Shot Out of a 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 tales, 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 vanquish any encroachments on his freedom with a single thwack of his blade. Some followers of Howard thought Conan evolved out of the young West Texas writer's adolescent insecurities; fellow fantasy author L. Sprague de Camp called him "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 multifaceted that the protagonist'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 by Donald M. Grant 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 up to square off with bullies and also to forge an image fit for his prehistoric imaginings. The tragicomic tension he 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 joy-ride 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 Howard 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 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, noninsistent purity in this part that cuts deeper than the charming, goofy goodliness she displayed 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, openmindedness, and unconventionality when she befriends a gifted, complicated man hanging over an emotional abyss. Her 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 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. Price and Howard 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 sees him both 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, wandering through Cross Plains 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. Ireland, like Novalyne Price Ellis, does.

Graham Greene once wrote, "The literature of escape is literature just because it is a real escape; it contains a recognition of life as much as the action of a deserter contains the recognition of an enemy." Ireland's extraordinarily balanced sympathies for escapism and life give The Whole Wide World a lift beyond mere quirkiness or pathos. The spacious look of the picture, with its key figures framed on riverbanks or cliff tops, frees it from claustrophobia. Ireland uses a terrifically effective counterpoint of sound and image to bring Howard's real and escapist landscapes together. Howard loves to holler out his stories as he types them, and from the moment Price overhears him doing it, the soundtrack becomes the repository of his fantasies. When she opens an issue of Weird Tales with one of his cover stories, hysteria-inducing string music and the clank of swords flood her room until she slams it shut; when Howard is shadow-boxing through the streets of Cross Plains while thinking out a boxing tale, we're aurally encased in the tumult of the ring, fight bell and all, until Price interrupts him and nearly gets slugged.

Ireland and his screenwriter Michael Scott Myers have done a remarkable job of isolating the essence of Howard and Price's relationship, retaining whole scenes and chunks of dialogue from her memoir. They've ignored her account of Howard's more outre beliefs in reincarnation and racial separatism (even in the introduction to the book, written in 1981, his friend Clyde Tevis Smith writes approvingly of Howard's realization that "his People could not survive without unity"). They've cut out his mother's hatred for Indians (an excuse she uses in the book to disapprove of Price, whose father looked like a Native American), and they've deleted an episode in which Price's zealous teaching combined with her intense feelings for Howard sent her to the hospital in a starved, exhausted state. But they've keyed in on the material's most resonating elements -- the battles between magic and realism that every impressionable moviegoer can relate to, and the bartering between idealism and pragmatism that every man or woman negotiates when growing up. As Howard might have written, The Whole Wide World is small of cast but huge of spirit.

The Whole Wide World.
Written by Michael Scott Myers, from the book One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis; directed by Dan Ireland; with Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger.

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