August 26, 2011

[Unfulfilled Hopes] King Conan: Crown of Iron

Previously published at Hope Lies.

Conan the Barbarian, raised as a slave and gladiator after his village is slain, who gains freedom and seeks vengeance against Thulsa Doom, the sorcerer cultist who took his father's sword. Conan the Destroyer, who cut down the wizard Toth-Amon and led a band of warriors to kill a god and save a sacrificial princess. One of these films has sunk into the public conscious as an often poetic pulp exploration of freedom, what is best in life, and the riddle of steel. The other is a hacked out two-fisted sequel. Yet both left the promise of something greater to come with their shared final image of an aged and bearded King Conan brooding over his destined throne. There were attempts at a third entry, the longest of which, Conan the Conqueror eventually gave up on the return of Arnold and settled on Kevin Sorbo and the name of another Robert E. Howard hero as it was retitled Kull the Conqueror. It wasn't until John Milius, writer/director of the first, decided to return to the series he had to abandon for Red Dawn that another chapter seemed like a very real possibility.

Which brings us to the subject of this piece, King Conan: Crown of Iron, the first in a series of articles where I'll dig into my massive collection of screenplays (begun at age 14) and fill you in on films that either never came to be or started out significantly different than what made it to the screen. At the time of this script, dated March 2001, both Milius and Schwarzenegger were getting a little desperate for a hit. The director made quite a name for himself in the 80s with the powerful and primal hits Conan The Barbarian and Red Dawn, and seemed to be angling for a big auteur career, but Farewell to the King and Flight of the Intruder floundered, and he spent the 90s doctoring a few scripts and directing a pair a TV movies. Schwarzenegger didn't fare much better. Following 1994′s smash hit True Lies, the top action star had faded in bad comedies (Junior, Jingle All the Way), mediocre action pieces (End of Days, The 6th Day), and whatever the hell you want to classify Batman & Robin as. Hard times had fallen on both and they hoped King Conan would be just the project to return them to past glory.

The script opens with an older Conan camping in the wintry woods between whatever nomadic wanderings he's been on lately. He encounters a woman, Daughter of the Snows, priestess of the Ice Worm, who seduces him and conceives a son. She will only let him have the boy, though, if he returns with the riches of an empire. So Conan sets out to gain power, starting as a lowly centurion, then rising the ranks to command a legion as he learns about Civilization and the strength of an army when their men are linked as a chain. He returns after several years with chests of his plunder and spoils, and reclaims the boy, only for Civilization to rise up and tear them apart yet again. The emperor wants to make Conan a puppet king of the southern region where war is constantly fought with the barbarous, tattooed Picts, and Conan's son, Kon, will be held in the universities of the empire to keep the boy safe (i.e. make him a hostage to guarantee his father's loyalty).

That covers about the first 20 pages of Milius' extremely dense 146 page script, which is so heavily packed with characters and plot that it could fill a 10 episode season of Game of Thrones without feeling stretched thin. That's not to say it's as good as Game of Thrones, as some of the characters are indistinct, the dialogue is surprisingly stiff and heavily used given the long stretches of silence in the first film, and it bluntly hammers away at its theme of corrupting Civilization vs. pure Barbarism in long-winded exchanges that evoke Ayn Rand.

Much of this story is based on the very first of Howard's Conan tales to be published, "The Phoenix on the Sword", where the aging Conan has become a king and the "civilized" members of his court are so disillusioned with the simplicity of his "barbarous" leadership that they launch a brutal assassination attempt, only for him to violently demonstrate what Barbarism means. After a massive stretch of Conan moping and giving in to the empire's demands of tax raises and doing what he's told, while escaping among the everyday people every night under a wizard's magical disguise, it's only with this eventual assassination attempt that we get to see the Conan of old break loose as he fights off a wave of assassins before turning on the Civilization that made him the cold, fat old man he'd become. It's a decent character arc, but instead of taking a character that we know and growing them into something new, it opens with him being completely different and gradually working him back to the way he used to be. In Howard's original story, Conan was still Conan as he won the land by simply walking up to the king, strangling him on the throne, and claiming the crown. That's Conan. This Conan, the man who spent a film fighting for and learning the joys of a free life where all you could trust is your skill and steel, opens the film by selling himself into the army and becomes successful by giving in to the commands and manipulations of others. We don't even really see what tempts him to this life beyond his son, which makes it all the more unbelievable when he just casually lets his boy be taken from him.

Less of a problem, depending on the moment, is how half the film is dedicated to Kon, who grows into an emotionally detached but respectfully skilled soldier as he's constantly beaten over the course of his childhood by Fortunas, the spoiled son of the emperor, who assumes his father's mantle part way through and continues to playfully demand obedience from those he's humiliated. Where this leads to in the climax is hardly surprising, but Kon's cold reunion with his estranged father in the later half is quite nicely executed, especially following a recurring bit where we learn none of the letters they wrote over the years made it to the other as they were read and destroyed by enemies looking for weaknesses. It seems, though, that Kon is merely being set up as a replacement for Conan should other films come as a result, given the age of Schwarzenegger and peoples' bizarre refusal to recast by this point. They even try to give Kon a bit of the old pulp magic by having him hunt down and fight the massive Ice Worm so as to settle a question of his lineage. It's a great scene, but ultimately adds nothing as it strays from and does little to affect the central plot, which is already dragged out much farther than it should be.

Now, to be fair, this is an early draft, and the length and density are likely the result of Milius wanting to put everything on the page before gradually sculpting and refining it as production moved forward. The Ice Worm lineage would hopefully strip down, the 20 years worth of montages don't need to be spread over 100 pages. The two attempts to assassinate Conan and his way of using them to his advantage could be sliced down to one. More focus could be put on the relationships and battles instead of constant exposition about the pros and cons of Civilization. Even the central romance, where Conan falls for a simple woman who runs a tavern, doesn't need the added element of her being visually identical to Valeria, Conan's love from the first film. Milius' movies are never what I'd call lean as they have a depth and intelligence alongside his finely staged action, but there's definite fat that could have been trimmed from this monster. Hell, there's even a female centurion who shows up in the second half seemingly for no other reason than to write a role for the wrestler Chyna.

It's always hard to say from a script how the subsequent film would turn out. There are many great, powerful moments in this screenplay - Conan rehardening himself by chopping wood, a brotherhood and treaty forged between Conan and the tattooed Pict king Orlack Mac Morn, Kon's relationship with a witch and her daughter, the massive final battle between free people and finely tuned legionnaires, one of Conan's greatest foes also being his closest friend, yet another prayer to Crom - but it is a slog to get through, and even much of the trademark humor from the first is absent. The closest we get is a scene where a disguised Conan chases away thieves by catching a fly, but that's hardly a chuckle when we think back on the time a drunk Conan punched a horse.

It's a good script, not bad yet far from great, that suffers primarily from dragging out its philosophical exploration and having the lead act wildly out of character for most of the story. Despite this, there was a while there where it looked like the script would make it to film. Warner Brothers was a little hesitant to hand the reigns to Milius after his lack of blockbuster success and had concerns about the budget, but Schwarzenegger was in and the Wachowskis also joined as producers to help with the script and get it off the ground with Milius still at the helm. There were delays, though, and rumors of the casting of Kon swirled with no takers, despite a stretch where Vin Diesel seemed very interested. Schwarzenegger eventually put in on the backburner to shoot Terminator 3, then dropped out of acting afterwards to run for Governor of California. The production pressed on with word that Milius was talking to his friend, wrestler Triple H, about taking the role, but the studio wasn't interested and the Wachowskis eventually pulled out over increasing clashes with Milius. The siblings briefly returned to the project in 2006, looking to do it entirely on their own with the hopes that Schwarzenegger would be available again should he not win his re-election, but he won and they moved on to Speed Racer. It was eventually decided to completely reboot the franchise, the result of which hits British theaters this weekend.

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