A fascinating look at a sub-culture that few knew existed, the (fanatic) fandom of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan (called ‘the Cimmerian’, ‘the Barbarian’, and ‘the Destroyer’.) With their amazing enthusiasm they have gone way beyond just being a club of fantasy fans. Director Damian Horan attends an annual fan gathering in Cross Plains, Texas, there to explore and share the world of Howard. Horan’s camera captures four of the major fans to capture their histories, their attitudes, and their enthusiasm.
Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10.
To start with, you have to know who this fellow Robert E. Howard was, though if you don’t know, you probably will not have a great interest in the film ‘Barbarian Days’. Howard was a writer for pulp magazines in the 1930s. He wrote fantastic stories with muscular heroes who frequently decorate their lives with underdressed women and who face witchcraft, black magic and monsters of the supernatural. He is a little less known for the Westerns and boxing stories, but they too have their fans.
Howard created several continuing characters such as Red Sonya, Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane. But by far his best-known character is the mighty Conan, now the subject of three movies, several comic books, etc. Conan stories usually involve the hero fighting giants and sorcerers over-equipped with deadly cutlery and women under-equipped with clothing. In fact, his stories are just the sorts of thing to entice a fourteen year-old boy to read. The stories fit in a genre known as sword and sorcery, actually invented by Howard but now a standard breed of fantasy. Many of the great fantasy writers have written sword and sorcery, inspired by Howard. Bluntly put, Howard was not a great writer, at least no more than was Lewis Carroll or L. Frank Baum. But fans of Howard want their stories with all the flaws. When the books were republished in the 1960s another great fantasy author, L. Sprague DeCamp, rewrote the stories in what he considered better form. To the best of my knowledge, Robert E. Howard fandom contains the only mass of fantasy fans who detest DeCamp.
Howard lived and wrote in what was then a sleepy wisp of a town in central Texas, Cross Plains. Though few in Cross Plains would say they have a strong affection for Howard’s brand of writing, Cross Plains has adopted Howard, dead since 1936, as its most famous and favourite son.
There are multiple organisations of people celebrating Howard’s writing, most notably the Robert E. Howard Foundation. There is Howard Days, an annual pilgrimage to Cross Plains to compare notes, listen to presentations about Howard and his writing and to celebrate the stories that came from Howard’s typewriter. The meetings, as shown in the film, are held in Butler Park next door to the tiny Robert E. Howard house where Howard lived and wrote. Ironically, the park was built on the lot of the Butler house where Howard’s neighbor lived and complained about Howard’s noisy vocalisations of his stories as he wrote. Now there is a lot of discussion about Howard’s stories just where the Butler family was bothered by them.
The Robert E. Howard Foundation publishes an APA – an amateur press association magazine for which the price is invited contributions to the magazine. Its name is RHUPA: The Robert E. Howard United Press Association.
Director Damian Horan captures the festivities and focuses on four fans at the top of the pile. One is Rusty Burke, sort of the elder statesman of the Robert E. Howard Foundation. He is working on a definitive biography of Howard. Will it eclipse the biography by another attendee Mark Finn? Nobody knows for sure. We also meet Finn. A third fan is Bill ‘Indy’ Cavalier who wrangles together RHUPA. The fourth major fan is Chris Gruber whose area of specialisation is Howard’s boxing stories. For him, the attraction of Conan is that the barbarian carves his own fate. He need not make any effort to fit in. Conan just is what he is, and what he is is the meanest, toughest dude around. That has to be the basis of Conan’s popularity. These people we meet are the biggest fans and scholars of Robert E. Howard and his writing.
In the film ‘The Whole Wide World’ (a dramatisation of a chapter in Howard’s life), his girlfriend, Novalyne Price, tries to convince the young writer Howard that he should be doing realistic portraits of the world he sees around him, not the fantasy stuff. That came to mind as one Cross Plains attendee said that in school he refused to read. He was just not interested in reading. The teacher cajoled him into agree to read one book. She gave him a Conan book. In ten pages, he was hooked and had been a reader ever since. Take that, Novalyne Price.
‘Barbarian Days’ is a roughly hewn film and Damian Horan’s first feature. But the subject sells itself. Whether you are a Howard fan or not there is some fascination with the earnestness and enthusiasm of these devotees and what they have turned their reading preference into. It is something just short of a religion. I rate ‘Barbarian Days’ a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [You can better appreciate the film if you first see ‘The Whole Wide World’ and/or visit the Howard home in Cross Plains.]
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper