The Riddle of Steel And B Movies


I am a huge cinemaphile. I have referred to and cited several movies in my writing, ranging from the silent epics of D.W. Griffith and F.W. Murnau to the most commercialized of modern blockbuster movies. In some ways, I find B-Movies to be more interesting than “artistic” cinema, because B Movies, due to being relatively low-budget and made independently of the larger studios, will always demonstrate one of two diametrically opposite phenomena.

One of these, by far the more common of the two, is that B-Movies, due to mostly having little pretense of artistic merit and being blatant money-making efforts, often resort to standard tropes and plots, which reflect the cultural zeitgeist: the schlocky monster movies and scifi movies of the 1950s have often been mocked for their “smiling patriarchy”, but many are not aware of how modern B-movies (typically Direct-to-Video films, as actual double features are rare today) reflect our modern, substantially more leftist culture.


These films still provide all the scantily clad beauties and pointless violence of their ancestors, but now contain a substantially higher dose of “girl power” and female assertiveness. It is also worth noting that this balancing of sexual exploitation with feminist overtones existed in the past: Roger Corman, the uncrowned king of B-Films (and yes, I am aware he is not a fan of that epithet), was quite capable of directing both hyper-sexualized exploitation flicks with repeated instances of monster rape and, quite frequently, depict strong female heroines.

Whether or not this practice is due to a genuine belief in feminist ideology or a cynical ploy to get both men and women to view these films is up to you, but Mr. Corman has been recorded stating that he casted so many women in lead roles due to the fact that A)they would work cheaper than men, and B) many of them felt they were not allowed to showcase their talents, and he sought to give them that opportunity (indeed, one of the things that even the Academy praised Corman for was his use of strong females). A little from both columns, perhaps?

And then there are stranger cases such as 2012’s Ironclad, which is a story that dramatizes the creation of the Magna Carta to include lectures on how evil the Crusades were, a lantern-jawed proto-feminist heroine who convinces an apostate Templar Knight to commit adultery (aand upon doing so, an angelic chorus resounds), occasional segues where the good guys, most of whom are feudal lords, scream about how “this castle belongs to the people”, and King John bringing in a cadre of Danish mercenaries to re-assert his authority, mercenaries that are depicted, in a story taking place in 1215, as painted, pagan, “blond beasts”. I’ll let you do the research on how accurate any of this is. The point I am making is that, in what is ostensibly a B-Grade medieval period drama, this film shoehorns in modern day talking points and attitudes, illustrating that those points are what Thomas Friedman called a “super story”, essentially a narrative that a culture already knows (As to how this is different from “mythology”, that’s a question for another time).


The second reason that I love B-movies is due to an opposite phenomenon to the first reason;  a much rarer, but much greater, cultural effect they can have. Due to being filmed on a meager budget, and being free of meddling executives and focus group testing, the directors occasionally find themselves free to be more creative than any other type of film, and, in contrast to the usual chain of events, find that their obscure little films influence the “big dogs”, and make stars out of their nobody actors: Stagecoach (1939) made John Wayne and John Ford big names and earned its place on the National Film Registry (prior to this Wayne was a bit player and stuntman, and Ford was considered an insane martinet). Crossfire (1947) was the first B-Movie to be nominated for Best Picture.


Beyond those two notable examples, there are a wide variety of B-Flicks that have achieved pop-culture immortality (fame or infamy) due to a combination of shock value, alleged “subversiveness”, racial uplift, or, on occasion, being genuinely good  (or at the very least, meme-worthy) films: Halloween, The Thing, Enter the Dragon, Escape from New York, Shaft, Fight For Your Life, Assault on Precinct 13, The Evil Dead, Big Trouble in Little China, Last House on the Left, etc. etc.

On very rare occasions, a B-Movie can achieve what is, in today’s globalized, commercialized, and feminized age, truly subversive: Creating a meaningful, powerful, and inspirational narrative for boys and young men. The aforementioned Enter the Dragon is one of these, fitting into a broader spectrum of kung fu exploitation films that served as something of a hero cycle for young men of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly (and somewhat incongruously) for African-Americans.

This was largely due to a combination of geographical and financial availability, and the themes of many of the movies: traditional kung fu films, being period pieces taking place in imperial countries, often have anti-government themes depicting downtrodden peasants fighting against the powers that be (the fact that these films were mostly made in Hong Kong by people escaping communist rule is probably worth addressing). These themes resonated with angry young men: in addition, many kung fu films also have a racial angle, typically Chinese vs. Japanese, or Chinese vs. Manchu, and the appeal to those claiming to suffer from racial prejudice and discrimination should be obvious

Beyond those factors that the likes of “Moviebob” Chipman and other SJWs like to talk about, kung fu films have relatively simple stories that nonetheless portray the masculine virtues, that resonate with all men regardless of race: strength, courage, mastery, and honor: honor of the man (in mastering techniques and defeating opponents), honor of the family (many films have plots of revenge and/or atonement), and honor of the nation (in the traditional, “blood and soil” sense, see: the repeated Chinese vs. Japanese or Chinese vs. Manchu plots).

Truly, what could today be more subversive than a B-film containing all those virtues contained in a kung fu film, but with a plot rooted in American traditionalism, which in turn has its roots in a far richer, more primeval European tradition? A B-movie that aspires to be, and comes pretty close, being a work of art (more specifically, a work of epic poetry). That movie is, as the title and featured image would imply, John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982).

Most people are at least familiar with this film through pop cultural osmosis: Crom, “crush your enemies…”, the Tree of Woe, “…then to hell with you!”, the vaguely defined “Riddle of Steel”, and so forth. But what could be dismissed as naught but a silly, brutal B-Movie has become a deeply-analyzed favorite of traditionalists, paleo-futurists, physical culturists, and the other lean, wolfish intellectual louts that make up the reactosphere. Why?

The most obvious answer is that the movie knows exactly what type of film it is, and excels in everything it seeks to achieve (to paraphrase the words of Roger Ebert, what makes a movie good or bad is not what it’s subject matter is, but rather how it goes about that subject matter…ignore the fact that he was not particularly fond of Conan): the cinematography and set design are gorgeous, and the scenes of battle are well choreographed and stirring. The casting, too, is perfect for the sort of film that it is: it certainly helps that the biggest, most impactful, chunks of dialogue are given to accomplished thespians like James Earl Jones, Mako Iwamatsu, and Max Von Sydow, but, as discussed below, the film is sparsely (no, succinctly) worded, so even our Mitteleuropean hero gets to leave his verbal mark.

Most famously, the score is comprised entirely of outstanding, albeit slightly pompous, orchestral music that some music critics have accused of being too good for the film it’s used for, from the hyper-masculine “Anvil of Crom” that plays over the opening credits and sets the mood for the rest of the film, to the tender subtleties of “Wifeing” or “The Awakening“.

Even the script, which was at the time considered to be “fascist” and “psychopathic”, is well written in an atavistic, proto-Nietzschean sort of way (it is worth noting that the film opens up with a Nietzsche quote): quotes like “Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it…” and “…Only that the crowd would be there, greeting him with howls of lust and fury. [Through combat] he began to realize his sense of worth…he mattered” never fail to bring a savage grin. And it is the combination of all of these aspects that creates a truly great whole, which is rightfully impactful upon most that are willing to view it objectively (the people that view it subjectively are both those that dismiss action films up front, and those Howard purists who are to an extent correct in criticizing the film for taking liberties from the source material).

The plot is simple: Conan begins as a young boy in a simple village of Northern European style barbarians. His village is razed and its people slaughtered by the forces of civilization, represented by Thulsa Doom and his cult. Conan is hardened in mind and body through years of physical toil and gladiatorial combat. Upon earning his freedom, he begins to seek revenge. Meeting fellow adventurers and getting involved in religious/political intrigues, Conan goes on his secular quest while also seeking a religious quest: a quest to understand the “Riddle of Steel”.

What to make of this film, and why it has such an impact?

Before that question is answered, I feel it is worth noting that Robert Howard’s collective Conan stories are written more along the lines of a historical chronicle (the Nemedian Chronicles, to be more specific), and the film is, indeed, more resembling of a traditional Joseph Campbell-esque folklore (albeit a very harsh and cynical one) than the source material. In addition, the themes of the film (primeval man versus society, corruption of civilized religion, “Valor pleases you, Crom”, etc) are very Howard-esque. Thus, I choose to see “Book Conan” and “Movie Conan” as two different worthwhile interpretations, rather than one being “True” and one being “False”.

The “Call to Adventure” comes barging into the placid village, forcefully and unwillingly dragging young Conan on the Hero’s Journey. Rather than receiving Supernatural Aid in a traditional sense, he is enslaved, trained into a vicious, animalistic pit fighter, and has his chains broken by an unnamed master, and this chain of events can be considered a form of aid (with the all-powerful slavemaster being, presumably in the eyes of a downtrodden beast of burden, a sort of supernatural power). Being set free, he chooses to embark on his adventure, entering the world of free men and civilization (one might say “Crossing the threshold”).

He gains allies, undergoes trials, and enters the “Belly of the Whale”: he is crucified, dies, and is brought back to life. The last quarter of the film rapidly runs through the rest of the Hero’s Journey: Conan is unceremoniously stripped of any chance to undergo the Sacred Marriage, while the “Night Sea Voyage” and the Apotheosis are combined in the climactic final scene: Thulsa Doom’s compound is raided, the sorcerer is decapitated, and an entire religion is brought to its knees with one swing of a sword (indeed, the climax is quite similar to that of another, much more acclaimed film John Milius worked on: Apocalypse Now.)

The film ends with Conan contemplating his actions, alone (with the only short-term “boon” being wisdom and, perhaps, a solution to the Riddle of Steel), and the stinger shows him as a brooding, older king of Aquilonia. Presumably, the “Return Journey” parts of the Campbell cycle would have come in sequels (ie: Sequels that were better than the ones we got).

hero's journey


The film is of interest beyond the Campbellian monomyth, in looking at its cultural and religious context. Conan is very much a silent, unrefined, valorous hero, who uses words sparingly but meaningfully, in the style of Northern European climes (which are of course, the basis of the American WASP core, which the Texan Howard was a member of). Although America has certainly become more crass and vulgar in the last half century, the unspoken demands (somewhat quieted) of American men to not cry and “grin and bear it” still resonate from the demands of its dour Puritan forebears.

In one of its most famous scenes (the Belly of the Whale stated above), Conan is crucified and left to die. In interview footage John Milius explicitly referred to this as a sort of mockery of Christ: “…What Conan does is so un-Christ-like: a vulture picks at him, to show that Crom has indeed forsaken him, and Conan gives one last act of defiance, killing the vulture in his teeth” (note that this scene is taken directly from the Howard literature). This, combined with the depiction of the “Children of Doom” being half Christian, and half 1960s counter-culture (their tenets are not well defined, but they seek “emptiness” and  virtuous poverty for the rank and file, and free love and decadence for the higher ups), can perhaps be taken to be an overcoming of Christianity, and said overcoming is highly Nietzschean. Similarly to the symbolic overcoming of Christianity is the film putting great emphasis on Conan breaking his father’s sword in battle, symbolically breaking off from the shame of his past, then using that broken sword to kill Thulsa Doom (which ties back to the Campbell trope of symbolically destroying the father in order to atone with him as a mature man).

Three interpretations of the Riddle of Steel are given, and the last is the one the film posits as being correct: In the very beginning, Conan’s father states “There is naught in this world you can trust. Not man, not woman, not beast. Only [the sword] can you trust”. Conan, ironically, befriends both man and woman on his journey (being highly selective of his friendship, of course), and in further irony, his father is cut down holding the sword that was supposed to have been so trustworthy. To add insult to injury, Conan’s mother is beheaded with the sword that had failed her husband.

Thulsa Doom later mockingly tells Conan that the “Riddle of Steel” is that flesh is stronger: steel is nothing compared to the hand that wields it. This, too is wrong, as Conan’s flesh is tortured and literally killed upon the cross, but he overcomes it. Instead, the Riddle of Steel is that true strength comes from the mind and spirit, from which strength of arm and sword derive, allowing Conan to win the day.

keep crom

It is this movie’s harsh cynicism, focus on individual valor and stolid brutality, and conquest of the past that makes me go so far as to posit this film (and its literary source material) as, if nothing else, potentially the first part of an embryonic American mythological hero cycle.

Yes, I said “harsh cynicism” in conjunction with the United States. Frankly, I’ve always felt that the old saw of Americans being blindly optimistic and naive is completely contrary to the truth: to prove my point, I’d like to point you towards every single American author of artistic acclaim and note: I challenge you to find a single one that is glowingly patriotic and optimistic for the future (to further prove my case, many of them were heavily critical of Christianity as well, to dispell the stereotype of Americans being zealous Christians).

The closest you could possibly get is James Fenimore Cooper, and even he falls into Tacitus’ trap of wistfully eulogizing the “noble savages”. If we look to other notable American writers in hopes of finding the “burger eating patriotard”, you sure as hell don’t find it in Mark Twain. Or Sinclair Lewis. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or Ernest Hemingway. Or Tennessee Williams. Or Jack London. Or Edgar Allan Poe. Or Ray Bradbury. Certainly not H.L. Mencken. Of those names I pulled off the top of my head, every single one of them has something of a bone to pick with the culture of the United States. And the literary authors of today, all of whom are terrible, nonetheless continue the deconstructionist train that so characterizes American letters.

The great pulp writers like Robert Howard and his friend HP Lovecraft are equally as grim as their literary equivalents. The bleakness of the film, showing firsthand the sacrifices and bitterness needed to triumph in a harsh world, seem to reflect this.

The “peace and love” cult bears resemblance to some religious groups of American origin: notably, the People’s Temple (a resemblance that critics at the time noted). As is often cited as “proof” of America’s inherent conservatism, America has many fringe religious groups, and indeed is the strongest enclave of religiosity in the Western world today, a statement that is almost entirely meaningless. An astute observer might cheekily say that modern American “churchianity“, with its empty promises of spiritual uplift, blanket forgiveness for sins, peace and love, and unwitting supplication to a greedy secular power  resembles the Children of Doom to a disturbing degree.

Conan’s breaking of his father’s sword and slaying of his former conqueror might be taken to be symbolic of America’s eternal inferiority complex towards the Old World (mainly Europe), although this was undoubtedly not a conscious goal of Milius and company. And it is this inferiority complex (and the corresponding European arrogance) that will undoubtedly mock me for positing a film could be an American equivalent of mythology: to that I say…it is likely not as impactful as true mythology, but, as America never had a period of being illiterate barbarians with oral tradition being the only method of recording folklore, we don’t have a true mythology, and thus, B-movies can form, essentially, an ersatz mythology for the young men of a nation without one (especially a nation whose actual history is constantly made to be something shameful and loathsome, thus destroying any chance of there ever being a genuine mythology).

It just so happens that Conan the Barbarian is the film that seems to go out of its way to be grandiose and operatic in scale, and thus come closest to being mythology.

A lonesome, brutal wayfarer becoming king by his own hand, and bringing down a corrupt organization of fanatics in the process. What could be more American, more neo-masculine (many of whose scribes are of American nationality) than that?

\Time alone will tell if it has the great impact upon the general culture that it does on a small subculture, but as Milius says, “It does seem to have a certain effect on people…”