(Mis)casting Call For a Barbarian (y’all better sit down for this one)

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WARNING: The review below has been written in full “snark” mode. It is about four thousand words long. You might want to grab a drink (a strong one) or a sandwich (or both)…


In the past few weeks, there have been persistent rumors of Jared Padelecki, the co-star of the series, Supernatural, being cast as a “young Conan.” This provoked dismay amongst many Conan fans. Personally, I had a “wait and see” attitude about it.

More troubling news was posted on the Official Robert E. Howard Forum recently, thanks to Pete Roncoli. A “casting breakdown,” to be used for casting actors to appear in the projected new Conan movie (set to begin shooting in Bulgaria in February 2010), has been leaked to the Internet. This guideline does more than reveal what a casting director is to look for.  Putting together the clues within it provides a fairly detailed synopsis of the script. Many fans have already done so, and they are on the war-path like blood-mad Picts. Below you’ll find my commentary, accompanied by excerpts from the guideline as posted on Moviehole.net:

[ YOUNG CONAN ] Caucasian, tough and wiry, scary violent. At ten, he insists on joining the teenage boys entering their rites into becoming warriors. When four Picts cross his path and kill one of the boys, Conan unleashes a savagery that goes too far for a warrior. His father takes him aside and personally trains him. His father teaches him what makes a good sword but he has still much to learn what makes a good swordsman. When the Cimmerians are attacked by Khalar Singh and his mercenaries, Conan is the only survivor, the last of the Cimmerians. SUPPORTING

Young Conan “unleashes a savagery that goes too far for a warrior.” He is also “scary violent.” Hmmm. Too bad that Conan’s pa didn’t have some Ritalin or Xanax handy. Just what every active boy needs. What did “young Conan” do that “went too far?” When your friends are getting massacred by enemies, exactly what savagery is uncalled for? Howard’s Conan lived in an environment beset by lethal threats. Warrior societies from the beginning of time have valued precocious ferocity, yet Conan needs “tamed,” apparently. Crom.

Where is the sack of Venarium in this utterly needless “origin story”? Surely Hollywood could find a way to concoct a sympathetic story involving “Cimmerian insurgents against imperialists”? 

We are also told that young Conan is “the last of the Cimmerians,” after an evil wizard (see below) “and his mercenaries” (apparently, it was “werewolves” in an earlier script) slaughter the rest. Why are mercs always more lethal than Cimmerians (on film)? In the yarns of Robert E. Howard, nobody wipes out the Cimmerians. Ever. Not the Picts (see below). Not Acheron (see below). Not the Aquilonians. Not the Hyrkanians. Not the almighty Nordheimr. Nobody.

[ CONAN ] He’s in his 20s to early 30s, Caucasian, powerfully built, broad-shouldered, sun browned skin lined with scars. Piercing blue eyes and square-cut black mane, tall. He is a savage killer that has matured into the refinement his father tried to teach him when he was young. Conan is very smart, almost inhumanly strong, and very cunning. His entire life, from the moment of his birth, has been shaped by violence. Being the last of his tribe and having to watch his father die a cruel death, he is determined avenge his peoples slaughter by killing all those who led the attack on the Cimmerians, including the all-powerful Khalar Singh. He is prepared to die in order to accomplish his goal. What Conan did not expect, was to find a reason to live… LEAD

I should fire up a company to strip-mine all the cheese out of those last two lines. Apparently, this new filmic incarnation of Conan will be a “refined killer.” It almost looks as if we have some sort of “boyhood trauma/child soldier/walking wounded” subtext going on here. A far cry from the existentialist monologue Conan declaims in “Queen of the Black Coast.” REH’s Conan was not about angst. The Cimmerian had his gigantic melancholies, but those don’t seem to have derailed his usual pragmatic, take-charge outlook regarding this mortal coil. When the love of his life died horribly, Conan picked himself up and kept going.

[ ISLENE ] She’s in her 20s, Caucasian, beautiful, courageous, Amazonian built, pregnant with her son, Conan. She is stabbed through the belly by an Aesir Raider. Her dying request to her husband, Corin, is to take the baby from her womb before she dies so that she can see him…

This is Conan’s mom. Several fans have taken issue with her name. While I think it could have been better (some variation of “Tara/Tamara” would seem to suit REH’s practices in a more fitting manner), I don’t see it as being that bitch-worthy. It would look to be a mingling of “Eileen” and “Aislinn,” both of which are Irish feminine names. Worse crimes in naming are committed elsewhere in this crypto-synopsis masquerading as a casting guideline.

There has also been dismay expressed regarding Islene’s request for a “Cimmerian Section.” While I consider it over-the-top and needless, it’s really no more than a “tweak” on what we know regarding Conan’s birth on a battle-field. As above, far more egregious errors lurk in the murky shadows of this document.

However, if the death of Islene is what makes Conan the Youngling “psycho,” then that is just lame. The lack of a mother in our “nuclear family” society would be very detrimental to a child. On the other hand, in tribal/clannish societies the world over, other women are expected to take in such a child. Unless Corin fed Baby Conan on the milk of wolves (or something), then a female of the tribe had to suckle Islene’s boy. In that case, there would be a bond established between the two. She wouldn’t be some “nanny” who would then move off to the Border Kingdom after Conan was weaned, she’d be a member of the tribe and, very likely, a relative. Conan would be raised in an extended family of some sort. 

[ CORIN ] He’s in his 30s to 40s, Caucasian, powerfully built, intelligent, graceful, master swordsman, skilled blacksmith, de facto leader of Cimmerians and Conan’s father. He resolves to answer the terrible request of his dying wife and cuts Conan out of her so she can see him. He then shoulders the burden of raising Conan, which proves to be daunting given the boy’s savage nature. Corin teaches his son the meaning of the sword: a hot blade must be cooled and tempered. When Khalar finally corners him and tortures him to death, he shows no regret nor pain, hiding his concern for his son’s safety from the eyes of the enemy. SUPPORTING

I’m sure that the screenwriters (reputedly, Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer) thought that the “hot blade must be cooled and tempered” metaphor was an inspired and poetic foundation for their vision of Conan’s character. I’m equally certain that it will play out on-screen as crap.

We see here that Corin is “de facto leader of Cimmerians.” That makes Conan the “de facto prince of Cimmerians.” To quote [redacted], “Sheesh.” We’re not only getting a rehash of the plot of Conan the Barbarian here, we are also getting a serving of the tired “last prince of a lost people” trope, overused in bad S&S flicks.

Apparently, Corin’s tribe of Cimmerians is the paramount tribe, or there is simply no distinction being made.  Hell, maybe “the Cimmerians” are just one tribe, living in the hills somewhere. The screenwriters’ fast-and-loose attitude towards Cimmeria (and Howard’s entire Hyborian Age world) is amply demonstrated throughout this accursed document. The name “Corin” for Conan’s father is but one example. I implore you, gentle readers, to turn to page 418 in The Coming of Conan of Cimmeria.  Do you see a “Corin” there in the list of “Cimmerian names”? I didn’t think so. There are literally hundreds of Gaelic names spread everywhere throughout Howard’s oeuvre, from his Westerns, to his poetry, to his humorous boxing yarns.  Oppenheimer and Donnelly found all of them unsuitable, apparently (if they ever laid eyes on those works). They could have used “Donnell/Donal” (thereby making a play upon Donnelly’s own surname), but chose not to do so. Their modus operandi seems to be: “When in doubt, ignore Robert E. Howard.”

[ YOUNG ARTUS ] He’s 15 to 16 years old, Caucasian, Cimmerian, a tall muscular kid embarking on the initiation rite to become a warrior. He mocks the smaller Conan much to his regret. While on the trail, he tries to convince Conan to flee after wandering off the path into a dark pass littered with corpses hanging from trees. Young Conan saves him from the Khalar’s raid on Cimmeria. When given a chance to fight for his homeland, Artus flees to save himself.
[ ARTUS ] He’s in his 30s, tan and swarthy, almost Gypsy-like, handsome, charming, even dashing in a gruff way, a Zamoran pirate and good friend to Conan. They have shared many adventures together and trust each other with their lives. Artus is a master of the high seas with a fast and powerful ship. He shows his mastery in strategy and hand-to-hand combat during a fierce sea battle. SUPPORTING

Read through those two descriptions. Does anyone else perceive major disconnection/incongruity here? “Young Artus” is a self-seeking bully right up to the extermination of “the Cimmerians.” Then he becomes a dashing “Zamoran” pirate with whom Conan shares “many adventures” and to whom Conan trusts with his life.

Artus is a “Zamoran pirate,” eh? Master of the high seas, apparently. Zamora held no coastline on the Vilayet Sea in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age. Nor could such an inland sea be termed “the high seas.” The screenwriters appear to be switching out “Barachan” for “Zamoran.” That’s like switching out “Portuguese” for “Jordanian.” Their likening this “Zamoran” pirate to a Gypsy is almost heartening until one realizes that Artus is a Cimmerian, which brings us to…

“Artus” isn’t the worst name for a Cimmerian that I’ve ever seen. Maybe. There have been various pastiche/gaming names that might have been worse, but I can’t recall them at the moment. Every Cimmerian name from Howard’s tales of the Hyborian Age (as well as his notes) is demonstrably Irish Gaelic. REH hated the Roman empire. Giving a Cimmerian a Latinate name is a double slap in the face. The screenwriters would’ve been better off naming Artus “Moctezuma.” TC readers can expect a post concerning Cimmerian names soon.

[ KHALAR SINGH ] He’s in his 40s to 50s, Asian or Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Mongol, Turkish, or Persian, open to all ethnicities; commanding in size and manner, a warlord and formidable warrior, brilliant, cruel, weathered and tanned by the many campaigns he has waged and won. He is driven in his quest to find the Queen of Acheron and has been building an empire to do so. His goal is to find the Queen whose blood will bring life to the demonic minions of Acheron while making himself king of this hellish power. With this power, Khalar will protect his legacy against the onslaught of master sorcerer, Thoth-Amon so that his weak son, Fariq may rule after his death. While riding into a Cimmerian village to recruit his old comrade, Corin, his large collection of mercenaries slaughters them to the last soul when Corin refuses to join them. The village’s only survivor was young Conan. When Khalar’s search has finally narrowed to the likely discovery of the queen at a monastery of female monks, he also learns Conan is older and hungry for revenge… LEAD

Now we get to the villain in this soon-to-be-classic film. The screenwriters have attempted to “humanize” this jack-ass. They try to do this by making Khalar a doting father who will do anything to provide for his effed-up son. I’m not buying it.

We also learn that Khalar is locked in a death-struggle with Thoth-Amon. Apparently, the entire Hyborian Age world is just a chew-toy over which these two mangy curs are fighting. Sauron and Saruman, anyone? The Cimmerians are simply helpless victims caught between forces they don’t understand. Or do they? Are they?

SPOILER!!! Corin (that would be Conan’s mis-named dad) is, seemingly, an “old comrade” of Khalar’s. So, Conan’s own father brings down destruction on “the Cimmerians.” Oh, the sins of the fathers and all that.

There is frequent comment in this document on the “ethnicity” looked for in prospective actors. While I have no problem with that, I think it interesting to look at the parameters in Khalar Singh’s case.

The scribes of this immortal tale seem to have stolen “Khalar” from Khalar Basti in Pakistan.  Fair enough. Without major research, I can’t say whether “Khalar” is Indo-Iranian or, perhaps, Turco-Mongol in derivation. Considering the name is from Pakistan, I would say that it is likely to be Indo-Iranian (ie, Indo-European).

My main gripe (name-wise) is with “Singh.” Used as the final part of a name, this has very specific origins. Here is what the screenwriters are looking for in regards to Khalar Singh: “Asian or Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Mongol, Turkish, or Persian.”  Just in case the perpetrators of this document don’t know, every Sikh male name must end in “Singh.” That’s been codified in the Sikh religion for three hundred-plus years. Sikhism is primarily restricted to people from the Punjab and their dispersed descendants. In this pernicious document, Punjabis are not included as primary candidates to be cast in the movie (for which they are probably grateful). 

Fine, you say, my gentle readers; Howard’s Hyborian Age was a “mish-mash” (in which case, you’d be straying into DeCampian/Moorcockian territory). Howard never used “Singh” for a Hyborian Age character. Ever. For that matter, neither did LSdC. It is an incredibly specific and modern term. Khalar Singh, the utterly evil antagonist of the forthcoming Conan movie, is a Sikh. If the screenwriters are too stupid to realize that, I’m sorry.

Howard did use “Singh” frequently in his “modern” yarns. In each case, the bearer of that name was a Sikh. In nearly every case (with the sole exception of Ganra Singh in “Skull-Face,” who was still a total bad-ass), the Sikh in question was loyal, courageous and an all-around good guy. Paramount among those Howardian Sikhs was Lal Singh. That indomitable Sikh was one of REH’s primal heroes, created before Kull or Conan. Howard thought enough of Lal Singh to bring him back when he returned to writing tales of Francis X. Gordon. The Lal Singh of those later tales is just as mighty and stalwart as all his previous Sikh brethren in REH’s yarns. Naming the villain of this movie “Khalar Singh” is an insult to Howard’s views regarding the Sikhs. Considering how the Sikhs reacted the last time they were slighted, Donnelly and Oppenheimer better watch their backs. If the Sikhs need an extra dagger-man, I’m there (with the shade of REH behind me).

Enough about that worthless character, on to another one…

[ TAMARA ]She is 18 to 24 years old, Caucasian or Middle Eastern, open to all ethnicities; beautiful, studious, correct, a novitiate of a Greek influenced monastery. A master of martial arts, she has been trained to be the Queen’s servant, bodyguard and best friend. She and many other female bodyguards to the queen have been in hiding most of their lives because of the curse of Acheron, which would take the queen’s life to bring almost immortal power to its king. When Khalar Singh, a powerful warlord with ambitions to become the king of Acheron, storms the monastery and captures all of the novitiates, she is separated from Ilira, the one she must protect. With all of her strength and will, Tamara is determined to find and rescue her. She finds herself in league with Conan because of a mutual need to find Khalar Singh. She is not in the least intimidated by Conan’s size or grim demeanor and their alliance eventually blossoms into something that surprises them both… LEAD

First off, I guess the screenwriters don’t realize that “Middle Easterners” are “Caucasian”. They were certainly considered so by Robert E. Howard. Secondly, I’m not sure what a “Greek influenced monastery” (full of women, some of whom are trained in the “martial arts”) would be like. Let’s get this out in the open: Donnelly and Oppenheimer are morons.

Apparently, Tamara has been “trained” to be the best friend of Ilira. What a sisterly bond they must have.

Tamara has spent years in a “monastery” fighting absolutely nobody with “bad intention” (as Mike Tyson might say). When she meets Conan, she “is not in the least intimidated.” This, despite the fact that he outweighs her by a good hundred pounds and has spent his entire life depriving his bloody-minded opponents of their lives in serious and deadly combat. Of course Tamara isn’t intimidated. Just as someone who has spent years studying laser-tag should not be “in the least intimidated” by a member of Delta Force.

On top of it all, “Tamara” (following Howardian models) would have been a far better name for Conan’s mother. For a lass in a “Greek influenced monastery” who is guarding the hidden queen of a kingdom with the Greek-influenced name of “Acheron,” I expected a bit more of a Grecian name.

Speaking of Acheron, is everyone else as confused as I am? It appears that the kingdom of Acheron (long-gone in REH’s Conan yarns) is still extant, only with a missing “Queen of Acheron” sequestered secretly in a “monastery.” While Howard’s Acheron was the seat of Hyborian evil, the new-model Acheron seems graced with a queen deserving of selfless devotion. What’s going on here?

[ ILIRA ] She is 18 to 20 years old, Caucasian or Middle Eastern, beautiful, fun-loving, a novitiate of a Greek influenced monastery. She has been hidden away in a monastery since birth since she is the designated queen of Acheron. When Khalar Singh captures her among all of the other novitiates and start the process of killing them to find out which is the real queen, Ilira maintains her courage under unbelievably cruel circumstances. SUPPORTING

Ilira seems to be a fun-loving (and spunky) gal. Luckily, she’s in a “Greek influenced monastery.” Too bad her “blood” unleashes the legions of hell.

[ YOUNG FARIQ ] He’s ten years old, Asian or Middle Eastern, submit all ethnicities, Khalar Singh’s son, a sociopath in the making, one who has no qualms killing a wounded man with his own sword.
[ FARIQ ] He’s in his 20s to early 30s, Asian or Middle Eastern, open to all ethnicities, slight of frame, piercing eyes, cruel, determined to prove to his father that he can rule the world when the time comes. But he has the mentality of a proto-goth rocker, so ruling the world will prove elusive. However, Fariq makes up for his lack of battle skills with his deft understanding of sorcery and evil determination to find the real queen of Acheron. SUPPORTING

This is Khalar Singh’s bad seed. I won’t even get into the “Asian or Middle Eastern” thing. Just know that “he has the mentality of a proto-goth rocker” and be afraid. Crom.

[ UKAFA ] He’s in his 30s-40, very dark-skinned African or African American, massively framed at six-foot-five, gold-toothed, hardened by a lifetime of war, a leader of Kushite Tribemen from the savannahs of Kush. Ukafa is Khalar Singh’s second in command, jealous that Singh’s son, Fariq, will one day be warlord. He obeys his leader but plots the overthrow of his son. He is a mighty warrior and unbeatable in battle until he comes face to face with Conan. LEAD

Sounds like Mombaata from Conan the Destroyer. Why must Conan always fight a black man in every movie?

[ REMO ] He’s in his 30s, any ethnicity, thin, feral, misshapen, a mysterious warrior of dark magic who travels by shadow and surprises men with a quick death. He leads a band of tracking Shadow Scouts under Khalar Singh’s employ. He can be immensely fast and devious, his soul as twisted as his body. SUPPORTING

Oooh. Sounds like a good “anti-hero” for the nerds in the audience to root for.  This script needed a “Darth Maul.” Can’t wait to see the “Shadow Scout” action-figures.  Maybe they can recruit Fred Ward to portray another “Remo” (though I hope not, I’ve always liked Fred).

[ FASSIR ] He’s in his 50s, Middle Eastern, Asian, Caucasian, SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES, strict yet loving, learned and spiritual, an elder monk and leader of the monastery. He’s charged with the care and education of the queen, Ilira. SUPPORTING

What else would you call the leader of a “Greek influenced monastery” (in charge of a bunch of hot chicks) but “Fassir”? That name screams “Greek influenced monastery.”


[ LUCIUS ] He’s in his 30s, Caucasian, handsome, proud, haughty, lethal, a leader of a Legion of Aquilonian Mercenaries. While attacking Corin and Conan in close quarters, he is thrown into a fiery forge that disfigures him for life. His self-revulsion twists him to the point that years later he takes great pleasure in torturing prisoners. SUPPORTING

Just another great character in this cavalcade of great characters.

[ ONE-EYED THIEF (ONE-EYED PRISONER) ] Hes in his 20s to 30s, any ethnicity, wiry, a leader of thieves, who has had the bad luck to fall into Lucius grips and is being tortured by him. However, the tables are turned by Conan and this prisoner has his revenge. He later appears at Khor Khala City and offers aide to Conan as a way to pay his debt. SUPPORTING

I’d just like to ask: Where in Crom’s hells is “Khor Khala City”? It’s not like REH didn’t provide plenty of city-names for pasticheurs to screw with.  No, the unbeatable team of Oppenheimer and Donnelly had to make up their own, in classic pasticheur fashion. Perhaps it is best that way.

[ CHEREN ] He’s in his 30s, any ethnicity, a blind archer with the mystical ability to strike down any enemy with his bow and arrow. He leads a large band of blind archers whose accuracy and cunning lends a powerful presence to Khalar’s army of mercenaries. SUPORTING

Yep, “Cheren” is a “SUPORTING” character, and what a character he is. He and his “large band of blind archers” wreak bloody mayhem amongst friend and foe alike, I would imagine. The previous screenplay posted by the Latino Times had all of Cheren’s archers be four-armed. This innovation surely cuts down on the CGI budget.

[ PICT ] He’s in his 30s, any ethnicity or dark-complexioned Caucasian (“pict” is Latin for “painted one”) the fourth in the band of Pict Savages. He survives Conan’s onslaught and beings Khalar Singh to where the Cimmerians camp. He is promised the heads of his enemies.
[ THREE PICT SAVAGES ] In their late teens, early 20s, SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES, large, brutish, bearded, and wild. They are on a hunting party and come across some teenage Cimmerians heads to add to their collections. What they didn’t count on was the savagery of young Conan.

Ol’ “Pict” is the one who survives to narc out “the Cimmerians.” His fellow “Pict Savages” aren’t so lucky. A lack of savagery has its rewards. Sounds like the screenwriters nailed their Picts about as well as Will Conrad. “Large and bearded.” Right.

[ MARAUDER ] He’s in his 30s to 40s, Caucasian, massively built and brutal, a stone cold killer that takes relish in the killing of the pregnant Islene. His shield bears the emblem of Thoth-Amon. However, his arrogance is his downfall as she, in turn, kills him.

The only “stone cold killer” in the bunch, “Marauder” is unequivocally “Caucasian.” The hand of Thoth-Amon stretches to the snowy plains of Asgard, apparently.

[ NARRATOR ] A storyteller’s voice of old, VOICEOVER ONLY

I’ve heard that Christopher Lee has volunteered to do the voice-overs gratis for this one. After his work on The Children of Hurin, he couldn’t find anything else worthy. (OK, I’m funnin’ y’all; My apologies to Mr. Lee) Perhaps Ernest Borgnine could be enlisted for the project.

So, there is my take on this Hyrkanian clusterhump. However, there are others who have voiced reservations. Here is what Rusty Burke had to say:

With every last smidgeon of due respect, I only made it as far as the description of Corin, and this is the dumbest and dullest pastiche Conan I can imagine. It betrays that the writers have not read the original stories, or if they did they entirely failed to understand what Howard was going on about, with all that talk of barbarism. This belongs in the trash heap. This actually makes the Solomon Kane movie seem like Art.

Sorry. F minus minus minus….


Our own [redacted] has said:

This really looks more like a remake of other films than it does a “new adaptation of the source material”: it has the same revenge against a lifelong nemesis who destroyed his people plot from CtB, the same adventurer’s troop setup from CtD, some plot points from Red Sonja and Kull the Conqueror. Therefore, it alienates just about all the original fans. Who is this movie made for?

Others have taken their discontent and channeled it into more graphic forms of expression. Avi Lerner has long been seen by Conan fans as the bete noir dragging this entire production down into the depths of idiocy and mediocrity, his cliche-haunted hand always tipping the scales in a “straight-to-DVD” direction. Below, one can see (envisioned by a certain Iberian Conan fan) the fate in store for Mr. Lerner if our Cimmerian ever got within sword’s-length of  Avi:



To fend off tears, sometimes a man must laugh instead.