring and sustaining the imagination of art directors, special-effects technicians, and costume designers in a way that few others genres can offer.
If fantasy cinema has always had a bumpy ride of it, there are some gems all the same. Two of those gems, flawed though they unquestionably be, are John Milius's Conan the Barbarian and Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf. Though never exactly critical darlings, both films have much to recommend them, and I find them more personally congenial than the Jackson Ring films (though I have a great deal of respect for those yeoman efforts to film the nigh-unfilmable). I like the scrappy, violent, trashy, no-nonsense quality of both films -- their essential lack of pomp and pretense -- and I particularly admire their success in creating genuinely pre-modern heroes, heroes who seem to exist entirely outside any awareness of modern political, racial, cultural, or sexual sensibility. I think it's very difficult for modern filmmakers to avoid infecting their work with the modernism that dwells in their own bones, and when this is achieved, I tip my hat.
I should admit up front that I'm not a devoted fan of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories, though I've read some of them and enjoy Howard's muscular prose, swift plotting, and fecund imagination. Many Howard purists reject the Conan film altogether because it is not true to the spirit of the original stories. I don't particularly dispute that claim, but to me it's largely irrelevant; my concern is whether a film works on its own terms, regardless of the source material. Conan, unexpectedly, does. The film is impossible to separate from its central casting; this is the first time that the Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger -- probably the most improbable star in the history of Hollywood -- found a role that suited him. His Conan may be nothing like "the real Conan" -- whatever that is -- but he takes on a legitimate reality of his own. It's an unexpectedly good performance -- Schwarzenegger plays Conan as a perpetual innocent, always wide-eyed, always trying to figure things out, and always hewing to a childishly simple moral code. We may laugh at his accent, but who else could do a better job delivering a line like "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women?" I find it unfortunate that some people insist on appreciating this film, and this performance, solely as camp. Sure, there's a lot here that may fairly be called "cheesy," in the special effects, the costume design, and so forth. But the two lead performances -- Schwarzenegger and James Earl Jones as the villain Thulsa Doom (he's worth every penny they paid him) -- are overwhelmingly charismatic; the dialogue catches a genuinely archaic tone without slipping into quasi-Shakespearean ornateness; and Basil Poledouris's superlative score, with its rumbling drums and cacophonous horns, glues the whole improbable business together.
Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Subotai (Gerry Lopez) discuss theology
I have endless affection for the tiny scene, early in the film, when Conan and his new friend Subotai (surfer Gerry Lopez) sit by a campfire and discuss the gods they worship. The scene's brevity and simplicity are utterly disarming. There's such a light touch here that the male-bonding rituals in a million buddy pictures feel heavy-handed and clumsy by comparison. Conan's unquestioning devotion to his rather unpleasant god Crom -- who will "cast me out of Valhalla and laugh at me" if he doesn't solve the Riddle of Steel -- is touching. The following scene, in which the two heroes run across a wide horizon, seeking adventure just over the next rise, captures the essential appeal of heroic fantasy as well as anything I've ever seen in movies.
Zemeckis's adaptation of Beowulf earned a mixed critical response when it hit theaters a few years back. I fear it's not going to age well, at least in some ways: the motion capture and CG work already looks pretty crude in today's post-Avatar world, and there's little question that Beowulf and his fellow Anglo Saxon badasses dwell deep within the Uncanny Valley. Still, I love that Zemeckis and screenwriters Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman really tried to catch the tone of a piece of pre-modern heroic epic poetry. I haven't anywhere the literary background to discuss Beowulf, the poem, intelligently, nor to place it meaningfully within the context of Western literature. But the extent to which it seems genuinely alien to modern eyes -- to which it seems to blazon out to us from within the murky depths of the so-called Dark Ages, from an age when the limits of the possible were not known, when rumor could bloom to myth, when law's grasp was tenuous and the strength of arm (and arms) usually carried the day -- is something I've felt deeply since first turning its leaves in a high school English Lit class. The psychology, preoccupations, and attitudes of its characters are so distant that it can require a real effort of imagination to get into them. I'm grateful that Zemeckis et al. made the effort. Beowulf's hero is a bully, a braggart, a man without an ounce of introspection or psychological subtlety -- a man of action in the purest sense of the term. As voiced and motion-capture-acted by Ray Winstone, he's pure ego, interested in glory for glory's sake, not particularly nice, and about as sensitive as a lump of wood. Never once does he wink out at us from the shroud of intervening centuries and layers of myth and seem to say, "it's okay, I'm really one of you." He would be as absurd in our world as we would be in his.
Credit, also, to the two major action setpieces in Beowulf -- the battle against Grendel in the mead-hall, and the climactic fight against a dragon, as the aging Beowulf summons the strength to defend his kingdom one last time. Both of these sequences are inventive in the logistics they put into play -- and good logistics, a sense of genuine (if exaggerated) physical forces at play, and creativity and quick-thinking used to overcome or exploit them, are, I've always felt, key to the success of any action sequence. Cause and effect must follow in ways that don't seem to be cheating. The dragon fight is more over-the-top, and perhaps pushes the envelope a bit further than it needs to; but the Grendel battle is, in its way, almost restrained. It puts to us the question of how a normal-sized man, however heroic, might actually do damage to a vengeful monster four times his size. The solution pretty much makes sense. That Beowulf is stark naked the whole time -- his private bits obscured through a series of hilariously framed shots that take a page out of Austin Powers's book -- only adds to the swaggering bravado of the whole experience.
Did you solve the Riddle of Steel or are you just happy to see me?
Neither Conan nor Beowulf is a great film; their flaws are legion. But I consider them both essential movies for the diehard fantasy devotee. They allow us for a while to escape Over There, to that improbable and incoherent realm where Feats of Strength, quasi-Nietzchean palaver, and wide landscapes unmarred by telephone poles, reign supreme.