Movie: Syndicated television is often called the last bastion of poor writers in this modern age, much like the pulp fiction writers of years gone by were back in their day. This is not to say that syndicated television is always bad, just that the odds greatly favor such a global statement. The first example that comes to mind would be Black Scorpion but I'm sure you're familiar with other shows like Sinbad, Robin Hood, and Lost World (an admittedly guilty pleasure of mine). The 1990's were the best years for fantasy shows in syndication due in large part to the success of Hercules and Xena; both of which proved profitable beyond the imagination of their creators. Is it any wonder that other producers sought to cash in as well? Such was the case with a single season show by the name of Conan The Adventurer, based on the writings of famed 1930's pulp fiction writer, Robert E. Howard, a young man from the desolate plains of Texas.
Mr. Howard created the mythic hero Conan as a character that could help free him from the shackles of poverty, growing up in a dirt poor community during the so-called Great Depression. Paid by the word, writers like Howard would hammer away endlessly trying to squeak out a living that didn't involve back-breaking labor, admitting in their letters that "Writing has always been a means to an end I hoped to achieve: freedom. Personal liberty may be a phantom, but I hardly think anybody would deny that there is more freedom in writing than there is in slaving in an iron foundry.
My sole desire in writing is to make a reasonable living. I may cling to many illusions, but I am not ridden by the illusion that I have anything wonderful or magical to say, or that it would amount to anything particularly if I did say it. I have no quarrel with art-for-art's-sakers. On the contrary, I admire their work. But my pet delusions tend in other directions. I took up writing simply because it seemed to promise an easier mode of work, more money, and more freedom than any other job I'd tried. I wouldn't write otherwise."
His character of Conan evolved from another, King Kull, set in the same age of Atlantis era of 10,000 years ago, in epoch known as the Hyborian Age. Conan was a thief, a liar, and a barbarian in every sense of the word. His code of conduct was generally considered less than chivalrous with a "me first" attitude befitting the wild imagination of his writer, a man caught in the trappings of his time. Howard's own description of the character was: "Some mechanism in my subconsciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian." The world-view of such a man can only be placed in the proper context by understanding the effects of where he lived and the conditions the entire country were in, making more understandable the type of anti-hero that later was popularized in the Marvel comic books and art of Frank Frazetta. I think the rise of the anti-hero in the 1960's attributed much to reviving such characters as Conan, a being thought up in 1931 by Howard, who only wrote 22 short stories in his later years (before he killed himself). With this in mind, let me turn to the television series this review is about:
Keeping in mind that the original character was a thief, cutthroat, mercenary that did anything asked of him for a price and ignored all social conventions that didn't suit him (similar to the original Hercules being a power mad rapist drunkard), the show started off on the wrong foot with me by suggesting his "destiny was to free the oppressed" in the opening monologue since there's nothing further from the truth in the original stories or in the previous movies starring famed bodybuilder-turned-Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Given that a kinder and gentler version of the character would probably be the only way to get the series made, I started off watching the episodes a bit disgruntled but content that a watered down Conan might be better than no Conan at all, I figured how bad could it be considering all the other shows I enjoyed (even as guilty pleasures).
The show focused on Conan's quest to find, and kill, a wizard, Hissah Zul (as watered down a version of Thulsa Doom as you'll find) that was responsible for the death of his sweetheart and the guy responsible for all the ills in the world. Each week would find Conan and a mish mash of odd companions (in the same vein as Conan the Destroyer albeit pretty lame in most ways) fighting the minions of evil and cheap CGI effects as they continued on a path to dethrone the wizard. I watched the generic exploits of the cast as they went through the motions and about midway through the series; I actually started enjoying it way too much. Maybe I got groggy from seeing the muscle bound Ralf Moeller attempt to act as woodenly as Arnold did in his version of Conan (he is either a great impressionist or similarly devoid of talent) or maybe I was just making the best of a bad situation but the stories in the series were often far more well written than the original material penned by Howard, even if they were too politically correct for my tastes.
So, after watching the episodes as presented in the set (which were out of order from the air dates) and then as they were originally shown, much like the excellent Firefly series, I found the plot to make at least a little more sense in the DVD order they were aired in syndication (and in my locale, most of the episodes were preempted or shown at varying times, something that sure didn't help the ratings in Houston). Keeping in mind that most, if not all, of the episodes borrowed heavily from the Marvel Comics versions I read years ago as opposed to the pulp works of Howard, I forgave the show enough to rate it as a Rent It, for all its weaknesses. I think it was made in Mexico primarily as a means to give the producers and cast a way to enjoy the lush tropics in the western part of the country (they got some excellent tax benefits by filming there, as well as cheap labor that the usual location of Canada couldn't match) but it had some of the cheesy fun that make such outings worth watching for genre fans.
Episode 1: The Heart of the Elephant, part 1: (September 22, 1997):
Episode 2: The Heart of the Elephant, part 2: (September 22, 1997):
Episode 3: Lair of the Beastmen: (October 6, 1997):
Episode 4: Heir Apparent: (May 24, 1998):
Episode 5: The Seige of Ahl Sohn-Bar: (October 13, 1997):
Episode 6: A Friend in Need: (October 20, 1997):
Episode 7: The Ruby Fruit Forest: (October 27. 1997):
Episode 8: The Three Virgins: (November 7, 1997):
Episode 9: The Labyrinth: (April 26, 1998):
Episode 10: Ransom: (November 14, 1997):
Episode 11: Amazon Women: (December 7, 1997):
Episode 12: Shadows of Death: (February 15, 1998):
Episode 13: Homecoming: (January 25, 1998):
Episode 14: Imposter: (November 28, 1997):
Episode 15: The Curse of Afka: (November 21, 1997):
Episode 16: The Taming: (February 1, 1998):
Episode 17: The Crystal Arrow: (March 1, 1998):
Episode 18: The Child: (February 22, 1998):
Episode 19: Red Sonja: (February 8, 1998):
Episode 20: The Cavern: (May 3, 1998):
Episode 21: Antidote: (May 10, 1998):
Episode 22: Lethal Wizards: (May 17, 1998):
Picture: The picture was presented in the usual 1.33:1 ratio full frame color that it was originally made in. The picture looked lower budget than I prefer with plenty of grain and even some minor compression artifacts but I'd be misleading you if I told you it was worse than I remember in its limited run on television. If you don't expect a whole lot from the picture, you'll be much happier than the nitpicky fans who'll complain about the minor hairs on the film stock, the blurry parts, or the lame CGI effects but I suppose the look is part of the appeal to those who enjoy such shows.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital English with no closed captions or other languages. I didn't hear a lot of separation between the channels and the dynamic range is about what I'd expect from a low grade movie shot in Mexico (as opposed to a low grade series shot there) but it suited the material and a few shots of tequila before watching and listening to the series will go a long way to improving the technical aspects.
Extras: There were no extras included in the DVD set. Each disc was packed in a slim-line case with a different character on the front but the episodes were all you get with this one.
Final Thoughts: Much like contemporary character Wonder Woman (created not too long after the barbarian), the show tried to be in line with a modern sensibility imposed on the age old character, an uneasy fit at times. While the humor was often as dry as Dilbert in its own way, I think this was what was lacking compared to the movies (although I'd have upped the rating for a few glimpses of the females in the nude since they were almost all models, even if not as hot as Sandahl Bergman's Valeria). Regardless, it was nice to see a show long lost into the archives of some vault given new life for fans of the genre, if not the actual character himself, and I doubt Robert E. Howard would've lost any sleep over the way his characters were evolved, given his original attitude (find out more at the official conan.com website where the passages from Howard's letters were acquired).