Movie Review: Darkon (2006)


By Jonah Begone





Porchlight Entertainment and Ovie Entertainment

Directed by Andrew Neel and Like Meyer

Starring Skip Lipman, Kenyon Wells, Daniel Mcarthur, Rebecca Thurmond and the Darkon Wargaming Club



This is really a documentary, not a movie. It's an exploration of what is called Live Action Role Playing, a not too distant cousin of the historical reenacting we do. I was more or less unfamiliar with this branch of what I thought was medieval, Society for a Creative Anachronism-style reenacting, until I saw this film. As I understand it, the LARPers aren’t reenacting anything save scenarios played out in their own heads.


It’s quite well-produced and can be considered the Citizen Kane of films about tubby, goateed guys whaling away at each other with lath swords and foam axes. Indeed, some of the camera angles, incidental music and overhead shots mimic films like Troy and The Lord of the Rings. It’s needless of me to state, however, that the cheesy plywood castle shown in the climatic battle scene, the townhouses seen in the distance on the fields, the foam weapons and the limited numbers of participants fail to invoke a corresponding sense of epic scope. But that’s no fault of the director; in fact, it’s very much what’s at the heart of this production. Live action role playing seems to be the intersection of amateur theatrics, do it yourself martial arts, Home Depot weaponry and a palpable craving for alternate reality stature, regard and heroism – but more on that last one later.

There are occasions when I would have appreciated a fuller sense of what’s going on and who is representing what. For instance, at one point a guy who is dressed in a foam costume greatly resembling Sesame Street’s Big Bird or some corporate cartoon spokesman, is walking around getting whacked by guys with balsa wood swords. Why? And why, for instance, do some heraldic devices look like anthropomorphic stalks of broccoli? Is this self-effacing humor on the part of the participants or are they being serious?


Obviously, the LARP people are easily mocked. I shall avoid the temptation to do so in this review. Well, for the most part. After all, I recognize that a guy who wears a Civil War uniform poking fun at a guy dressed as an Elf wearing black face, red contact lens and speaking in an invented language (yes!) is like a circus clown who wears a red rubber nose claiming that green-nosed circus clowns demean the profession. (A nod to my pard Mal Stylo for that memorable phrase.)

Darkon has some interviews with LARPers discussing how dull their day-to-day lives are (an SCA type I know describes this as his “mundane” life). I am very used to hearing this in historical reenacting. The spotlight on one overweight young man – a glum Starbucks employee – is almost painful to watch. He describes how his backyard sword practice helps him to lose weight, which he expects will someday enable him to summon up the self-confidence to talk to girls. Whew.


Others describe how they only really come to life with Darkon role-playing in the very same fashion I have heard neo-Confederates and Yanks discuss how intensely they look forward to reenacting weekends. They also describe how desperately dull and unfulfilling their workplace lives are.


This intrigues me, and gave rise to a line of thought which arose within me while watching the documentary: Isn't normal, middle-class American life sufficient to provide happiness any more? If not, why not? After all, our fathers and grandfathers didn't dress up like Sir Michelin Man brandishing foam battle axes on a soccer field. Working, raising kids and generally acting like adults seemed to be enough for them. Is it a matter of there now being too much recreational time in America, or has there perhaps arisen a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with being a male in the 21st century United States?

Or, as I once read in an article in the American Spectator, is the problem one of the world of dumbed-down fancy (comic books, Dungeons and Dragons) taking importance from the more meaningful and literate world of the imagination (the Iliad, the Odyssey, A Midsummer Night's Dream)? One thing that struck me in this film was that the quasi-heroic lines uttered by the role players in their militant, grand pronouncements to one another seemed more or less stilted and illiterate, as if they were taken verbatim from a poorly-translated Italian sword and sandal production. Indeed, one of the major players – a house husband - is shown cleaning his living room while watching John Boorman’s Excalibur. Was that inspiration for role playing battlefield pep talks?  Perhaps a deeper involvement with Homer and Shakespeare would result in less unintentionally funny role playing dialogue!

I instantly noticed a major difference between historical reenactors and the live action role players, a matter of motivation. Reenactors more or less want to experience what it was like. (Yes, you can pretty much encapsulate the hobby into those five words.) There’s a strong self-educational aspect behind historical reenacting. The role playing guys seem to be after something far more elemental: heroism. The appropriate and utterly true tag line for the documentary is, "Everyone Wants to Be a Hero." This has mythopoetic and psychological overtones beyond any hobby and may suggest why 21st century middle-class American life fails to satisfy some men. Watching Darkon, I recalled a passage in an article about heroism:
“Most people, however, experience their own life as though it's a movie to which they arrive about 40 minutes late … Something important seems to be going on, but we can't quite make heads or tails of it … The reason we are drawn to these hero epics is because the human heart says, ‘But I was made for more. This can’t be all there is, doing eight hours in my cubicle, and taking the Metro home and cook­ing my dinner in the microwave and feeding the cat, and getting up tomorrow to do it again. This is it?’”


Indeed. Is that all there is? The answer is no, obviously, and I realize that my involvement in my religious beliefs provides the sort of life meaning that seems to be missing from at least some of the live action role players depicted in Darkon. But I can’t pretend that I have all the answers, nor does my religious activity entirely satisfy all of my needs – else why would I be an active Civil War Federal reenactor?


For me, I discovered my heart’s solution to a call for heroism to be in playing rugby. The sense of danger (and injury!) is much more real than with historical reenacting (and, I would guess, LARPing), and the camaraderie is the kind of unforced, natural and sincere form found within athletic teams. At the end of a rugby match, emerging unscathed, I always felt like I had accomplished something or had taken part in something bigger than myself.


The beer appeals to nearly everyone, too.


Actually, while watching some of the interviews in Darkon I found myself wanting to take some of those overweight young men by the shoulders, shaking them, and strongly advising them to take up rugby rather than dressing up in Halloween garb. (A couple of the LARPers were wearing what looked like Halloween skeleton masks.)


To sum up: This is a well-produced and revealing documentary and is certainly worth the time of historical reenactors. But rather than sit back and laugh at the LARP losers (would a documentary about historical reenacting be much less farcical?), I would admonish viewers who do living history to instead use a viewing as an opportunity to reflect on why it is they’re doing what they do, and to perhaps draw some deeper revelations about themselves and their choice of recreational pursuits.



NOTE: By the way, the funniest article I ever read about historical reenacting and what seems to be LARP was a 1988 piece that ran in the Washington Post by Alex Heard, "Some Not-So-Civil War Games." When viewing Darkon I was reminded of the article.