The Arnold version of Conan the Barbarian is a film that will forever hold a special place in Recluse's heart. It is a film that has always put me in a certain place, no matter what. Once I fell for it in my late teens I've watched it multiple times a year, year in and year out, and it only seems to grow more mysterious with each viewing. The effect that film had on me is such that I've never been able to warm to any of the other modern takes on the character -not the comic books, the TV series and certainly not the recent remake.
Recluse did not discover Conan from the Robert E. Howard stories that created the character nor from the countless novels and comic books that continued the myths surrounding Conan long after Howard's death. In fact, I've never read any of Howard's work, which is a pity considering the striking occult references I've encountered while researching this piece. Then there's the close ties Howard's works have with one of his contemporaries and friends, HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft was the creator of the highly influential 'Cthulhu Mythos,' which has had an enormous influence on both fiction and the modern occult. I've addressed this briefly before here. Howard would incorporate several of his stories into this mythos.
|Robert E. Howard (top), the creator of Conan, and H.P. Lovecraft (bottom), his friend|
But back to Conan. As Recluse was saying, he did not discover Conan from Howard or any of the other fantasy-based works that either feature or were inspired by Conan. No, Recluse was first made aware of the power of this character and his story during his profane youth amongst Florida's metal community. Back before the rise of 'nu metal' in the late 1990s and early 00s Conan was an institution amongst metalheads -I daresay the whole long, blond-haired, Aryan superman-look many metalheads have adopted over the years was heavily influenced by Conan. I cannot think of Conan the Barbarian without being transported back to my late teens, hanging out in cramped, sweltering Florida lower-income apartments so full of bong smoke that a contact high could be had by simply walking through the door. It was at such places that we would usually gather on Sundays after a hard weekend of concerts and drinking to work off our hang-overs for work tomorrow. Inevitably we would put on a film or two to kill the time while we passed the bong back and forth and more often than not that film was Conan. It was such a staple that one of the main local metal bands I followed back then actually sampled Arnold's first bits of dialogue from the film for an intro to their first demo.
I recently finished reading Christopher Knowles' The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll in which he compelling argues that the rise of rock music in the post-WWII era of America was a kind of rebirth of the ancient Mystery schools, largely via the collective unconsciousness. The Mysteries were cults typically centered around a dying-and-reborn god and featuring secret rites and a direct religious experience. They became enormously popular in ancient Greece and Roman before the rise of Christianity. Of them and rock 'n' roll, Knowles writes:
"What did the Mysteries offer that other cults of the time did not? Almost exactly what rock 'n' roll would, thousands of years later. Drink. Drugs. Sex. Loud music. Wild pyrotechnics. A feeling of transcendence --leaving your mind and your body and entering a different world, filled with mystery and danger. A personal connection to something deep, strange, and impossibly timeless. An opportunity to escape the grinding monotony of everyday life and break all the rules of polite society. A place to dress up in wild costumes and dance and drink and trip all night."If Knowles is correct, and rock culture is a kind of subconscious recreation of the Mysteries, then surely my experiences with Conan served as a thorough initiation into these Mysteries. Many mystery religions met in caves and other confined and isolated spaces to perform their rituals. These rituals frequently involved stage performances of episodes from their god's life as well as the use of strange drugs to facilitate a transcendence. I daresay those stuffy apartments I used to watch Conan in were a good substitute for caves and marijuana still constitutes a strange drug to many. But the real jewel in the crown was the film Conan the Barbarian itself, which is surely one of the most profound movies ever made.
(The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, pg. 6)
Yes, I'm being entirely serious in my appraisal of Conan. It is a more than fitting substitute for the performances the ancient Mysteries used to put on --If anything, it goes much further than those performances would have ever dared, revealing facets of the Mysteries that their priesthoods attempted to keep hidden since time immortal. Conan is the ultimate Mystery drama, which makes its place in the heavy metal subculture all the more understandable. Metalheads, with their underground press and labels, handshakes and slogans, are possibly the closet recreation of the ancient Mystery cults of all the various rock movements. But I digress --On to the film.
Conan, released in 1982, was the first major blockbuster for the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger is a rather curious figure that has had an enormous influence on pop culture for years. He, along with Slyvester Stallone, defined the wave of 1980s action films that underpinned America's renewed militarism under Reagan. In his most stereotypical roles Arnold was a one man killing-machine that cut through entire armies like a warm knife through butter (think Commando). Certainly he made the jobs of military recruiters the nation over all the more easier at the height of Reaganism. Some twenty years later, upon becoming governor of California, Arnie would also do his part in promoting the 'War' on Terror and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan during Bush II's 2004 re-election campaign.
But Arnold had a far darker past then even his harshest critics could imagine. In 1990 it was revealed that Arnold's father, Gustav Schwarzenegger, had been a member of the Nazi party and had fought in the German army during WWII. Over the years Arnie's old man has usually been described as a rank-and-file member of the Nazi party who did not participate in any war crimes, not unlike countless men of his generation who happened to live under Nazi rule. But in 2003, during Arnold's first bid for the governorship of California, doubts began to emerge. The Los Angeles Times reported:
"But documents in the Austrian State Archives in Vienna, reviewed by The Times this week, show that Gustav Schwarzenegger had a deeper involvement in Hitler's regime than the Wiesenthal Center had uncovered. Hier said the documents were unavailable to the center's researchers when they investigated the matter.
"One document in particular shows that Gustav Schwarzenegger was indeed a member of the Sturmabteilungen, also known as the 'storm troopers' or 'brownshirts.' He joined the SA on May 1, 1939, according to the entry in the archive file -- about six months after the storm troopers helped launch Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, when Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were attacked across Germany and Austria and thousands of Jews were hauled off to concentration camps.
"The records contain no other information about his activities with the SA. And, with the exception of Kristallnacht, the force had lost its position of dominance to the SS as far back as 1934. Without further documentation, it is difficult to draw conclusions about what Gustav Schwarzenegger did with the SA, said Ursula Schwarz, a researcher with the Documentation Archive of the Austrian Resistance. At the same time, she noted, one had to apply to join the SA, unlike, say, the German army, which Austrian males were required to join after their country was annexed in 1938.
"The Austrian documents also show that Gustav Schwarzenegger served with German Army units that saw some of the most brutal bloodshed of World War II, including the invasions of Poland and France and the German rampage through Russia and the siege of Leningrad.
"As a military policeman, he appears to have been in theaters of the war where atrocities were committed by the army. But there is no way to know from the documents whether he played a role."
I find it most curious that Gustav Schwarzenegger joined the SA on May 1, which happens to be the date of one of the most important occult holidays of the year. The holiday is generally known as May Day and is meant as a celebration of fertility. The central object of a traditional May Day celebration is the May-pole or May-tree, a phallic symbol if ever there was one. Traditionally villages across Europe would erect one every spring and dance around it in celebration of the coming crop and in the hopes that some of the vegetable fertility would be passed on to the village maidens.
"It would be needless to illustrate at length the custom, which has prevailed in various parts of Europe, such as England, France, and Germany, of setting up a village May-tree or May-pole on May Day...
"We can hardly doubt that originally the practice everywhere was to set up a new May-tree every year. As the object of the custom was to bring in the fructifying spirit of vegetation, newly awakened in spring, the end would have been defeated if, instead of a living tree, green and sappy, an old withered one had been erected year after year or allowed to stand permanently... Thus the renewal of the May-tree is like the renewal of the Harvest-May; each is intended to secure a fresh portion of the fertilising spirit of vegetation, and to preserve it throughout the year. But whereas the efficacy of the Harvest-May is restricted to promoting the growth of crops, that of the May-tree or May-branch extends also... to women and cattle."
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pgs. 90-92)
The cheerful festivities of May Day seem to have their origins in a far more dubious holiday beginning at sunset on April 30. In Celtic countries it is known as Beltane while Germanic ones called it Walpurgis Night, or some such variation. It begins at sunset on April 30 and ends at sun rise of May 1, ushering in the spring. In it's more benevolent form it involved dancing and many bonfires, though in olden days the fires were probably used for human sacrifices. In German custom it was believed that witch's held their Sabbath at midnight on this eve. In recent times it has become a key date in Nazi paganism.
Nazi party history also has a curious tie to this date. On April 30, 1919, several members of the proto-Nazi Thule Society were executed by communists in occupied Bavaria, sparking the Bavarian revolution, which was an important foundation for the rise of Nazism. The revolution featured an appearance by the notorious Freikorps (Free Corps), which would produce several future Nazi leaders such as Ernst Rohm, the leader of the SA. Almost exactly 20 years to the day of the executions of the Thule society members did Gustav Schwarzenegger join the SA.
That the elder Schwarzenegger would join the SA on one of the premier occult holidays in European paganism in addition to a key date in Nazi history (especially in relation to the SA) is most curious indeed. I wanted to dwell on the Nazi history of Arnold's family for a bit as one of the frequent accusations against Conan is its subtle (and not so subtle) hints at Nazi ideology.
Accusations of Nazism and fascism have also been lobbed at the creative mastermind behind Conan, writer/director John Milius, over the years. Milius' filmography is rather interesting, to say the least. He broke into Hollywood in the early 1970s as a scribe and quickly found success after co-writing the reactionary, fascist-tinged classic Dirty Harry. He also co-wrote Harry's first sequel, 1973's Magnum Force. In 1973 Milius also made his directorial debut with Dillinger, a hard boiled take on the life and times of the legendary outlaw. Two years later he would write and direct the Sean Connery vehicle, The Wind and the Lion, which would become a kind of neo-con classic after 9/11. In certain circles the film is now considered one of the only cinematic depictions of Islamic terrorism.
|Milius on the set of Conan|
Almost ten years later (1984, to be exact), Milius would unleash his most famous directorial effort, Red Dawn. At the time of it's release Dawn became an immediate right-wing classic, with its depiction of a decaying America being conquered by the USSR on the march towards world government. While pansy-ass Europeans and East and West coast liberals submit to the Soviets with barely a shot fired several wholesome, mid-Western teenagers are able to launch a guerrilla war against the invading Soviets despite the odds of certain death. The film would become a rallying cry in Reagan's renewed Cold War efforts, and while projecting the American fear of 'going soft.'
For years afterwards Dawn was dismissed as a relic of the Cold War and the 1980s by many critics yet it has experienced massive renewed interest in recent years after being whole-heartily embraced by the right-wing side of conspiracy culture, especially the Patriot movement. In hindsight Dawn is almost a preview of the prophecies of world government put forth by legendary conspiracy theorists like William Cooper, with the Soviets serving as a stand in for UN peacekeepers who will eventually round up salt-of-the-earth type Americans and place them in internment camps while going about the establishment of a one-world, communist government. The band of teenage guerrillas who confront the Soviets foreshadow the militia movement (some may even argue Dawn helped inspire it) that would emerge in the US during the late 1980s and early 1990s to combat the coming world government. The whole Soldier-of-the-Apocalypse meme that has become so prevalent in conspiracy culture nowadays, especially amongst the right-wing faction, was given a major boost by Dawn.
For our purposes here, perhaps Milius' most compelling credit is for the screenplay to another of Recluse's all time favorite films, namely Apocalypse Now, which he co-wrote. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I've already written a lengthy blog examining the vast occult themes of this film before here. I urge all readers to take the time to check that blog out as well. I will not go to deeply into Now here, but will assure the reader that its far more than just another war movie, as it is at times perceived. In fact, the movie is a profound examination of fertility-based cults, entheogens, and human sacrifice, among other things. Like Conan, it is the kind of movie than can produce a kind of self-initiation in the alert viewer. I can't recommend it enough.
Conan is a curious merger of Dawn and Now, taking the Soldier-of-the-Apocalypse meme and right wing paranoia of Dawn and merging it with the occult initiation and social commentary of Now. But keep in mind, the later elements are very subtle, despite the film overflowing with occult symbolism. In fact, much of the overt occult symbolism in Conan plays into the Soldier-of-the-Apocalypse meme as promoted by William Cooper, Alex Jones, and the like.
The chief villain, Thulsa Doom (played by the great James Earl Jones), is so over the top initially as to be almost comical. He is a warlord and sorcerer who eventually sets up shop as a cult leader with roving hordes of hippie-like followers. Milius himself has acknowledged that Doom's cult was inspired by legendary sects such as the Thuggees (who were given mass exposure a few years later by Milius' pal Steven Spielberg in the second Indiana Jones film) and especially the Hashshasins. Like the Hashshasins, Doom's followers use a series of well-fortified, strategically placed towers to control their territory. Rather than using conventional military forces Doom's followers assassinate his powerful opponents with knives in the shape of serpent's fangs. This is almost exactly how the Hashshasins operated, right down to the use of knives for assassinations (though they were not serpent shaped).
|a Hashshashin assassin|
"The serpent was chosen as the head of the reptilian family. Serpent worship in some form has permeated nearly all parts of the earth. The serpent mounds of the American Indian; the carved-stone snakes of the Greeks; the sacred serpents of the Jews; the mystic serpent of Orpheus; the snakes at the oracle of Delphi twining themselves around the tripod upon which the Pythian priestess sat, the tripod itself being in the form of twisted serpents; the sacred serpents preserved in the Egyptian temples; the uraeus coiled upon the foreheads of the Pharaohs and priests; --all these bear witness to the universal veneration in which the snake was held...
"The initiates of the Mysteries were often referred to as serpents, and their wisdom was considered analogous to the divinely inspired power of the snake. There is no doubt that the title 'Winged Serpent' (the Seraphim?) was given to one of the invisible hierarchies that labored with the earth during its early formation."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, pgs. 272-273)
|Thulsa Doom and his oh-so Masonic symbol|
At times one almost feels like Doom's cult was inspired directly by an episode of Cooper's legendary Mystery Babylon broadcasts. Superficially Conan takes the Soldier-of-the Apocalypse meme of Red Dawn and goes into overdrive with it. Conan is the lone Aryan warrior with vague Christian overtones (the crucifixion sequence, Conan's Chi Rho-like symbol he wears around his neck, etc) pitted against a Nimrod-esque figure behind the spread of a Hashshasin/Masonic type cult bent on world domination --At times it's almost like Cooper was a technical consultant. It frankly surprises me that this film isn't far more revered in conspiracy culture.
Yet beneath the garish Mystery Babylon symbols there is a deeper occult examination taking place. We shall examine this aspect of Conan in part two of this series. Stay tuned.