"Kull the Conqueror": A Review
[Originally appeared in my fanzine "The Quill is Mightier than the Sword" for S.S.W.F.T. Mailing Four. It has been slightly revised for its inclusion here. ]
"Kull the Conqueror" was a flop, according to the film industry, critics and fans. However, as a sword and sorcery movie, it had all the elements required of it and could be considered much better than the horde of movies that the genre gave birth to through the late 70's, 80's and early 90's. Was its downfall a direct result of the machinations (script, actors, etc) or was it doomed because of its genre, one that has spawned little, if any, noteworthy productions since the 1970's? I will embark on writing something many would never thought would be done, and stand up for the movie. Not as an adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Kull series, but for it being an acceptable sword and sorcery movie. I agree, much could of been done to perfect this movie , yet what I am examining is whether the movie had a chance because of its genre and spotlight the positive elements within the movie that those admirers of "Kull the Conqueror" draw from and consider it worth more than the atrocity it has been labelled.
Instead of studying the script, I will study those factors that contribute in understanding the film as a modern day sword and sorcery flick, such as the actors (most notably Kevin Sorbo) and as his work on "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys", which I believe, was a source of strength for this movie as well as examining the exact influences from R. E. Howard's writings actually had on the movie.
For R.E.H purists (like myself), this movie was a disgrace. Granted. But it is something that most expected in all honesty. From the beginning, this movie was drawing its source off the genre of sword and sorcery, a genre created by Robert E. Howard (and titled by Fritz Leiber) but one that had never successfully made an impression on the big screen. That, and it was to be a movie which focused (pro-screen writer Chris Pogue's involvement) on appealing those who enjoy their stories of mythical kingdoms, bad sorcerers, good warriors and a pinch of muscles and T & A. A fanboy's dream and a children's type movie. Not one for a purist or for the student of fantasy at heart. The way to look at this movie is not through the eyes of a R. E. Howard fan (like many did with "Conan the Barbarian") but as a general sword and sorcery film.
Based off those Robert E. Howard adapted characters stories in the past (e.g. "Conan the Barbarian", "Conan the Conqueror", "Pigeons from Hell", etc) did "Kull the Conqueror", in fact, have any chance in living up to the realism and originality depicted in the stories by Howard? Does any movie? I think not. Once this unachievable (for now) obstacle had been overcome, viewers had to look for whether the story was entertaining and at the most, echoed something from Howard's writings. This, it did achieve in to some degree, I believe.
Let us look of "Kull's" knowledge in the public's eyes. Conan has become a household name, regardless of who created him (to R.E.H fans dismay), but Kull is not that hugely known at all, I am to believe. Often referred to ".that other Barbarian", or ".living in Conan the Barbarian's shadow" he in fact was created well before Conan. Yet outside of his publication by Lancer, Sphere, Baen, Donald M. Grant and Bantam he has only appeared ever briefly in an unsuccessful series of comic books through Marvel Comics Group. Otherwise, Kull is a character you would have only heard of if you read beyond Howard's Conan. Sad but true.
When Kull was to be released, they were expecting one thing for it to be acknowledged by the viewing public. It's main star. One, whose face and reputation was known world-wide. For they found it in Hercules'. Or more to the point, Kevin Sorbo's, star of televisions "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys". His face was well known in over a hundred countries as being Hercules (a smash hit syndicate show at its peak) and he had a reputation (and adopted the role) of being one whom dealt well with the element of fantasy in his acting career. Along side him was the beautiful Tia Carrere (who would later adopt the star role as "Relic Hunter" a surprisingly popular show which is into it third season as we speak) and a cast of relatively well known actors. All was well.
Let us start on "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" as a source of hope and inspiration for the film. For those who had watched it more than once (and labelled it a "poor" show), would have soon realised that amongst its strong comical themes, lay several brilliant story lines within. The first three seasons of Hercules, did in fact, strive to achieve in producing tales that were very much in the Mythological and Ancient Greek vein and did so, rather well. Casting away want one might think of the set layout, costumes, acting and occasional one-liners, the stories themselves, were rather good and just as good as what is has been produced on other cult shows. I'm not saying every singles episode was ‘gold', but they were just as acceptable as other stories of the fantasy vein that had been produced at the time (or before hand, for that matter) and some where down right fantastical adventures.
Although there was not really any episodes that were like "Kull the Conqueror" (as in, story wise), I would like to point out a particular ternary of episodes that in my opinion, were some (if not the) best the writing team of Hercules had to offer and most importantly, the best acting Sorbo accomplished on the series to date. Yes folks, Sorbo can act despite what you may believe. I am talking about what has been affectionately titled by the fans as the "The ‘Hind' Trilogy" (one of the most talked about triad of episodes amongst fans), which entitles of the following episodes: "Encounter", "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "Judgement Day". I can not truly write down the whole plot of three episodes in a paragraph or two, so please take the time to go to the following links and read about them:
http://whoosh.org/epguide/herk/h313_50_encounter.html#syn, http://whoosh.org/epguide/herk/h314_51_when.html#syn and http://whoosh.org/epguide/herk/h315_52_judgement.html#syn (in that order).
I am bringing this to your attention, because these episodes showcase Sorbo's talent in dealing with emotions the character can portray in the face of any events. Hatred, Love, Fear, Sorrow and Vengeance. When you watch these episodes, you can feel the character touch you. You feel what he is feeling. If you have the chance to watch these, do so. I don't believe Sorbo acted well all the way throughout "Kull", but you could see some of it, in the scenes of the movie that took place within the caverns of the "The Isle of Ice"(around the time Zareta, Ascalante and Kull enter by themselves to when Kull curses the statue of Valka). I do hope you will take the time to check your local stations to see if they will be repeating these particular episodes, because if you don't feel a thing or see Sorbo perform well when (as Hercules), he has to tell his first wife Deianeira that he has fallen in love again and must receive her permission to marry Serena (travelling to the Elysian fields to do so), or when Hercules gives up his Godhood for true love and stating "It wouldn't stop me from helping people. You can't take my heart", or when Hercules wakes up and realises he has killed his wife Serena (via the curse of intervening Gods) cradling her lifeless body and saying something like "Uh -- a pillow. I, uh-- I need a pillow. She's-- she's uncomfortable" with tears running down his eyes and last but not least (of many brilliant scenes), the final scene were it is just Hercules and Iolaus; "Look -- it isn't much-- consolation, but-- at least you know you didn't kill Serena" With Hercules replying "I did kill her. If I hadn't fallen in love and married her, she'd be alive today", I truly don't know what will.
In an interview conducted by Renne Witterstaetter (sp?) on the Hercules set in Auckland, N. Z. July 1997, Sorbo comments on "Kull" as states he is a "believable character" and when asked the question "Kull was a comic book character too. Did you see those from Marvel?" Sorbo responds, "Sure. I have all of them. I read the books too. I did all the research-learning as much as I could about the character before I did it. We realized early on the story was just not going to be what the production team wanted it to be. In the present format, I know it's going to make the die-hard people of those comic books and the books of Kull upset because we don't stay true to what Kull probably really is. This shows that Sorbo did read the original R.E.H "Kull" stories and did his research. He didn't just walk in and do his thing. He wanted to know what made this character. Makes you think if Schwarzenegger read any Conan. If he did, he probably read the deCamped atrocities. However, Sorbo's interest in "Kull" stops at the stories, as he seems to have no real appreciation (or should I say understanding) of R.E.H or his life for that matter; ".the guy did blow his brains out after he finished Kull. Let's just say he had issues to deal with".
There are, some references to Robert E. Howard's writings within the film. As there should be! First, there is the name usage of characters and places found within Howard's Kull stories. Kull, Valusia, Atlantis, Acheron and so on. This is an obvious, but there have also been additions by the scriptwriters' imaginations that have been made strictly for the movie. There is then the ideas borrowed from the Conan tale "Hour of the Dragon". It is here that we see that the concept of resurrecting a long dead sorcerer of Acheron, as well as the barbarian reuniting with his old pirate companions. These events that occurred in "HotD" and have been rewritten into the Kull movie with Akivasha (as the long dead sorcerer resurrected) and the meeting with Juba and Co. (reuniting with his old pirate companions). Lastly, there is the classic and pure one-line written by R. E. Howard himself, "By This Axe Rule!" which occurs at the very end of the film. Having broken the ancient stone tablets, which had been carved with the laws of the old, Kull declares the birth of a New Kingdom under his rule and by his ways. It is true that there is not many, but once the bridge is crossed in realising that the transition between book and movie will never be near the same, then the sooner we can become appreciative of what has been offered to the fans and audience alike.
There were also some very good moments in "Kull the Conqueror", which deserve recognition. I have made note of two particular scenes and commented on the them:
In all honesty, "Kull the Conqueror" is much better than Roy Thomas' creation "Red Sonya" movie (to be more clearer, a pastiche of Howard's mythical world Hyboria) and "Conan the Conqueror". Though all may not be strictly Howard in nature, they are Howardian in nature. That last sentence may be challenged, as some would go as far to say that "The 13th Warrior" is more Howardian. It's all depends on how you look at it really.
Fans have prophesised that with the arrival of "The Lord of the Rings" onto the big screen, that a boom in greater fantasy movies will prevail. Talk has mounted as to whether a "Conan 3/King Conan" should be initiated and that a "Solomon Kane" movie is just around the corner. Perhaps this is the right time. The 80's produced a horde of memorable and unmemorable movies and in the 90's scriptwriters and directors strive to produce better movies, one that will able to stand as being memorable pieces. It is hoped that "TLotR" can do what it did to the reading public, for the viewing public. Make it a masterpiece. The "X-Men" movie was so popular and such a hit with the fans, that it has opened the doorway to producing more comic-to-movie projects. So logically, if a fantasy movie like "The Lord of the Rings" can makes its impact with fans, then surely this will start greater films of the fantasy genre to come into fruitation. Those new fans that visit "Middle-Earth" on the big screen and in the books, will surely wish to visit other mythical kingdoms. This will be the perfect time for them to visit Howard's Hyboria and newer created worlds like Leiber's Lankhmar, Moorcock's Young Kingdoms and even Jordan's World of the Wheel.
As I stated, "Kull the Conqueror" could have been a lot better. Perhaps it could have been a lot worse. Pogue's first script was magnificent and if it had been stuck too, "Kull the Conqueror" may have been a great success for the general public and REH fans abroad. When push comes to shove, I am with Pogue on the whole situation as to how "Kull" was improperly handled. He was right, they were wrong. His script was art, there's was not. But as it stands, as a movie unfaithful to Howard but merely continuing the tradition of sword and sorcery flick for days long gone, it wasn't half bad and is worth the trip to the video store.