The Schlocky Sword and Sorcery Worlds of
Robert E Howard
Robert E Howard has been called the father of the sword and sorcery genre, and he’s the creator of characters like Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, Kull the Conqueror, and Red Sonja. His stories are strange and wonderful, especially for those who gravitate towards tales of fantasy. It’s been more than eighty-five years since Conan, his most famous character, first appeared. Since then Conan has appeared in countless short stories, comic books, animated television series, movies, and spinoff movies. He’s a character that travels through worlds that contain magic, monsters, demons, necromancer sorcerer kings and queens, and spells to bring about the end of the world. It’s a series that comes from a time before Tolkien’s emergence as the father of fantasy, when the true scope of fantasy had not yet been pushed to its limits. Fantasy stories were often published in pulp magazines or penny-dreadfuls (Howard and H.P. Lovecraft actually both wrote for the same magazine- Weird Tales- and during the same timeframe, too). What today is considered classic fantasy was widely regarded as throwaway material when it first was published. It should be no surprise to us that many of the stories from Howard are somewhat basic, and frequently schlocky and ridiculous. These are fantasy stories from a simpler time, when it wasn’t expected that fantasy worlds should come with thousands of pages of backstory and history, multiple languages, and so many characters it’s impossible to keep track of them all; these are the kinds of fantasy stories you can sit down with, enjoy for a few hours, and remember fondly.
Though I’d consider myself a fan of Robert E Howard’s work and the sword and sorcery subgenre in general, I’m also a cinephile. I’m well aware that the Conan movies are not good films, and that is a point I bring up in all of the reviews included in this series. But just because I’m aware how bad they are, that does not keep me from enjoying the films. Why? Well, if you’ve followed this blog or podcast for a while, you’ve probably heard me lament the fact that truely great fantasy films are rare, and that's a point of sorrow for me and fans of fantasy everywhere. While these films are not cinematic marvels at all, they are silly adventure films with lots of stuff you’d find in the pulp magazines just like Howard and Lovecraft wrote in long ago. They include magic, princesses in danger, hulking barbarians, shadowy demons lurking behind mirrors, and giant birds made of smoke. These movies are made for people who can’t get enough of fantasy (I.E. me), and are fine with forgiving the things that don’t work (of which there are plenty). Many of the special effects are outdated, none of the actors are stellar, there are some rather dated/ awkward misogynistic parts, the storylines are simple and sometimes dragged out, the stakes are usually silly, and the cinematic execution is almost always lacking. So why watch these films if I know they’re terrible? If you have to ask, then you aren’t as big of a fantasy fan as you think you are. I find fantasy films fascinating, even if they fail spectacularly. Fantasy is a genre that I continuously return to, and since I've joined the writing staff of TMM, I've been looking for fantasy films on which I could do a series. Though some of the films in this series were quite arduous to get through, overall I really enjoyed my experience going through them, and I hope you can enjoy my thoughts.
For this series I reviewed a total of six films:
Arnold Schwarzenegger is our hulking titular lead in our first Conan adventure. Conan the Barbarian tells the story of Conan's younger years, and his quest for vengeance on the sorcerer Thulsa Doom, who murdered his family. It also introduces characters that are mentioned in other films, such as Valeria, Conan's love interest.
Arnold reprises his role as Conan. This time, Conan is charged by a queen to take a princess on a perilous journey to retrieve a magical horn, which will resurrect the god, Dagoth.
3. Red Sonja (1985)-
Arnold is tricked into a role remarkably similar to Conan. He accompanies Red Sonja on her quest for vengeance on the sorceress that killed her family.
This film was originally written as a direct sequel to Conan the Destroyer, however, when Arnold refused to reprise his role the film was shelved for more than a decade, before being repurposed as what it is now. Kevin Sorbo stars as Kull, a barbarian from Atlantis, who is given a kingdom by a dying ruler only to have it taken away. He fights for his lost kingdom against a sorcerer, hoping to stop them from summoning a demon.
James Purefoy stars a Solomon Kane, a former mercenary turned puritan, seeking a path to redemption and a path home to his kingdom. Along the way he fights a sorcerer.
Kahl Drogo- er- I mean- Jason Momoa stars as Conan. Conan seeks vengeance on the sorcerer who killed his father and slaughtered his village. Are you seeing a pattern in premises?
Again, none of these films are great cinematic masterpieces, but they are from a genre that I absolutely love. This was a series I'd sort of been looking forward to, and in the end, I really loved doing it. This is the first series in a slew of fantasy film series I hope to do with this site. There are all sorts of small subgenres that dwell under the fantasy hut, and I hope to explore many of those subgenres in detail. I guarantee not all the movies I review on my quest through fantasy’s cinematic worlds will be good, in fact I can almost promise most of them will be bad, but this is something that brings me joy, and if you like fantasy as much as I do, hopefully it will bring you a little joy too. It will probably be a while before I tackle another fantasy subgenre since we have a few upcoming series that I know will take up a lot of my time, but if you have fantasy films or fantasy subgenres that you'd like to hear my thoughts on, leave a comment below! We'd love to hear from you!
Until then, Crom be with you on your travels. Keep your swords sharp and your wits shaper.
The An Age Undreamed Of Series was created by: