Barbarian Days, A Review Essay
Last evening I was one of a select few to get a sneak preview of the completed Barbarian Days film. Principal photography of the film was done at the 2008 Howard Days; the stars of the film are Rusty Burke as the “Godfather of Howard Days,” Mark Finn as the “Guest of Honor,” Bill Cavalier as the “Boss Dog of REHupa,” Chris Gruber as the “Boxing Stories Expert” and a host of other recognizable Howard Days attendees - Barbarian Days, A Review Essay introduction. But my ugly mug wasn’t among them — I was attending my wife’s family reunion in Mexico and couldn’t make it that year – it is the only Howard Days I’ve missed in the past ten years. For some background on the film, check out this previous blog post. The crew of filmmakers include Damian Horan, director; Grant Gish, writer and executive producer; Scott Thomas Towler, producer; Andrew Pettit co-producer; Adam Watson, cinematographer and Michael Koerbel, cinematographer. Here is the film’s synopsis from the Barbarian Days website:
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Most people spend their whole lives searching for what makes them happy. Few find it. Even fewer get the chance to share it with friends.
Every year hundreds of fans flock to tiny Cross Plains, Texas, the home of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. Nearly 80 years after his death by suicide, Howard, an outsider himself, has attracted his own merry band of self-admitted outcast followers.
We followed the Big 4, the top two Howard scholars from the old guard and two up and comers, through their world of fandom at “Howard Days,” the annual celebration of Howard’s life and works.
Despite the cheery air of the celebratory weekend, drama and emotions often run high as Howard fans take their pastime very seriously, often leading to heated arguments and in some cases, brawls. In the end, however, the fans are all gathered for the same reason, to share their passion for Howard and for one weekend a year leave their ordinary lives behind.
The cinematography, editing, lighting, sound, music, etc. are all first rate; this is a very professional film. The director and the rest of the crew deserve a big hat tip from all Howard fans for putting thousands of man hours into the production and editing of this movie – the easy part is the filming, but the real work begins after the last scene is shot. This being an independent film, it has taken a few years to get the funds together to finish it. However, the film crew has worked hard to get it completed and ready for viewing.
The film itself covers a lot of ground, with extensive interviews with the four “stars” and many other Howard Heads. Each has their own story to tell about their connection to Howard and what he means to them and the filmmakers allow ample time for them to make their point. Transitions from scene to scene and topic to topic are very smooth, which follows a logical chronology to the story they are telling.
Obviously, Barbarian Days was produced for a broad market, so some of the content might be common knowledge to the regular suspects who attend Howard Days. But those people are already on the Howard bandwagon – the hope for the film is it may bring new converts to the Texan fictioneer’s fold.
In places Howard Heads do look like and sound a bit like geeks (heck, some of us are), but overall the film portrays the fans and Howard in a favorable light – something many us were worried about. Indeed, the filmmakers take the topic seriously and treat everyone with dignity, especially the Cross Plains townspeople. A segment on the December 2005 fires is included and highlights the devastation the town suffered and the big comeback the citizens made from the near destruction of the town. Inter-cut with the film are scenes from the two Schwarzenegger Conan movies and The Whole Wide World, but they are not just thrown in, but rather interwoven the topic being discussed. Bottom line, if you’ve never been to Howard Days, the film gives you a good feel for what it is like. All of the activities and events are shown from Friday morning’s coffee and doughnuts at the Pavilion through the annual barbecue at the Caddo Peak Ranch. The Barbarian Festival gets some nice coverage as well.
The only scene I would take issue with is an animated one. The animated sequence was used to illustrate the much discussed 2007 confrontation at Howard Days between Chris Gruber and Leo Grin. Since no one would talk about it on camera, not even the instigator (Chris), the filmmakers took some artistic license and used Leo’s own account from the pages of the August 2007 issue of The Cimmerian in Brian Leno’s trip report, “Down the Rabbit Hole.” Situations like this are like a falling out among family members – everyone moves on afterward and what happened stays in the family. Such is the case here.
One thing thing that was particularly compelling is Indy’s voice over statement at the end of the film. He gets the last word with his statement “Robert E. Howard saved my life.”
But Lee Breakiron pops up after the credits and gets upstaged by a group of nearby mooing cows, which renders him speechless.
All in all, it is a great film that keeps you entertained and invested in the story — I recommend it to Howard fans and non-believers as well.
As to where you can view the film, it has made the short list at several festivals at which the filmmakers are hoping to premiere it, but they have not yet been granted full acceptance. If and when they are accepted, the word will come down from them and I will be sure and get the names and dates of the pertinent festival(s) up on this blog.
Other than screening at festivals, which will definitely be a good forum to attract potential distributors, the filmmakers also plan on distributing DVD’s on as a backup plan. The DVD’s will only be available once they’ve either played the film at least one festival, or once they’ve heard back from all festivals regarding their submission status. They would also love to be able to allow for paid streaming of the film online at some point. So keep your fingers crossed and wish these gents much success in their efforts to bring Barbarian Days to the masses.
06/21/2013 UPDATE: The Barbarian Days DVD is now available.