ConanPosterMany (many, many…) years ago I ventured to the Clackamas Town Center with a gorgeous redhead whom I happened to be married to at the time. The marriage didn’t last, as so few do, especially when you get married right out of the gate in the same year that you’re allowed to drink legally. I still feel huge regrets over the whole mess that my first marriage became, even now so many years later, and kind of wish I hadn’t been such an insufferable little twerp. Then again, I guess it takes two people to have an argument, but I’m the only person whose behavior I can change, and with the perspective of three decades, I kind of want to go back in time and beat the living crap out of myself.

That said, it was a day that would change my life in many ways. We were at the mall to see the new movie, Conan the Barbarian, starring the Terminator himself, former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role. When we showed up, a guy walking out of the movie said to his friend, “I didn’t like it — they cut off too many heads.” Well, my friends – that was just one man’s opinion, as the proper number of decapitations in a single motion picture has yet to be determined.

Well, the day ended up being a pretty awesome one, as we had chosen a particularly auspicious showing – Conan had been cancelled, and a sneak preview of another new movie was being shown in its place. Since there was no advertising and we originally wanted to see Conan, management kindly allowed us to see both movies for the price of one. And so it was, on that day in late May of 1982, that we got to see John Carpenter’s The Thing, as well as Conan the Barbarian. Such a deal!

As you probably know, I’m a huge fan of Robert E. Howard and his most famous creation. Mind you, over the years I’ve become something of a purist, and I definitely prefer the original Conan tales written by REH, complete and in their original form, not “modified,” “improved,” “edited’ or otherwise butchered by the host of revisionists who have been nibbling at the canon for decades. While I remain a big fan of both L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter, I do take serious issue at how they’ve monkeyed with Conan — adding, subtracting, revising, putting stories in “chronological order,” writing entirely original stories, and expanding on fragments of other stories, turning them into Conan yarns.

Conan vs. the Ant God. Not one of his better-known adventures.

Conan vs. the Ant God. Not one of his better-known adventures.

Comics, especially The Savage Sword of Conan (said to be Barack Obama’s favorite comic, by the way), have done similar things, taking stories such as The Fire of Asshurbanipal and The Hawks of Outremar and changing the setting and characters to make them Conan stories. Given that Howard’s heroes were mostly interchangeable and the settings could be anywhere from prehistory to the 1930s, this was a relatively easy task, and one that Howard himself often engaged in, changing an unsold western into a swords and sorcery story with a few minor tweaks. In the days of manual typewriters of course, this was harder than it is today, so even that endeavor involved a fair amount of work. Howard’s second most famous character — Red Sonja, whom I’ve written about here before — was born in this fashion, as a supporting character in a story about the historical siege of Vienna. Now of course, she’s a fully fleshed-out member of the Conan milieu, transformed from a Renaissance mercenary soldier into a chainmai-bikini wearing amazon who won’t sleep with a man until he’s defeated her in battle.

As much as I like Red Sonja, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the various pastiches that were created to honor Conan and his multifaceted creator, I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy the originals, and they’re the only ones I consider to be the “real” Conan. Conan’s film career followed as meandering a path as its titular star. Its screenplay is credited to both man’s man director John Milius and the controversial Oliver Stone, who went on to give us Platoon, The Doors, JFK and of course the timeless epic Alexander the Fabulous… Oops, I mean Alexander the Great. 

It was produced by the equally controversial Dino DeLaurentis, famous for backing some of the most celebrated flops in screen history. The first and only choice for Conan was always Arnold Schwarzenegger, though the Austrian bodybuilder knew nothing about the character and prepared for the role by reading comics (probably the aforementioned Savage Sword among others).

The screenwriter seems equally oblivious, as Oliver Stone’s original concept was for the movie to be set in a post-apocalyptic future instead of the past (maybe he was getting Conan confused with this guy.) Fortunately for all of us, this idea was scotched very quickly and Conan the Barbarian was set in what at least approximated Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria.

What do you mean, I don't appear in any of the Conan stories???

What do you mean, I don’t appear in any of the Conan stories???

For a fan of Conan, the movie is something of a mixed bag. While the spirit of Conan is certainly present, the story is a mish-mash of sources, from an origin story that would have outraged REH (Conan as ex-slave) to scenes and incidents from a half-dozen other stories, some of them not even about Conan (imagery from The Thing in the Crypt, a deCamp/Carter pastiche, scenes from the Howard Conan story A Witch Shall Be Born and Worms of the Earth, another Howard story, this one about the Celtic warrior Bran Mak Morn, other Conan stories like The Tower of the Elephant, Red Nails, etc.), welded to an unwieldy story of vengeance and very modern-seeming religious cults.

The villain, Thulsa Doom, is drawn from Howard’s King Kull stories, the iconic tale of Conan being born on the battlefield is entirely absent, etc. Still, one has to take what one can get. When I recently saw Desolation of Smaug, for example, I simply pretended that The Hobbit didn’t exist and that the movie was an entirely original fantasy-action tale penned by Peter Jackson. This at least dulled the pain I felt while watching Legolas shooting arrows while standing on the dwarves’ heads in the barrel scene. As such, if you consider Conan the Barbarian to be a largely original film inspired by Robert E. Howard, the whole thing goes down a lot smoother, and you can actually sit and enjoy yourself.

I will also note that the last time I watched CtB was with my girlfriend and she cautioned me not to make too much fun of it, as it was one of her favorites. And now, after all of that, and keeping my endless babbling caveats in mind, I think I can say that Conan the Barbarian is a pretty damned fun ride. Mind you, that doesn’t mean I won’t make jokes the whole way. On with the show!

Our tale opens with a famous quote from Nietzshe, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” suggesting that if you survive watching this flick, you’ll be a stronger person for it. We open on on a black screen as our narrator (awesome Mako, who also plays the Wizard) raspily intones: Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And onto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

Well, aren't we just off to the most uplifting, not-at-all-depressing start?

Well, aren’t we just off to the most uplifting, not-at-all-depressing start?

Okay, in addition to being somewhat ungrammatical, the prolog is  also an abridgment of Howard’s original quote, a prolog to the story “The Phoenix on the Sword” (and interestingly enough the first published Conan tale). That quote is admittedly a bit wordy for the motion picture milieu, but I do kind of miss it. What follows, however, is a whole movie just like that. And now begins what I consider to be the best part of Conan the Barbarian. No, not the credits — the music. While the film itself is far from flawless, the score by the late Basil Poledouris (Robocop, Hunt for Red October, Starship Troopers among many others)  is one of the finest and most evocative that I have ever heard. In many ways the music alone elevates the movie from routine swords-n-muscles fare into the realm of memorable cinema, which is exactly what movie music should do.

Some sample Youtube comments about this score:

“Chuck Norris cries to this song.”

“I was going to play airsoft to this music, but the guns turned real.”

“My toy poodle listened to this music, and now it’s a wolf!”

“I just shaved and this music made my beard grow out again!”

“Anvil of Crom is a snow-shoveling song and everyone knows it!” …And so on.

ConanTitleAnyway, while Poledouris’ thunderous main theme — the Anvil of Crom — plays on, we watch the forging of a sword. According to stories published at the time, director Milius took a keen interest in swords and sword-making, and used this as his central theme in the movie. In my humble opinion, he took the whole thing just a tad too far, as we shall soon see. So, while Conan’s hot B-MILF (Barbarian Mom I’d Like to… Well, you get the idea…) mom looks on, his dad forges a mighty sword and cools it in a convenient snowdrift, then takes his young son up to the mountains to bore him to tears telling him about gods and steel and related barbarian stuff. Here we have the first mention of a recurring theme in the movie — the Riddle (or as dad puts it “enigma”) of Steel. The frost giants, he says, stole the secret from the Cimmerian’s god Crom, which of course pissed him off royally. In their rage however, the gods forgot about steel and left its secret on the battlefield for men to use. Young Master Conan, he says, must learn steel’s secret, and its discipline, since you can’t trust men, women or beasts, but you can trust your sword, goddamn it!

OK, son... When a barbarian warrior and a hot red-haired amazon love each other very much...

OK, son… When a barbarian warrior and a hot red-haired amazon love each other very much…

Okay, this aspect of the movie has always puzzled me. It appears nowhere in Howard’s works, and in the movie itself, no one really explains what is meant by “The Riddle of Steel.” Do Milius and Oliver mean the riddle of making steel? Of using steel? Of being like steel? I assume that it’s a practical matter — the crafting of steel from iron, which was a valuable thing to know in those days. However, there seems to be a huge amount of philosophical baggage attached to the concept, to the point (as we’re about to find out) that evil warlords are willing to exterminate entire peoples to learn it.

I think it all goes back to Milius’ obsessions, as he was known to be quite the manly man (screenwriter for Conan, Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Clear and Present Danger, Apocalypse Now, Rome, Red Dawn, director of The Wind and the Lion, Conan, Red Dawn, Farewell to the King, Flight of the Intruder, and more), and the whole “man-as-sword” motif. And so it is, the Cimmerians — whom the movie portrays as a fairly peaceful, provincial race of villagers, rather than the bloody barbarian warriors of Howard’s vision — have the secret of steel, and lots of people want it. Particularly the next batch of guys who ride over the hill — savage, black-armored horsemen beneath a serpent banner who appear while Conan is out ice-fishing (though if you look closely there is no actual hole in the ice as the poor kid isn’t anywhere near a lake — I guess young Conan was a little slower than the other kids) and a dramatic choral piece plays.

Hey, kid... You're supposed to cut a hole in the ice first. Kid...? Hey! Kid!

Hey, kid… You’re supposed to cut a hole in the ice first. Kid…? Hey! Kid!

Conan spots the baddies’ scout, a tattooed Celtic-type with limed hair and a dog-like expression, then rushes home as the raiders reach his defenseless village. Now only the truly petty observer would note that the rampaging barbarian horde numbers perhaps 15 and appear to be badly outnumbered by the peace-loving Cimmerians. No matter, they run through the little settlement like Jabba the Hutt at the buffet table.

A few villagers — notably Conan’s father — fight back and take some of the raiders down, but it’s all to no avail. The raid’s commander, a thug in an elaborate helm (the production design was by talented Britisher Ron Cobb, who also did the non-HR Giger design for the original Alien), points at Conan’s father and shouts “Kill that one!” They don’t succeed — at least not immediately, even though our commander (whom we later learn is named Rexor and is played by ex-Oakland Raider defensive end Ben Davidson) sends in his best men, including Thorgrim, who is portrayed by muscle-man Sven-Ole Thorson and is armed with the biggest motherfucking hammer you ever fucking saw. The battle (well, massacre actually) goes on for long minutes, with women screaming, people getting axed and hammered, huts burning, blood splashing, until at last Conan’s father is taken down by a pair of wardogs. It’s pretty unpleasant, especially since Conan and his mom watch.

Conan's mom. RRROWF!

Conan’s mom. RRROWF!

Now at last the fight’s over and the victorious raiders are carrying away their booty. And speaking of booty, Conan’s hot mom refuses to surrender, even as a still-more ominous figure in black armor rides up. Rexor holds Conan’s father’s sword and hands it to the newcomer, who removes his helmet to reveal… Yes, it’s the villainous wizard-warlord Thulsa Doom, portrayed by the mellifluous-voiced James Earl Jones, and before you can say I… am your father or This… is CNN, he takes the sword and lops Conan’s mom’s head off with it.

As much as it pains me to say it, James Earl Jones simply does not fit the role of an ancient snake-controlling wizard. He’s kind of puffy-faced and the production hairdressers have saddled him with an ugly black wig with prominent power bangs that put me in mind of a male, black and middle-aged Katie Perry. There is simply no sense of menace or majesty to him, and his favorite expression seems to be one of melancholy befuddlement. None of this makes any difference to young Conan, who has just watched his mother’s head fall bleeding into the snow. In an event that would probably have enraged Conan’s creator, he is led off in chains. And, at least according to the narrator, the Cimmerians themselves have been utterly exterminated.

Hey, Thulsa! Your mom cuts your hair funny!

Hey, Thulsa! Your mom cuts your hair funny!

The ashes were trampled into the earth, and the blood became as snow. Who knows what they came for — weapons of steel or murder? — it was never known for the leader rode to the south while children went north with the Vanir. No one would ever know that my lord’s people had lived at all. His was a tale of sorrow. Also a tale never once mentioned in the works of Robert E. Howard, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that Conan gets carted off as a slave and sold to a guy who uses children to push a big wheel out in the middle of the desert. Why? Presumably they’re grinding grain, though no grain is ever actually seen, but as for me I prefer to think that some crazy coot has built this wheel and just enjoys watching people push it.

And push it Conan does, growing up strong and muscly, until he ends up looking kind of like an Austrian bodybuilder. Eventually Conan is pushing the whole farkin’ wheel all by himself, attracting the attention of a red-haired bearded guy who trains gladiators. He buys Conan and leads him off to the fleshpots of Hyboria. Conan retains a medallion in the shape of the wheel he was chained to, presumably symbolic of his servitude, but again this is something that seems totally out of character and not consistent with the literary character that Conan is supposedly based on.

Okay, so Conan — who has never fought, never been unchained from the wheel and as far as I can tell, never spoken — is tossed into the blood-pit and expected to fight. Well, he does fight. And he grunts. He grunts a lot. He makes lots of those funny Austrian-accented grunts and screams that we have become so fond of over the years. And eventually he wins, by pulping his foe’s head against a wall.

Ladeeeez and gentlemen! Your fight card for tonight's gladiatorial battle! In this corner, wearing leather trunks, it's Kang, the Kushite Killer!

Ladeeeez and gentlemen! Your fight card for tonight’s gladiatorial battle! In this corner, wearing leather trunks, it’s Kang, the Kushite Killer!

So begins Conan’s glorious career as a slave pit-fighter. Wait… Wait… What’s that spinning sound? My God — it’s coming from Robert E. Howard’s grave! The guy must be spinning — Jesus — at least 15,000 rpm! Well, ignore the sound. He’ll spontaneously combust any minute now. We are now treated to a montage of blood and action, with Conan (in a wide variety of strange and exotic Ron Cobb-designed armor) dispatches foe after foe, making his owner rich and himself famous.

Our narrator tells us that by killing so many people and making so much gold for others, he decides that he matters. Well, it was a savage and barbaric age — if messily killing dozens of foes in the blood-drenched slavepits is what you need to improve your self-esteem, so be it. Personally I prefer daily affirmations or something similar.

Next, in yet another radical departure from the original works, Conan is taken east “where the war-masters would teach him the deepest secrets.” Apparently this involves repeatedly slapping Conan while grunting “Ung! Yr-Ng! Ngrr!” until he does what you want him to do. Conan also learns to read, given poetry and philosophy, and he’s also thrown the occasional hot slave girl (or as the narrator charmingly puts it, “bred to the finest stock”) for his entertainment. To his credit, Conan remains chivalrous, wrapping the naked human brood-mare in a blanket before having sex with her. The swordplay in the film has a very authentic feel to it, once more due to the director’s interest in weapons and martial arts, and many of the sword katas that Conan practices are quite real, though I suspect that they are not normally performed with Atlantean broadswords.

And in this corner, wearing the bearskin loincloth it's newcomer Conan "The Kid" Barbarian! I want a brutal, dirty fight with lots of gouging and biting! Now touch gauntlets and come out stabbing!

And in this corner, wearing the bearskin loincloth it’s newcomer Conan “The Kid” Barbarian! I want a brutal, dirty fight with lots of gouging and biting! Now touch gauntlets and come out stabbing!

Well, Conan is soon the toast of Hyboria and his master is eager to show him off at parties. At one such gathering, Conan is serving as a decorative centerpiece while a bunch of guys argue about what is best in life. “The open steppe!” declares a bearded Mongol-type. “A fleet horse! Falcons at your wrists, and the wind in your hair!” Well, that’s all well and good, but the feasters’ living table decoration sets him straight. When asked what he thinks is best in life, Conan replies, “To crush your enemies, to see dem driven before you, and to hear da lamentations of der vimmen!” which of course gets his owner lots of slaps on the back and free drinks.

And those, dear friends, are the first words to pass Conan’s lips for the entire first 25 or so minutes of the movie. And he won’t speak again for a while. In fact, Conan the Barbarian is actually quite remarkable in how little dialog it really has, especially from its two stars, Conan and the yet-to-be-seen Valeria. For the record btw, this quote is not original — the entire exchange is taken from the book Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men by Harold Lamb:

One day in the pavilion at Karakorum he [Genghis Kahn] asked an officer of the Mongol guard what, in all the world, could bring the greatest happiness. “The open steppe, a clear day, and a swift horse under you,” responded the officer after a little thought, “and a falcon on your wrist to start up hares.” “Nay,” responded the Kahn, “to crush your enemies, to see them fall at your feet — to take their horses and goods and hear the lamentation of their women. That is best.”

Hi, slave girl. I guess I'm supposed to have sex with you. Here. Let me cover you up with this filthy, matted hide first.

Hi, slave girl. I guess I’m supposed to have sex with you. Here. Let me cover you up with this filthy, matted hide first.

Which is a variation on the original reputed quote: “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters.” Now that’s pretty hard-core, but I’m also a little disappointed that, rather than actually use a quote from Robert E. Howard, Milius chose to strip-mine history for dialog.

Mind you, the movie that we’re watching is a bit of a mish-mash itself, drawing scenes from many different stories and events, of which we will discuss more presently. At length, Conan’s master grows weary of his muscle-bound cash cow and drives the poor guy out into a stormy night, drunkenly declaring that he’s now free. “It has been surmised,” says our narrator, “that perhaps my lord was like a wild animal that had been kept too long. Perhaps. But whatever — freedom, so long an unremembered dream — was his.”

Well, this is an unexpected development, especially for poor simple-minded Conan who just doesn’t seem to understand why his generous master kicks him out like that. The next scene is of him fleeing through the wilderness, only a few steps ahead of a pack of wild dogs. According to legend, the actual dogs used in the movie were extremely vicious — Arnold really is fleeing from them, fearful of losing a limb or two. Heh. And you thought he was just acting scared.

Just add this chained barbarian to your table and you've got a festive holiday centerpiece for all occasions!

Just add this chained barbarian to your table and you’ve got a festive holiday centerpiece for all occasions!

Conan makes it to a big stone monolith just ahead of his pursuers, then immediately falls down a hole, with a series of classic Schwarzenegger grunts along the lines of, “Ahrrr… owww… ngyang… anggggg…” before finally hitting bottom in the middle of and ancient Atlantean tomb. The tomb set is cool, especially the big skeleton clad in Ron Cobb-designed armor and clutching an ancient, encrusted sword. Conan spends some time looking at the old corpse and finally takes the sword, knocking off all the crud.

At this point every single person in the theater expected the mummy to come to life and fight Conan, but damn were we disappointed when the damned thing just collapses into a heap and lies there, dusty and useless. The disappointment is even greater when one realizes that this is the first scene cribbed directly from a Conan story, though not from Robert E. Howard, and there lies a bit of controversy. Back in the 60s and 70s, SF writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague deCamp took it upon themselves to essentially rewrite and reorganize the entire Conan saga, putting the stories in what they took to be “chronological order,” and also filling perceived gaps in the tales with stories of their own, some original and some adapted from other Howard stories, finished and unfinished. The result was a series of paperbacks with titles like Conan the Buccaneer, Conan the Wanderer, Conan the Rotarian and Conan the Librarian, eventually culminating in the little-read and unloved Conan the Octagenarian, about the barbarian’s sad last days in a nursing home. Among the stories that deCamp and Carter foisted off as Conan tales was “The Thing in the Crypt” which is basically this portion of the Milius movie.

Look out, Conan! Don't take that sword! It's a hideous, ferocious, undead... Oh, wait. Never mind.

Look out, Conan! Don’t take that sword! It’s a hideous, ferocious, undead… Oh, wait. Never mind.

In the story however, the Atlantean corpse does exactly what we want it to do — it comes to life and fights young Conan, but apparently this was too elaborate a scene for the SFX budget or something, as there’s no fight with a reanimated corpse anywhere near this movie. Again, a disappointment, but at least Conan is away from his life as a slave, has his sword and is finally on track to start acting like fucking Conan instead of a guy from a totally different series.

The next sequence should be familiar to Howard fans, since it was lifted from one of REH’s stories. Not from a Conan tale, however… Conan’s next mini-adventure is a scene from the Bran Mak Morn story “The Worms of the Earth,” a very effective historical fantasy/horror piece published in 1932, and available for your reading pleasure here. Conan, now equipped with his Atlantean sword and some warm-looking wild dog hides (hm… I wonder where he got those) wanders through some very disturbing rock formations, listening to loons cry out in the distance, and encounters a small hut, with a hot-but-kinda-creepy woman alluringly clad in furs standing outside.

“It is warm by the fire,” she whispers sultrily, giving Conan the once-over. “Do you not wish to warm yourself? By my fire?” Oh, what the fuck, Conan thinks. I’ll give it a shot. What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot, really. As soon as Conan sits down and starts to unwind, the hot witch-lady starts crawling around on all fours, throws flash powder into the fire and says weird shit like, “They said you would come. From the north. A man of great strength. A conqueror. A man who would someday be king by his own hand. One who would crush the snakes of the earth…”

Hey there, wandering barbarian... Want to play parcheesi or something?

Hey there, wandering barbarian… Want to play parcheesi or something?

“Snakes?” Conan interrupts, demanding that she explain the whole “snake” thing and tell him the name of the asshole who rides around with the serpent standard, burning down villages and chopping off hot mom’s heads. Hey, I know that guy, she declares, crawling closer and almost speaking into Conan’s nostrils. I’ll tell you all about him, but “there is a price.” Well, gee whiz Ma’am, what kinda price were you askin? Two bits? A whole dollar? Well, shucks, I ain’t got that kind of…

Nope. It’s the other price she’s asking for. Instantly we cut to Conan and the creepy-sexy witch woman doing the horizontal mambo. Instead of moaning “Oh god, yes. Don’t stop,” the witch instead tells Conan to go to Zamora, then starts howling and shrieking as we slap a blue filter on the scene, which can’t be good. And it is not good for Conan. She continues to scream, sprouts fangs and cat’s eyes, alarming Conan so much that he throws her into the fireplace.

She then reacts like most women would under such circumstances — she turns into a shrieking sentient fireball and shoots right out of the hut and into the night. Oh well, Conan thinks. At least I have the place to myself for the night. The next morning Conan straps on his sword, wraps himself in furs and steps out into the fresh morning air, then instantly encounters his boon companion, the Hyrkanian warrior-thief Subotai, chained to a rock just outside the witch’s hut.

Enter Subotai...

Enter Subotai…

Okay, wait a minute — if Subotai was chained up there, how come Conan didn’t notice him last night? He’s maybe 10 feet away from the witch’s door. And why didn’t Subotai ask the witch for help? I mean, she’ll help you, but there’s a price.And all things considered, the price really ain’t that bad… Just remember to throw her into the fireplace if things get too wild.

After some banter, Conan frees Subotai and the two of them set off across the plains to the exotic city of Zamora. On the way, they discuss religion and philosophy, giving Conan a chance to tell Subotai that his god Crom is strong and admirable, but never answers prayers, never listens and is always too busy at the office to play ball with him. Apparently absent fathers were a problem back during the Hyborian age too.

Okay, I’m going to stop the narrative for a moment here to dwell once more on my favorite aspect of Conan the Barbarian –  Basil Poledouris’ amazing score. And the piece that plays during this and the subsequent scene, simply called Theology/Civilization, is easily one of the most beautiful and moving instrumental pieces I have ever heard. If you haven’t, please check it out here. Of all the fine themes in this film, Theology/Civilization captures the exotic allure of Robert E. Howard’s world and evokes images of staggering beauty. Now, back to the movie. As this lush and gorgeous music plays, Conan and Subotai run across the Hyborean plains toward the fleshpots of Zamora and their date with destiny.

Okay, now we know where they got the opening for "Lothar of the Hill People."

Okay, now we know where they got the opening for “Lothar of the Hill People.”

“Civilization,” Subotai says. “Ancient and wicked. Have you ever seen this before?” “No,” Conan replies. “Let us waste no time!” And with this slightly cryptic utterance, Conan and Subotai go on a quick tour of the cities of Zamora and wander for a bit, marveling at the elephants, buying swords, noting how bad pigs smell and snacking on some lizard-on-a-stick (a favorite delicacy of Zamoran food-carts I’m told).

In each city they pass, we see a great snake-tower, which our heroes ignore at first, but we know that they’ll be important soon enough. The snake towers also show the fine hand of the great Ron Cobb, and are quite beautiful to behold, despite being — like all towers — slightly phallic. They quiz the locals about that two snake standard that the raiders carried when they destroyed Conan’s home and killed his oh-so-hot-mom. They have no luck on the standard, but one native tells them, “The only snakes I know are those of Set in those accursed towers. They have spread to every city. Two or three years ago it was just another snake-cult. Now… Everywhere.” Which of course begs the question of exactly how many fucking snake cults there are in Zamora, if the locals can dismiss them so casually. Oh, Jeez! Not another snake cult! Christ on pogo stick, where the fuck do they come from, anyway?

Quick! What does this remind you... Oops. Sorry -- I already used that joke in "Wizards."

Quick! What does this remind you… Oops. Sorry — I already used that joke in “Wizards.”

“It is said they are deceivers,” our expository peasant continues, “that they murder people in the night. I know nothing.” Our Hyborean equivalent of Sergeant Schultz now tries to sell the boys some Stygian black lotus, which we are assured is the best you can get. Later as our bold pair strides through the temple district, another local tries to sell them an amulet to protect them against evil, to which Subotai laughs, “I am evil!” which frankly is a pretty damned good comeback.

At this point Conan blunders into a camel, leaps in surprise, and decks the poor beast, which bears some resemblance to a similar scene in Blazing Saddles, but is pretty funny nonetheless. This attracts the hostile attention of the worshipers, and a priest who looks to be wearing a funny horn-covered hat that he bought from Archie McPhee’s or ThinkGeek. Well they don’t much like hanging out with sanctimonious religious types, so Conan and Subotai head for a less snooty part of town, consuming their stash of black lotus as they go. The wisdom of this course of action proves slightly questionable, for while they’re busy getting stoned, Subotai suggests that they rob one of the snake towers, which he claims contains the fabulous “Eye of the Serpent.” How he knows this is never explained, but as far as Conan is concerned, if his ol’ buddy Subotai says there’s a big fat priceless gemstone in the ominous snake tower, then by golly we should go check it out right away! Just say no to drugs, kids. If you don’t you’ll end up robbing the local snake cult, and that can’t end well.

Enter Valeria. Even though she bears no real resemblance to her literary namesake, she's still a landmark of sword and sorcery femininity since she stays decently dressed for most of the move. Except when she's having sex with Conan, of course.

Enter Valeria. Even though she bears no real resemblance to her literary namesake, she’s still a landmark of sword and sorcery femininity since she stays decently dressed for most of the move. Except when she’s having sex with Conan, of course.

As our heroes creep into the tower they encounter a fellow thief — it’s none other than Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, heroine of the classic REH story “Red Nails.” Here, however, she’s a bit different, though Sandahl Bergman plays her with dash and very little dialog. I think that the choice of Bergman was great, as she is a tough, athletic-looking woman and far from your average sword and sorcery bimbo. She wears sensible fighter-thief armor, and is every bit Conan and Subotai’s equal. Her connection with Conan appears to be largely instinctive, for despite their passionate affair (oh, come on, you knew it was going to happen the minute you saw her), they exchange only a handful of lines throughout the whole movie. In the first, Conan spits “You’re no guard!” as he and Valeria face each other warily, swords drawn. She replies, “Neither are you,” Subotai notes that she’s a thief like them, come to rob the tower, she says, “You don’t even have a rope. Ha! Two fools who laugh at death — do you know what horrors lie beyond that wall?” Conan replies, “No,” and Valeria replies “Then you go first” (another great line, really).

Hi folks... I'm a really big snake and I guard this temple. Have a nice evening, and god bless.

Hi folks… I’m a really big snake and I guard this temple. Have a nice evening, and god bless.

And that, dear reader, is the last line that Conan utters to Valeria for the entire movie. Mind you, she talks to him quite a bit, but for the rest of the damned flick he just sits in stony silence and never actually talks to the love of his life. Great boyfriend you are, Conan. Communication is supposed to be the most important thing in a relationship. So the dynamic trio now ascends in a scene reminiscent of another classic Conan tale, REH’s “Tower of the Elephant.” The snipping of small scenes and images from Howard’s works continues.

Once at the top they see that there’s a well that goes down into the temple proper. Subotai complains about the smell and Valeria says “Do you want to live forever?” before venturing down ahead of the boys. Once inside they observe some white-clad snake acolytes (snake-o-lytes?), plus the high priest, whom Valeria tells them is second only to Thulsa Doom himself. “They say Thulsa Doom’s a thousand years old!” she continues, providing us with still more questionable exposition. This is, however, the first time that villain Doom has actually been named, so I guess it’s important. LolConan

Valeria sends the boys down to the stench-ridden lower level while she sneaks up on the high priest, proving that she’s got them both wrapped around her little finger. Upstairs she knocks out a priestess and takes her place, while below Conan and Subotai encounter the infamous Eye of the Serpent, with a real giant serpent slumbering an curled up around the altar. The giant snake is quite a work of art, and in those days before we could animate anything with CGI, practical effects were the rule of the day. Unfortunately, since everything had to be mechanical — a network of cables and hydraulics, wires and pulleys — they didn’t always move realistically. And sometimes, as Bela Lugosi discovered in Bride of the Monster, they didn’t move at all. In this case, the snake certainly looks good, but the big question is, can it act? Initially the answer seems to be “no,” as Conan and Subotai scramble over its scaly hide, seize the Eye of the Serpent, and are about to make a clean getaway, just as the naked sacrificial maiden is about to be…

Did I ever tell you that I used to play all-pro defensive end for the Oakland Raiders?

Did I ever tell you that I used to play all-pro defensive end for the Oakland Raiders?

Hold on a second! There’s a naked sacrificial maiden? Hey, we forgot about Valeria, now disguised as an acolyte and watching the ceremony above the snake pit. Here, the chosen sacrifice to Set is led forward and of course she’s a cute young woman who is immediately disrobed. Why she has to be disrobed is anyone’s guess — maybe linen robes give snakes indigestion. In any event, our naked (or, as this is the 80s, semi-naked, for she keeps her slightly diaper-like lower garment on) victim kneels and is doing the snake-hypnosis hoochee-koochee up above as Conan and Subotai scramble away from the chamber, gem in hand.

Conan however is distracted. Hanging conveniently on the wall is a big jade medallion that depicts the exact same icon as the raiders bore when they destroyed his village! Holy Crom! He may have finally found a real clue (as if the snake motifs everywhere in the temple weren’t sufficient). As he stares in fascination at the medallion the serpent wakes up and realizes he’s been robbed and slithers toward the distracted barbarian.

Hey, Conan! Look out for that snake!

Hey, Conan! Look out for that snake!

Uh-oh. It looks as if we’re gonna have a real fight on our hands — a Frazetta painting come to terrifying life! The serpent rises up, only a little bit clunky and somewhat smoother than the animatronic shark from Jaws, horrific and bloody battle is about to be joined… And then Conan shoves a sword through it and Subotai shoots it with an arrow and the fight is basically over.

Oh sure the snake flops around a little, but it looks as if 1980s SFX weren’t quite up to the task of a thrilling extended hand-to-hand struggle with a giant constrictor. Conan then chops the head off the now-lifeless practical effect and they flee just as the naked sacrificial maiden reaches the height of her hoochee-koochee ecstasy and, as high priest Ben Davidson looks on approvingly (probably thinking, “Hey, if the guys from the Raiders back in ’67 could see me now… Heh, heh… I’m no some crappy all-pro defensive end anymore… Fuck that… I’m Rexor – high priest of Set, bitches!“)

"Naked snake sacrifice" is probably not the top item in this actress' resume.

“Naked snake sacrifice” is probably not the top item in this actress’ resume.

And so of her own accord, the hypnotized sacrifice plunges to her supposed doom in the snake pit, only to find that everyone’s favorite constrictor has been cruelly decapitated and the Eye of the Serpent stolen by a couple of barbarian mooks. She screams, the temple erupts in chaos, Conan and Subotai climb up the central well back toward the top of the tower, and Rexor looks really, really pissed off. Just as Rexor directs his temple guards to loose arrows at the fleeing barbarians, Valeria casts aside her disguise and starts stabbing, casts one of them into the pit with the rope wrapped around him, and rides the line up to join Conan and Subotai.

Once they’re at the top, she casts a quick glance at her companions, shouts, “Do you want to live forever?’ and leaps from the tower. Wheeeeeeeeee! After a moment of Butch-and-Sundance style hesitation, Conan and Subotai join her and we’re away, scott free with the Eye of the Serpent! Now quick, before the cult finds out what we did and sends hordes of shape-changing snake assassins after us, let’s get the hell out of Zamora and go spend our ill-gotten loot on ale and whores in Shem or Hyrkania or someplace…

Conan and Valeria finally share a little sexy time. And absolutely no conversation.

Conan and Valeria finally share a little sexy time. And absolutely no conversation.

Well, no. It seems that this course doesn’t occur to our heroes, who stay right there in Zamora where they stole the gem, and then blow all their loot on ale and whores. Conan and Valeria continue their largely-wordless courtship, with Conan giving the Eye of the Serpent to her, giving her the burning Austrian bodybuilder eye (much like the way Arnold regarded his frumpy housekeeper before knocking her up while he was still married to newscaster Maria Schriver, well before his celebrated term as governor of California… but that’s a tale for another time). They of course fall into each other’s arms and commence boinking like bunnies, but still don’t actually talk to each other.

It’s all very sexy and romantic, we get to see soft-focused details of Sandahl and Arnold’s striking physiques, and it pretty much ignores the fact that in the single Conan story that Valeria appeared in, she and Conan never did the mattress mambo. Oh well, it’s the magic of movies… All manner of pleasures and diversions were indulged, says our narrator over a montage of Conan and Valeria blowing every last copper of their stolen riches. Wealth can be wonderful. Heh, heh, heh. But you know — success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary!

In the dark days before Alka-Seltzer.

In the dark days before Alka-Seltzer.

At this point we cut to Conan and his new girlfriend nursing the great grandfather of all hangovers until Conan falls, face first into his bowl of porridge. Seeing the big guy helpless, a bunch of soldiers show up and arrest our two lovebirds, taking them to see the brooding King Osric, played by none other than the great Max Von Sydow — one of both Sweden and the world’s most distinguished thespians. Fortunately for us, his performances in classic cinema such as Shame, the Night Visitor, The New Land, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Exorcist and Voyage of the Damned didn’t stop him from taking roles like this, and also appearing in gems like Dune, Flash Gordon and Needful Things, as well as doing voicework for the awesome video game Oblivion: Skyrim and appearing in the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII. Keep at it, Max. You are a god of the cinema.

And so Von Sydow brings his usual gravitas to this role, congratulating our heroes on their success against those damned snake-fuckers, the Set cult. “What daring! What outrageousness! What insolence! What arrogance!” he bellows, as Conan and Subotai look ashamed and Valeria looks defiant (I’m beginning to think she’s the real hero of this movie, but that’s just me). “I salute you!”

King Osric demonstrates how they do body piercings in Zamora.

King Osric demonstrates how they do body piercings in Zamora.

Now that we’re all friends, Osric sits down to a nice cup of wine with our heroes and complains about this wacky snake cult that’s taking over everywhere and drawing in all the naive young people with promises of free love, drugs and non-stop partying. Even Osric’s own daughter has joined up, and gone out to live in Thulsa Doom’s desert commune with all the other filthy hippies. “She follows him like a slave, seeking for the truth of her soul,” Osric complains. “As if could not give it to her!”

He offers Conan and his buddies all the riches they can carry to get his daughter out of the clutches of them danged longhairs and their danged rock-n-roll. Osric says, “There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.” The line is delivered with absolute sincerity and emotion, and in the middle of our silly movie about barbarians and giant snakes, Max Von Sydow manages to utter a few words of truth that still resonate decades later. And it’s indeed the truth, take it from me.

Conan broods. And STILL won't talk to Valeria.

Conan broods. And STILL won’t talk to Valeria.

Anyway, how can our heroes resist such an offer? Go rescue (or at least kidnap) a hot princess, get all the treasure you can carry, and get revenge for the destruction of Conan’s village and the death of his sexy mom? Sounds good to me. Once more proving her position as the brains of the operation, Valeria thinks this is a bad idea. Despite all the cool gems and gold, she really doesn’t think they should be taking on a thousand-year-old sorcerer in an impregnable fortress with an army of fanatics determined to die in his service. After all, there’s much easier targets elsewhere, right?

Well, Conan’s having none of that. They killed his family and sold him into slavery, and Thulsa Doom chopped off his mother’s head right in front of him. You just don’t get over something like that. Even after an impassioned plea from Valeria, Conan sits in stony silence and the next morning his place beside her is empty. Yup, he’s going up against Thulsa Doom alone. And so we’re back to Conan, riding through deserts and mountains, toward the fortress of Thulsa Doom, and probably not really sure what he’s going to do when he gets there. Finally he encounters what he’s been looking for — a procession of whacked-out hippies wandering in the desert with flowers, beating on tambourines, bound for Thulsa Doom’s groovy pad, where they can lie around smoking pot, listening to the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and never bathing.

Dirty counter-culture types wandering around the desert, sniffin' your damned flowers, bangin' on your damn tambourines... GET A JOB, HIPPIES!

Dirty counter-culture types wandering around the desert, sniffin’ your damned flowers, bangin’ on your damn tambourines… GET A JOB, HIPPIES!

“The Children of Doom… Doom’s Children,” intones the narrator. “They told my lord the way to the Mountain of Power. They told him to throw down his sword and return to the earth… Ha! Time enough for the earth in the grave.” Are you beginning to see a theme here? Do you get the impression that John Milius doesn’t like hippies very much? The juxtaposition of modern Moonie/Scientology style cultism with Howard’s Hyborian mythology feels very clunky to me, and just isn’t a very good fit.

Again, the look and feel of the story are very much classic Conan, but the subtext is uncomfortably contemporary and more than a little off-key. (I also wonder how much of this “Set-worshippers-are-just-like-those-stupid-hippies” themes were in Oliver Stone’s screenplay, given that he himself is kind of a counterculture type, creating the great anti-war movie Platoon and the controversial and semi-fictional but still-entertaining Jim Morrison biopic, The Doors.)

Near the Mountain of Power, Conan rides through ancient ruins, mummified armored warriors and stone monoliths, where he is confronted by a crazed-looking old man who talks just like the narrator… Hey, wait a sec… It is the narrator, listed in the credits only as “The Wizard,” played by the late Mako, a distinguished character actor with roles stretching back to 1959 that included classic TV shows like McHale’s Navy, Gidget, I Spy and F-Troop. Mako was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles in 1966, and passed away in 2006 soon after providing the voice of Splinter in the (really bad) 2007 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

Raaar! I'm a wizard!

Raaar! I’m a wizard!

Conan  and the wizard hit it off immediately. Conan is amused by the Wizard’s threats of demon-summoning and vengeful spirits, and the Wizard just plain likes the cut of Conan’s jib. They hang out by the fire and the next day Conan hides his sword and armor and uneasily mounts up on a camel, armed with beautiful flowers so he can fit in with the cultists. ‘Cuz they’re, like, groovy, man. You know? (Arnold must have really hated camels by the time he finished this flick, because the one he’s riding is being very uncooperative.)

In the camp of the Moonies… Oops, I mean Doomies… I mean Set-worshippers… Conan rides past the beautiful people, most of whom are just sitting and grooving, until a bunch of priests arrive and start distributing acolyte’s robes. As Conan tries to puzzle out what to do, a walking, talking homosexual stereotype… I mean a priest of Set approaches him. Conan confides that he is afraid. “Afraid?” lisps the priest, pulling open Conan’s tunic to reveal his barrel chest. “Afraid to bare yourself? Why? You’re so big and so well-grown. You should be proud of your body. How do you expect to reach emptiness without knowing your own body?”

In the ancient past I guess Hyboria had the same problem with gay stereotypes as we do today...

In the ancient past I guess Hyboria had the same problem with gay stereotypes as we do today…

It turns out of course that the priest is only too willing to help Conan know his own body, so Conan leads him away from the crowd, where our unfortunate Set worshipper clearly expects to get a little barbarian-lovin’. Unfortunately for him, Conan only clobbers him and steals his robes, then returns, doing a very unconvincing impersonation of a priest. No one notices or says, “Hey! That’s not Charlie! He’s thin and slightly effeminate and likes to skip and dance about! This guy is big, burly and kind of clumsy! Imposter!” and he fits in with all the other acolytes on their way to Thulsa Doom’s big temple of grooviness, where the squares never harsh your mellow.

My God! It's the Temple of Doom! No, really... It's the actual Temple of Thulsa Doom.

My God! It’s the Temple of Doom! No, really… It’s the actual Temple of Thulsa Doom.

On the way, he presents the jade medallion that he stole from the temple as ID, which proves to be a big mistake, for who should come out of the temple as the acolytes are gathering but good old Rexor and his buddie Thorgrim, neither of whom have aged a day since exterminating the Cimmerians all those years ago. But Conan isn’t aware of this. He’s seated beside a reflecting pool and when a priestess asks him what he sees, he replies, “Infinity,” which seems to satisfy her, the dumb hippie chick. All seems to be going swimmingly until a guard points him out to Rexor and Thorgrim as the guy who’s carrying that unique, specific medallion that was stolen from our temple in Zamora. Honestly, Conan has a lot to learn about covert ops.

Where did I get this medallion? Well, I... uh... I FOUND it! Yeah, that's the ticket! I found it... In... In my sock drawer! Yeah, that's it!

Where did I get this medallion? Well, I… uh… I FOUND it! Yeah, that’s the ticket! I found it… In… In my sock drawer! Yeah, that’s it!

Now Thulsa Doom appears on a balcony above the multitude in a really wacky outfit with a long, scaled cloak. “I see you!” he shouts. “I have watched you! For a thousand years, I have watched you! Who among you will not face death? Who will not face emptiness?” Conan’s pretty intrigued by now, but suddenly someone shouts “Infidel!“, he is grabbed by Rexor and Thorgrim, and whoop-whoop-whoop, out go the lights. The proceedings are observed by Thulsa’s snake-priestess, whom we later learn is King Osric’s wayward daughter. So now Conan is subjected to a little freeform torture before Thulsa shows up for the big interrogation.

“I wish to speak to you now,” Thulsa says, looking about as threatening as your grandfather, but still sounding like Darth Vader. “Where is the Eye of the Serpent? Rexor says you gave it to a girl. Probably for a mere night’s pleasure. What a loss. People have no grasp of what they do. You broke into my house, stole my property, murdered my servants. And my pets, and that is what grieves me the most! You killed my snake. Thorgrim is beside himself with grief. He raised that snake from the time it was born!” Thorgrim then looks sorrowful as the movie gets about 20% wackier.

“You killed my mother!” Conan shoots back. “You killed my father! You killed my people! You took my father’s sword!”

Thorgrim! You've broken the prisoner! Shame on you!

Thorgrim! You’ve broken the prisoner! Shame on you!

(Well, at this point in his career, before he got his current politician’s grasp of the English language, the line comes out more like “Yu kilt my mudda! Yu kilt my fadda! You kilt my pepul! Yu tuk my fadda’s sort!” which to me suggests that Conan is at least part LOLcat.)

Anyway, I guess that makes them even, huh? Maybe Thulsa should just call it good and let him go. No such luck, I fear. Confronted with this horrific accusation, Thulsa Doom only sighs nostalgically. “Ah, it must have been when I was younger. There was a time, boy when I searched for steel. When steel meant more to me than gold and jewels.”

“The riddle of steel?” Conan asks.

“Hm. Yes. You know what it is, don’t you boy? Shall I tell you? It’s the least I can do.” Thulsa smiles. “Steel isn’t strong, boy. Flesh is stronger!” To prove this, Thulsa has one of his female acolytes throw herself off a cliff (the fall, by stuntwoman Corrie Jansen, was at the time a women’s freefall record, 182 feet, and unlike the stuntman in The Sword and the Sorcerer, she didn’t die in the process). Presto. Game, set and match. This battle of wits is over, sir!

The princess watches dubiously.

The princess watches dubiously.

Thulsa throws out a few bon mots about the strength of flesh versus that of steel, sighs and tells Conan to contemplate his words on the Tree of Woe. And so Conan is crucified on a gnarled tree in the middle of the desert. This, and the entire sequence that follows, is another scene lifted from a Howard Conan story, A Witch Shall Be Born. While it isn’t one of the greatest Conan stories, it does contain what is probably the most famous scene from a Conan tale, and it is duplicated here in loving, somewhat nauseating, detail.

Conan hangs on the tree for quite a while, his barbaric constitution keeping him alive where lesser men would have perished. And while he isn’t a manly man like Talon in The Sword and the Sorcerer, who manages to decrucify himself, Conan does prove that he’s the badass’ badass when a vulture flaps down and tries to take a bite. Still alive, and in no mood to be eaten just then, Conan turns the tables, seizing the luckless creature in his mouth and biting it to death, letting its corpse fall to the foot of the tree.

Conan begins to wonder whether he should have possibly considered a career in chartered accountancy.

Conan begins to wonder whether he should have possibly considered a career in chartered accountancy.

This really is a harrowing scene, made worse by the knowledge that the bird Schwarzenegger was expected to bite was a real, dead vulture, and that he washed his mouth out immediately after biting it to make sure he hadn’t caught some horrific disease. Though Doom’s strategy here is really horrific — leaving your enemy to die of thirst and starvation, nailed to a tree — it really reeks of Bond villain/evil dark lord stupidity, doesn’t it? Conan — Doom’s sworn enemy and clearly a capable foe — was in his grasp, and instead of having him beheaded immediately, Doom has him put into a deathtrap that, as always doesn’t work. After a blunder of this magnitude, Thulsa Doom has lost what little sympathy he may once have had. Everything that happens from this point forward is his own fault.

And so Conan hangs for hours or days, until at last just as all seems lost, a lone figure appears in the distance and we hear a familiar theme playing faintly. It’s Subotai, and the theme is once more the familiar Theology/Civilization. And by the gods, this sequence is genuinely moving, dammit.

Mmmm! Yummy, yummy vulture!

Mmmm! Yummy, yummy vulture!

Of course, Subotai and Valeria couldn’t leave Conan to face the lord of evil alone, and so followed along. They showed up late, and Conan is near death as they bring him to the Wizard. Will he make it? Will he recover and return to seek vengeance against Thulsa Doom and his savage cult? My guess is that he will, but let’s find out, shall we? The Wizard can save him, he says, but there’s a price. Valeria is, naturally, willing to pay the price, and so the Wizard paints Conan’s body with mystic runes, casts his spells, and as night falls our heroes prepare to fight for Conan’s soul.

The sequence that follows is very exciting, with the spirits of the dead trying to carry Conan away, and his three companions fighting them. The spirits are hand-animated, resembling the Creature from the Id in Forbidden Planet, and the struggle is long and fierce, but as we all expected, by morning Conan is still with us and the spirits of the dead are defeated.

Keep your paws off  him, you evil spirits, you! He's MINE!

Keep your paws off him, you evil spirits, you! He’s MINE!

“All the gods, they cannot sever us,” Valeria declares. “If I were dead and you still fighting for life, I swear I would come back from the darkness, back from the pit of hell, to fight at your side!” Remember that. It will be important later. Conan recovers quickly, gaining strength and doing his awesome sword kata, and prepping for the big fight that we all know is coming. At the fireside our heroes plan their next move. Subotai and Valeria insist that Conan agree to only kidnap the princess and deal with Thulsa Doom some other time. He doesn’t answer, which suggests that things might not go well, but the next morning they’re off and the Doomies need to start worrying.

I'm too sexy for my sword... Too sexy for my sword...

I’m too sexy for my sword… Too sexy for my sword…

Pausing near a convenient back door that the Wizard told them about, our heroes don warpaint, then sneak in to yet another rousing Basil Poledouris theme, this one a thundering Wagnerian chorus whose lyrics appear to be a choir singing “Deewa nooga wawa naga, needa wawa nooga deewa!” though if there is a real language in there somewhere I sure as hell can’t decipher it. They sneak through a red-filtered cavern way too easily, passing where fetish leather-clad guards are loading up a cauldron with a stew of human flesh. Yup, I knew it! Them hippies wuz just a buncha dirty-ass cannibals!

Dude! They're havin' orgy in there! They are TOTALLY havin' an orgy, dude!

Dude! They’re havin’ orgy in there! They are TOTALLY havin’ an orgy!

They follow the cauldron-bearers, who are delicately swaying back and forth as if they’re doing the bunny-hop, into what can only be described as the orgy chamber, where the music now changes to a lilting ethereal theme as naked and semi-naked cultists roll around on silken cushions, snacking on their human flesh hors d’oeuvres. In the middle of it all is another snake priestess, mostly naked and chained to a column, but clearly getting into the whole groovy orgy scene herself. A gimp-masked guy with a big ladle serves up more fleshy snacks from the needlessly large and heavy cauldron, while Thulsa Doom and the lost princess watch the proceedings from a throne above it all.

Seriously, though... What kind of lame-ass orgy is it where no one actually gets naked?

Seriously, though… What kind of lame-ass orgy is it where no one actually gets naked?

Now I have to say something — when I saw this back in the 80s, the whole orgy seemed incredibly decadent and sexy, but on rewatching I realize that not very much actually happens. None of the orgy participants besides the chained priestess are actually naked, and all they really do is lie around and writhe a little bit. In the end, it’s probably one of the most disappointing screen orgies ever. Of course, it could be worse — it could be Caligula, which featured a very explicit orgy scene that made me not want to have sex ever again.

Thulsa Doom seems strangely unmoved by all of this, and while he watches, he slowly (and not terribly convincingly) turns into a giant snake, then slithers away. Well, I guess that takes care of him, huh? Another big disappointment.

Well there's her I guess, but for fuck's sake, she's chained to the fucking pillar! Goddamn it, this is the worst orgy ever...

Well there’s her I guess, but for fuck’s sake, she’s chained to the fucking pillar! Goddamn it, this is the worst orgy ever…

While everyone is all orgy-pated and not paying attention, our three heroes move into position, ready to begin the slaughter. Moments later, Valeria sets the gauzy curtains afire, Subotai slashes the gimp-mask guy’s throat, and we are off to the fuckin’ races. There are a couple of problems with what has come to be called the “orgy battle” however. As the thematic center of the movie, it is nonetheless kind of mechanical and predictable. No one — and I mean no one – even causes our heroes to break a sweat. Sword-wielding mooks rush up, there’s a clang-clang, and then our hero slashes the bad guy across the gut or throat, he falls and the next one runs up… clang-clang, stab… clang-clang, stab… Though the choreography and swordplay are fun, they are also kind of rote and mechanical. Still, with its piles of dead bodies, booming Poledouris score and exciting setting, it’s still impressive.

Now if Thulsa Doom had looked like THIS for most of the movie instead of a somewhat paternal middle-aged black man, THAT would have been a hell of a lot scarier.

Now if Thulsa Doom had looked like THIS for most of the movie instead of a somewhat paternal middle-aged black man, THAT would have been a hell of a lot scarier.

The guards are also apparently members of the Hong Kong villains union, forced to attack one at a time while their hordes of fellows mill around in the background, wondering what the hell to do. No wonder so many cultist corpses stack up… Their group battle tactics just plain suck. Things pick up when Thorgrim and Rexor appear. As Valeria incapacitates and hog-ties the princess (ooh, girl-on-girl bondage action), Conan upends the cauldron of human stew on the bad guys, demonstrating that the only reason it was so big and heavy was so that the heroes could use it as a weapon. Rexor sees Conan, alive and hardy, with the blood of a dozen or so mooks dripping from his sword, mutters “You!” and battle is joined.

Jesus CHRIST, what a fucking mess! Are we gonna have to clean up AGAIN?

Jesus CHRIST, what a fucking mess! Are we gonna have to clean up AGAIN?

It’s disappointingly short, and it ends after only a few exchanges between the combatants. Trying to smack Conan, Thorgrim accidentally hits the big central column with his big-ass hammer, causing a big chunk to land of Rexor’s head, felling the entire column and allowing Conan to follow his companions back into the cave with the princess. Valeria engages in some more clang-clang, stab… clang-clang, stab as they escape, but eventually they get back to the gorge, mount up with the princess in tow and ride for freedom. None of this is to Thulsa Doom’s liking. Back in human form, and in a completely different set of clothes, he helps Rexor to his feet.

Heh-heh. Me break big rock. Heh-heh.

Heh-heh. Me break big rock. Heh-heh.

“Infidel defilers!” he says, showing a serious overabundance of sour grapes. “They shall all drown in lakes of blood. Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they will learn why they fear the night.” Honestly, his Doomship is overstating the case just a little bit, because apparently “drown in lakes of blood” means “I’m going to turn a snake into an arrow and shoot Valeria,” which he does, and our bold, blonde pirate-lass doesn’t make it out of the gorge alive. Cradled in Conan’s loving arms, she whispers “The Wizard! I told him I would pay the cost! Hold me! Kiss me. Let me breathe my last breath into your mouth.”

Well, honestly, that’s kind of icky, but Conan as always says nothing and she’s gone. Looks like Thulsa Doom has yet another strike against him. That night they rest Valeria on a funeral pyre (dressed in a really awesome suit of black leather armor that we haven’t seen before), and our surviving heroes watch, pretty much agreeing that Thulsa Doom is dead meat, snakes or no snakes. Subotai brushes away tears and the Wizard asks why he’s crying.

Yeah, Valeria kicks so much ass in this movie. Too bad she has to die.

Yeah, Valeria kicks so much ass in this movie. Too bad she has to die.

“He is Conan, the Cimmerian,” Subotai replies. “He won’t cry. So I cry for him.” As he watches the flames, Conan pulls off his slave-wheel necklace and throws it away, then hangs the Eye of the Serpent from his neck. Yeah, Thulsa Doom is totally fucked. The next day Conan chains the princess to one of the monoliths and begins to fortify the ancient ruins. “He will kill you!” the princess declares, ever clueless. “He has seen your fires, and when he comes for me he will kill you!” Conan, true to his performance so far, does not dignify this with an reply.

My love... I will avenge you... And I'm... I'm sorry I only said four words to you for the entirety of our relationship...

My love… I will avenge you… And I’m… I’m sorry I only said four words to you for the entirety of our relationship…

As they prepare, Conan reminisces about picking blueberries with his father, and for all his thick accent, he does a pretty good job with it. They gather up weapons from the old warriors, dig pit traps, set stakes, build traps and generally get the place ready for slaughter. And well they do, for soon Thulsa Doom and his minions are on their way.

Once more, Thulsa Doom shows himself to be the most inept evil dark lord since Lord Voltan in Hawk the Slayer, for his words again don’t really match his actions. They’d drown in lakes of blood, he promised. They would learn why they feared the night, he declared. Given such assertions, I’d expect armies of black-clad assassins, summoned demons and creatures of the night to assail our heroes and pursue them to the ends of the earth, creeping in shadows and attacking when they least expect it.

Let this be the hour when we draw swords together. Fell deeds awake. Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn! All six of us!

Let this be the hour when we draw swords together. Fell deeds awake. Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn! All six of us!

Nope. It’s just Thulsa Doom and a dozen or so of his already-beaten mooks (apparently all that’s left of his once-mighty horde), with Rexor and Thorgrim along for comic relief. Does anyone expect them to do any better than the last batch? In the words of Mystery Science Theater in response to the evil Lord Phantom of Krankor: “The fool! He has defeated us many times! What makes him think he can do it again?”

Now, as Thulsa’s less-than-impressive multitude draws near (why didn’t he call up his thousands of acolytes to go kill the infidels, anyway? No, never mind… that would have been logical), Conan turns his eyes skyward and utters the best line of the entire movie.

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!

In his early days as governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger's approach to the legislature was much more direct and less nuanced than in later years.

In his early days as governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approach to the legislature was much more direct and less nuanced than in later years.

Well said, big guy. When I first saw this movie at the Clackamas Town Center Cinema so very, very long ago, that line got a round of applause. Despite this movie’s flaws (and there are many), occasionally we hear the voice of Robert E. Howard, speaking to us across the gulf of years with the voice of Conan.

The enemy’s cavalry tactics in rough, restricted terrain prove disastrous from the get-go. Men are cut from saddles. Horses go tumbling (and unfortunately, several horses were killed in this scene and when asked about it, director Milius just laughed it off, saying they hurt more people than horses). Conan and Subotai spring out, stab or hack at their foes, then vanish. By my count, Thulsa Doom loses 18 warriors in just under three minutes of screen time. I don’t think the English at Agincourt did that well. By this time, with a few minor exceptions, the bad guys are down to Thulsa Doom (lurking nearby and watching like the coward that he is), Rexor and Thorgrim.

Conan and Rexor (clad in another Ron Cobb armor set, this with a rather Celtic-looking helmet crest) duke it out — Rexor knocks Conan for a loop, then Conan cuts Rexor’s horse out from under him (and I’m sorry to say the shot looks like the poor beast broke its neck in the fall — it certainly couldn’t have done it any good), then scrambles into the ruins. Meanwhile, Subotai is busy mopping up, killing off the last few of Doom’s mooks. He almost gets stabbed, but the Wizard shows up with a spear and saves him. “I did it!” the Wizard shouts, unsteadily. “With my spear!”

Rexorfalls1 Rexorfalls2 Rexorfalls3 Rexorfalls4

Yes folks... Watch animal cruelty as it happens as the stuntman's horse gets tripped.

Yes folks… Watch animal cruelty as it happens as the stuntman’s horse gets tripped.

Back in the ruins, Thorgrim is creeping along with his bigass hammer, and sees Conan’s helmet sticking up behind a rock and just as we’re asking “Oh, god — is he going to fall for that old trick?”, he falls for it (maybe it wasn’t such an old trick during the Hyborian Age). He clobbers the helmet, triggering one of the traps and ending up impaled on a big wooden stake. Good night, Sweet Thorgrim. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Unfortunately while Conan is gazing in triumph at his foe, the not-yet-dead Rexor rushes him and sends him tumbling. Conan falls, Rexor has the advantage, draws back for the killing blow, but suddenly, from out of nowhere…

Now, THIS never happened back when I was playing in the '67 Superbowl...

Now, THIS never happened back when I was playing in the ’67 Superbowl…

Clang! A sword blocks Rexor’s blow, then slashes him across the eyes, blinding him and sending him staggering back. Conan stares in amazement at the image of Valeria, standing there in kind of silly-looking mirrored Valkyrie armor (wings on her helmet and everything), as she coolly asks him, “Do you want to live forever?” and vanishes, allowing Conan to finish off Rexor with huge splashes of blood, shattering his father’s sword (which Rexor still carries) in the process. Symbolism, anyone?

Only for you, Conan of Cimmeria, my truest love and faithful companion, would I return to the mortal realm wearing such a goofy costume.

Only for you, Conan of Cimmeria, my truest love and faithful companion, would I return to the mortal realm wearing such a goofy costume.

(And yes, this scene is from Howard as well — it comes at the end of Queen of the Black Coast when Conan’s lover the pirate queen Belit returns from the dead to save him. The grand REH remix continues.) Seeing which way the wind is blowing, Thulsa Doom gallops away, despite the princess’ pleas that he not leave her. He pauses briefly to draw one of his snake arrows and aim it at her, however. God, what a dick this guy is.

Luckily for the princess, the noble Subotai leaps into the path of the arrow, deflecting it with his shield and proving to that dumb princess that you shouldn’t hang out with those stupid hippy gurus — they’ll just turn you into a mindless, drug-addled sex slave and then try to kill you with a snake turned into an arrow. Conan now holds the broken remnants of his father’s sword along with his own Atlantean blade and lifts them up to the sky in a grudging tribute to his grim god. If the movie had ended there, I think it would have been fine. Conan has triumphed, banished the ghosts of his past, and his arch-enemy has escaped. But no, we’ve still got a little ways to go.

As my spiritual guide and guru is currently trying to kill me with a poisonous snake transformed into an arrow, I am SERIOUSLY rethinking my whole membership in the Set cult.

As my spiritual guide and guru is currently trying to kill me with a poisonous snake transformed into an arrow, I am SERIOUSLY rethinking my whole membership in the Set cult.

That night Thulsa Doom — who is now almost entirely bereft of minions, both competent and incompetent — apparently snaps and calls his acolytes to a big love-in, where he addresses them from his balcony, as Conan sneaks into the temple with the help of his now-ally princess, who distracts Doom’s remaining handful of guards, letting Conan stab them. (I want to note that my version of the movie is the director’s cut, in which the ending is a little longer, and actually makes much more sense than the theatrical version, which just has Conan show up on the balcony behind Thulsa Doom with no explanation and no help from the princess.)

Outside Doom is genuinely losing it, raving to his followers. “The purging is at last at hand. Day of Doom is here. All that is evil, all their allies; your parents, your leaders, those who would call themselves your judges; those who have lied and corrupted the Earth, they shall all be cleansed. You, my children, are the water that will wash away all that has gone before. In your hands you hold my life. The gleam in the eye of Set. This flame will burn away the darkness. Burn you the way to PARADISE!!!”

Given how seriously you guys have failed me in all the important spiritual aspects of my life, I have no objection to Conan sneaking up behind me and slitting all your throats.

Given how seriously you guys have failed me in all the important spiritual aspects of my life, I have no objection to Conan sneaking up behind me and slitting all your throats.

Okay, he’s no Jeremy Irons, but the cheese has definitely slid off of Thulsa Doom’s cracker. Exactly what he means by all this is unclear. Is he sending them out to conquer? To go murder their parents? To set themselves on fire? It’s not certain, but hey… Doom is clearly fucking batshit insane. Whatever Doom’s plan is, it’s interrupted by the appearance of Conan, loaded for bear and carrying the still-dangerous remnants of his father’s sword.

Doom doesn’t seem surprised. “My child. You have come to me, my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? Who gave you the will to live? I am the wellspring from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What will your world be without me? My son?”

I am the resurrection and the light... No, wait. I'm actually just some asshole who runs a snake cult and claims to be 1,000 years old. I guess you can all go home now.

I am the resurrection and the light… No, wait. I’m actually just some asshole who runs a snake cult and claims to be 1,000 years old. I guess you can all go home now.

In short — “Conan, I am your father. Search your feelings. You know it to be true!” Hey, good thing James Earl Jones didn’t get typecast back in the 70s and 80s, huh? Conan considers this, and actually looks as if he might be buying it. The princess and all the acolytes stare, wondering which way our barbarian will go. I think we all know the answer to that one. Deciding that he’s not taking any more of this mystical mumbo-jumbo hippy shit, Conan then slashes Thulsa’s neck with the stump of his father’s sword, then hacks his head off completely, holding it up to the crowd like a prize turkey before throwing it down the steps.

Thulsa Doom takes a hit right in the juicebox.

Thulsa Doom takes a hit right in the juicebox.

He’s slain their messiah! He’s an evil infidel! He has destroyed everything they believe in and hold sacred! The angry mob of acolytes rises up as one, storming the temple with blood in their eyes, forcing Conan into a night of desperate, bloody struggle against impossible odds… Well, no. They don’t actually do that. After watching Conan murder the man that they have all been brainwashed to worship as god and father, the cultists all throw their torches into the reflecting pond and walk away. Yup. They just walk away. Within 30 seconds, the temple is empty save for Conan, the princess and a pond full of dead torches. Where did they go? It’s a mystery that will probably never be solved.

Hey, hippies! I got your peace and love right here!

Hey, hippies! I got your peace and love right here!

Conan then walks down the steps and throws a big brazier back up on the balcony, thus setting a stone temple on fire. Crom has granted another miracle. And that, pretty much, is the end of Conan the Barbarian. He rides away with the hot princess (one wonders exactly what happens on the trip home) and the narrator reads from the closing crawl, superimposed over the image of Conan upon the throne of Aquilonia, “So did Conan return the wayward daughter of King Osric to her home. And having no further concern, he and his companions sought adventure in the west. Many wars and feuds did Conan fight. Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand… And this story shall also be told!”

Boy, that stone temple sure caught fire fast, didn't it?

Boy, that stone temple sure caught fire fast, didn’t it?

Well no, not really. Although Arnold signed to play up to four Conan movies, only this and its weak sequel Conan the Destroyer were ever released, and Conan remained absent from the silver screen until 2011′s disastrous outing Conan the Barbarian starring Jason Momoa drove the last nail in the coffin of hopes for a definitive film version of Robert E. Howard’s barbarian. We’ll be inspecting that particular gem in my next column, which hopefully will be done much sooner than this one.

What are we to make of this, the first of two movie Conans? I think that this version is a mixed bag. If seen as a generic swords-and-sorcery movie about a guy who just happens to be named Conan but has no other real connection to Howard’s Conan, it’s a pretty decent piece of work. It’s got all the right elements in just about the right measure and I’d hazard to say it’s one of the finest of its genre (see my ratings below).

Unfortunately, with the exception of one really bad sequel, we never did get to hear that particular story.

Unfortunately, with the exception of one really bad sequel, we never did get to hear that particular story.

As the definitive screen version of Conan the Barbarian, I say no fucking way. Only passing lip service was paid to the actual Howard stories, consisting of some scenes taken from a half-dozen or so different works, some of (Worms of the Earth, for example) not Conan stories at all. Conan’s entire cinematic origin story is dreadful — Conan was never a slave or a pit fighter, his village was not destroyed by raiders, his father wasn’t killed, he never went adventuring in search of revenge, and Thulsa Doom never appeared in a single Conan story — he was a villain from the King Kull tales, set thousands of years earlier. Valeria was a pirate and they adventured together in one story, Red Nails. And so on. I know a lot of this is nitpicking, but I’m a purist, and all the monkeying with a perfectly good set of stories and characters really bothers me.

Well, at least we never had to put up with cheap, shitty Conan action figures... Oh, wait... Never mind.

Well, at least we never had to put up with cheap, shitty Conan action figures… Oh, wait… Never mind.

There are other areas where the character doesn’t jibe with his literary antecedent. For example, I think that REH’s Conan would have strenuously objected to the wizard saving his life through sorcery, especially since it cost Valeria her’s.  I can envision him snarling at the wizard “You should have let me die, sorcerer! Not begone, and be grateful that I let you live!” or something. I don’t really see Conan hanging out with a wizard anyway, since sorcery in the original tales is almost always portrayed as a dark and corrupting force, and its practitioners are at best amoral and at worst utterly evil and sadistic.

Despite this, Conan the Barbarian does a great job of capturing the look and feel, the spirit and heart of Howard’s writings, and coupled with that lush, unbelievable score, is a more than decent film. I just don’t think it truly portrays Howard’s hero as he was written and as he exists in our imaginations.

With the exception of the printed word and comics, the media hasn’t been all that kind to Conan. As noted, the next two cinematic versions of the barbarian were pretty awful, and an attempted live action TV series, Conan the Adventurer, was a pale imitation of the Hercules/Xena style of low-budgeted television fantasy. Having watched a couple of episodes one wonders whether the creators actually bothered to flip through a Conan story or two before writing it, and the show died a well-deserved death after one season. It is missed by no one.

You have GOT to be fucking kidding me...

You have GOT to be fucking kidding me…

And then there was Conan the Adventurer, the animated series. Holy shit.

Conan! The mightiest warrior ever! His quest — to undo the spell of living stone cast upon his family by driving the evil serpent-men back to another dimension! And vanquishing their leader, the cruel wizard Wrath-Amon! 

Fortunately, the animated Conan fared no better than his TV counterpart and today we’re mercifully free of its influence. I might review that one some day, assuming I’m equipped with enough Whippits and Jack Daniels to get through an entire episode.

And so John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian, for better or worse, remains the best portrayal of Robert E. Howard’s hero to date, and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

And with that, I bid you farewell. I shall return — much sooner than last time, I hope, with more fun and eventually a review of the 2011 Conan the Barbarian, which was both better and worse than this particular outing. Fight on! And now, the ratings:


Sword and Sorcery Rating:

4Swords_small

4 Broadswords

Yup, this one’s the gold standard for S&S movies. Conan the Barbarian has it all — violence, sex, swords, wizardry, heroes, heroines, pecs, breasts, armor, giant snakes… It receives the coveted 4 sword rating, and well-deserved.

Comedy Rating:

2Swords_small

2 Broadswords

There are a few funny moments — Conan slugging the camel, Conan falling into his porridge, Thorgrim accidentally knocking down the pillar, etc. But for the most part, the flick is pretty grim and serious, lacking comedy both intentional and non-intentional (which is not really that bad a thing).

Violence Rating:

4Swords_small

4 Broadswords

My, my is does this movie have a body count. For the most part our heroes don’t have any problem battling Thulsa Doom’s inept legions, and fake stage blood galore is shed. You have to wonder how violent this movie was going to be before the studio demanded cuts.

Titillation Rating:

3Swords_small3 Broadswords

Lots of nakedness and a pretty decent amount of sex, even if the orgy scene is a lot tamer on reviewing than it once was. Conan and Valeria don’t exactly set the screen on fire, but they have a decent enough love scene, and there’s lots of naked breasts and male pectorals for most discerning viewers.

Awesomeness Rating:

4Swords_small

4 Broadswords

Yeah, this may be the very first movie I’ve reviewed to get the full four sword rating. For all its flaws, its lack of faithfulness to the original stories, its goofy elements and its jarringly modern portrayal of Doom’s cult as a bunch of drugged-out hippies, this remains one of the finest and most awesome fantasy movies ever. And much of the credit goes to the amazing, epic, haunting and moving score by the late great Basil Poledouris. One listen to his amazing compositions for this movie will rouse your spirits and make you want to wade, sword in hand, into hopeless battle so that the gods themselves will see and approve.

 

Not Dead Yet

As Sildani noted, I haven’t posted much since that horrific review of FATAL, so I’m doing a quick update just so I can assure myself that I’m still alive. From November to the present I spent a significant amount of my time (when not dealing with a very, very busy year at work) on rewriting my novel (currently titled The Shepherd, but I’d really like it to be The Shepherd Book I: She Who Watches, which I’ll lobby for if someone wants to buy the series) at the behest of a very cool and very experienced literary agent whom I have been corresponding with for the last year or so. The rewrites were interesting, as I think she has a better handle on the market than I do — I ended up scaling a lot of the violence back (well, made it less gory and gross, anyway) and made my big bad monster a lot less cartoony and more scary/incomprehensible, which she says works a lot better. At this point, I feel as if I’m still the rookie, so I’m more than happy to listen to what experienced pros have to say, and if she’d said to rewrite the whole thing but make all the characters intelligent gerbils I would have given it serious consideration (hey, I’m not proud). Well, the work paid off and she is currently representing me, so hell we might yet see an Anthony Pryor urban fantasy/horror series coming to a bookstore, ebook vendor or recycling plant near you.

That said I’m presently working (very slowly) on another Pit of S&S review, this one of the two Conan movies and their various departures from canon. Being the Robert E. Howard fanatic that I am I have plenty of gripes about Conan’s appearances on both large and small screens (remember the animated series? Whoa…), but I also admire those who can at least capture the spirit of Howard’s writing. The question is who did it better. I’ll get into that as well. And, since hopefully my reviews are intended to be at least mildly amusing, I’ll try for some funny captions and stuff. Hopefully a splendid time will be had by all.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at. I hope to get some more posts up soon, now that the grim taste of FATAL is out of my mouth. For a time I feared that only the dead could know peace from the evil that was Byron Hall, but time has surprisingly healed my wounds, and I am beginning to see beauty in the world again…

So until next time, keep cool and carry on, my friends. Life might actually be worth living from time to time.

Putting ponies on the same page as any mention of FATAL is really a horrible thing to do, but this pretty much encapsulates my initial reaction to the game.

Putting ponies on the same page as any mention of FATAL is really a horrible thing to do, but this pretty much encapsulates my initial reaction to the game.

Years ago I remember reading an article about a pair of avant garde artists whose painting had been slashed by a vandal. Far from being horrified, the artists were elated. The reaction of audiences, they said, was an integral part of the artistic experience. If the vandal was to come forward and identify himself, the artists went on, they would give him full credit as one of the work’s co-creators.

Mind you, not every artist would be as understanding as those guys, but the story illustrates an important fact — that an audience’s response helps define a work of art. Without viewers, the Mona Lisa is just another painting. Without listeners, the Beatles are just another band. And, most importantly to the matter at hand, without readers, FATAL would have been just another shitty self-published rpg by just another self-important douche.

The very act of self-promotion requires a fair amount of hubris. At the very least it requires a thick skin, self-confidence and the ability to withstand rejection. While Byron Hall and his cartoon pals may have lacked a couple of these, they more than made up for it in the hubris category — almost psychotically so.

As we’ve seen in the previous entries, FATAL (aka Fantasy Adventures to Adult Lechery or From Another Time, Another Land depending on what mood you caught Byron in) was a mess whatever you called it. Byron’s attempts to placate his critics resulted primarily in lowering his level of offense from 11 to about 10.75, and the vileness of his underlying attitudes remained on painful display in both “editions” of his game.

Let’s Make a Character!

Byron Hall and Burnout -- the early years.

Byron Hall and Burnout — the early years.

Let none say that Byron Hall wasn’t generous with his game. In addition to .pdfs of both editions, he also made available a variety of other works in progress, including his monster and setting books. Other than the fact that they are all written in Byron Hall’s usual inimical style, there’s nothing really remarkable about them, so I’m not really going to bother with any descriptions.

Other items (such as the rockin’ FATAL Theme Song for which see the previous entry) were released as well, but the most utilitarian of these items was the DOS-based FATAL character generator!

A quick perusal of FATAL’s proposed cover (the one with the Anakim and the kobolds fighting over the naked porn starlet) reveals (in addition to the “Parental Advisory” warning) the declaration that there is a “FREE CD ROM Inside!” as if FATAL is some kind of nightmarish breakfast cereal with a horrific prize in every box. Presumably the character generator would have been one of the many useful FATAL-based utilities included on the free CD ROM, but as it doesn’t run for shit on Windows, this would probably have been just another sad example of how pathetic FATAL truly was.

In any event, I’ve managed to get ahold of the character generator, but I have to run it with DOS Box to get anything like coherent output. Given the extreme detail, tediousness and the utterly random nature of FATAL’s character generation rules, this utility is something of a godsend. Unfortunately, like the game it supports, it’s a piece of crap.

So let’s generate a character, shall we? My first attempt yields a female dark elf with the following statistics:

Character Name: Aedeldreda

Gender: F

Race: Dark Elf

Age Category: Young Adult

Height: 8 inches

Weight: 2 pounds

Siblings: 0

Social Class: Serf

Age: 0

Max Age: 750

Eyes: Black

Skin Color: Black

Marital Status: Unhappily Married

Birth Rank: Only child

Birth Status: Legitimate

Hair Color: Light Brown

Hair Type: Thin, wavy

Hair Length: 1 inch

Vision: Far-sightedness, 15 feet

Facial Feature: Big nose

Perceived as weak and curious

Birthplace: Capital City

Birthday: 6/4/5100

Most Attactive Feature: Face

Most Repulsive Feature: Buttocks

Sub-ability Score Mods

PHYSIQUE: 62 (-21)
Physical Fitness: 89 (-6) Sprint: 19
Strength: 28 (-50) Damage: (-50%) C&J: 14 Bench: 29 DL: 43
Bodily Attractiveness: 23 (-56)
Health: 111 (6) Int/Vom: -6% All: 0 Ill. Imm.: 60%

CHARISMA: 102 (0)
Facial: 141 (20) Description: Enticing
Vocal: 73 (-13) Description: Normal
Kinetic: 102 (0) Description: Ordinary
Rhetoric: 93 (-3) Avg. Speech: 145 or 195 (50%)

DEXTERITY: 101 (0)
Hand-Eye Coordination: 112 (6) Finger Prec: 1/32 inch
Agility: 120 (9) CA Bonus: 3 Brawl: 2 Stand: 3
Reaction Speed: 78 (-13) Deep Sleep Recov: 2
Enunciation: 96 (-3) Max Speech: 190 Casting: +10%

INTELLIGENCE: 104 3
Language: 87 (-6) #: 2 Vocab: Experimental
Math: 109 (6) Highest Math: Geometry
Analytical: 106 (3)
Spatial: 117 (9) Unfamiliar Object Assembly: 500

WISDOM: 119 (9)
Drive: 95 (-3) Hours Resting: 17
Intuition: 121 (12)
Common Sense: 136 (17) Likely to: Probably has the trust of close friends
Reflection: 124 (12) Earliest memory at: Age 2

Life Points: (11) Unconscious: 2 CA: 13

Piety Points: (36) Magic Points:

Breadth: 4 BMI: 22.0313 BMI Status: Overweight

Disposition
Ethicality: 91 Morality: 1
You are: Ethical w/Neutral tendencies Immoral

Temperament
Sanguine: 8 Choleric: 98 Melancholic: 100 Phlegmatic: 55
Primary Temperament: Melancholic Secondary Temperament: Choleric

Starting Funds
Silver Pieces: 109

Handedness: Right-handed

Foot Size: 1

Head Cicumference: 12.3345

Sexual Features
Vaginal Circumference Potential: 5

Vaginal Depth Potential: 0.873333

Anal Circumference Potential: 7

Nipple Length: 0.25

Cup Size: A

Hymen Resistance: 58

Areola Diameter: 0.5

Areola Hue: Light

Tongue Size: 2

Sexuality: Heterosexual

Debauchery: 1

So there you have it — the unfortunate Aedeldreda is a young adult, despite being unhappily married at 0 years of age, and is all of eight inches tall. Her nipples are .25 inches in length, which for a normal-sized woman would be proportionately about two inches each. Her tongue, on the other hand, extends for a full 25% of her total body height, which makes her very popular at social gatherings. She has a gorgeous face, but hideous buttocks. While she is a dainty eight inches tall, her head is 12.3 inches in circumference, which translates into a diameter of three inches. I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math — this means that if Aedeldreda were six feet tall, her head would be 27 inches in diameter. Also, a Size 1 shoe is 4.5 inches in length. You can do the math on that one.

And to top it all off, she is a serf, so it’s highly unlikely she’s going to go out adventuring anywhere. Especially with such a huge head.

So, besides generating some decent laughs, the FATAL character generator appears to be about as broken as the rest of the game.

Edition Wars

Another decent illustration. Hopefully the artist was able to get work elsewhere after his involvement with FATAL came to light...

Another decent illustration. Hopefully the artist was able to get work elsewhere after his involvement with FATAL came to light…

The differences between the two editions of Byron’s life’s work are enlightening, especially considering his attitude about imperfections in his awesome game. On the more mundane side, the original Adult Lechery version (henceforth FATAL 1.0) had shitty photoshopped photos of Byron and his friends screwing around with weapons and looking like dorks instead of the professional illustrations that graced Another Land (henceforth FATAL 2.0), and the Aedile was called the MM or “Maim Master.” The races are the more familiar types — humans, dwarves, seven flavors of elves, half-orcs and halflings (Fallowhide, Harfoot and Stoor). Byron even provides us with a handy-dandy table of derogatory racial slurs for each PC race (Anakim are, of course called “Stovepipers” “due to their thick manhood” which in addition to spotlighting Byron’s endless obsession with the dimensions of sex organs, also implies that the entire Anakim race shares a single penis).

The key difference between the editions actually appears to be Byron’s increasing sensitivity to criticism, and his desperate attempts to explain away his obsession with deviant sex, body functions and gruesome violence. Whereas FATAL 2.0 includes repeated (cut and pasted) assertions that sex and violence are “serious issues,” all version 1.0 says on the topic is “The information in this game does not represent the world-views of Fatal Games, nor is extreme violence or extreme sex condoned by Fatal Games. Instead, the information is included for comprehensiveness.”

Mind you, both sets of rules contain the following rules, which I forgot to mention in the previous installment, but which bear repeating in case anyone starts to feel sorry for Byron Hall or forgets what a woman-hating piece of shit he is:

If a human male successfully overbears a female, it is possible that rape may occur. If a male seeks to have his way with a woman at her expense and whether she likes it or not, he may attempt to Intimidate her to allow him to rape her without resistance. On the other hand, he may be enraged or prefer to continue without asking. If an Intimidation skill check is successful, then double the effective weight difference used in Overbearing above. In any case, he will have to overcome her clothing or armor. If naked, there is no modifier to the Rape roll. If either of them is wearing clothes, then the Rape roll suffers a + 5 penalty, + 10 for both. If either wears light armor, then the Rape roll suffers a + 10 penalty, + 20 for both. If either wears medium armor, then the Rape roll suffers a + 20 penalty, + 30 for both. If either wears heavy armor, then the Rape roll suffers a + 30 penalty, + 60 for both.

The Rape roll consists of rolling percentile dice, and the rapist wants to roll lower than the weight difference as used in Overbearing, doubled by Intimidation if used, and the roll is modified by clothing or armor. If the roll fails, then the woman manages to escape from the clutches of the rapist, and 80% of the time manages to land a Brawling blow with Crucial Damage to either the Penis (01-50%) or Testes (51-100%) of the would-be rapist. Further, if the roll fails then she either escapes prior to penetration (01-60%) or during the violation (61-100%). If the roll is successful, then the man does with her as he likes.

As an alternative to these cumbersome rules, I offer the following modifications:

How Byron Hall recruits playtesters.

How Byron Hall recruits playtesters.

If a well-hung male troll successfully overbears Byron Hall, it is possible that rape may occur. If the troll seeks to have his way with Byron Hall at his expense and whether he likes it or not, the troll may attempt to Intimidate Byron to allow him to rape Byron without resistance. On the other hand, the troll may be enraged or prefer to continue without asking. In any case, he will have to overcome Byron Hall’s clothing or armor. If Byron is naked, there is no modifier to the Rape roll. 

And so on. If Byron’s email address were still active I’d definitely offer the above as an optional rule.

Also, as previously noted, FATAL 1.0 had a lot more offensive racist stuff, much more gruesome and blatantly unrealistic critical hit charts and really, really long lists of random magical effects and random magical components, many (most?) of which were really, really juvenile, sexist, racist or offensive (and some that were several of those at once). When called on this, Byron of course played the humor card, as the whole “historical accuracy” argument seems to have collapsed, since I can’t think of a single solitary historical citation that includes such things as:

0089 Caster grows a hole in their forehead, though somewhat similar to a lubricated vagina.
0090 Next time caster defecates, their intestines fall out of their ass, though still loosely attached.
0091 The illusion of a disembodied 3d10’ long schlong appears, trying to fuck whoever has the most LP in 500’.
0092 Illusion appears of a male human pulling his pants down, cutting off his scrotum, and offering some…

0200 Caster tries to fist-fuck the next sleeping female they see, no matter when or where.
0201 Caster now prefers mating with farm animals, and is now a zoophiliac.
0202 Caster develops a fetish to drink their own sperm once at each meal.
0203 The next female with Charisma over 120 orgasms upon seeing the caster.
0204 Caster strokes or fingers themselves, as is appropriate to their gender, once in each direction in public.
0205 Caster only wants to have sex, especially oral, with women on their [sic] rag.

0366 A tooth kicked out from the last bitch that refused to fuck you – reusable until the next time
0367 A sliced piece of skin from a slovenly slut that was suplexed onto a stone – expended
0368 A gemstone that has been worn in the concave chest of a loser for one month – reusable
0369 The defecation remaining on an arm after full insertion into the ass of an ass – reusable for 1 day

0540 A fingernail torn from the middle finger of a woman who fingers herself – reusable for 1 month
0541 The tongue of a woman who fantasizes about small cocks – reusable for 1 week
0542 The shaved pussy-hair of a smelly little trollop that has an unkempt pussy – expended
0543 A ring that has been lost in a fuck-hole for 3 months or more – reusable (although it reeks)
0544 Parchment that has been lifted so gracefully by the suction of a schoolgirl’s twat – reusable
0545 A marble shot from the vaginal depths of a pregnant prostitute – reusable
0546 The juice on someone’s face who has just eaten a hairy snatch – expended

Among the random weapon magical abilities is this gem (only one of many):

Ravishing, of: Whosoever possesses this weapon will be compelled to ravish members of the opposite sex. More specifically, the possessor will attempt to repeatedly force this weapon into a random orifice of any character with a Bodily Attractiveness exceeding 100 and who fails to correctly answer the following questions. All questions must be asked:

1. What is my favorite color?

2. What number am I thinking from 1 to 10?

3. If my weapon liked you, would you like it back?

The victim must answer each question. If one of the questions is answered incorrectly, then the possessor will gain 1d20 LP until the weapon ejaculates within this victim. If two of the questions are answered incorrectly, then the possessor gains 2d20 LP until the weapon ejaculates within this victim. If all three questions are answered incorrectly, then the possessor gains 3d20 LP until the weapon ejaculates within this victim.

If the weapon does not ejaculate within this victim within the next day, then the possessor must repeatedly force this weapon in a random orifice of themselves until it ejaculates. Either way, this weapon ALWAYS ejaculates. After 1d20 rounds of penetration, this weapon ejaculates gray splooge. If the victim is female and the weapon ejaculates in her vagina, it WILL impregnate her. She will give birth in 1d6 days to a randomly determined type of weapon, though it will also be a weapon of ravishing. The mother will die upon weaponbirth. The Ravishing property only functions every five days, when its weapon-testicles become overflowingly full. 

…And so on. I’m actually sorry that I’m posting most of this, but as I’ve said it really has to be seen to be believed, and believe me, this is only the tip of a very large, very vile, very very crazy iceberg.

Meanwhile, in an entirely different (and not shitty) rpg...

Meanwhile, in an entirely different (and not shitty) rpg…

Honestly after reading the first 100 or so such entries you stop feeling ill and start feeling both jaded and slightly sorry for Byron Hall and his friends, since generating that much repulsive crap must have taken them months… or years.

So enough of my illustrations of Byron Hall’s attempts at humor. Suffice to say, the two editions are both deeply stupid and offensive in their own way, but in the end I will say that FATAL 1.0 is repellent, infantile and sociopathic, but while FATAL 2.0 jettisons at least a portion of its juvenile sexual attitudes, it nevertheless comes across as even more sociopathic, since Byron Hall is clearly an adult who knows very well what he’s doing.

With such a wretched, diseased pile of filth hiding amid the gaming community, and with Byron Hall convinced that FATAL Games was destined to be the next White Wolf Publications, the fuse was lit and the explosion was inevitable. And when it went off, it shook the entire rpg world to its foundations.

The Review

Those who have followed the sad history of FATAL refer to “The Review” in the same hushed, reverent tones as Roman enthusiasts use when speaking of Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The date of April 10, 2003 will live forever in the hearts of gamers everywhere, for it was the day that someone finally called bullshit on Byron Hall.

Earlier in the year, Byron had posted a .pdf version of Fantasy Adventures to Adult Lechery on the website of FATAL Games (www.fatalgames.com, which the observant will note is now a page devoted to on-line browser games) and was waiting for the accolades to roll in. Surely the game that described it self as The most difficult, detailed, realistic and historically/mythically accurate role-playing game available would soon take the moribund and doctrinaire RPG industry by storm, sweeping its creator and his tight coterie of loyal companions to the heights of fame and fortune. Soon, Byron Hall thought, everyone will be talking about F.A.T.A.L.

In this, he proved entirely correct.

I cannot do justice to the masterpiece that is Darren MacLennan and Jason Sartin’s review. It is a work that will live forever in the hearts and minds of honorable gamers and designers. It is a towering example of good triumphing over evil  and justice overtaking wrongdoers.

Well, maybe I’m overstating a little bit. Whatever — you can read it here.

Messers MacLennan and Sartin didn’t really start out with the intention of setting the gaming world aflame. They just saw a repulsive and ugly roleplaying game and decided to respond with a massive, detailed and very funny review. The case could be made that their review shed far more light on FATAL and its creator than they deserved. Likewise, the case could also be made that in trying to spotlight how offensive the game was, they crossed a few lines of good taste themselves (linking to “Tubgirl” for example… euchhh). And finally it could be argued that the whole controversy was a tempest in a teapot, since MacLennan and Sartin were, by their own admission, simply having fun and trying to be amusing. Whether they succeeded or not is anyone’s guess — at least they were a hell of a lot funnier than Byron Hall. At least until he read their review and decided to respond (see below).

As you can see for yourself, the review is highly quotable, witty, long-winded and snarky as all hell. In the end, it can be encapsulated in the single, brilliant quote “So, basically, saying that this game should be burned is an insult to fire.”

Well, the review stayed up only a couple of days (though it has since been archived in several locations and is available to anyone who wants to read it). Byron Hall’s game proved so toxic that even posting a bad review of it was offensive. However, this was not good enough for Byron Hall himself. He wasn’t about to see his most important contribution to the advancement of the roleplaying hobby trashed in this fashion… No! He would respond to MacLennan and Sartin’s attack with his own savage editorial riposte, cutting their childish arguments to ribbons, and proving himself their superior in every regard — intellectually, logically and, of course, sexually.

The war had begun. And only one combatant would emerge.

Where is Dating Included?

Yes, this illustration is from the PC races section. You too can play a cannibalistic child-killing monster.

Yes, this illustration is from the PC races section. You too can play a cannibalistic child-killing monster.

The only creatures that I would consider more sad and pitiable than Byron Hall himself were his fans. To them, he was an idol, a paragon, a role model. He was the man who would take on the gaming establishment and show them, whether they wanted to or not, what good gaming was all about (perhaps he would accomplish this by making a successful Rape roll). One copy of Byron’s rebuttal to the MacLennan/Sartin review is drawn from a fan’s web page (which fan I’m not sure — my guess is that it was the still-mysterious “Burnout” who also participated actively in Byron’s defense), and is prefaced with the following paragraph:

Below is a true gem.  It is a review by two idiots, and the author of F.A.T.A.L., Byron Hall, replied to it.  He’s the coolest… If Fatal Games wants me to take it down, I will, but as long as they don’t mind, I want to show this to the world so that all can see the stupidity of conservatives.  Ok, here’s the review and counter-review all rolled into one.

Just the notion that anyone would call Byron Hall “The Coolest” kind of beggars comprehension. And that he’s calling the reviewers “conservatives” is even stranger. But that’s as may be — Byron’s response was posted to his now-defunct website, and the rest was history.

The mere title Childish Review and Author’s Defense of F.A.T.A.L. speaks volumes. Surely, Byron thought, those blackguards who attacked his game were nothing but childish scribblers, and his calm, mature response to their blather would send them scurrying, terrified of the vast intellect that they had dared to disturb. The mere suggestion that FATAL, with its rules for anal circumference, its obsession with rape, racism, misogyny and scatology, was anything but a fine and welcome addition to the world of roleplaying was sheer madness. Byron Hall would swat those insignificant gnats with calm, logical argumentation and sheer, icy resolution. Watch out, Darren and Jason! Retribution is at hand.

Byron begins his defense with yet another piece of self-delusion, claiming that the rpg.net review was “Perhaps the most negative review ever written.”

Although it is technically not a review, but mostly an attack against me, Byron Hall, he continues, blissfully unaware of his own douchebaggery, I will demonstrate the fallacies of the authors, Darren MacLennan and Jason Sartin. Obviously, they hate F.A.T.A.L. and anyone involved with the game. Their hatred can be only the result of fear. They are fearful because they know it will be published. They are fearful because the material in the game is supported, and is dissimilar to anything that attracts them. People fear what is different to them, mostly out of cognitive laziness; it takes effort to explore what is different. Nonetheless, I appreciate the attention to the game, and inefficient effort.

This reminds me a little bit of George W. Bush’s assertions that the terrorists hate us “for our freedom,” as if Osama bin Laden got up every morning saying, “Oooooooh, ah just HATES them AMURICANS and their DANGED FREEDOM!” Byron is puffing himself up into a far more significant individual than he is by claiming that the reviewers “hate” him and are “fearful” because “the material in the game is supported…” and because it’s different.

Contempt and hatred are two very different things, Byron. No, we don’t hate you. We despise you, and feel contempt for you, but hatred would take way more energy than you’re worth. Yeah, I definitely hate your game, but not because it’s different or because it’s going to be published (because it’s not), but because it’s a vile, offensive piece of shit.

As a preface, I understand that their fear caused them to react emotionally. Their attempted review is only an emotional outburst and lacks substance.  I do not need to rely on emotional appeals (no matter how funny and persuasive they can be), and will show the stupidity of their arguments, point by point, with reason. Although rhetoric is effective, it is the lowest form of debate. 

And so it is that Byron Hall, the guy who suggested that spells can be powered by “a tooth kicked out from the last bitch that refused to fuck you” and based his entire social system and historical overview on a single book about medieval prostitution, attempts to portray himself as the calm, mature, logical one, who doesn’t need to appeal to emotions like those sloppy-thinking reviewers at rpg.net.

Byron’s main man, Burnout (whose name is apparently John, though he lacked the cojones to actually tell us his surname) jumps in here to tell us that he’s going to be participating in the rebuttal, and helping his favorite game designer defend himself against the Neanderthals. Go get ‘em, Burnout! Your name will live alongside that of your idol, Byron Hall, in the minds of gamers forever.

Byron’s attitude for the entire rebuttal can best be described as “smug.” He comes across as a smarmy, disdainful pseudo-intellectual, tossing off what he thinks to be witty quips while sipping tea, pinky carefully extended. The contrast with the shit-obsessed author of FATAL couldn’t be more pronounced.

For example, in response to Sartin’s statement that “We’re hardly four words into the review, and already the game has dragged me down to its level,” Byron disdainfully replies:

Another one of Byron Hall's worst nightmares... A woman with a sword and the willingness to use it on him.

Another one of Byron Hall’s worst nightmares… A woman with a sword and the willingness to use it on him.

Any child can rant.  What matters is the quality of the argument.  Jason is not being dragged anywhere, but responds like this because it is who he is, and would do better to own up to it.  I intend to show that the substance of my argument is superior, and that Jason should be dragged up to it.

Take that, stupid reviewer! Byron Hall is in the house, and now logic and rational argument will prevail. In response to the suggestion that Hall and his buddies started a flamewar on rpg.net (which I have looked for but been unable to find, which is probably a good thing), he replies:

Give credit where credit is due. I did introduce my game, but I always posted professionally and addressed actual points.   All flames were by RPGnetters, except for when two players in my group posted aggressively in my defense.

So in other words, all the flames were from members of rpg.net, except those that weren’t, and they were from my friends. Burnout now picks up the torch:

As RPGnetters know, I am one of those two. I reacted emotionally in that flamewar, which is very unusual for me. I found it funny how during the days in question only one legitimate argument came up…the question of why there wasn’t [sic] any homosexuals in the game. Due to some good points brought up by one person (I can’t remember the name) this has since been changed.

My guess is that significantly more than one argument was advanced against FATAL, but I wasn’t there, so what do I know?

Now Byron starts to respond to one of those non-legitimate arguments — what the fuck is it with the fucking rape rules, asshole?

…I don’t consider women, homosexuals, and blacks to be worthless, nor deserving of rape and murder.  If you’re suggesting that because rape is covered in the game (on 2 pages out of 900), that I support it (it’s only detailed under Overbearing in Wrestling, and Sociality…where a footnote supports the historical accuracy), then anyone who plays nearly any role-playing game supports murder (or killing, which may be a better definition), because murder (killing) is usually the focus of nearly all games. I guarantee that a comparison of the percentage of a work devoted to murder or killing is higher in other RPG’s than rape is in FATAL.

In fact, I’ve included numerous things with which I diagree [sic] in FATAL, such as gods, an ethical-moral system, etc. Jason probably knows that his conclusions are faulty, but is apparently willing to be at fault. I am not.

For a guy who champions logical argument, Byron sure engages in a lot of logical fallacies. While actual rules for rape do indeed occupy only two pages (which I think is two pages too many), the term and descriptions of rape are sprinkled throughout the entire vile thing from beginning to end, especially in the Adult Lechery version. He scaled it back a little in Another Land, but it was still there, just as nauseating and disturbing as ever.

And of course, there’s the argument (which he expanded upon in his rewritten introduction to FATAL 2.0) that since other rpgs have killing, it’s perfectly reasonable for FATAL to include rape. False comparison, oh master of rhetoric and logic…

Burnout then grabs his shovel and starts digging:

I personally think that rape and murder come up, whether behind closed doors or out in the open, in at least 90% of gaming groups. FATAL just makes it so you see exactly how bad it actually is by trying not to hide it or pretend it didn’t happen. Instead on those pages you’ll find information supported by references on how often it happened and what happened to the criminal. Now does this mean anybody who plays FATAL supports it? No, it simply shows that most people try to sweep it under the rug. We know it is, unfortunately, a day-to-day occurence [sic].

Clearly, if something is a day-to-day “occurence” then it obligates us to include it in our roleplaying game, if for no other reason than accuracy and faithfulness to history. I mean, people play roleplaying games to face and participate in the horrors of real-life crime and violence, don’t they? After all, in Burnout’s snug little fantasy world, murder and rape “come up” in 90% of gaming groups.

Byron then refuses to take blame for the whole mess:

Several pages will credit a multitude of people for everything from design to play-testing. All ideas were submitted to me, and written or re-written by me. The credits section of FATAL will not only list people, but describe who is responsible for what. Many have asked in e-mails why it is not part of the free version. This, I refuse to answer until after it is printed.

And, as FATAL will never be printed (except maybe on someone’s home printer as some kind of sick, sick joke), we will never know for certain who came up with the Rape rules or the guidelines for anal circumference. However, I am looking at you, Byron Hall.

Byron admits to a few mistakes while at the same time insulting his betters:

This game is for adults only, and involves lechery. Likewise, it is possible to have a game for adults only, and that has no sexual content at all. Just the same, I was never comfortable with the title, and see it as the opposite of G.U.R.P.S. in one respect. I consider what GURPS stands for to be well-conceived: Generic Universal Role-Playing System. Unfortunately, the title itself (GURPS) is unattractive, nonsensical when alone, and a failure in marketing and branding. Conversely, FATAL seems an excellent name for the game for many reasons. Compared to other RPG’s, the game system is definitely more fatal for a character. The beginning of the other part of the name, Fantasy Adventure, is perfect as far as I’m concerned. I dislike ‘To Adult Lechery’, mainly because it places a disproportionate degree of attention on sex. However, this is one element that separates it from other games, so I guess it’s not so horrible. Still, a better name could be spun. I just wanted to point out that Jason was wrong, ‘Adult Lechery’ is not redundant.

And, presto, we have From Another Time, Another Land, the same game with a different title, with Rape rules still included…

Another feature of Byron’s rebuttal is that he argues with each and every point that the original authors make. When they suggest trying to simulate the Labors of Hercules using the FATAL system, he says that “FATAL does not specialize in ancient Greek mythology… Faulty criticism is worthless when exposed, and discreidts [sic] only the critic thereafter, not FATAL or myself.”  When the company motto “Where the Dice Never Lie” is criticized, he replies, “The subtitle… does not necessarily imply that dice from other companies lie.” When Sartin says (not seriously) “This game still proves once and for all that Darwin was an ass-grabbing fool,” Byron retorts “Darwin was a great man” and so on and so on.

The original reviewers listed more of those vile random magical effects than I did, and were pretty horrified. Byron and Burnout, however had no problem with them. Burnout also does us the favor of claiming credit so now we know who to blame.

Byron: We generated this list by passing it to many people for input, and as you can see, the ideas were downright humorous.

Byron Hall actually hired a professional editor to work on FATAL. After redlining only a single page the editor was found wandering near the waterfront, a broken shell of a man. He only recovered after six months of intensive therapy, and still has flashbacks.

Byron Hall actually hired a professional editor to work on FATAL. After redlining only a single page the editor was found wandering near the waterfront, a broken shell of a man. He eventually recovered after six months of intensive therapy, and still has flashbacks.

Burnout: Again I was laughing way too hard to respond up until now. (Wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes.) But I can only say almost all of the 2000 were meant to be funny. Until the point we got tired of being funny and just handed it over to Byron to fill in the rest. And as he stated, he set it online for people. By the way, the dickhole/cuntpipe fruit was my idea. YOU’RE WELCOME.

I’m not surprised that Byron and company found the random effects table to be “downright humorous.” Not surprised in the slightest.

Byron and Burnout continue to dig themselves deeper as their spirited defense goes on. In response to the assertion in the review that “you can hardly turn one page without seeing something that’s desperately stupid or sucking or screaming ‘Look how COOL and HISTORICALLY ACCURATE and HUGE DICKED I am, because I’m terrified you won’t notice!’”, Byron hastens to remind us that “I never once mentioned the size of my personal manhood, regardless of how proud of it I am,” thus proving that he completely missed the point of the original statement and secretly wants to tell us how big his penis is.

Byron hits bottom very early and never manages to climb out. Less than a quarter of the way into the rebuttal, he quotes MacLennan as saying “So, basically, FATAL is the date rape RPG.” I include Byron’s response in its entirety:

Another faulty conclusion drawn by Darren. Where is dating included? More to the point, multiple ways of role-playing are mentioned, ranging from ‘good’ to ‘evil’ (though in real life I hesitate to use those terms). Why he focuses on rape is for him to answer. As mentioned elsewhere, FATAL is intended to be comprehensive, and if examined, the reader will find balance between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

Sigh. Game, set and match, and the contest has only just begun. Everything else that spews out of Byron and Burnout’s filthy pie-holes is just crap icing on a crap sundae. Oh well, there’s more, but I won’t quote it all. You can see the entire messy thing for yourself here.

Byron goes on to swim in a sea of his own sticky smarm for a seemingly endless period, attempting to tear down MacLennan and Sartin’s review with cold, calculating logic and rock-solid maturity, but in the process only shows what a stupid, self-involved, immature git he really is. And Burnout — whoever he may be — fares even worse, coming off as a sad little fanboy riding on the coat-tails of a would-be designer destined only for obscurity and infamy.

Byron tells us how proud he is of his “manhood.” He tells us that his wife used to be a model and is both brilliant and beautiful. He tells us that his “historical accuracy” basis for the rules on “retard strength” was the experience of “some females” he knew in college who were “stunned by the surprising strength of retards.” “I have,” he continues, “neither searched nor found any material supporting Retard Strength.”

Oh, how does the bullshit flow… It’s quite amazing and well beyond my capacity to document fully. Everything that the reviewers say is wrong, misguided, illogical or childish. The only real adult in the room is Byron Hall and maybe Burnout.

Proposed cover for the never-released third edition of FATAL.

Proposed cover for the never-released third edition of FATAL.

Misogynistic? Byron says that there’s just as much Misanthropy in his game. Condoning rape? Hell, no! Byron replies — I just did it because it’s realistic. Calling women bitches, whores, cunts and sluts? Creating magical items that turn people on to black, Asian, Latino and Jewish stereotypes? Magical effects that make characters defecate uncontrollably or go out raping pre-teens? Why that’s just for humor! Suggest that FATAL is tasteless and juvenile? Why, just the act of calling me tasteless and juvenile is itself tasteless and juvenile!

Byron concludes his defense with one last load of smarm:

Let it be known that I do not hate Darren and Jason for their emotional approach and poor reasoning.  Instead, I feel sorry for them. Just the same, I am grateful for the 8 mistakes they identified, even if it did take them 24,993 words (according to MS Word), and hundreds to thousands of mistakes. To recap, their valid points were: Aging Effects should be percentages, anakim traits should include Bod. Att. modifiers, Hymen Resistance should be affected by Manhood, Bandaging Wounds in combat on the table, 1m = 3.28′ for Falling Damage, the extraction of Christianity and foreign influence should be explained more clearly, brassiere (not brazier), and to avoid the potential of racism.

I am fair. Since Darren and Jason did affect the game’s development by pointing out 8 mistakes, they can be listed in the credits, if desired.

FATAL is the best role-playing game that there could be!

And with that, Byron Hall firmly believed, FATAL’s place in gaming history was permanently sealed. His critics were shamed, his fans encouraged, and his game’s future assured.

Yeah, it was.

Despite his ferocious defense and his apparent refusal to change anything besides the mere eight mistakes that he claims MacLennan and Sartin found, FATAL underwent a bit of a transformation over the next couple of years, eventually emerging as From Another Time, Another Land. I’ve already discussed the changes, so I won’t go into them again, but miraculously many of them appeared to be items that the original review had criticized. The critical (excuse me… “crucial”) damage rules were amended and though still stupid were a little less nonsensical. Many (but nowhere near all) of the offensive magical effects and spell materials were removed. The Armor of Nigrous Nincompoopery was nowhere to be found, and neither were the other racist magical items. It seems that Byron took the rpg.net review a little more seriously than he let on.

Byron had also spent real money to hire real artists, some of whose work I’ve displayed here. While it improved the overall look of the product (and got rid of those stupid photoshopped pictures of Burnout and Byron having sex), the game was still Byron Hall’s FATAL, and doom was drawing near.

The game was never published. It was never sold. It was never in stores. The illustrations were never completed, the supplements remained available as unfinished pdfs. A couple of other programs were produced, but no free CD ever appeared. Updates grew fewer and fewer. Soon the website was sitting forlornly, untouched and unloved. Eventually it was sold to a flash game company.

What happened to Byron Hall? No one seems to know. An intense search for any sign of him on-line has come up empty. According to a now-removed Wikipedia article, Byron stopped responding to emails to his website in February of 2006, soon after one of his “editors” criticized the formatting of the game’s skills system and referred to FATAL as Byron’s “midlife crisis.”

From this day onward, this shall be my motto... Unless I meet Byron Hall in which case all bets are off.

From this day onward, this shall be my motto… Unless I meet Byron Hall in which case all bets are off.

After claiming to have worked on FATAL for over 20 years, Byron Hall vanished as thoroughly and completely as Jimmy Hoffa. While it is unlikely he was murdered for his crimes against gaming, it’s more than likely that he remains in hiding, forever afraid to show his face and admit to his connection to the worst roleplaying game ever conceived. For more insight into Byron Hall’s thought processes, go here.

But, for better or worse, FATAL lives on. People still talk about it on forums. PDFs are still available everywhere. The FATAL theme song exists in mp3 format. Gamers discuss FATAL in hushed tones, and when a system truly, truly sucks, a common response is, “Well, at least it’s not FATAL.”

And so it goes. A mighty epic of arrogance, sadness and failure has been written, and while we will probably have to put up with the existence of FATAL for the foreseeable future, we can at least say goodbye to Byron Hall — a horrid little man who designed a horrid little game for horrid little people, and paid the price for his hubris.

Good night, and God bless.