Should I Watch..? Conan the Barbarian (1982)
What's the big deal?
Conan The Barbarian is an fantasy adventure film released in 1982 and is based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. The film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in his breakthrough film as the eponymous sword-swinger in pursuit of a powerful sorcerer who murdered his family. The film also stars James Earl Jones, Max Von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman and Gerry Lopez. Despite mixed reviews including many who interpreted the film as a borderline fascist picture, the film was successful at the box office with global earnings around $130 million and it became a firm favourite with young men especially. Its popularity led to a sequel in 1984, Conan The Destroyer (1), and a remake in 2011. Rumours persist that Schwarzenegger may even return to the role in the near future.
What's it about?
In a prehistoric age long ago, the young Conan is given a sword forged by his father and told to trust in the importance of steel. Not long after this, a band of warriors led by the sorcerer Thulsa Doom arrives and slaughters Conan's people, the Cimmerians. With his father killed by dogs and his mother murdered by Doom, Conan and the rest of the village's children are enslaved and put to work on the Wheel Of Pain - an enormous grindstone. While the other children perish, Conan survives into adulthood and has become a hulk of a man after years of hard labour.
Eventually forced into gladiatorial combat, Conan displays immense talent and after winning many battles is awarded his freedom. With nothing but vengeance in his heart and a sword found in a nearby tomb, Conan sets off in pursuit of Thulsa Doom who has become the leader of a snake cult. Falling in with the thief Subotai and the bandit Valeria, the three of them set off across the land - unaware of the perils they face...
James Earl Jones
Max Von Sydow
John Milius & Oliver Stone *
Release Date (UK)
2nd April, 1982
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Razzie Award Nomination
Worst Actor (Schwarzenegger)
What's to like?
The Eighties saw a huge explosion of interest in the swords-and-sorcery subgenre and it's no small part due to this movie. Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as Conan, his massive frame filling the screen like few others can. It's a role he was born to play, even if his grasp of English lets him down from time to time. This isn't the biggest problem in the world as his supporting cast carry most of the dialogue. But the star is only one part of the whole - the film is actually very well made with sets, props and costumes all looking as they should. It's a film with high quality production values and even some of the effects aren't as bad as you might expect in a film from this era.
Alongside Schwarzenegger, Bergman and Lopez do OK as Conan's loyal allies but I wanted more from Jones as the villainous Doom. Not that he's bad but because he isn't on screen that much. Distracting wig aside, he radiates evil while his familiar voice vibrates with energy and menace - I think he's better here than he was voicing Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy. The action is also exciting and surprisingly gory and doesn't shy away from showing Conan's devastating power with a sword.
- Many critics noted the similarity between the film and the German opera Siegfried with Schwarzenegger's appearance likened to that of the Aryan Übermensch. Some scenes were felt by some as though they were actually directed by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
- Oliver Stone's original script had the film set in the future and featured hundreds of mutated creatures. As that film would have cost more than $70 million (at the time) and ran at more than four hours, Milius adapted the script to something more suitable.
- Schwarzenegger injured his back falling from rocks as he was chased by dogs. Milius noted that the dogs were particularly unfriendly, even attacking their trainer. "When you had the dogs chasing Arnold... he's actually running for his life" he later said.
What's not to like?
I mentioned earlier that Conan hasn't much to do besides hack, slash, punch and kick his way to the film's finale with most of the dialogue handled by the supporting cast. Indeed, Schwarzenegger's first line of dialogue doesn't come in until twenty minutes of the film have already elapsed. As such, his interpretation of the character lacks much of the intellect of Howard's creation - the film version of Conan is little more than dumb muscle, albeit quite a lot of it. It also makes Schwarzenegger feel unengaging in the role which is a shame.
The story is also fairly weak as once Conan's motivations have been established, there isn't much more to tell as the film lurches towards the inevitable conclusion. Yes, I know Von Sydow pops up with tales of a princess that needs rescuing but it doesn't offer viewers much else and certainly nothing that hasn't been seen before. The film needed some surprises and tension instead of sweaty men and women wearing loincloths smiting all and sundry. With all that imagination invested in Howard's stories, it's a pity none of it was really used by the film-makers.
Should I watch it?
It certainly isn't as bad as Red Sonja (2) but Conan The Barbarian is a decent stab at interpreting Howard's character on the big screen. It offers plenty of action for fans to enjoy as well as all the clichéd story-telling one might associate with the role. Like Conan himself, this movie might be big but it's not that clever. A fairly dull storyline and a leading actor compromised by inexperience and a heavy accent tempers the film's edge somewhat but that shouldn't distract from one of the better swords-and-sorcery films from the Eighties.
Great For: Arnie fans, aspiring bodybuilders, fantasy lovers
Not So Great For: younger viewers, liberals, Jason Momoa
What else should I watch?
Momoa would take over the role in 2011's Conan The Barbarian (3) which bombed at the box office and tanked with critics. If the rumours are true then he next film in the series will see Arnie return to the role and be a direct sequel to this first film, meaning that Momoa's time spent in the loincloth was for nothing. It's also a slap in the face to Conan The Destroyer which still made money but received a lukewarm response from critics. It toned the violence and ramped up the humour and as anyone unfortunate enough to see RoboCop 3 (4) will tell you, that's the wrong way to go.
Howard was a writer of pulp fiction back in the 1930s and over the years, has provided cinema with a number of films following similar themes to Conan. Both Kull The Conqueror (5) and Solomon Kane (6) have their roots in Howard's stories, as does the aforementioned Red Sonja which does for fantasy films what The Flintstones do for stone-age man. Sadly, none of these adaptations have really set the world alight and this first Conan movie would be the standard for fantasy films until Peter Jackson's game-changing Lord Of The Rings trilogy begun with The Fellowship Of The Ring (7) in 2001.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox