My gamer buddies and I got talking one Sunday afternoon about all kinds of movies which gamers love, like the original Conan the Barbarian (1982), directed by John Milius. Each of us had watched the movie multiple times and loved it.
We agreed that such a movie would probably not get made today because of the subject matter and cinematography. That is, the movie would move to slow for an action flick, and audiences wouldn’t grasp certain subtleties throughout (like the true answer to The Riddle of Steel–sorry, it’s not what Thulsa Doom says: steel is strong but flesh is stronger.). Even when it was released the film received mixed reviews.
At which point I said: It took at least the third or fourth time before I realized that Thulsa Doom and his followers were going to immolate themselves in the final scene.
If you’ve watched the movie, this little tidbit can be easy to miss, because it happens in the aftermath of the climatic battle between Conan and his allies against Thulsa’s Doom’s forces.
That fight began with Conan’s prayer to Crom (Grant me revenge. And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!) Doom’s horsemen ride to their deaths, Conan and allies kill them with blade and arrow. One of Doom’s captains dies, impaled by wooden spike trap. Conan’s lover comes back from the dead to aid Conan at a crucial moment.
In the end, Conan is triumphant; he’s kept King Osric’s daughter from once again falling into the clutches of Thulsa Doom. The audience has achieved a certain amount of catharsis after all the bloodshed, and now we’re entering the denouement and ready for the movie to end. The only thing left is for Conan to confront and defeat Thulsa Doom once and for all.
Despite some clues, the notion of immolation can be easy to miss in the shadow of all the action we just witnessed. At the beginning of the final scene we see a ritual in progress.
Every one holds a candle. No big deal, right? Lots of real-world religions use candles. Of course, if Thulsa Doom is holding a sermon by candlelight, any rational person should suspect something terrible is amiss. But we’ve already seen Doom’s powers of mind control earlier in the movie, so rationality is pretty much out the window.
The most overt clue is Doom’s sermon itself (which is another example of example of fire as water for cleansing).
Thulsa Doom: Purging is at last at hand. Day of Doom is here. All that is evil, all their allies; your parents, your leaders, those who would call themselves your judges; those who have lied and corrupted the Earth, they shall all be cleansed.
You, my children, are the water that will wash away all that has gone before. In your hand, you hold my light, the gleam in the eye of Set. This flame will burn away the darkness, burn you the way to paradise!
To immolate means to sacrifice, often by fire, but not always. Self-immolation by fire seems to be the most popular definition of the term (if not the most spectacular).
Meanwhile, as Thulsa Doom orates, Conan sneaks into the temple. He disrupts the ceremony. Doom tries to use his powers of speech to dissuade Conan from killing him. Conan, however, cuts off Thulsa Doom’s head and tosses it down the temple stairs
(thop, thop, thop…)
Afterward, Doom’s followers, upon discovering their leader was a mere mortal, extinguish their candles and presumably move on with their lives.
What if… and this is a completely hypothetical what if…
Conan had arrived fifteen minutes later?
What would he have seen? People, hundreds of them, on fire wailing and gnashing their teeth? Thulsa Doom on fire, committing suicide along with this followers? Or was this another feat of magic to propel him into further realms of power? Or would have been a deception? Conan discovers hundreds of charred bodies, thinking Doom was dead, but Doom had escaped to form another cult in another land.
It’s hard to a say, as what could have happened is left in the mind of the viewer to surmise. That aspect of the story is told, at least in part, in the negative space.
That is, nobody in the film says: Conan! They’re going to set themselves on fire! If anybody would say this it would be Subotai, the Hyrkanian Archer and Conan’s sidekick, but he was wounded in the climatic fight and wasn’t there.
Furthermore, nobody in the film answers the Riddle of Steel either, and this is the best example of the use of negative space in the story. Conan’s father sets the groundwork, Thulsa takes it a step further but ultimately gets it wrong. Conan figures it out but keeps his mouth shut, but we know he knows because he doesn’t end up as a thrall of Thulsa Doom.
So what is The Riddle of Steel?
I’m not going to tell you. If I tell you, it would spoil the impact and you won’t learn anything and I’ve given away enough hints.
Watch the movie again to find out.