John Milius, 1982
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Max von Sydow
As a child, the Cimmerian (a fictional pre-Celtic tribe) Conan witnesses his parents’ deaths at the hands of warrior-priest Thulsa Doom and vows revenge. Conan grows up a slave, subject to the Wheel of Pain and the gladiatorial ring. After he proves himself a champion, he is finally freed. He has a brief affair with a witch, who tells him where to seek out Doom. He also reluctantly befriends Subotai, a thief. They team up with Valeria, a renegade female warrior, and all three sack one of Doom’s temples. They use the stolen wealth to fuel a binge of eating and drinking, when they care arrested by King Osric’s guards. Osric charges them with rescuing his daughter, now part of Doom’s snake-worshipping religious cult. Eager to get revenge, Conan accepts. He is captured, tortured, crucified, and left for dead on the Tree of Woe. Subotai and Valeria free him and bring him to the Wizard of the Mounds to be healed, though with a heavy cost. The three warriors set out to defeat Doom at his Temple of Set, unsure of their fate.
Though this portrayal of Conan does not live up to Howard’s creation, who is smarter, funnier, and more cunning, it is still one of the best sword and sorcery films ever made. Though the early script is from Oliver Stone (this explains the Nietzsche quote that opens the film), director John Milius (writer of Dirty Harry) added many new elements, including some inspired by Japanese films such as Kwaidan and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Like Howard’s initial intention to create a new, yet historically influenced fantasy world, Milius and art director Ron Cobb (Alien) wanted to blend fantasy and history, which they mostly managed to achieve. The Spanish location, Dark Age-inspired sets (with elements of Frank Frazetta’s incredible artwork), and reliance on practical, rather than optical effects, all help to realize Howard’s stunning visual world. These elements would also influence a decade of fantasy films inspired by Celtic Britain and the Viking Scandinavian countries; previous efforts like the Italian peplum films of the ‘60s were more rooted in Greco-Roman sensibilities.
Conan boasts some wonderful set pieces -- which a lot of the other sword and sorcery films from the period clearly couldn’t afford -- and great effects, such as Doom’s transformation into a giant snake. Though most of the effects are done in-camera, the minimal optical effects were created by Visual Concepts Engineering and Industrial Light and Magic, both of whom worked on the amazing dragon in Dragonslayer, and other fantasy blockbusters from the period like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. These elements helped Conan become the premier sword and sorcery film of the ‘80s.
One of the most amazing elements of this production is the score from Basil Poledouris -- he later worked on some of Paul Verhoeven’s films, including Robocop -- which fortunately does much of Arnold’s emoting for him. The acting is exactly what you would expect from this sort of film, though better than many other sword and sorcery movies. Schwarzenegger, Bergman, and Lopez are all inexperienced, though they are balanced by Max von Sydow, who is great in everything, and James Earl Jones as a hammy Thulsa Doom with a lousy wig.
This is the film that really made Schwarzenegger's career. He was noticed by producers in the absolutely ridiculous Hercules in New York (1969) and Pumping Iron (1977), and even if the script and acting fail to recreate Howard's Conan, Schwarzenegger definitely looks the part of the titular Cimmerian. The other characters are inspired by different Howard stories. Valeria is based on two characters found in “Red Nails” and “Queen of the Black Coast.” Her romance with Conan is something that gives the film credibility and more of an emotion backbone, particularly in the second half. Doom is based on the villain in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Subotai is not from the Howard world; Milius based him on and named him after Genghis Khan’s primary general.
There’s a mediocre level of violence, though there are a lot of great fighting and action sequences. Schwarzenegger, Bergman, and Lopez performed their own stunts, which is a also nice touch. The film has a relatively high level of sex and nudity, which plants this firmly in the realm of adult fantasy, though I’m sure many readers of this blog, me included, saw the film for the first time as a child. It is almost not worth talking about the predictable sexual politics of the film, but I've always found it interesting that Conan is objectified almost as much as the female characters.
Though Conan didn’t turn into quite the multi-film series it was expected to, there is a sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984), a spin-off that features much of the same cast, Red Sonja (1985), and the 2010 remake. There was supposed to be a third film made in the ‘80s, Conan the Conqueror, which was never made due to scheduling and contract issues for Schwarzenegger. There was yet another attempt in the ‘90s, King Conan: Crown of Iron, which didn’t work out due to Schwarzenegger’s political career (during his tenure as governor of California, one of the original swords hung in his office). There have been live action and animated television series based on Conan, Conan and the Young Warriors, and two named Conan the Adventurer. There is allegedly an upcoming film with Schwarzenegger, The Legend of Conan, which is scheduled for release in 2014.
Robert E. Howard created the beloved Conan in the ‘30s in a series of short stories for pulp magazines like the groundbreaking Weird Tales. After more than a decade of writing Conan, Howard sadly took his own life in 1936. Other writers have taken up his legacy, such as L. Sprague de Camp, and have published new Conan stories or worked to edit, finish, collect, and publish Howard’s original work. Conan has also appeared in a number of comics. If you have any interest in these, take a look at the lengthy Marvel series, either Conan the Barbarian or Savage Sword of Conan, or the newer Dark Horse series, which began in 2003. For more resources, visit the Robert E. Howard United Press Association or check out this great list of Howard’s works that are currently in print and available for purchase from Amazon.
I highly recommend the Conan the Barbarian Blu-ray, as opposed to the earlier DVD releases. In addition to improved picture quality, it contains all the wonderful original special features, like an audio commentary with Milius and Schwarzenegger, a lengthy original documentary, Conan Unchained, and some new: a documentary about the weaponry in the film, interviews thought to be lost, and more.