Monday, October 7, 2019

Excalibur


I have seen this many times described as a Sword & Sorcery film, and while I am certain the comparison was not made with any kind of rigorous definition in mind, I think it bears consideration. Released in 1981, the film had been in development for over a decade, with director John Boorman planning it as early as 1969. The script he initially came up with, and the film he proposed, were deemed too long and too costly, and instead the studio, United Artists, told him to do a Lord of the Rings movie. He worked on that while shopping his King Arthur project around, and supposedly some of the set designs developed for the Tolkien film were ultimately used for this.

It shows, in that Excalibur is a completely fantastical version of the Arthurian legends. There is not a single nod to any kind of historical accuracy of any kind. The opening titles proclaim the setting is “The Dark Ages”, but the knights wear shiny plate armor that was not in use until the 15th century. The weapons used are a stew of anachronistic styles, and there are no recognizable English landmarks to be seen. The world of the movie seems to consist purely of primordial forests and mysterious castles. No doubt budget considerations prevented them from showing a period town or city, but it works in creating a purely fantastical mood lifted right from the legends.

Combining the shining armor, deep green woodlands, blood, and naked flesh together under the lush cinematography creates a primal and lurid landscape for the story. It seems to come bursting out of the screen in rich colors and dreamlike settings, grounded by the gritty, dirty details and the sometimes graphic violence. Far from a polite fairy tale, Excalibur is carnal and passionate epic, bursting with the larger-than-life characters of the stories we all know so well, seeming to distill them down to an archetypical essence.

Magic, represented in the film by an otherworldly green glow, is very much present, and depicted as a dangerous, unknowable power. Morgana tells Merlin she is a “creature like him”, setting magic as an inborn power, usable only by a few, who are thus not exactly human. Magic wields great power, but is highly dangerous, even to those who use it, and it is Morgana’s unrestrained use of that power which leads to her downfall

The moral landscape of the film could be argued almost endlessly, because while the characters within the world believe in absolute good and evil, the universe itself seems to reflect no such axis. The flawed characters, tormented by failures and driven by passions and oaths, struggle to live up to the standards they set and create, very few of them managing to do so. Even Lancelot – the paragon of virtue and knightly grace – is shown to fail, tortured by his love for Guenevere and the conviction that he has failed his friend and king. All of the characters, even relatively flat ones like Mordred, get little moments that add layers, and when the movie has a chance to out and out confirm the existence of God, it veers off and leaves us with more questions than answers.

The acting comes across as quite stagey now, and that’s because Boorman cast mostly unknowns who came from the theater, and so their style was markedly different from the more naturalistic acting then coming to dominate mainstream cinema. It works because the dialogue is also quite elevated, having much more to do with Elizabethan speech than anything modern. This is another divergence from S&S, as while the prose in Sword & Sorcery stories is often elevated, the speech usually is not, in line with the express lower class origins of the characters and the genre.

It is in the realm of symbolism that the film diverges most from a Sword & Sorcery tale, as Excalibur is highly symbolic, while S&S rarely bothers with overt kinds of symbolism. It is telling how the armor in the film begins as dark and dented at the beginning, during the civil wars that divide the land, and then becomes shiny and gleaming during the height of Arthur’s reign. Later, as the knights vanish in the quest for the grail, their armor becomes slimed with mud and dented by years of ill-repair. Percivals’ retrieval of the grail itself is almost entirely symbolic, causing him to shed his armor, emerge from the water, and cross a drawbridge to claim it from a disembodied voice that asks him riddles.

The truth is that Excalibur is not a Sword & Sorcery movie, really, but rather an adaptation of one of the prime sources of inspiration for the form. Myths and legends influenced and drove the kinds of adventure and fantastical literature that served as the bread and butter for Howard, Moorcock, Smith and Leiber. Tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Roland inspired the likes of Talbot Mundy, H. Rider Haggard, and Robert Louis Stevenson to invent the stories of adventure that would go on to sow the seeds from which new kinds of fantasy would spring in later years.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Wings of Thunder


They flew by day, for they had learned that the hunters saw better by night. Tathar led his people through the rugged hill lands, skulking through the misty skies and lairing in hidden rifts and vales by night. Under the red sun they haunted the edges of the crags and cliffsides, seeking the wake of the sea beast as it swam along the great estuary. They hunted it, following always from a distance as it moved west. Tathar sensed a purpose in its motion. It had a destination, and he thought he had some thought of what that might be.

Sometimes the water was too shallow, and it moved overland, lumbering on great, clawed feet, leaving a trail across the earth that could be seen for miles. When it moved from the water it grew wary, and they had to follow from a distance, watchful of the spiral of hunting beasts that rose above it. Tathar wondered if those were its own young, and whether each winged beast might someday grow so immense. It seemed impossible – surely the world could not encompass so many behemoths.

Now Tathar flew ahead beneath a lowering sky and the dim glow of the copper sun. The beast was moving to the north, making way for the deeper waters of the sea, but Tathar wanted to know what its purpose might be. Everywhere through the civilized parts of the empire they had seen pillars of smoke and marks of pillage and death. Kurux had loosed all his war power to bring chaos upon the world, tormenting even his own empire for no purpose save terror and slaughter.

Zakai’s wings left trails of mist threaded through the cold air as he and Suara flew ahead to scout the way. They saw a last barrier of sharp-edged cliffs and then the land turned green and gentle, sloping downward to the north. Tathar knew that long slope led to the waters of the Numarean Passage – the long thread of the sea that led past the Black City and in the west opened out into the Sea of Azar.

They flew onward, the birds glad of the open sky, and Tathar was pleased to look on the green, tree-covered hills rolling below. It was pleasant country, if stony and all but useless for farmland. They swept down over the hills and through layers of fog until they saw the sea, dark and rolling slow beneath the sky. And there, filling the waters, was an armada of ships with crimson sails billowing, and Tathar knew what the thing from the sea was coming to do.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Dragonslayer


The runaway success of Star Wars in 1977 kicked off a wave of SF and Fantasy films that carried through the 80s, as the studios learned that visual effects had matured to the point that they could serve as a major selling point of a film, and the phenomenon of the “effects blockbuster” was born. The original Conan the Barbarian was a part of this wave, even though in the end it was pretty light on VFX. Oliver Stone’s original script had been much more fantastical and monster-heavy.

Another product of this wave was Dragonslayer, a strange little film that has become kind of a cult classic – mostly due to nostalgia from people who saw it when they were kids. A joint production between Paramount and Disney, the move was part of a short-lived venture whereby the big D sought to bankroll films through other studios as an outlet for more mature subjects. The only other result of this pairing was – believe it or not – Popeye, and when neither that movie nor this one made any money, the whole thing fell apart, probably leading to the formation of Touchstone pictures a few years later.

Written and directed by Matthew Robbins, who was a friend of George Lucas from his film school days, Dragonslayer tells a story that is part archetypical, and partly tries to subvert expectations, and doesn’t manage either that well. A dragon is menacing a kingdom, the people hold a lottery to choose virgins to sacrifice to it twice a year to appease it, and then some of the people send a delegation to find a wizard to come kill it. The wizard Ulrich dies almost before his journey begins, and we follow his apprentice, Galen, as he tries to carry out his master’s last quest.

As Galen, Peter MacNicol is a strange choice of leading man. Short, fuzzy-haired, and just kind of odd-looking, he doesn’t radiate any kind of danger or intelligence, and it is telling that the rest of his career saw him settle in as a comedic character actor, most memorable as the camp director in Addams Family Values. He’s just miscast, and the script seems to mostly use him for humor. In another subversion of tropes, he doesn’t even kill the dragon, but instead Ulrich is conveniently resurrected to battle the beast himself, dying again in the battle.

The movie, overall, is darker than expected, and just has a nice amount of grit. There is blood and killing, some nudity, and the world has a grimy, lived-in look that resembles Excalibur more than a little – though that film had only come out a few months earlier. We get some rather gruesome shots of one of the dragon’s victims being devoured by her young, and overall the movie’s world is depicted as unfriendly and dangerous, which gives it a bit of gravitas that the lead actors don’t lend. A lot of the performers had extensive stage backgrounds, and so there is just a rather formal, artificial quality to the acting.

The real star of the movie, obviously, is the dragon himself – or herself, as there are young, so the grandly named Vermithrax Pejorative is apparently a she. Only glimped in part through most of the film, the dragon, when she finally emerges, is one of the most stunning achievements in creature VFX prior to the age of CGI. Graphic artist Dave Bunnett created the design, which was realized by Brian Johnson – who also supervised effects on Alien and Empire Strikes Back, among other films. The standout sequences where the beast was moving in full view were done by Phil Tippett using “go-motion”, which used a computer-controlled model to move synchronized with the camera exposure, allowing for a much more realistic look, without the jerkiness of stop-motion. Effects legend Ken Ralston created the flying sequences, giving the dragon a speed and deadliness in the air other flying monsters lacked.

It is in the underground scenes, where the dragon is fully revealed more than an hour into the 109-minute movie, that the film really takes hold. The lair is a flame-lit nightmare underworld, filled with steam, burning water, and dripping slime, and then there comes the beast herself, looking more real than any other movie monster ever had. It takes the movie a while to get to the dragon, but when they do, they are not shy about using it.

The pacing of the movie is slow, and the tone wanders around quite a lot, as though the filmmakers were not quite sure what kind of film they were making. It has elements of awkward comedy as well as a strong atmosphere of horror, and the dragon is never depicted as anything but terrifying. Still, it contains one of the great achievements in practical creature effects, and in its depiction of a morally compromised, dangerous world beset by inhuman forces, it is a kind of Sword & Sorcery film without a real Sword & Sorcery hero at the center of it.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Sea of Iron


With dawn a heavy mist rose off the waters, and Shath’s armies moved through it as they followed the ancient road down to the place called the Iron Narrows. Here the land that lay on the north and south banks of the straits grew close to one another, and the crossing was shortest. Here armies had crossed since before the memory of the histories, and here he would move from the western wilderlands of the imperial territory to the heartland itself.

The earth trembled as his riders moved down to the shore and spread out, seeking for any sign of scouts or ambush. In his train came prisoners dragging the war engines he had captured at the pass, and even more behind carried the scraps and pieces his army had brought together for just this purpose. Shath had no ships, no way to ferry his armies across, and his armored warriors could not swim the channel. For weeks now they had gathered every scrap of wood or debris they could seize so that they might build a crossing of their own.

The Narrows were not deep, but the waters were treacherous, for the seabed was still thick with the remnants of another age, and so jagged spines of corroded metal jutted up from the water like teeth or like the fleshless ribs of some vanished creature. When Shath looked upon it, some vision seemed to flicker before his eyes and show him an immense bridge spanning the crossing, rearing higher above him than he would have believed, held up by massive pillars of stone braced with the ageless metal that was stronger than steel.

He shook his vision off and looked to the east, where the waters vanished in the mist-laden distance. This was the only place where an army such as his might cross, and so he knew Kurux would be a fool to allow him to make the transit uncontested. Shath despised the emperor, but he did not make the mistake of thinking him foolish or weak. He would send a strong force to try and turn Shath back, and as he saw no sign of such a force, he was suspicious.

Still, he gave the command, and his men went down to the shore. They began lashing together the rafts of logs and scrap wood that would make the backbone of their bridge. The waters were calm this time of year, and the iron beams thrusting out of the sea would serve as anchor points. They would lash together a bridge made from whatever they had to hand, and with it his entire force could cross in a day, perhaps two.

Once they were on the bridge, he knew his men would be terribly vulnerable – easily spilled off into the waters to be scattered and drowned. Perhaps the emperor waited to attack when they were strung out and at their weakest. That would be the best plan, and so he feared it.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Kull the Conqueror


Is this the worst adaptation of a Howard character? The argument could be made, although Conan the Destroyer was pretty fucking bad too, and Red Sonja was no masterpiece, although one could say that one only sort of counts as a Howard character. The so-called Kull the Conqueror represents the pernicious influence of the De Laurentiis family taken to its logical extreme.

In retrospect, it really seems that the effectiveness of the original Conan was kind of a fluke, brought about by the vision of John Milius and his refusal to compromise it. He may not have been that faithful to the original character, but at least he had guts. The sequel displays more of the De Laurentiis’ desire to dumb the stories down, make them bloodless and family-friendly, and pay almost no attention to the source material. And here, with no one to stop her, Rafaella De Laurentiis finally got her way and produced this piece of crap.

This movie started life as the intended third Schwarzenegger film, to be an adaptation of The Hour of the Dragon and to be titled Conan the Conqueror. However, after the whole debacle of Red Sonja, Schwarzenegger was disgusted with the mishandling of the franchise and refused to come back, as his contract was up. Rather than recast the iconic role, the De Laurentiis camp simply had the script rewritten to become a Kull story. That’s something that could actually have been done well, as the stories about Kull and Conan dealing with life on the throne and plots to depose them are kind of similar.

It’s not done well here. As usual, there is almost no resemblance to any actual Howard story except for a few bits here and there. There are some plot points borrowed from “A Witch Shall Be Born” and Hour of the Dragon. The main villain, Akivasha, shares a name with the undead princess Conan encounters in Hour, but nothing else about them is the same. Mostly the script is just a pile of half-assed cliches and stupid, declarative dialogue tying together a standard fantasy quest story where Kull has to go to point A to get plot item B and thus overcome the poorly-defined villain.

The look of the movie could certainly be worse. Shot on locations in Slovakia and Croatia, they took advantage of some nice-looking castles to add a good bit of production value, and some of the matte paintings and miniatures are not half-bad. The costuming is significantly better than what we got in the 2011 Conan, though the wigs are not better, and so almost everyone looks ridiculous with bad, poofy hair all over the place.

The casting is pretty much a disaster, and a lot of it is because the director, John Nicolella, was a TV guy and so he cast TV-level talent. Sorbo was well-known at the time for the Hercules TV series, and he plays pretty much the same character here, with his stupid SoCal accent and smirking expression. Native rapper Litefoot is bland in a bland part, and Karina Lombard is blank and boring as ever. We also have to discuss the fact that Harvey Fierstein shows up for really no reason. The only person who seems to be having any fun here is Tia Carrere as the villainous Akivasha. In an outrageous red wig and some over-the-top outfits she preens and prowls her way through every scene, chewing the set like it was made of cookies. She’s honestly the best part of the movie.

The real problem, besides the bad script, is that the director is a TV director, and he shoots this like it was a TV movie. The fight scenes are a disgrace, and he was actually proud of the fact that there is no blood to be seen. Zero. The pacing is sluggish, the “action” is dull, and the dialogue is embarrassing. The really sad part is that even considering that this cost $20 million to make, it does not look appreciably worse than the 2011 movie, which cost north of $90 million.

So this movie represents what Raffaella De Laurentiis always wanted a Conan movie to be: broad, filled with slapstick humor and with zero blood or gore to be seen. They already tried this crap on Conan the Destroyer and the movie made less than a third of the original’s $100 million take, now this movie was even more family-friendly and made only $22 million worldwide. You would think that people would wake up after that and realize that to make a successful Howard movie you have to commit to grit and gore and violence, and you have to adhere to the damned source material. And yet here we are, decades later, and Hollywood still can’t figure it out.




Monday, September 2, 2019

Teeth of the Storm


The sky was dark by day, tormented with storms and lit from above by the red blaze of the dying sun. Tathar led his riders into the teeth of the wind, keeping high above the heaviest of it. He had not been this way for many years, and he wanted them to escape notice, for they were very close, now, to the heart of the black imperial power that stretched forth an iron hand over the smoldering earth.

They were not a wing of hunters or warriors, they were a tribe upon the move. Sixteen eagles, each with both rider and passengers seated behind them. Children clung to the leather harnesses, or to their mothers, faces covered against the cold winds. The birds flew slowly, carrying greater weight, and that was another weakness that Tathar feared. If they were caught by the new riders of the emperor on their winged beasts, they would not easily be able to escape.

That was why he flew without anyone to burden him. Zakai was the keenest hunter in the flight, and Tathar the most experienced warrior. If they were found, it would be on him to defend them, to hold back pursuit with the claws of his bird and his thunderlance.

It was that lance that led them onward. He possessed his own, and they had two more taken from slain enemies, but it would not be enough. To be a potent force in a true battle, they must have more. The art of their crafting had been lost, or so Tathar had always believed. Now it seemed there were more than there had been. He knew of one place where there might be some untended, and now he led his people there and hoped he did not lead them to their dooms.

They fought through the gusting winds, and below them the storm grumbled and flashed with sullen lightning. He knew they were close. Before they entered the storm he had taken a sighting and glimpsed the rolling black waves of the sea to their right. The peak he sought was tall enough it would pierce the clouds, and even in the dark Zakai could likely take him there – it was where he had been born.

Monday, August 26, 2019

CENTVRION


This movie almost counts as a lost classic, because it didn’t make much impression when it was released, and has not had the distinction of becoming a cult film, but it really, absolutely deserves to be. It especially should be appreciated by fans of Sword & Sorcery and Howard, because this is, without doubt, the most Howardian movie ever made.

Directed by British filmmaker Neil Marshall in 2010, Centurion is the story of the historical 9th Legion, which vanished sometime in the 2nd century and has long been thought to have been destroyed in some unrecorded military disaster in northern Britain. Since we don’t know for sure what happened, it has been fertile ground for imaginings, with numerous books and films happy to fill in the details history has not left us.

Marshall, director of such gleeful slices of mayhem as Doomsday and The Descent, turns this into a bloody, savage tale of revenge, survival, and treachery laced with gruesome violence and gorgeous cinematography. Shot on location in remote corners of Scotland like Badenoch and Strathspey, the film is filled with desolate vistas of the cold, forbidding Scottish highlands – lands which have remained largely unchanged in the 1800 years since the time depicted in the movie, and still retain their brooding, prehistoric aspect. This lends the look of the film a tremendous authenticity and atmosphere that it otherwise would not have had.


The cast is similarly on-point. Micheal Fassbender gives a commanding, dynamic performance as hero Quintus Dias, and he is joined by a list of fine actors who are all on their game, including several who would go on to greater notoriety. Dominic West is massively charismatic in his role as General Virilus, and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko is mesmerizing as the Pictish huntress Etain. Liam Cunningham (pre-Game of Thrones) turns up, as do Riz Ahmed, Noel Clarke, and Imogen Poots. The characters are sketched out quickly but sharply, mostly showing who they are rather than telling, and everyone is doing good work.

The action scenes are symphonies of violence, not shying away from blood to get a PG-13 nor wallowing in fake-looking CGI gore. The effects are practical, and the battles are a litany of decapitations, slit throats, hacked limbs, and impalements. So many of the fight scenes can be paused at any point you like to reveal a tableau that would stand up as a cover for any given collection of stories about the Romans in Britain. The music, by the great Ilan Eshkeri, deserves special mention, as it is sweeping and dramatic, elevating everything to another level entirely.

Much like Fury Road, Centurion is really one long chase, with the heroes seemingly pursued from one end of Scotland to the other by revenge-driven Pictish warriors. Kurylenko is especially intimidating in her role as the mute huntress who will stop at nothing to catch and destroy her enemies, and who kills and savages men ferally and fearlessly. The script does not slow down much for any philosophizing or brooding, but is instead a steel-edged spear driving straight ahead. It’s a simple setup of men who will do anything to survive pitted against others who will go to any lengths to kill them. It expertly cranks up the tension and largely keeps it cranked. Fassbender as Quintus starts out as a man trying to do his duty and ends up just trying to survive against pitiless odds.


Given how much Howard loved the Picts and how much he wrote about them, this is like a movie he could have written himself. It is very much in the spirit of classic tales like “Worms of the Earth” or “Kings of the Night”, lacking only an overt supernatural element. If it had that, then Centurion would easily be the best Sword & Sorcery movie ever made. Lacking that, it is still the kind of movie Howard himself would have loved, and there is more of his spirit in it than in any movie based on anything he wrote.

Sadly, the film didn’t do much business – mostly due to a lack of marketing and bad reviews by weak-kneed critics who couldn’t handle all the violence. It lost money and caused a major slowdown of Marshall’s directing career, as he wouldn’t helm another film until this year’s Hellboy. Nevertheless, I think Centurion is his best work to date. It’s tight, focused, well-acted, and gorgeous to look at – it’s amazing to me he made a movie that looks this good for just $12 million, when films like the 2011 Conan spent more than seven times that much and came out as bloated crap. If you haven’t seen Centurion, then you should.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Jewel of the Sea


Ashari rose before the dawn, and she went through the rituals of awakening. She bathed and allowed her slaves to oil her copper skin, she polished her horns and her hooves until they shone. She ate a meal of raw meats and sliced fruits, drank deep of honeyed wine, and then she decked herself for battle. Servants brought her golden armor and adorned her with steel and polished bronze. She donned a helm fitted to her rising horns and she buckled on her slender, curved sword.

The sun climbed over the mountains in the east and sent red fire lancing across the sky to touch the towers of Irdru with fire and the color of blood. Ashari left her chambers and went out into the clean air, smelling smoke and the bright taste of the salt sea. She looked out to the north and saw the endless waves rolling and falling in on themselves. There lay horizons no one had transgressed, and unknown lands far from the threat of war.

Then she turned south and looked out over the beautiful city she had found and taken and polished until it gleamed like a jewel on the edge of the waters. Over the gleaming black streets and the slender, delicate towers. She looked over temples and domes and the brilliant white walls to the shadows of the savannah beyond, and on that golden grassland there spread a black shadow growing ever closer. She gave a sign and horns pealed through the dawn quiet, calling out over the city, summoning all to defend their home.

The harbor was strangely still, as every merchant who could travel had loaded their goods aboard whatever ship there was to hand and sailed away. Ashari herself had provided ship after ship to carry away the people and whatever they could carry with them. Part of this was mercy, but part was also her wish to have as few mouths to feed as was possible, in case they were besieged.

And there was a part of her, even in the fires of her defiance, that did not believe they could win this battle. Word had come from her riders and her scouts that the enemy had gathered more strength to him, and now perhaps a hundred thousand marched for Irdru beneath a banner of death, dragging a train of prisoners and engines of destruction. It was an army forged by hatred and the will to dominate, and it came to extinguish the city like a candle flame.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Solomon Kane


This is probably the best film ever adapted from a Howard character, which makes it all the more surprising that it made so little impact – both in the fandom and on the world at large. Kane is very much one of Howard’s best-known creations, and yet he is, to the wider public, almost unknown. The rights for the character were bought up on 1997, but the film did not go into production until 2008 – more than a decade afterward.

I can remember hearing news about this, and even following director M. J. Bassett’s blog detailing the struggle to get the movie made and then the even greater struggle to get it released. The film was made independently, and it was unable to secure a wide distribution deal for years, so that the release came out in dribs and drabs from late 2009 to the final North American theatrical run in 2012. The strung-out release schedule and lack of marketing surely hurt the film’s ability to build momentum, and it ended up losing money and all but vanishing.

I first saw it on a bootleg DVD before the US release, and I remember being underwhelmed by it. Now you can just stream it on Netflix anytime you want, and I decided a close rewatch was in order, since I have been going through the high-profile Sword & Sorcery films and weighing them with a careful eye.

There’s a lot to like here, really. The cinematography is uniformly gorgeous, and the sets and locations look really good. Shot on location in Scotland and the Czech Republic, it makes great use of the sorts of wide, moody vistas you can only get in places like that. James Purefoy is a fantastic choice for Kane, as not only does he look great, but he can really act and gives the hero a lot of depth. He’s an accomplished rider and swordsman, and he radiates danger and handles the fight sequences with a dynamic charisma and flair.

Speaking of the fight choreography, it is actually really good – light years ahead of any of the Conan films besides maybe the first one. The violence is appropriately bloody and savage – no PG-13 nonsense here – and even the weapons look good, being both realistic and mostly accurate for the period. The costuming is good, and once Purefoy gets the whole ensemble together with the hat and the cape, he just looks like Solomon Kane is supposed to look.

The cast is really strong as well. Besides Purefoy, we have Pete Postelthwaite (in one of his last roles), Alice Krige, Max Von Sydow, and the lovely Rachel Hurd-Wood in a role that practically embodies the kind of virtuous maiden Kane was always trying to save. Jason Flemyng has a brief but memorable role as the evil sorcerer (with a fantastic look from costuming and makeup) and even a pre-Game of Thrones Rory McCann turns up in a background role.

So what’s wrong with it? Why does it incite antipathy from Howard fans and indifference from the wider world? Well, this movie had a problem, in that Solomon Kane is a cult character, and you can either stick hard to established storylines and make the cult fans happy, or you can try to make a movie that appeals to a wider audience and sell the idea of Solomon Kane to a public that doesn’t know who he is.

They went for option B, but the script is kind of weak. The dialogue is often bad, only partly saved by good performances, and after a fairly strong first act, the movie hits a real slump through the middle third, where the plot just does not seem to be moving forward. Once it finally does, things improve, and the climactic battle is solid. But when we finally reach the confrontation with the sorcerer Malachi, we start to have a problem of Too Many Elements. The evil wizard and his masked Vader make for a good final boss team, and could have worked well, but as it is, the movie rushes those confrontations to squeeze in a big, flaming demon for the final boss, and the CGI just is not up to the drill. It doesn’t look terrible, and the design is good, but the effects just look cheap. In fact, every time this movie tries to go for big effects it kind of looks silly, as the $40 million budget just could not afford the kind of stuff they tried to do.

So there’s a lot of good elements here, but the script just doesn’t come together, and has tonal issues and pacing problems that make you spend a lot of time waiting for things you know are going to happen, but the movie tries to pretend are big reveals. The script hammers down on its themes really hard, without anything in the way of subtlety, and gets kind of preachy in places as a result. One serious problem is that the movie made its metaphysical underpinnings literally true, and Kane’s quest to redeem himself from an evil life is not an inner struggle but an outer one. This removes all the maturity and nuance from his intentions. In the stories, Kane was a man trying to do good in an evil world because he was driven to by inner forces; here he is driven by an express threat that a huge, sword-wielding demon will drag his soul to hell if he does not do good. It fundamentally changes the nature of the character.

In the end, almost no one cared. Solomon Kane, the film, was probably doomed from the start by the fact that there was not a large, hungry audience waiting for it. The people who already know and love Solomon Kane as a character were always going to see it, even if it was terrible. Bassett’s job as screenwriter and director was to not just make a good movie, but to make one that would sell Kane to an audience who didn’t know him. The final movie has grit and is beautiful to look at, but it’s not tight enough and overall presents such a dark, unpleasant world that people didn’t see a reason to care. There were plans for two sequels that were never made, and this just highlights the old adage about doing a series: don’t save the good stuff for later, because you might not get to do it.

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Mountain of Bones


In the red wastelands on the horizon of empire, two armies stalked one another like beasts by night. The red sun blazed down as Shath drove his army across the stony red desert toward the jagged outline of the black mountains that reared against the deep violet sky. The claws of the war-beasts churned up a great pillar of dust, and so there was no concealing where he marched, but none could predict where he might turn.

Ahead of him the mountains were stark and dagger-sharp, and he knew of at least three passes through them that he might take. He knew, from Ellai’s inner sight, that a great army of the enemy awaited him, but they shifted restlessly, and he did not know if they meant to meet him or to try and slip around and flank him by night. The mountains were the boundary between the desolate regions of the western empire and the settled, fertile lands beyond. Once he crossed them, he would be lodged within the empire’s very heart, and he would mark his path with blood.

They camped through the heat of the day, sheltering among rocks and beneath the stone overhangs of ancient waterways, now long dry. The urugan raised their pavilion for Ellai, and Shath joined her, sat beside her in the cool darkness and took her hand when she offered it. “Tell me what you see,” he said.

Her eyes were closed, and her breath stirred the thin silk of the veil she wore across her pale face. “There is a power that guards them, and I cannot see clearly. There are images and echoes that seem made to deceive me. I see a vast army, footmen, riders, and giants made of flesh and darkness. There is a rider who commands, and something with him – a mind without a body. It. . . it speaks to other minds across the far distances, it speaks to a dark one who walks the horizons.”

“The emperor,” Shath said, his jaw set with lines of anger and pain. He flexed his iron right hand. “He controls his army from afar.”

“I believe he does,” she said. Her eyelids fluttered like moth wings. “There are engines of war with them. Machines that smoke and burn and are tended by men who worship them like gods.” She flinched, recoiling from something unseen, and then she opened her eyes. “They are hidden from me now.” She looked at him. “There are many thousands of them. They have been sent to face and destroy you, and they are more than we are. Three of them for each two of the urugan, and their war machines will kill many upon many.”

He leaned closer. “You know I have a weapon to equal them. But I must know where they are.”

Slowly, Ellai drew back a corner of the rug she sat on and traced forms in the dust with her fingertip. “There are two passes wide and open enough for them to pass. They want to wait until you are crossing and then strike you from behind with riders, pin you in place, and then strike like a hammer. They are here.” She drew a line in the dust. “They await you behind the northernmost pass, with riders detached and ready to move through the southernmost, here.”

Shath nodded, picturing the passes as he knew them. The northernmost pass was wider, best for quick movement of foot troops and engines. There was a plateau near the highest point, beside a black lake and below the shadow of the tallest peak. “Then we will draw them to us. At dawn we will move into the northern pass, and take a position beside the lake. We will wait for them.”

“Defense does not suit your warriors,” Ellai said. “Riders must have room to charge and not stand against one.”

“I shall give them room,” he said. “Let the enemy come against me – they shall learn I possess a sword such as they have never seen.”

Monday, July 29, 2019

Conan: Legions of the Squid Hat


There had been movement on another Conan film for a long time before this saw the light of day. After all, we are in the age of reboots and remakes, and there had not been a Conan movie released since the disappointing Conan the Destroyer in 1984 – that’s 27 years between releases, and these days, when every conceivable property is being made into a movie or a TV show, an unexploited IP like Conan is just sitting there going to waste. Thus, in 2011, Hollywood forces gathered and spent $90 million making a new Conan the Barbarian, and it's easily the worst Conan movie ever made.

There is almost nothing here that is not just painfully bad. The only aspect that works at all is Momoa, who has the right look and the physicality to make for a great Conan, but is given almost nothing to work with. He glowers, he spends most of the movie shirtless, and he throws himself into the action with a lot of gusto, but he is surrounded by levels of incompetence that are almost absurd.

On a surface level, there is already so much wrong here. The art direction and costuming are flat and boring, with all the actors save the leads wearing painfully cheap-looking wigs. The prop weapons are thick and awkward-looking, resembling plastic props you’d buy at a costume store. The fight choreography is bad, with a lot of shaky-cam and quick-cuts meant to stand in for action, and director Marcus Nispel seems addicted to slow-motion. If you look at movies made by Zack Snyder (which Nispel clearly has), you can see how slow-mo can be used to enhance action, but here it deadens it and slows everything down. The editing is shameful, often so bad that you literally can’t tell what is happening or where people are in relation to one another.

Some of the digitally-painted vistas used for backgrounds look quite evocative and cool, but most of the actual set dressing is just bad. One of the signal questions you have to ask yourself, when watching a Sword & Sorcery film, is: Does this look better than an episode of Xena? Sadly, between the cheap costumes, bad wigs, and bland set design, this does not look any better than any given episode of Xena. The special effects are also poor, with digital monsters that have no weight and obviously are not really there – the CGI seriously looks like a relic from 2001, rather than 2011.

Director Marcus Nispel clearly had no idea what he was doing. Some people saw Pathfinder and thought maybe he could do a good job with this, as Pathfinder is a very good-looking movie. But we see the same problems he had in that film, magnified by having $90 million fucking dollars to throw at them. The pacing is slow, the action killed by terrible editing and ill-advised slow motion. A graphic artist, Nispel can create some very cool images and knows how to frame a shot, but he hasn’t got any idea how to direct action or maintain tension, and the actors all show signs of being given no real direction by the person who had that as their fucking job. This is what happens, I guess, when you give a big-name franchise to the guy who used to direct music videos for Mariah Carey and C+C Music Factory.

The characters all speak in a melange of random accents, and nobody has any real good stuff to work with. Stephen Lang seems to be having fun, and Rose McGowan actually manages to find a character in her creepy witch, capitalizing on her weird hair and really leaning in on a strange, alien way of speaking and moving. Momoa is left with his broad American accent and a lot of anachronistic dialogue. Remembering how iconic and forbidding he was as Khal Drogo just makes this all the more painful to watch, because you can imagine what we could have gotten.

But the real disaster is the script, as if it were any good at all maybe this could have been salvaged, but it is fucking terrible. Nobody usually pays attention to screenwriters, but I am going to shame them here: This script is by the team of Thomas Donnelly and Josh Oppenheimer, with some additional work by Sean Hood. Now, Donnelly and Oppenheimer were responsible for the cinematic turd of A Sound of Thunder, and Hood’s biggest credit at this time was for Halloween: Resurrection, so we are not dealing with any real big talents here. This is scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as writers, and it shows.

The first misstep is the movie wasting like 30 minutes showing us Conan as a kid, and even though this was carried over from the original film, I will say right here that I don’t give a fuck about what Conan was like as a kid. We don’t need to see his mom and dad, we don’t need to see his stupid home village. Just, don’t do it. Plenty of characters get introduced in movies without needing to start us with them in the fucking womb.

So then we get to Conan as an adult, and he leads some raid on someplace we don’t care about and which never comes up again. Now we’re like 45 minutes into this movie and it has gathered no momentum at all, and now the story is kind of, sort of, going to get moving.

Like in the 1982 film, Conan here is driven by REVENGE, since Stephen Lang killed his whole village. Lang is looking for the pieces of this mask that looks like a squid and doesn’t cover your face, but rather seems to sit on top of the head. You know, like a mask. I know this character has a name, but I just watched this movie an hour ago and I can’t remember it, so who cares. The dude wants to reassemble his Squid Hat and with it he will have the power of some ancient necromancers and can bring his dead wife back from the grave. I guess this would be bad, but it’s not really made clear why.

So, he found the last piece of the Squid Hat in Conan’s village and now, some 20 years after, he is finally getting going on his Evil Plan. Nice of him to wait while the protagonist grows up, I guess. Maybe he could have moved faster if he was not traveling around in a ship his army drags around on land. No, really. The evil dude travels in a ship that has no wheels or anything, his guys just drag it everywhere, and this is never explained or even mentioned. Nobody seems to think it is weird.

Now he is after Rachel Nichols as “Tamara” - and can we pause to appreciate just how modern-sounding and immersion-breaking that name is? That’s a name for someone who owns a yoga studio, not a character in a Conan movie. Anyway, she is the “pure-blood” descendant of the ancient necromancer kings, and so Steve will use the powers of the Squid Hat and her blood to resurrect his wife and then something something he’ll be a god. Like, we are specifically told that his wife was burned alive because she was so evil, so I don’t know why he thinks she’ll do any better this time around. And when he finally puts on the Squid Hat it just seems to. . . do nothing at all, really. Conan rescues the girl, throws him off a bridge, roll credits.

That’s largely it, the running time being filled out with loooong sequences that are supposed to be action set pieces but just drag on and have no interest and don’t have anything to do with the story. There are a bunch of elaborate fights in this movie that are just there – they don’t change anything, they don’t develop character or advance the plot, they just take up space. The worst one is when Conan and his goofy thief sidekick infiltrate the evil palace, have a massive and tedious battle with CGI tentacles, and then find that Evil Stephen has already left. They look over the battlements and the thief guy says – he really says this - “Looks like he’s going to the skull cave.” And sure enough, there’s a cave on the horizon shaped like a skull. So the whole sequence and everyone in it was utterly pointless.

The whole movie is pointless. There are so many characters and elements that serve no purpose at all and go nowhere, and the movie wastes so much time doing useless crap that when you strip the story down to the bare bones it is really just nothing. It has no respect for the actual history or locations of the Hyborian Age, no respect for Conan’s story or his character. The original Conan was a $16 million movie that made $100 million. This is a $90 million movie that manages to look like $16 million, and the great mixed blessing is that it flopped as hard as it did. On one hand, bad filmmaking should be punished. On the other, the failure of this probably means it will be another 27 years before Conan gets another shot.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Fire in the Sky


Tathar led his eagles to the sign of war. The pillars of smoke marked where the land was scarred by the advancing armies, and he smelled death on the high, cold wind. The sun was just beginning to rise crimson over the far horizon of the sea, and here the light would touch soonest, before it sullied itself upon the cursed earth.

A dozen birds flew behind him in a wide formation, ready for battle, for he expected to draw blood today. For weeks now they had seen the signs of warfare as the armies of the empire pushed into the hills on savage raids. They sought out the villages and hiding places of the tribes that dwelled there and slaughtered those who resisted, enslaved the rest and dragged them away. The hill and forest peoples were no friends of his, but he would not allow the enemy to advance any closer to his home.

He thought of their lovely island, so remote and guarded by the sea, the perfect eyrie, and now their home. Suara was there, guarding their daughter and newborn son. Though she had wanted to come on this war band, she had remained behind, and he was both glad and wished she rode with him.

They stayed high, watchful. He knew the enemy army would be guarded by their new Skylords, but he did not know how many. He had taught his riders as well as they could be taught, telling them to aim for the riders with their heaviest arrows. He feared to face the lances of the enemy, for his people had little defense against such weapons.

Now they saw the trail of the enemy formation, the black scar upon the earth like the mark of red hot iron. He saw the smoke and knew they had finished their strike, were now burning the hovels and stores they found to leave nothing behind. Were they lower, he knew he would see the heads mounted on sharpened stakes, and was glad he could not. He had thought to leave all such wanton cruelties behind him.

Zakai shifted and growled, and he knew the eagle saw something he had not. He felt the lance light and ready in his hand and urged his steed downward, trading height for speed. He wanted to be above the flying enemy when he saw them, to dive upon them and strike before they could react. His warriors might kill a few of the riders, but it would be up to him and his lance to strike the heaviest blows, and he must do it before the enemy could bring their own lances to bear.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Conan the Destroyer


I decided it was time to address the “other” Conan movie, (and I suppose I may have to get around to the more recent Jason Momoa version as well) and so I have taken the dive and present here the disappointing follow-up to the defining Conan the Barbarian. Two years after that movie made the Cimmerian a household name, we were presented with 1984’s Conan the Destroyer, which pissed away whatever goodwill the franchise had, and set the stage for its absolute nadir in Red Sonja the following year.

John Milius did not return to direct this one, so Dino De Laurentiis handed it off to Richard Fleischer, who had directed such old-fashioned adventure flicks as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Vikings, so it might seem that he would have the chops for this. However, he did not have the same dedication Mulius did to keeping things violent and grim, and so he went along with De Laurentiis’ desire to tone the movie down and make it more family-friendly. I mean, the original Conan had only made $100+ million against a budget of $16 million, why would you want to replicate that?

The script for this was originally written by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, but their draft was heavily revised, and the final script was by Stanley Mann, a studio hack who had worked on such duds as Meteor and The Omen II. Thomas and Conway were so unhappy with the final film they would later adapt their original story for the comics.

You can see the studio hands all over this in the scholcky fantasy-quest storyline and the severely disappointing fight choreography. There’s a lot more pro wrestling in the big, slow, stupid moves than the badass swordplay of the original. Plus, the film has to find excuses for Arnie to flex and lift heavy things, so we don’t forget he’s a bodybuilder. The story steals liberally from some of the original stories like “A Witch Shall Be Born” and “Black Colossus”, as well as the battle with the robed ape from “Rogues in the House”.

In short, Conan gets recruited by Queen Taramis to escort her niece on a stupid quest to get the horn of a statue that is apparently a sleeping god. They have given Conan a wacky sidekick for comic relief, and saddle him with a crew of companions that don’t really add anything – even the great Mako is criminally wasted, being called upon only to point at things and make car noises to indicate he is casting a spell.



The sets and costumes still look pretty fucking good, with the palace of Queen Taramis looking especially cool. The showdown between Conan and Toth-Amon in the chamber of mirrors has bad choreography and terrible editing, but the set looks amazing. The special effects – like the rubber monster face and the giant puppet of the arisen god in the climactic battle – are pretty fucking terrible, and look cheap even by the standards of 1984

The casting is a strange mix of inspired and bewildering. Sara Douglas gets great outfits and is a preening, prowling villain whenever she’s onscreen, which is not nearly enough. Olivia d’Abo – only 14 when this was filmed – is cute as a button and actually manages a little gravitas in a thin role. Grace Jones is. . . Grace Jones. She’s having a good time, and you have to admire how she throws herself into this, but it’s impossible to forget who she is. Casting Wilt Chamberlain was a bad idea, as he’s no kind of actor at all, and next to his seven-foot height, Arnold looks absolutely puny. Tracey Walter as Conan’s wisecracking thief sidekick Malak is just kind of inexplicable. It is nice to see Pat Roach get an actual speaking role, and as a wizard he is cast way against type.

This is not as bad as Red Sonja by any stretch, but it completely bastardizes the grim, violent mood of the original movie, and inserts far too much goofy comedy, complete with anachronistic banter and that embarrassing scene where Conan gets drunk and makes a fool of himself. The pace is glacially slow, and scenes seem to drag on and on – far longer than they need to. Basil Poledouris reprises his music from the original film, but he reworks the familiar themes into lighter, jauntier versions to the point where it almost seems like he is parodying himself. The dialogue is rote and tedious, and nobody here, besides Sara Douglas, is any good, really. The action scenes are bad, and the editing is consistently poor.

This didn’t exactly bomb when it came out, but it made less than a third of the hundred-million-plus gross of its predecessor, and the reviews were pretty bad. The experience soured Schwarzenegger on the Conan character, and since his contract was up with De Laurentiis, he refused to take part in the projected third film. It would be twenty-seven years before another Conan film saw the light of day, and as that was a massive bomb (that I will get to soon) this film can be largely blamed for the failure of Conan to make a comeback to this very day.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Slave Mind


Banners flew from the walls of Irdru, and the sea was alive with hundreds of warships as the armies trod upon the ancient roads. The towers shook with the cries of bells and the sounding of war-horns, and crowds gathered to watch as the queen herself took up her armor and her sword, and led her legions upon the march toward battle.

She rode on a high saddle upon the back of her dragon, now draped with armor and with crimson silks. Well-fed and well-groomed, he was glad to be once more on the move, and the sun glowed on his golden-tipped tusks even as he left a trail of fire behind him where his flaming venom dripped from his jaws. The crowds cried aloud when they saw him, and he lifted his great head and roared in answer. Ashari stood tall in her saddle and held up her gleaming sword of shining glassteel, and she felt their adoration sweep over her like a wave.

In her wake came her legions of foot. Company after company of mercenaries all well-armed and armored with the best her wealth could buy them. They had lived well for years as her palace guard and city watch, now they would lift their swords in war for her cause. She left enough behind to secure her city and led thousands in her train. They drew behind them the wagons of supply and the war engines that would form the anvil of her strategy.

As they left the city and set forth upon the wide savannahs, they met the force that would be her hammer. The Horane peoples in their clans and war-bands, thousands and thousands of them all come to her call. She had spent years making alliances with them, making them welcome in the markets and bazaars, forging peace between the myriad tribes and lineages. Now they came in answer to her, and they came in a mounted horde that stunned the city-dwellers, who had never thought to see so many of them at once.

The earth shook as they followed and surrounded the army of foot. Keeping pace with the mercenaries was easy for the riders, and they laughed and galloped and chanted their battle songs beneath the rising red sun. Ashari moved on her path to war at the head of fifty thousands, and she was well pleased.

She had worked hard to forge the alliances that built this army, and now her efforts were rewarded. As queen of Irdru, she now stretched forth her hand, and she would close it into a mailed fist to strike at her enemy. Horane riders went forth ahead of her to scout the path, and she knew no ambush would escape them. She would meet the army of Kurux in battle, and he would find she still possessed her sting.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and Other Stories


Conan has been adapted into comic form a lot, okay, a whole lot, and probably every single Conan story ever put down has been done in the comics at some point. Comics, after all, are produced on a relentless schedule, and that can make them voracious devourers of content. For many, many years the license belonged to Marvel, and they produced both the cleaned-up Conan comic and the much more artful Savage Sword of Conan series. Their license expired in the mid-90s, and the property was fallow for a while.

In 2004 Dark Horse started a whole new Conan series, unconnected from the old Marvel continuity. Like all the comics, it mixed straight adaptations of Howard stories with interpolated bits meant to fill in the blank spots in Conan’s biography. This first collection gathers issues #0 to #7 in this new run, and showcases the work of new writer Kurt Busiek and new artist Cary Nord.


Busiek is an Eisner-Award-winning comics writer who has worked extensively on well-known characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Aquaman, and a four-year run on Avengers. Even before he was a pro, he is credited with the idea that the Phoenix was not really Jean Grey, and so is at least partly responsible for the character’s resurrection.

Handed the keys to Conan, Busiek does a creditable job. He fits “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” into a larger story arc about Conan traveling through the northlands, teaming up with and fighting the Aesir and Vanir, all the while looking for Hyperborea – the mysterious land of sorcerers behind the north wind. The plot has some nice twists and turns, and does some good characterization of the hero without weakening him. Busiek’s character is aggressive, surly, and prone to violence at the drop of a coin – the way he should be. In fact the only problem with the arc is that Conan visiting Hyperborea seems like something he would remember and mention later on, and as such it doesn’t match up with the original stories.

The real star of the show, however, is artist Cary Nord. A comics professional who has drawn almost any character you can think of, most notable for his run on Daredevil, Nord won an Eisner Award for his work on this very series right here, and it’s easy to see why. A lot of Conan artists have walked in Frazetta’s shadow, and Nord is not really any different, but he seems less influenced by Frank and more by the built-up visual vocabulary that decades of artists have created, making the Hyborian Age as familiar as the Shire.



What Nord really does best is atmosphere and evocation. His faces and action shots are excellent, but it is really when he breaks out into a wide vista of the imaginary world that he takes your breath away. He has a touch with misty distances and suggested details with simple color washes or broad sweeps of the brush. Under his eye, the age of Conan seems to live and breathe in a way it rarely does in art. Too many artists focus on blood and gore and monsters, and Nord does not lack for those, but it’s the way that he pictures the world that really catches the eye – the way he paints the age undreamed of as a place both absolutely real and yet brimming over with mystery and magic.

In later stories, Nord seemed to lose his touch a bit, and turned in work that seemed rushed and not as clean as this, but here he is clearly fired up and excited about what he is doing, and the result is one of the finest visual renderings of the world Bob Howard created so many years ago. The best art, for me, is like a window you want to step through, and Nord succeeds in that beyond almost anyone.


Monday, June 24, 2019

Empires of the Lost


Kurux – the black-crowned emperor of the greatest empire to rise beneath the red sun – knelt in supplication here in his secret chamber, high in the uttermost tower of his palace. Here he was guarded, and warded, and alone save for that which he summoned, that which he worshiped and feared in equal measure. He chanted the long, slow sounds that were not words in any human speech. He called forth with the power he possessed inside his mind, and the pool before him began to roil, and rise.

As ever, he felt the presence before anything else. An awareness that something immense and mighty focused its attention upon him, and that he was no more than an insect creeping upon the earth in comparison to the vast and terrible mind that now made contact with him. The pool rippled, and then it began to pour upwards, to make a form in the air that was not a shape that belonged to human eyes, and indeed, even to look upon this pallid reflection of the entity would blast and blacken the mind of anyone not gifted with the power such as he possessed.

I answer your weak and puling call. I bend to your small will, fragile though it may be. Give adulation unto my form, and speak. The voice was a terrible thing, echoing through his mind, seeming to shake the very walls. He believed that if it wished, it could blast his city to the ground with a word. His god was a mighty, fearsome god, and nothing else remained on the ruined earth that might contest with it.

And yet, it had limitations. There were boundaries upon its power, and that was why it needed him, and tolerated him, and uplifted him. It gave him power, and he would work its will. Your form is a thing of beauty unsurpassed,” Kurux said, his voice shaking, for the summoning asked much from him. “Your will is power and it commands me. I supplicate. I adore.”

Speak then. It said.

I have gathered in all powers to me,” Kurux said. “I have constructed all my war engines in accordance with the old ways. I have pressed a generation of men into my legions, broken them with a rod of iron, and made them into killers above all. My empire is a machine of war, and now, in accord with your will, I will unleash it.”

Monday, June 17, 2019

Conan of the Isles


The first Conan novel – indeed, the first Sword & Sorcery novel – was Howard’s own The Hour of the Dragon, which was serialized just before and just after his death, and later put out in book form in 1950 by Gnome Press. The first post-Howard Conan novel was The Return of Conan by L Sprague de Camp and Bjorn Nyberg, also put out by Gnome. Though Gnome was a giant among fan publishers, it was a tiny press that put out less than a hundred books over fourteen years in business, and thus these made little impression on the public at large.

After Lancer and then Sphere took up the Conan business, there was more money and exposure to go around, and so de Camp and Carter tried again to create a genuine Conan novel with the 1968 release of Conan of the Isles. The novel is rather interesting, as it seeks to add the one thing Howard never got around to doing with his barbarian hero – a capstone. Every great legend needs an ending, and while Howard simply wrote tales in the order they occurred to him, without much thought toward a larger continuity, he did at least contemplate Conan’s end.

The book is set some twenty years after Conan’s usurpation of the Aquilonian throne. His wife Zenobia – who he met in Hour of the Dragon – has died in childbirth, and his son Conn is of age to take the crown. The authors clearly wanted to get Conan off his throne and back to wandering, so they cooked up a boring magical plot device called “red shadows” - phantoms who come from the sky and carry people away. Conan has a dream where he gets told only he can stop the magical bullshit and to sail west.

With that out of the way, the book actually gets kind of fun. Conan rounds up a ship and a crew and sails off into the mysterious western ocean in search of bad guys to kill. There’s a pretty vivid sea battle, and when he gets plunged underwater, he gets in the middle of a battle between a giant squid and a giant shark that is pretty bad ass.

Coming ashore, he finds he is in the mysterious Antilles, where the last remnants of ancient Atlantis built a civilization that is essentially depicted as being Aztec. It’s pretty obvious the authors did some research, and the depiction of the city of Ptahuacan is vivid and well thought-out. Conan’s crew was taken prisoner and are due to have their hearts ripped out, and so he sets off to rescue them. This mostly takes the form of blundering around in tunnels under the city, trying to find a way to the main temple.

On the way, he discovers a cave where giant lizards are kept to eat the bodies of the sacrificial victims, and turns them loose on the priests and the city in a rather gleeful scene of mayhem. He rescues his crew, they steal a ship and sail away, heading westward for new adventures. The whole “red shadows” nonsense is resolved in typical Carter fashion. The evil god who controls the phantoms is confronted by the god Mitra, who comes out of an amulet Conan got in a dream and the ensuing battle ruins the entire temple. It’s boring and stupid, and even the narrative doesn’t spend much time on it. It’s a standard Lin Carter deus ex machina where the good magic bullshit defeats the evil magic bullshit, while the hero stands and watches.

That aside, this is not badly done. Conan actually spends some time waxing melancholy about his past adventures, and we see him starting to decline a bit, physically – he’s not the iron-armed young man in his twenties any longer. The pacing is pretty good, and the action actually has some grit to it. The major problem is that it needs a silly magic plot device to get the story moving, and then uses another stupid plot device to resolve the first one, without much of any involvement from our hero.

As a pirate tale, this is agreeably breezy and entertaining. As an attempt to set an ending for Conan it fails miserably. If Howard were going to put finish to Conan’s story, he would have done it in a furious battle with rivers of blood, and Conan would go down fighting and he would fucking die at the end. You can’t tell me Howard the fatalist would have shied away from that. So de Camp and Carter get points for attempting to tie up the saga, but lose them all for not having the nerve to actually kill their hero off at the end.