Dragons. Giant beasts sliced in half. Class warfare within the confines of a giant castle. In the mythology of fantasy icon Conan the Barbarian, “Red Nails” has a little bit of everything. The short story, originally published in Weird Tales magazine in 1936, was also the last Conan story that creator Robert E. Howard ever wrote—he died by suicide shortly after completing it.
Decades later, an attempt was made to translate “Red Nails” into a fierce, violent animated feature film. Producers promised an all-star cast, including Ron Perlman as the barbarian, and an accomplished troupe of filmmakers.
For writer and producer Steve Gold, Conan: Red Nails was to be the first truly reverential adaptation of Howard’s character committed to film.
“No one has ever made a real Conan movie,” Gold tells Mental Floss. “With all respect to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who I truly admire and would love to work with on a Conan project, there has never been a movie or TV series that has ever faithfully adapted the stories of Robert E. Howard. I cannot overstate the power, sweep, and scope of his writing.”
But despite that ambition and a general sense that “Red Nails” was arguably the best Conan tale Howard created, the movie would never see the light of day.
Conan the Adapted
A lifelong Texan, Howard was just 18 years old when he sold his first story, “Spear and Fang,” for publication. Howard saw writing as a way out of the banality of working conventional jobs, making his own hours as readily as he made his own worlds.
As many writers had figured out, one way to solvency was to create characters that could recur in the pulp magazines of the era. Howard had many, from Solomon Kane to Kull the Conqueror. None, however, seemed to strike the same nerve as Conan. Introduced in a 1932 issue of Weird Tales, Conan was a brute who stalked the Hyborian Age, his sword cleaving though monsters, villains, and magic. (He would eventually become a king, though Howard liked to move readers through Conan’s life in a non-linear fashion.)
Howard’s decision to die by suicide at age 30 may have been made in part due to his mother’s deteriorating health coupled with his own seeming disinterest in living a long life. (At age 24 he remarked that “my best days … lie behind me.”)
Conan, of course, did not rest with the loss of his creator. Howard’s stories continued to appear in magazines and later in paperback book collections illustrated by artist Frank Frazetta. It’s how many people, including animation director Victor Dal Chele, were introduced to the character.
“One day [a friend] asked me if I had ever heard of an artist named Frank Frazetta,” Dal Chele tells Mental Floss. “I hadn’t. I had no idea who he was. My friend went to his closet and pulled out a prized possession, a poster of the [Lancer] paperback book cover for Conan the Adventurer. The now world-famous Frazetta cover of Conan the Barbarian standing on top of the mound of dead body parts. My mind was blown away by what I saw. So in introducing me to an artist I’d never known anything about, he also introduced me to the world I knew nothing of, the world of Conan. I read all the Lancer books at the time, then all the Marvel comics in the following years.”
In 1970, Marvel debuted Conan the Barbarian as a comic book title, introducing him to a younger audience. Though it came close to being canceled after just seven issues, the comic eventually found its footing and became one of Marvel’s bigger successes. A black and white magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan, followed.
The character arguably peaked in the public’s consciousness with 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, a live-action adaptation starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that maintained Conan’s signature brutality. A comparatively tame PG follow-up, 1984’s Conan the Destroyer, was met with mixed reception. Though Schwarzenegger was contracted for a series of Conan adventures, he never made another.
Still, Conan lived on. An animated series, Conan the Adventurer, aired in 1992 and 1993; reimagined for kid viewers and produced by Sunbow Productions (G.I. Joe), this Conan didn’t do much pillaging. A follow-up, Conan and the Young Warriors, aired in 1994.
Future Red Nails producer Steve Gold was among those who worked on the latter series. “I was the production manager, and it aired on CBS, when Saturday morning cartoons were still a thing,” Gold says. “The show was absolutely constructed and scrubbed to be non-violent. It was, for all intents and purposes, Conan in name only.”
So, too, was a syndicated live-action series starring bodybuilder Ralf Moeller that stuck around for one season in 1997 and 1998. Despite Moeller’s 22-inch biceps, it didn’t catch on. It seemed no one could see Conan and his world quite the way Howard wrote it—something Gold hoped to correct.
“Red Nails” From Page to Screen
The character’s dormancy seemed to lift in May 2005, when the company Gold co-founded, Swordplay Entertainment, announced plans for a full-length animated Conan feature. Titled Conan: Red Nails, the movie would be based on the last Howard story, with Conan finding himself on a journey alongside warrior Valeria and in the middle of a conflict between two groups clashing inside of a castle. Dal Chele, who had worked on animated series including The Real Ghostbusters and Spider-Man, was director and co-producer, among other duties; Gold was a writer and producer along with Jonathan Bogner and David Schwarz; Michael Kaluta and Mark Schultz would be concept designers.
Swordplay had licensed Conan from Paradox Entertainment’s Peter Sederowsky and Fredrik Malmberg, who controlled the rights to Howard’s work. (Malmberg eventually purchased Paradox in 2015, putting Conan under the purview of his Cabinet Entertainment and later Heroic Signatures.)
“We had a period where [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator] Kevin Eastman and Joe Pearson wanted to make an animated [movie], but that never came to fruition and then Steve Gold from Swordplay reached out to us about it,” Malmberg tells Mental Floss.
The script, written by Gold, hewed closely to Howard’s version of Conan, a fidelity that both he and Dal Chele had felt was missing from previous incarnations. “There were the two Schwarzenegger live-action films, and the two animated television versions of Conan,” Dal Chele says. “Bottom line, I believe what we were trying to do was to adapt the original Robert E. Howard stories as close to the original stories as possible. The movies didn’t stay as true to the original stories as we wanted to with ours.”
In Red Nails, Conan is hired by a trio as a mercenary. One of them, Valeria, knows Conan from previous encounters. After a battle sequence in which Conan lays waste to an army, he and Valeria find themselves taking harbor in a palace in the city of Xuchotl and caught in a bloody battle between two warring cultures—the Tecuhltli and the Xotalanc. After being introduced to Conan and Valeria by the friendly Techotl, a Tecuhlti prince named Olmec convinces them to fight on their side. As is often the case in Howard’s world, Conan soon learns he has good reason not to trust anyone.
According to Dal Chele, the finished film likely would have landed as a PG-13 feature. “If the film would have gotten made it would have been perhaps looked at as a turning point in American animation because it was not toned down for an audience of children,” he says. “We intended it for a PG-13 and above audience. In fact, we entertained a R-rated version or rather a director's cut version as well as the original PG-13 version.”
“I wanted our film to accurately adapt the source material, and our main character,” Gold says. “I don’t believe violence should ever be pursued gratuitously, but purposefully, with a real focus on the repercussions of violence. Even when Conan kills the dragon, after a truly epic encounter, Conan has respect for this beast—one creature of the wild recognizing another.”
Ron Perlman was cast as Conan; Mark Hamill, Clancy Brown, Cree Summers, James Marsden, and Marg Helgenberger rounded out the principal roles. A fall 2006 release was planned on home video, though Swordplay executives allowed that positive test screenings might result in a theatrical bow. If successful, Swordplay planned to do a number of animated Conan features. But getting through the first was going to be harder than they imagined.
The Battle to Bring Red Nails to Screen
According to Dal Chele, the production schedule was hurried. “I think the most challenging part of the process for me was all the preproduction [getting] done in approximately six months,” he says. “All the designs for backgrounds, for the many, many characters and props was daunting. My saving grace was that I had such good friends and greatly talented people working with me on all the design aspects.”
As befits the violent world of Conan, Red Nails had several action sequences, including one in which Conan and his party wade into a battlefield and Conan butts heads with Baalyaug the Butcher, and another in which Conan and Valeria slash through an army of the undead.
While far from a buddy movie, there’s a strong connection between Valeria and Conan—a playful dynamic between two warriors who respect each other. “Valeria is important as a character because her arc starts out in rivalry,” Gold says. “She sees Conan, not as he is, but as an adversary, and she’s disdainful of his background and still jealous of his past successes.
“Given everything she’s been through, which hasn’t been easy, it takes quite a bit before Conan gets through to her. And because this is the sword and sorcery [genre], Conan goes into action, he kills and bleeds for her, he risks everything for her. And once she knows what kind of man he really is, she stands with him.” In Howard’s world, this passes for a meet-cute.
But as 2005 turned into 2006 and then 2007, no sign of Red Nails materialized—this despite the fact that the voice cast had completed their work and test footage had been assembled, some of which ultimately leaked online and appeared to some like an animatic, or pre-visualized sequence.
“The footage that you see in that example is not an animatic,” Dal Chele says, dispelling a popular misconception about the reel. “It’s mostly some of the test footage of the 3D CGI sequences. Most of it, especially the scenes with Conan, Valeria, and Techotl, are there for the animators to reference and use as traceback, then later to further refine in traditional hand-drawn animation. The footage of the monstrosities, however, is probably close to being film ready, except for the fact that the backgrounds were not yet colored or texture-mapped.”
Those fleeting moments would be all Conan fans would get.
Red Nails Stalls Out
By the time Swordplay was prepared to commission the hand-drawn animation, a very atypical Conan threat emerged: a fiscal crisis.
“It was the big iceberg no one could avoid,” Gold says. “Like an insurmountable brick wall. It affected market conditions.”
The so-called Great Recession of 2007-2009 saw economic downturns across all business sectors and a loss of nearly 30,000 jobs in media (and 8.7 million jobs total). According to Gold, it was an especially rough time for an animation start-up like Swordplay, which had yet to establish a track record. Studios and distributors preferred to stick to their own development and tightened their belts on anything they could. One Variety article even noted that plastic surgery appointments in Hollywood were down.
While Swordplay held out hope the project could be salvaged, it was another Conan adaptation that came to fruition instead. “After the release of the Lionsgate live-action feature, we knew we had missed our moment,” Gold says, referring to the 2011 film Conan the Barbarian starring Jason Momoa as the adventurer. Red Nails cast member Ron Perlman played Conan’s father.
That 2011 feature was a commercial disappointment and the last time Conan has appeared in either live-action or animation. (A comic series is currently being published by Titan.) A series of starts and stops has delayed the character’s return, but Conan rights holder Malmberg is confident that could soon change.
“We have a creative vision for both [animation and live-action],” Malmberg says. “We are now putting together the project we believe in, with all the headaches that come with that, but at least we are in control.”
For his part, Gold is not yet willing to concede defeat and believes it's possible he may one day cross paths with the barbarian again. "I think Conan fans missed a chance to enjoy an epic adventure that was true to Howard’s work,” he says. “But you never know. We love the character as much as the fans. Who knows what the future holds?”