Janus Film Review Presents: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

as reviewed by Tom.

Format Reviewed: DVD/20th Century Fox (2005).

Conan the Barbarian opens with a Friedrich Nietzsche quote, an ominous voiceover, and a moody montage of a blacksmith portentously forging a sword accompanied by Basil Poledouris’ memorable, robust and pounding score. Subtle it is not, but then if you’re coming to an Arnold Schwarzenegger film looking for subtlety, you’re coming to the wrong place. Sword and sorcery films were having a bit of a revival back in the early 80s, with the likes of John Boorman's Excalibur and Matthew Robbins’ enjoyable live-action Disney fantasy Dragonslayer (both 1981) notable amongst them. Hot on their heels came a star-making turn from pre-Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular Conan, in a role that seemed custom made for the Austrian Oak. He is not required to handle much dialogue, and mostly lets his pectorals do the talking. Director John Milius crafts somewhat of a fantasy western, complete with impressive shots of galloping horses across expansive vistas. The first thing of note is that Conan the Barbarian looks great, thanks not only to how it is photographed, but also in the rich production design of Ron Cobb. Never once do you doubt that you are watching a prehistoric fantasy world. So that’s good, but what about the rest of it?

The film benefits from having a then relative unknown Schwarzenegger in the lead role, before he became the unstoppable superstar force he was for the next decade. The wit and charm of his later, more confident, performances have yet to materialise, and Milius wisely chooses to focus on Arnie as a formidable physical presence, quite literally allowing him to play to his strengths. As an enslaved Conan interminably rotates the Wheel of Pain, the heavy lifting in terms of acting falls to Darth Vader-era James Earl Jones in familiar territory as the antagonist of the story, Thulsa Doom. At the hands of Doom, Conan witnesses the massacre of his people, his father savaged to death by dogs and his mother barbarically beheaded, and is taken into slavery as a child. As the years progress, he finds worth in the gladiatorial ring, winning many a brutal bout until he is finally set free. Trusting only the sword and surviving on brawn and wits, his quest to hunt down Doom and avenge the slaughter of his parents begins. He is joined in his endeavours by Sandahl Bergman as romantic interest Valeria and Gerry Lopez as ‘buddy’ Subotai, who both put in creditable performances. Elsewhere, noted thespian Max Von Sydow brings his inimitable style to one short scene as King Osrić, almost as if to counterbalance the fact that the three main protagonists are a dancer (Bergman), a surfer (Lopez) and Mr. Universe (Schwarzenegger). The fact that this combination works is a big part of the film's rugged charm.

Throughout Conan the Barbarian there is the desolate air of Mad Max crossed with the worthy, good-versus-evil approach of a Biblical epic. None more so than when our hero is crucified on the ‘Tree of Woe’. In fact, the film is quite brutal in places – as is the nature of what is essentially a revenge story – with much blood letting and many a decapitation (plus a little bit of implied cannibalism for good measure). It certainly cannot be said that Conan the Barbarian does things in half measures. It does, however, take itself quite seriously, which is ironic given that the notion of Conan is inherently ridiculous when one thinks about it for too long. This is a character who punches camels and kills buzzards with his teeth, after all. It mostly manages to keep on the tasteful side of overblown and bombastic, but it has never fully won me over. There is no doubting, of course, that it is a well-made fantasy that unapologetically put one of the biggest and most unusual action film stars on the map.

Conan the Barbarian was largely a commercial and critical success. A Schwarzenegger-led sequel, Conan the Destroyer, followed in 1984, with a third film slated for 1987. By then, however, Arnie had become one of the biggest film stars in the world and turned down what would have become ‘Conan the Conqueror’ to make Predator. However, with the Governator now back on our screens, the door is open for the final chapter of Conan’s story. Over thirty years have passed since we last saw Schwarzenegger in the role, and word has it that he is up for revisiting his breakthrough character. The idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan remains a potent prospect and it would be intriguing to pick up the character in the autumn of his years. As we are reminded at the beginning of the film: ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. The legacy of Conan lives to fight another day.

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