John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982) is one of the most ferociously Godless films ever made.
In one early scene Conan discusses theology with his companion Subotei the archer. Conan speaks fondly of his warrior god Crom, stressing his power and roundly mocking his friend’s simple-minded animism (“Crom laughs at your four winds. Laughs from his mountain”). Subotei listens politely to Conan’s tirade and then points out that Conan’s god may well be powerful but in order to wield his power from his mountain he must walk beneath the sky, thereby making himself subject to Subotei’s divine winds and sky. This suggestion that organised religion is arguably inferior to a pantheistic respect for nature sets the tone for a script that relentlessly takes pot-shots at the idea of a divinely ordered universe.
Indeed, the film’s main bad guys are the leaders of an aggressively expanding snake cult. A cult that reveals itself to be little more than a retirement home for ageing barbarian raiders. Raiders who have figured out that, rather than riding around the landscape threatening people into giving up their goods, it is much easier to simply set up a temple and wait for people to surrender their money of their own accord. Not content with suggesting organised religion is nothing but a rogue’s retirement fund, Conan the Barbarian also goes out of its way to mock the icons of real world religions. For example, we have the infamous scene in which Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. But rather than allowing himself to die and for god to resurrect him like Jesus or Aslan, Conan refuses to accept his fate and so he eats a vulture and then gets his friends to make a pact with dark forces in order to bring him back from the dead. Similarly, the ‘Riddle of Steel’ comes across as a mockery of a Zen koan as not only is there an answer but the answer is that the source of all power in the world is not steel or magic or the gods but humanity.
Even when Conan does pray to Crom he admits that he has no tongue for it and his prayer is less an act of supplication or veneration but a threat and an ultimatum : Grant me victory or to hell with you! Of course, Conan is granted his revenge but Crom’s presence is conspicuously absent from the battle. Crom, much like all non-existent deities, is evidently the kind of god who helps those who help themselves.
This sense of godlessness is arguably also present in the source material for Conan the Barbarian, the writings of Robert E. Howard and so it is delightful to see the same muscular atheism appear in a film featuring another of Howard’s creations : Solomon Kane. Michael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane addresses the issue of God’s apparent absence head-on by asking whether, in a world where God does not exist but the Devil clearly does, is it ever possible for humanity to achieve redemption?