Janus Film Review Presents: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

as reviewed by Dan.

Format Reviewed: DVD/20th Century Fox (2007).

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.

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