Updated: Jan 30, 2022
When considering the improbable journey that is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career, it is often said it began with his eponymous role in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), and the iconic first utterance of a heavily accented prognostication, promising a swift return and delivery of what would become the signature Schwarzenegger dish: Mayhem, muscles and mangled puns. Whilst it is true that the role of a machine transformed ‘Arnie’ into a genuine box office attraction, it was the intensity of a barbarian that greased the rails, and showed the world that a fiercely determined Austrian émigré could prosper in the treacherous waters of La La Land. Conan the Barbarian (1982) was the culmination of a long-gestating desire to bring the pulp fantasy of Robert E. Howard to the silver screen, and it would be the true beginning of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign atop the Hollywood box office mountain.
Conan the Barbarian is a vivid and effective fantasy film; successfully overcoming the challenges of budgetary constraints, and the limited acting range of the principal cast, by accentuating its positives - visual flair, uncompromising violence and musical excellence - and deftly disguising its flaws. Conan was an action vehicle for the rapidly emerging Schwarzenegger, and the construction of the filmic Conan character plays to his favour. Howard’s barbarian, as depicted here, is lacking in verbal sophistication of any kind. Schwarzenegger’s superhuman physique is wantonly emphasised, and this, alongside the aforementioned commitment to claret and viscera, lends the film an unyielding tone that works alarmingly well. This is a swords and sandals movie, possessed of more than one instance of high camp, yet there is a seriousness to proceedings that elevates it beyond the stereotypical expectations of the genre, and into the realms of legitimate entertainment.
Much of the credit for this sense of cohesion should be afforded to director and writer John Milius, who wrenched the film out of the hands of a distracted and cocaine-addled Oliver Stone, and grounded it in thematic principles. Milius saw Conan in Wagnerian terms, as something of an operatic melodrama, and sought to emphasise the individuality of the character. This is a story of a man cast as a reluctant hero, but motivated always by his own desires and need for personal autonomy. Conan must right the wrongs done to him; even at the expense of those he comes to love. The story is an ode to the complexities of free will, and is, in its own way, very much in keeping with Howard’s original concept of the character. Many fans would doubtless disagree with this assertion, as they likely did with the liberal reorganisation and reapplication of Howard’s various stories and characters (to better suit the needs of the cinematic narrative), but the chosen thread is easy enough to follow, and Conan’s motivations are persuasively conveyed throughout.
Conan begins the story as a traumatised and orphaned boy, spending his formative years as a slave, before finding his calling as a warrior in the fighting pits of the slavers. His aptitude for violence results in his being specially trained, and the strength of his will carries him into adulthood, and the eventual granting of his freedom. From here, Conan is thrust into the savagery of the world at large, and the discovery of his legendary Atlantean sword, and the establishment of his mission: revenge against those who slaughtered his family and his people, and robbed him of his liberty. The film was mostly shot in Spain, and Milius makes adroit use of the various locales, creating a world that is refreshingly sun-drenched yet arid and barren, and littered with architectural character. There is weathered stone and thick, ancient trees, alongside newer, more prosperous (and deliberately constructed) towers and monuments. These are in celebration of Conan’s enemy, the sorcerer Thulsa Doom. He is leader of a cannibalistic, snake-worshipping cult, and the vile revelry and orgies of his adherents are reminiscent of Roman opulence writ large.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lack of thespian savvy has been duly noted, but he was (and is) Laurence Olivier compared to his main co-stars. Joining Conan on his quest is the thief Subotai - so named for one of Genghis Khan’s most famous generals - as played by professional surfer Gerry Lopez (a longstanding friend of ex-surfer John Milius), and 80s icon Sandahl Bergman as Valeria, a ‘female brigand’ and Conan’s doomed love interest. Genuine acting prowess is unsurprisingly rather thin on the ground, but there is a natural chemistry between the three leads, and coupled with Schwarzenegger’s galactic-in-scale charisma, you find yourself strangely invested in the group’s collective travails. Given this general inexperience and lack of refinement, Milius smartly cast several dab hands in supporting roles. Makoto Iwamatsu, better known as Mako, is eccentric and amusing in the role of Conan’s ‘chronicler’ and wizard, Akiro. The always mesmerising Max von Sydow cameos as King Osrić, who engages Conan and his merry gang in a quest to retrieve his daughter from the hands of the cult, and the rich baritone of James Earl Jones is beautifully deployed in the role of Thulsa Doom. Jones brings heft and poise to a mostly one dimensional character, who nonetheless commands the screen whenever (and wherever) he appears.
The constituent elements of Conan the Barbarian are thus a mix of the curious, bizarre, excellent and the absurd, yet the true joy of the film is undeniable, and that is found in the musical work of Greek-American composer Basil Poledouris, whose score was deliberately composed concurrent to the shooting of the film. Milius intended for the score to most effectively articulate the narrative visuals; more so even than the scripted dialogue. This was done partly to offset the relative lack of spoken words within the film, but mostly to further the operatic pretensions of Milius, who saw the film and the score as a grandiose tandem. Poledouris had to work like a madman to maintain pace with the shooting of the film, and any changes or shifts in scheduling had to be instantly reflected in the music. The result of this singular endeavour is one of the all time great musical accompaniments; a score of such power, class and emotion that its reputation far exceeds that of the film for which it was created, and it is a stellar and truly memorable work.
Conan the Barbarian was a relatively low-budget, low-risk affair that nonetheless exceeded all expectations. Though not officially a ’blockbuster’, it grossed one-hundred-million dollars on a sixteen-million-dollar budget. It polarised critics in 1982, and continues to do the same in 2019. To the eyes of this writer, it is flawed and frequently silly, yet earnest and skilfully constructed from the first frame to the last. It is a physical and dramatic experience, ably accentuated by one of the most potent and apt scores ever written for a motion picture. It spawned a bloodless and wholly inferior sequel, and subsequent attempts to revisit the cinematic name of Conan have resulted in a remake so bad, even Jason ‘easy money’ Momoa couldn’t make it work. Alongside this failure stands the enduring dream of an appropriately aged Arnold Schwarzenegger, finding both peace and symmetry in the role of King Conan. Truthfully, of all the things that could hypothetically happen within the world of celluloid, I yearn for that more than anything. Though overshadowed by the subsequent arrival of James Cameron’s greatest creation, for almost two decades Conan the Barbarian stood as the gold standard for all fantasy films in Hollywood, until the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). As legacies go, that’s not bad at all.
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 (1981) and Matthew Robbins’ enjoyable live-action Disney fantasy Dragonslayer (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 (1979) 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 (1984), followed, 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 (1987). 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.