Conan and the Serpents of the Black Circle
“THE SERPENTS OF THE BLACK CIRCLE” is adapted from “THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE”, by Robert E. Howard, 1934. “The People of the Black Circle” is in the Public Domain. The treatment below contains passages taken directly from Howard’s original text, in order to maintain his authorial voice, although this author has taken the liberty to introduce a new character and heighten the finale.
Civilization means belonging to a class society, a reality of contradictions. The development of production is linked to the exploitation of man by man. Slavery, serfdom, wage-earning: these are the forms of servitude characterizing civilization’s epochs. Engels observed the steps leading to a class society and inter-class relations as beginning with the Greeks and ending in industrial capitalism. When the three elements private property, monogamy and the state were combined in one society, it passed from barbarism to civilization and from a classless society to a class society. To be precise: Morgan, whom Engels drew upon, said man moved from advanced savagery to primitive barbarism when man developed into tribe. Mankind advances from primitive barbarism when individual tribes form a confederation of tribes. It achieves the highest stage of barbarism moving from tribal federation to military democracy. ~ J. L. Godard, Weekend
Conquest. The human inclination towards subjugation. Invasion. Occupation. Natural selection. A simple barbaric game of survival of the fittest. Who is the fittest? Conan is the fittest.
In a prologue before the title sequence, an ambitious teenage goat-herder tending his flock on a Himelian mountain side in Ghulistan, a pseudo-historical Afghanistan, dreams of kingdom building. He meets a massive, dark brute of a man amused by the boy. This is a man on foot in the middle of nowhere, seeking information.
We move to Vendhya, a pseudo-historical India, and its capital city Ayodhya, tall, gleaming spires, rich ornament. Under the gold dome of a spectacular palace, a man is dying. King Bunda Chand, racked by violent seizures, tended to by his beautiful, enraged sister, the Devi Yasmina, tall, supple and slender of figure.
In another arabesque mansion overlooking a long street of mourners, Kerim Shah, a strikingly handsome prince from Iranistan, discusses the assassination of the King with the wizard Khemsa.
Back under the golden dome, Bunda Chand implores his sister to kill him before the Black Seers of Yimsha steal his soul and place it in a night-weird. She does so, but is it too late?
Fade out, then in on Yasmina and her retinue on horseback, headed at breakneck speed to a Peshkhauri fortress at the foothills of the Himelians. In the fortress she meets with the politician Chunder Shan and plots to force the chieftan of a tribe of hillmen by the name of Conan to exchange prisoners in the fortress’ jail for the heads of the Black Seers of Mount Yimsha. She wants revenge!
Conan bursts in on the two. In full barbarian mode, he abducts Yasmina, recognizing a golden opportunity: a Devi for his captured men seems more than fair. Conan heads for the hills with his victim.
Chunder Shan leads an entourage in pursuit. As they leave, Yasmina’s maid Gitara slinks out of the fortress and meets with the wizard Khemsa, relaying all that has happened. She motivates him to double-cross his masters — the Black Circle — and recapture the Devi to achieve their own dreams of wealth and power. Khemsa carries out the first stage of the double-cross by summoning smokey emerald serpents that ooze through the bars of the cell holding the prisoners and strangles them.
At that moment, in the mysterious passes of the Himelians, Conan and Yasmina are attacked. They come face to face with Yar Afzal, chieftan of the Wazulis, who turns out to be a friend. The teenage goat-herder is with him. Yar Azfal offers sanctuary. Yasmina grows drowsy in the journey and we enter a dream state charged with scenes of the labyrinthine hills and show the various forces tracking them, including Kerim Shah and
less human, ghoulish shapes.
The Hills of Ghulistan
Yasmina wakes in a hut with the goat-herder tending a fire, a stable with a stallion adjacent. She argues with Conan. They’re meeting rough, not cute. Yar Afzal reveals the growing threat of mutiny among his men.
Outside arguments rage. Fearing attacks from Vendhya, the villagers want to hand over Yasmina. Yar Afzal beats the loudest naysayer, who slinks away. We follow him out of the village and to a chance encounter with Khemsa and Gitara. Khemsa hypnotizes the villager, gives him a polished jade ball and orders him to take it to Yar Afzal. He does so. When Yar Afzal touches it it turns to a snake and kills him. At the death of their chief, and the disembodied command of Khemsa, the tribesmen attack Conan.
A battle rages. Conan retreats into the hut. A change of plans.
Conan tames the wild black stallion in the stable, then opens a secret door through which they escape out the back. The tribesmen trail them. In a ravine Conan and Yasmina fly past Khemsa and Gitara who are headed for the village. Khemsa takes on the advancing villagers himself.
Conan and Yasmina on horseback discuss the plot unfolding. Mysteries mount in the mountain passes. Yasmina changes clothing. It gets a little flirtatious, a little sexy. We establish the love-hate relationship between the two. The goat-herder catches up with them.
They enter a more deserted region and discuss Yimsha, the mountain of the Black Seers. Yasmina begins to form a plan, for kingdoms have fallen when a woman’s slim hands pull the strings of destiny. She encourages Conan to make the Black Seers enemies, but the barbarian will have none of it. “I came to these mountains to raise an army of hillmen, not to war with wizards.”
Suddenly on Yimsha’s distant crown a frosty, crimson cloud, veined with sparkling gold, whirls, contracts, dwindles to a spinning taper, and detaches itself from the snow-tipped peak. It floats over the chasm like a feather and disappears against the blue sky.
Through a narrow, knife-cut gash between turreted walls Conan emerges upon a broad ledge, a ledge flanked by slopes on one hand and a gigantic precipice on the other. Magical barriers impede them. Khemsa and Gitara appear. Khemsa holds Conan in his stare. The world begins to tilt out of balance. But Conan is Conan. He holds his own until a crimson cone whirling in a dazzling sheen on its point strikes the ledge.
Four tall men with shaven, vulture-like heads and black robes appear from the dissipating cloud. Silent, naked heads nod in unison towards Khemsa.
With his back to a wall, Khemsa fights for his life with all the dark power, all the frightful knowledge his masters had taught him through long, grim years of neophytism and vassalage. The internalized battle warps the space around them, the combatants casting airless abysses, force-fields, waves of distortion, trying to blast into atoms the very rock on which they stood.
But then one of the wizards spellbinds Gitara and Khemsa loses focus. As Gitara is ordered to walk off the ledge, one of the wizards laughs, like the sudden, bronze note of a bell in hell, and Khemsa snaps. The wizard steps forward and stamps his foot. A crevice opens in the solid rock, a whole section of the ledge gives way, and Khemsa vanishes amidst the roar of the avalanche that thunders down into the abyss.
The wizards raise their arms. The crimson smoke billows around everyone left on the ledge. The Devi is torn from Conan’s arm, and as he lashes out with his knife, a terrific blow like a gust of storm wind knocks him sprawling. A crimson conoid cloud spins up and over the mountain slopes, Yasmina with it.
With a searing curse Conan leaps into the saddle. Across the ledge and around the crag and down the narrow trail threading the great steeple of rock Conan and the goat-herder plunge at breakneck speed.
From a ridge three hundred feet above a gorge they spy a motley throng of hillmen, five hundred strong, bristling with weapons.
They howl “Traitor!” at Conan.
“Where are the seven chiefs held captive in Peshkhauri?”
Conan learns that the prisoners are dead and he is held accountable. He retreats down a hidden trail and comes upon a travesty of a man, a broken, shredded, bloody heap. Through splintered teeth Khemsa urges Conan to destroy the Black Seers. On his dying breath he instructs Conan: “Take my belt.
Follow the golden vein through the abyss. Break the crystal globe with the four golden pomegranates. Beware of the Master’s transmutations!” The point of no return.
Further on they climb where they clash with Kerim Shah, leading a small band of warriors. After some discussion Kerim Shah unites his forces with Conan to rescue the Devi. A mile later they come out upon a crest, the dark mountain slopes of Yimsha naked and silent in the starlight.
The Castle of the Black Serpents
Cut back to Yasmina being abducted. Dizzying heights and numbing speed, vertigo and oblivion, fade out. She awakes on a dais covered in black velvet standing in a great, dim room. On another dais a few feet away a hooded man sits cross-legged, gazing contemplatively at her. Long black velvet robe, embroidered with gold thread, falls loosely about him, his hands folded in his sleeves. His face calm, placid, not unhandsome, his eyes lambent and slightly oblique. He does not move a muscle.
The Master of Yimsha taunts her with her revenge plot, tricks her into thinking she has a knife instead of a golden lotus to attack him with, and sends her back in time to view all the shapes that she has held.
A hallucinatory sequence, blurred within the mists of time, overtakes her. A succession of female figures, crouching and shuddering in primordial jungles, then standing within walled cities bursting into flame, then reeling naked and bleeding over burning sands, dragged at a slaver’s stirrup, then screaming under the bite of the lash, then the agonies of childbirth, then the proud Devi of Vendhya surrounded by servants, playing with her brother as youngsters, then dying at her blade.
When she awakens the Master of Yimsha towers over her. Bony arms grip her lithe body, and from that hood looks forth a shuddering, faltering countenance of death and decay — features like rotting parchment on a moldering skull. She screams again as those champing, grinning jaws bend towards her lips for a kiss…
Outside and below a group of horsemen stare at the stronghold of the wizards. A closer, smaller entrance tower, beyond gleams the walls of a greater pyramid-shaped keep. A touch of unreality about the whole.
As they climb they are attacked by a gaunt, savage dog, a hawk with wings like burnished steel, white puffballs of smoke that
burst with blinding flame, a horn player with a bronze horn that creates earthquakes, and a tide of molten lead.
They enter the tower, chasing half a dozen green-robed figures who inexplicably disappear over the edge of a chasm. The mystery of the deathly, impassable chasm is solved by following “the golden vein.”
Green-robed acolytes await them on the other side. A whirl of blades, the bite of real steel and the spurt of real blood, severed quivering flesh, brutal struggle, the acolytes are hacked asunder or hurled back into the chasm.
Conan, the goat-herder, Kerim Shah and four warriors enter the Castle of the Black Seers. Aerial shot of tiny figures on a green jade gallery poised on the dizzy height, then pan up to that fantastic pile of stone towering above them. A sharp wind off the snow slashes at them, whipping their tatters about.
One warrior is stationed outside. Alone, he is met by a tall, black-robed figure, naked head nodding, who turns an arrow into a serpent and kills him.
The men inside find themselves frozen by an invisible crystal curtain. Ahead is an altar of black jade with four sculptures of golden serpents surrounding a crystal globe filled with a cloudy smoke-like substance, in which float four golden pomegranates.
Then on the lower steps of the stair stand four black-robed figures, tall, gaunt, vulture-heads nodding in unison, feet and hands hidden by flowing garments. A major setback to the mission to save Yasmina.
A blackened, mangled, malformed hand compels one of the three remaining warriors to advance against his will. He reaches the steps, kneels, proffers his blade and kowtows. The Seer swings it up and down and lops off the warrior’s head.
A second warrior realizes the same fate.
As the goat-herder is enthralled to advance, Conan gains strength from the magic belt. Everything slows. As Conan hurtles past the altar the cryptic words of Khemsa come to his mind: “Break the crystal ball!”
Execution follows impulse so spontaneously that the greatest sorcerer of the age could not have time to read his mind and prevent his action. Conan brings his knife crashing down upon the crystal. Super slow motion crystal glass exploding in all directions, raining fiery shards on the black marble, the air vibrating with a peal of terror like a thunderclap.
Hisses fill the soundtrack as the golden serpents, suddenly vibrant with hideous life, writhe and smite at Conan. Slow mo horror circles around him, Conan a maddened tiger, a whirl of steel shearing through the hideous trunks that wave toward him.
The four gold pomegranates rise a little, hovering before the goat-herder. Kerim Shah shoots them full of arrows. The four black-robed figures writhe, twist in convulsion, stiffen and die.
Another figure stands at the head of the stair, black velvet robe, velvet cap, calm, not unhandsome. The Master of Yimsha.
The Master draws Kerim Shah’s heart from chest, a splintering of bones, a rending of flesh and muscle and a snapping of mail-links, a shower of blood, and hurls it before Conan’s feet.
Turning to the goat-herder and Conan: “You two shall be my vassals.”
With a roar and a curse Conan charges the stair, the air a shimmering haze through which he plunges like a swimmer, head lowered, left arm bent about his face, knife gripped low in his right hand. Half-blinded, glaring over the crook of his elbow, he sees the hated shape of the Seer wavering as a reflection wavers in disturbed water.
Conan is able to cut him. The wizard becomes a massive snake that slithers away. Conan charges after it.
The goat-herder begins undergoing a hideous transformation, as his soul is drawn from his body, a new pomegranate, and a shade forms nearby for it to enter.
Conan chases something long and swift to Yasmina’s chamber, who is warding off the attack of the giant serpent. Conan throws his knife. The monster whirls and attacks him.
A violent struggle ensues, the snake writhing and knotting around Conan. His long knife rises and falls, shearing halfway through the reptile’s giant trunk. The monster drags itself across the floor, gushing blood from its ghastly wounds, and escapes through a hidden doorway.
Conan clutches Yasmina to him firmly, crushes her lips with his. She eventually resists. Create humor and chemistry through maintaining the action hero but subverting the damsel-in-distress.
Chittering echoes, plinks and clinks, fill the ambient silence of the castle of Yimsha, impregnated with menace.
“We’d better go while we can. Wizards have a dozen lives.”
They stride out of the castle, leaving behind devilish red eyes blinking in shadows, tiny, glowing blood orange pomegranates stirring in chests. At every moment a few more appear. An army of night-weirds amass, to overrun the castle, for what exactly was the truth of the monstrous connection between the Lords of the Black Circle and the golden pomegranates? Among them, unbeknownst to Yasmina, her lost brother Bunda Chand, King of Vendhya.
The Battle of Four Armies
Down the slopes they go, followed secretly by monsters moving in the shadows, hiding from the sun.
Retrieving his stallion, Conan and Yasmina ride along a high ridge that separates two deep valleys. They discover a running fight in progress. The clashing of steel and thunder of hoofs wells up from far below.
Three thousand mailed horsemen driving before them a ragged band of turbaned riders. It is the army of Turanians ordered by Kerim Shah pursuing five hundred of Conan’s “mad Afghulis”.
The magic hour lights up the valley in a mystical illumination, the shadows spread out across the cliff sides and the night-weirds appear behind Conan and Yasmina.
Pan from the turbaned riders charging down a narrowing, high-walled gorge that opens out into a round cul-de-sac, completely rimmed with lofty, un-scalable walls. And on those walls, Conan finally notices monsters.
Conan looks behind them, the devil army at their back. No choice. He points the stallion towards the gorge and they explode down into the bowl.
The Afghulis in desperation turn and fight the Turanians. The night-weirds join the battle, killing soldiers on both sides. Chaos. Conan and Yasmina enter the fray, hacking and slashing with knife and sword from horseback at shadow things, some two times their size
Great snake-like beasts, winged terrors, the monstrous shade of King Bunda Chand. The soundtrack heightens the despair.
And up from behind reappears the goat-herder, in an impromptu disguise as a monster but still fully human, impaling the pomegranate within the king, finally killing him.
Yasmina bends over her brother, again, weeping.
The body count of monstrosities around Conan rises. He yells ferocious orders to the Afghulis who accept him as their leader without comment.
And then, a distant fanfare of trumpets drifts faintly to their ears. The camera, back up the mountain, swings into the deep valley on the left, and catches a glint of steel on the farther side. A long line of lances and polished helmets move along the vale, gleaming in the moonlight.
The Vendhya Army, Yasmina’s Army, joins the battle, crashing down on the monsters of Yimsha. She leaves Conan’s side to lead them.
At the last, five thousand riders of Vendhya join three thousand Turanian riders of Secunderam and five hundred Afghulis to smite the hosts of Yimsha.
All across the valley floor, and up on the slopes near the mouth and over the crests, stream the fugitives and the pursuers.
The moon is high above the distant crags when Conan strides over corpses to Yasmina Devi sitting her horse.
“You kept your word, Devi!” he roars. “By Crom, though, I had some bad seconds down in that gorge…
Down from the sky swoops a fell vulture of tremendous size with a thunder of wings that knocks men sprawling from their horses.
The scimitar-like beak slashes for the Devi’s soft neck, but Conan is quicker — a short run, a tigerish leap, the savage thrust of a dripping knife, and the vulture voices a horribly human cry, pitches sideways and goes tumbling down the cliffs to the rocks and river a thousand feet below. As it drops, its black wings thrashing the air, it takes on the semblance, not of a bird, but of a black-robed human body that falls, arms in wide black sleeves thrown abroad.
Conan and Yasmina end debating the future…
“I will collect your ransom in my own way, at my own time,” he says. “I will collect it in your palace at Ayodhya, and I will come with fifty thousand men to see that the scales are fair.”
She laughs, gathering her reins into her hands. “And I will meet you on the shores of the Jhumda with a hundred thousand!”
His eyes shine with fierce appreciation and admiration, and stepping back, he lifts his hand with a gesture that was like the assumption of kingship, indicating that her road was clear before her.
A few years later. In the village of an Afghuli hill tribe, our goat-herder now a little older, hairy, and its Chief. His own conquest and rise to prominance having gone exactly as described in our first scene.
A few words of Conan the King. Who is the fittest? Conan is the fittest.