Movies, religion

Deep meaning in “stupid” films: How Conan the Barbarian brought me closer to God

I’ve seen Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, I’ve read Milton’s Paradise Lost and I’ve listened to Handel’s Messiah, but the work of art that has had the most profound impact on my relationship with religion is the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Conan the Barbarian. It’s a film I’ve seen at least dozens of times and with each viewing I discover some new, insightful and provocative theological and moral lessons in it.

The film is so important to me that I listen to its stirring Basil Poledouris soundtrack almost every day. I really do. My wife has come home to find me loudly cranking out Anvil of Crom more times than I care to admit. She rolls her eyes and gazes at me with a look that betrays more than a hint of pity. Sometimes she’ll sigh as she asks me three short, entirely rhetorical questions:

Conan? Again? Really?

Often when I’m at the office and I have a particularly tricky email to write or some other difficult project to work on, I’ll put on my headphones and I’ll crank up the Conan. It may not be obvious to anyone looking at me as I sit there at my desk in my suit and tie, quietly working at my computer – but the music transforms me.

While I listen, each click of my mouse is a swing of my two-handed sword – aimed at the cranium of the evil high priest Rexor. When I swivel in my office chair, it is because I have just dodged a swooping blow from Thorgrim’s mighty hammer.

The Conan soundtrack makes everything I do seem more important and more dramatic – so I turn to it time and time again. Whether I am designing a power-point about my company’s new annual leave policy, or writing a newsletter introducing our new corporate values – the music helps me to feel a sense of drive and focus, such as Conan himself must have experienced when he toppled the pillars of Thulsa Doom’s Temple upon the heads of his enemies.

Listening to the music from Conan reminds me of my love for the film and what it has meant to me, but it also makes me feel as if I am on a mission. That I have purpose. Conan inspires me.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself: “Sword fights, giant hammers, enemies crushed by pillars… Thorgrim? Rexor? How exactly is any of this religiously inspiring? What the hell is wrong with you?”

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with me – I’m a barbarian.

Or at least, I strive to be. Being a barbarian is all about the striving. And this applies to every part of your life, whether you are sending a work email, crushing your enemies, or considering questions about God and your faith. Those who do not question, who do not strive, are worse than lazy – they are pawns and fools. Their lives are wasted. They are nothing more than sword-fodder.

Harsh, right? But these kinds of values, which seep through every frame of Conan the Barbarian, were a necessary brutality, that – for me – opened the door to a larger truth. It was Conan the Barbarian that first taught me the single most important thing I would ever learn about religion – that you could build your own relationship with God, provided you were willing to struggle and strive for it. That questioning your faith and refusing to blindly follow religious rules didn’t mean that you were a moral or spiritual failure. That rejecting dogma could be as profound a spiritual act as accepting it. That the only real religious failings are apathy and passivity.

I’ll explain how I found all of this meaning in a movie about a sword-wielding, monosyllabic warrior in a moment, but first I’d like to give you a little bit of background on why these notions were so impactful on me. And in order to help you understand that, you will have to travel back in time with me. To an age before the internet. A time when you couldn’t just look up alternative perspectives online, or order books on philosophy or theology for next-day delivery from Amazon. An era when your priest told you what God expected of you – and you in turn were expected to listen, to believe and not to question. Come with me back to 1982.

Narrator: “Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”

The Community Theater, Catskill, New York – the unlikely site of an unlikely epiphany

You know those kids from the Netflix show Stranger Things? Picture one of them, but taller, with less fashion sense and more acne and you’ll have a rough image of 14 year old me. A nerd. A tall, dorky nerd. A tall, dorky, sort of religious nerd.

I was raised Catholic, as part of an Italian-American family in upstate New York. I went to a Catholic school and on Sundays I went to church – mostly because my parents made me – just like my friends’ parents made them go to mass on Sundays. The Catholic church was a constant, but mostly unexamined presence in my life. I was religious by circumstance, not by conscious choice.

“Show up to mass and follow the church’s commandments and eventually you will get your eternal reward in Heaven,”  – that’s the message that was relayed to me at every stage of my life and I had no theological ammunition at my disposal that would allow me to challenge any part of that thinking. The ceremony of Sunday Mass itself was structured like a lecture, not a conversation, so I was never engaged by it, much less inspired. You would stand when you were told to stand, you would sing when you were told to sing and you repeated words along with everyone else. It was boring and it felt irrelevant to me, but what choice did I have?

As a 14 year old boy in a small, Catholic-dominated town, I had literally never seen or heard of anyone ever questioning the church, its legitimacy or its philosophical underpinnings… until one fateful Saturday evening in the Spring of 1982.

Behold… Conan

Usually Saturdays were reserved for playing Dungeons and Dragons with a couple of my friends. But this one particular night, we decided instead to go see a film. Conan the Barbarian was playing at the local cinema on Main Street- just down the hill from our family church. I remember being excited to see it – what could be more appealing to a group of 14 year old boys obsessed with DnD than a swords and sandals action epic? But as the film rolled, I discovered that Conan had more on its mind than magic and monsters.

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of the women!

The plot of Conan the Barbarian is about a man striving for vengeance on a group of men who raided his village, killed his parents and sold him into slavery when he was a young boy. His life is filled with brutality, which he has no choice but to embrace. Conan fights other barbarians for money and fame. He has sex with a shapeshifting witch and then throws her into a roaring fire. He stabs a giant snake in the head. He gets drunk and when a camel startles him, he punches it in the face.

Conan is kind of a violent asshole.

But Conan is a violent asshole who lives by a code – a religious ethos that emphasises self-reliance rather than faith or dogma – an ideology described by his father in the film’s opening scene.

Conan’s Father: “Conan, Crom is your god, Crom and he lives in the earth. Once, giants lived in the Earth, Conan. And in the darkness of chaos, they fooled Crom, and they took from him the enigma of steel… The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts.”
[He points to his sword] “This you can trust.”

With dialogue like this, it’s clear that Conan the Barbarian was never going to win an Oscar for best screenplay – but if you look at the ideas behind the stilted fantasy novel language, you could see that there was actually something pretty radical going on:

Conan: What gods do you pray to?
Subotai: I pray to the four winds… and you?
Conan: To Crom… but I seldom pray to him, he doesn’t listen.
Subotai: What good is he then?

I remember sitting in the cinema and laughing at this, along with everyone else in the crowd. If you didn’t stop to think about it, scenes like these came across like throwaways – notes of random, absurdist humour inadvertently inserted into an otherwise bleak and violent film. Who ever heard of a god who you prayed to, but who didn’t listen? But these lines weren’t in there for comic relief and they definitely weren’t there by accident – they contained the core messages of the film. What made Conan a barbarian wasn’t his violence, but his theology.

Now I’m not about to tell you that I sat there and had an ongoing internal dialogue about the theological implications of every scene while the film was still rolling. I was only 14 and naturally, at first I was more interested in the fighting, the music and the spectacle. But the unconventional thinking that was embedded in scenes like these stuck in my head and each time I rewatched the film (I went over and over again) I gave it all a little more thought, because a camel-punching, witch-throwing, snake-stabbing barbarian who believed in a god who offered him nothing and demanded nothing in return was unlike anything my 14 year old brain had ever encountered or even contemplated before. It was a lot to process.

In Crom we trust

Virtually every scene in the film emphasised this theme of self-reliance and mistrust of religion. When Conan eventually finds the men who murdered his family, he discovers that they are not your everyday villains, motivated by monetary greed or wicked hearts. They are priests in a snake cult, followed by a group of oblivious proto-hippies, who talk about “emptiness” and follow their leader mindlessly like “slaves.”

Their leader, Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones, is a manipulative monster who has cloaked himself in religiosity, but he is a deceiver, a seeker of power who treats people as objects to be used and discarded. He wants compliant, “empty” disciples. His philosophy relies on people who are fools – looking for meaning outside of themselves, unwilling, or unequipped to question his rules. They obey him without thought or self-regard, even when he asks them to kill themselves.

At one point in the film, Thulsa Doom captures Conan, who has been hiding among his cult-members, looking for an opportunity to strike. Doom is outraged that Conan will not submit and follow him. He calls him an “infidel” and a “defiler” and sentences him to be crucified. On a big tree shaped like a cross. You know – like Jesus.

Conan dies from his crucifixion, but again, just like you-know-who, he is resurrected (by his friends with the help of a wizard). From this point, Conan and Jesus’ stories diverge quite a bit – instead of returning from the dead as an act of redemption to absolve mankind of its sins, Conan comes back from the grave with the intention of hacking his enemies to death with his father’s gigantic sword. (I suppose you could argue that both were dedicated to upending the existing religious order of their societies).

Anyway, after a quick recovery from his ordeal, Conan sets out to confront Thulsa Doom and his followers again. In one of the film’s most well-known moments, he prepares for what he hopes will be a pivotal, final battle, and he delivers what has to be the most defiant on-screen prayer ever uttered in the history of cinema:

Conan: Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what’s important! Valor pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!

In the end, Conan does indeed defeat all of his foes, including Thulsa Doom, who he beheads on top of an altar, in front of a huge crowd of his followers. Wordlessly, he holds up Doom’s severed head like a trophy, showing the assembled followers that this was no god, just another man.

The whole thing was outrageous and blasphemous…and amazing.

King Osric: “What daring! What outrageousness!
What insolence! What arrogance!
I salute you.”

WWCD: What would Conan do? 

Conan had a huge and immediate impact on me that has only grown over the years. It’s not that I wanted to be like him – I was a skinny, dorky kid who could barely swing a baseball bat, much less a two-handed Cimmerian sword. What I admired about Conan and eventually tried to emulate, wasn’t his strength or his skill with a sword, it was his unwillingness to be a follower or a victim. He made his own rules, regardless of the consequences, even when it came to his relationship with his god. I admired him and each time I saw the movie again, in the cinema, on HBO or on home video, I became less interested in its action scenes and more intrigued by its message.

In fact, the very next day after I first saw the film, I had to go to church with my parents, just as I did every week. But that Sunday, something was different – something had already changed. Conan had prompted a change in my way of thinking. This time, as I sat there in the pew and the service rattled on, instead of feeling bored and disinterested, my mind was actually active and engaged.

I was thinking about Crom.

Me: Why does God need me to worship him anyway? Why does he care so much? Is he insecure? Crom wouldn’t care. If God is meant to listen to all of our prayers, then why does he not answer most of them? Crom seems a lot more honest about that. How do I know if this priest is interpreting God’s rules correctly? Maybe he’s just another Thulsa Doom.

I’m not saying that these were deep thoughts that I was having, but for the very first time in my life, I was actually thinking during church services instead of just sitting there like just another follower, like a sucker. I was questioning things. I was paying attention, evaluating, deciding what I would accept and what I would reject. I was striving for something.

I had become a barbarian.

 

Conan grows up… mostly

Today, it’s been more than 25 years since I first saw Conan the Barbarian at the Community Theater in Catskill. You might be surprised to hear that nowadays, I’m a regular church goer. Nearly every week you can find me in the pews, standing up when everyone else stands up, singing when everyone else sings.

It all started with Conan.

Once I started questioning anything, even just a little, I soon discovered that in fact I did have an endless amount of questions, about virtually everything. I looked for answers in books, in philosophy classes and eventually I came back to looking for them in church. I just needed to find the right church.

It wasn’t that difficult to discover that not every church was the same as the listless and unchallenging one I had been raised with and that not every religious leader was a fraud or an oppressor. Eventually I found a lovely little, non-dogmatic church, with non-judgmental leaders – a place where questions are welcomed rather than frowned upon and service to the community is just as important as theology.

Now I go to church because I choose to go – not out of habit or obligation and definitely not out of fear of hell or desire for heaven. My religious participation is entirely non-transactional. I do not seek emptiness, or power or anything really – instead I go to church because it is an opportunity for me to strive for some understanding. I use my time there to think about who I am and why I am here, and to find some connection with the world around me. There’s also a lot about Jesus I admire. He reminds me a little bit of Conan. Just a little. 

I could have easily gone another way, and it would be fair to say that it was Conan that saved me from abandoning the church entirely. He showed me that religion didn’t need to be a binary choice between blind faith and no faith at all – between complete acceptance and total rejection.

So here I am – a religious barbarian, empowered by Conan’s example to accept the aspects of my religion that work for me, and to reject the bits that don’t. I wish more people shared this philosophy. By Crom, I think the world would be a better place if it had more barbarians and fewer theocrats. Maybe that’s something I should pray for, and if God doesn’t listen to my prayer, well, you know…

 

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