By Danny Anderson
John Milius helped define the 1980’s when he cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. The 1982 film jump-started the career of one of cinema’s most iconic action stars, and the epic brought to the screen a violent swagger that made it an instant cult classic. The film was merciless, cruel, and ever so chauvinistic. If ever a film flaunts the conventions of political correctness, this is that film.
Given all that, one might think that movie has aged badly and become reduced to a mere nostalgic curiosity, or, worse yet, only a cinematic pilgrimage for Proud Boys and devoted acolytes of Richard B. Spencer.
I say to you today that this is not the case.
Conan the Barbarian has become, to our collective cultural shame, more relevant than ever.
Make no mistake: this is still a very fun movie and its classic soundtrack works with its visuals and campy, committed performances to create a shockingly thrilling experience. But what I want to focus on here is how the film’s politics map so neatly upon our own in 2020.
First, there’s the civilization itself. Conan is born into a world in which the old orders have disintegrated. What has emerged in that vacuum is a combination of warlords and mysticism. In the figure of James Earl Jones’s Thulsa Doom, the mystic becomes warlord, and his snake-cult of personality spreads across former empires attracting young neophytes in hoards, undermining the very foundations of the old kingdoms.
It should be fairly obvious that I’m drawing a parallel between Thulsa Doom’s warlord mysticism and the rise of populism and neo-fascism. For example, Donald Trump has subverted the old political institutions on the backs of not one, but two religious cults: the Christian nationalism of Evangelicalism and the secular messianic faith of QAnon. Trump, like Putin, is no less a snake-king than Thulsa Doom.
And on the subject of snakes: in the last decade, the colonial era “Don’t Tread on Me” flag has become increasingly ubiquitous among certain groups. Whatever the origins of the flag are, people who fly it now signal an allegiance to an American micro-culture: militias, anti-masking, gun rights, and so on. This is merely a tip of the Balkanized iceberg that our society has become.
We see it every day with variations on the American flag. Blue lines, red lines, colorless, colonial, fringed. And that Confederate flag, of course. It seems each group has its own tribalistic version of America to pledge allegiance to. Like Thulsa Doom’s symbol of two snakes facing one another, these flags are symbols of our modern gods, and everyone must choose their own object of worship, their own proverbial Crom, Mitra, or Set.
The many gods of Conan’s Hyborian landscape are but one point of connection to our contemporary Balkanization. Conan’s debate with Subotai about whether Crom or The Four Winds are greater gods can be seen as a metaphor for our own many variations on the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter confrontation. Trump, for all his faults, is not the cause of this fracture, but another function of it, in spite of fantasies of a “return to normalcy.” Like Thulsa Doom, he has merely figured out how to rally his many tribes.
Our civil discourse has collapsed. Hear the lamentation of the women.
Blogger bio: Danny Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in PA. He tries to help his students experience the world through art. In his own attempts to do this, he likes to write about movies and culture, and he produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast so he can talk to more folks about such things. You can find him on Twitter at: @DannyPAnderson.
The Pavilion Blog is the companion blog of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies. It features brief, conversational reflections related to Robert E. Howard at around 500-600 words. Interested in contributing? E-mail the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org