The Male Body and Conan the Barbarian

Men are misunderstood. Elusive masculinity has pervaded the depths of Hollywood and has been scrutinised for decades, not least following feminist critique and reaction.[1] It comes as little surprise that one of these ‘reactions’ was the stoic, silent, all-action muscle man of the 80s depicted in the peplum[2] inspired action/fantasy films which gave film careers to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone – men who epitomised masculinity in all its glory or men in crisis?[3] It is the intention of this essay to critically consider some of the theorists who have written on this subject area, and apply their arguments to two primary texts. The film texts chosen are two variations of Conan the Barbarian (1982, dir. John Milius) and Marcus Nispel’s 2011 remake of the same name. The aim is to examine the male body and masculinity/masculinities depicted and to question if the twenty-nine year difference has impacted the ‘manly’ way in which Conan seeks retribution.

Yvonne Tasker in her Spectacular Bodies discusses the “simplistic embodiment of a reactionary masculine identity”[4] which can be read as either “triumphal or crisis-ridden”[5]. She states that “the central question for many critics has, consequently, become one of whether such images reassert, mourn or hysterically state a lost male power”[6]. It is not about examining the performance of masculinity in a binary forum but to consider masculinities in their multiplicity, namely the interrelation of the ‘action man’ and ‘real man’[7].

The 80s version of Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) depicts the retributive man[8] as a corporeal action-figure, his shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes attempting to distract the viewer from his intimidating bulk and over-sized phallic sword (but failing). Any displayed femininity, in the male star, is counteracted by active aggression, attempts at objectifying the male are negated by showing, as Tasker argues “[t]he performance of a muscular masculinity [which] draws attention to both the restraint and the excess involved in ‘being a man’[9]. He is shot, often, from low camera angles to emphasise his girth. One short scene is dedicated purely to the former Mr Universe[10] flexing and posing stretching every bicep, tricep and muscle sinew whilst wielding a sword. This Conan is, I would argue, the ‘action man’ all- power no-substance; a distortion of masculinity. A performance Schwarzenegger has perfected over the years as, both, actor and politician – a not-quite believable specimen of manhood – the inflated, narcissistic, hard body.


To clarify, this ‘hard body’ is white (beneath the fake tan) and according to Richard Dyer, an example of the oppositional critique Tasker is referring to, in which he describes the subjugated male who restores patriarchal authority while legitimising white power through his hard body. “The built body connotes what it is to be white – ideal, hard, achieved, wealthy, hairless and tanned – often resembling armour”[11]. This is questionable, particularly as Conan (Jason Momoa) in the 2011 version is not white but Native Hawaiian and while not as dark-skinned as his African American counterpart  Ukafa (Bob Sapp) he is ‘other-ed’ as non-white and savage.

This Cimmerian towers at 6’ 4” and has long dark hair, he is not physically over-developed and dresses in a leather kilt (as opposed to loincloth), swaddled in red cloth and, at times, has chain-mail armour covering his left arm. The male body is not the feature of this film as Momoa is, almost, always shot in close-up from the neck up, his face filling the frame. Fight sequences are filmed in slow motion, and during these occasions Conan is objectified, shot in slow-motion for absolutely no purpose, passive to the viewer’s scopophilic gaze[12]. Some critics would describe, notably Steve Neale, Momoa’s Conan as “feminised because he is eroticised”[13] yet the female and homoerotic gazes should not be discounted. The injection of the love interest does (as with the previous Conan) seek to reassert hetero-normative sexuality this is fleeting, however, for Conan and Tamara (Rachel Nichols) discard each other and by the picture’s climax both are alone, active and in control of their own destiny.

The Conan of 2011 is the amalgam of both action and new man, one who seeks to embrace his activity and passivity in equal measure. If the body drives the ‘action man’ of the 80s then the face, it would appear, drives the ‘new man’ of the 00s. That is not to say that the battle for manhood is over, far from it, there has to be an acceptance of male power and powerlessness[14] and a general recognition of the ambivalence surrounding masculinity and femininity in the male figure or, to put in Tasker’s terms, the fusion of action/new man[15] . Hollywood must produce cinema which transgresses hegemonic masculinity and transcend the limitations placed upon the male gender to, potentially, find the new, new man if such a beast exists. 

Editor’s Note:

At the time when this piece was originally published, there were rumours surrounding Schwarzenegger returning to star in another Conan. I did not take into account The Expendables franchise in which all the ‘old boys’ came out to play, mainly due to timing, however, I would like to revisit the notion of this piece in relation to Dwayne Johnson who, in my opinion, serves both the ‘hard body’ and ‘new man’ – he is the bulk and face (at the very least it serves the people’s eyebrow). Then, there’s The Stath… neither face nor body (in the sense of peplum bulk) but ‘a hard man’ nonetheless. 

[1] R.W. Connell, Masculinities (2nd Ed) Cambridge: Routledge (2006 [1995]) p41.

[2] Peplum refers to the sub-genre created in Italian cinema of the 40s and 60s which was later adopted by Hollywood in the 80s. Michele Lagny discusses the thematic and historical context of this types of films in his article “Popular Taste: The peplum” in Richard Dyer & Ginette Vincendeau (eds) Popular European Cinema, London: Routledge 1992 pp163-180.

[3] Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema, London: Routledge 1996 p109.

[4] Ibid, p109.

[5] Ibid, p109.

[6] Ibid, p109.

[7] Ibid, 120.

[8] A term used in Rutherford, Jonathan “Who’s That Man?” in Rowena Chapman & Jonathan Rutherford (eds), Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity London: Lawrence & Wishart 1988, p23.

[9] Ibid, p119.

[10] Schwarzenegger won Mr Universe in 1967 and the title of Mr Olympia seven times in his career as a bodybuilder.

[11]Richard Dyer, White, London: Routledge p146.

[12] Laura Mulvey “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) in Sue Thornham (ed) Feminist Film Theory: A Reader Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 1999 pp277-290.

[13] Steve Neale “Masculinity as Spectacle” Screen 24 (6) (1983) pp14-15.

[14] Tasker (1996) p125.

[15] Lynne Segal’s model of a new man is one who “explores the pleasures of passivity” cited in Tasker (1996) p117.

Film Festival Review

Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

LFF 2012

“Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub…”

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is six years old and the narrator throughout this fabled, fantasy drama. She lives, albeit in a separate abode, with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a marginalised area far beyond the levee walls in the Louisiana bayou. She is a ferocious little girl who spends her time yearning to be reunited with her absentee mother and listening to the heartbeats of the creatures around her. The Bathtub is a society largely separated by the necessities for consumerism and while the small close-knit community has little in the way of possessions or stable housing, they are happy living apart from the rest of the world; scavenging, socialising and surviving. Hushpuppy is schooled in lessons of self-sufficiency and encouraged to believe that everything and everyone is connected in the universe. Through the eyes of this feisty little character the viewer sees the effects of global warming as indicative of the resurfacing of a large mythical creature called an auroch and Hushpuppy’s adolescent reconciliation with what will try and, essentially, destroy her delta home.

Beast of the Southern Wild, based upon the play by Lucy Alibar, is a wonderfully made low-budget feature which highlights and embraces the metaphysical imagination of a child amid the harsh realities of a world before and in the wake of a connoted Hurricane Katrina. Hushpuppy, played by non-professional Wallis is unruly and yet balances moments of naiveté beautifully, her father’s tough love approach is, at times, cruel but his motives are clear – he needs his “boss lady” to survive and thrive beyond his lifetime; he wants her to face the world with fierce stoicism and strength and not need to rely upon anybody. Her gritty gumption is both heartbreaking and life affirming in equal measure. While some cynics will read this film as shot through an ideological lens it is an unpretentious rendering of magical realism and serves as modern fairy tale weighted in pathos. It delivers a sensory impact to the audience, boasting gritty and picturesque images via Ben Richardson’s cinematography and a majestic score courtesy of director Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer.

Film Festival Review

Review: The Hunt (Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)

LFF 2012

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength” (Psalm 8:2). Never has a re-contextualised proverb so inadvertently and succinctly condensed a film’s subject matter than this one. The Hunt opens with a male bonding session, big, burly men drinking, removing their clothes and throwing themselves into a freezing cold stream in the middle of Danish winter for the purposes of a bet. Doing what “men” purportedly do. The one who has to rescue his pal when he develops cramp is somewhat different to the rest of the hunting party; slight and bespectacled, he jumps in, sensibly, fully clothed – his physicality reminiscent of Hoffman’s David in Straw Dogs (1971, dir. Sam Peckinpah).

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is an amiable divorced father of one, trying to gain custody of his teenage son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm); working in the local kindergarten after the closure of the secondary school in which he was previously employed. There are hints from some that believe in the unsuitability of a man working in a nursery, especially given his minority as the only male employee, but his naturalness with the children soon dismisses these archaic views. Lucas has friends, this is evident from the film’s commencement, close friendships made in childhood but most of these men have wives and children present and Lucas tends to cut a lonely figure in comparison. His best friend Theo (Vinterberg alum, Thomas Bo Larsen) has two children, one of whom is Klara (lucidly played by Annika Wedderkopp) an eccentric child with a vivid imagination who often wanders the streets alone because her parents fail to notice her missing or she is so deeply focussed on avoiding the cracks in the pavement. After her father’s friend shows her a little attention, she develops a crush and when Lucas understandably and gently rejects her, after she kisses him on the mouth, he pays a hefty price. Klara’s blatant accusation, after all “Children do not lie. At least not about things like this”, causes a devastating fall out and the once close-knit community splinters into shards of hysteria, amid recriminations and reproach, with the teacher becoming the victim of a persecutory witch-hunt.

Mikkelsen (A Royal Affair; Valhalla Rising) is outstanding – whether playing maniacal villains, silent assassins, derisive lovers or sensitive every-men – he is consistently exceptional. Here, he delivers a Cannes-award winning performance as mild-mannered educator Lucas acted with real sensitivity, precision and humanity. There is a dignity and hushed calculation to the way in which, as the character, he handles the damaging aspersions. However, when the events do threaten to break the exterior, specifically in the supermarket sequence and later during Midnight Mass his actions devastate further. The deftly worked script co-written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm is weighted in realism, for the most part, until taking a symbolic swerve at the dénouement and all without a hint of emotional manipulation or overt sentimentality often associated with this type of story. That said, this is not a comfortable watch and whilst gripping, powerful and thought-provoking The Hunt is unsettling and gut-wrenching; a cinematic sledgehammer of a realisation as to just how injurious and distressing an untruth, however small, can truly be.

Film Festival Review

Review: Everybody Has a Plan (Dir. Ana Piterbarg, 2012)

LFF 2012

While the last post detailed the more memorable roles of Mr Mortensen’s career, this review looks to the most recent, Everybody Has a Plan (2012, dir. Ana Piterbarg) a film he not only produced but also took, along with its director, to the recent 56th BFI London Film Festival. As previously stated he has starred in Spanish-speaking films before, more recently, playing the titular character of Captain Alatriste (2006, dir. Agustín Díaz Yanes) a historical epic which further showcased Mortensen’s skills with a blade, acting prowess in another language and an impressive ability to grow a moustache of heroic proportion. Everybody Has a Plan is, in comparison, a radically different film.

Set in the present, in Argentina, identical twin brothers Agustín and Pedro Souto (Mortensen) are siblings who have taken two very different paths in life. Agustín is a married Paediatric doctor in Buenos Aires while Pedro lives on the Tigre Delta alternating between a life of crime and breeding bees for the purpose of making honey. When one of Pedro’s crime outings takes a sinister turn, he turns up, terminally ill, on his brother’s doorstep. His presence thereby allows unfulfilled Agustín the opportunity to make some changes and seek refuge in the home town he escaped decades earlier. He inhabits his brother’s persona, leaving his wife and existing responsibilities behind.

This surprising noir is the first for screenwriter-director Piterbarg and she approached her first choice actor Mortensen at a San Lorenzo football match. Mortensen’s early childhood in South America meant that he, not only, has an affiliation with the country but also the linguistic foundation to speak the Argentine-Spanish which is prevalent in the movie. At no point does this film read as a directorial debut and Piterbarg should be commended for the taut screenplay and, at times, gently gripping crime drama she has created. It is traditional in its narrative approach and does not rely upon action sequences but turgid twists and tender turns amid its character driven plot and recurring thematic of duality. This motif is linked quite obviously through the inclusion of twins, however, it is made more apparent when considering the locations used, especially the light/dark dichotomy captured so beautifully through Lucio Bonelli’s cinematography. The Tigre Delta is shot as a dangerous, foreboding and enigmatic place (not unlike the twin who inhabits the island) and it is not an image of Argentina that is ordinarily known or as been seen before.

At his recent Screen Talk, Mortensen likened the stark contrast between locations and characters as “two streams of merging water, running together to the open river with the same force and flow” and quoted a 1946 film noir in an attempt to encapsulate the romantic element in the narrative. He referred to The Night Editor (Henry Levin) in which one protagonist says to the other “You’re like me. There is an illness deep inside you that has to hurt or be hurt. We’re made for each other”. This aptly sums up the inevitability of kismet which hangs over Agustín who shares the screen with an excellent supporting cast that fleshes out the slow pacing including Rosa (Sofia Gala), Rubén (Javier Godino) and Adrían (Daniel Fanego). Fanego practically slithers on screen he is so reptilian. This is, nevertheless, Mortensen’s film.

Copyright: H. Harding-Jones

It should seem somewhat moot to describe a man, who has had a film career run nearly three decades, as innovative but his last four films have made audiences aware just how multi-faceted he can be. Here, although they do not share the screen together for very long, he actually manages to suggest a real sense of individualism between Pedro and Agustín and, throughout, a manner of acting that relies upon physicality rather than the spoken word; few actors can emote so strongly and evidently. That said, this movie is not without its flaws; it is, at times a little too slow paced and the latter third does drag amid its solemnity and quiet but it is a thoughtful deliberation about a man who inadequately exists and attempts to find peace while having no absolute design on thriving. He does, however, as it turns out have a plan after all…


Viggo is King

It was announced in early October that Viggo Mortensen would be delivering the final Screen Talk at the 56th BFI London Film Festival, in part, to discuss his new film Everybody Has a Plan (2012, dir. Ana Piterbarg), while also revisiting his time in the film industry and on his birthday no less. Some will know him as Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings; a testament to his memorable turn – thanks to a last minute casting decision – in Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth saga, while most will recognise him from his recent David Cronenberg collaboration, A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007) and A Dangerous Method (2011). Throughout a twenty-eight year career, his first film role was as blink-and-you-miss-him Moses Hochleitner in Peter Weir’s Witness (1985); Mortensen, who appears more youthful than his fifty-four years, has been far from predictable with his film choices. This is an actor who has numerous award nominations and wins under his belt including Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, even a Goya and was inducted into the Empire Icon Hall-of-Fame years before the acting powerhouse that is Gary Oldman.

Born to a Danish father and American mother in Manhattan, New York Viggo Jr. spent several years in South America and, then later, Denmark culminating in a degree in Government and Spanish and linguistic fluency in the Danish, Spanish and French language. A man of many talents he owns Perceval Press, writes poetry, is a celebrated artist/photographer and an accomplished musician. Everybody Has a Plan is his second starring role in a Spanish-speaking film following 2006’s Alatriste (and fourth to date); his enigmatic and introspective performances are inherent with the hope that his pensive, dimple-chinned, splendour continues to grace the big screen for the foreseeable future. Certainly, with releases of On the Road (2012, dir. Walter Salles) and The Two Faces of January (2013, dir. Hossein Amini) to come that will surely be the case. Mortensen has worked with directors of every genre, from Jane Campion to the late Tony Scott and he is responsible for some truly memorable performances:

The Indian Runner (1991, dir. Sean Penn)

As black sheep Frank Roberts in Sean Penn’s directorial debut, Mortensen exudes danger, melancholic misunderstanding and self destruction in equal measure in this accomplished and brooding, if overwrought, commentary on the Vietnam War.

 Carlito’s Way (1993, dir. Brian De Palma)

On screen for barely four minutes and looking a little rough around the edges as former playboy now paraplegic Lalin; it is an affecting cameo, in a critically acclaimed Hitchcockian-Gangster film, made unforgettable for the delivery of the ‘cocksucker’ line.

The Prophecy (1995, dir. Gregory Widen)

Again, an incredibly short time on screen – here Mortensen is a deliciously camp Lucifer with   a  penchant for dip-dye hair and taste for human hearts in this average sci- fi/religious thriller  hybrid where angels wage war on “God’s favourite” humans.

G I Jane (1997, dir. Ridley Scott)

Few remember this flawed film save for Demi Moore’s head-shaving and one-armed push-ups but Mortensen delivers a solid, and largely overlooked, performance as Master Chief John James Urgayle. A beguiling bastard who recites Walt Whitman, teaches that “pain is [ones] friend” and gets the best Navy Seal out of Lt. Jordan O’Neill (Moore) irrespective of gender or political ideology.

A Perfect Murder (1998, dir. Andrew Davis)

The second Hitchcock remake to bear the Mortensen name (best we forget the other one). He plays struggling artist David Shaw enjoying an extra-marital affair with millionaire’s wife and U.N. alum Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow). Torn between blackmail, lust and greed Viggo’s David could have been lacking and tawdry in the hands of another actor but he brings a real depth to ‘the other man’. And yes, we would want to leave Michael Douglas for him too…

LOTR: The Two Towers (2002, dir. Peter Jackson)

Difficult to choose from this trilogy given that he is the titular King of the third instalment, however, it is in this film that Aragorn truly comes into his own as warrior and leader of the Rohirrim and Fairies alike, during the epic battle of Helm’s Deep. It is also the text which cements Mortensen has a honest-to-goodness action hero; combat ready whilst never losing the emotional gravitas of the character despite being knee deep in mud and soaked in rain.

A History of Violence (2005, dir. David Cronenberg)

Based upon the John Wagner and Vince Locke graphic novel of the same name, this film saw the first teaming of Cronenberg and Mortensen and surprisingly the first real leading role for the now well-known Danish-American. He plays Tom Stall, a small town diner owner who is hailed a local hero when he kills two armed thugs in self defence. After playing such a recognisable character of literature Mortensen proves that he can play average-Joe-Bloggs-with-a-past with equal vigour. His performance is excellent in a thrilling film which boasts the most convincing marital chemistry since Sutherland and Christie in Don’t Look Now (1973, dir. Nicholas Roeg).

Eastern Promises (2007, dir. David Cronenberg)

As Nikolai, the driver and surrogate son to Russian Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who may or may not have links to the Vory v Zakone, Mortensen plays it mysterious and alarmingly charming as the fetishised tattooed driver who first dominates the screen by cutting the fingertips off a corpse and stubbing out a cigarette on his tongue.

The Road (2009, dir. John Hillcoat)

Whilst it could never match the sheer brilliance of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel upon which it is based, this faithful adaptation comes very close. Mortensen delivers a haunting and devastating performance as The Man facing a post-apocalyptic world determined to keep his son alive. It is a harrowing and, at times, traumatic watch made all the more emotive by the beautifully portrayed relationship between Mortensen’s father and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son.

A Dangerous Method (2011, dir. David Cronenberg)

In his third outing with director Cronenberg, Mortensen adorns a prosthetic nose and brown contact lenses to play the founding father of Psychoanalysis and purveyor of repressive sexuality Sigmund Freud; acerbic and utterly charismatic as the elder statesman to Fassbender’s youthful Carl Jung in this intellectual costume-drama romp tinged with black comedy.

DVD Review

DVD Review: Chernobyl Diaries (Dir. Brad Parker, 2012)

The Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 is considered to be the worst nuclear power plant accident in history and its alienation zone in Pripyat is the setting for Brad Parker’s, distasteful, Chernobyl Diaries.

Following a tour of Europe, friends Chris (Jesse McCartney), Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Amanda (Devin Kelley) travel to Kiev to visit Chris’ older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). After sampling the nightlife and encountering some contrived Russian male stereotypes, Paul persuades his kid brother to sample “extreme tourism” and along with Michael (Nathan Phillips), Zoë (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and their tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), they try their luck through the guard-patrolled Pripyat exclusion zone.

When they are refused entry, the tourists choose an alternative route and soon find themselves stranded, trapped in a van, surrounded by the vast, desolate waste ground. Predictably, they are not alone, the only sound breaking the silence – aside from their occasional yells – is a Geiger-counter that crackles within the diegesis reminding them, and the audience, that they are inhaling radioactive fumes. This narrative may have had the potential to be a rational premise if, in fact, the “othered” being (in addition to the invisible, ionizing radiation) that is tracking them is actually revealed at a reasonable moment. Alas, it is not and we have to wait until the last five minutes and by this time any interest has completely waned. The premise of a horror film usually is for it to actually scare, or at the very least, make a viewer’s heart-rate pulsate – again, something which is severely lacking here.

It is increasingly difficult to summon enthusiasm for films such as this one especially since the runaway success of [Rec] (2007, dir(s). Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza), which was excellent and clearly the inspiration for this, with its handheld cinematography, low-key lighting and similar plotline. Unfortunately, an aspect within the mise-en-scène is where the similarity ends. This film is just 84 minutes which should give some indication as to how woefully under-developed the screenplay is (co-written by Paranormal Activity’s writer / director Oren Peli; Carey and Shane Van Dyke – grandsons of Dick). Perhaps, had the audience been made to care for these characters then greater empathy would have been experienced when they are picked off one-by-one. Or perhaps not, as the case may be.

There is nothing new here just more clichéd drivel which Hollywood insists on recycling – specifically using found footage as a plot reveal (a mobile phone fills in the gaps when two characters disappear) if this mode of representation is to be utilised then at least make it somewhat credible and not as a further display of writing limitations. At one point a main protagonist actually narrates so, it would appear, to avoid confusion.

This film is dull, tedious and despite its generic label of horror it is anything but scary. All moments which are included to make the audience react are cued so minutely that predictability and mediocre acting prevent any viewer participation or interaction.

Chernobyl Diaries is about as authentic as the Van Dyke Snr’s Cockney accent in Mary Poppins (1964, dir. Robert Stevenson).