Saturday, March 12, 2011

Conan The Barbarian

When I was about ten, I discovered Robert Ervin Howard's saga of Conan The Barbarian books, written in the 1930s, first published in the 1950s, and really selling well in the late 1960s after they were reprinted with spectacular new cover art by artist Frank Frazetta, perhaps the most sought-after cover artist in history and a cult art figure amongst his millions of followers.

Frazetta's covers set Howard's grim sword & sorcery (a sub-genre that Howard invented) novels on fire. One of those paintings by Frazetta recently sold for one million dollars.

Conan The Destroyer
Above is "Conan The Destroyer" which is perhaps Frazetta's iconic image of Howard's brooding hero. A really good analysis of this painting in The Cimmerian can be read here.

Why am I writing about this? Because I've just found out that a new Conan The Barbarian movie (in 3D) is set to be released later this summer. See the trailer below.

As a Conan fan, I'm really looking forward to this film, but I already have a complaint. In the Conan saga, Howard goes to extreme details in describing the savage hero of the series, but it was the Frazetta book covers which burned the Conan image into the minds of its readers, and in this new film, this Conan (portrayed by actor Jason Momoa) is missing the barbarian's most prominent feature: bangs.

This film's directors should have done their homework, as Conan fans, who otherwise loved the 1980s Conan movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, howled back then because their hero also lacked the iconic bangs of Cimmerian men's hair styles as invented by Frazetta, not Howard (who actually described Conan's hair as “tousled,” “matted” and “lion-like").

So who's right?
"…a man whose broad shoulders and sun-browned skin seemed out of place among those luxuriant surroundings. He seemed more a part of the sun and winds and high places of the outlands. His slightest movement spoke of steel-spring muscles knit to a keen brain with the co-ordination of a born fighting-man. There was nothing deliberate or measured about his actions. Either he was perfectly at rest–still as a bronze statue–or else he was in motion, not with the jerky quickness of over-tense nerves, but with a cat-like speed that blurred the sight which tried to follow him."
– Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix on the Sword”


Taranaich said...

While I agree that Frazetta's straight hair wasn't really close, there is support in the text for bangs:

In strong contrast stood Conan, grim, blood-stained, naked but for a loin-cloth, shackles on his mighty limbs, his blue eyes blazing beneath the tangled black mane which fell over his low broad forehead.
- "The Scarlet Citadel"

The Cimmerian growled wordlessly, glaring truculently at the surrounding waste, with outthrust jaw, and blue eyes smoldering savagely from under his black tousled mane, as if the desert were a tangible enemy... So Conan, glaring from under his tousled mane, saw the white naked figure of Natala writhing in the lustful grasp of a black nightmare shape that could have only been bred in the lost pits of hell.
- "Xuthal of the Dusk"

So formidable was his appearance, naked but for short leather breeks and sleeveless shirt, open to reveal his great, hairy chest, with his huge limbs and his blue eyes blazing under his tangled black mane, that the squire shrank back, more afraid of his king than of the whole Nemedian host.
- The Hour of the Dragon

The perspiration of agony beaded his face and his mighty breast, but from under the tangled black mane that fell over his low, broad forehead, his blue eyes blazed with an unquenched fire.
- "A Witch Shall Be Born"

"Blazing beneath the tangled black mane," "from under his black tousled mane," "under his tangled black mane..." These strongly suggest to me that there are some sort of bangs going on there. Perhaps just simple, roughly-cut bangs to keep his hair out of his vision, though, rather than Frazetta's clean Betty Page style. Now, in some cases it could simply mean that his hair is covering his face, with the exertion of battle or something meaning he didn't have time to toss his hair back, however, that last AWSBB quote specifically notes that his hair fell over his forehead, not his face. I think if Howard meant for it to fall over his face, he'd say it fell over his face (again, I think).

Overall, it's not quite conclusive, but if Frazetta was really the first to display Conan with a fringe, it has support in the text. That said, you are right in that many Conan fans are just so taken with Frazetta' interpretation that they feel he *is* Conan. I love his work, but his art should be used as a thematic and atmospheric interpretation, not a literal one: that's the mistake all the Conan films have made.

I'm really glad you enjoyed my analysis on The Cimmerian, I'm very proud of it. I plan to do all of Frazetta's Howard paintings on my blog eventually.

Lenny said...

Thank you for your comments and terrific clarification! I agree with you, that while not specific, there's enough there for me.

That's enough for me, and I hope that the movie does some justice to Howard's writing rather than trying to invent a "new" Hollywoodesque Conan world.

I'm looking forward to your future analysis as well.

Warm regards,


Anonymous said...

I've never that painting before, but it is spectacular in some odd sense.


Joseph Barbaccia said...

Keeping the hair out of the character,s face may have something to do with filming the actor's facial emotions. Particularly concerning lighting. Though personally I think a shadowy face would suit the character better.