The Atlantean Sword

Music has never been a big part of my life. That may seem very weird to most people, but it’s true. I never owned any music CDs, and the total cumulative time I spent listening to music as a teenager may be best represented by the Arabic numeral that resembles a circle (namely 0). In later years I’ve tried to experiment a little, and perhaps one of the things that has best helped me to understand and appreciate the role of music have been film soundtracks. Coming across the Alan Smithee cut of Dune helped immensely, demonstrating that it was no use having extra scenes if the mood of the movie was mutilated by a mistimed and mangled soundtrack.

Which takes me onto today’s scene. It may not be a popular opinion, but I genuinely believe Conan the Barbarian is a work of art, something that stands far above the standard Sword and Sorcery film of the 80s (I enjoy many of those too, but they are guilty pleasures). That’s not to say it doesn’t have have silly and schlocky stuff in it, as well as several scenes that are perhaps best skipped over. But I do not think the film as a whole has received the critical reaction it has deserved. Its cinematography is amazing (and from what I understand actually rediscovered some lost camera techniques), the battle scenes are clear and exciting, and there are a number of good performances (including – at least some of the time – from Arnold himself).

But perhaps one of the reasons it has been so under-appreciated (but one of the reasons I love it) is that its approach to story telling is so different from that of most films made in the West. There’s very little dialogue. Rather the burden of the story telling falls on the occasional monologue by the really good actors (Max von Sydow, James Earl Jones and so on), and upon the soundtrack itself. Basil Poledouris created for this film what I think is the greatest film soundtrack of all time, not least because how well integrated it is to the story telling in the film itself.

But since it is better to show rather than tell (or in this case, show and tell), here’s one particular scene that stands out, coming shortly after Conan has been freed by his slave master:

There’s so much I could say about this scene. It starts off with some silly patented Arnie sounds as he falls down the hole, which I’m sure connoisseurs of “eeaaarrrggghhh” really appreciate. After that however, as Conan finds himself in this tomb of the ancient world, the scene becomes achingly beautiful. The ability of this scene to evoke such a particular atmosphere – one filled with awe and mystery – dwarfs what I’ve seen in any other comparable fantasy film. It’s common for youtube comments to make statements like “they don’t make films like this any more”, but the truth is that few people made any films like this at all. And underpinning the scene, creating the atmosphere and telling the story is Poledouris’ soundtrack, for only one word is actually spoken in the entire (“Crom!”).

It’s such a wonderfully evocative piece. The low notes seem to me as if they could be the actual voices of the dead kings, speaking low out of the dust. There is an air of long-forgotten, long-dead power and grandeur. Then Conan finds the sword, which seems fitting, considering the role of swords both in mythology generally, and especially the role of steel as a motif throughout this film.  As Conan attempts to uncover the sword, the skeleton of the ancient monarch moves. In a more generic Sword and Sorcery flick (indeed, possibly in the original short stories), the skeleton would attack. But here it does not: it slumps over, its helm falling to the ground, its head bowed. The movement is ambiguous: it could simply be coincidence, the result of disturbing the body. And yet at the same time it appears as if the ancient king is paying respect to Conan, passing on the sword to its new inheritor. The soundtrack shifts, almost to one of mourning and of lost glories. It is at this point Arnold says his one line, but “Crom!” here is not simply an exclamation. Conan is being reminded of what his father taught him before his village got wiped out: of Crom, deep in the earth, of the riddle of steel and how men learned its secret.

Up to this point, Conan has still been a slave. While he had been freed by his former master, he did not actually want to go, and had to be driven away. While instructed in many arts, his will has been forgotten, and so it is fitting that to this point his still has his shackles on him, for he still wears slavery’s shackles on his mind. But with this sequence, claiming the sword also seems to be a reclamation of his identity and will. “What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” asks the villain, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) later in the film, and here the sword appears to be a symbol of strength of will and character that Conan now reclaims. As the music moves to a triumphant note, it is fitting that as Conan now emerges from the tomb he uses the sword to strike the remaining shackles from his feet, a slave no longer. All this, in a sequence that has but one spoken word. One may almost not notice how the breaking of the shackles is perfectly choreographed with the soundtrack.

And rather hilariously, we see the wolves move to attack, Conan give a determined look… and then in the next scene (not shown above), we see him wearing wolf-skins… I honestly love this film.

Edit: And for a critical take that does engage with the film as more than it is often caricatured as, I’ve come across this article here: A Critical Appreciation of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian by David C. Smith

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“Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time”

A fairly famous scene from a fairly famous movie that I have long loved:

What I particularly love about this scene comes at the point where Luke asks about “Obi-Wan Kenobi” (at 3:15 on the video above). There’s a beautiful synergy between Alec Guinness’ facial reaction (before he says any lines), the way the soundtrack kicks in, and even the way the camera moves ever so slightly out and up, suggesting the impact on Obi-Wan of hearing that name. The soundtrack at this point is wonderful, suggesting (to my ears at least) an air of something both exciting and mysterious. Even as a child, I knew this moment was special.

This scene does a great job of helping to evoke the existence of a wider universe (something the original Star Wars in general is great at, hinting at a much wider universe than it’s telling us about). But more importantly, it gives the right feel and weight to this moment, because this is the point at which something mythic kicks in. Sure, exciting stuff has happened (the opening, the Droids escape and so on), but this is the point at which the story isn’t just about a Galactic Empire and political rebels, but the force, the Jedi and everything else enters the story. And this is the point that Luke himself receives his “call to adventure”.

It’s no secret that Star Wars has heavy overlap and was likely directly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s ideas of the monomyth or “Hero’s Journey”. In this schema, the “call to adventure” is precisely the point at which the hero learns (often via a wise mentor) of something beyond their mundane world and is summoned to act in this new realm. The call is often refused at first (as indeed Luke tries to too), but once that call is accepted, there is no going back to that former world. And – while there is more to come right after this scene, including Obi-Wan telling Luke the truth (“from a certain point of view”) about his father and presenting him with his lightsaber, this little scene manages to capture the atmosphere of such a moment, the point at which Luke learns of a new, mysterious world and begins his hero’s journey. It’s a fantastic moment that continues to stand out.

And then I remember with some amusement that this was made by the same man who gave us the prequels and Howard the Duck

Unbreakable

This post is a break from my usual topics, something that’s likely to happen a bit more often now that my mind has more freedom to wander. In truth I’d wanted to write a few posts about some film scenes anyway, and I’ve discussed at least one before. While I have no love for self-consciously artistic films, or for Oscar bait, I enjoy films, and love it when a film, though good writing and cinematography, manages to mean something more than just entertainment, and speak to timeless and profound things. And sometimes that’s found in unexpected places. It doesn’t seem to be found in the aforementioned artistic films, perhaps because modern art is too attached to the present, and too intent on subversion, to speak about transcendental things that build up.

I’d in fact originally thought of this topic as a series named “great scenes in bad movies”, but then I realised some of the movies I was thinking of weren’t that bad, and the film I’m discussing in this post is actually very very good: it’s just the product of a director who has also produced a lot of bad bad films. Unbreakable is by no means a perfect film, but it is a great one, and one I personally believe is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film, one which with time can be seen to outshine Sixth Sense, let alone the many duds Shyamalan has produced since. This scene here is one of its highlights. As a fair warning, this post will contain spoilers (although I’ll avoid the film’s biggest), but in any case the film was released 17 years ago, so if you haven’t watched it your really should, especially with a sequel now on the horizon!

So to recap (or if you don’t mind spoilers), Unbreakable tells the story of a man named David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has a dead-end job, a failing marriage and every sign of some form of depression, who somehow survives a train crash that kills everyone else aboard without any injury. He falls in with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic-book dealer with severe brittle-bone disease, who is a bit of a kook who believes comic books express some ancient truth, and that individuals like David may be invulnerable to injury and disease. Under Elijah’s rather stalkerish prodding, David discovers that he has indeed never suffered any injury or illness, possesses extraordinary strength, and can mentally pick up on the criminal acts of people he comes into personal contact with. His only apparent weakness appears to be water, which is suggested to be his Achilles heel by Elijah. Increasingly aware of his abilities, he follows Elijah’s suggestion to seek an opportunity to act upon his abilities, and discovers an evil janitor (the orange-suited man), who has invaded a home, murdered the father, and is holding the rest of the family captive. The scene comes in when David has entered the home, intent on intervening:

The bit that particularly gets my attention is the 35 seconds from 02:35 onwards. After falling onto a canvas covered swimming pool and being rescued by the very kids he is trying to save, you see him slowly clamber out of the pool. As he does so he is hunched over, the same height as the children (slightly out of focus in the background), small and vulnerable. Then, in perfect coordination with the majestic soundtrack, he rises. The children suddenly come into focus, but now appear to be looking up in awe at this figure that now appears to dwarf them. If it hadn’t dawned on the viewer earlier, then they realise at this point: this is not a psychological drama, it’s about a superhero.

Quentin Tarantino aptly suggested that the marketing of the film should have had the tag-line “what if Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?”. This is the point at which he, and the audience, fully realise he is superman. And it is so perfectly portrayed in just 35 seconds of film without dialogue.

Yet, while the protagonist is indeed physically superhuman (as the orange suited man finds to his cost), I think this little sequence also shows another aspect of his heroism. While he is indeed immune to injury (save any water-based attacks), I believe it is not this alone that lies behind the title of the movie. We see him here faced with his kryptonite, one which save for the intervention of those he is about to save would have killed him. We see him here bent over, weak, reduced in stature. And yet he rises once again, and becomes the hero that is needed, because it is not only his body that is invulnerable. Despite setback, weakness and near-death, he rises once again because it is his spirit that is unbreakable.

Fantasy, morality and “the Tao”

Stories can be powerful things. I think it is no accident that much of our scriptures come in the form of stories; God, if he’d wanted to, could have chosen instead to give us an inspired Gospel Principles manual… but he didn’t. And in many instance I believe that – while it is important to know that such events took place (particularly with things like Christ’s resurrection) – in many instances there are messages we can learn from those stories that go far beyond the simple fact that such events took place. And I’m not alone in that: Paul writing to the Corinthians states the scriptural events  “happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11) while Alma looks upon the account of Lehi and Nephi’s journeys through the wilderness as a “type” of our journey through mortality (Alma 37:38-45).

Fiction too can teach powerful things. While fiction can’t serve the same purpose as, say, Christ’s ministry in 3 Nephi (where the text’s ability to serve as a witness depends very much on it having actually happened), I think fiction can teach of true things. I personally enjoy quite a bit of both fantasy and science fiction, for instance, but I’ve long been persuaded that – while talking of quite unreal things – they can teach of really true things like courage, justice, duty, humility and many other things. Balrogs and magic rings may not exist, but the seductive appeal of power and its corrupting effects seen in The Lord of the Rings does.

I occasionally have a desire to write some stories that have been on my mind for a long while, so I think of this sort of thing occasionally. In the last couple of years, my attention has been drawn to more recent fictional franchises, and as it has I’ve become a little more aware, and slightly disturbed, by the “moral universes” depicted in those works. What I mean by that is the morality and the moral consequences displayed in those works. This has been justified as “more realistic” or more “gritty”. But they are not. Even a godless world would be simply amoral, yet in these created worlds fate itself bends so that evil triumphs, even when said perpetrators of evil have behaved in a stupid, reckless or short-sighted manner. The accusation is that works in which good wins because it is good are naive. In some cases it is. But what then are we to make of works in which evil wins simply because it is evil? I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the postulated moral landscape of some of these universes are not godless worlds; they have a god, and he is the devil. A world in which chance itself reliably rewards the most outrageous performer of evil is one based on a thoroughly unpleasant calculus. What sort of world is that imagining? What can that inspire or teach?

So I was very interested to come across the following article by some chap called Tom Simon, who explores this whole issue in fantasy in some depth drawing upon C.S Lewis’s concept of “the Tao“. The whole thing is worth a read, but a couple of highlights:

When I turn from real life to fiction, I find a curious difference. In the stories of the past – in nearly all fiction before, say, the late nineteenth century, and all popular fiction until a much later date – the Tao is taken for granted; only there is a class of people who do not observe the Tao. These people are called criminals, or outlaws, or villains. In the older kind of fiction, the villain upsets the Tao to take advantage of a weaker party, and the hero restores the Tao by avenging the victim.

He then covers some of the directions that fantasy literature has taken, including anti-heroes such as a Conan, the supposed “simplistic” Tolkien (a critique he neatly dismantles) and then the more recent “full-throated reaction against the Tao” seen in things like Game of Thrones and Sin City. And he goes into both why such works caricature reality and why they may be so popular today as they cater “to a thoroughly jaded and desensitized audience”

However, I particularly like how he finishes. His essay is not a counsel of despair, but rather a call for “superversive fiction”:

…But people want stories about violence and criminality? Very well; let us tell them. But let us tell the whole story, with the post-mortems and the blood feuds and the vengeance. And let us contrast it with some instances of actual heroism…

There does, I believe, come a revulsion; a point where people are no longer content to be fifteen-year-old rebels even in their fantasies, but want more sustaining food for their imaginations. Let us be there to give it to them. We can produce better effects – better conflicts – with chiaroscuro, with darkness and light, than the nihilists can ever produce by layering darkness upon darkness.

I highly recommend reading it all.