Conan, Ubermensch [UPDATED]

Since we seem to love talking about 30 year old pop culture around here, I’ll share my theory about Conan the Barbarian (the movie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) being John Milius’s attempt to show what a Nietzschean ubermensch would really look like.  Never say I don’t give the people what they want!

[Disclaimers: I’m not a philosopher; I don’t even have a BA in the Philosophy of Language from the University of Chicago.  I know what I know only from fairly broad but unsystematic reading; my opinions don’t reflect those of the management, yadda yadda yadda.  So we’ll do this Jon Stewart style: If you agree with me, I’m serious; if you don’t, I’m kidding.  Don’t plagiarize this for your term papers, in other words].

Here’s the famous opener.  So far as I know, Conan is the only mainstream movie to open with an epigraph:


Nowadays, this is the kind of thing pimply teenage boys post on Facebook when their crush won’t return their text messages, but back then if moviegoers had ever heard of Nietzsche, it was probably something along the lines of “that weird kinda-Nazi guy” (for the benefit of younger readers: There was a time when the average American knew that “Nazi” was a real movement with actual beliefs, and kinda sorta knew what they were.  Calling Nietzsche a Nazi was an attempt to say something about his philosophy, not an outburst of virtue Tourette’s).  The pop caricature of his philosophy — that is, what “everybody knows” about Nietzsche — runs something like this:

God is dead, and that’s good, because Christianity was always a scam to help weak people stab strong people in the back (“slave morality”).  The strong make their own rules in life (“ubermensch”), and that’s the only way to live — without God, there’s no morality but what we make (“beyond good and evil”), and everything is ultimately meaningless (“nihilism”), so grab life by the neck and choke that bitch out!  Everyone else is, whether they’re strong enough to admit it to themselves or not (the “will to power”).

Most of that is wrong, and that’s what Milius is trying to show us.

Take the epigraph.  It’s tough, manly, bombastic, classic Nietzsche… and totally false.  There are lots of things that don’t kill us which leave us permanently weaker: Malaria, diabetes, minor strokes.  The quote only makes sense in the context of Nietzsche’s idiosyncratic definition of “health:” The amount of disease an organism can withstand.*  The man who survives a heart attack is thus “stronger” than the man who dies from one, but that’s not what most of us consider “strength.”  Nietzsche’s point — his “existentialism,” if you must — is that viewing things from the standpoint of an individual human life is pretty pointless.

Speaking of pointless, here’s the Wheel of Pain:


The symbolism just knocks you in the head, doesn’t it?  Existentialism and nihilism are always lumped together because they seem to entail each other: If man is the measure of all things like Protagoras said, then there’s no point to anything, because even the “best” use of your threescore-and-ten will be forgotten in a few years… and even if it isn’t, well, you won’t be around to benefit, will you?  This attitude inevitably leads to hedonism….

… except that it doesn’t.  The practical, real-life consequence of existentialism/nihilism isn’t bohemian decadence, it’s Communism.  The old saw goes “if you believe in nothing, you’ll fall for anything,” but that’s not true.  Look around: people who make a big production about believing in nothing always — always — end up going for the biggest, most all-consuming version of collectivism they can find.  Have you ever met an atheist who didn’t tell you he’s an atheist within five minutes of meeting him?  Atheists make being-an-atheist their sole purpose in life; their whole identities revolve around it.  They’re not heroic individualists; they’re the most boring, conformist people on the planet.

Ditto Communists.  Even though the whole point of their philosophy is temporarily alleviating the material suffering of short-lived hairless apes, and despite the fact their philosophy promises the Revolution is inevitable anyway, they have a “Party line” on everything, right down to the “correct” fraternal Socialist haircut.  Their lives are regimented down to the smallest detail — it’s the only way to (temporarily) escape the horror of their philosophy’s obvious conclusion.

John Milius — who wrote Dirty Harry and directed Red Dawn — was a commie-basher from way back.

Shortly after the Wheel of Pain is the most famous scene in the movie:

main-qimg-4a4488c4e08efab303543abedd74cf1aI tried (and failed) to find a well-lit wide-angle shot of this, because the context is extremely important.  Remember Nietzsche’s bit about “slave morality?”  That collar around Conan’s neck is attached to a chain.  He is literally a slave when he says his famous lines.  Everyone thinks “crush your enemies!” is Conan’s real motto.  It’s not.  He’s telling his masters what they want to hear.  Crushing your enemies is, of course, as self-defeating a philosophy as existentialism.  “Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

Conan has two objectives: Avenge his people, and find the answer to the Riddle of Steel.  The first is mundane, the second, otherworldly.  Unlike his slavemasters, the Mongols (or whatever their name was in the movie), killing Thulsa Doom won’t be an existential crisis for Conan, because he still has the Riddle of Steel to keep him going.  That sets up the pivotal scene in the movie, where he seems to fail horrendously at both objectives at once:


This is the least subtle image in the history of cinema, but nobody seems to get it.  This isn’t an Odin-esque self-sacrifice for ultimate knowledge.  This is a fuck up, tout court — Conan tried to kill Thulsa Doom, failed, and got tied to the Tree of Woe for it.  It’s actually worse than that — it’s a spiritual death, too, because before Thulsa had him crucified, he simply told Conan the answer to the Riddle of Steel.  He knows the answer, but Crom is still going to toss him out of Valhalla and laugh at him, because he didn’t discover it himself.  It’s the most shameful possible death….

…and he comes back from it.  And stays in the world.  And does this:


Remember, Thulsa Doom is a cult leader.  To his followers, he is literally a god.  And now god is dead.  Get it?  Imagine if the Gospels all ended with the resurrected Christ going samurai on Pontius Pilate’s ass, kicking Pilate’s head down the stairs, and walking away.  It’d be a cool movie scene, but the only thing that has made life worth living for countless people for two thousand years would be rendered meaningless in a second…

…which is why the full Nietzsche quote, which nobody has ever heard, is this:

“Where has God gone?” [the madman] cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is against nihilism.  The ubermensch, the man who knows that all previous morality is at best a partial truth (“mere foreground perspectives,” he says), is impossible — a literal secular saint.  We don’t see what Conan did after walking down from the ziggurat, because the answer is: Nothing.  He didn’t do anything.  He couldn’t.  His life is utterly meaningless now, and he knows it, in the way a true “ubermensch” must know it.  Such meaning as there is in life is in the struggle, the agon  — remember, Nietzsche was an expert on pre-Socratic Greece — and now the struggle is over.

Here’s the movie’s final scene, of Conan in kingly regalia.  Doesn’t it look rather…. hellish?



UPDATE (2/8/18): A different view, from John C. Wright (courtesy e-migo Nate Winchester).  He’s an award-winning fantasy author, so I’d go with his take.


*This seems to be Miguel de Unamuno’s view as well.  The Tragic Sense of Life!  If you wonder what a Roman Catholic Nietzsche would sound like, there you go.


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10 thoughts on “Conan, Ubermensch [UPDATED]

  1. Nate Winchester

    This should be interesting as you’re stepping into a lot of Jordan B. Peterson’s wheelhouse here.

    Actually it was through him I learned of that full Nietzsche quote was from him. When i read it I couldn’t help but think it sounded much like Peter’s sermon from Acts 2. The difference is Nietzsche says “God remains dead” while Peter says “God is alive again.” But that’s a theological discussion for another time…

    The practical, real-life consequence of existentialism/nihilism isn’t bohemian decadence, it’s Communism. The old saw goes “if you believe in nothing, you’ll fall for anything,” but that’s not true. Look around: people who make a big production about believing in nothing always — always — end up going for the biggest, most all-consuming version of collectivism they can find.

    CS Lewis agreed with you way back when:

    “To the Materialist things like nations, classes, civilizations must be more important than individuals, because the individuals live only seventy odd years each and the group may last for centuries. But to the Christian, individuals are more important, for they live eternally; and races, civilizations and the like, are in comparison the creatures of a day.”

    1. Severian

      CS Lewis saw the consequences of nihilism firsthand. He was in the trenches (where the Kaiser’s soldiers supposedly carried copies of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in their kits). Look at any art from 1913, then check what the same guy was producing in 1919. It’s like he was replaced by a Martian. Lewis lived through it in a way we just fathom (yet).

  2. Al from da Nort

    Wow; What a Toure de Force. While a fan of ‘sward and sandal’ epics on late night TV in the early ’60s, drinking beer in the basement with my buddies, I never saw Conan. That’s probably because I took it for yet another one and I had ‘put away childish things’ by the time it came out.

    I had no idea that the movie had any depth to it at all. May need to see it in all it’s faux iron age pagan splendor.

    Your exposition of Nietzsche is most excellent as well. His welter of foolish words about God always put me off. After all, if we could kill Him, He’s no kind of god. But if He is God of the Universe, a *lot* more respect would be in order from Mr. Nietzsche (and us). Q: I know Mr. N. ended up mad. Was he mad to begin with or did trying to reject God yet hold away the nihilism that naturally follows from this make him mad_?

  3. John T Sanford

    I, unfortunately, can only agree with you partially. Your assessment of Conan, “The Movie” is certainly defensible.


    One hasn’t read the books previous to seeing the movie. One of the shocking things about Conan the literary character, especially when seen in contrast to the “modern Hero’s Journey”, is how very pedestrian most of his adventures were. Not pedestrian in the sense of “ooh, will he make his appointment on time, or is the traffic too heavy for that?” No, pedestrian in the sense that rarely did anything weighty hinge upon the outcome. His survival, the survival of some fair maiden and/or his compadres, that’s about it most times. The survival of the WORLD or THE GALAXY? He didn’t reach anything consequential until later on, the survival of Aquilonia, but by then he was THE KING. He wasn’t some podunk farmer who needs the snot wiped, yet upon whose shoulders rests the fate of the galaxy. Conan the King was a very experienced fellow, light years away from the modern whippersnappers/rubes on their “Hero’s Journey”. Now, part of this is simply the form that Howard was writing in, short story pulp fiction. The “Hero’s Journey” isn’t really a major thing in pulp fiction, and short stories make it even less of a thing. So “ending Conan’s Hero’s Journey” isn’t even a thing, because Conan isn’t ON a Hero’s Journey, at least not as Howard wrote him.

    Conan The Barbarian (“the movie”) has the same tenuous relationship to it’s source material as does Starship Troopers (“the movie”) to it’s source material. In both cases, the moviemakers are injecting themes of their own. For me, at least, it is hard to isolate the movie to make the assessment you’ve made.

    1. Nate Winchester

      I notice that seems to be a fairly constant difference in opinion on the movie – between those who read or didn’t read the books.

      1. Severian

        I can only comment on the movie, as I’ve read very little of the source material.

        As far as the movie goes, I was being a little tongue-in-cheek — I don’t think Milius and Schwarzenegger sat down and planned to make the script “Nietzsche for Dummies.” I think Milius WAS heavily influenced by Nietzsche — the epigraph wasn’t (just) pretentious; it was integral to the movie.

        If Milius or Arnold want to stop by and correct the record, that would be cool. All I know is, if I were teaching Existentialism in a Modern Europe or Western Civ course, there would be worse ways to do it than by showing Conan.

  4. al from da Nort

    Re the excellent John C Wright update; So the movie is sort of an unwitting Hollywood rewrite of The Book of Ecclesiastes_?

    Who Knew_? 😉

  5. ErisGuy

    Imagine if the Gospels all ended with the resurrected Christ going samurai on Pontius Pilate’s ass, kicking Pilate’s head down the stairs, and walking away.

    “The Last Starship from Earth” by John Boyd. Christ lead a conquering army, leading to a modern-day tyranny, that the hero has to fix by….

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