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.
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…
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