The Symbolic Structure of Movies – Conan the Barbarian (1986)
Robert E. Howard’s most famous character, Conan, is an imposing figure in the world of fantasy literature. For Conan – and Howard – civilization is fragile, subject to degeneration, decay and conquest. The world order is precarious. Conan isn’t the first to be presented symbolically in contrast with civilization – Gilgamesh is another, much earlier, example. Only, for Conan, there is no return to the city at the end of the story: he remains on the margins, to live according to his own drives: “I love, I slay. Let me live deep while I live ”. For Howard, Conan becomes the means to introduce a critique of rationalism and progress by presenting a free being who wanders in a fantastic world, himself bearer of a desire for a return to a mythical origin. This character would go on to inspire many other creations, including the John Milius film based on Conan the Barbarian and another film based on Howard’s work, Kull the Conqueror.
What are the symbolic patterns in Conan the Barbarian? Before answering this question, I would like to remind you that we are going to use the model of Jacques Pierre for movie analysis, as I did in my article on Batman vs Superman 1. This model uses three primary modes of analysis:
1. Materials (as a religio-cultural “residue” of a religio-cultural tradition – that is, “cultural givens”)
2. Structures (as logical organizations underlying the materials and images presented in the film taken from symbolic structures)
3. Functions (as functional goals and accomplishments of the film from a symbolic perspective).
Also, we will use the concepts of the sacred (that entirely “Other” which opposes the profane of existence), of liminality (the limit of human experience which requires symbolization to be integrated into being), of axis mundi (the axial center by which the world is organized), of imago mundi (the representation of the reality of the whole world in a sacred space) and of hierophany (the eruption or revelation of the sacred) in connection with the symbol (integration of the hierophany into the cultural and / or religious system). I will also make much use of the concept of the rite of passage 2. I will use the term “sub-program” to indicate rituals of passage within a greater scheme of rituals of passage, when the film presents itself in a fractal pattern. The article will be divided into two main parts (material and structure), followed by a short conclusion which will summarize the work and provide a reflection on the function of the film.
The movie seeks to answer deep and primordial questions related to nihilism in a Nietzschean sense (that is, a transvaluation and overcoming of the nihilist perspective). It presents to us a subverted rite of initiation. It is not subverted because it corrupts the initiation from within to subdue the order for which it stands; rather, it seeks to completely overthrow it by going “through it” and “beyond it”. And the means presented to us in order to do so is not materiality (neither steel nor flesh), but rather Will.
This “sword & sorcery” movie is therefore about the strange recreating of a man through a voyage that will bring him to the extremes of both life and death, night and day, love and hate. It shows us what a man with nothing but drive can accomplish, and it leaves us with a suspended finale: what happens next is up to him, and us.
Cultural and artistic materials
It is worth mentioning that Milius is inspired by certain other cultural productions, and not by chance. The “Tree of Woe” in the crucifixion scene is similar to a scene in Wagner, which was, in turn, drawn from the Old Norse poem Hávamál. The make-up scene before the battle in the cave is taken from the film Hoichi the Earless. Other Japanese movies also influenced Milius—for example, some scenes resemble Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai). The final scene has a strong connection with that of Apocalypse Now, in which he participated in writing; and so on. Most of these movies referenced in the film demonstrate a certain predominance of pre-Enlightenment values and other cultural exotic contexts that influenced Milius, such as the Japanese Middle Ages.
In Greek mythology, Atlantis is an ancient city that was submerged by the ocean. Conan’s sword comes from Atlantis. This denotes a strong capacity for Conan to “tie in” to primordial (and therefore mythic) energies.
“Sons of Arya”
The term “arya” (from Sanskrit aryâ, noble) is used to designate a grouping of a people. With the “historical” time cues implied by the film, one would take this to refer to Indo-Aryans, that is, Indo-Europeans, from whose mythology the mythological structure of the film is drawn.
Quote from Nietzsche
The opening quote (“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”) is not haphazard, and actually represents a key to understanding the rest of the film as a rite of passage. Conan is not so much a mythological representation of a Nietzschean superman, but rather of a “Miliusian” superman.
Mythology of Conan
Crom, a god that appears in the story, bears a name derived from two Celtic deities: Crom Cruach and Crom Dubh. Conan also mentions the Germanic Valhalla. There are influences from the Indo-European pantheon and mythology in certain art forms, deities or geographic locations (Cimmeria in the North being related to the real life Cimmerians).
Organisation of Space
Conan’s village, unlike those in many stories of the same type, does not represent a lost paradise. It is idyllic for him, and represents a primordial time because he receives the mythological teaching there that will be the foundation for the entire course of his life. But Conan doesn’t express a desire to return there, and even in his only monologue, just before the last battle, he appears detached from the place. In the village, he receives two hierophanies that expose the main binary opposition in the film. First, there is the spiritual teaching of his father in the flesh (paradoxically talking about something that is above the flesh, is spiritual). Secondly, there is a tacit teaching of the “father” not-in-the-flesh (i.e. Thulsa Doom) about the power of flesh and steel (the abduction from his parents “tearing him” from the womb of childhood).
Note that the spiritual teaching he receives from his father is transmitted at the top of a mountain, itself a strong symbol in the Indo-European world of sacredness and hierophany. The mountain is also representative of a form of sacredness within the film: during theological discussions between Subotai and Conan, the latter associates it with Crom, his god. Additionally, the mountain is noteworthy because it appears at the beginning of the film (an initial teaching) and at the very end (a final teaching) when Conan returns to the Mountain of Power to kill Thulsa Doom. The mountain is therefore an inherently hierophanic symbol (because it is the matrix of one teaching, then another) and an axis mundi (because the film organizes the beginning and the end around it).
The “Wheel of Pain” is a symbol of physical development for Conan, but also of self-creation. Moreover, it is because of his torture on the wheel (from which he is the only one to escape alive) that he will wear a necklace with this effigy. 3
This experience serves as a qualifying test for the rite of initiation he is undergoing. The gladiatorial fights and the slavery at the wheel both represent enclosed space of a savage “sacred” 4. This brings him from a passive (and almost animalistic) state to a new state of self-consciousness: like a child growing to understand himself and his position within the world. These are elements that connect with the first sub-program of his rite of passage that we will observe later.
The caves, an internal and hidden facet of the mountain, are found at three important moments in the film: the cavern of the primordial kings where the sword of Atlantis is buried, the Serpent tower, and finally the cave of Thulsa Doom where the protagonists go to rescue the princess.
The first cave is the site of Conan’s initial rebirth: this should therefore be looked at as an initiation ritual, a rite of passage. In the preliminary stage, while he is hunted by dogs he enters the “womb” of the cave as a slave (in chains). In the main liminal stage inside the cave, after an internal transformation (acquiring confidence and agency) and an external transformation (he receives an object of his new status, a sword), he emerges from the cave at daybreak—just as in the final scene—and his status has changed. He has become a free man, indicated by his broken chains, and a hunter, indicated by the skins of the dogs that he wears.
The second cave confronts him with a snake (a primordial and liminal monster) in the depths of the Tower. But it is also in this place that he meets the two motivations that, together, drive his life: Valeria (who will become the object of his love) and the necklace with the snake (which evokes his initial quest for revenge against Thulsa Doom since this is the symbol of the group that took him as a slave and killed his parents).
The last cave is “hellish” in that it pits him against many aspects of liminality: the light is blood red, Doom’s followers are cannibals, death is all over the walls, there is decadence and sexual orgies, and so on. It is possible to see in these three caves an exemplification of the three sections of the ritual of passage, thus creating a “fractal” pattern of the main ritual of the film.
Another important place in the film with regards to rites of passage is the “Tree of Woe”. It leads Conan from one state to another (life towards death), and thus represents another initiatory and hierophanic object connected to the figure of a crucified Jesus, or of a chained Prometheus devoured by vultures. The tree is the axis mundi because it unites and blurs the animality (vulture) and humanity (Conan), the ground and the sky, reality and illusion (in the vision of Subotai that Conan has) as well as life and death. It is a cosmic object of (re)birth.
Finally, after the death of Valeria, his mound at the top of the hill becomes a symbolic place for Conan, an axis mundi. The fact that this place holds a lot of meaning for him is demonstrated by the gesture of gratitude he expresses by bowing, which he also did at the beginning of the film in his gladiatorial fights.
Organisation of Time
The film is organised into three main narrative sections: the introduction (from childhood to adulthood), Conan’s journey to Doom (from illusion to reality by his death and rebirth), and the finale. Each of these sections focuses on one aspect of Conan’s quest: the first on his early adventures and his initiatory sub-program; the second to his main initiation and fulfillment as a superman; and the third projects into a future external to the film. This last narrative section is not without consequence, because it establishes Conan as a “symbolic model” through his actions. This can be inferred when the film establishes a primordial time (“… age undreamed of…”), the “only” time where heroes can culminate into a symbolic myth. This will culminate, according to the narrator, in the role of king for Conan; the supreme symbolic social function for the Indo-Europeans 5. But it is also a role of personal fulfillment in the various hermetic and philosophical texts of the West, and even of the East: the king is the center of the world, and the center of being.
The beginning of the film, in the mythology presented to Conan by his father, proposes an even more ancient mythical time. That time is also implied in the initial narration about Atlantis. There is therefore, for Conan, a primordial time when the giants and the gods fought. It is a time of revelation (“the Secret of Steel”) which is now lost; but Conan’s father suggests that something of it survives in the discipline of steel, though this claim will later be questioned by Doom. This revelation will be partially actualized in Conan’s training (“always remained the discipline of steel”) and in his many fights. However, it won’t be fully present until before the film’s conclusion, as we’ll see later.
When Conan is at the Mountain of Power, and is asked to look into a body of water (water is a chaotic symbol in the mythology of the father at the beginning of the film; but also a symbol of the abyss because the water will be the tool the devotees later use to extinguish their flame / faith), Conan says he sees eternity in it, almost jokingly. However, this eternity / abyss opposition is not unfounded: the abyss of nothingness offers infinite possibilities. Here Milius suggests that eternity and the terrible abyss into which we project all of our beliefs are alike. Conan will also forcibly or willingly lead Doom’s followers to plunge their beliefs into this chaotic abyss. Only Conan will escape it in the end by the volition of his own will (that which is above and beyond both flesh and steel; i.e. ascesis), because he has built himself something beyond the Twilight of the Idols—as is shown by the fact the movie ends with him walking towards sunrise.
The figure of Conan accords well with that of the hero in the traditional accounts. Firstly, he has a problematic genealogy: his parents are killed, he is raised by others, and his lineage is spiritually confused in the person of Doom. Secondly, he has problematic sexuality by being introduced to it as a slave, sharing his first night as a free man with a devil/spirit, and finally being enamored with a female character that will die in his arms. In addition, he does preparatory trials in various forms: he receives special forms of training, obtains a special weapon that breaks the iron of his father’s sword, and finally performs a feat of heroism by climbing the Tower and retrieving the jewel inside of it. He is also representative of the counter-structure, in connection with the anti-civilization aspect of Howard’s and Milius’ work. This representation is well demonstrated by his charismatic authority and his uniqueness, which derive from circumstances rather than a fixed hierarchy or by his lineage. Doom also represents part of this counter-structure, as indicated by his dealing with death and sorcery. Osric, too, is presented in parallel to Conan: both are from the North (i.e. the counter-culture), but contrary to Conan (as presented in the film, that is), Osric seeks to find hierarchy, to reintegrate the world. He does not have a fully realized vision of this hierarchy, as he himself tells Conan. By comparison, Conan has a complete vision of the counter-structure that he represents, and does not envisage a reintegration, but rather a conflagration that shatters the whole thing.
Valeria, Subotai and the Magician are also figures of the counter-structure: thieves and people who live on the fringes. Valeria offers no last name, no lineage, no history. Subotai, a thief, is a prisoner freed by Conan. The Magician lives at the end of a desert near a sea. This liminal place is also a place of transition between death and life (spirits are roaming and there is an important nearby graveyard). He lives in a space of liminality which connects all the worlds in an imago mundi. This liminal space will be home of a hierophany and modification of status for Conan in his resurrection and for Valeria in her death. Finally, the Magician breaks the fourth wall with his narration, being on the literal fringe of the film itself. Valeria, moreover, “fails” her initiatory rite, because she does not survive the liminality represented by the night (implied by Doom’s reply to the dark as being dangerous): she dies in the liminal and central stage of the ritual, and it is that which allows her to return to Conan to help him in a supernatural way: she retains a completely marginal status, with no possible return.
Thulsa Doom is presented as the opposite of Conan. Doom tries to get closer to the established structure, as he says himself, while Conan remains in the counter-structure. Doom does not change during Conan’s adulthood, contrary to Conan himself, who undergoes an initiatory rite that transforms him. The two are opposed by a series of binary operations:
- Doom as a representative of the flesh versus Conan as a representative of steel (alloy and discipline). Related to this, it is interesting to note that Doom uses his fist to show the strength of the flesh before Conan’s crucifixion. Similarly, after awakening among the dead, Conan closes his fist in the same way. The difference is that his mind is kept on his blade; he understands what Doom meant, but sees beyond the materialism of the flesh (naturally linked with the supernatural experience he just lived, of life and death). Thus, Doom represents a form of “objectivism” (he subjects others to the power of the flesh, as is shown by both the cannibalism and the women he forces to plunge towards their deaths) and materialism, whereas Conan represents a more idealistic (in the Platonic or philosophical sense) perspective.
- Doom as an old man (“They say he is a thousand years old”) versus Conan, a young man
- Doom as representative of black and dark (armor; black skin; always armored or dressed; associated with the night) versus Conan representing white (rarely dressed or armored; white skin; white clothes in their confrontation before his crucifixion; associated with the day and with the sunrise)
- Doom kills women (Conan’s mother, Valeria, human sacrifice, attempt on the princess, etc.) versus Conan who kills none
- Doom speaks long monologues versus Conan who only speaks short lines (with one exception, related to the final battle in the opening place of the cemetery of kings and gods)
- Doom as a wizard versus Conan as a warrior (a common sword & sorcery trope)
- Doom as representative of the subhuman versus Conan representing the human (or superhuman): Doom is associated with animality (association with the snake, use of animals like a cheetah, transformation into a snake by magic, cannibalism, etc.) versus Conan who opposes animality (see below)
The sign of the serpent recalls the legend of Siegfried—Conan sees his parents die, is raised as a slave, and kills a serpent / dragon; moreover, Siegfried himself represents Wotan’s quest to create a free being (and Conan, as we saw, is linked symbolically with Odin/Wotan by the Tree of Woe). The difference is that Siegfried is killed by his infidelity to Brunhilde, while Valeria’s loyalty to Conan kills her and saves him. Conan fulfills his destiny by his pure will. We could say that Milius’ Conan is anti-tragic, anti-dramatic, and thus as opposed to Siegfried as he is to Howard’s original Conan 6.
The Sword of Atlantis stands in opposition to all other weapons and forms of iron, as it surpasses them all: it even breaks the sword of Conan’s father, which seemed to be an unsurpassable weapon for the faithful of Doom since it was placed in the hands of their best warrior. It comes from a mythical time, a hierophany from a lost epoch. Still, Conan wields it; just as Conan also carries the discipline of steel, a teaching from a bygone era. Homer himself said that the weapon does not make the hero, but rather that the hero makes the weapon. There is a relationship between steel and “being” in the film. The sword is forged in “fire and ice” (demonstrated in the film’s introduction), just as a person’s character is forged by their experiential realization of the actuality of their being. Milius therefore comes to put a relationship between the discipline of steel and asceticism: the term asceticism comes from the Greek ἄσκησις (áskēsis) which means training, discipline. The entire film is about Conan’s realization of this state of affairs. Conan would have just as fitting a place in a Zen samurai film: the movie’s symbolic structure represents the realization of the primordial man and his full actualization beyond all categories. This is shown as the sword is struck, exposed to the elements, and then purified and sharpened until it is made perfect. Herbert wrote in Dune that “Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now it’s complete because it’s ended here’ ” 7.
Throughout the film, Conan is often placed in symbolic opposition to animality. His father is killed by dogs; he is dragged to the ground while his guards, and later his enemies, in the final battle are on horses; he flees while being pursued by dogs; he strikes a camel; he fights snakes; he fights against vultures on the crucifixion tree. Further examples can be found within the film.. However, there are some places within the film that run contrary to this symbolic opposition. First, he uses a horse to leave his two friends and go to the Magician: the animal that was once a non-human figure and an enemy, now carries a threshold function that allows Conan to access the imago mundi that is the cemetery of ancient kings, home of the Magician. Second, he uses a camel to go to the temple of Doom, again using the liminal function of animality; however, he decides to leave his sword behind. The sword that we had just established as representative of his being, of his discipline. In response to this, the animal brings him to death, because he will be captured (no longer having his own will symbolized by his sword) and crucified. Finally, the last scene where Conan uses a horse is during his infiltration in the caves to rescue the Princess, then his return: a return which marks the death of Valeria on horseback. Thus, no matter what happens, Conan symbolizes the human who is opposed to animality, to sub-humanity (symbolized in the person of Doom who is close to animals, magic and cannibalism) but also to civilization. What he represents is revealed in his initiation.
Narrative Trajectory and Action
Conan is exposed to various trials that form sub-programs of his initiatory quest. They exist to qualify him as being a hero, as “standing out”: such as when he retrieves the Atlantantean sword or when he rescues the daughter of King Osric. These serve to train him, but also to show elements of his final transformation. For example, the time of slavery which gives him his wheel-amulet (representing his slavery to the dharmic law) and which he will only get rid of at the very end when he is liberated from everything (even the circle of life and death, but also his relation to Valeria, i.e. love). His first passage through the matrix (womb of the earth, i.e. the cave) gives him the sword which symbolizes the discipline of steel. His passage through the Tower in opposition to the serpent. His death and resurrection which condemns Valeria; and so on. All these symbolic deaths and symbolic resurrections follow one another in a cascade and eventually lead to the final rite of passage which acts as a post-liminal element that actualizes him as a “superman”. The entire film transforms itself: from a myth told to Conan by his father, to a myth actualized by Conan himself. At the very least, the film comes to do what it says and says what it does within the film.
The entire film serves to show Conan’s transformation. The transformation is that from a Conan who is subjected to the will of everything (to the gods, to the quests of others, to his putative parents of flesh and spirit, to his status as a slave, to Doom) to a Conan liberated from everything (even gods, that he invects, and false cults whose leader he executes). He “creates himself”. In Conan’s monologue before the final battle, he calls out Crom, calmly and serenely, reminding him that all is vanity and that no one will remember the work they are about to accomplish: he only wants one thing, revenge. Conan will have to go through the matrix three times, and then one death and resurrection to reach the end state revealed to him as he approaches Doom to kill him. As Smith says 8:
he has honored his father, his actual father, the Master, by avenging his death, but Conan has also slain his father, his spiritual father, Thulsa Doom, and has thus made of himself something unique, something new, a new man and a new type of man–“violent, lonely, godless . . . redeemed . . . fearless and fear-inspiring, great and lonely”–the übermensch.
It’s in that final scene, where, looking at his father’s sword in his hand, he sees a double truth: Doom is not his real father, and steel (just as flesh) is not just material. The sword is a symbol of his father, in his hands, just as steel is a symbol of his being. Thus, symbolically he kills what still attached him to “this world” in the putative kinship of Doom, and frees himself totally; a liberation that is reflected in the total cessation of the film’s musical score. Doom tells Conan that he gave him his will to live: Conan ponders. But then, seeing the Secret of Steel in his hand (ascesis), he is freed.
He is freed because he throws aside Doom’s head (the “spiritual father’s” head) to the masses and his father’s sword: both are abandoned. He is without god(s) and has achieved a form of redemption not “because” of vengeance, but “through” vengeance: the vengeance itself is also abandoned in the end. The film is a rite of passage because it follows the morphology and function of a rite of passage. Morphology, because Conan is withdrawn from the world in a preliminary stage (he belongs to a counter-structure, lives on the fringes, dies and returns); he confronts liminality through the film in his numerous fights (in particular against the liminal elements such as death, the snake, the witch); and he comes back changed, the depository of a mythical model. A model which, for Milius, is that of the superman: Doom asks Conan: “What will your world be without me?”. Conan replies, by his deed of slaying him, that it will be nothing, but that he is content with this.
In the last scene he kills the false leader, burns the old world, plunges the faith of the followers into a deep nihilism (the abyss) and he himself contemplates it in reflection until he stands up and, without a word, moves towards the new world in the mountains (hierophanic in the film) towards dawn (which opposes the Twilight of the Idols) with light breaking across the sky 9.
Conclusion: the Film’s Function
We have seen that the film establishes Conan as a traditional hero, even linking him to mythological figures like Siegfried. Milius constructs his film in order to exhibit not only an entertaining work, but a true sketch of a myth, deeply rooted in Nietzschean, Indo-European, and Zen philosophy. The story tells us how a man came to realize a rite of passage, subdivided into initiatory adventures. This rite of passage, as we have seen, contains a caveat, however: Conan does not return to order and structure so as to be a “civilizing model”. Rather, he lives his anti- or counter-structure to the end and shatters the structure of Doom’s other followers, flesh followers, and false promises. He exposes to them the harsh reality of the abyss of existence. He does not guide them, he is not a typical heroic model: however, he remains a model because he embodies a way of going beyond the surrounding nihilism; “The Secret of Steel”. Milius demonstrates this to us in the oppositions between Conan and subhumanity as well as with the structures of initiation rituals nested within each other.
Thus there are two functions within the film:
- Internal function of the film: Conan establishes and lives out a model of the rite of passage towards the superman; it is the principle in itself. He does what he says and says what he does in the movie.
- External function: Flowing from the internal function, the film is presented as a philosophical reflection on the theme of Nietzsche’s superman, in the context of the human condition in the modern world. Conan is not civilized, nor is he rational; he lives on the fringes. This mythological reflection is also imbued with an aesthetic function in the concept of total art borrowed from Wagner, as demonstrated in the use of leitmotif and operatic elements.
Beyond the model, however, Conan represents the abyss: Conan lives in the abyss, Conan closes the abyss by himself; he becomes his own symbol and makes sense on his own by acquitting himself of his father’s revenge and killing the other “father” to destroy his world with fire in the temple 10. It is a response to the ambient nihilism of our own decadent world, just as Hyperborea once was for Howard. However, Milius does not quite portray Nietzsche’s superman. Conan’s Apollonian asceticism—law in itself, living fully but without excess—brings him very close to the Asian ideal of the “middle path”. A will to power, yes; but only to actualize and accomplish this discipline. The will is not its own accomplishment, and the Dyonisian is subsumed into the Appolonian without being dismantled.
But how does he recreate himself? By becoming, as we have implied until now, himself the primordial man of ancient times when the gods fought against the giants 11. Conan is the man who uncovered the secret of steel on the battlefield (here, in the tomb of an Atlantean king): he fought, he saw, he died and returned. He is the man in his father’s story who found the secret of steel, the real one, through blood and confrontation. He is no longer “a” man but Man; he bridges the gap between the primordial man and the superman—both are fulfilled in him. He is realized as a primordial and fully actualized man, the archetype of a new superhumanity dawning on the horizon. As the movie itself tells us in the opening speech of Conan’s father: “Not gods, not giants. Just Men.”
Linked Articles & Posts
Linked Premium Articles & Posts
- Brodeur, David “The Symbolic Structure of Movies – Batman vs Superman https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/the-symbolic-structure-of-movies-batman-v-superman-2016-part-i/
- See Van Gennep’s theory on this (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rite_of_passage) where a ritual is divided into three distinct parts.
- It is interesting to note that the symbol is exactly the same as the Dharma (law of the world) wheel in Asian religions.
- On this, see Roger Bastide’s works on the “savage sacrality”
- See Georges Dumézil’s work on the tripartite function for more information
- We haven’t – and won’t – speak much of this, but it’s important to understand that the Conan from Milius is very much different from Howard’s Conan.
- Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965, Berkeley, p. 174
- Smith, David C. 1996. « A Critical Appreciation of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian ». Bocere, volume 1, number 3 (August 1995) through volume 2, number 1 (April 1996). http://www.barbariankeep.com/ctbds.html
- This ending is important because it is the “actual” ending that Milius wanted for Apocalypse Now
- It would therefore be interesting to analyse other works of contemporary art that deal with the abyss and darkness, such as the “Dark Souls” video game
- On the case of re-enacting the primordial times through myths, much could be said. It is highly suggested that readers follow Mircea Eliade’s work on the subject