I’m no longer surprised that my reader Jordan is an amazing prognosticator. He’s proven to be an expert at finding films that follow a chiastic story structure, meaning that the first half and second half mirror each other perfectly. Being right once or twice could be written off as a coincidence. A lucky guess. But not five times in a row. At some point you have to recognize greatness and brilliance. This is no accident.
Tron, Escape from New York, Dreamscape, and Akira all proved to be examples of Cinematic Chiasmus. And now I have another feather to add to Jordan’s cap because I found the chiasmus in Conan the Barbarian. The 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic is the latest film he suggested I analyze, and it proved to be exactly what he claimed it would be.
So let’s take the plunge and go through Conan the Barbarian’s chiasmus.
This summary will demonstrate the film’s chiasmus:
A. Akiro’s voiceover explains Conan the Barbarian’s backstory
B. Conan’s father shares the secret of steel with him on a mountain
C. Conan’s village is destroyed by Thulsa Doom and his men
D. Doom beheads Conan’s mother
E. Conan is taken to the Wheel of Pain and forgotten about by Doom
F. Conan becomes a gladiator and wins every match
G. Conan learns how to read and fight better
H. Conan gives an epic answer to the question, “What is best in life?”
I. Conan is set free after he’s spent most of his life in bondage
J. Conan lights a fire and takes a sword from a long-dead king
K. Conan has sex with a witch, and then he kills her
L. Conan meets Subotai, and they soon join forces
M. Conan and Subotai compare gods and try to decide which is more powerful
N. Conan and Subotai enter multiple cities without any trouble
O. Conan and Subotai hear of the Tower of the Serpent and plan to steal its treasures
P. Conan and Subotai meet Valeria, and they all climb into an evil tower
Q. Valeria successfully disguises herself as a priestess while Conan kills a giant snake
R. Conan and his friends indulge in the spoils of their victorious escape
S. Conan, Subotai, and Valeria are brought before King Osric and asked to rescue his daughter
T. At night, Valeria asks Conan to stay with her
T. The next morning, Valeria wakes up alone
S. Conan travels by himself to fulfill the wishes of King Osric
R. Conan meets Akiro and asks for flowers to help him gain entrance to Doom’s cult
Q. Conan fails to disguise himself as a priest, and Doom chastises him for killing his giant snake
P. Subotai and Valeria find Conan and keep him from being lifted up by demons
O. Conan, Subotai, and Valeria plan to rescue the princess from the Mountain of Power
N. Conan, Subotai, and Valeria sneak into the Mountain of Power without any trouble
M. Doom shows his godlike power by transforming into a snake
L. Conan and Subotai fight Doom’s men with Valeria
K. Doom pierces Valeria with a snake, and she dies shortly after
J. Conan burns Valeria’s recently deceased body on a funeral pyre
I. Conan ponders his 20 years of pain and suffering
H. Conan says an epic prayer to Crom
G. Conan puts his knowledge to use in fighting and killing his enemies
F. Conan celebrates his victory the same way he did as a gladiator
E. Conan sneaks up behind Doom because Doom underestimated Conan
D. Conan beheads Doom
C. Doom’s cult is destroyed by Conan
B. Conan burns Doom’s tower and takes the princess home to her father
A. Akiro’s voiceover explains Conan’s ultimate fate and legacy
Now that’s what I call high adventure. Conan the Barbarian reaches an incredible height and then comes back down off the mountain. Now let’s give a little more detail to show how these points all match up.
A. Akiro’s Voiceover
Right before the opening title card appears, Akiro the magician gives a voiceover in which he notes that Conan the Barbarian was, “destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow.”
Right before the end credits begin, Akiro gives one final voiceover in which he notes, referring to Conan, “In time, he became a king by his own hand.”
B. Father’s Love
As a boy, Conan listens to wise words from his father on a mountain. His father tells him he can always trust steel, and then he hands the boy a powerful sword.
As a man, Conan silently draws King Osric’s daughter from Thulsa Doom’s tower. He destroys the tower with fire, and then he carries the princess home to her father.
As Conan watches, Thulsa Doom and his men launch an unprovoked raid on his people’s village. They slaughter almost everyone (including Conan’s father) and utterly destroy the village.
After Doom is dead, Conan tosses his severed head down a tower in reprisal for his wrongs. This act completely destroys Doom’s cult (who had looked at Doom as a father) as they all disband and leave.
Thulsa Doom climbs off his horse and takes Conan’s father’s sword. Young Conan’s mother holds his hand and protectively wields a sword. Doom stares long and hard at Conan’s mother in silence. She lowers her sword, and he suddenly swings his and cuts her head off.
Conan approaches Doom atop his tower, sword in hand. Doom refers to Conan as his son, and he puts his hand on Conan’s shoulder. They stand there together in silence for a few seconds. Conan appears to hesitate to kill him, but then he swings his sword and cuts Doom’s head off.
E. Coming Full Circle
Thulsa Doom sends young Conan away without a second thought and rides to a location far from him. Conan travels with other children from his village to the Wheel of Pain. He spends many silent years there walking in a circle and building his muscles.
Doom doesn’t give a second thought to the idea of Conan coming to him while he’s on his tower. Everything comes full circle when Conan sneaks up on Doom. He shocks Doom and his followers into silence as they fearfully gaze upon his hulking presence.
After reaching adulthood, Conan is taken from the Wheel of Pain and put into numerous gladiatorial arenas where he fights and kills other warriors. Each time he wins, he celebrates by crossing his arms on his chest.
After killing the warriors of Thulsa Doom who put him on the Wheel of Pain, Conan celebrates his victory. He does this by crossing his arms on his chest, just as he had each time he won as a gladiator.
G. Putting Knowledge Into Practice
After winning numerous battles, Conan learns advanced swordfighting techniques and secrets from masters of war. He does this to become a more cunning warrior.
Before fighting a big battle, Conan puts all of the things he has learned about war and fighting into practice. He prepares traps and defenses to defeat Thulsa Doom’s warriors.
H. Conan Speaks
A powerful man asks Conan, “What is best in life?” Up to this point, we’ve never heard Conan say anything. Conan responds, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”
Conan asks Crom for revenge and victory against his enemies. Up to this point, he’s never prayed to Crom. He says all that counts is that two stood against many, and he closes with these words, “And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!”
I. Conan’s Suffering Ends
Someone suddenly cuts Conan’s chain and frees him for the first time since he was a child. Conan flees for his life from dogs, and he painfully falls into a cave to escape them.
Subotai, the man who has been with Conan almost since he gained his freedom, talks about suffering and peace. Conan laments his 20 years of pain and suffering, and he decides to keep fighting.
J. Light and Death
Conan lights a torch in the cave he fell into and finds the bones of numerous long-dead men. He sees a dead king whom he refers to as Crom sitting on a throne, and he takes a sword from him, replacing his father’s sword he had lost as a child to Thulsa Doom’s men. Conan is surprised when the king’s helmet falls off after he had taken his sword and smashed it to get the rust and dust off.
Subotai brings a torch to Conan to light the funeral pyre Valeria’s recently deceased body is lying on. Conan takes the Eye of the Serpent he had once given to Valeria, and he puts it around his own neck, replacing a necklace he’s worn since he became a gladiator. Akiro is surprised when the funeral pyre erupts in flames like an explosion.
K. Snake Piercing
For this one, let’s just say that a snake penetrates a woman (either figuratively or literally), and she dies shortly after. And we’ll leave it at that.
L. Dying in Combat
Conan meets a man named Subotai, who claims to be a thief and archer. He asks for food so he can die in combat, not in hunger. Conan frees him from his bonds, and he’s happy to escape.
Conan and his companions, Subotai and Valeria, engage in combat, killing many men in Thulsa Doom’s lair. Then they free the princess from her prison, though she doesn’t want to go.
M. Godlike Power
As they sit and eat over a campfire, Conan tells Subotai about his god Crom. Subotai claims his gods are greater because they are the eternal sky, and Crom lives beneath them on his mountain.
As Thulsa Doom’s children lie around him in a daze, Conan and his companions sneak closer to their target. Doom shows his great power by transforming into a snake and slithering away into the mountain.
N. Going in
Conan and Subotai don’t bother disguising themselves at all as they go from one city to another. No one pays much attention to them.
Conan, Subotai, and Valeria disguise themselves in order to sneak into Thulsa Doom’s lair. No one notices them as they make their way inside.
O. Plans and Treasures
Subotai tells Conan about great treasures hidden in the Tower of the Serpent, so they plan to sneak in and steal the Eye of the Serpent.
Subotai and Valeria tell Conan about the princess being held inside Thulsa Doom’s lair in the Mountain of Power, and they plan to sneak in and rescue her.
P. What Horrors Await
Outside the Tower of the Serpent, Conan and Subotai spot a girl named Valeria. They realize that they’re all thieves, not guards, and they have the same purpose: plundering treasure. She points out they don’t even have rope to climb the tower. She asks if they know what horrors lie inside the tower, and they say they don’t. So she tells them to go first. Then they all climb the tower.
While crucified on the Tree of Woe, Conan spots Subotai running toward him. Subotai and Valeria realize he’s close to death, and they tell Akiro to use his magic to save his life. They use rope to tie Conan down to stakes. That night, they witness unspeakable horrors as Akiro hides in fear. Subotai and Valeria fight off demons that try to lift Conan up. The demons leave, and Conan recovers.
Valeria takes the robe off a priestess to disguise herself. It works. Conan and Subotai sneak into the pit of a giant snake and steal the Eye of the Serpent and medallion with the heads of two snakes, and it triggers a memory of Thulsa Doom killing his mother and father. The giant snake sneaks up on Conan, but he stabs it and cuts its head off before escaping from the tower. At the command of Doom’s henchman, a woman jumps down into the snake pit as part of a ceremony.
Conan takes the robe off a priest to disguise himself. It doesn’t work. Conan uses the medallion he stole from the Tower of the Serpent to gain access to Doom so he can take revenge on him for killing his mother and father. Doom sees through Conan’s deception, and his followers overpower Conan, preventing him from reaching his goal or escaping. Doom is angry at Conan for killing his snake. He commands a woman to jump from a great height to demonstrate his power.
R. Rest and Relaxation
Conan and Valeria sleep together. Conan and his friends use their newfound treasure in pursuit of aimless pleasures. They are celebrating their escape from the Tower of the Serpent.
Conan meets Akiro and sleeps for the night. In the morning, he asks for flowers for a very specific purpose. He’s going to use them to gain entrance into Thulsa Doom’s Mountain of Power.
S. King Osric’s Mission
King Osric brings Conan, Subotai, and Valeria before him against their will. He believes his daughter is being brainwashed to murder him in the future. He appeals to the trio’s vanity by offering treasure to rescue his daughter and bring her back to him.
Conan goes on the mission that King Osric gave him, of his own free will. He believes he will be able to take revenge on the man who killed his parents years ago. Bringing back the king’s daughter just so happens to correspond with his main goal.
T. Valeria’s Request and Conan’s Decision
At night, Valeria tells Conan she and Subotai have decided to take the king’s money and run. She also says that many times she passed by people in their tents. She was always going somewhere, while they stayed with the ones they loved. She pleads with him to stay with her. He silently looks between her and the medallion he took from the Tower of the Serpent, struggling to make a decision.
Right after that, we see the decision he made. The next morning, Valeria wakes up alone. Conan has decided to take the king’s money and do what he has asked them to do. Conan is going somewhere without her, and she no longer has the one she loves by her side. He couldn’t stay with her because he’s too set on taking revenge on Thulsa Doom. He left the Eye of the Serpent he took from the Tower of the Serpent in Valeria’s bed.
As a good revenge story, Conan the Barbarian finds its focus at the turning point. All the events leading up to that may have seemed meandering and odd, such as Conan’s encounter with a witch and giant snake. But at the turning point, the film finally finds its focus. And from that point on, we see that all the seemingly aimless parts before were building up to an amazing chiasmus.
They were all necessary, and they have satisfying payoffs. We couldn’t see the film’s focus until halfway through, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there all along.
Once again, I’d like to thank Jordan for inspiring this article. I never would have looked at this film as a potential Cinematic Chiasmus if he hadn’t brought it to my attention. So I’m very grateful to him. And who knows, there might just be another one coming from him in the near future. And this story shall also be told.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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