Much has been said of Trump’s success as a businessman, as an industrialist, as a media mogul, and now as a politician. One cannot argue with success–except when it’s irrelevant.
America has always been the land of the underdog. A small group of Pilgrims braving ocean and foreign land for the chance to practice their religion in peace; the ragged revolutionary besting the greatest army in the world; the rebel yell resounding in the halls of Washington; our little Sherman tanks facing off against the mechanical behemoths of Nazi Germany…
We don’t like the clear winner.
At least, that’s the America I grew up with. It’s a patent falsehood.
We brought old world technology and organized zeal to bear against the disorganized aboriginal tribes of the new; we organized a brilliant guerilla campaign against a politically divided and distracted enemy 3000 miles away in an age with no instantaneous communication; no underdog can face down the shame of defending slavery; and we brought to bear upon Nazi Germany a military industrial complex so overwhelming, we managed to fight two full-scale wars on six fronts all at the same time (land campaigns in Europe and the Pacific, Atlantic and Pacific naval campaigns, and the intense bomber campaigns that devoured both Germany and Japan).
We have never been the underdogs.
And yet, I find myself, again and again, rooting for them. I root for Hannibal against the Romans, the Red Coats against the Colonials, the Union against the Confederacy (huh?)…and the Trojans against the Greeks.
Walter Benjamin once quipped that history is written by the victors. I often wonder just how true that is. Thucydides wrote the history of the Peloponnesian war, after all. So while many wars are written about by the conquerors, it’s not some kind of law of nature. This became especially clear to me recently as I finally got around to finishing the Iliad. The Song of Ilium, with justice subtitled the Wrath of Achilles, was written by a Greek(s) and tells the story of their conquest of the city of Troy. One would assume that the story unabashedly takes the side of the Greeks, the author(s) being as partisan as the rest of us. This is not the case.
Time and again the Greeks, when compared to their Trojan enemies, come across as haughty, arrogant, vainglorious, and duplicitous. The Trojans, on the other hand, are more often than not honorable, stoic, stalwart (Paris notwithstanding). Both sides evince passions and foibles, but it is the Trojans, exemplified by Hector, who really come across as admirable men. Perhaps it’s no wonder that in the Middle Ages Hector was elevated to one of the Nine Worthies, up there with Judas Maccabeus and Charlemagne.
It’s Hector I want to talk about. There’s a scene in the 2004 adaptation of the Iliad–Troy–wherein Hector duels Achilles and, having fought bravely, is slain by his unbeatable foe. Everyone knows that Achilles is going to win–even Hector. Yet still he walks into the field of battle, resigned to his fate, a true Stoic. He doesn’t go quietly into the night, however; in and amongst the swordplay, he manages to graze the armor of Achilles, nearly wounding the demigod.
This scratch upon the otherwise completely unblemished armor of Achilles is worth some exploration. That a man could even touch a demigod seems to me quite incredible. Hector, knowing he is going to lose ,still does his level best, and leaves a mark upon his conqueror as a reminder of what was lost in the winning: a good man.
I think Trump would do well to remember the scratch upon Achilles’ armor. America has always been a land of winners and losers. We are not unique in this. History is the story of the quick besting the slow, the smart the dumb, the strong the weak. Nothing new. What is a little unsettling, in our case, is just how disproportionate our victories have been. We don’t just subdue an enemy, we decimate them entirely. A sliver of the aboriginal population remains on this continent. Post war Japan and Germany were irrevocably changed as a result of our bombing campaigns, occupations, and commercial interests. The middle east has seen an influx of billions of dollars, thousands of foreigners, and tens of thousands of corpses since the inauguration of the War on Terror.
We go big, then we go home.
I hope that, in some small way, this piece serves as a reminder of the little scratches our victories leave upon our national armor. They came not without cost; and we as a nation do precious little reasonably to ask ourselves if these victories were worth it. This question is rarely asked in a balanced way. Whether defending or bemoaning, the conversation is one that generally disregards the reality of the past.
The Right tends to erase the real cost of Progress, unable to face the human toll that allowed for the spread of Christianity, Capitalism, and the like. The Left, on the other hand, pines for a return to some halcyon time where aboriginals lived in harmony with nature and the White Man (that scourge!) was nowhere to be found.
Of course, both views of the past are patently ridiculous, alternative facts if ever such things existed–like my narrative of America the underdog: comforting but ultimately false.
What we need, and what T rump needs to come to grips with, is a rational look at the debt our nation has incurred in order to get where it is today; a solid understanding of what victory really means; and a recognition, that, for crying out loud, America is not in danger of being overthrown by a foreign power.
We are more a threat to the rest of the world than the rest of the world is to us. We have bountiful resources, the largest military in the world, a united and fertile population, a foothold on every major continent–and a president who is more interested in self aggrandizement than anything else.
Given our power, I wish that we were more like the humble and honorable Hector and less like the haughty, thin-skinned, vainglorious Achilles.
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…
Jean Froissart wrote a chronicle of the happenings of his day and age, covering events in and around 1320-1400 AD.
(Aside: Is anyone else perturbed by postmodern scholars using CE instead of AD? You know what gets me about the whole thing? What the heck does Common Era even mean? Common to whom, stuffy academicians? Islamic states don’t share this dating system in common with us: they date their events from the Hijra of Muhammad. If we want to grant that enough of the (West) world is no longer Christian, or realistically that enough of the (West) world is only nominally Christian, that’s all fine and good. How’s about we do the valiant thing and start fresh. If we want to use something as nauseating as Common Era, then I guess that’s ok too, albeit a begrudging ok from me, as this commonality is an elusive, mushy thing; but let’s start the CE at a proper date and time, whenever that might be. Oh, but that would be inconvenient, and when would we start it anyhow, oh and wouldn’t that upset a lot of people? Yeah, change is kinda like that. I don’t think the Pagan remnants of the later Roman Empire were very pleased when the Christians popularized their own dating system. Not everyone appreciates Progress.
But let’s be clear here: this Common Era, so called, starts when Christ entered the scene. Doesn’t that sit oddly with anyone else? Yeah, he’s just another man among many great men, but because it is convenient, we’re going to keep the whole count down and aftermath of his coming and going, which kinda makes it seem like he’s a little more important than, say, Muhammad, just to pick a name randomly. If Jesus was not the son of God, or if that is the consensus now, then maybe we should devise a dating system that doesn’t put the special pants on him, huh?)
Valiance: that is why I like Froissart and his Chronicle. It is chock full of men doing deeds brave and valorous. More importantly from my perspective: I am only 100 pages into it, an abridged version at that!, and I am vaguely aware that further along in the thing he puts more emphasis on his patrons than on *the other guy*, but thus far he has done admirably what too few historians and too few people have done: given the opponent a fair shake.
That requires valor to accomplish.
What makes treating your opponent like a fucking human being courageous? It certainly does not benefit those on the battlefield. I suspect the Russian soldier at Kursk, amidst the clamor and roar of thousand upon thousands of German planes and tanks and artillery pieces, amidst the howl of millions of Teutonic soldiers pouring out across the scarred and battle-worn landscape, would not have taken a moment to remind himself that, hey, most of them Germans probably didn’t want to be here in the first place. I bet a lot of them were conscripted, and could care less about Hitler’s increasingly deranged ideas about the Destiny of the Fatherland. Even the officers, many of whom were only in the army because it was the thing to do in Germany, not particularly because they were ardent Nazis, even they were not horrible guys. Wow, even the diehard Nazis themselves, well, I guess a lot of them have families, children, Christmas morning–or whatever those weird Germans do over there–heck, I probably don’t disagree with everything they have to say. It’s just that part about needing all us Slavs dead to make room for their Reich…that doesn’t fit too well with me wanting to live and all that. Guess that means I’ll have to fight it out with them. That’s pretty logical of me.
No, this Russian conscript no doubt considered the Germans bloodthirsty rapists who ought every one of them to be thrown back into the decadent West, and killed if possible. Because it’s that kind of dehumanization that makes conflict winnable. When a politician wants to be “tough on crime,” he doesn’t mention any of the terrifyingly understandable reasons one might break the law; he doesn’t look at the possibility that, maybe, the punishment ought fit the crime, and that the code of Hammurabi might not be the best place to draw inspiration from; and he doesn’t mention to his voters how ineffective and often cruel the crime fighting methods at his disposal are; he simply labels all humans breaking the law (and getting caught, that’s an important distinction) as “criminals.” That makes it easier to stomach the notion that he might be allowing the lifetime confinement of another human being, because he’s not imprisoning a man, he’s imprisoning a criminal.
That Russian isn’t about the get his bayonet stuck in the ribs of a man who will never see his family again; he’s gutting a capitalist swine.
I’m not strapping another human being into a restraint bed and holding him still while a nurse injects chemicals into his body; I’m restraining one of the crazies.
Froissart is no saint when it comes to stuff like this. I am given to understand he is the opposite of understanding when it comes to men not of the knightly class. Still, I think it admirable of him to write a history so that, as he puts it, “…the honorable enterprises, noble adventures, and deeds of arms which took place during the wars waged by France and England should be fittingly related and preserved for posterity, so that brave men should be inspired thereby to follow such examples.”
And so far, at his account of the Battle of Crecy for example, he gives fair play to both sides, recounting the valor of individual knights regardless of the banner under which he does battle.
I think it healthy to remind ourselves, through flawed writers like Froissart, that what we deal with in our lives are other people. Labels are necessary as organizational tools and concise descriptors; they ought not replace a man’s heart with a foreign piece of clockwork.
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