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Thulsa Doom

Of all the villains who populated the books, comics, films and role-playing games of my youth, one figure stands head and shoulders above them all: Thulsa Doom.

Thulsa Doom was, what my mother would call, the evil baddie in the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan. I first saw the film at the cinema at the age of ten with my brother and my best friend Gus. Before going, I was terrified of being made to feel unwell by reports of gore and bloodshed, for I was pretty squeamish at that age and couldn’t bear the sight of blood. Gus, who had already seen the film, warned me of a scene with a soup made of human body parts. Funnily enough, I misheard him and thought he had said a “suit”. The soup, ultimately, was mild by comparison, and when I came to see the movie, perhaps on account of the gore being rather stagey and over the top, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

And there, before me, for the first time, was Thulsa Doom!

Thulsa Doom was, and still remains, an absolutely splendid villain. A god of sorts, with the ability to change himself into a giant snake, Thulsa Doom was more than a thousand years old. The leader, chief priest and guru of an ancient cult of snake-worshippers, he was a fearsome warrior, a demagogue, a philosopher, and a downright murderous son of a serpent. Played by James Earl Jones, with long black hair and a frighteningly square helmet fringe, decked out in chunky, adorned black leather armour, armed not only with two murderous, serpentine swords, but also with the voice of Darth Vader, he was certainly something to behold. Thulsa Doom had a mesmerising stare, an enchanting voice, and a wonderful way with words.

He first appears on the screen in the opening scenes of the film, in the frozen wastes of the Cimmerian north. Having, with his warband, raided and wiped out Conan’s village, Thulsa Doom approaches Conan’s poor mother, who stands defending her young son. Flanked by his two stalwarts, Thorgrim and Rexor – Norse metal-heads never looked so good – Thulsa Doom removes his horned helmet, revealing a noggin that seems curiously moulded to the shape of said headwear. The scene is a masterful combination of sad music, pathos and lingering stares. Thulsa Doom, without a word, hypnotises Conan’s fiercely defensive mother with his big, beautiful eyes, so that she lowers her sword and relaxes, in a sort of trance. Slowly turning, as though to walk away, he suddenly swings back in her direction, removing her head with the very sword we had seen Conan’s father forging through the opening titles, now taken as loot from his mauled corpse. Conan, looking up and into the face of Thulsa Doom as his decapitated mother falls beside him, is not about to forget either the visage or standard of his mother’s murderer in a hurry. Thus begins this epic tale of survival and revenge.

Despite its being something of a fantasy genre gore-fest, Conan the Barbarian is a surprisingly good film. It has its flaws, technically and dramatically, but written by Oliver Stone and directed by John Milius, it was a serious attempt to render the epic nature of the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Beautifully shot and with a very moving soundtrack composed by Basil Poledouris, it feels at times more like a sword and sandal epic of the 50s and 60s than a fantasy genre film. The great sets and locations and the use of thousands of extras in vast crowd scenes, give its settings a very real and tactile quality, whilst the limited dialogue is terse and laconic, but nonetheless emotionally engaging. I was absolutely blown away by the movie when I first saw it, largely because I had, just a year before, started playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading a lot of fantasy literature. It was very much my cup of tea – an enthralling evocation of a fantastic world that felt authentically historical. Shortly after seeing the film for the first time, my brother and I began collecting the original Conan stories, which we were to read and re-read avidly through our teen years.

I went to see the movie twice at the cinema, and as soon as it was released on television, recorded it on the VCR and watched it repeatedly. I became so obsessed with the film that I kept a tally of how many times I had watched it in my diary – an early indicator of a life of mildly autistic behaviour! I learned the entire script off by heart, and could quote it from start to finish without prompting; aided, no doubt, by the relatively limited dialogue in the film. And, all the while, there was Thulsa Doom, looming large as my very favourite on-screen villain, even more so than Darth Vader himself.

The character of Thulsa Doom first appeared in Robert E. Howard’s Kull the Conqueror short story Delcardes’ Cat. Kull was a sort of precursor to Conan the Barbarian, a hero of the world prior to the destruction of Atlantis.

Thulsa Doom is described by Howard in The Cat and the Skull as being a large and muscular man (As he and Kull are said to be “alike in general height and shape.”), but with a face “like a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire.” He is seemingly invulnerable, boasting after being run through by one of Kull’s comrades that he feels “only a slight coldness” when being injured and will only “pass to some other sphere when [his] time comes.” (Wikipedia)

Thulsa Doom later re-surfaced in comic-strip versions of Kull the Conqueror as his principal nemesis, wherein he is portrayed as a powerful necromancer through various editions.

In Oliver Stone’s film version of Conan The Barbarian, Thulsa Doom’s strength seems to lie in his antiquity, demagoguery and hypnotic presence as much as his magical powers.


Thulsa Doom can not only transform himself into a snake, but can turn snakes into arrows, which he fires from his serpentine bow. His snake cult engages in the sacrifice of young nubile women to giant snakes reared, in some cases it seems, as pets by Thulsa Doom and his principal henchmen.

After a torrid youth spent strapped to the “wheel of pain” – http://bit.ly/WheelOfPain – followed by years in a brutal fighting pit, having excelled as a gladiator, Conan is trained in more delicate martial arts and given an education before being set free one windy night. It is not long before Conan, accompanied by his own henchies, in the form of Subotai and Valeria, has his first run in with Thulsa Doom’s snake cult and begins to plot his revenge.

Without wishing to describe the film in detail or at length, it will suffice to look briefly at  Conan’s ensuing encounters with Thulsa Doom, which are certainly memorable.

When Conan rather clumsily infiltrates Thulsa Doom’s cult and is captured, we are privy to one of Thulsa’s more eloquent outbursts. Having finished interrogating his battered and bleeding prisoner, Thulsa Doom proceeds to tell Conan of the power of flesh over steel. He summons one of his many female followers to leap from the cliff above to her death then, indicating her recumbent corpse, he says:

“That is strength, boy! That is power! The strength and power of flesh. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”


Having, in typically megalomaniac fashion, suggested that he himself was the source of all this power, Thulsa Doom admonishes Conan to “Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe,” before instructing his henchmen to “Crucify him.” An order that is duly and gruesomely fulfilled.

After having been rescued from the Tree of Woe, Conan and his companions make a murderous raid on Thulsa Doom’s compound, slaying many of his followers and guards. Thulsa Doom escapes by transforming himself into a snake, but, reverts to human form in sufficient time to shoot a snake arrow into Valeria, Conan’s lover, as they flee the scene, sated with the gore of their enemies and having liberated the princess they were seeking to liberate.

It is here that we are treated to one of Thulsa Doom’s more memorable lines; one I often find myself quoting when seriously pissed off.

“Infidel defilers. They shall all drown in lakes of blood. Now they will know why they afraid of the dark. Now they will learn why they fear the night.”

Conan, after a long night watching Valeria’s funeral pyre, now with even more reason to detest Thulsa Doom and wish him dead, prepares for the final battle amidst the mounds and gravestones of the ancient dead.

Yet the final confrontation does not take place in the ensuing, climactic battle, in which Conan slays both Thorgrim and Rexor, the latter wielding Conan’s fathers sword, taken at the start of the film. The sword is broken in a mighty overhead cleave by Conan, and, with Rexor dead, Conan retrieves it and holds it aloft.  That evening, he makes his way once again to Thulsa Doom’s impressive temple, at the so-called Mountain of Power. It is here, as Conan sneaks his way past the guards, aided by the charms and access of the errant princess, that we are treated to Thulsa Doom’s finest moment.

Standing before a vast crowd of thousands of extras in white robes holding candles, bellowing from atop the podium of his epic temple at the head of a grand processional staircase, Thulsa Doom makes the following speech:

“The purging is at last at hand. The day of doom is here! All that is evil, all their lies – your parents, your leaders, those who would call themselves your judges! Those who have lied and corrupted the earth! They shall all be cleansed. You, my children, are the water that will wash away all that has gone before. In your hand, you hold my light, the gleam in the eye of Set. This flame will burn away the darkness, burn you away, to paradise!”


I am still deeply stirred when I hear this speech, and believe it has profoundly affected my rhetorical style over the years.

A short while later, Conan approaches from the shadows and comes face to face with Thulsa Doom. Thulsa Doom turns his benevolent smile and loving gaze upon Conan and tries to woo him with his honeyed words.

“My child. You have come to me, my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? Who gave you the will to live? I am the wellspring, from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What will your world be, without me, my son? My son.”

After being briefly seduced by those beautiful, snake-charming eyes, Conan looks down to his father’s sword and snaps out of hypnosis. With a look of sudden alertness, he promptly hacks Thulsa Doom’s head from his shoulders with his father’s broken sword.

It is a rather gruesome end for a villain, to see his head tossed like a hairy medicine ball down the steps of the temple, to flip and flop with an ugly wet sound, but the simple fact is, he sure had it coming. And as for Conan’s fate, well, that is another story…

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I began writing this article in 2000, whilst still researching my PhD at Cambridge. It was largely finished, but with significant holes which I have finally decided to fill in. I originally intended to research it more intensively and submit it for publication to an academic journal, but ultimately the style seemed more journalistic and its prohibitive length ruled out any hope of publication in a newspaper or magazine. So, after all these years, here it is!


The recent release of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator has once again sparked interest in a genre that seemed doomed never to be revived. Prohibitive costs and questionable appeal were the enduring memories after the hugely expensive and unsuccessful Cleopatra and the ponderous The Fall of the Roman Empire. After 1964, no one was either rich enough or stupid enough to invest in a project of this scale.


Gladiator, the first Roman epic for almost forty years, whilst receiving mixed reviews from critics, has proven very popular with cinema-goers the world over. The story of Maximus’ fall from the slippery heights of power as a conquering Roman general, to his being sold as a slave and his evolution as a great gladiator, certainly makes for great matinee entertainment. The exotic locations, vast battles, splendid sets, and epic scenes are true to form of the “sword and sandal” epic, and with the assistance of modern technology and greater attention to close detail, Gladiator sets a new benchmark for a raw and “realistic” evocation of the Roman world. Yet what is so frustrating about Gladiator is its lack of contextual historical accuracy.

The fall of the roman empire

The genre to which Gladiator belongs has always been a flawed one. Roman epics have attracted criticism for both their historical accuracy and dramatic qualities. Roman epics aren’t so much historical films, as vehicles for other, often anachronistic moral or ideological themes; Italian nationalism and fascism, for example. Otherwise they have tended towards ponderous, opulent romance.

Gladiator is an interesting product in the context of film history, for it picks up almost directly where the Roman epic left off. Gone are the moralising voice-overs which introduce the historical context; gone is the typical demonisation of the Roman Empire; gone is the anachronistic emphasis on modern Christian concepts of ethics and morality. In their place we have a secularised film which does not seem to carry any message whatsoever. This absence of any clear moral purpose behind Gladiator is, in part, what makes it a better Roman epic than many of its predecessors.

Historical films can also have a very powerful effect on an audience, imaginatively and emotionally, but often very particularly on account of national identity. This is especially the case when the film depicts the actions of a national group, and particularly in the context of an international conflict. The film Braveheart, for example, generated very heated debate about its depiction not just of certain historical personalities, but also ofEngland’s relationship toScotland. It was not at all well received by the English.


It seems extraordinary that a cinematic interpretation of events which took place almost seven centuries ago could cause such rancour, yet such they did. Some film-makers might therefore be wary about alienating potential audiences, which raises the question as to whether or not historical accuracy in the cinema depends upon the degree to which there is a risk of upsetting members of any social group which could identify with the characters and events of the film. Inevitably, where national identities are concerned, someone is bound to be upset, and the director or author of the screenplay are likely to find themselves forced to justify the reasons for their portrayal.

The Roman epic, however, occupies a special place in the broad spectrum of historical films. This is because the period it depicts is sufficiently distant in time to avoid arousing the ire of any political or ethnic group by an historically unfair or inaccurate portrayal; thus neutralising any possible social antagonism such as that generated by films such as Braveheart. This might go some way towards explaining the flights of fantasy into which Roman epics are capable of delving. The recent and appalling television production of Cleopatra was a perfect example of the quite extraordinary degree to which history can be manipulated.

Gladiator is another production in which there is very little historical truth. It need only be pointed out that Maximus did not exist, that Commodus was already co-opted as co-emperor in 177, three years before the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, and that he ruled until 193 when he was strangled to death by a professional wrestler as he lay in a drunken sleep, to illustrate the quite ridiculous historical inaccuracy of the film. Can Gladiator therefore rightly be called an historical film?

Gladiator, mounted

On some levels, namely those of costuming and interior design, the makers of Gladiator have made an impressive effort to achieve historical accuracy. It is perhaps counter-productive to quibble about the exact appearance of the Roman urban landscape at the time; which facades loomed, which statues stood where, which aqueducts had been completed, and about the decoration of the interior of the senatorial curia. That neo-classical facades were shot, cut and pasted to create the backdrop of the city of Rome should not trouble us too greatly, for the effect is at least successful in conveying an impression of the scale, and, it might be said, the  “modernity” of Roman development at the height of the Empire’s power. Perhaps more importantly, the attention to detail in military hardware, costumes, furniture, personal effects, and so on, is a considerable advance on previous cinematic depictions of theRoman Empire.

Another positive of the film is that it attempts to create a less anachronistic intellectual, social and cultural context. Often, due to the need to acquaint the audience with the historical context, period films tend to be packed with informative dialogue and exposition, which at times stumbles uncomfortably from the lips of the protagonists. Gladiator is somewhat more successful in contextualising this background and making it incidental to the film.

Still, it is reasonable to wonder why so much effort has been put into minute detail, when the broader context in which all the detail is conveyed is almost completely fictional?

Director Ridley Scott provides the best answer to this question. When asked what attracted him to the film, he described his first encounter with the producer Walter Parkes, in which Parkes simply threw down a rolled-up print of Jean Leon Gerome’s famous painting of a gladiator in the Colosseum. “That’s what got me,” said Scott, “It was a totally visceral reaction to the painting.”

Gladiator by Jean Leon Gerome

Gladiator is probably best described as a visceral experience. Rather than being an historical film, Gladiator is a “human” film in a fictive historical context, whose historicity is supported by a careful reconstruction of the appearance of the world being represented. If we were to try to define Gladiator further, then it would be as the story of an individual’s struggle against injustice, and of loyalty to a threatened ideal of enlightened despotism or republican government.

It is tempting, however, to be more cynical and say that considering the lack of regard for the historical narrative, it is essentially a vehicle for great special effects and innovative action sequences. After all, the project began with only the arena in mind. The script, which needed a great deal of work, ran to a mere thirty-five pages and underwent a number of transformations throughout the shoot. Perhaps as a consequence of the simplicity of its original conception, it is difficult to find any serious message in Gladiator. If one were to look for a historical message in it, all one really finds is that Marcus Aurelius was a good man, Commodus was a bad man, life was hard and tenuous, and that Roman Republican government, namely rule by the Senate, was a cherished ideal.


It could also be misconstrued that the principle message of the film is to reveal the horrors of gladiatorial combat, for Gladiator depicts gladiatorial contests with very startling realism, although what we see is as nothing to the vast and elaborate slaughter which often took place in the Colosseum and other arenas around the Empire. The horrors of slavery and the staging of fights to the death, resonates strongly with our modern outrage at such “entertainments.” The assertion of the humanity of the slaves and gladiators is deeply moving to us who so greatly value freedom and human life. Yet this is not really the concern of Gladiator. Indeed, if one looks at the web-site, it becomes quite clear that the film is more concerned with glorifying the arena than anything else.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is less of an anachronism. Indeed, one of the problems with the film Spartacus is that it makes too much of the slave revolt as a type of ideological movement against an oppressive and evil empire, and establishes Spartacus as a sort of proto-communist revolutionary. We cannot ignore that slavery was something almost irrevocably intrinsic to the ancient world; the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, all had slave-based economies, and it would be difficult to say that any of these civilisations were more inclusive, more tolerant, or provided a better system of social infrastructure than did Rome. Though we are appalled by slavery, to vilify theRoman Empire for employing it is rather like vilifying a child for adopting the habits of its parents, and of society at large.


Yet whilst Spartacus might be too redolent with Marxist overtones it is one of the few Roman epic films which attempts to remain true to the understood historical narrative of what it depicts, with the exception of its fabricated conclusion.  (Spartacus’ body was never recovered from the battlefield.) It is an excellent, humane, and deeply moving film, which has a greater “historicity” than many of its predecessors.

When asked why he thought Roman epics had vanished for forty years, Ridley Scott said that: “They reached a saturation point and then they simply went away because every story seemed to have been exhausted.”

This response might go some way to explaining why Gladiator is essentially fiction. Yet, at the same time, it might be the very thing which will allow the Roman epic to re-emerge as a genre. No one had ever heard of Maximus before, and the vast majority of the audience will never have heard of Commodus either. This has in no way hindered Gladiator’s success. Not many people outside of the United Kingdom, and probably only a limited number within it would have ever heard of William Wallace before the release of Braveheart. Roman history is so rich that countless stories could be artfully extracted without much need to change the context. Rather than turning to fiction, the time is now ripe for screen-writers to plough deeply the very rich and extensive soil of Roman history for future epics. Apart from all the smaller, human stories of individuals caught up in the events of Roman history, there is vast scope for movies on a grander scale. The late Roman empire in particular begs attention. Why is there no epic about Constantine, or of Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410? What of Attila’s failed invasion of the ailing western empire in 451 and, in particular the epic battle of the Catalaunian Plains?

The release of Gladiator is a very exciting and important event in film history. It has the potential to bring about a rebirth of a dead genre and to set a new direction for that genre. For, one of the most promising aspects of Gladiator is that it avoids the polemics against Roman rule which were characteristic of so many of its predecessors. It empathises much more successfully with the period in offering a fairer cross-section of Roman society and ideas. In the opening battle scene, Maximus’ Tribune Quintus says with derision; “People should know when they’re conquered.” To which Maximus replies, “Would you Quintus, would I?” In conversation with Marcus Aurelius, Maximus acknowledges that the world outside of Rome is dark and forbidding; “Rome is the light,” he says sincerely. The means by which the greater complexity of the Roman world is conveyed is more subtle than many other epics of this genre and less dominated by modern political, religious and ideological concerns.


The earliest Roman films were often rooted in a strong ideological agenda. , The 1914 Italian film Cabiria, set during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), was produced by the ultra nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio and was released shortly after the Italo-Turkish war, in which Italy conquered the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica in North Africa. Similarly, the 1937 film Scipione l’africano, depicting the life of Scipio Africanus, Rome’s most successful general during the Second Punic War, followed in the wake of Mussolini’s Ethiopian conquest.

Scipione l’Africano

The 1964 Hollywoodfilm, The Fall of the Roman Empire, reads like a positivist moral essay; striving to put across a more explicit historical argument. Starring Alec Guiness as Marcus Aurelius, and Christopher Plummer as Commodus, it has many parallels with Gladiator in that it too focuses on the accession and reign of Commodus. It essentially argues that the reign of Commodus and what took place immediately afterwards, namely the auction of the Empire to the highest bidder (it ignores the brief reign of Pertinax) was the beginning of the decline which was to lead to the Empire’s eventual “fall”, though this did not happen in the west for another two hundred and fifty years. This particular interpretation of the narrative of Roman history dates back to Gibbon, who first identified the reign of Commodus as a significant turning point after the more enlightened rule of Marcus Aurelius.

One of the central themes of The Fall of the Roman Empire, namely the social experiment of settling barbarians as farmers in Roman territory, was a massive oversimplification of an issue which, in fact, was dealt with at a painstakingly academic and philosophical level in the late Roman Empire, the consequences of which were central to the gradual devolution of Roman power in the west in the fifth century.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

It is inevitable that political and social complexities have to be glossed over in an historical film – no audience is going to sit through a film which depicts with arduous detail the mind-boggling intricacy of Roman bureaucracy – yet such complexity can be hinted at through thought-provoking ambiguity, rather than being arduously explicit. Ideally, the Roman context should be incidental to the film and less explicit, especially where long-established clichés are otherwise the only resort. Typically the Roman Empirehas been portrayed as a vicious, cruel organisation, run by ruthless madmen. Gladiator at least went some way towards suggesting that Commodus was just an example of a very cruel, weak, and over ambitious megalomaniac in a world of otherwise sane human beings with complex identities.

The 1951 MGM film Quo Vadis, however, opens with a startling and lengthy diatribe against the nature of Roman power, based entirely upon modern, Christian concepts of ethics and morality, and which is to put it mildly, anachronistic in the Empire of the 1st Century AD. Such criticisms of Roman power as did exist in the 1st century, rarely focussed on the immorality and inhumanity of gladiatorial contests or slavery, rather upon an antique perception of freedom and self-determination, which, sadly, often translated as the freedom of another aristocracy or religious oligarchy to run its own exclusive autocratic regime.

Indeed, the degree to which the Roman state is vilified in the cinema is probably only paralleled by post-war portrayals of Nazi Germany. Certainly the Roman Empire was a physically coercive entity which encouraged practices we find abhorrent, but considering the context from which it emerged, it was the paragon of ancient civilised states of the Mediterraneanand near Eastern world. The Roman Empire was an inclusive, not an exclusive system which encouraged religious freedom, (with the exception of certain troublesome dissidents who worshiped a dead carpenter), which provided immense and sophisticated public services, sanitation, education and security, which championed free trade, and which, under the pax Romana, also championed peace.

The great eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon once wrote:

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. (AD96-180).”

During Gibbon’s lifetime such an observation had much greater currency, especially when we consider that theBritish Empirehad not as yet abolished slavery by the time of his death. Clearly there is no excusing slavery in any context, but this is a modern sensibility. Even the much vaunted Athenian democracy was heavily dependent on slave-labour, and they did not offer to extend their citizenship to outsiders as the Romans did.

It is largely for this reason that Gladiator makes a departure from its predecessors. Rather than critiquing theRoman Empire as an entity, it highlights the folly and wickedness of certain individuals. It marks a turning point in the portrayal of Roman history and offers, without being especially cerebral or historically accurate, a less explicitly moralising theme and context. If its success results in the making of further such historical epics, then there might be something of a rebirth of the genre. Either way, and perhaps most importantly, enrolments in ancient history courses both at high school and university have risen dramatically in its wake. If the cinema can still inspire students to take an interest in the very distant history that underlies the culture, identity and institutions of modern western society, then this is surely a positive.

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