In life, there’s who we are and who we like to think we are. Sometimes the two have little in common and sometimes they’re connected in ways we ourselves don’t understand. This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown focuses on that enigmatic duality through the lens of Robert E. Howard. Born in 1906, Howard became the greatest writer in the pulp magazine-era of popular fiction. Some might want to give that honor to Edgar Rice Burroughs but while ERB was vastly more successful commercially, I think the sheer diversity and literary merit of REH’s work earns him the title.
Howard created pretend worlds and an entire genre of fiction that were as distant from his life spent mostly in a small patch of Texas oil boom towns as the Moon is from New York City. We’ll look at what is, to date, the single best and most popular cinematic adaptation of Howard’s work and view the real man and his life through the eyes of one of the only women to love him. It’s “Conan the Barbarian” (1982) vs. “The Whole Wide World” (1996) to see how the truth of who we are comes out no matter what tales we weave.
"Luke, I am your...wait, wrong movie."
“Conan the Barbarian” was the fortuitous intersection of a resurgent interest in Howard’s work in the 1970s and a Hollywood that needed a star vehicle for a charismatic bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Set in a pre-history before “the oceans drank Atlantis” with wizards and monsters roaming the land, Conan (Schwarzenegger) sees his village destroyed and family slain as a young boy by the villainous Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). Raised as a slave and trained to be a gladiator, Conan is eventually freed and turns to a life of violence and thievery. Saving a fellow thief named Subotai (Gerry Lopez) from a witch and teaming with a much smarter thief named Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), they rob the tower of a mysterious snake cult and wind up captured by the local king, Osric (Max von Sydow). He then hires the trio to rescue his daughter, who has fallen under the spell of Thulsa Doom and joined him at his Mountain of Power.
That plot probably sounds an awful lot like every crappy sword-and-sorcery flick you’ve ever seen or heard described to you by a friend and there’s no denying that “Conan the Barbarian” is in competition with “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) to be “The Greatest Film To Inspire The Most Garbage Films,” but there several things that combine to actually make “Conan” a legitimately great movie.
One of the underrated babes of the 1980s.
1. While not a direct adaptation of any single Howard story, it incorporates enough elements of his work that the imagination and intelligence can’t be denied. The more schooled Howard-Heads might argue that “Conan the Barbarian” is far from a perfect representation of the source material, and they’re probably right, but REH’s genius is still present and that goes a long way toward elevating the film above a legion of imitators who don’t understand what they’re imitating.
2. Some really talented and skilled people labored on it. It was co-written by Oliver Stone, who went on to become one of the defining writer/directors of the 1980s and 90s. It was co-written and directed by John Milius, who wrote “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and wrote and directed “The Wind and the Lion” (1975) and “Red Dawn” (1984). Composer Basil Poledouris created one of the greatest soundtracks in movie history (and that’s not fanboy exaggeration) and won awards for creating the music behind not only “Conan” but “Robocop” (1987), TV limited series “Lonesome Dove” (1989), and “The Hunt for Red October” (1990). And, of course, when you’ve got supporting characters played by James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, and Mako and they DON’T blow the film’s stars off the screen, that’s a hell of a cast.
3. Schwarzenegger. Yes, it’s become fashionable to deride and dismiss him in his declining years but it was neither a fluke nor an accident that he became arguably the biggest movie star on the planet for over a decade. You can tell there are moments in “Conan” where Schwarzenegger doesn’t quite know what he’s doing as an actor but there are other moments that leave you saying “Damn. There’s no one in the world who could’ve done that any better.”
“Conan the Barbarian” isn’t as slick and boringly perfect as blockbuster adventures have become in the early 21st century. There’s an organic awkwardness that comes from not being able to completely control every pixel on screen or having to worry about an audience with attention spans shorter than a list of liberal Hollywood celebrities who love President Donald Trump. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun and achieves some honest emotional and narrative depth with its meditations on the value and limits of strength, will, and love in a harsh world that ultimately isn’t so different from our own.
Ever wonder what both Kanye West and Donald Trump see when they close their eyes at night?
There are no giant beasts, necromancers, or pitched battles of blade and sinew in “The Whole Wide World.” Based on the memoir “One Who Walked Alone” by Novalyne Price Ellis, it tells the story of her relationship and romance with Robert E. Howard when she worked as teacher in Howard’s home town of Cross Plains, Texas. Introduced by a mutual friend, Novalyne (Renee Zellweger) and Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio) spend the last few years of his life in an abortive courtship dance as friends and almost-more-than-friends, mooning over and feuding with each other on everything from the art of writing to the social norms of a small town in the 1930s.
“The Whole Wide World” tries to present itself as a romance but that’s not what it is or what the real life relationship of Novalyne and Howard was. They don’t meet cute and descend into a whirlwind of passion, only to face some seemingly insurmountable obstacle that tests their devotion before embracing in a happy ending. They’re two people in a world of limited options, united as much by a love of writing as each other, who can never find themselves in the right emotional place at the same emotional time. Novalyne is a strong-willed woman surrounded by strict rules that she doesn’t want to entirely escape. Howard is a loud and boisterous man who fancies himself at war with those rules but spends most of his time hiding from them.
"What do you mean my greatest success will involve gaining 30 pounds?!?!"
The film begins with Howard appearing as the doorway for Novalyne’s entry into a life beyond what was expected and required of the women of the time but it unfolds to show us that Howard is one who is trapped. A successful and even somewhat famous author, he still lives at home with his parents because he can’t stand to be apart from his sickly mother and can’t tolerate the accommodations he would have to make to exist on his own amongst other people. It is Novalyn who grows through the movie and cultivates hopes, dreams, and goals that don’t revolve around Howard.
There’s a refreshingly honest dimension to “The Whole Wide World” as a supposed romance flick. A woman weaker than Novalyne Price couldn’t have put up with Howard’s eccentricities (and that’s putting it mildly) for a day, let alone a lifetime. A woman he could run roughshod over isn’t anyone with whom Howard would have wasted his time. Yet that strength prevents Novalyne from being pulled helplessly into Howard’s orbit, like so many women have with great artists.
Not at all what the movie's about. Real pretty, though.
The motion picture also never quite resolves the tension at its core. This is a tale about Novalyne Price and while she was a woman of worth and merit, she was also normal and it is the extraordinary Robert E. Howard who commands our attention, with his greatness making even his weaknesses seem more compelling. In the movie of our own lives, we are always the star and “The Whole Wide World” is about a time in Novalyne’s life when she was the supporting character. It’s a situation that prevents the film from hitting the same comfortable notes at the same comfortable times we expect from this sort of thing, which can be more or less engaging depending on the viewer.
“Conan the Barbarian” is a close approximation of the reality Robert E. Howard wanted to live in and how he wanted to live in it. “The Whole Wide World” gives us a glimpse of how he actually lived with the way things actually are. This Throwdown goes to the latter. You should still watch “Conan the Barbarian,” and make sure both it’s the original and not the lackluster 2011 reboot or the version edited for cable TV in the 80s and 90s with most of the gore and sex removed. But if you’ve ever enjoyed the writing of REH, “The Whole Wide World” will give you a better sense of the man and the magnitude of his achievements.
For all the works of cultured man
Must fare and fade and fall.
I am the Dark Barbarian
That towers over all.
Robert E. Howard, “A Word from the Outer Dark.”
The real deal.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Written by John Milius and Oliver Stone.
Directed by John Milius.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, James Earl Jones, Gerry Lopez, Mako, Max von Sydow, Ben Davidson, Valerie Quennessen, William Smith, Luis Barboo, Nadiuska, Jorge Sanz, and Sven-Ole Thorsen.
The Whole Wide World (1996)
Written by Michael Scott Myers.
Directed by Dan Ireland.
Starring Vincent D’Onofrio, Renee Zellweger, Ann Wedgeworth, Harve Presnell, Benjamin Mouton, Helen Cates, Leslie Buesing, Chris Shearer, Sandy Walper, Marion Eaton, Libby Villari, and Michael Corbett.
"Zachariah, don't give me none of your 'He Who Walks Behind The Rows' nonsense! I am your father and I'm telling you to clean up your room!"
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