Conan the Barbarian – The Snake Arrow

thulsa doomIn the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian, the chief baddie Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) shoots an arrow at the escaping heroes (Conan, Valeria and Subotai) but this arrow is pretty special … its actually a snake! The poor beast was stretched out, made rigid, nocked and shot. Sidestepping RSPCA and PETA’s concerns for the moment, there are so many questions we as archers have about this. Assumption: It makes it a little easier if we assume Thulsa being a high priest of a snake god allows him to get cooperation from the snake re going stiff for the duration of the shot. It is after all a fantasy setting. The scene can be viewed on youtube on the unfortunately named clip, if you were avoiding spoilers, “Valeria’s Death”.

There are many many elements in this scene which, to an archer, are fingernails on a blackboard. So with the same compulsion that makes you poke that painful cavity with your tongue, lets have a look at a few of them:

  • Illegal diameter: a 30″ long snake’ body is around 20mm in diameter which means its in breach of the 9.3mm World Archery allows. Even the more lax US rules only allow 10.7mm. Thulsa wont be shooting any competitions with these line cutting nightmares. Even the most myopic judge will be all over these but then again, I don’t see the despotic murderous Doom having too much issue dealing with most judges! 
  • Front of Centre: Our snake has a tapered body with more mass to the front than the rear. According to Easton, this tapered shape “slightly reduces drag while producing a higher front-of-center balance with equivalent overall weight”. In other words, the snake appears to have evolved with an extremely efficient body shape to be an arrow. Spooky! However on examination, the balance point on the snake-arrow doesn’t look to be far enough forward as the snake’s head just doesn’t have enough mass. This will make for a less than stable flight with the arrow possibly going sideways with all the ooof at release! This mechanic of archery leads us on to …
  • Spine: Just how rigid has the snake gone? A snake’s muscles are pretty strong but are they strong enough to lock his hundreds of vertebrae in place against the ferocious acceleration of 0 to 225 feet/sec (see later for this estimate) in a hundredth of a second? This will be, at the very least, hyper compression of the spine and not at all nice for a creature that is mostly spinal column. Hope the snake knows a good chiropractor!    
  • Nocking: Just how do you nock a pointy snake tail onto a bowstring? Well, we thought long and hard about this and Doom may have pinched a feature of the Decathlon Easy Archery set. This uses a ‘cup’ on the string for a blunt cap that replaces the nock to fit into. This could be served into the string just like a peep on a compound and the snake tail goes into the cup. Not exactly a precision fit but possibly adequate. Hmmm, if Hyboria has Decathlon stores, it would explain where Conan gets all his outdoor gear .. just like our editor! (He’s not as buff though. Certainly not after 1 year of gymless COVID house arrest).
  • Draw: Doom is shooting a horse bow yet he is using a 3 finger, one over two under, Mediterranean draw rather than a thumb ring or even a three under. Now this is Hyborea where everything from late medieval German (Aquilonia) to hairy arsed barbarians (Cimmerians) exist at the same time so perhaps not a great crime. While drawing, his hand is a little way away from his face meaning a less reliable anchor point/draw length but his shot is extremely dynamic meaning no loss of power. Doom gets a pass on his technique.
  • Bow Poundage: There is some ominous creaking when Doom draws the bow implying there is a lot of stress in those limbs. This would be reasonable as the snake probably weighs around 150g (2300 grains) or 5 times the weight of modern hunting arrows (450 grains). The flight time of 2 seconds to cover the 150 yards to the target (a guesstimate) is going to need a terrifying draw weight to get the 225ish feet per second required. Using this arrow speed calculator we think a draw weight of 400lbs is a pretty good ballpark figure. Talk about overbowing!!!!!!! The bow does have a disturbingly high brace height though thus reducing the transfer of potential energy to the bow. Guess the prop department went for look rather than function.
  • Bare shaft: The snake has no fletchings or vanes attached so this is basically a bareshaft. Thulsa hits a moving target at 150yards which implies to us that his bow is perfectly tuned for this spine of arro … err … snake. We suspect the snakes Doom keeps around all have the same physical dimensions to make shooting them easier assuming he is a regular shooter of snakes (he does attempt a second snake shot later in the movie). It would certainly help with his instinctive shooting, his sight marks at defined distances as well as making it easier to tune the bow if the snakes are all the same. 
  • Snake’s Head/Pile: Just how much penetration would you get from a snakes head? In the film the snake punched straight through causing significant internal injuries and eventual death. In reality however, the bones in a snakes skull are not very thick and he has a blunt nose. On impact with the target (the athletic lady warrior thief Valeria), the snake is going to hit something pretty solid. The blunt force trauma is going to break a rib or two in Valeria and perhaps some internal bleeding but the snake is going to come off so much worse. That chiropractor might not be enough.

Conclusion: So there you have it. A dramatic moment in a classic swords and sorcery movie totally ruined by obsessive compulsive archers. A snake does not make a good arrow and we feel Doom could not have made the shot as depicted in the movie … unless he was assisted by magic or has at least an average Korean recurve coach. ;o)
As was noted earlier, this incredibly OCD analysis of an archery scene in a fantasy movie was initially inspired by someone asking on an archery subreddit “Would Frozen snakes work the same as arrows? I don’t have arrows, I just have snakes and my wife’s compound bow.” I know but it’s the internet. What can you do!?