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.