Monday, January 10, 2011

John Milius' Little Film

When I saw the Conan movie with Schwarzeneggar in the theatre back in '82, I had no prior experience whatsoever with the actor.  I knew the director, John Milius, from The Wind and the Lion, which I thought had a very funny portrayal of Roosevelt, and which I thought was a good movie.  I had aspirations about being an actor back then; I was fresh out of high school and I was paying attention to things like movie directors and scriptwriters.  The name Oliver Stone, who co-wrote Conan, was unknown to me.  I'm not sure I incorporated that knowledge until years later.

My point is that I came to Conan 'clean.'  Having no prior bias about Schwarzeneggar, I only wondered how the movie compared to the R.E. Howard's stories, which of course I'd read over and over throughout my youth.  And I remember coming out of the theatre after the film with the thought, "not bad."

Certainly not as hideous as later films, Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonya, both hideous films in the extreme.  Conan itself was a much better characterization, in part made better by a reduced dependence on dialogue but also because the film is a beautifully visual poem.  I own the film, and each time I watch it I find myself pleasantly enjoying each scene, and of course the music which underlays the film's tempo.

I watched it Saturday, contemplating as usual its comparisons with D&D play.  I thought about how the revenge story provides far better cohesian than the "let's protect the innocent macguffin" or "let's go get the macguffin to protect the innocents" ... the former of which appears to be the story line of Season of the Witch, that I turned down the opportunity to see the same day.  I haven't seen that film.  I probably will, since I consider Ron Perlman is the best, most underrated character actor in Hollywood history; but I don't relish the story line as it appears in the synopsis.

What's nice about Conan is that there is no 'push' in the plot that makes him go after Thulsa Doom.  No one directly connected to Conan is set to die, no one has been kidnapped, there's no threat of world destruction, no clock is ticking, no kingdom needs to be saved and Conan himself isn't 'the chosen one.'  Conan wants to kill Thulsa Doom because he wants to.  That's it.

True, King Osric wants his daughter, but Conan isn't the driving force to get the girl; he doesn't actually appear to care.  Neither do his companions, for that matter, beyond the fact that she's worth something.  As a macguffin, however, she's entirely dismissable.  One knows from the story that if she dies, she dies.  No world-changing disaster will ensue.  In the storyline, this is made the more true when there comes no silly reuniting scene between her and her father ... Milius knows no one cares about that.  We want to see Conan kill the bad guy, and we get that in spades.

What is Thulsa Doom, however, except a D&D character?  He butchers the village in his youth, when he's perhaps third or fourth level, only a bit of hack and slash before hauling away the loot.  One can conjecture how he grew tired of such things, how he turned his plundered income towards constructing a snake cult; playing the end game, as they call it.  James Earl Jones plays the character brilliantly - and its a far better character than Luke's dumb father.  Thulsa Doom lives several shades of evil, living creatively enough in his own mind to believe that he really has a chance at converting Conan into his son at the end.  The final look in his eyes at his death isn't frustration, it is honest, complete surprise ... as if anyone could possibly not see the logic in Thulsa Doom's potential adoption.

Watching the film again has set my mind in motion about sandbox movies ... for Conan's character (and Thulsa Doom, off screen) are motivated by no other force other than their own wants and desires.  With his enemy dead, Conan sits upon the empty steps of the temple and considers Thulsa Doom's last words.  What is he, now that the focus of his life is dead?  The film doesn't provide an answer.  No wise man comes up at the last moment to explain that Conan must follow this course of action or that.  No pressing issue arrives to push him forward.  King Osric can wait.  Conan has the world at his feet and he can do whatever he wants.

Give me a DM who can resist throwing in a hook at a moment like this.  A DM who can let the issue lay for a bit; who can let Conan return to Osric in his own time, get the reward, choose what to buy with it ... and NOT start filling up the campaign with new characters and demands on the player's time.

Isn't it true that DM's who must hurry forward with the next macguffin and the next quest fail to recognize that this is the player's time?  A chance for the player to catch a breath and decide what to do next, on their own?

People do not give Conan its due.  They'd rather worship films where every goddamned character is led around by the fucking nose.


Anonymous said...

"What's nice about Conan is that there is no 'push' in the plot that makes him go after Thulsa Doom. No one directly connected to Conan is set to die, no one has been kidnapped, there's no threat of world destruction, no clock is ticking, no kingdom needs to be saved and Conan himself isn't 'the chosen one.' Conan wants to kill Thulsa Doom because he wants to. That's it."

I can't believe you missed the pivotal scene in which Conan's mother is beheaded by Thusla Doom right before his eyes. The story is clearly a revenge tale:

Alexis said...

Um, Ben. I mentioned it's a revenge tale.

One thing that is missed about a revenge tale is that the character doesn't have to be vengeful. He wants to be. That is the point I was making.

Alexis said...

Somehow, I think that's not going to convince Ben. Longer version:

In a revenge tale, the character does not suffer if he ceases to seek revenge. True, perhaps others might suffer, but others are responsible for their own actions and anyway, in Conan's world there's suffering going on pretty much all the time (read the books). Conan isn't about ending anyone else's suffering. He may be about ending his own, but there's a recognition that Thulsa Doom's death doesn't actually make him happy. He's fairly morose.

Moreover, his friends repeatedly try to talk him out of it. They can think of better things to do than acts of revenge.

Thus, the dissimilarity with a railroading D&D campaign (did you miss the metaphor?), in that the writer (DM) doesn't harrass Conan constantly by having Thulsa Doom return again and again to attack Conan, thus forcing Conan to get rid of him. Here, Conan acts only on his own volition. This is the deeper point of the post - that DM's should allow players to have their own goals and aspirations. Whatever those goals might be.

Gawd. Did I 'miss' the mother dying? What kind of question is that?

kelvingreen said...

That's interesting about Osric's daughter. I own the film and watch it regularly -- your description of it as a visual poem is apt, I feel -- but I'd completely forgotten about her until you mentioned her. Absolutely non-essential, as you say.

sirlarkins said...

Nice to see the movie receiving such a cogent and thoughtful analysis--it's usually such a whipping boy on the D&D blogs I read.

There's a lot here, but I think the biggest take-away for me is the bit about allowing players breathing room. An excellent reminder that a a good GM should allow campaign pacing to occur organically when such opportunities present themselves.

One note on the end scene: Milius in his DVD commentary points out a great moment where the princess, seeing Thulsa Doom laid low, turns to Conan instead as her new cult of personality figurehead, bowing down before him...and how he just walks past her. In game terms, the player didn't take the bait.

Actually, the princess's forgetable role in the story reminds me of a campaign or two from past years where the GM tried to foist an "important" NPC on us and we preceded to pretty much ignore them.

The Jovial Priest said...

And it features a thief climbing walls. So what's not to like?

Anonymous said...

"Thus, the dissimilarity with a railroading D&D campaign (did you miss the metaphor?), in that the writer (DM) doesn't harrass Conan constantly by having Thulsa Doom return again and again to attack Conan, thus forcing Conan to get rid of him. Here, Conan acts only on his own volition. This is the deeper point of the post - that DM's should allow players to have their own goals and aspirations. Whatever those goals might be."

If a player decided that their hero would go off and do something else after having everything meaningful in their life destroyed by one evil individual, then that would be poor roleplaying. The player is compelled by the personal enormity of this single event to defeat said evildoer; if not to avenge the injury (for egotistical reasons), then to save other unfortunates from a similar fate (for altruistic reasons).

Conan isn't really a free agent in the story until he is freed from slavery in his adulthood. Thus, his entire motivation as a player character -- his goals and aspirations -- are dictated entirely by the "back story." Conan the PC is not motivated by "no other force than [his] own wants and desires" (which is a tautology) because he has his motivations handed to him by the plot.

Oddbit said...

It is not an unheard of phenomenon for someone to attempt to fly under the radar to avoid the wrath of a 'greater' being, possibly a villain.

An evil dictator kills my family, treats my people as slaves and has taken everything from me. A possible logical choice if it is ever granted is to take my freedom and find pastures away from the strife. Find a place to settle in where I am far from said dictator's reach.

I'll admit I have not seen the movie, (I think I may have caught some of it on public TV at some point) but that is the other path to a revenge situation, and one many people take I'm sure.

Our adventurer could 'settle in' by finding opponents more his speed. In a more hospitable hamlet three kingdoms over. To say that the only response to being ruined is revenge is to be quite one dimensional.

Anonymous said...

To Oddbit:

Ok, in my previous post I was I'm talking about the actions of the wronged hero when what I meant to elaborate on was his or her motivations.

It's one thing to say that the hero must be compelled by the plot to immediately carry out a revenge plan or go on the offensive against the Big Bad. There are many times in a story when it's not even possible; for example, in "Batman Begins," Bruce Wayne is unable to have his revenge because someone else gets to the target first.

However, it's another thing to say that the hero inevitably desires and wants justice for the wrongs committed in the "killed family, destroyed hometown" backstory.

At any rate, to suggest that one's motivations aren't influenced at all after experiencing such a personal traumatic loss is ridiculous, but this is precisely what is being suggested when one writes:

"Conan wants to kill Thulsa Doom because he wants to. That's it."

No one ever wants to do something just because they want to do it; that's just begging the question!

Good roleplaying includes considering motivations for the character that align with the character's capabilities, history, and environment. Since the DM controls many aspects of the environment, the DM is always going to have some influence on the motivations of the PCs; in the "doomed hometown" situation, that influence is greatly increased. Thus, it's a common plot device used to kickstart an adventure plot, to motivate the hero(es), and remove any attachments that the hero(es) might currently be motivated by.

Alexis said...

Conan’s backstory is the same a character might receive at the start of the campaign. The moment that Conan is freed is the moment the player takes over the character.
A DM must, at that point, accept a character’s decision not to revenge his parents. This is not “bad roleplaying.” Insisting that the character is the robot slave of his past IS bad DMing. You are thinking very two-dimensionally when you say that a character’s capabilities, history and environment can only result in one reaction to his parent’s death.
Conan was trained in the philosophies and poetry of the east. He would learn from that training that revenge brings only pain. This is a common point in philosophy. Conan could have been familiar with it. He is no more the robot slave of his parent’s death than he is the robot slave of a lust to write poetry because he has been introduced to it.
There are, in fact, many possibilities for the course of Conan’s life. He chose only one. A player should be free to choose others. A DM should accept this openly, freely, decently and without absurd complaints about ‘good roleplaying’ and ‘bad.’

Anonymous said...

I never "insisted that the character is the robot slave of his past," nor did I ever suggest that the DM should do such a thing.

I DO think that a character needs to have motivations that justify his or her actions, and that these motivations are informed and influenced by the environment and thus by the DM.

Conan might choose to live his life as a pacifist because he does not want to bring the pain that he suffered in his youth upon others; thus, Conan is motivated by his village's slaughter.

Or perhaps Conan might endeavor to kill or take away everything meaningful to Thulsa Doom and leave him to suffer the consequences, instead, because he wants Thulsa to suffer as he suffered; thus, Conan is motivated by his village's slaughter.

There are many actions that Conan could take based on who he meets, what he learns, and how the world changes around him. However, in the case of any of these events, his wants and desires have been invariably shaped by the losses he suffered; nothing can change that.

If one ignores such character-defining motivations in the playing of the game, one is essentially failing to step into the role of that character; thus, bad roleplaying. It's down to whether or not the player actually considers "what would Conan do and why?"

At any rate, it's obvious in the film that Conan is highly motivated by the losses he endures, the people he meets, and the situations he finds himself in; he certainly isn't "motivated by no other force." If filmmakers don't give at least some of their characters clear motivations for the actions they take, then the audience is left wondering why it should be caring about the actions of the characters at all.

Alexis said...

Blink, blink.

All right, you've had your say, Ben. Thank you.

In my world, a character DOES have a set of motivations. That is, the player's motivation to play the character however he or she damn well pleases.

azarous said...

I think what alexis is trying to say here is that conan's acttions are due to internal motivations (vengence for the killing of HIS mother and HIS enslavement) rather than external motivations (Thusla Doom is an evil that must be stopped because he is hurting PEOPLE OTHER THAN CONAN, there is a reward for rescuing the KING'S daughter). Conan is does what he does because HE wants to not because OTHER PEOPLE wnat him to. This is different from other hero movies becuase most other heros do thngs because other people want them to (greater good) thus they are "led around by their noses". Simply put the plot does not control Conan, Conan controls Conan.