Generation Kill

Hey all. Today I’m stepping outside the box to cover a review in honor of a friend of mine. Master Seaman Chris Jenkins, who recently moved across the country and won’t be in our neck of the woods for the next three years. Ah, that’s going to be rough. Luckily, there’s still this thing known as the internet and the communications it allows for.

And like I earlier, I still owe him this review and I hope it finds him in good spirits when he gets to the other side of the country. And since I loved this series myself, I’m willing to step outside the confines of sci-fi to honor it. It was downright awesome, and historically relevant. So here goes…

Background:
For those who don’t know, Generation Kill was an HBO miniseries adapted from the book of the same name. Said book was the result of reporter Evan Wright’s own experiences as an embedded reporter with the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. In the course of his time with them, he had a first hand view of the invasion and all the problems that resulted.

And therein lies the real value of this miniseries. Whereas many people who witnessed the invasion, particularly in the US, seemed to think that the initial phase of the war was a success, that problems didn’t arise until after the occupation began, this series and the book that inspired it shows that the problems that would come to consume Iraq were there from day one. These included lawlessness, incompetence on behalf of the civilian planners, civilian deaths, insurgency, and the glaring gap between the reality of the situation on the ground and how it was being portrayed by politicians and media.

Plot Synopsis:
The story, which begins with the invasion and culminates in the arrival and settlement of 1st Recon around Baghdad, is told through seven episodes. Each one catalogs a different phase in the war effort, showing events from multiple points of view of those who fought with Bravo Company, the Company which led the way during the invasion.

Episode 1: “Get Some”
The episode opens with the 1st Recon Battalion, Bravo Company, conducting training drills inside Kuwait outside of Camp Mathilda. The embedded reporter from Rolling Stone magazine, Evan Wright (Lee Tergesen), arrives at camp and is given to 2nd Platoon where he receives a frosty welcome. Considering him a member of the “left-wing liberal media” they don’t have much love for him, until they learn he used to write for Hustler magazine!

He quickly makes the acquaintance of the men of Bravo company whom he will be riding with in the lead Humvee. This includes Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard, Erik on True Blood), Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone), and relative FNG Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush). Throughout the first episode, we also get to meet many other “characters” of interest.

These includes Lt. Col. Stephen Ferrando (Chance Kelly), who was given the nickname ‘Godfather’ because throat surgery has left him with a harsh, whispery voice. Then there’s Lt. Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands), the levelheaded commander of 2nd Platoon; Cpt. Craig ‘Encino Man’ Schwetje (Brian Patrick Wade), the well-meaning but incompetent commander of Bravo Company; Dave ‘Captain America’ McGraw (Eric Nenninger), the edgy and unstable commander of 3rd platoon; and Sgt. Rodolfo ‘Rudy’ Reyes, aka. “Fruity-Rudy” (played by himself), the metrosexual Marine who acts as the glue of Bravo Company.

Significance: This episode familiarizes the viewer with several realities that Marines in the 1st Recon had to deal with. The first and most obvious is shortages, which the Marines are constantly told to make do with. The second is the fact that much of Bravo Company’s own officers are inept, enforcing pointless rules instead of focusing on troop morale or making sure they have the right kinds of equipment.

Episode 2: “The Cradle of Civilization”
The invasion is now underway and 1st Recon is sent to An Nasiriyah where the invasion has stalled. Bravo Company begins to lead the way through the town and is given orders to fire on anyone they deem a threat. They encounter minimal gunfire until Cpt. McGraw, using a captured AK, opens fire on civilian cars for no apparent reason. They continue to press forward north into Mesopotamia, “The Cradle of Civilization”.

After taking a wrong turn, Bravo company rushes onward to reach to its next objective outside the town of Al Gharraf by nightfall. In the dark, Bravo company comes under fire by a group of armed Iraqis and takes them down without difficulty. They score their first kills and survive their baptism by fire, and Bravo company celebrates before moving on.

Significance: This episode is the first time that 1st Recon experiences combat and the first time that Cpt. McGraw commits a stupid act in the line of duty. His confiscating of an AK and firing randomly is a constant source of irritation as time goes on, but nothing is ever done about it. In addition, this episode, specifically the layout of the town, the bridge and the operation into the town, was the inspiration for COD: Modern Warfare 2, much like how scenes from Enemy at the Gates inspired Call of Duty 1 and 2 and COD: World at War.

Episode 3: “Screwby”
After surviving their first engagement, Bravo presses forward. When they reach a roadside hamlet, the company look on in disbelief as a regimental combat team arrives and obliterates the hamlet and its inhabitants, none of whom appeared to be armed. Shortly thereafter, Bravo heads north to the town of Ar Rifa, where Captain Schwetje orders a “danger close” artillery barrage on the settlement. Lt. Fick intervenes to try to prevent the unwarranted barrage, but to no avail. Once again, civilians are killed due to incompetence of senior officers.

Eager once more to press ahead, “Godfather” orders 1st Recon to push ahead another 40 km and capture an airstrip being controlled by Iraqi Republican Guard unit that is apparently equipped with tanks. Once again, Cpt. MgCraw begins to undermine morale by making all kinds of panicky statements, namely that they are going to die if they go up against the tanks. Also, in order to reach the airfield, they are forced to leave behind their supply trucks behind.

Once again, Bravo Company is given permission to open fire on anything that moves. In the lead Humvee, Cpl. Tromblay opens fire on people running along the roadside and severely injures a small boy. The Company secures the airfield, which appears to be abandoned, and then insists that command medevac the boy to a nearby base. Command is hesitant, but eventually agrees, and both Sgt. Colbert and Cpl. Tromblay are to told to expect consequences for the incident.

Significance: In this episode, we get a solid glimpse of how civilian deaths in Iraq are being swept under the rug and written off as justifiable. The soldiers are beginning to feel the weight of this and cracks begin to show in their morale and resolve. After both engagements, in the hamlet and Ar Rifa, they tell each other to put it out of their minds and move on, knowing that there isn’t much they can do about it.

Episode 4: “Combat Jack”
1st Recon reaches the airfield and encounters minimal resistance, the Republican Guard unit having already evacuated and left their tanks behind. This puts 1st Recon ahead of the rest of the American invasion, which is seen as something favorable to command. However, they soon learn that by leaving their supply trucks behind, that Iraqis have captured and looted them. Amongst the supplies was most of Bravo Company’s rations and an American flag, which means they are now down to one meal a day.

Alpha Company is then tasked with a different mission: to recover the body of a captured Marine who was murdered in Ah Shatra. The mission takes a turn when when CIA agents show up and declare that a special army of Iraqi Freedom Fighters will take the town for the sake of their propaganda campaign. However, the army deserts the next day after an artillery barrage fails to clear the town of the enemy. Meanwhile, Bravo company continues clearing hamlets along the northern route and sets up a roadblock outside of Al Hayy. The rules of engagement here are unclear, and Bravo ends up destroying a large truck and killing all passengers, uncertain if it even posed a threat.

Significance: Three major developments happen in this episode, all of which demonstrate a considerable amount about the unfolding war. First, it becomes clear to the Marines that their officers are making all the wrong calls, but as long as they continue to be successful, command will keep making them. The operation outside of Al Hayy shows just how important propaganda efforts are to the war effort, namely maintaining the illusion that the Iraqis welcome the invasion as liberation. And last, we get a first glimpse of how the Marines will have problems acting as police in the streets, mainly because they are not trained for the role.

Episode 5: “A Burning Dog”
1st Recon finally gets some solid intel from the locals, which says that there is an ambush waiting for them up ahead. The ambush is attacked by some LAV’s, and Bravo is ordered to cross the bridge at night. However, they hit a snag along the way and the convoy gets stuck, just as a group of fresh ambushees show up to attack them. Schwetje once again shows his incompetence by being unable to resolve the situation, and Cpt. McGraw once again panics and begins screaming over the open radio. Things are only resolved when Rudy intervenes and inspires Cpt Schwetje to think outside the box.

By morning, Bravo company learns that they are not soldiers, but militiamen, many of whom came from Syria and farther abroad. On passports recovered from the bodies, it says that their reason for coming to Iraq was “Jihad”. Bravo continues north to Al Muwafaqiyah, where they are tasked with setting up another roadblock and with destroying the Republican Guard outpost, which, unfortunately, is in the town’s only school. Despite Colbert’s orders to hold their fire unless its absolutely necessary, Bravo has another incident at the road block and a small child is killed.

Significance: This episode is especially significant because it shows how the roots of the insurgency began long before the war ended. Whereas Captain Schwetje thinks this is proof of what Bush said about their being terrorists in Iraq, the others see from their passports that the “Jihadis” didn’t enter Iraq until the day after the US declared war. Already, the invasion is beginning to have consequences that no one seemed to plan for, particularly in how it is involving people from outside Iraq. What’s more, the mounting civilian deaths is forcing the Marines to question the war and what their role in it really is.

Episode 6: “Stay Frosty”
Outside of Al Kut, Cpt. McGraw nearly kills a prisoner with his bayonet after his Company defeats a small group of armed Iraqis. His men are becoming more disillusioned in his command, and Sgt. Eric Kocher (Owain Yeoman) of 3rd platoon learns that he is being held accountable for the incident. Afterward, McGraw’s men refuse to allow him to anywhere near prisoners, for fear that he will attempt to stab them again. In addition, 1st Recon learns that Godfather’s counterpart in the Regimental Combat Team is being relieved of command despite his success. Apparently, command is reigning people in due to problems with deaths and insubordination.

Problems also begin to arise between Captain Schwetje and Lt. Fick because of their earlier disagreements after he hearsof this. Schwetje’s NCO, Gunnery Sgt. Ray Griego (David Barrera), suggest to him that command is alluding to Fick’s own insubordination when they spoke of insubordination, and begins spreading rumors about Fick behind his back. While Fick is told not to question Schwetje orders again, Fick demands that Schwetje also reign in Greigo for his unprofessional and insubordinate behavior towards himself.

Shortly thereafter, 1st Recon is tasked with escorting Iraqi civilians fleeing from Baghdad down the highway, a mission which makes them feel humane amidst all the slaughter. Colbert is confronted by an Iraqi woman who speaks perfect English and challenges him on the nature of the war, which he appears to take to heart. Unfortunately, while attempting to peacefully force cars coming the opposite direction turn back, another Iraqi is killed, this time an old man.

Significance: The immediate value in this episode is in how it shows how the wrong people are being blamed for failures while those who continue to screw up remain in positions of authority. We also get to see how the war is being perceived by the Iraqis, which is put into words by the female student who challenges Colbert on the road from Baghdad. And last, the incident involving the old man shows once again how civilians are being killed because combat soldiers are being assigned police duties, again as the result of bad planning. And last, but not least, it is indicated that the troops are now within reach of Baghdad, which they hope will end the war and all the stupidity and craziness they have been forced to endure.

Episode 7: “Bomb in the Garden”
1st Recon finally reaches Baghdad and is treated to some rest and reprieve in an abandoned cigarette factory. However, the rest doesn’t last long as they are called upon to mount patrols into the city and deal with shortages, looting and sporadic sniper fire.

Having only one translator, they are limited in what they can do and realize the problems the residents are face are entirely beyond their abilities. This is complicated further by constantly changing orders, a lack of necessary supplies, unruly locals and cultural misunderstandings. The situation only gets worse and the city continues to descend into anarchy.

1st Recon is soon relocated to a soccer stadium away from the action. At their new digs, the tensions that have been simmering for weeks finally boil over during a friendly football game. Wright conducts his last interview with Godfather where he learns that McGraw is not going to be punished for two near-stabbings.

He then says goodbye to the men of 2nd Platoon being carried off by helicopter, an event which seems tearful after all they’ve seen together. One of the Marines begins to show the movie he’s put together from the footage he’s shot over the course of the war. While the men initially enjoy watching it, they slowly begin to lose interest and drift away, thanks to all the bad memories it evokes.

Significance: This episode is the most significant of all because of how it showcases the reality of life in Baghdad during and immediately after the war. Contrary to public perceptions, the chaos and violence were almost immediate, and it was abundantly clear that the military hierarchy had no idea what to do about it. this, above all else in the show, highlights the lack of planning on behalf of the Bush administration and the Pentagon before the war began. Faced with victory, the soldiers were completely unprepared for the situation they faced as soon as the shooting was over.

Of equal significance are the scenes at the soccer stadium, where everyone seems burnt out and angry despite the fact that the war is now over. No one is in the mood to celebrate; in fact, everyone seems itching for a fight for someone specific. During the pick-up game, Schwetje is punched in the face by one of his men, and Cpl. Person attacks Rudy for no apparent reason. During his final interview with Lt. Col. “Godfather” Ferrando, Wright learns that there will be no consequences for any of the officers who screwed up along the way, highlighting the lack of accountability that runs like a vein through the show.

And finally, the scene where the Marines watch the video – this is the only scene in the miniseries that is accompanied by background music. Not a word is said, and yet the mood and the point are conveyed so clearly. The war is done, they have won, and yet everyone feels terribly bitter and angry. All that we need to know about the Iraq War is said in this one scene, with the men who fought in it preferring not to see the replay because it reminds them of everything they want to forget.

Summary:
As if it wasn’t clear already, I LOVED THIS MINISERIES! The tone, the pacing, the subtle way things are conveyed, the gritty and realistic nature of it all. It captured the essence of war, and was so much better because you watch it knowing that it all happened. Some might say that since it is being told from one man’s point of view, it would reflect his own particular biases and perspective. However, the series is shot from multiple points of view and reflects the very in-depth interview process which Wright conducted before releasing the book.

This comes through immediately in the show, where Wright appears to be little more than a background figure until the very last few minutes of the last episodes. And even then, the focus shifts back to the troops, where it always was during the course of the series. This diversity of perspectives gives the show a very broad and varied feel and let’s the viewer become acquainted with all that is going on, which is essential given the nature of the show.

Even people who don’t like war movies will find something to enjoy here. It is historic, it is personal, it is human and it is real. The characters are very rich, and the series has absolutely no shortage of keen dialogue. Cpl. Josh Ray Person has to be the funniest man in the series, and the antics of the men in the first Humvee, where Wright was embedded, were priceless. Several discussions which still stick out in my mind include when the grunts learn that Wright once worked for Hustler, the many times “Iceman” Colbert calls Person a “Whiskey Tango” (phonetic alphabet for White Trash), and the discussion concerning the nature of “November Juliet” (you’ll have to watch the series to learn the meaning of that one!)

Above all, what makes this story so effective is that it is a first-hand account of the events that took place in 2003, told by a member of the same media that helped to sell the war to the American public. Defying the conventional view that the war was an act of liberation that was embraced by the Iraqis, and only went bad long after major combat operations ended, the series shows that this was an operation doomed from the get-go. All the problems that would later come to haunt the “rebuilding phase” – basic shortages, cultural misunderstandings, insurgents, civilian deaths, failure to plan, shifting orders, and negligence in dealing with rioters and insurgents – were all there from day one.

For many years after the invasion, the American people were left in constant state of confusion and controversy as an intransigent administration and hand-picked military spokespeople tried to spin the situation, refused to accept responsibility for the failures, and insisted the situation was salvageable. It was only with time that they came to realize that the truth was always there, happening on the front lines, and that it was kept from them for political reasons. The situation had not changed, only their perception of it.

Well, that’s all I got to say about Generation Kill. I hope you enjoyed reading this review as much as I enjoyed watching the miniseries. And if you’re reading this Chris, I hope you especially enjoyed reading it. It got a little wordy there, I know. I’m known for that but this time, I really tried to keep it to 50, 000 words or less 😉

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Fire and Ice, book II)

As I’m sure I said in my last post, George R.R. Martin is known to his contemporaries as the “American Tolkien”. This is a fitting comparison for me seeing as how Game of Thrones was something I had no real interest in until after I saw it adapted to screen. It was only after I saw the whole first season, which is book I in the series, that I decided to start reading it and get informed! I’m now on book four in the series and like all GOT geeks, am eagerly awaiting season two which premiers April 1st (This better not be some kind of prank!) But anyway, here is book II in the Song of Fire and Ice series, which is appropriately named:

A Clash of Kings:
As with Lord of the Rings series, I decided to read the second book first, mainly so I could get a head start on all the material that was to come. However, since the series is ongoing, I did not dare wait til I read to the end before going back to cover the original. And I can honestly say that book II improves upon the first, bringing more action, more intrigue, and more fantasy-fiction to the fore. I tell ya, its a rare thing when a sequel actually surpasses the first in a series, but that was to be expected here. Whereas Game Of Thrones set the scene, introducing the major plot threads and building up the action, Clash of Kings incites it all and brings it all to an explosive semi-climax. The most important element of which is the battle at Kings Landing, which I cannot wait to see adapted to the screen!

Plot Synopsis:
The book opens with a celestial event. A red comet, which goes by various names, has entered the heavens and seems to mean different things to different people. To some, its a portent of evil, but to others, its a sign of impending victory. Picking up where the first book left off, the realm of Westeros finds itself divided between five powers who are now in a state of civil war. In the south, power is divided between Kings Landing, where the Lannisters rule through Joffrey, and Robert Baratheons two brothers – Renly and Stannis. The former now controls the southern area of Highgarden while the latter controls the island Dragonstone. While a Baratheon alliance would surely defeat the Lannisters, the brothers are divided because both are determined to sit the Iron Throne.

While Stannis, the elder, has the better claim to the throne, Renly is the more charismatic of the two. He is just as determined and has a much larger army, but Stannis has a secret weapon which he has yet to unveil: a sorceress named Melisandre, a priestess of Asshai who worships the fire god R’hllor. The cult of R’hllor, which is monotheistic in focus, is quite popular in the East but relatively unheard of in Westeros. To many, her backing of Stannis, whom she sees as the Azor Ahai (prophet of R’hllor) reborn, is merely a power play, a means to introduce her religion to the Seven Kingdom should be triumph in the war. But according to Melisandre, the civil war is merely a prelude to a much greater war against a dark force that has been coming for some time…

Meanwhile, to the north Robb Stark has been crowned King of the North by his bannermen and continues in his long campaign south. Though they are outnumbered by the Lannisters, they win victory after victory, and soon even Tywin Lannister is forced to move the bulk of his forces south when they hear that King’s Landing is threatened. For the wolf, victory seems possible, but a there are a few complications to his plans. For one, King Joffrey and the Lannisters are still holding Sansa Stark hostage and Arya Stark is still missing (in truth, she and the Night’s Watch recruiter who saved her are moving north with a band of convicts and recruits). The only thing keeping Sansa safe is the fact that Jaime Lannister is in their custody, but he’s proving to be a tricky hostage…

What’s more, the Iron Isles, where Theon Greyjoy hails from, are up in arms. With the wolf marching south and civil war dividing the realm, his father seems intent on carving out his own kingdom in north as well. His daughter is chief amongst his Captains, a fact which annoys Theon to no end. Determined to upstage her, he leads an attack on Winterfell and takes it. In time, Bran Stark and his newfound friends from the Riverlands, who’ve convinced him he’s having prescient dreams, decide to escape to The Wall. Something is up there, it seems, that is calling to Bran. When he flees, Theon decides to stage their murder to avoid the inevitable embarrassment of having lost them.

To the far north, Jon Snow has taken up with the Nights Watch and is with them as they begin a large-scale reconnaissance north of The Wall. Apparently, the Wildlings have been abandoning their villages in droves, moving to a large encampment where a man named Mance Rayder. Apparently, he has declared himself “King-beyond-the-Wall” and plans to lead a united army of Wildlings south to take the lands they have been historically cut off from. In time, it becomes clear that he himself is fleeing something, they very thing that Jon Snow and the Watch have been worrying about. It seems the White Walkers have been getting around, and just about everyone in their path is looking to flee…

To the east, Dany and her host travel across the desert to the great city of Qarth. Once there, Dany becomes the focus of much attention and fascination, given that she travels with three dragons. Despite this, she is unable to raise an army because the only coin she has to barter with is her dragons, which she refuses to give up. When she goes into the House of the Undying, where the warlocks of Qarth reside, she is told that her life is threatened and that she will be betrayed three times. When the warlocks try to attack her, her dragon burns the House down, sparking emnity between her and the Qartheen. An attempt is made on her life at the city harbor, but she is saved by two men – an old warrior named Arstan Whitebeard and a mercenary named Strong Belwas. They were sent by Illyrio, the man who sheltered her and her brother, and join her host. Together, they begin to plot where to travel to next to find her an army.

After a failed meeting between Renly and Stannis, which Catelyn Stark travelled south to host, Renly was killed by a “shadow”. It becomes clear that Stannis’ priestess was involved, because all those who oppose Stannis have a way of winding up dead. As a result, Renly’s former bannermen declare fealty to Stannis and add to his power, and Catelyn is forced to flee north with one of Renly’s staunchest supporters. A woman named Brienne of Tarth, a formidable fighter whom Renly made a knight. They return to Riverrun, the domain of her brother, where Robb is rallying his forces and her father lies dying. Upon her return, she learns of what happened to Winterfell and her two youngest sons and is heartbroken. Between Ned, her ailing father, and now her two boys, it seems everyone she loves is dying.

Back to King’s Landing, Tyrion has taken up the role as Hand of the King. Before him is the challenge of defending the capitol from Stannish Baratheon, who is quickly approaching by land and sea with his combined armies and navy. At the same time, he must cover his ass seeing as how his sister will stop at nothing to do him in. A game of chess ensues, with both sides employing bribes and whatever blackmail and threats they can to gain leverage over the other. For a time, Tyrion seems to have the upper hand, but soon, battle comes to their doorstep, and he must forgo all that to lead the defense of the city.

Meanwhile, Arya is captured while traveling north by men loyal to the Lannisters. The survivors are taken to Harrenhal, a major castle that is currently in Lannister hands, where she is forced to serve as a peasant girl. Her identity remains a secret, but she is forced to endure all kinds of abuse as a serving girl. However, one of the captives who was part of their caravan comes to her and tells her that he owes her three lives for saving him and the lives of his companions. Instead, she uses him to help free a bunch of Stark men who then seize the castle. However, her fortunes do not change much, as she is then forced to act as cup bearer to Roose Bolton who comes to occupy the castle. She escapes shortly thereafter with her old companions and continues north.

Tyrion’s preparations pay off in the end. At sea, the large chain link he had constructed is used to close off the river once Stannis’ fleet enters it. In addition, their forces use a their vast stores of Wildfire he had prepared to set them ablaze once they are trapped. On land, things go a little more poorly, but Tyrion manages to lead a successful defense of the gates and is eventually saved by his father, Tywin. It seems that he travelled to Highgarden before the conflict and enlisted the help of many of Renly’s former bannermen. At just the right time, they perform a flanking maneuver which routs Stannis’ forces and saves King’s Landing. Sensing that he will not die in battle, one of Cersei’s assassins attacks and nearly kills Tyrion. When he wakes up in bed, he finds that Cersei has gained the upper hand on him by preying on their father’s good graces.

North of the Wall, the Black Brothers find a base amongst a ruined tower and begin sending recon forces further north. Jon is part of a force dispatched to the Skirling Pass, where they find the bulk of Rayner’s army massing. In addition to thousands of Wildlings, they see giants, mammoths, and wargs complimenting their force. In time, the Wildlings fall upon them and they are forced to flee. Before they are captured, Qorin asks Jon to betray him when the time comes so that he may infiltrate the Wildling camp and learn their secrets. Jon reluctantly agrees, and when they are cornered, Qorin fights him and lets him win. Jon is now a prisoner of the Wildlings and is reunited with a young Wildling woman that he met and set free earlier. She convinces Rayner to take Jon in, as he himself was once a Black Brother who defected.

Back in Winterfell, Theon finds himself with his back to the wall when Robb dispatches one of his bannermen and an army to remove the Iron Men from Winterfell. All hope seems lost to him, when a new force enters the field and saves his butt. It seems that one of the sellswords who joined him earlier was in fact the Bastard of Bolton, a usurper who fell into disfavor with Robb’s men and was imprisoned in Winterfell. When Theon set him free, he returned to his home, took up the cities army, and returned to save him. However, he quickly betrays Theon, kills him, and orders Winterfell razed…

Strengths/Weaknesses:
As I said before, this book packs some serious action into its binding! After much build-up in the first, the climactic battle of King’s Landing takes place, and it was quite unclear how things were going to go… In fact, much of the book is unpredictable. One gets the impression that the Lannisters are bound to lose well up until the battle finally takes place. In addition, the fate of House Stark is something which is tenuous at best. As always, one can’t get too emotionally attached where the characters of George R.R. Martin is concerned. They tend to die suddenly and haphazardly. However, unlike in book I, none of the major characters die off, just the supporting cast. This I would consider a strength considering that I tend to get sour when people I like get killed!

That being said, there were a number of inexplicable plot twists in this book, so many that it began to feel a little contrived after awhile. For starters, the battle of King’s Landing suddenly turns when all hope seems lost. In itself, that was a pretty good twist, but there were many like it. When it came to the rivalry between Renly and Stannis, it seemed apparent that Renly was destined to win, but then he’s suddenly killed by Melisandre’s shadow, thus completely turning the tide. And then there’s the part where Theon Greyjoy is defending Winterfell. Everything seems said and done when at the last moment, he is saved by the intervention of the Bastard of Bolton, only to then be killed! That’s three major plot twists in one book, and the last one was like a… a compound twist! Kind of grows thin after awhile.

In addition, like all the books in the series, the story can become drawn out and emotionally taxing. It seems that despite whatever hopes the reader might have for a satisfactory resolution, the plot threads just seem destined to go on and on. Whether its Tyrion, Arya, Sansa, Robb, Catelyn, or John, it seems that they are just destined to suffer and endure more and more in the way of bad news. Unless of course the character dies suddenly, but that too is emotionally taxing for the reader! Just once, I would have liked for a character who I sympathize with to be able to put their feet up and say, “Whew! That was tough, but we got through it! Time to relax…”

However, this makes for a more respectable and realistic read all around. More than anything, the book conveys a genuine sense of desperation and discomfort, which is fitting since its about a civil war. These things are not comfortable, especially in a medieval setting! They are dirty, painful, bloody and festering, and the innocent constantly suffer. In all fairness, my feelings on this last note could be the result of the fact that I’m still reading the series, and after four books, all the war and death can get exhausting. However, this does not take away from this particular novel. It’s still awesome, and a very good follow-up to the first. My advice, check it out and then catch the miniseries. That way, you’ll have a frame of reference!

Check out the trailer:
GOT Season 2 Teaser Trailer (Youtube)

Game of Thrones

Or as its known by its literary name, A Song of Fire and Ice. This is the series which inspired the recent HBO series, named after the first novel in the series, and which is apparently destined to keep that name for the duration of the show. After watching the first season, I was inspired to pick up the second book, then I was inspired to buy the Kindle set of all four books. And then the author George RR Martin released the fifth book in the series and two more are planned… Wow. I tell ya, this series could go on forever! But apparently, that’s the thing about these books. As many fans have told me, his work is expected to take the same route as Wheel of Time. Aptly named, because it just keeps rolling on and on and on…

But I digress. A while back I decided I would tackle this series and give it a full review. Having loved the miniseries, I sought to delve into the source material and get a sense of what it was all about. And of course, I wanted to see where the story was going and what would come of all the characters, and I was quite pleased. While Martin’s notorious characteristics as a writer – his level of detail, his willingness to kill of main characters, his ability to really flesh out a storyline – were all abundantly apparent in later installments, I also found examples of his strengths in abundance. These included, but were not limited to, his ability to create rich, engrossing worlds, his drawing on historical sources, his ability to make readers emphasize and identify with characters, and his ability to keep people guessing. I tell ya, nothing about these stories seems predictable! The downside of that last aspect is, people keep dying, and not always the ones you hope will! But in the plus column, it keeps the reader on their toes!

Down to specifics: George RR Martin was already famous before writing A Song of Fire and Ice. During the 1980’s, he worked in Hollywood as a writer for such shows as The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. His early fantasy novel, The Ice Dragon, became a best-selling children’s novel. However, it was with A Game of Thrones and subsequent novels that his fame as a fantasy author was cemented, earning him the nickname, “The American Tolkien”. This is an appropriate description, given the fact that the depth and breadth of his fantasy novels are rivaled by only The Lord of the Rings. Several differences have been noted, however. For starters, his stories are much more gritty and realistic. Fantasy elements – that is to say, supernatural things like magic, dragons and mythical creatures – appear sparingly and only as the story progresses. And, as I’ve already mentioned twice, he kills his main characters! In short, Martin’s books revolve around realistic human characters and their goings on, with all the sex, violence, betrayal and intrigue that that entails!

The world of George RR Martin is a fictitious world set in a medieval period, hence why it falls into the genre of medieval fantasy. In this world, something transpired long ago known as “The Doom”, which has had the effect of making the seasons longer. Summer and Winter, for reasons no one can explain, last years instead of months. The coming of winter is a time of fear since it means that the White Walkers, a supernatural force from the frozen north, will be returning to threaten the Seven Kingdoms. As the story opens, a particularly long summer is coming to an end, and in the north, dark forces appear to be on the move. Further south, throughout the land known as Westeros, King Robert “the Usurper” is facing a conspiracy within his own Kingdom which could lead to another civil war (the last one is what made him king). Meanwhile, on the nearby continent of Essos, the exiled Targaryens are plotting their return to Westeros. The deposed heir, Viserys Targaryen, is planning on marrying his sister, Daenerys, to a Dothraki warlord named Khal Drogo. This marriage, he hopes, will provide him with the army he needs to return to Westeros and reclaim the Iron Throne.

The first novel thusly opens with these three story lines and ends with all three being poised on a cliffhanger note. At the Wall in the north, the giant ice-barrier that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the north, the Wildlings are apparently fleeing their villages, prompting the Night’s Watch to go and investigate. When only one man returns, he claims to have witness White Walkers, but is executed for desertion. Meanwhile, Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North and head of House Stark, is visited by King Robert, the man he helped become king. Robert needs a new Hand of the King, seeing as how his old one, Lord John Arryn, has died suddenly. Ned agrees and travels to King’s Landing to take up the role, and quickly become privy to the conspiracy that took his predecessor. Meanwhile, on the continent, Viserys succeeds in wedding his sister to Khal Drogo, an arrangement which begins to backfire on him when he realizes that Drogo and Daenerys are actually falling in love with each other, and are perhaps planning on cutting him out of the deal.

(Spoiler alert!): Things come together as John Snow, Lord Eddard’s bastard son, joins the Night’s Watch and begins to witness for himself what is happening the North. An attack by wights, the resurrected bodies of people killed by White Walkers, begin attacking the Wall itself. After his own uncle fails to return from a patrol beyond the Wall, Lord Mormont prepares a campaign to go north in force and meet the threat head on. For John, this means turning his back on the troubles of his family to the south. When news reaches him that his father might be in danger and his half-brothers riding to war, he is tempted to desert and ride to their aide. But as a sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch, he is bound by honor to serve until death, even at the expense of his true family.

At King’s Landing, Eddard soon uncovers the conspiracy that claimed the life of John Arryn and even involves an assassination attempted on his own son. It seems that the Queen, Cersei Lannister, is engaged in an incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime, who is one of Robert’s Kingsgaurd. Before he can inform King Robert, Robert is crippled during a hunting expedition and dies shortly thereafter. Eddard is forced to move quickly to ensure that Joffrey, Cersei’s eldest son, does not take the throne. However, his attempts are thwarted when Lord Petyr Baelish, the Master of Coin, betrays him to the Queen. Eddard is executed by the brutal and stupid Joffrey, and his daughter – Sansa, who was betrothed to him – is now his hostage. Ned’s youngest daughter, Arya, escapes with the help of a Night’s Watch brother who disguises her as a boy recruit, and they travel north together. In response to his father’s death Ned’s oldest son, Robb Stark, declares war on the king and mobilizes every house in the north to march on King’s Landing. They are joined from forces to the far south, led by Robert’s brothers, Renly and Stannis who were next in line to the throne. However, rather than declare their fealty to either of Robert’s brothers, Robb’s bannerman declare him “King in the North”, using this war as a pretext to declare independence from the south.

On the continent, Drogo and Daenerys fall in love and she learns that she is pregnant with his heir. This, plus the fact that his sister is able to stand up to him now, leads Viserys to force the issue with Drogo. During a feast, a drunken Viserys threatens Drogo by declaring that he’s taking his sister back and will cut his son to be right out of her belly. Unless of course he gets what he wants, which is the golden crown he covets. Drogo responds by having his men break Viserys’ arm and then hold him down while he prepares a pot of molten gold which he proceeds to pour on Viserys’ head. His promise of “a golden crown” is thus fulfilled! Free of her abusive brother, Daenerys tries to convince Drogo to take the Iron Throne for their son, but Drogo is reluctant, until a would-be assassin sent by Robert’s court tries to poison Daenerys. Enraged, Drogo declares that he will conquer and ravage Westeros, but unfortunately succumbs to a festering wound during combat with one of his own men. Daenerys tries to save him using a slave’s witchcraft, but is betrayed and loses her son as well. Most of the Dothraki move on, and she is left with just a small host, her advisor Jorah Mormont, and the dragon’s eggs he gave her as a wedding gift. When she burns Drogo on a funeral pyre, she walks into the flames with the eggs, and miraculously survives! The Dragonborn, which all Targaryens are said to descend from, are immune to fire, and the eggs hatch to become the first dragons the world has seen in generations. Mormont and her host declare their loyalty to her, the true Dragonborn, and plot to reclaim Westeros with her!

Thus ends book I. And as I said, one can see the influence of real at work almost right away. On the one hand, Westeros is clearly styled on the British Isles, its northern/southern divide clearly an allegory for the divide between the English south, and the Scottish North. The Wall is clearly analogous to Hadrian’s Wall, the barrier that kept the “northern barbarians” at bay during the Roman occupation of Britain, and which serves a similar function in the book. The continent of Essos is also a clear reference to the European mainland, the Dothraki styled on the Huns or Mongols (invading horsemen from the East), whereas the free cities and slave cities are inspired by Asia Minor and its vast, ancient metropolises (more on that in book II). And of course, the royal intrigue, the very concept of the “Game of Thrones” – a reference to the never ending fight to claim the crown – is a fitting rendition of the actual royal intrigues taken from medieval history. Much like real wars of succession, it is loaded with secret alliances, plots, backstabbing, and of course, bloody civil war.

And the miniseries did a very good job of adapting all this to television. Naturally, any adaptation of Martin’s work would be hard pressed to adapt all the interwoven storylines, detail and events that characterize his writing. Still, the HBO miniseries did a pretty good job of getting all the relevant info in, making time for secondary perspectives without moving too far away from the main characters. And of course, there was the shocking scene where Eddard Stark is killed, much to the chagrin of television audiences who don’t expect main characters to die. Yes, that was masterfully done too. I myself was appalled and even angry at first, but respected them all the more for doing it. It’s what’s in the book and you can’t go changing major elements just because the audience might object. I hope they keep this in mind come season two. Rumor has it Jason Momoa is hoping they’ll bring Drogo back from the dead. Clearly he hasn’t read the books!

Furthermore, the casting was SUPERB! Sean Bean, a man who brings a touch of awesomeness to just about everything he does, was perfect as Eddard Stark. Mark Addy was also superb as King Robert, capturing his pudgy, teddy bear exterior and his bitter, angry personality! Lena Headey, of Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles and 300 fame, achieved a sort of perfection in the role of Cersei. I’m telling you, you seriously think she’s an evil bitch after seeing her in this, a tribute to her acting talent! Jason Momoa, who went on to play Conan in the remake of the Schwarzenegger classic, fit the bill perfectly as Khal Drogo. He was brutish, strong, manly and scary, but also endearing and loving at times. A good thing too, since the Conan remake kind of sucked! Emilia Clarke, a relative newcomer to the acting scene, was nevertheless very convincing as Daenarys, capturing both her frailty and quiet strength quite well. And last, but certainly not least, was Peter Dinklage, who played the role of the dwarf Tyrion Lannister to absolute perfection! Seriously, this guy has the best lines of the entire series as the rude, crude, but brilliant and bawdy black sheep of the Lannister clan. You love him, love to hate him, and sympathize with him, even when you’re shaking his head at his antics!

The rest of the cast, which is just too extensive to mention, was similarly awesome. Understandable given the fact that most of them are classically trained actors, people who cut their teeth doing Shakespeare and are therefore accustomed to performing epic roles. I wish I could do them all justice, but like I said, too many to count! I hope its enough just to say they were awesome!

And like most fans of the book and miniseries, I can’t wait for season two. The book was quite spectacular, picking up where book I one left off with war on the horizon and major battle in the works. And word is, cast and crew had a real hard time adapting the damn thing, it was just so epic in scope! But that only ensures that the outcome is likely to be that much more awesome to behold! A Game of Thrones, everybody. Read it, watch it, and then read book II because the series will be back soon! Not soon enough…

Stay tuned for my review of book II, A Clash of Kings, coming up next!

Conan, Then and Now

Conan, Then and Now

When I first started doing sci-fi movie reviews, I knew I wanted to tackle Conan sooner or later. It was one of the Fantasy entries I was making room for, and I thought a comparative analysis, old versus new, would be a cool idea. Well, I finally got around to seeing the new one recently, and am all set to pit the original against the remake. I’m not sure if there’s a word for fans of an original beating a remake, but I think the word Fanbashing (which I might have just made up) will suffice! And by that I mean the beating of something BY fans, not the beating OF fans.

Okay, first up, the original version!

Conan The Barbarian(1982):
This movie is a cult favorite for many reasons. On the one hand, it was a pretty good fantasy epic that adapted the long-running comic book series by Robert E. Howard to the big screen. On the other, it was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role. Prior to this, he had spots in B-movies, tv shows, and the cult hit Pumping Iron. After this movie, he would go on to do The Terminator, Predator, Commando, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Twins… in short, every A-movie that he’s known for. But to me, the strength of this movie lies in its direction and storytelling. I tell ya, there are traces of quality and genius that are not commonly acknowledged.

For starters, the casting was superb. Arnie excelled as the brooding, badass known as Conan, James Earl Jones as the hypnotic, charismatic villain Thulsa Doom, Max Von Sydow as the Northman King Osric, and Mako as the narrator/wizard. Hell, even Sandahl Bergman and Gerry Lopez were good as Conan’s love interest and sidekick, Valerie and Subotai. In addition, the story itself was quite creative, weaving epic fantasy and adventure in with real-world history and Nietzschean philosophy.

Despite its small budget and less than pristine production values, you got a real sense that there was a lot of talent and attention to detail went into making this movie. For one, it was directed by John Milius, who’s credits include being the co-writer or director of such movies as Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, Red Dawn, Flight of the Intruder, and the HBO series Rome. Oliver Stone (Born of the 4th of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Alexander) was also attached as co-writer next to Milnius, and famed producer Raffaella De Laurentiis (DuneDragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Dragonheart, and The Forbidden Kingdom) helped produce it. In short, a lot of talent went into the creation of this film, and I personally felt it showed!

For many, this movie is a guilty pleasure, being one of those B-movies that’s fun in spite of being cheesy. But for me, this movie is also a sleeper hit and a true cult classic, being smart in a way that few people recognize.

Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with the famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Mako, the famous Japanese-American actor, begins narrating and identifies himself as Conan’s chronicler. He sets the scene by telling us that its the “Hyborian Age”, which takes place “Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryus…”, meaning somewhere between the mythical pre-historic age and the invasion of the Aryan conquerors into the Mediterranean (ca. 40,000-10,000 BCE).

We are then shown an extended scene where a sword is being forged (an apt metaphor) and Conan’s father explaining to him the Riddle of Steel. This “riddle”, which we are never told, runs like a vein through the movie, something which the viewer is no doubt meant to figure out for themselves. After being told of this riddle and of the war-god Crom, both of which are very important to the Cimmerian people (of which Conan is part) we then see his village being set upon by marauders. After killing everyone in the camp, Conan’s mother attempts to shield him when the leader of these attackers shows himself.

We then get to see the villain make his first appearance. Clad all in black, his green eyes beaming, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) manages to hypnotize Conan’s mother and take her sword from her. He then decapitates her in front of the young Conan and sells the poor into slavery. Conan is thus left with only the vague impression of who these men were, which is taken from their black standard of two snakes standing before a black sun. What is most effective about these scenes is how little dialogue takes place. Everything is conveyed through the visuals, the sense of horror and confusion coming through with glances and music instead of lines and declarations.

The next few scenes catalog Conan’s formative years as a slave: pushing a massive wheel in an open field until he is the only slave left (and six feet of pure muscle!), being thrown into the slave pits to fight for the entertainment of others, and then becoming a warrior schooled in the arts of swordplay, hand to hand combat and letters. In keeping with the movie’s Nietzschean theme, we see Conan growing stronger from all this, his hard labor, life of violence and education forging him like his father’s sword.

But the big inciting event happens when one of the slavers, someone he has known since he was a boy, sets him free. Not knowing where to go, Conan runs into the wilderness and chances upon a burial tomb belonging to an old Cimmerian King. In there, he retrieves a sword which he keeps for himself, and sums up the fortuitous experience with one word. “Crom!” That says it all! In this one encounter, Conan is reminded of his people, what his father taught him, and chooses to retrace his origins and find those people that killed his people.

This journey leads him to another chance encounter with an old witch who tells him of a prophecy. In short, the prophecy speaks of a man who would come, who would be king by his own hand, and who would drive the snakes from the land – you know, basic prophecy stuff. But its this last part that intrigues Conan. Remembering the enemy’s standard, he asks the woman what she knows of these snakes. But as always, there’s a price! In exchange for sleeping with her, she tells Conan that he must go to Shadizar in the land of Zamorra – crossroads of the world (a clear reference to Gomorrah and possibly Babylon) where he will find his answers. Having consumated, she then does the black widow thing, turns into a demon and tries to kill him. Conan narrowly manages to toss her into the fire, and which point she becomes a specter and retreats. “Crom…” he says. Yeah, that’s getting to be a real catch-all at this point.

Onto the next scene, where Conan wakes the next day to set out. But before taking to the wilderness again, he finds an archer named Subotai (modelled on Ghengis Khan general and clearly meant to look like a Mongol archer). He claims to be a thief and offers to help Conan, and the two become fast companions and travel buddies. Over a dinner of wild game, Conan tells Subotai of Crom and the Riddle of Steel. Like all Cimmerians, we learn that Conan must tell Crom what the riddle is when he travels to Valhalla, otherwise he will be tossed out. Again, we are given hints but never told of the significance of this. Much like Conan, it seems this riddle is something we are meant to determine for ourselves. This is definitely one of those points of unappreciated quality I mentioned earlier. The genius is there man, it’s there!

When they arrive, they find a city that lives up to its inspirations – big, walled, decadent, and smelly. Replete with whores, drugs, and tons and tons of vendors. And of course, the snakes, which come in the form of snake cult that worship Set – a snake demon-god that was inspired by actual mythology. They decide to break into the temple, and in the process meet Valeria, a beautiful thief who is also determined to steal from the cult’s richess. The scenes that follow are like something out of Caligula or the Old Testament, people in long robes sacrificing a virgin to a giant snake who lives at the heart of the temple. And of course, plenty of rubies, precious stones, and a giant gem (the Eye of the Serpent) that the snake itself protects.

In any case, Conan, Subotai and Valeria manage to kill the giant snake, thwart the sacrifice and steal the prized jewel, narrowly escaping by jumping off the temple’s high tower. Celebrating their new found riches, Conan and Valeria experience a budding romance, and Conan gives her the prized jewel in the form of a necklace. However, the good times are cut short as Shadizar’s ruler – King Osiric, a northman like Conan – has them arrested and brought before him. They suspect their heads are going to roll, until Osiric tells him their audicity in robbing the temple has earned them his respect. Seems the cult of Set had taken his daughter away from him, and he’s prepared to give them enough jewels to buy a small kingdom if they would kind enough to fetch her back.

Subotai and Valeria would rather cash out now, the latter even telling Conan that she would like to settle down with him now. However, Conan still wants his revenge for what Doom did to his people, and sets off alone. In the course of journeying forth, he comes upon a strange hermit who lives next to an ancient burial ground where the bones of dead warrior have been arranged in battle formation next to standing stones. Seems the hermit is none other than Mako, the wizard who is Conan’s chronicler. After getting acquainted and  learning of the location of Set’s followers, Conan is off again, leaving the wizard with the distinct impression that they will meet again, and that he will play an important role in Conan’s sage.

What follows are some rather hilarious scenes as Conan finds his way to the cult and tries to infiltrate them. First, he finds them wandering in the wilderness like a bunch of revellers. One of the priests takes an obvious, and borderline homosexual, interest in him. After asking him to speak in private, Conan then beats the snot out of him and steals his robe. He then travels back to the Temple of Set, dressed in the ridiculous robe, and attempts to pass for a priest. “What do you see in there?” some woman asks as he stares into a pool of water. “Uh… Infinity?” says Conan, which the woman seems to approve of. Then, Doom reveals himself along with his chief followers. Conan recognizes them all from when they murdered his people, and slowly approaches them up the Temple steps. However, during a big speech in which Doom, like a true cult leader, predicts the End Of Days, Conan is attacked, beaten and brought before him. It seems they smelt the intruder…

After getting a lecture on how bad he was for ransacking Doom’s temple in Shadizar, Conan then tells Doom exactly who he is – the boy who survived the massacre of his people, and how has come for revenge. Doom’s response is nothing short of perfect. He admits that he does not remember, that he must have done it in his younger days when he too sought to understand the riddle of steel. However, he explains, he’s found a new power that puts steel to shame: the power of flesh! He demonstrated this by asking an accolade to come to him from the cliffs above, and the accolade jumps to their death! “That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste…” He then orders Conan to be crucified, so he can contemplate Doom’s role in making him what he is, and how he squandered it for reasons of revenge.

Conan then dies pinned to a tree, but not before Subotai and Valeria find him and bring him back to the wizard – aka. Mako! He then performs some ritual whereby his spirit is pulled back from the netherworld, and Conan is resurrected. However, they are warned that their will be a price, life for life, etc. But Valeria says she’s willing to risk it because she loves him, which foreshadows what’s to come. The three then set off to invade Doom’s temple and save the princess, but Conan once again has his own plans. In the course of breaking in, they come upon Doom’s men and a big ol’ brawl ensues! Doom is absent from the fight since he morphed into a giant snake and slithered from the room (bit hokey, but okay!). The three then escape with the princess, but Doom makes an appearance on the cliffs above and fires a poisonous arrow/snake into Valeria’s back. She dies, and Conan and Subotai take her body back to the wizard to give it a warriors burial – a big pyre on top of a mound!

Conan, Subotai and the wizard then prepare for an assault, as it is clear that Doom’s men will track them back to the wizard’s home. Turning the standing stones, the warriors remains and every inch of the place into a fortified encampement, Conan then prays to Crom for the first time in years. He asks Crom to grant him revenge, to look upon their valor as they stand against many. He finishes with a line that is both badass and appropriately Conan: “And if you do not listen… then TO HELL WITH YOU!” It takes a special kind of person to tell a god to go to hell, doesn’t it? In any case, battle ensues and its the best part of the movie!

One by one, the bad guys fall as they are either unhorsed by Conan’s sword, shot by Subotai’s arrows, stabbed by the Wizard’s spear, or killed by the booby traps they’ve set up. It all comes down to Conan and Doom’s chief thug, who is wielding Conan’s own father’s sword! Conan is very nearly killed, but is saved at the last second by what appears to be Valeria’s spirit. In keeping with Norse mythology, she appears as a Valkyrie, a warrior spirit since she clearly made it to Valhalla after all! Conan then chops the thug up, breaking his father’s own sword in the process and taking what is left of it back. He then sees Doom ride back to his temple, and decides to use what’s left of his father’s sword for one last duty.

Confronting Doom on the steps of his own temple, Doom tries to pull his hypnotic routine on him. He tells Conan that he is essentially his son, that he made him what he is, and asks him what will he be when Doom is dead. Conan appears to be genuinely falling for it, but then swings his father’s sword around and cuts Doom at the neck! Doom then falls to his knees, where Conan proceeds to hack his head off and toss it down the steps to his followers. He then sets the temple ablaze and marches down the steps and off into the night, Doom’s followers looking on in awe. Conan and Subotai then rides off with the princess, returning to the west to bring her back to her father.

The movie then ends with a picture of an older, bearded Conan sitting on a throne, the epilogue saying that he would go on to become a king himself, as was profesied. But of course, that is another tale 😉

Strengths/Weakness/Impressions:

As I said already, this movie is a personal favorite. One of the best selling points for me was the low-budget, high-quality nature of it. Yes, the production values weren’t the best, and some of the acting was a little B-grade too, but the writing, direction and plot contained unmistakable signs of quality and even touches of genius. Rather than going for a pulp fantasy movie, a la Xena and Hercules, John Milius, Oliver Stone, and Raffaella De Laurentiis seemed committed to creating a story that was grounded in history and realism as well as epic adventure. In this respect, the movie was keeping with Howard’s original vision of the franchise. Howard, like Milnius and Stone, had a passion for history and enjoyed working with settings that were real enough to be credible, but still vague enough to allow him to be inventive while at the same time unconstrained by the pressures of historical accuracy.

But of course, this critique would not be clear without some examples: One, Conan’s people are clearly inspired by Norsemen. They live in wintery forests, wield heavy iron swords and worship the “God in the Mountain” Crom, who is apparently warden of Valhalla and keeper of the Riddle of Steel. Doom’s men, the black riders, were clearly inspired by the Huns – dark riders and conquerors who inspired terror and rode over their enemies. James Earl Jones costumes and appearances were also designed to look as Asiatic as possible, his long hair, green eyes and robes adding to the sense of mystique that surrounded him. It was also a testament to his character that he didn’t speak until well into the movie when he is reintroduced.

Ah yes, and the men that Conan takes up with after becoming a warrior slave were also a clear reference to the Mongols. Their costumes, talk and values are all indicative. Consider the following scene where Conan is in the “Mongol” camp:

Mongol General: “What is best in life?”

Mongol: “The open Steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.”

General: “Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?”

Conan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”

Yep, Mongols clearly! The city of Shadizar in Zamorra was also a brilliant piece of set design, calling to mind all kinds of Orientalist, Arab world and Sodom and Gomorrah type motifs.

But perhaps the biggest strength of the film was the thematic consistency of it. The quote by Nietzsche at the beginning not only previewed the plot, it was present throughout the movie as a constant theme. When Conan confronts Doom near the end, he is confounded by the twist Doom puts on his terrible deeds. Would Conan have really grown up to be the warrior-badass he is were it not for the actions of Doom and his henchmen? Hell, Doom even sounds perfectly sincere when he claims that he MADE Conan what he was, and that Conan would be lost the moment Doom was no more. Rather than being some evil megalomaniac, he seemed to capture the essence of Nietzsche’s amoral philosophy quite perfectly.

And lets not forget the Riddle of Steel, which fits in with this philosophy like one of them round pegs! Though we never are told point blank what it is, enough hints are given as to what it might be all about. For one, steel is strong and formidable, unlike flesh which seems weak by comparison. However, steel is useless without flesh, a mere object that is dependent on the hand that wields it.  On the other hand, it could be said that steel is much like people in that it is forged. When it is first extracted from the Earth, raw ore is much like a raw person; but tempered and shaped through constant exposure to extremes and violence, it becomes a deadly instrument, capable of great and terrible things. I tell ya, the metaphor is thick here!

In the end, the worst that can be said about this movie was that it was a tad cheesy, a tad hokey, and that at times a little wooden in terms of its acting. That and the low budget nature of it all, which was quite apparent throughout. But for anyone who doesn’t mind looking a little deeper, this movie had plenty of respectable stuff just waiting to be noticed. And really, it made Arnie’s carreer and probably didn’t hurt Stone’s, Laurentiis’s or Milnius’ either. Granted, the studio then made the horrible mistake of producing Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja, two horribly dumbed down sequels that did very poorly, but time has been kind to the original. It has made many a list as one of the top sci-fi fantasy cult classics of all time, and even inspired a re-imagining this past year.

But that, as they say with this franchise, is another tale… 😉

Conan the Barbarian (1982):

Entertainment Value: 8/10

Plot: 8/10

Direction: 9/10

Total: 8.5/10

Back to reviewing books!

Boy, its been awhile! It seems like so long ago I was reviewing “Virtual Light” and looking forward to doing the rest of the “Bridge Trilogy”. Well, I didn’t forget. In truth I was just about finished reading Idoru – the second book in the trilogy – but then I decided to leave it in Red Deer for some reason. I managed to get a new copy, but then, wouldn’t you know it, I bought the box set of A Song of Fire and Ice and then started reviewing someone else’s book for them too! Somedays, I tell you, I think I might have literary ADHD! So, given my obvious need for structure, I thought I might make a list of all the books I intend to read and review in the coming weeks and try to stick to it for once!

For starters, there’s Idoru, which I’m just finishing but need some time to digest. Not only is this an important book in Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy”, it is apparently what cemented his fame as an author after Neuromancer so I wanna take my time with it. But I will say that as far as first impressions go, I can see what the critics meant when they said this. Whereas Gibson’s earlier books tended to deal with cyberspace and the dark underbelly of society in the information age, this one tackled the vagaries of celebrity and media in said same era.

A follow-up with All Tomorrow’s Parties will then be necessary to complete the trilogy, and because I already bought the book. Thank you Amazon for your slow but reliable delivery system! Then, I shall turn to my pile of Kindle books since I’ve been scooping them up ever since my friend from Red Deer (hey Chi!) bought me this iPad! I tell ya, the thing is not the best typing implement, but man is it good for reading! I actually get more done on it than with a conventional book, may the God of paperbacks forgive me (blessed be his cellulose appendages)!

Speaking of which, that would be where A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin (“the American Tolkien”) comes in. After getting hooked like crack on the HBO miniseries of “A Game of Thrones” which covers the events in the first novel, I got myself the box set for my Kindle app. Well, truth be told, I bought the second book and THEN bought the box set on Kindle. Quite looking at me like I’m drugs, it was a deal I tell ya! And yes, I was hoping to buy them individually, but three books in paperback or all four on Kindle for roughly the same price, before the added cost of shipping and handling? You do the math! Besides, duplicates don’t really count if they’re not taking up space on a shelf, right?

However, all those must wait until I finish reading and reviewing a book by a fellow self-pub ebook author who goes by the name of Randy Attwood. His book Rabbletown: Life in These United Christian States of Holy America is an interesting look at fundamentalism in America and a new dark ages. This authors book came to my attention by way of my writers group, The Herscher Project, a few weeks back and I agreed to take his book on and give it its due. Look for my review in the coming days! I should also take this opportunity to mention that this same group will be putting out an anthology shortly, a collection of the group’s dystopian narratives from over the years. Look for it in ebook format when it comes out, and pay close attention to a little story called “Domicile 4.5”. I’ll give ya a hint, it’s by me 😉