Fantasy Films 101.04 Two More From 1982


A barbarian warrior watches his village get wiped out by an evil horde. Years later, having gained strength, power and cunning through thievery and hard work, he returns to enact his vengeance. One basic plotline, two great movies, both classics in their own right. This week: Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster.

The fact that Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster have very similar plotlines should not be taken to mean that they are less important for the similarity. Quite the opposite. The heroes in these films are archetypes, seemingly leaping straight out of Joseph Campbell's mind and onto the silver screen. Of course, die-hard fans will probably argue that Conan was the superior film, a supposition based mainly on the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger's career soared after is (while Marc Singer's never quite got started).

I won't get into that argument here. What I will point out is that although these films share many similar features, the way in which their plots develop is a perfect example of how you can borrow from fantasy films for your own campaigns time and again without running the risk of making things stale. Even if you restrict your plot development to "must involve barbarian heroes", there's still a rich tapestry to weave here.

The Beastmaster starts off slow, with a bit of backstory about how our hero Dar is prophesied to kill King Zed's high priest, Maax (played by, believe it or not, Rip Torn). Hoping to nip the prophecy in the bud, Maax sends a witch-woman to steal the unborn baby Dar, brand him with the sign of Ar and sacrifice him. Luckily, a traveling villager rescues Dar with some sort of folding bladed boomerang/shango-thing, and raises him as his own. One day in the woods, Dar and his new daddy are attacked by a large man in a silly bear suit, and Dar discovers his ability to talk to animals. Luckily for us, the rest of the animals he can talk to are real animals, or this would be a really silly movie.

As fate would have it, a few years later, Maax and the barbarian Jun Horde raze Dar's village, killing everyone except Dar (who is saved by his dog Koto). Of course, Dar has to seek revenge, so he sets out on his epic journey, gathering companions along the way, both human and animal alike. The humans include the monk Seth (John Amos); Tal, the heir to the throne (at least, not counting his brother Dar); and the sexy thief Kiri (Tanya Roberts), who Dar falls in love with even AFTER he knows she's his cousin. Skywalkers, eat your hearts out. The animal companions are definitely more interesting, and include the cute little kleptomaniac ferrets named Koto and Poto, a hawk and a black panther (though some will argue it's really a tiger), both with unpronounceable names.

From there on in it's a whirlwind of naked slave girls, swordfights, cannibal bird-people-things, berserkers with green slime and leeches in their leather-masked heads, pyramids, child sacrifice, vengeance and your typical good-overcomes-evil outcome. OK, it's a bit sad when Koto dies (just like his namesake), but come on - what better way to kill a bad guy than with a ferret jumping on him?

I could go on and on about this great flick, but my purpose here is to cover two films with similar storylines, so let's move on to what some will argue was the pinnacle of fantasy film fiction - Conan the Barbarian, directed by Mr. Phantasm himself, Don Coscarelli. Great direction, stunning cinematography and an amazing film score more than make up for the thin plotline and wooden acting by Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After his family is killed in a raid by an evil sorcerer named Thulsa Doom, the Barbarian-to-be is sent to a slave camp where he works in some sort of gerbil wheel, building up his muscles. Years later, given his freedom by some Viking guys, he immediately begins to track down Doom, now the head of a strange snake cult of some sort.

On his journey, Conan meets up with an assortment of companions, including the thieves Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) and the Wizard (Mako). The plot drifts a bit from the whole vengeance thing, but to good effect, as the thieves steal a giant jewel, become filthy rich, and are called upon by King Osric (Max Von Sydow, best known as Father Merrin in The Exorcist) to rescue his daughter from the evil snake cult of Thulsa Doom. Conan goes it alone, gets caught, and dies. The end.

Well, OK, not quite. Using some impressive magic (markers?), Mako and the thieves manage to bring Conan back to life, after which they head back to Thulsa Doom's headquarters to wreak bloody vengeance and rescue the king's daughter from the midst of an orgy. They succeed, but not without Valeria taking a poison arrow in the back, a heretical prayer to Crom ("If you do not listen, then to hell with you."), and a face-off against Thulsa's forces in an extremely gory battle amidst some ruins.

So which is the better film? Let's compare:

Good guy - Marc Singer versus Arnold Schwarzenegger - Conan wins.

Bad guy - Rip Torn vs Darth Vader - Duh. Conan wins hands down.

Companions - Two ferrets, a tiger, a hawk, a monk, a snotty kid and a sexy thief versus two thieves and a wizard - Beastmaster wins, even if she is his cousin.

Naked chicks - Two naked slave girls versus an orgy scene - Conan wins.

Sequels - Beastmaster II and Beastmaster III versus Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja - Conan wins. (And don't try to tell me Red Sonja wasn't a sequel. It was.)

Conan takes it, 4 to 1. But of course, we're not here to compare these two films; we're here to see how we can use their similar plots in your own gaming sessions. Let's look at the key elements:

  • A young hero. In both cases here, he's a barbarian destined to become king, his family killed off by...
  • A wicked evil bad guy. When it comes to the magic-hating barbarians, the best baddies are those who love magic, so both Beastmaster's high priest and Conan's snake-morphing Sorcerer work great here.
  • A motley band of companions. They needn't be human, but they should round out the skills that the barbarian hero does not possess. Namely, stealth (ferrets and thieves), superhuman capability (flying hawk and bird-people, strange wizard guy) and sexy legs.
  • Vengeance. Both of our heroes have had their entire families slaughtered before their very eyes, and their entire purpose in life is to kill the man responsible for that.
  • Unbeatable Odds. A small band of thieves and rogues led by a young man of modest upbringing (but possessing a noble destiny) will always manage to defeat the numerically superior army of evil headed by the magic-wielding, dark-robed magic-user. How? By firing his torpedo into the ventilation chute and blowing up the Death Star. Or through cunning and cooperation. One of those two.
  • Final showdown. It all comes down to this: a circle of stone or fire, good guys within, bad guys without. A classic archetypical way to end a story, lifted from earlier movies such as Kurosawa's classic The Seven Samurai and from legends of magical circles that go way back in time.

Dropping this sort of a plotline into your campaign is easy if the noble barbarian hero seeking vengeance is an non-player character who just happens to run into the PC's. However, if you're all willing to work it into their background, one of the players can always be the young barbaric dude seeking revenge, the other players his fellow companions. Things to remember:

  • People have to die to win the final battle. Whether it's a dog, a ferret or a sexy thief chick, not everyone is going to make it through the final battle. Not only is this more realistic, but it makes for high drama around the kitchen table.
  • Powerful magical forces are at work. The players themselves may not have a good grasp of what's going on around them, or where they fit into the bigger picture, but gods, demons and mighty wizards are always at work behind the scenes, and when the PC's pull back that curtain, it's not going to be the friendly Mr. Wizard of Oz back there.
  • Barbarians and wastelands go together. There's something about a bare-chested warrior and a desert landscape that just feels right. Sure, you could force this sort of story into a mountainous area or a dense forest, but it just wouldn't work the same. The swooshing, sweeping sword battles, the getaways on horseback, kicking up clouds of dust, the final battle in the middle of nowhere... it all just screams "desert".

Next time we'll move on in time to the year 1983, which saw not only the premiere of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon (which would enjoy a 2-year run at the top of the ratings), but the classic Krull. And here's some trivia for you, to tell the real genre fans from the posers: name the actor or actress in Krull who also had a role in a Star Trek TV series.

Just realized re-reading this that I didn't make the "Darth Vader" reference absolutely clear. The evil bad guy in Conan the Barbarian is, indeed, played by none other than James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader.

Ken Marshall, Lt. Comander Michael Eddington on Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Also, I think Liam Neeson played one of the thieves, and he was in Star Wars (tho he died).

Ah contraire, mon frere. Conan wasn't directed by Mr. Phantasm. It was John Milius, director of Wind & the Lion, Flight of the Intruder & Red Dawn. He also co-wrote Apocalypse Now w/Francis Ford Copolla, and Conan w/Oliver Stone (!).

I guess that explains all the father-figure-redemption blood n' guts posturing in Conan. The naked women were pure Dino De Laurentis, IMHO...

I think Conan is a better movie (but a pretty flawed one, cause I'm snooty). On the other hand, at least Koto & Podo had better diction that most of the cast of Conan.

You're right, of course. It's a silly transpositional error; I'm amazed it went this far without being caught. Don Coscarelli, of course, wrote and directed Beastmaster, also discussed here. Dino De Laurentis, of course, Executive Produced Conan.