Should I Watch..? 'Conan the Destroyer'
What's the big deal?
Conan the Destroyer is an action fantasy adventure film released in 1984 and is based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. The film is a sequel to the 1982 version of Conan The Barbarian and sees Arnold Schwarzenegger reprise his starring role as the greatest warrior in a loincloth. This time, Conan leads a ragtag band of adventurers protecting a young princess on a perilous quest to retrieve a powerful ancient artefact. The film also stars Grace Jones, Wilt Chamberlain, Mako, Tracey Walter, a debuting Olivia d'Abo and Sarah Douglas. The film has a more light-hearted feel to the first movie although it still contains plenty of bloody violence. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the film received a mixed reception from critics and went on to earn $31 million in the US alone.
What's it about?
Conan and his current companion, the cowardly thief Malak, have been eking out an existence before they find themselves surrounded by the forces of Queen Taramis of Shadizar. Instead of imprisoning the pair, she offers Conan an opportunity - her niece Jehnna is destined to undertake a journey to restore the fabled Horn of Dagoth as well as a magical gem that will unlock the path to the horn. Conan initially declines her offer but after Taramis claims that she will resurrect Conan's true love Valeria as a reward, Conan accepts.
Escorting Jehnna is the captain of Taramis' guards, Bombaata, who is sworn to protect Jehnna's life and virginity. As they make their way across the land, they also encounter Conan's friend and wizard Akiro who joins them and Zulu - a powerful female bandit who tags along after being freed from her captors. As they approach the castle of Toth-Amon to retrieve the magic gem, they find themselves surrounded by magical energies and deadly foes...
Release Date (UK)
19th October, 1984
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Worst New Star (d'Abo)
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Supporting Actress (d'Abo)
What's to like?
The two Conan films have been unfairly lumped together with other early Eighties hack and slashers like Red Sonja which is perhaps a bit unfair. The film looks amazing - sets are intricately designed and crafted while the characters look every inch the group of strangers that they are. There is an over-reliance of flashing the flesh, especially for female characters who either wear leather bikinis or suggestive amounts of semi-transparent chiffon. But given the level that Conan the Destroyer is aiming for, this somehow seems appropriate. Anyone who has ever played Dungeons & Dragons will be right at home here.
Schwarzenegger fits back into the role with more confidence than before and his banter with Walter makes this movie feel a bit less serious than the first film. Chamberlain is every inch the behemoth he appears to be, towering over Schwarzenegger while Jones is a barely-contained bundle of fierce rage, again oddly fitting with the film's tone. The increased cast makes the narrative more interesting than it should be but it also makes the action sequences more exciting. And the action sequences are actually very good, still maintaining the bloody clash of swords seen before but also utilising the various environments much better. It's somehow more enjoyable than before, despite the occasional goofiness. Having said that, though, there are still some flaws begging to be addressed.
- Universal believed that the movie would be more of a success if it were more family-friendly, despite the objections of Schwarzenegger and Fleischer at the time. Although it took more than the first film, it was judged to be less successful because of the softening of the film's tone. Producer Dino De Laurentiis and Schwarzenegger walked away from the series afterwards, leaving the proposed third film trapped in development hell and eventually becoming Kull The Conqueror.
- After training for the role for eighteen months, Jones didn't pull any punches on set. Not only did she put two stuntmen in hospital with her staff but she also legitimately bit into Chamberlain's ear during their fight scene - not surprisingly, she and Chamberlain didn't get along on set.
- Dagoth, the monstrous entity who battles Conan for the film's climax, is played by a heavily disguised Andre the Giant. The 7'4" wrestler would appear in person in another fantasy film, The Princess Bride, three years later.
What's not to like?
If anyone thinks that the Razzie voters were unfairly targeting poor d'Abo (she was nominated for Worst Supporting Actress and won Worst Newcomer) then maybe you should watch her performance in this film. She feels completely out of place amid the sweaty machismo and "S&M warrior" costumes and frankly, got on my nerves. She also looks far too young - I know she's supposed to be a virginal princess but she comes across as some misplaced Valley girl. And whilst I'm on the subject, why does this young woman - who is destined to fulfil this quest and complete the prophecy - have no discernible talent whatsoever? In fact, there's even a scene midway through that proves how utterly useless she is. It kinda makes you wonder how she was ever expected to complete such an ordeal.
Such oversights are typical of the plot's progression which never stops to explain exactly how Conan knew that they would be battling wizards or how Jehnna knew which way to go. I don't know whether Conan the Destroyer is based on any of Robert E. Howard's stories but if it is, it seriously puts my desire to read them in jeopardy - the thing feels as steeped in fantasy cliche as a sci-fi fan convention which makes the film feel extremely derivative (even more than the first film) and for long-time fans of the genre, almost insulting in its very generic-ness. There's little to no tension in the film because Conan feels like an indestructible caricature instead of the former slave fighting for vengeance in the first film. Having said all that, this is more enjoyable than the first film which is far too serious for its own good. The humour and banter between the characters might be at odds with the original source material but it makes this film more interesting somehow.
Should I watch it?
While it was unlikely to become a classic example of the genre, Conan the Destroyer is a hard film to dislike. It works hard to match the fierce and bloody violence of the original with a more light-hearted feel that almost pokes fun at the long-established stereotypes of all things swords and sorcery. It isn't as plodding as the original and is more fun despite a poor plot and less interested performances. But compared to a certain trilogy produced by Peter Jackson, this looks low-budget and cliched.
Great For: fans of the first film, anyone who plays "Dungeons & Dragons", Schwarzenegger's relentless surge as Hollywood's best strongman actor
What else should I watch?
The original Conan The Barbarian was one of the early films that helped establish Schwarzenegger as a genuine star, leading to his defining role as the unstoppable cyborg killing machine in James Cameron's The Terminator. From further appearances in films like Predator and The Running Man as well as comedies like Twins, his takeover of Hollywood would become inevitable. Remarkably, he returned to making movies after his time as Governor of California with films like The Last Stand and Escape Plan before becoming a full-time member of The Expendables 3.
Fantasy films were largely perceived by the public-at-large as being nerdy tales featuring impossibly-bulky muscle men and scantily-clad wenches - Conan the Destroyer, in other words. In fact, it wasn't until Peter Jackson delivered his magnificent The Lord Of The Rings trilogy in the early Noughties that interest in fantasy films was revived. Sadly, the three films were so much better than other films of the type that the likes of Eragon, In The Name Of The King and even the 2011 remake of Conan The Barbarian paled into insignificance and were quickly forgotten.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox