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The Prehistory of Conan

Robert E. Howard, the subject of Dan Ireland's wonderful debut film The Whole Wide World, created the sword-and-sorcery genre with his Conan stories. Howard had a grand yet coarse-grained consciousness. His Conan stories, set in a fictitious primordial age full of demons and killers, boasted swift, cartoon-flavored action ("He moved with the supple ease of a great tiger, his steely muscles rippling under his brown skin"). Conan himself pushed the appeal of the strongman superhero to its outer limits as a "black-haired, sullen-eyed thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth"--in short, the most honorable murderer around, able to sunder any encroachments on his freedom with a single thwack of his blade. Some followers of Howard thought that Conan evolved out of the young west Texas writer's adolescent insecurities; L. Sprague de Camp called the author "maladjusted to the point of psychosis."

Vincent D'Onofrio (the obese basket case in Full Metal Jacket) portrays Howard freakily well in The Whole Wide World. His characterization is so rich and multi-faceted that Howard's "maladjustment" pales before his talent and potential and the depth of his wasted heart. The movie tells the true story of Howard's abortive love affair with schoolteacher Novalyne Price, who recounted this rich and peculiar mid-1930s tale in her memoir, One Who Walked Alone (published in 1985 under her married name, Novalyne Price Ellis). Using coiled, theatrical gestures and a bellowing delivery, D'Onofrio makes bombast seem like second nature to this bouncing boy-man; his first nature remains mysterious. A mama's boy with a physically sick mama and a distant doctor father, he carries his big body carelessly, as if he'd bulked out not only to stand up to bullies but also to forge an image fit for his prehistoric imaginings. The tragicomic tension Howard generates circles out and embraces not just the whole wide world, but the whole damn universe.

Price likes Howard because he's literary--a rarity in a tiny town like Cross Plains--and she's an aspiring writer herself. When they joyride together through the wide open spaces, his bounding energy promises romance and deliverance from the small-town mundane--the slashing catharses that his heroes carve out with scimitars. But it would take more than a scimitar for him to cut his mama's apron strings; by the end of the film, they form a psychic noose. Ann Wedgeworth is amazing as Mrs. Howard; in a few brief scenes she communicates an Olympian, upsettingly sensual blend of graspingness, neediness and territoriality. What's saddest about the movie is that if his mother weren't in the way, Price would be Howard's perfect companion. Without playing the meek, admiring maid, she's ready to take in everything Howard can teach her about writing as a craft and a calling. She's absorbent yet strong--a fibrous sponge ready to wipe her tarnished Lochinvar clean and introduce him to society.

Renee Zellweger has a tough, non-insistent purity in this part that cuts deeper than the charming, goofy goodliness she displays in Jerry Maguire. She's able to respond fluidly to D'Onofrio's liquid shifts from belligerence to bathos because she has a terrific fix on her own character. Zellweger doesn't try to inflate Price beyond what she is: a smart, independent woman who tests her talent, open-mindedness and unconventionality when she befriends a gifted, complicated man who's hanging over an emotional abyss. Zellweger's features are elastic in the best sense. They elongate, contract, or scrunch up--in fear, surprise, or disgust--then snap back into place. And when she smiles, she glows like the Texas sunsets this pair gets all moony about. Zellweger is one of the few actresses you could imagine as a Dickens heroine, except that her voice rests naturally between a drawl and a twang and her unfettered emotionality and gaiety are quintessentially American.

The film is virtually a two-character piece, but it moves on billowing waves of feeling. As Howard waves his arms over the primordial Texas landscape and intones his vision of lost frontiers, he sweeps the audience up in his dark exuberance. Howard and Price reflect Old West archetypes of the prairie schoolmarm and the untamed loner--the Angel and the Badman--but in a funhouse-mirror way. Howard sees himself as a warrior reincarnate and a celebrant of a dying heritage. Price alternates between seeing him as a man born in the wrong time and a sad, hard case: a misfit who dreams of being a swashbuckler roaming free when he's actually shackled to his mother. And Price--an individualist yearning for social acceptance and conventional happiness--is herself a divided soul. The Whole Wide World may remind you of The Last Picture Show with its view of men and women seeking release in a parched environment. Howard, alternately outraging and amusing the local populace, roaming through Cross Plains streets in the costume of a vaquero, drifts into madness; he finds himself unable to write as his mother's condition deteriorates. As it reaches its climax, the movie comes close to that classic expression of a gifted young mind sickening in front of a concerned teacher, Lionel Trilling's "Of This Time, Of That Place." Trilling, with his high literary standards, might not have recognized the tragedy of a pulp writer like Robert E. Howard. Dan Ireland, like Novalyne Price Ellis, does.

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