Analysis of ‘Conan the Barbarian’

I: Introduction

Conan the Barbarian is a 1982 epic sword and sorcery film directed by John Milius and written by him and Oliver Stone. Based on Robert E. Howard‘s Conan, the film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role and James Earl Jones, with Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Max von Sydow, Mako, Sven-Ole Thorsen, and Ben Davidson.

The film gave Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition, and in the years since its release, it became a cult film, making a lot more money on home video. It spawned a sequel, Conan the Destroyer, in 1984, and a reboot was made in 2011.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

[My main concern in this analysis is the political agenda of this film. I very much like the movie, but that doesn’t mean I, as a leftist, agree with its politics, which I will criticize here. If you happen to love Conan the Barbarian, and you agree with the right-wing ideology that the film espouses–however subtly and allegorically–then this analysis is definitely not for you; therefore I recommend you read no further and find a more politically sympathetic write-up.]

II: Conservative Conan

I am analyzing Conan the Barbarian because it is very much a film of its time. Made in the early 1980s, it reflects, in symbolic and allegorical form, the politics of Reagan and his ilk. The film metaphorically not only glorifies the individualism that was and is part of the ideal of Reagan and other right-wing libertarians (who, incidentally, include Milius and Schwarzenegger), but also the reactionary hypermasculinity that went against feminist gains in the 1970s. There’s even a subtle nod to fascism in its light-brown-haired ‘Aryan’ muscleman hero fighting a black villain (Doom himself may not be black–he’s rather a member of an extinct pre-Atlantic race–but we see a black actor [Jones] playing him, and it’s the film’s social effect on our world that matters, not the fictional world it is literally presenting.), the decapitation of whom disturbed Roger Ebert. In fact, there was a white supremacist streak even in Robert E. Howard himself.

These three elements–right-wing libertarian individualism, hypermasculinity, and Aryan supremacist fascism–are interrelated, since the former two lie on a continuum with the extreme third (as even the social democracy of mainstream liberalism does, something Stalin noted). These three are especially interrelated in Conan the Barbarian, a highly entertaining film acting out the fantasies of mostly alienated pre-adolescent boys back in the early 80s (in spite of the film’s R-rating for violence, sex, and nudity); and it’s the mingling of these three ultraconservative elements that’s what makes the otherwise well-made film so dangerously seductive to such an impressionable young audience.

III: Steel

Let’s start with the notion of the “Riddle of Steel,” and what it can be seen to represent. While the fetish of weaponry (i.e., the steel of a sword) has long existed in literature–the Iliad, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc.–since this film came out during the early Reagan era and reflects the ideology of the time, we must consider what the steel of a sword can be seen to symbolize in the context of the film.

Steel is an alloy of iron with a tiny percentage of carbon to improve its strength. Iron, in turn, is an element forming much of the Earth’s outer and inner core (hence Crom, Conan’s god, is a god of the Earth). The point is that steel is derived from the Earth, fashioned for men’s purposes, as we see during the film’s opening credits. As a metal, like gold, silver, or copper, steel thus can be associated with money, the fetish of capitalists.

Since our concern is with the steel of a sword, we now move from the money-loving, Earth-plundering capitalist to phallic symbolism, thus linking the steel of a sword with hypermasculinity. After all, we don’t just see Conan displaying his muscles and brandishing a sword, but we also see him bed several women.

This hypermasculine association with phallic steel swords is reinforced in his constant killing of his enemies with his sword. This constant going out to far-off lands to kill others links the metal alloy of steel (symbolically associated with gold and coins) with the hypermasculine phallic sword and ultimately with imperialist plunder. Since this is a movie of the early Reagan era, we shouldn’t be surprised to see how these three elements of the “Riddle of Steel” are centred in capitalism.

IV: Flesh is Stronger

Of course, it must be emphasized that what Conan learns over the course of the film is that steel, the literal metal, is not the great source of strength that he, as a boy, came to understand from his father’s teachings. It is rather the steel heart of determination that gives one strength. In fact, Thulsa Doom (Jones), though originally coveting steel and killing Conan’s father and mother to acquire one of those swords, eventually learns that flesh is more powerful than steel, hence Doom’s snake cult.

Now, since Conan represents the heroic ideal of Milius’ libertarian/hypermasculine/cryptofascist myth, the villain of the film must be the ideological opposite. Conan, Valeria (Bergman), and Subotai (Lopez) are on Reagan’s side, so Doom must be symbolic of communist leaders like Stalin and Mao. Doom’s death cult is thus, thanks to the spurious anticommunist propaganda that flooded the Western media during the Cold War, representative of the wildly exaggerated death toll associated with communism.

Having a black man play Doom reinforces these associations for the film’s intended right-wing, white male audience. As I said above, it doesn’t matter that Doom, with his blue eyes and straight, long hair, is not actually a black man in the story: we as an audience see Jones, a black actor wearing blue contact lenses and a wig, on the screen. We make the necessary association, in spite of the actual race of the fictional character. If anything, the blue eyes and no Afro make one think of the experiments of Josef Mengele, who injected blue dye into people’s eyes to make them ‘more acceptable Aryans.’ The film’s fascist ideology is subtle, not obvious. The reason for this subtlety should also be obvious in the liberal world of Hollywood.

Now, if Thulsa Doom’s snake cult in this allegory represents the ideology of communism, and if he is right to have recognized that flesh is more powerful than steel, then his correctness goes against the tendentious political bias that this film is promoting. His affirmation of the superiority of flesh to steel, of the human will’s mastery of the sword, is a kind of Freudian slip that exposes the error of the right-wing ideology championed in Conan the Barbarian. After all, it was the steely determination of the Red Army that defeated the Nazis in WWII, in spite of the metal of the tanks of the Wehrmacht.

V: Freudian Slips

I’ve argued elsewhere that ‘Freudian slips,’ if you will, exist in many films, parapraxes that go against the bias presented in each of the films. The one I mentioned above in Conan the Barbarian isn’t the only one in that film. Others include the fact that our heroes, representing the “free market” capitalist agenda advocated by Milius and Schwarzenegger in the film’s allegory, are thieves by their own admission.

We on the left have always complained that capitalists–who exploit labour by taking, as surplus value, much of the value that workers put into the commodities they produce–are thieves who deny workers the full fruit of their labour, all for the sake of maximizing profit. When right-wing libertarians gripe that “Taxation is theft!”, being especially irked when tax revenue is put into social programs for the poor, they fail to understand how this ‘stolen’ money is really being returned to the poor from whom it was originally stolen by the capitalists.

Another Freudian slip is in how this film is supposed to reflect the right-wing libertarian opposition to ‘big government,’ as symbolized by Doom’s cult (for recall, libertarians tend to regard all socialism as ‘something a government does’); yet our hero, Conan, is understood to become a king at the end of the film. Though the film is set in a world of kings and queens, suggesting either feudal times or the ancient master/slave contradiction, these past class relations are still analogous to the modern contradiction of the bourgeoisie (and the state that protects its interests) and the proletariat; so seeing King Conan on his throne at the end of the film is a metaphor for the ‘government-hating’ libertarian who becomes the head of the government…as Reagan was.

VI: Libertarianism and Fascism

The notion of ‘big vs small government’ was and is a big lie. It isn’t the size of the state that makes it oppressive vs liberating; it’s whom the state serves–the rich, or the people–that makes it the one way or the other. So Conan, the thief who decapitates and disembowels with his sword, then becomes king, is hardly any better than Doom and his snake cult.

Remember that right-wing libertarianism isn’t the same thing as fascism, but the one exists on a continuum with the other. The only difference between the two is in how the material conditions of the world give rise to the one or to the other. Libertarian thinking is usually popular during economic good times (as is mainstream liberalism), when socialism is propagandized against as it was during the Reagan era. But when times are financially hard, as during the Germany of the 1920s, or over the past ten years, fascist and authoritarian systems of government tend to arise and even become relatively popular. As for our current situation, in which fear of disease is prompting measures that are disturbingly approaching totalitarianism, anyone who thinks Republican-friendly Biden is a communist is an idiotseriously.

The fascist ideology cunningly woven into the film’s narrative includes elements either rightly or wrongly associated with Nazism. These include the opening quote from Nietzsche‘s Twilight of the Idols (‘Maxims and Arrows,’ 8): “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” though at the film’s beginning, it’s rendered, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Now, Nietzsche was about as far removed from being a proto-Nazi as anyone could be: just read his books, and note the many times he bashed his own country as a reaction against the disturbing growing trend of German nationalism that he saw all around him. Still, his pro-Nazi sister, Elisabeth Förster-Niezsche, edited his writing to make it seem sympathetic to Nazi ideology, and this association is sufficient for the film’s ideological purposes. After all, the opening quote, reflecting the film’s theme of determination, as well as such notions as The Will to Power, fit well with the themes of The Triumph of the Will. Add to these facts the film’s influence of Wagnerian opera, and we can further see the link, however subtle, with Nazism.

VII: The Barbarian’s Beginnings

Anyway, the story begins with Conan’s father telling him, a boy, to trust neither men, nor women, nor beasts…a perfect recipe for alienation. The boy is to trust steel and steel alone, which as I interpreted above means to trust the resources plundered from the Earth for the benefit of the rich, to trust the metal of coins fetishized by the rich, to trust a phallic symbol that encourages toxic masculinity, and to trust a weapon wielded for the sake of empire.

Later, Conan learns that he, indeed, can trust men (Subotai), women (Valeria), and beasts (the horses and camels he rides). His father was wrong. One of the most important things we learn as we grow up is, to our utter disillusion, how often our parents are wrong about things.

Since Thulsa Doom’s snake cult, in this allegory, represents the Soviet Union as demonized by right-wing propaganda, Doom’s raid on the Cimmerian village can be seen to represent how the Russian Revolution affected the country’s bourgeoisie in the late 1910s and in the 1920s (fittingly, the raid happens on a snowy day, suggesting a Russian winter). Conan’s steel-fetishizing parents can thus be seen to represent the Russian petite bourgeoisie, the confiscation of whose private property is symbolized by Doom’s taking of Conan’s father’s sword. The killing of Conan’s parents is, symbolically, just more anti-Soviet propaganda.

As a result, Conan’s simmering lust for revenge can be compared to the resentment of such Russian bourgeoisie as Ayn Rand, whose parents’ business was confiscated by the Soviets, and who emigrated to the US and got her revenge on the USSR by writing pro-capitalist novels and promoting her egoistic Objectivist philosophy.

VIII: Conan’s Coming-of-Age

Chained to the Wheel of Pain, young Conan grows up a slave. This is how self-pitying capitalists see themselves, not only under the dictatorship of the proletariat (where, thanks to Lenin’s NEP during the 1920s, the kulaks were allowed to make profits, and only when Stalin ended the NEP and collectivized agriculture, which benefitted the poor and ultimately ended famines, did the kulaks lose their profits, then, out of spite, hoarded food and killed livestock, thus exacerbating the bad harvests of the early 30s that were misrepresented as the “Holodomorhoax by Nazi propagandists), but also under social democratic forms of government, with their high taxes.

As a young man, Conan is given the opportunity to display his talents as a fighter. First we see this Aryan-looking Cimmerian (the casting of Schwarzenegger is more than ideal) fight and defeat a black man with razor-sharp teeth, the bestial savagery of whom reinforces that disturbing feeling we have at the end of the film, when Conan kills Doom. Recall Howard’s words contrasting whites and blacks: “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

This discovery and glorification of Conan’s abilities as a fighter represents a promotion of the capitalist ideal of competition. It is acceptable if the bourgeois, feudal lord, or ancient slave-master kills, but it’s never defensible if the proletarian vanguard, as represented in Thulsa Doom, kills.

IX: Women

Women in Conan the Barbarian are typically sexualized and treated as objects of men’s pleasure, hence the scene with the terrified, bare-breasted woman put in Conan’s cage so he can enjoy her while other men lecherously watch. It doesn’t matter that we see Conan put a blanket around her, playing the role of the ‘gentleman’: her fear and reluctance clearly demonstrate her non-consent. This is rape.

As for the beautiful witch (played by Cassandra Gava), who has presaged Conan’s coming, and who knows of Doom’s standard, with the snakes facing each other, again, it seems obligatory that she let him have her; note how she erotically crawls before him. And though Valeria is his equal fighting companion, he beds her, too. It is easy to see how all these women exist largely, if not almost exclusively, for male fantasy: this ties in with the hypermasculinity promoted in this right-wing film.

Connected to this is Conan’s ‘correct’ answer to the question, “What is best in life?” His answer, a paraphrasing of a Genghis Khan quote, glorifies conquest, implying a lust for imperialism, and the pleasure of hearing “the lamentation of [the enemy’s] women,” sounds like misogynistic sadism, a fascistic/imperialistic sadism. Small wonder right-wingers love this movie and Conan’s quote, delivered in Schwarzenegger’s German accent.

Why isn’t peace “what is best in life?” Why isn’t a society in which production is to provide for all “what is best in life,” rather than production to benefit a wealthy, privileged few? We wouldn’t expect these Mongol-like warmongers to embrace such pacifist, empathic values, of course, but the point is that the audience is expected to sympathize with the answer of the film’s light-brown-haired, Aryan-like hero.

X: Freedom and Friendships

Conan as a young man is freed, and in his travels is chased by dogs; he stumbles into an underground Atlantean colonist warrior’s tomb, where he finds an ancient sword. This going underground, then coming back up to the surface, is a symbolic death and resurrection, a theme to be repeated several times later in the film. His retrieval of the sword will make him feel as though he’s closer to discovering the Riddle of Steel, and his new, phallic weapon will make him feel like a rejuvenated man. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

He soon meets Subotai (based on a Mongol), a Hyrkanian, meaning someone from the Eurasian Steppe. This means he is someone who ethnically could be anyone from Eastern Europe to Xinjiang, Mongolia, and/or Manchuria. He’s made to look Asian, though the actor, Lopez, is a Hawaiian of Mexican descent. Just as Jones was made to look ‘less black,’ so is Subotai ‘not so Asian.’ His voice, incidentally, was overdubbed by the Japanese-American actor, Sab Shimono.

Conan and Subotai discuss their gods while eating. Subotai prays to the Four Winds, whom he considers superior to Conan’s Crom; naturally, our hero considers his Earth-god better than Subotai’s wind-god. Once again, we see a promotion of the spirit of competition, the urge to be superior, or at least associated with superiority, in our heroes’ banter.

XI: Thieves

They meet Valeria in the city of Zamora, and all three raid the Tower of the Serpent, stealing jewels and killing a giant snake there. Among the snake art we see there, usually two snakes facing each other, we also see an ouroboros, my symbol of the dialectic, which is fitting for how Doom’s snake cult is meant to represent the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism.

King Osric (von Sydow), impressed with these three thieves’ daring, and detesting Doom’s cult, pays them with all the jewels they can carry to rescue his daughter, who has been seduced by Doom’s ideas. The king’s love for his daughter is so great that he can easily give up so many jewels…but the eyes of the trio of thieves light up at the sight of so much wealth.

Conan, still with revenge on his mind, goes out alone to face Doom, since Valeria feels content just to take Osric’s jewels. Conan meets the Wizard of the Mounds (Mako), who also narrates the story. It’s curious how he, the film’s narrator, refers to Conan as his “lord” and “master.” Since this wizard is Asian, his subservient attitude to Aryan Conan reinforces the white supremacist undercurrent in this right-wing film. (Recall how, at the beginning, the narrator refers to the “sons of Aryus.”)

XII: Doom’s Cult of Personality

Conan reaches Doom’s Temple of Set, or Mountain of Power. Set, in the Marvel Universe of demons used in the Conan comics, is the “God of the Dead.” Thulsa Doom is based on two of Howard’s characters: the villain in Kull of Atlantis, yet based even more so on Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” (One might also associate Set with the ancient Egyptian deity of violence, disorder, and foreigners, among other things, who was at times vilified for having killed Osiris, but who was also seen by some as a heroic deity.) Many see Doom as being like Jim Jones, the “apostolic socialist” cult leader whose control over his people was so complete as to make hundreds of them willing to kill themselves, as we see Doom have one of his female followers drop to her death.

Since Doom, in terms of the film’s Reaganite allegory, represents the ideological foe of the political right, this seductive death-cult leader is meant to represent the “cult of personality” seen in communist leaders like Stalin, Mao, and the Kims…at least as they’re portrayed in right-wing propaganda. What is little known, however, is that left-wing leaders like Stalin and Mao rejected the kind of idolatrous status that men like Hitler and Mussolini were all too happy to receive. Far from being the dictator he was believed to be, Stalin actually tried unsuccessfully to resign as General Secretary of the Soviet Union no less than four times; he had only one vote in determining Soviet policy, and often lost in these votes; and the notion of a “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin was actually a Khrushchev lie.

XIII: Doom’s Followers

When we see Conan among Doom’s many followers by the temple, it’s curious to note how, in their dress and their hair, they resemble hippies. This, I believe, is significant because far right-wing types tend, idiotically, to equate hippies with communists, when the former are so obviously liberal.

Conan approaches one of the priests, and it’s implied that this priest is homosexual and interested in our muscleman hero, who beats him unconscious and steals his priestly robes to disguise himself in. One shouldn’t be surprised to see our beloved hero act in this way: recall the German gay men forced to wear pink triangles on their Nazi concentration camp uniforms.

The dark robes of some members of Doom’s snake cult, including those worn by, for example, Rexor (Davidson), have a design in its contrasts of white and dark that, to my eye, vaguely suggest the clothing of rabbis, particularly those of ancient times. One normally expects snake designs to be round and swirling; but these snake designs are angular, square-like, and being dark against a white background, they vaguely remind me of Hebrew letters. I’m not saying any of this was consciously intended; I bring this up to suggest another fascist association often made with communism: the notion of Jewish Bolshevism. This Nazi association is made even though very few high-ranking members of the Bolshevik Party were Jews.

XIV: Christian Symbolism

Conan is apprehended by Rexor and Thorgrim (Thorsen), a spike on the latter’s boot is stabbed into Conan’s hand, and Doom gives the command, “Crucify him,” reminding us of what “the Jews” told Pilate to do with Christ (John 19:14-16).

And so, Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. While the religious world of this film is thoroughly pagan, of course, any rejection of Christian symbolism in this scene is absurd. After all, much of the make-up of Christianity is pagan mystery tradition, as Hyam Maccoby pointed out in his book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. Many Christians try to deny the pagan influence on their religion, but even CS Lewis expressed the belief, in his book Mere Christianity, that his Christian God put the foretelling of Jesus on the Cross into the dreams of the people of all the heathen religions (page 37 of this pdf). These pagans, in Lewis’s opinion, misunderstood the message, and distorted it with myths of dying and resurrecting gods, or like Odin when nailed to Yggdrasil, whom Conan resembles on the Tree of Woe.

The accommodation of Christian symbolism into Conan the Barbarian also dovetails with the film’s right-wing message, since fascism and other forms of conservative politics have always found Christianity to be a useful tool for reactionary purposes. Make the toiling masses believe they will be rewarded in heaven, and they’ll work harder without complaint. Even libertarian-centrist Frank Zappa was worried about the direction that right-wing libertarian/Christian Reagan was moving America in; he warned of a future “fascist theocracy.” One can debate whether or not Zappa’s fears have been realized in the US, but the links between right-wing libertarianism, fascism, and Christian traditionalism are undeniable; all three of these can be seen, in a veiled symbolic/allegorical form, in Conan the Barbarian.

Francoist Spain was a combination of Falange fascism, monarchism, and Catholicism; in 1959, their government adopted “free market” economic policies. Pinochet’s right-wing authoritarian government in Chile also had “free market” policies courtesy of the Chicago Boys. While Nazi Germany made use of much of Teutonic pagan myth, Hitler et al also accommodated Christian ideas; Catholic Hitler and Nazi ideology tried to promote an ‘Aryan Christ,’ one not too far removed from light-brown-haired Aryan Schwarzenegger on the Tree of Woe.

My associating of Doom’s cult symbolically with “Jewish Bolsheviks” dovetails with this Christian interpretation of Conan’s crucifixion, since Nazi antisemitism has its roots in a two-millennia-old Christian antisemitism. Recall how Hitler used to enjoy reading Luther‘s antisemitic rants. Recall also how 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 blames the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion.

The relating of Conan the Barbarian with Christian ideas doesn’t end with our hero’s crucifixion. Valeria, Subotai, and the wizard rescue him, take him down from the tree, and treat his wounds in a manner reminiscent of the speculations of Hugh J Schonfield‘s Passover Plot. Unconscious Conan is beset by demons in the night, while Valeria fights them off (she’ll pay with her own life later); this scene symbolically suggests Jesus’ harrowing of Hell.

The next day, we see a rejuvenated Conan (“What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”), suggesting the symbolism of a resurrected Christ. Now, Conan and his companions plan how they’ll infiltrate the Temple of Set and rescue Osric’s daughter.

XV: Orgiastic Music

Wearing stripes of black and white camouflage, our three thieves enter the mountain from the back. We hear choral music subtly reminding one of Orff‘s Carmina Burana (i.e., ‘O Fortuna’), but also suggesting Wagnerian opera, as Milius had always fancied his film to be. Images of large pots with the body parts of victims of cannibalism symbolically reinforce the anti-Soviet propaganda.

Added to this propaganda is the following scene, with our three heroes entering a large room with Doom and Osric’s daughter, and a bevy of beautiful women lying about orgiastically in the centre. Subotai remarks on the sight, calling it “paradise.” Right-wing ideologues assume that Stalin, Mao, the Kims, et al lived in the lap of luxury, when high-ranking members of communist parties lived only marginally better than their respective common populations. To see the obscene luxury of the capitalist über-wealthy, look no further than Bezos, Musk, Gates et al…and some of their ilk have been involved in their own orgiastic scenes.

Since I’ve been so critical of this film, I’ll take a brief moment to praise the waltz-like music in this scene. Film-score composer Basil Poledouris“Orgy” is a delight to listen to, with memorable melodies undulating throughout. It always stands out in my mind as one of the film’s highlights.

XVI: The Serpent

In this scene, we see Doom transform into a giant serpent. That his is a snake cult ties in well with the film’s Christian symbolism, for if Conan is our Christ-like hero, getting stronger after not dying from his crucifixion, then Doom as our villain is, fittingly, the Satanic serpent of the Garden of Eden, tempting such Eve-like women as Osric’s daughter and the half-naked women in the orgy.

The serpent, like the sword, is a phallic symbol in its own right, but one made of the stronger material of the flesh, not of steel. Phallic, serpentine Doom is leading women like Osric’s daughter astray, exploiting them, as the film would have us believe of leftist leaders; yet, was Conan any better with the bare-breasted woman in the cage?

Pre-Castro Cuba was teeming with prostitution when that right-wing butcher Batista was a puppet for American politicians and mafia. One of the first things communists do after a revolution is to work aggressively to rid their countries of prostitution, striving to provide women with the education, equal opportunities, and material conditions needed so they can avoid having to sell themselves to survive. Presenting Doom in an orgy symbolically portrays socialists as whoremongers; this pro-capitalist film is projecting right-wing guilt onto the left.

The thieves take the princess out and ride away. Doom, changed back into human form, makes a small snake into an arrow and fires it at Valeria, killing her. The superiority of phallic flesh over phallic steel is demonstrated again, for his command, “Seek,” is enough to ensure a hit. Valeria had paid the gods for interfering with the demons’ attack on unconscious Conan.

XVII: Valeria and the Princess

Conan burns her body with Subotai’s torch at her funeral. Subotai weeps for him, for as he observes, Cimmerians never weep. As the film’s masculine ideal, Conan reinforces the hypermasculine notion that ‘boys don’t cry.’ Subotai’s weeping for him suggests Asian servility to white supremacy, like the wizard’s servility.

We’re meant to believe that the princess’s continued allegiance to Doom is some kind of brainwashing, as right-wingers assume leftists to have, rather than a projection of right-wing brainwashing that ‘capitalism is freedom.’ So Doom’s shooting of a snake arrow at her is more symbolic anti-Soviet propaganda. The Battle of the Mounds, a desert-like region, reminds me of the then-already-underway Soviet-Afghan War that had been manipulated into being by Carter and Brzezinski: Conan and Subotai, luring Doom, Thorgrim, and Rexor to the mounds for a final battle, are thus like the mujahideen, well-paid and armed by the US (as Osric has paid the three thieves with an abundance of jewels), and bleeding Soviet power dry, as Conan does of Doom’s power, by killing Thorgrim and Rexor.

XVIII: Symbolic Castration, and Transcending a Father’s Wisdom

Indeed, the killing of Rexor is symbolic castration (with the help of Valeria as a glowing, Valkyrie-like spirit), with Conan’s breaking of his sword and realizing that the Riddle of Steel isn’t about steel per se, but about having the steely manhood to wield the sword with determination to win. In this way, Conan has outlearned his father, for part of becoming a man is going beyond the limitations of your father’s wisdom. Such an upstaging of your father is a symbolic castration of him (like Cronus‘ rising up against Uranus), and symbolic castration occurs in many forms in Conan the Barbarian.

Since I’ve equated serpents with the phallus, we can see Conan’s decapitation of the giant snake in his raid of the Tower of Serpents as a symbolic castration, too. And since Doom himself can be a giant serpent, his decapitation at the end of the film is also a symbolic castration. It’s interesting in this connection to note how Doom, immediately before Conan kills him, tries to hypnotize him and manipulate him by calling him his “son.” In Conan’s rise to manhood, he’ll have no one as his father, not even a father-figure in Crom, who, in Conan’s prayer to Him, says He can go to Hell if He won’t help him and Subotai defeat Doom.

In Conan’s prayer/curse to Crom, we see how the right-winger can take God or leave Him, depending on the circumstances. We’ve seen how Nazis can pose as Christians or as quasi-pagans. Similarly, such “new atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris have embraced neoconservatism as an imperialist reaction against Islam.

XIX: King Conan

The film ends with a shot of an older Conan sitting on a throne with an expression that suggests Henry IV‘s dictum, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” This image is reiterated at the end of Conan the Destroyer, with the narrative voiceover of Akiro the Wizard saying, “…he found his own kingdom and wore his crown upon a troubled brow.”

So Conan in the end will himself be a king, a ruler, the governor, as it were, of a people. Since this story, set in an ancient and fantastic world, is meant as an allegory of our times, his becoming a king represents how the libertarian ideal will eventually be the very government that people like Milius and Schwarzenegger so dislike (recall in this connection how Schwarzenegger would eventually be the Governor of California).

Similarly, the Koch brothers, of right-wing libertarian disposition, got heavily involved in influencing the government, as do Rand Paul and Ron Paul. The two Pauls, to be fair, are anti-war and opposed to the kind of rampant corruption we see in American politics today; but neither of them is willing to overturn the capitalist system that is, through the profit motive, the basis of all this corruption and all these wars. Perhaps that is the reason for King Conan’s “troubled brow,” his “uneasy…head.”

XX: Conclusion

Reagan ran on the idea that “government is the problem,” then he became the leader of that very government. His tax cuts to the rich, and those of similarly-minded politicians, allowed millionaires eventually to become billionaires, whose money has since been used to buy politicians to ensure that the state serves the rich rather than the people. The greater accumulation of capital, concentrating and centralizing it in the hands of the richest people, has required a larger government, not a smaller one, to protect all the resulting proliferation of private property. Libertarianism leads not to small government, but big, privatized government, hence Reagan’s inflated military budget. Conan, fighter of the powerful, will become one of them.

The right-wing message of Conan the Barbarian is subtle and muted–fittingly so, given the subtle and muted expression of the neoliberal agenda started by Reagan and Thatcher in the early 80s, when this film came out. Some on the left warned of the dangers of this resurgence of conservative ideas, but the warnings fell mostly on deaf ears, just as many would have considered this film to be harmless fun.

It seemed reasonable to most people of the time, myself included, to think of the collectivism of Doom’s followers to be representative of a supposedly similar Soviet collectivism, mindlessly obeying their leader and lacking in Conan’s virtuous individualism. But just as we don’t see what becomes of Doom’s followers after his head is thrown down the steps, neither did most people see how huge percentages of Russians and other Eastern Europeans didn’t want to see the security of the Soviet system give way to predatory capitalism.

Stalin rightly predicted that a dissolving of socialism would result in the most virulent reaction, grabbing the working class by the throat. In today’s post-Soviet world of extreme wealth inequality, the control of most of the American media by six corporations, epidemic homelessness, ecocide, and imperialist war threatening a nuclear WWIII, we see what Doom really is.

In the allegorical sense, Conan really was a barbarian…and a destroyer.

4 thoughts on “Analysis of ‘Conan the Barbarian’

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