The Riddle of Conan

If you need evidence as to how far White civilization has fallen in just a few short decades, and seek that record in popular cinema, you hardly need reach as far back as The Fifties, that relatively pristine postwar decade. You might merely watch a film from that equally pseudo-conservative golden age—The Eighties.

Certainly the style of this era is, to our jaded eyes, lamentable. Goofy and ridiculous might be the best words to describe it. Yet objectively speaking, the manner is more upright, energetic, honest, and optimistic, still naively believing in a happy, uncomplicated future. Shirts are still tucked in; sexes are still relatively differentiated; and a kind of innocence marks the female oriented teenybopper romances, while a credible toughness marks the action heroes.

Arnold on Horseback.jpg

Indeed, these action heroes were hardly actors at all; they were rather men—somewhere in the evolution from John Wayne to Daniel Craig, somewhere between a man for whom "acting" and "emoting" were as anathema as lying and someone who can masterfully and skillfully assume the taciturn, reclusive, irritated and aloof affectations of a man. One thinks of an aging yet still virile Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone and notices a nearly inverse proportion between manliness and acting ability. And among all the films of the '80s, action or otherwise, none is a greater celebration of masculinity—and the increasingly besieged White masculinity—than the remarkable and subversive film Conan the Barbarian. With the possible exception of 300, Conan is American film's greatest ode to European manhood since Birth of A Nation (1915).

In brief, the plot runs as follows. Conan is a child living with his family in the land of Cimmeria during the Mythical pre-historical Hyborian age. Here, his father introduces him to the “Riddle of Steel” positing it as a sort of philosophical quest in life, something that, if fully understood, will grant great power.

For no one, no one in this world can you trust, not men, not women, not beasts.
[points to his sword]
This you can trust.

Shortly thereafter, an army, headed by the sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and indoctrinated into the Serpent Cult of Set, descends upon their village. Both Conan’s parents are slain in the raid, and Conan himself is sold into slavery.

As a slave, he matures into a giant of a man—filled out by Schwarzenegger at his physical peak—and is eventually trained as a pit gladiator, developing into a seemly invincible, almost demonic fighter. He is freed on the whim of a drunken and sympathetic master and from there seeks out a new life, with vengeance still on his mind.

Through a series of adventures, he soon finds his opportunity to face Thulsa Doom and the Serpent Cult, as well as the opportunity to rescues a king’s daughter from this same wicked sect. So with a small band of adventures he acquired during his travails, he sets out with the “Steel” of his sword against the Cult of Set, which uses charm and mind control to enslave and indoctrinate the “Flesh” of its members. The rest, as our narrator describes, is a “tale of high adventure.”

What to make this film, which can so easily be dismissed as a frivolous, if politically incorrect, summer blockbuster?

First, there is Schwarzenegger. Perhaps he's not so much a embodiment of masculinity as a caricature of it. In this way, he's a symbol of the “pumped up” artificial growth of the '80s (whether it be through steroids or easy money). Had director John Milius a Gerard Butler, a young Russell Crowe, or a Hugh Jackman, he might have cleaved closer to Robert E. Howards vision of Conan (as well as the vision of him brought to life through Frank Frazetta’s paintings).

In the end, Schwarzenegger is, in a funny and charming way, a brilliant casting choice, and the film is unimaginable without him. To the contemporary mind, Schwarzenegger is Conan. And therefore Conan even further transmuted into the “Hyborian” Hercules he resembles. It is important to note here that Milius, who has said he intended his version of Conan to be a “Northern European mythic hero,” succeeded in making Conan even more “Nordic” than the “black-maned” hero of Robert E. Howard's novels. And in a Jungian sense, Schwarzenegger’s Austrian background is also not to be ignored. Indeed, what does it say about Americans and the moviegoing world that, some 40 years after World War II, yet another Austrian Superman would emerge from obscurity—only this time as a benign conquerer of the box office?

Secondly, there is James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, the high priest of the Serpent Cult. Most notably, James Earl Jones is Black. Making him the arch-villain was and is, by itself, subversive. And further, he is, conspicuously, the only Black in the film, which could have gone in for more “diverse” casting, so as to reassure the audience that not all Blacks are evil.

Arguably, race played less a role in Jones's selection than his iconic voice, which everyone remembers from the Star Wars movies. Jones voiced the popular villain in cinema history, so villainy was in his pedigree. Yet James Earl Jones is also in this role because the character he plays is a Stygian, which in Robert E. Howard’s world are unmistakably depicted as Black. John Milieus—who was the co-author of the first two "Dirty Harry" movies and whom I'll describe (for the moment) simply as "right leaning”—would unlikely have caved on this point for the sake of modern sensibilities.

Yes, the Midwestern Milieus was, by all accounts, the manliest members of the group Steven Spielberg dubbed the “mouse pack,” which included such prominent filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, and Spielberg himself. At the time, Milieus fancied himself as much a military general as a film director, in some cases insisting on directing scenes from horseback (!). He idolized John Ford, and, like Paul Schaefer, who obsessively pulled the trigger of an unloaded handgun while writing his scripts, Mileus was likewise fixated with weapons, once insisting that an expensive rare gun be included as compensation for the completion of a script.

And Conan the Barbarian is shot through with militaristic machismo. We see as well a Northern Europe tendency to correlate strength and valor with a lack of refinement, especially in the casting of actors and the directing of performance (though not in writing; men can write). Milius, to his credit, never aspired to be more than a B-movie director. Know thyself, it is said. . .

Nevertheless, despite some shoddy filmmaking in spots, Conan is a truly great film. It has a stirring, if slightly crass, score composed by Basil Poledouris, which was inspired heavily by Grieg, Orff, and Wagner. And the script, though hated by many critics along with most other aspects of the film, is well written in its cheeky way. Some of the lines are lifted from no less than Genghis Khan, and they never fail to bring a primal, barbarian grin to our faces.

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies—see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!

And the script is Nietzschean through and through. Take for example Conan’s prayer to his god, Crom, before the last climatic battle: Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That's what's important! Valor pleases you, Crom... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you! Conan's words are hard, undeceived, and defiant—in other words, beyond good and evil. Fittingly, the film opens with the title card: That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Furthering these themes, we see Conan as a sort of Anti-Christ. He is pitted against the Serpent Cult of Set, which can only be presumed to represent an early strand of Christianity, still incubating in a primitive, gnostic, Dionysian form—something intriguingly akin to '60s hippie-ism.

It is an ostensible religion of peace and love (even "free love") that nevertheless sees fit to conquer with sword and fire whenever its sorcery and enchantment are resisted.

At one point, a captured Conan is literally crucified by Thulsa Doom. Conan somehow survives the travail, through the aid of sorcery. This act of overcoming is doubtlessly designed to be understood as a symbolic overcoming of Christianity (and most definitely not as Conan becoming a Christ figure). This is even more clear in Howard's short story from which this crucifixion scene is derived (“A Witch Shall be Born”); here, Conan’s crucifying antagonist, in a clear reference to the founder of the Roman Church, is named "Constantius."

I’ve written before that the figure of Set can be understood as a Jewish figure in Egyptian Mythology. Yet in the context of Milius’s film, and Robert E. Howard’s universe, at least the intended reading is somewhat different. Howard’s notion of Set, transmogrified through the theosophy of Helena Blavatsky, by which the young Howard was clearly influenced, denies the Jewishness of Set, at least officially. In the context of the film, Set is only Jewish in the sense that Christianity, in the Nietzschean understanding, is also Jewish, indeed, impossible except as an outcome of Judaism. And certainly it is unlikely that Milius, himself a Jew, intended that the cult of Set serve as an analog for Judaism.

This stands at least as far as intentions are concerned. But looking closer at the film, we discern perhaps a subconscious, Jungian admission. Here, we have a cult that, like Christianity, is warm, fuzzy, hippy, and peace-loving on the outside, yet esoterically, in Thulsa Dooms inner Sanctuary, contains a den of predators, who use their “one true religion” to obtain obedient slaves. In a grotesque scene, the audience is shown that these slaves are even used food by the cult’s wicked and perverted elite. Is this, whether wittingly or unwittingly, a metaphorical depiction of Judaism, as not merely the origin but ultimately the esoteric core of Christianity (as well as its branches, such as liberalism and globalism)? Is this a depiction of Judaism as the herdsman who charms his flock through Christianity (or righteous liberalism) so that he may eventually fleece and consumer it, resource and all? Subversive indeed.

That said, by making Thulsa Doom Black and not Caucasian (consistent both with Howard’s world and Blavatsky ‘s cosmology), the resonance of this idea is attenuated, and the film is made less subversive and potentially anti-Semitic. A Black is made the fall guy and scapegoat, whom Conan finally punishes. One can’t help but think of the hapless figurehead Barack Obama and the ire he’s drawn from Red State Whites.

Sacrificing the Liberal Monster

Oliver Stone, who wrote the first draft of the script and, importantly, first conceived of Set as the adversary, is also influential. Consider the following: the three films that Stone and Milius worked on (both independently and, in the case of Conan, jointly) within the span of four years feature essentially identical denouements. These are Apocalypse Now (1979; Milius, writer), Scarface (1983; Stone, writer), and the least acclaimed, though perhaps the most interesting, Conan The Barbarian (1982). In each, the reign of terror of a “mad man” is ended by an assassin who sneaks into the mad man’s “temple."

In the case of the anti-hero Scarface (Al Pacino), the temple is a “temple to self”: a palatial home purchased by ill-begotten wealth. With Apocalypse Now, it is Kurtz’s compound, where he (Marlon Brando) has made himself a god. It could be very strongly argued that, from a conservative and traditionalist standpoint, all three of these “sacrifices” represent the slaying of liberal “monsters.”

On the face of it, Scarface is a cynical critique of the excesses of lassie-faire capitalism (not merely criminality), produced by some old-school socialists. But what does it also say, whether deliberately or not, about non-European, Hispanic immigration (even if relatively “good” Cubans appear in the film to mitigate anti-immigrant feelings)? The question is, of course, rhetorical.

In Conan, the “liberal monster” is a non-White leading a coalition of enchanted and beguiled Whites, understood in the contemporary context to be White liberals. Martin Luther King Jr.—the leading face of the civil-rights movement and the leader of "righteous" Whites—would be the first modern analog that leaps to mind (with the enchanted king’s Daughter playing a sort of brainwashed Patty Hearst). In Apocalypse Now, it is Kurtz commanding a coalition of non-Whites, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness adapted to a Southeast Asian locale. Here, in what is regarded as the most significant of the three films, Stone and Coppola make their point in a deeply Pagan manner. The assassination of Kurtz is intercut with the slaying of a sacrificial bull.

In Paganism, the slaying of the bull represents the solar overcoming the earthly and chthonic. It is a clear and unambiguous reference to the solar god Mithras slaying the bull (or Theseus slaying the Minotaur), which represents light overcoming dark, order overcoming chaos, man overcoming his lower and bestial tendencies. And it, in turn, is symbolically synonymous to Apollo’s slaying of the Serpent (Marduk’s slaying of Tiamiat, Sigurd’s slaying of the dragon Fafnir and so forth). And both symbols, Bull and Serpent, are totems of and synonymous with Dionysus.

Hence, Conan’s slaying of the serpent (Thulsa Doom and an earlier giant serpent) in Conan is likewise symbolically identical. What is the meaning of the slaying of a liberal-Dionysian monster—Liber, the root word of “liberal,” is a synonym of Dionysus—repeated by Stone and Milius? And why the sneak attack, as opposed to a direct confrontation? Is it possible to imagine that men like Milius and Stone saw Hollywood for the hideous beast that it was and is and desired, in the energy and optimism of youth, to “sneak in” and, through their art, commit a sort of traditionalist coup d’état? Did they hope the film might have the same consequence as the decapitation of Thulsa Doom—the releasing of an enthralled public being lead to its own destruction?

Stones of Steel

Oliver Stone, I know what you’re thinking, is a big lefty and would never have crafted the metaphors I’m suggesting (at least not intentionally). But upon a cursory review of his work, with a more mature view of things, really how “left” is he to us? For instance, he was well ahead of most of us when he explicitly attacked Randian-ism in Wall Street, all but lifting passages whole cloth from Ayn’s propagandistic prose, only to send them through his villain’s mouth. It’s our fault that a fair percentage of us had a “resistive reading” of Gordon Gekko and came to view him as, of all things, a sort of beleaguered and misunderstood hero, despite (or perhaps because of) the clear intention of the filmmaker. And it is our fault that many of us saw Platoon (1986) andBorn on the Fourth of July (1989) as “unpatriotic” films, unable to accept at the time that it was primarily Mammon America defended in these foreign entanglements, while we were told we were advancing Freedom, the American way, and, implicitly, Christianity.

And what about Natural Born Killers (1994), a film about violent and senseless commercial images turning Americans into sociopaths? Granted it wasn’t much of a film—stylistically, it was a failed experiment, and it featured Stone’s preachy pedagogy at its worst—but how far does the film’s perspective stray from the view of that three-headed Satan frozen in a block of ice, David Duke? And there also was that time Stone, virtually alone among Hollywood powers, criticized Israel and Zionist influence in the U.S. media. Yes, one night Mel Gibson became incoherently drunk and said something about “Jews starting all wars,” which him look insane, not truthful, to the public, but, unfortunately, that’s about the sum he’s contributed to the debate. Arguably much less than Stone’s sober remarks.

Now, is Stone, a co-writer of the “fascistic” Conan The Barbarian, a racialist and identitarian? Of course not. One telling scene in this regard comes in Any Given Sunday (1999); it features Coach D'Amato (Al Pacino) with his prostitute girlfriend (Elizabeth Berkley) watching a TV interview of his new Black starting quarterback, Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx). She’s smitten with him. The aging coach notices her attraction and indicates he will be happy to be dead soon. One senses Stone’s exhaustion and surrender as much as D’Amato’s.

And yet, in the climatic scene of Any Given Sunday, the capitulation is sanctified and embraced. Beamen is leading his team to victory on the field, as well as symbolically supplanting the outmoded, pocket-passing White quarterback (Denis Quaid). Over the same image, Stone overlays vintage images of all the old White football greats.

This filmic version of the fantasy to which every good Republican and Democrat clings: the Black is learning from us and being inspired by our history. White tradition will lead and improve the Black man. We can teach them to be us after all. What is conveyed implicitly is that our civilization and institutions, to mention nothing of the position of quarterback, is inheritable. The only redeemable aspect of the scene is that it so poorly done—Americanist propaganda in its death throes.

In the end, the political image that emerges of Stone is akin, in some dimension, to the late John Traficant, a sort of old-school, pro-labor unionist with trade protectionist tendencies. Stone, it could be said, is one of those on the left end of Jean-Pierre Faye’s horseshoe, who ends up having something in common with the Right.

Stone is guardedly pro-Putin; he thinks we have treated Russia disastrously; and he is currently producing a biopic of Edward Snowden. The polemicist claims the film will be objective, but, lets be serious, by merely telling the evidently brave and righteous man’s story, Stone is taking his side. Stone’s an idealist. Perhaps he’s a sort of silent ally, but he’s certainly not one of us.

A Dude’s Best Friend

John Milius is, ostensibly, more “right wing” than Stone. Nevertheless, Milius comes off as glib (if not completely idiotic) when he discusses politics, so much so that one is left to wonder whether Conan was intended entirely as camp, as perhaps films like Fight Club and 300 also were. Ultimately, we are left leaning toward “maybe.” In a 1999 interview, Milius toldFilm Threat, “I’m really an extreme right-wing reactionary.”

I’m not a reactionary — I’m just a right-wing extremist, so far beyond the Christian Identity people like that and stuff that they can’t even imagine. I’m so far beyond that I’m a Maoist. I’m an anarchist. I’ve always been an anarchist. Any true, real right-winger, if he goes far enough, hates all form of government, because government should be done to cattle and not human beings.

Very unserious stuff. But what do you expect from a man who, the Coen brothers indicated, served as inspiration for Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski

Interestingly, the character of Sobckak is understood in the film to have converted to Judaism, and not to have been born a Jew. Regardless, he remains not only devoted to that religion but also to his Jewish ex-wife, whose dog he tends to while she vacations with her Jewish boyfriend (“Marty Ackerman,” he is named). The Coens thus hilariously send up an all-too-common type: a Gentile neocon moron, who slavishly attends to the interests of others, while ignoring his own, to the point of literally functioning as a Shabbos Goyim. The Cohen brothers also indicate that Sobckak is not really a Jew. Might they be suggesting that same for Milius—that spiritually, he is not truly Jewish? They don’t seem to regard him as such.

In one of The Big Lewboski’s classic lines, Sobchak declares:

Say what you want about National Socialism, Dude, but at least it is an ethos.

What Jew says this? Or indeed, what Jew writes and directs Conan The Barbarian? In the Coen brothers world, he is depicted as being banished to a realm of stoned, degenerate, and dim-witted Gentile burners, who are, at best, likable and unwittingly hilarious dimwits.

Mirroring his character in the film, and like the fool who loves the stick he is flogged with, Milius remains a friend of the Coen brothers. It’s attention after all. And maybe Sobchak is a kind of photograph negative of the Coens’ view of Milius: he is a victim of Stockholm syndrome, having served as a propagandist for a culture not his own, and suffered the price for it.

Back to Milius right-wing “philosophy” above. Positing anarchy or Maoism as the extreme right wing, beyond the cartoonish red herring of Christian Identity, is, at best, random and confused (that is, if we are assuming sincerity, which, in the context of a public interview, we simply cannot).

Nevertheless, something relevant can be teased from Milius’s otherwise incoherent declaration on meta-politics. Anarchy—that is, individualism, libertarianism, atomization, something akin to the mentality of the great American Westerns—lies at the heart of Robert E. Howard’s work. And this, perhaps, is what made the evidently alienated Milius the perfect man to depict it. In some important way, Howard’s Conan saga is the tale of an opportunist, an entrepreneur, a capitalist, a freebooter and mercenary—an uprooted, rootless wanderer and wayfarer, who stumbles into kinghood through a sheer unconscious Will to Power and not by any noble desire to rule, which would have been regarded by Howard as pretentious and out of character. And isn’t this also the fatal problem of we benighted Americans?

Indeed, Conan would as soon have a “Kushite,” “Shemite,” or “Khitan” (or any other member of Howard’s fictional races) by his side, if he or she knew how to swing a blade. And much like other “lone wolves,” Conan is part of an organic, evolving world he does not understand. The Black, Lemurian races of Stygia (a fair percentage of which are reptilian shape-shifters) can never be trusted, and it is clear also that the other non-White races are understood as degenerate and dying. In Howard’s universe (and Blavatsky’s), collapsing races and societies, worlds like Atlantis, are only redeemed by genocidal cataclysms, which weed out the higher from the lower; they survivors conquer almost unconsciously, as barbaric peoples do, devoid of any “civilized” and paralyzing sense of empathy, and often simply out of a sense of necessity. In Howard’s world, the heroes are “collapse-tarians”. Nowhere do we hear Tolkien’s noble clarion call: “Stand Men of The West!

Stone and Milius and Conan fail in their lack of seriousness. Camp traditionalism will not suffice, even when the source is a pulp or comic book. Most great myths of heroes and gods had, no doubt, humble, popular, plebeian origins. But it was their purposeful cultivation by higher minds that made them great, useful, and civilization sustaining. And if Batman can be elevated to something approaching a serious film, certainly Conan can as well.

The Riddle Answered

Thulsa Doom ultimately solves the “Riddle of Steel,” at least for the far more powerful artist and propagandist, if not for the warrior.

Doom declares to the captured Conan:

Steel isn't strong, boy. Flesh is stronger.

By “Steel,” Doom means technology generally (techné), which includes, of course, weaponry. And by “Flesh,” he really means “the wielding of Flesh,” that is the controlling of people, through writing, theater, stories, propaganda, and religion. After all, what is an inert metal compared to the mind that gives it direction, purpose, and meaning.

Indeed, our race’s problems—whether our people are dying in the quicksand of the Middle East or being raped, murdered, or willingly impregnated by non-Whites—or, most commonly, simply living out infertile, terminal existences in cities—do not derive simply from “technology.” Certainly technology accelerated some of these problems, but it is not the source of them. One is reminded of Martin Heidegger, who concluded that the problem of technology is not a problem of technology per se; it is a problem of thinking.

The Collapse-tarian believes it impossible to regain the mind (or “Flesh”) of the great many, and impatiently awaits the time when “Steel” will once more determine things. But, alas, that time, should it come, will be far worse for him than his adversary if he does not first control “Flesh.” To believe otherwise, is to believe in a sword and sorcery fantasy.

Honesty like we have here and elsewhere is fundamental and requisite, of course. But so is art and metaphor conveyed through story. Because the subconscious is key. People, especially the great many, want to be told without recognizing that they are being told. Every advertiser and salesmen worth his salt knows this wisdom about common vanity, and we need to accept it as well. People’s decisions need to be, ostensibly, their own. In fact, this is what culture is—the reflexive, the unconscious. But to excel in art, one must become artful, gifted in lying.

Picasso said it best: “Art is a lie that tells the Truth.” It’s time to tell our truth through the lie of art. And before you think this unmanly, consider that Nietzsche ranked Princes the best of actors, even above women and the lower class. If survival of one’s people is the reward of acting, than the higher types will act. It’s time we barbarians learned to become “charming” (in all senses of that word). Its time we barbarians became civilized, because Thulsa Doom was right—“Flesh” is stronger than “Steel,” every bit as much as the pen is mightier than the sword.

We incredibly blessed, forgetful inheritors of European culture and teachers of the world should have known this and not suffered the shame of having it taught to us by others.