CONAN THE BARBARIAN is my go-to Christmas movie, and some new things really stood out to me at this year's viewing.

I want to talk about THIS moment and THIS guy.

This is the story of Red Hair.
Red Hair isn't much present -- and that, quite different -- in the latest script draft I can find, which is the John Milius third (this page links both it and the Oliver Stone first draft ).

The final film is another story: he's HUGE.
It's Red Hair who chains Conan to the Wheel of Pain, who turns him into a pitfighter, who educates him and uses him as breeding stock, and who finally, unexpectedly, sets him free.

This is a man who matters enormously in Conan's life, and in the story.
For Conan, who makes no decisions in any part of this sequence, this part of the film is a series of barely-connected experiences. For Red Hair, it's a complete narrative arc in a chunk of the picture that you could legitimately argue is a standalone short film about him.
So who is Red Hair?

To understand that, you first have to understand where he comes from, which requires revisiting the raiding scene at the film's opening. The raid on Conan's village is carried out by three different kinds of people.
The first kind are the cultists of Set, led by Thulsa Doom, whose flunkies are Rexor (big mustache) and Thorgrim (big hammer). These guys are easily distinguished because they are a) in charge b) all about snakes. They put snakes on everything: armor, helmets, shields, weapons.
The second kind of people at the raid are Picts. These are the guys with painted faces and/or tattooed bodies, as seen in the background here and in closeup in the form of Arnold's friend and fellow bodybuilder Franco Columbu as a Pictish scout.
The third kind are Vanir. These are Red Hair's people. They're a northern people, like the Cimmerians, but they wear furs where the Cimmerians wear skins, and fight on horseback while Cimmerians fight afoot.
Note that the Picts and the Vanir are doing their own thing, style-wise. They're not all about snakes. Meaning they're not in Thulsa Doom's cult.
This makes sense. Remember, "two years ago it was just another snake cult." So in Conan's boyhood, Thulsa Doom's set must have been even smaller.

Which raises the obvious question: what are the Picts and the Vanir even doing there?
The Wizard's voiceover says that no one knows why the raiders came, but later in the picture Thulsa Doom tells Conan why: in his youth, he was mad for steel, and fought to get it.

Given his then-paltry followers, to fight for steel, Thulsa Doom would have needed allies.
And to get allies, he had to give them *something.* We don't know what he gave the Picts, but the Vanir got slaves: the children of Conan's village.
Red Hair isn't in on the raiding of Conan's village. He's just a boy himself, a few years older than Conan. The first time we see him is as part of the small group of Vanir riding off with the slaves afterward.
He goes with them all the way to their destination. Note that Red Hair is the only one without a helmet. Milius wants you to see that mop of hair. He's marking that character.
Digression: marking a character is a film technique that isn't talked about much but is used a *lot;* and feels like it's become almost obligatory in the last couple of decades, if there's a chance of the audience not recognizing a returning character who is important.
For example, if the character is one of a number of similar-looking characters/creatures, or is played by multiple actors because the story makes a time jump. Think of Lurtz's big palmprint makeup in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001) or Amleth's necklace in THE NORTHMAN (2022).
The first time we get a really good look at Red Hair, and see his face, he's securing the chains binding twelve-year-old Conan to the Wheel of Pain that Conan is going to push for at least a good ten years. Maybe more.

There's a reason both kids get closeups. They'll meet again.
But in the intervening decade plus, this is Conan's office.
The movie never gets into what the Wheel of Pain is actually for, but it's clearly a mill, probably for a salt mine; in closer shots there's some scattered white powder around the base, and if you look to the bottom right of the frame there are some additional facilities.
And the mine is not a very productive one, because over the course of Conan's tenure slaves reassigned, sold off, or deceased don't get replaced. By the end of his time there Conan is the only one pushing it.
The garrison is drawn down, too: by the end of its run it's literally one guard and Conan, which sounds like a premise for a bizarre sitcom.

This is when Red Hair returns.
Again, that's what the big bushy mop of red hair is for: telling you this is the same guy. He greets Conan's one guard with respect, but also warmth. Then he leads Conan away, and the wheel stops. Probably forever.
Why Red Hair matters: long involvement with the Wheel of Pain and evident closeness to its personnel suggest that the facility is part of his family concern.

Red Hair isn't buying Conan; he already owns him, and he's repurposing a small asset, part of a failed larger asset.
This is how Conan's new career as a pitfighter begins: either Conan's a winner, or he's one less mouth to feed. (Red Hair evidently doesn't much care which, as he doesn't even bother explaining to Conan that Conan is about to be in a deathfight.)
But Conan wins.

And wins.

And keeps winning.

"In time, his victories could not easily be counted."
Red Hair is making bank. Conan is, surprisingly, a profitable asset. So what do?

Red Hair chooses to reinvest in his asset. Conan goes east to learn from the warmasters.
This is a sensible choice. Conan is a great pitfighter. If he learns to fight with battlefield weapons, he's got some new career options. Maybe a gladiator, fighting for big bucks in actual arenas. Maybe even a soldier, to win real gains for Red Hair's family and people.
Conan surprises again. He impresses the warmasters. The instructor corrects him, slaps him around a bit, sure... and *nut-kicks* the other guy. It's a hard school, but -- as a watching Red Hair sees -- Conan is a hard worker and a good student.
And Conan learns well.

Very, *very* well.
So Red Hair invests further. He takes his biggest step yet.

*He teaches Conan to read.*
Why teach a pitfighter, a gladiator, even a soldier to read? Why give him access to "the poetry of Kitai, the philosophy of Sung?"

It shows Red Hair has started to dream big. He realizes Conan isn't just a fighter. He's potentially an *officer.* A captain. Maybe even a general.
Red Hair lives in a martial society, and he has found himself, quite by chance, the manager of a remarkable martial talent. (One he is breeding "to the finest stock," probably bc all of this talent development far from home is expensive and Conan's stud fees are supporting them.)
But then Conan meets the Turanian Khan, and Red Hair -- who has been making money off of Conan & reinvesting that money back into him -- suddenly decides to sacrifice any hope of profit, to write entirely Conan off his balance sheet, and to send Conan off to make his own fortune.
Why does a shrewd investor like Red Hair do that?

The answer lies in the scene everybody remembers in CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Because Red Hair is in it, and it's important that he is.

So let's talk about the khan scene.
People forget the first line in that scene, delivered by the khan: "My fear is that my sons will never understand me." Or treat it like it's a dubbed-in joke.

It is NOT a joke. It is NOT a bit of goofy ADR.

The khan announces his fear that his sons will never understand him. He mentions some names, evidently a couple of sites of victory: "We won again!"

Everyone cheers.

"This is good," says the khan. "But what is best in life?"
One of the younger men answers, "The open steppe. A fleet horse. Falcons at your wrist. And the wind in your hair."

The Khan bellows: "WRONG!!!! Conan, what is best in life?"
Whereupon Conan answers: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

"That is good!" cries the Khan.
The talk about that scene tends to focus on Conan's answer. Here's what that overlooks:

Why does the scene open with the Khan worrying his sons will never understand him?

And it is not on its face a terrible answer! Imagine doing that! Falconing on the open steppe from horseback, wind in your hair? That is actually *pretty freakin' boss!*

But that is not a khan's answer.

That is a *nobleman's* answer.
And here's the thing: *Red Hair is, in his rough society, a nobleman.*

I bet the khan's son's idea of the good life sounded pretty reasonable to him. It sounds pretty good to me. But if you are a khan, this is wrong.
Khans do not make war so that they may live. They live so that they can make war. *Hearing* of victories is not great in the way that *winning* the victories for yourself and *being there at the victory* is great.

So consider how this scene unfolds from Red Hair's perspective.
Red Hair has gained an audience with the Turanian khan. (This is a feat!) Conan is seated higher than everyone else, in a central position. He's on display.

Red Hair is pretty clearly looking to impress the Turanian khan with Conan.
Red Hair's goal in this is probably either 1) an alliance, with Conan leading Vanir troops in alliance with Turanians, or 2) selling Conan's services or Conan himself to the khan. And so far, things are looking good.
But then the khan worries his son doesn't understand him. To test his fear, he asks a khan's question of his son, and gets a nobleman's answer. The khan is disappointed.

So he asks a slave.
Asked a khan's question, Conan gives a khan's answer.

If you're Red Hair, this poses a bit of a problem: *what do you do when you realize that you're holding as a slave a man who is, by the dictates of your society, your unquestioned better?*
This is not about anti-slavery enlightenment, with Red Hair seeing himself & Conan as moral equals. Red Hair is a man who lives in a society of power, hierarchy, & honor. Conan *thinks about these things the way the most powerful men of this society think.* And Red Hair does not.
There is absolutely no way that Red Hair can keep such a man as Conan as a slave. He couldn't look himself in the mirror, if he had one.

More: it's not just about how Red Hair sees himself. There are real practical problems here.
Red Hair is keeping a natural king as a pet, and the only reason he can get away with it is that the king hasn't realized that he is a king... *yet.*
If Conan realizes he is a king in waiting, Red Hair is dead.
If Red Hair sets Conan up with the planned Turanian gig, the khan's son is certainly not going to be pleased to have around a man who understands his father better than he does.

If not murdered, Conan and Red Hair could be swept up in a Turanian civil war *that they caused.*
If Red Hair tries to kill Conan himself -- and good luck with that; he's totally physically overmatched -- he's looking at either his own death at Conan's hands, or incurring the ire of a khan who now likes Conan better than he likes Red Hair.
If Red Hair frees Conan and keeps him in company, the best-case scenario is that Red Hair will in short order become a man following his own former slave.
So Red Hair does the only thing he can do: he strips Conan of his pit-fighter's headdress, cuts his chain, and boots him out into the night.
Given sudden freedom, Conan doesn't know why. But Red Hair does, and he trusts that a man who is obviously a misplaced king will find his own way.

As he does.
Look how much that character accomplishes, how important he is, how many meaningful choices he makes, and how much meat there is to talk about when it comes to this guy.

In CONAN THE BARBARIAN, the sum of Red Hair's spoken dialogue comes to less than twenty words.

See All