[By Rob Roehm; originally posted on January 29, 2012, at http://www.rehfoundation.org]
Over the course of two or three years, about 2007-09, the Howard Days celebration in Cross Plains played host to an actual Hollywood film crew who were shooting a documentary about the event. On Thursday I previewed the final product, Barbarian Days. Due to my involvement in some of the events discussed in the film, my opinions are mixed, and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the REH Foundation’s board of directors. For a more balanced review, check out Damon Sasser’s thoughts on the film. What follows are my observations based on a single viewing.
The film is about Howard’s fans, not Howard. For viewers new to Howard or not connected to fandom, the film provides a decent overview of the Howard Days experience, though, in my opinion, not enough attention is paid to program events, the scholarly discussions, etc. To be fair, that probably wouldn’t be very entertaining to a general audience, which is what this film is aimed at, I think. It looks good, it sounds good, and if you don’t know any of the people onscreen personally, it’s an entertaining look at some slightly odd individuals having a good time. We all have our own little quirks, and this film does a fair job of showing them without making a freak show out of it. It does get a tad melodramatic at times, but that’s just Hollywood.
Regular Howard Days attendees will likely be less satisfied, but still entertained. For as long as I’ve been attending, there have been people filming various parts of the event, all low-budget fan films. With a history like that, it is nice to see a quality production; as I’ve said, it looks and sounds pretty good, though I could have done without some of the extreme close-ups of people’s sweaty faces. Knowing most of the interviewees fairly well, I was a tad irritated at times by the cherry-picking of quotes, but I understand that it’s all in the name of entertainment and most of this is fairly harmless (I can say that as I am not one of the principals; they may have different opinions). In fact, the film is a good time capsule of what was going on a few years ago, with lots of talk of Rusty Burke’s someday-biography and the emergence of the boxing stories into the critical arena. I would probably even want to own a copy when/if a DVD becomes available, except for one thing—a walk through the film will reveal the objectionable scene.
The film opens with some text explaining the basics of Robert E. Howard and the statement that viewers will now “meet the guardians of his legacy.” As the credits roll, viewers are treated to scenes from the Barbarian Festival: the parade, street vendors and entertainers. Interspersed between these shots are comments from the citizenry of Cross Plains—comments that show a general disinterest in Howard: “He lived over there” and “I saw that Conan movie.”
From there, we jump to the annual bus tour of the surrounding area, already in progress. Between shots of the towns of Cross Cut and Burkett, several regular Howard Days attendees listen to tour guide Don Clark talk about the area. The bus arrives at the Howard House and we are treated to some of the locals’ reactions to the visiting fans, all good natured.
From this point on, most of the film focuses on four fans: Rusty Burke, Bill “Indy” Cavalier, Mark Finn, and Chris Gruber. Comments from a host of other attendees are mixed in with the four named to add gravitas or provide a counterpoint to their statements. Through their conversations, we get a short history of Howard Days and Howard fandom in general, with due accolades given to both REHupa and the late lamented journal The Cimmerian. Howard’s life is touched on here and there, with clips from The Whole Wide World thrown in for good measure. A lot of time is spent on what Howard character individual fans most identify with and what drew them to Howard in the first place. The philosophical statements of the fans are overlaid with shots from the Milius Conan film and some overly dramatic music. Up to this point, I was enjoying the film just fine.
More attention is given to the late-night activities at Howard Days than the panel discussions that go on during the day, which brings us to the part of the film that pretty much ruined it for me: the 2007 Gruber-Grin altercation. Rather than leave the topic out, since no one would comment about it on camera, the film-makers decided to use parts of Leo Grin’s published account of the incident as word bubbles in a comic-book reenactment. This animated sequence in no way resembles what actually occurred and suggests that there was physical violence when there was none. I suppose this makes for good movies, but I was disappointed to see it here.
My opinion having soured, the rest of the film didn’t do much for me. From there we learn about the “real lives” of the featured four and the part that Robert E. Howard plays in those lives. The 2005 Cross Plains fire is discussed, with eye-witness testimony from members of Project Pride, and the resulting fire-relief project The Man from Cross Plains. The film ends with statements by the “Howard widows,” the wives of the fans.
And there you have it. If I hadn’t been a participant in the events portrayed in the reenactment, I’d probably be giving this a thumb’s up review. Despite my objections to that scene, I’ll still recommend the film to those that are curious about the Howard Days experience. If you don’t know the people onscreen personally, Barbarian Days is a pretty good show.