What makes a good protagonist character? I was once given advice by a good friend about one of my characters who I created to be a warrior savant. During one scene the character meets his match, but refuses to give up. My friend told me he felt this was the most relatable the character ever was. Not his brilliance as a combatant, but when he refused to give up despite the long odds. With that advice in mind I completely changed the character to embody those traits rather than his previous traits of being a natural genius. I still believe a character that has to face hardship to gain ability makes for a better hero and we return to the two Conan films to see how this trend has changed over the years.
Conan the Barbarian (1982) – The Wheel of Pain: Becoming Great
As I said in my previous post, the Schwarzenegger Conan is sold into slavery after his village is burned and his people killed. In a dramatic montage we see him and dozens of other boys herded into a desert where they push a monstrous device the filmmakers dubbed “the wheel of pain.” During the scene we see young Conan with many other slaves pushing the wheel. Then adolescent Conan with fewer slaves pushing it. Then adult Conan, now as Arnold, pushing it alone. Conan is insinuated to have pushed the device for perhaps a decade and a half, some of that time alone; only the strength of his will keeping him alive and making him stronger. Because of the strength he has gained, his rather benevolent slave master takes him to a fighting pit where he is instantly in over his head as a more experienced fighter rushes him, wounds him, and nearly kills him. Again, Conan’s strength of will, along with the physical strength he gained pushing that wheel, overcomes the opposition and he defeats his opponent. We then see another montage as Conan improves in the fighting arena. Mako’s narration provides his impetus:
He did not care anymore. Life and death – the same. Only that the crowd would be there to greet him with howls of lust and fury. He began to realize his sense of worth. He mattered. In time, his victories could not easily be counted. He was taken to the east, a great prize, where the war masters would teach him the deepest secrets. Language and writing were also made available, the poetry of Kitai, the philosophy of Sung…
Here we see him improving himself, fighting endlessly. We see him training with masters, studying, practicing endlessly into the night. We see Conan getting better so that when the time comes for him to fight for real, we know why he can and feel he has earned the victories over his enemies. This is what makes him a great protagonist.
Conan the Barbarian (2011) – Born of Battle – The Chosen One
Recently there has been a strange trend in making our heroes the “natural genius” or “chosen one” that I find unusual; almost as though we want our heroes to be naturally better than us rather than to have them work for their abilities. This “chosen one” trend can be seen in a lot of recent films. The Matrix, Star Wars I-III, Eragon, and most disturbing to me (no joke) Kung Fu Panda, where the guy who worked his tail off to be great is the villain, and the “gifted” character who doesn’t have to work to be great is the hero.
In the 2011 Conan film Conan, in an interesting scene, is born when his pregnant mother is stabbed and his father performs an impromptu sword-cesarean. We then see young boy Conan who wants to partake in a trial for the older boys to race through the mountain with a small egg in their mouths, those who return without breaking the egg can participate in battle. The boys are ambushed by vicious, adult, tribal warriors during the race. The other boys retreat but Conan stays to fight. The young boy killing them all, beheading them, and returning to town without breaking the egg. It makes for a rousing scene…however something is missing from the character. We just accept our hero is naturally better than the older boys. He is our hero and he’s gifted, even as a young boy he’s better than his peers, enemies, everyone but his father. There is no progression from boy, to warrior. He’s always mighty, and therefore many of his fights are less fulfilling because we know he’s gifted, and furthermore we don’t feel he has earned his strength. He was “born of battle,” he just is great he didn’t have to work, train, and struggle to become great.
Many great, classic characters embody when I think of when I consider what makes a great hero. Rocky immediately springs to mind; he knows he can’t beat the champ, saying:
Who am I kiddin’? I ain’t even in the guy’s league. It don’t matter ’cause I was nobody before… That don’t matter either. It really don’t matter if I lose this fight… ’Cause all I wanna do is go the distance…if…that bell rings and I’m still standin’ I’m gonna know for the first time in my life that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
It’s this we can all relate to. Few of us are as slick and talented as Apollo Creed, but many of us feel like just another bum from the neighborhood and look for a way to disprove it. It makes me wonder why so many of our recent heroes have been written to simply be great rather than earn greatness. Is it an aspect of lazier writing (writers would rather just have characters be than explain why) or is it endemic of our culture? No one wants to earn their greatness, we all just want to be granted greatness and declare ourselves great.
It might seem like a little heavy thinking for a discussion about a couple of fun fantasy-action-adventure films, but it is worth consideration.
The next post will be about the actors’ in both films; analyzing heroes, villains and how they are portrayed.