Conan the Cruel?

When the feds ban films of animal cruelty


Credit: Conan the Barbarian

Does Conan the Barbarian have serious artistic value? That's one of the intriguing questions raised by a case the Supreme Court heard in October.

Because Conan includes footage of horses tripped by wires, it is arguably covered by a federal ban on depictions of animal cruelty. If so, Amazon is committing a felony by selling it, unless the online retailer could convince a jury that the 1982 epic—in which a bare-chested, codpiece-wearing future governor of California declares that the best thing in life is "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women"— has "serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value."

Defending the ban against an "endless stream of fanciful hypotheticals" involving videos of hunting, bullfighting, and all manner of hostile interactions between animals, Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal told the justices they needn't worry about a chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech because the government uses the law judiciously. But when Justice Sonia Sotomayor pressed him to explain the legal distinction between the dog fight videos that earned Virginia pit bull enthusiast Robert Stevens a three-year prison sentence and the much gorier but explicitly negative treatment of dog fighting in the 2006 documentary Off the Chain, Katyal allowed that "the line will sometimes be difficult to draw."