MOVIE OBJECTS (1)
April 2, 2020
One in a series of 25 nonfiction narratives about significant objects spotted in movies. Presented to HILOBROW’s readers by Project:Object.
EYE OF THE SERPENT | CONAN THE BARBARIAN | d. JOHN MILIUS | 1982
If I were to rename Conan the Barbarian, I would call it How the Sword is Forged and Broken — the Making of a Mournful Warrior. CTB’s opening sequence features Conan’s father forging a magnificent sword. The sword is Conan, tempered and somewhat broken by his life as a warrior in this ancient, brutal world.
Considering this level of symbolism in CTB, we first encounter the Eye of the Serpent as a concept, not an object. When Conan is a just a boy, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones, of course) hypnotizes Conan’s mother with his snake-like gaze and beheads her with this same sword — just another day of conquering iron-forging settlements in the North and enslaving people. Losing his mother and being enslaved sets off a chain of events for Conan, his origin story.
The physical Eye of the Serpent, a huge, gloriously luminescent and presumably magical ruby, is also owned by Thulsa Doom. Forward a few formative, muscle-building years, and Conan steals the Eye from the Tower of the Serpent, a site of devotion for Thulsa’s snake cult. The Eye soon becomes another devotional object — a priceless gift for Valeria, fellow thief and warrior. Overcome with their new riches and some measure of mead, Conan and Valeria giddily string the rock around her neck with a leather thong, a perfect statement necklace for a warrior queen.
Thulsa sorely misses the Eye. He’s diminished in some way without it, but can only philosophize about the folly of Conan’s giving the stone away to a girl “for a mere night’s pleasure.” But Thulsa’s mistaken. Conan knows Valeria’s not just some girl, and the Eye has become a pledge between them, its massive proportions befitting their epic love.
Alas, their joy doesn’t last, and we find that the Eye of the Serpent gains new significance. Valeria is killed by Thulsa, and when Conan steps back from her funeral pyre, he’s wearing the Eye. After this scene, the tenor of CTB changes — while Conan was once the object of events, he becomes the driver. Conan ambushes Thulsa Doom and his men, routing them, breaking his father’s sword, but emerging unscathed as the stronger warrior. Then he goes to the Temple of the Serpent to kill Thulsa. Conan shakes off Thulsa Doom’s gaze, and beheads Thulsa, his “father” in destiny, neatly completing his origin story with powerful symmetry.
In the end, we never learn what the Eye of the Serpent does specifically, but we learn that’s not the point. You don’t miss the magic at all. The Eye encompasses Conan’s actualization, it’s a catalyst for and witness to Conan’s choices, follies, and tragedies. It’s also arguably Conan’s will and agency, stolen back from Thulsa Doom, given to Valeria in love, and then worn by Conan himself. His father’s great sword is broken in the action, but Conan is defined by the Eye of the Serpent, proof he’s master of his own destiny.
MOVIE OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Ramona Lyons on EYE OF THE SERPENT (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) | Faythe Levine on BEDKNOB (BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS) | Gerald Peary on CUP OF COFFEE (THE BIG HEAT) | Christopher Orr on TOM’S HAT (MILLER’S CROSSING) | Lynn Peril on TRANSISTOR RADIO (DR. STRANGELOVE) | Whitney Bowers on DUCT TAPE (NOW AND THEN) | Kio Stark on CANDLE (DEBBIE DOES DALLAS) | Tom Roston on CALCULATOR WATCH (BREAKFAST CLUB) | Miranda Mellis on LIMOUSINE (MELANCHOLIA) | Carolina A. Miranda on HAUNTED ACCORDION (THE WIND JOURNEYS) | Vanessa Berry on FIBREGLASS MARLIN (LOVE SERENADE) | June Thomas on CERAMIC DUCKS (A TASTE OF HONEY) | Madeline Ashby on LETTERS OF TRANSIT (CASABLANCA) | Dave Walker on ETTINAUER 226-XL (REAL LIFE) | Jonathan Lethem on SINGLE-JACK HAMMER (EARTH ABIDES) | Guy Trebay on STAMPS (CHARADE) | Annie Nocenti on PASSPORT (THE PASSENGER) | Tony Arcabascio on SHEEPSKIN COAT (BEAT STREET) | Alix Lambert on TYPEWRITER (MARY AND MAX) | John Sellers on WHITEBOARD (A QUIET PLACE) | Carlo Rotella on POWDERING CONE (REIGN OF TERROR) | Laura Miller on SEVERED EAR (BLUE VELVET) | Josh Glenn on CASSETTE TAPE (BREATHLESS) | Vicente Lozano on NOTEBOOK (WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME?) | Jeff Malmberg on SPAGHETTI SAUCE (THE GODFATHER).
LOST OBJECTS (vol. 2): INTRODUCTION | Joe Yonan on MACRAMÉ ART (ill. Theo Ellsworth) | Ben Katchor on LUCITE CARRYING CASE | Debbie Millman on GLASS POODLE | Lydia Millet on ROCKY HORROR NOVEL (ill. Berta Valló) | Ben Greenman on WARHOL CAN (ill. Clara Selina Bach) | & 20 MORE.
FETISHES: INTRODUCTION | Josh Foer on DEATH MASK | Beth Lisick on MURDERED-OUT KFC BUCKET | Christina Couch on LEECH ACTION FIGURE | Kenneth Goldsmith on THEWLIS SOCK | Abby Rapoport on MAGNATILES | & 20 MORE.
FOSSILS: INTRODUCTION | Allegra Huston on SKATAWAY JACKET | Kevin Obsatz on HOMEMADE NUNCHUKS | Ian Bogost on DESKTOP TELEPHONE | Jeff Lewonczyk on CHA-CHA JACKET SCRAP | Kelly Horan on VOLVO KEY | & 20 MORE.
FLAIR: INTRODUCTION | Cliff Kuang on ROLEX DATEJUST | Ethan Zuckerman on LAPTOP STICKERS | Ann Shoket on LEATHER JACKET | Kembrew McLeod on KEMBREW MERCH | Paola Antonelli on MERMAID TEARS | & 20 MORE.
LOST OBJECTS (vol. 1): INTRODUCTION | Kate Bernheimer on MULLET WIG (ill. Amy Evans) | Dan Piepenbring on COLOGNE (ill. Josh Neufeld) | Doug Dorst on STRATOCASTER (ill. John Holbo) | Paul Lukas on VANILLA BEAN (ill. Allison Bamcat) | Mimi Lipson on DODGE DART (ill. Mister Reusch) | & 20 MORE.
ILLICIT OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Kio Stark on PEEPSHOW TOKEN | Sari Wilson on TOMBSTONE PARTS | Annalee Newitz on CAR-BOMB REMNANT | Tito Bottitta on MOONINITE DEVICE | Eric Bennett on DIRTY MAGAZINE | & 20 MORE.
TALISMANIC OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | & 20 MORE.
POLITICAL OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | & 20 MORE.
SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018) | FETISHES series (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 series (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS series (2Q2020). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.