It is the year of Our Lord 1959 and my son has committed suicide.
My wife sobs in our bed, where first she felt the spark of his life kindled within her.
He ended his life because…
Please allow an aggrieved father a moment to compose himself. To write in haste would be to let the my flood gates open. Composure requires time, so please allow me a few extra words and a few extra seconds.
My–my son has committed suicide. Reason, that tower, threatens to crumble; my heart quakes the foundation, pounds mortar and brick and thought into dust–choking me, blinding me.
I descend and walk cautiously into a forest of exposed nerves. I tread carefully betwixt these raw, these weeping trees. A branch grasps at me and I stumble–“Father, you are a good father, but you work too much.” His face, so young…
My vision grows dark. Yet still, I must not lose myself here in this Wood of Suicide. I must not make the same mistake as my son. I must persevere; I must understand.
I did not understand him. I did not pay close enough attention. Where was my mind instead? Wandering down corridors where ends meet; single-minded, I forgot that others existed around me, other minds for whom I worked, for whom I breathed…
He killed himself because he felt trapped, by me and therefore by life itself. He was seventeen, that age where one is neither man nor boy; too old to take paternal diktats at face value, too young to rationally refute them.
He killed himself because I would not let him act in the school play. By extension, I would not let him be himself. That is the immediate cause. And being immediate creatures, that is all his friends will see or understand. That is likely all they will ever see. I am a monster to them, an abyss. The stings of their gaze–hateful eyes–humble me still, though the funeral is long over. I pray they do not stare overlong at the abysmal thing that I have become, lest in their hate they become like me, like I was: uncomprehending. They do not understand, as my son did not understand, and as I did not understand.
I would not let him be himself. What was he? Adventurous, restless, smart, something of a dreamer–qualities not unique in any young man filled with potential. It is such qualities that grant happiness to some, sadness to others. Why did they throw my son into the abyss?
These qualities knocked themselves against my stern Realism. Please, I hope my tears have already convinced you that I write no apology for myself. It is a mere statement of fact, or near to one as a man can manage. My son was a dreamer; it is a father’s duty to understand and cultivate his son’s dreams, but equally so must he also temper them with his experience, such as it is.
What have I experienced? In my youth I was very much like my son. Is that so very surprising? What could he have become, had he only lived a few more years; I spent so much time as a young father dreaming such castles in the air for my son’s future. What I dream now–
My youth was that of the 1920s–a time for dreams, for adventure, but also a time when dreams withered in excess. I reached economic maturity right as it all came crashing down. My son knew nothing of such hardships. I strove earnestly that he would never have to.
I do not claim this as a mistake. I worked hard to let him have a better life than I, and will die believing this to be the right and honorable thing to do. What went wrong?
I dream of dungeons now, sunken in the earth, far forsaking the castles of my youth.
My son killed himself because he felt trapped by me. He felt trapped by me because somewhere along the way I grew not just stern, not just stoic; I became callous, towards my son, my wife, myself. I thought only of the future and narrowly, economically, trammeled by the dollar: my professionalism roared, drowned out all other sounds. Cacophony to mute, everything to nothing…
At some point, I forgot the sweet laughter of my son as he pretended to be Lindbergh flying across the ocean, and thought instead only of how he would provide for himself and his family when he was no longer under my protection and tutelage.
I reiterate: this was a noble goal. A father ought make sure his son is ready to take on the Great Wide World. But to what end? I toiled that he might never face the hardships I faced. Did I ever stop to consider that, in doing so, he would face different traumas altogether? I believe this to be common to all human experience. Pain is contextual. Human life is a series of yearnings, never truly satisfied. In striving so hard to make sure his life was economically stable, I starved him of something else entirely.
I did not understand the pain he endured. Further, I did not see that in his pain, in his youth, he did not understand all that I did for him, all that I had been through, all that I was. He did not see a human man striving for his child; he saw a tomb growing darker with each passing day. He did not see the castles that I dreamed for him, only the dungeon of our home. Is it any wonder that at some point he sought to free himself from being buried alive?
I let myself die, and because of that my son killed himself. Call him misguided; call his solution an overreaction. Fair enough. But was it fair to him that I placed him in such a situation in the first place? He can never learn from his mistake, and though I continue to live I can never really learn from mine.
Seat 4C was new, polished, virgin. The room around it was new as well; new construction, new paint, new stage, new philosophy. This was the auditorium of the new high school. It was to be a place of learning and discussion. It was to be a place where generations came to be forged.
Creaking open for the first time, the seat welcomed its first sitter, a snarled young man, assailed by anxiety, acne, by arrogance, impertinence, and fear. He fidgeted annoyingly, unable to get comfortable despite the seat’s best efforts. It desired only to content him.
The lights dimmed, and the presentation began. The assembly, the first in what was heralded as a new series of intelligent, thought-provoking lectures, was about the dangers of nuclear war. A short video of president Ford was followed by a speaker who bade the students to take seriously the possibilities of MAD, to work to a brighter tomorrow, to make sure that the human race continued to exist. The sitter seemed little interested in the substance of the speech.
Much to the seat’s disappointment, the sitters all seemed generally to be alike. They oozed oil. They smelled bad. They could not sit still. The seat wondered if this was the case wherever young people had to sit down. Quickly, then, the seat’s memory for sitters blurred and grew indistinct.
Its memory for lectures, however, was a little sharper. There were several it would never forget. There was one about the dangers of fossil fuels, the evils of something called OPEC, and the desire for the whole world to embrace alternative energy; there was one about the imperialism of the Soviet Union; one about the prospects for peace with the collapse of the Berlin Wall; one about the dangers of drug use; about how to use the internet safely; about the threat of Muslim terrorism; about school shootings. At first 4C did not understand much of what was talked about, but over time its knowledge grew. As the decades passed, it became something of an expert in international geo-politics.
The years passed, the lectures changed, and the students remained the same. The seat noticed, with some confusion, that it didn’t matter what was being talked about; the sitters did not care. It reminded itself that it was but a lowly chair, that its view was narrow, limited. But after 40 years of sitters coming and going, it came to think its opinion on the matter accurate indeed.
In talking with its neighbors, its opinions were confirmed. Their sitters, too, could never get comfortable, could never pay attention; they slouched, dozed, sunk deep into their seats–all much to the seats’ consternation.
One day, after the end of an especially long assembly concerning the dangers of cyber bullying (4C never ceased to be astounded at the variety of topics that filled its auditorium), 4C found itself unable to return to its upright, resting position. Weeks passed, and the problem did not go away. Eventually, two burly men in overalls came to inspect it. They spoke in low voices, slurred by diets enriched by far too much red meat. 4C disliked seating such folk. They hurt.
Presently, however, it was concerned with what they were saying. They spoke of replacement. Whatever its diagnosis, the damage seemed to these two gentlemen to be irreparable. The seat would have to be torn out and replaced by a new one. The earliest this could possibly be done, they assured each other, was the beginning of next week. Four days from now.
4C trembled at the thought. It could not fathom what was going to happen to it. Where would it go? Who would sit on it? It creaked and pushed such thoughts off to one side. Desperately, it sought distraction from this existential crisis. It turned back towards the chief mystery of its long life, that of the human teenager. It wondered why, of all the important topics that had been covered here over the years, not one had drawn the concentration of anyone. More pressing matters nagged at the limits of the seat’s mind, but it brushed them aside, pondering instead the quandary that was the human attention span.
Three days later, in the quiet hours of the morning, 4C found itself prematurely torn from its universe. Two men came with tools. They showed no sympathy for the chair’s lost life; they did not bat an eyelash at its painful divorce. Unceremoniously, they wrenched 4C from its home of 40 years and carried it to the back of a truck.
They had caught the chair totally unawares. It had no time to come to terms with its life, with what it had done and left undone, with those it had seated and those left without a seat, with the great mysteries that it would never solve.
The afterlife was nothing like anything 4C had imagined. The air was colder. The world bumpier. The light varied and exceedingly bright. Then, all of the sudden, there was darkness. Then light. Then heat. Annihilating heat.
The stomach and the brain process things a little differently. Consider a book you are not enjoying versus a dish that tastes awful. You could put the book down, of course, but somehow that seems wrong. You are compelled to finish it. “Maybe it will get better at the end. Maybe I just need some time to digest what’s been happening. I’ll finish it. Just another 100 pages to go. Fuck though, these characters are idiots.”
Try the same scenario with food. “My God, this stuff tastes like shit! Maybe it will get better as I go along. Should I finish? Perhaps my stomach will digest this hot garbage in such a way that I remember it more fondly afterwards…”
Sounds pretty ridiculous, huh? But that seems to be how things work. We are much more likely to finish a crappy book than a crappy meal. At least, I am.
“Why might that be,” I pondered to myself as the subway bumped beneath me. Why indeed.
I was just about to let the issue drop. “Whatever. Maybe inspiration will come to me in a dream. How many times has a solution presented itself when I wasn’t even thinking about the problem?”
And then flash! “The unconscious! That’s it!”
“What are you talking about?” I asked myself.
“It’s simple,” I responded. “Your brain has an unconscious component above which your consciousness is superimposed. Your stomach does not. It is just mechanical. There is no place for ideas to percolate and interconnect with other tidbits of crap floating around like there is in the brain. That’s why you can despise a novel when you finish it, but then a week later you realize that that nagging feeling you had upon finishing the damn thing was just the beginnings of a thought; and that that thought has now come to fruition; and that that thought is some revelation about how the book you thought you hated was actually fucking brilliant!”
“When has that ever happened to you?”
“Just last week I watched Once Upon a Time in the West and really didn’t care for it. But a feeling nagged me from the moment I finished. ‘Consider me,’ it whispered. ‘Consider me.’ It kept at it. Eventually, I relented, sat down, and rewatched the film. This time, I absolutely loved it. I’m not saying each instance of this is so extreme, but I think it’s an illustrative example.”
“But stomachs don’t do that?”
“Not at all!” I was ecstatic. “Not at all! They just accept material, break it down as they always do, and move on to the next batch of crap. There is no random connectivity. No creativity. It’s just a factory sack in the middle of your body. I fucking hate it.”
At this point I was giddy in my seat, smiling at nothing and just generally happy with the turns my mind was presently taking. I giggled incessantly.
In hindsight, I can understand why the people around me might have been a little concerned with my behavior. At the time though, I was just too preoccupied with the revelation going on inside my head. It was magical!
A shadow darkened my world. I tried to focus my eyes once more upon the external. A large, blur loomed over me. My eyes, in their haste, failed to discern what this structure could be. Then it spoke.
“Sir, my name is Officer North. Can I ask your name and where you’re headed today?”
A police officer. “Oh fuck. What did I do? What did I do? Why did he want to talk to me of all people?” My thoughts were frantic. And my eyes still couldn’t discern any features. I was talking to an amorphous entity, like all of policedom personified in one menacing avatar.
“Well, sir, I…”
“Speak up, son. Why so nervous?”
I cleared my throat. “Well, I. My name is Jerome.”
“Jerome Pillovich, sir.”
“And where are you headed today, Jerome Pillovich?”
“I am going home, sir.”
“Looking pretty suspicious for a man who’s just going home. Why were you acting so strange just now?”
“Just now. You were talking to yourself and laughing at nothing and fidgeting in your seat like you had a cockroach up your ass.”
“Oh? You mean you didn’t know what you were doing?”
I laughed a little, involuntarily. My voice cracked. It wasn’t pretty. “I was a little preoccupied, sir.”
“My own thoughts.”
“Pretty vivid thoughts you’re having, I’d say. You on anything?”
“Mind taking a blood test to confirm that, son?”
I realized this was one of those moments political science majors dream about, where a private citizen armed with just enough knowledge of his constitutional rights can tell a cop to go fuck himself and nothing will happen to him; where the cop has to begrudgingly admit that, for once in his career at least, he failed in trampling over the rights of the little guy; where the young intellectual can go home and break open his Jefferson or his Foucault or whoever and read them with pride and say to himself “Yes, I know what you mean. I was there in my own little way. I fought the good fight. And I won.” I realized that in an intellectual flare, which dissipated into black the second I remembered that I had a very good reason for getting home; that the cop was very large, or seemed so; that he probably had very menacing weapons upon his very menacing person; and that I wasn’t a poli sci major anyhow. I’d never even graduated college.
So I told him the truth. “I’d rather not sir. You see, I have to get home on time today. Otherwise my dog will shit all over the carpet. I know how he gets, you see.”
“Dog, huh. What’s his name?” He sounded like he didn’t believe me.
“What?” He couldn’t decide whether to laugh or scream. A natural response.
I smiled as friendily as I could. “You’ve heard of him?”
“I watch enough History Channel to know the name. What the hell possessed you to name your dog fucking Josef Goebbels?”
“Wasn’t me. I found the dog at the pound. He was already used to it, so I was kinda stuck.”
“And you adopted him anyway?”
“He was just so forlorn. I couldn’t say no.”
I, too, began to see. The cop finally came into focus. He was a larger man, but not so demonic as I had originally been led to believe. His hair was retreating before an annexing forehead. His belly bulged. He looked tired. He also looked like he was thinking. I had never seen a cop look like that before. I was dumbfounded. Guess you could call that irony. I sure did.
“Listen,” he said at last, “I’m going to let you off this time. I know what dogs are like when they’re from the pound, how temperamental they can be, and how much more work you have to put into them to make up for all the abuse. I get that. Just, for Christ’s sake, in the future, don’t act so damn goofy, especially not on the subway. You know how people are these days, right?”
“I guess I do, sir. It’s just, I was so excited.”
I told him about my revelation. I don’t know what I expected him to say, but I what did I care? I was just happy finally to be telling someone! It had been burning a hole in the back of my brain ever since he first approached me. When I was all done, and out of breath from all the excitement, he took a long, thorough look at me and then laughed.
“That’s all you were carrying on about?”
I frowned. He did not understand.
“You have it all wrong, bud. The stomach and the brain aren’t any different. Think about it.”
“How do you mean?” I stuttered, my eyes narrowing in suspicion.
“Did you like beer the first time you tasted it?”
“No.” I said, dragging out the syllable in obvious doubt.
“But you kept drinking it, right?”
“And eventually you learned to like it, I’d wager.”
“Not all kinds, but yeah, I like beer more now than when I first tasted it.”
“And you don’t think that that’s your stomach’s very own ‘unconscious’ doing things when you’re not looking? The brain and the stomach both percolate themselves away. They both do stuff without us even realizing it. Your distinction is total nonsense. Can’t even say the stomach has its own unconscious, really. The body’s holistic, interconnected. And it’s all run through the same processor. Leastways, that’s what I remember from the psych classes at the academy. Only interesting stuff they taught us there, matter-o-fact.”
My eyes were wide. I’d never considered that. Never considered beer. How could I have failed to consider beer?
“Plus, now I don’t do this myself mind you, but people do eat stuff they don’t like just for the nutritional value, you know, liberals and hippies and all those lovely people.”
I was heartbroken.
He put a hand on my shoulder. He could see the shattering results of his little psychology lesson. “Listen, this is how cults get started, bud. Someone gets too worked up about some half-baked idea, and they run with it right off a cliff. Stick to caring for your dog, huh?”
And with that he walked away, still laughing. I sat back in my seat and checked the time on my phone. Josef Goebbels would need to go out right when I got home.
Conan the Barbarian, released in 1982 and responsible for launching the film career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, is best remembered for a few things: the beautiful, dashing score (embodying the whole notion of “high adventure”), the impressive battle scenes (practical effects at their finest), and the hammy, campy, sometimes legitimately good acting. Watching it for the 25th time this past weekend, however, I thought it about time that I present one more facet of this 80s gem worthy of our attention and our memory: the primary theme of the film, namely fatherhood.
That a film like this, with all its hammy camp, snake orgies, and blood could have a theme at all is probably not so outlandish. Even the worst films grope at something, however unintentionally or awkwardly. This film does not trip over its theme accidentally; it does not shove it down your throat like a xenomorph embryo; no, Conan the Barbarian takes up a topic, deals with it consistently throughout the film, and leaves the viewer, hopefully, contemplating what they saw.
Since this is a movie rarely thought of, to my knowledge, in academic or thematic terms, I find myself compelled to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that fatherhood, if it is not the only theme of the movie, is at least the predominant one. Criticism, like history, requires evidence. Essays that present assertions without giving evidence from the text are dross. I must do the academically honest thing, therefore, and evince my thesis. To do so requires an outline of the movie, highlighting thematic evidence as it comes up. Once done, we can spend some time and assess what, if anything, the movie is trying to do with its main theme. (Hint: think Nietzsche and Rousseau).
There are, far as I can see, five salient points in the movie that support fatherhood as the chief topic of import.
1. The opening credits. Have you ever actually watched them? It’s so much more than a badass montage of a man forging a sword. It is a montage of Conan’s father forging a sword. Hmm, interesting. Conan’s father, and especially the sword he makes, come up again and again as the film progresses. Already we have in our minds the making of something, the idea of creation and formation.
1a. The first words spoken are those of Conan’s chronicler. While not a father in the strictest sense of the word, the chronicler, as historian, forges the identity of his subject for posterity–for good or ill. Thus the historian, like the blacksmith, participates in an act of creation, a definite corollary to the movie’s notion of fatherhood.
2. The first dialogue consists of Conan and his father. What are they talking about? Myths regarding the creation of the world, about how the gods left “the enigma of steel” on the battlefield, where men found it, “Not gods, not giants, just men.” Then he tells Conan: “You can’t trust anything in this world, not men, not women, not beasts; [points to sword he just made] this you can trust.” The father talking about how the world was created, and about the nature of steel–something he just forged; and he’s talking to his son, something else he created (or was at least integral to the process thereof).
Hey! Here’s a clip! (Listen to that music!)
3. So Conan’s village gets annihilated by mysterious raiders; Conan (still a child) is sold into slavery and set to work at a mill which he must turn. This toil forges him into the Platonic ideal of Brawn that we see for the rest of the film. Eventually he is taken in by a different master (presumably when the economic utility of the mill in which he labored declined), who proceeds first to use Conan as a brute gladiator, and then to provide him with martial training, sexual companionship (no homo), and wealth. Conan fights with much distinction, but after a while, his master feels that Conan is like a “dog that has been kept too long,” and thus resolves to free him one night (probably while drunk, woops!). Conan thrust back into a liberal world he hasn’t known in 20 years. This master of Conan’s is something of a surrogate father. He takes Conan under his domination, teaches him, has him trained, and then frees him. He had a profound influence on Conan’s development.
4. After finding a sword in a tomb, sexing a witch, and befriending a thief, Conan attempts to track down the people who destroyed his village. Their standard is that of snakes, so he goes from town to town asking about such creatures. Again and again, he is pointed towards the towers of the snake cult of Set, who worship the sorcerer Thulsa Doom. After getting high, Conan and the thief decide to scale one of these towers and see what all the fuss is about. What they find is verification that this snake cult is indeed the people who slaughtered his village; an adventurous woman who quickly becomes Conan’s love interest; so much money that he parties himself into a stupor, and eventually an audience with the local ruler, King Osric “the Usurper” (ah, to have such a surname!). Obviously the king is honkin’ pissed that these thieves broke into one of Set’s sacred towers, right? Nope! Like Julian the Apostate vis-a-vis Christianity, Osric is no fan of this particular cult: “Snakes, in my beautiful city!” It turns out that the king’s daughter has fallen under this serpent spell. He wants Conan and pals, as the only guys around to stand up to this cult, to infiltrate Thulsa Doom’s mountain of power and rescue his daughter. He then pours jewels into their hands, promising much more, “Enough to become kings yourselves.” And here’s the crux: Osric goes on to say that “There comes a time when the gold ceases to shine, when the jewel ceases to sparkle, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.” Wow, powerful stuff, huh? Seems that way to me, especially coming from a movie as apparently silly and vapid as something with barbarian in its title, and naked people painted on the posters (but really, how badass was that poster, you know the one I’m talking about).
The entire reason Conan meets the leader of the cult, the whole impetus for his quest to confront Thulsa Doom, is set in motion by another father and his love for his child. He sets Conan back upon the quest for revenge, derailed after his successful tower heist.
5. The remaining bits of fatherhood in this film all come from the chief antagonist, Thulsa Doom.
5a. The first is when Conan goes off alone to Doom’s mountain fortress (his lover, Valeria, did not want to go at all–preferring the warmth of their love to the fires of vengeance or something, whatevs), meets a wizard–his future chronicler–and gets captured. Conan rails against Doom for destroying his father, his village, his people. Doom responds that Conan “Broke into my house, stole my property, and killed my pet–and that is what grieves me the most…Thorgrim (his underling) raised it from birth.” (Another reference to fatherhood and development). It is at this point that Thulsa Doom comments, almost in passing, on the drive he instilled in Conan by decimating his village, regretting only that Conan wasted this gift, “Look at the strength of your body…such a waste…” In punishment, he crucifies Conan, so that Conan might contemplate his own failures. He also talks about the riddle of steel, the answer of that enigma being simply that flesh is stronger: “What is steel, compared to the hand that wields it?” And is not the entire movie about the forging of the flesh, ie the idea of fatherhood and the raising/development of a child?
5b. The second time Doom involves himself in the theme of fatherhood is when he and his forces attack Conan, in retaliation for Conan’s surviving his crucifixion, raiding the mountain of power, and stealing back King Osric’s daughter. The attack is repulsed, but before retreating, Doom attempts one final assault. Osric’s daughter is screaming and pleading with Doom not to abandon her. In response, Doom readies an enchanted snake arrow and fires it at his erstwhile worshiper. Realizing her imminent death, she yells out in desperation for her father. The thief blocks the arrow with his shield, Thulsa Doom flees, and Osric’s daughter is his follower no more. It is worth noting here that one of Doom’s lieutenants (Rexor, a high priest) wielded the sword that Conan’s father forged at the beginning of the movie. In the process of killing him, Conan cleaves the sword in half. That’s probably not significant at all. OH WAIT! It definitely is. Keep that in mind when we finally address what this movie is trying to tell us.
5c. The third and final instance involving Thulsa Doom is at the very end of the film. Conan interrupts Doom’s “Let’s go take over the world and cleanse it” speech by coming up behind the sorcerer. Whirling around, Doom stops Conan in his tracks with an entrancing stare and begins to pontificate to Conan. He focuses on the fact that he bequeathed upon the barbarian all that Conan has, his strength, his skill, his drive–all by burning his village and killing his family. His speech is summed up with one line: “I am the well-spring from which you flow,” he says. He even goes so far as to claim himself as Conan’s father: “For who is your father if it not me?” It is at this point that Conan blinks out of the trance, decapitates Thulsa Doom with his father’s broken blade (which disperses the cultists), burns down the mountain of power, returns the king’s daughter, and consigns himself to a series of lackluster sequels and slipshod reboots.
In sum, we have images of forging, myths of creation, three separate potential father figures for Conan, an aggrieved father in the form of King Osric, and references to “the riddle of steel” brought up at the beginning by Conan’s father, regarding metallurgy, and answered later on by Thulsa Doom, in terms of flesh, not steel.
What are we to make of all this? Is the movie actually trying to say something about the nature of fatherhood and the influence of fathers, about the definition of a father and what makes a father in the first place, etc? Let’s see if I can’t venture an interpretation, over and above merely pointing out that the theme itself is pervasive (which hopefully is obvious at this point).
Let me start by pointing out that at the very beginning, before the credits even start, the movie throws upon the screen a quote from Nietzsche, the controversial German philosopher: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” We must, then take the whole movie with that in mind. Next, let’s keep in mind the idea of steel and the act of forging something. This whole movie is about the molding, the forming of one man: Conan. To that end, he is provided with love and security from his father, pain and purpose from Thulsa Doom, and training from his gladiatorial master. Each of these men adds a different layer to the finely forged blade that Conan becomes by the end of the film, a man “Destined to become king by his own hand,” as a witch remarks. Indeed, we ought wonder at the fact that a poor slave boy could rise to such a status as to warrant his own chronicler! The whole movie is a forge, and each father of Conan’s a different bellows, helping heat or cool this flesh that is more powerful than any steel, yielding a man powerful, confident, and strong (although apparently not as cunning as the Conan from the Howard books. C’est la vie).
This, however, brings up an interesting point: to what degree does Conan will his own development? It seems that he has no “will to power” of his very own; he is not so much an active force making his own destiny, but rather a reactive one, bending and thrashing in response to various influences–ie individual father figures. It appears that this movie would have us believe Conan’s character and actions were determined by outside forces and not by his own hand. At the very least, the movie seems to be indicating that his development into manhood was out of his control (a fair assertion); but that perhaps he gains volition after the death of his final father, Thulsa Doom. Let’s remember, he shatters his father’s sword, wielded by an opponent, and then uses it to kill Thulsa Doom. That states pretty powerfully that Conan has vanquished his childhood, buried the past, and attained the freedom to will himself, to be active rather than reactive. Given the reference at the beginning of the movie to Nietzsche, this reading of the evidence does not strike me as far-fetched in the least.
Conan the Barbarian, in closing, is more than mere hack and slash, more than incredible music, and more than campy acting; it is a film that delves into the influence of fathers, into the nature of education, and into the development of character. Is it the Emile of the modern age? No, but it certainly holds its own. And there are a lot more naked women…and wild blueberries…
“You haven’t experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.”–Chancellor Gorkon
Um, what did I just hear?
Are we to believe that the Klingons actually wrote Hamlet? Or was the line spoken in jest? Or did the Klingons appropriate Shakespeare as the Nazis tried to do during their flare of power?
So many questions, all flowing from that one line of dialogue! That is the main strength of this movie, the last Star Trek film to see the entire original cast together–one last adventure into the stellar unknown.
The basic plot can be summed up as “the wall came down in space.” It starts with the Klingon moon Praxis exploding (a sci fi Chernobyl), moves on to a diplomatic effort by Kirk, Spock, et al, ending in the Klingon chancellor’s assassination, turns into a bit of a detective story as the Enterprise endeavors to exonerate Kirk and McCoy (who are framed for the murder), and ends with the Federation and Klingon Empire taking the first real steps towards some kind of understanding.
The story itself is decent enough as allegory , although it isn’t anything inspired. But that’s just fine with me. I prefer stories that focus on character. This movie, particularly through dialogue, excels at characterization. This is partly because the movie cheats. Every third line is a quote from Shakespeare, starting with the title–a pull from Hamlet. But that’s ok with me. Shakespeare is worth quoting, and it was really fun to have the Klingon villain quoting Richard II and Julius Caesar while shooting photon torpedoes through the vastness of space.
The movie also benefits from the long history between the individual cast members. They know their characters, and they know the relationships their characters have with each other. So the good dialogue is augmented by the very strong chemistry shared between actors that wear their parts like second skins.
I’ve heard it said of certain Trek films, Insurrection comes to mind, that they’re little more than longer episodes. I’ve always had a hard time figuring out what that meant; but after reflecting on it as I type this, perhaps it has something to do with the status quo. The difficultly with episodic television is that things have to stay more or less the same, so that viewers can jump into a show kinda whenever they want. This is usually achieved through a lack of character development, a lack of long story arcs, and a shallow pool of environments from which stories can be drawn.
Indeed, the strength of the original Star Trek series was not its characters, but its stories. It was very much a Medieval kind of affair, in that sense, for its most memorable episodes were allegories (like, um, basically every Arthurian romance). The episode where they meet aliens that are half black, half white jumps immediately to mind, as does the one where the Enterprise discovers that the Federation’s hated foe the Romulans actually look a lot like their allies, the Vulcans (are they really so different from us, etc?). My understanding is that Gene Roddenberry specifically wrote the show as a way to comment on current social issues. That’s great, but that has the necessary result of having Star Trek resemble the morality plays of the Middle Ages more than the psychological character studies found in Shakespeare, Cervantes, and the writers they inspired.
Isn’t that an interesting juxtaposition? The rigid morality play structure of the Original Series is suddenly brought face to face with the psychological tradition of Shakespeare.
What, then, is the difference between this movie and something like Star Trek Insurrection? How is one somehow a legitimate movie in its own right while the other is somehow more episodic?
To answer that, we must go back to the second Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan. The directer of that movie, Nicholas Meyer, also directed The Undiscovered Country. Not coincidentally, the themes are very much connected.
The Wrath of Khan deals predominantly with the mid-life crisis of Kirk, and by extension his crew. This is an underlying theme of many of the original six films, but it shows up most strongly in this one and The Undiscovered Country.
Wrath begins with Kirk’s birthday. He is no longer in command of the Enterprise. He feels listless, purposeless, and old. The movie then delves into a life or death struggle between him and Khan, an old enemy, over the Genesis Device, something that can make dead planets live. Subtle, huh? In the end, Kirk discovers his own Genesis Device: the USS Enterprise. He retakes command in a time of crisis, defeats Khan, and even manages to reunite with his estranged ex-wife and son for good measure.
Enter the sixth film. Kirk is set to retire, as are the rest of his crew. This last mission, to facilitate the diplomatic mission that might save the Klingon Empire after the explosion of Praxis, is one he engages in utterly against his will. It goes against the prejudices he has built up against the Klingons over the course of an entire career, culminating in the death of his son at the hands of a Klingon in the third movie.
He spends the film getting over this fear of change, admitting at the end of the film that he’s going to have to get over his old hatreds. They are obsolete. This acts as both allegory for the end of the Cold War, and as a kind of climax for Kirk’s giant midlife crisis begun during the Wrath of Khan.
In setting down his phaser, so to speak, he is essentially saying, “My term of service has ended. I have done my duty. The old war has ended. I can step down and let the next generation take its place on center stage. Let them face their own challenges.”
Kirk let go of his demons, and in so doing achieved a kind of catharsis. He had one last romp, saved the day one last time, and can now end his career with honor. This goes off the rails a bit later on, when he saves the Enterprise-B from an energy ribbon in the next film, Star Trek: Generations. In so doing, he gets trapped in basically Paradise, gets rescued by his successor Captain Picard (time travel and such), and dies saving his progeny.
Kirk manages to die in the arena, which suits his character much more thoroughly than an uneventful retirement. That’s more McCoy’s bag.
(Aside: The Wrath of Khan provides an interesting foil to Kirk in the form of Khan. The film makes several references to Moby Dick. This is no accident, for Kirk is basically Khan’s white whale. He chases his prey so feverishly that it eventually ends in his death. He could not let go of the past, and thus had no future. His undiscovered country was, like Hamlet’s, death.
Kirk, on the other hand, copes with the past. He grapples with it, wrestles with it, and finally comes to terms with it. Yes, the Klingons killed his son. Yes they’ve been at Cold War for 70 odd years. All that he recognized, and fully, but somehow, unlike Khan, he was able to progress from his hatred into a kind of understanding, that the Klingons weren’t all evil, that the wold was moving on, that all he could do was try and age gracefully, moving out of the way to let the next batch take over. Indeed, he died so that his successor could go on.)
Things do not return to the status quo ante. That is the difference between the Meyer films and, say, Star Trek: Insurrection. Now, I happen to like Insurrection, and in the very best Star Trek tradition, it is an allegory, this time for something like the forced migration in the name of “progress” of the Trail of Tears (or whatever modern equivalent was topical in the late 1990s). That’s great. But that means that the vigor of the thought was put into the structuring of the allegory, not so much on the nuances of character.
Heinlein novels are very much like this. They’re wonderfully well thought out socio-political thought experiments, rivaling Rousseau in their scope and vision. But, barring a few exceptions, they are not great novels, or even exceptionally good ones. Most do the job, from a psychological perspective. Allegorically, they hit the mark again and again, hammering home a consistent vision of how things are and ought to be; very much like the very best Star Trek episodes–but not, oddly enough, like the very best of those movies: The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country. Allegory plays a part, at least in the latter film, but their strength and charm lies in their focus on character, on psychological nuance, on exploring the motivations that drive men…
Allegory is harder to maintain; the momentum dies more quickly. I think that is why the episodes of Star Trek tend to hold up better than their movie counterparts (and why the better satires are usually shorter). I also think that’s why the best of those films happen to be the most psychological of the bunch (Star Trek: First Contact ditto, ie Picard’s “white whale” obsession with fighting the Borg).
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