“…crush your enemies. See them driven before you. And to hear the lamentations of their women.“
Dir. John Milius
Runtime: 129 minutes
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow
Forget his breakthrough(?) film “Hercules in New York” (1970), forget his appearance on “The Streets of San Francisco” (circa 1977)… for me, this 1982 “sword and sorcery” epic is the one which put Arnold Schwarzenegger on the map as “Conan the Barbarian”.
The Conan character that Arnie played was originally created by Robert E. Howard in the 1930’s and was first seen in the Weird Tales fantasy and horror magazine. It was thanks to films like “Star Wars: A New Hope” in 1977 that Hollywood realised that using fantasy adventures in supernatural lands would pull audiences in. As a result, they were happy to pull the fictional warrior in for an appearance who was at-the-time entertaining audiences on the pages of Marvel Comics.
In a distant age, a tribe of Cimmerians are brutally slain by occult leader Thulsa Doom and his raiders. Conan, a young Cimmerian boy, sees his father killed by dogs and his mother decapitated with the sword that his father, a blacksmith, had forged and was using to teach him with. Conan and other surviving children are taken in to work as slaves. A hardy and stubborn child, Conan survives into adulthood and is made big and strong by continuously working the Wheel of Pain. Because he is so big and strong, he is entered into various gladiatorial battles and ultimately wins them. By being victorious he earns his freedom and sets out into the world which has grown while he has been a slave. He meets a Hyrkanian thief/archer called Subotai, and together they take a witch’s advice and raid the Tower of Serpents. Here Conan meets a female brigand called Valeria; he slays a giant snake; and steals enough loot to make him happy. Later, all three are captured by King Osric’s soldiers. The King wants his daughter rescuing from Thulsa Doom’s cult at the Temple of Set, so he offers a bargain with his three captives. Conan’s hatred for Doom see’s him take the offer where the others initially decline. During his solo mission, despite being dressed as a priest, Conan is discovered and captured. For his crime he is crucified as the Tree of Woe and left to die. Fortunately for him, Subotai and Valeria rescue him and take him to a wizard called Akiro to be healed. His resurrection will come at a price, but that price will not be known straight away. The group prepare for a final assault on Doom and his cult to fulfil the mission for King Osric, and to bring Conan his vengeance. It could be a great victory, or it could be the prelude to death – either way though, bloodshed is promised.
… or… here’s a summary in 180 characters of less…
Swords and sorcery epic which sees a slave grow up strong and seek revenge against the occultist that killed his family and people.
Many people don’t know this, but Schwarzenegger was not the first choice for the lead role; the likes of Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone had been considered before him. After some of the films producers saw him in the 1977 bodybuilding film “Pumping Iron”, they felt like he was the human embodiment of the character which had been illustrated on the cover of the novels in the 1930’s. Having bought and read some of them myself, I can see the comparison. It wouldn’t be an easy ride for the Austrian though, he still had a lot of work ahead of him with the role. He had to slim-down his muscular frame to be more athletic, he also had to attend regular acting classes to work on his speech and language – most notably, he had to try and convey lines without it sounding too Austrian. His speech and language were still being worked on while filming had started, and some scenes required him to practice/repeat a speech 40 or 50 times before a final cut was chosen. He was not alone in having to work hard for the role and in not being a recognised actor. Gerry Lopez who played Subotai was previously a surfing champion with no experience in a role other than playing himself once. His delivery of dialogue did not make the final cut and Sab Shimono was brought in to dub Lopez’s lines in the final cut. For an authentic relationship though, Arnie and Lopez lived together before filming started to build up a good rapport. Sandahl Bergman, as Valeria, was also new the acting game. She had been a dancer previously, and like Arnie and Lopez she mainly got the part based on her appearance rather than acting credentials.
When it came to thespians with experience though, James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow were brought in to play Thulsa Doom and King Osric. James Earl Jones was relatively late to the party but getting him on board was a great coup. As well as bringing in some experience and reputation to the film, it was thought that they would inspire the rest of the cast and elevate them to deliver better. Both are fantastic and James Earl Jones comes across as menacing as his voice famously did in “Star Wars”.
The writing was started by executive producer Edward Summer, with the help of Marvel Comics writer Roy Thomas who had been using Conan for a few years. Oliver Stone was brought in to really flesh out a script and make an entertaining story. This was during a period of his life where he was a heavy user of drugs and it is claimed that director John Milius did not end up using all the ideas that Stone had. Instead, he used influences from other Conan source material, the novels, and comics, as well inspiration from some Japanese films like “Kwaidan” (1965) and “Seven Samurai” (1954). The final plot was an epic swords and sorcery film which would stand proud as the flag bearer for the genre, for at least two decades (at least till “The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings” in 2001).
The nature of the story that was being told was brutal and bloody – something that not all critics and fans took to immediately. Not everybody wanted to see a hero who was not a typical good guy; somebody who would kill his way to glory; somebody motivated by reputation and greed rather than just toppling a villain because it was the right thing to do. There were however plenty of audiences who loved the simple fantasy adventure and helped to make it a box office and commercial success. During the 1980’s not many comics and pulp novel adaptations were successful in film format – “Conan” bucked that trend. It was that successful in fact that other “sword and sorcery” fantasy adventure films were considered clones, or poorer imitations of “Conan”.
A sequel was released in 1984 which brought Schwarzenegger back as “Conan the Destroyer”. A third film was also planned “Conan the Conqueror”, but that never happened because Schwarzenegger was committed to “Predator” (1987). A third outing eventually changes into “Kull the Conqueror” (1997) instead. Don’t worry if you get mistaken between “Conan the Destroyer” and “Red Sonia” (1985). That film might show fictional characters in the fiction Hyborian Age – but Arnie is Lord Kalidor in that. Sandahl Bergman was offered the title role which eventually went to Brigitte Nielsen, but she opted Queen Gedren of Berkubane instead – but let’s not get distracted here…
I enjoyed this film as a child of the 1980’s, and I enjoy watching this film every time I get the opportunity to do so in adult life. Some people consider Arnie to have a very weak, wooden, and flat acting style in the film – and I certainly can’t disagree. In some of his early films he was not chosen for his acting ability and his dedication to Shakespeare – it was for his appearance and stature. It was because he looked like a chiseled God who could out muscle any situation. This film helped him out with not having a massive amount of dialogue for him and helped play to his strengths, something he knew all too well. He is quoted as saying that this film was “God’s gift to [his] career”. This film lets him stick to what he is good at and allowed him to cover up some of the things he was not – but it still made him work to achieving his dream of breaking into action films. It’s a great film to show where Arnie came from before he goes onto some of his more famous work – post “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (1991).
This film has some lovely scenery on show thanks to most of the filming being done in Spain. Rather rather than relying on special effects and 1980’s emerging CGI, a lot of practical effects and good old-fashioned stunts were used for the action. The score by Basil Poledouris is fantastic; it is brooding and moody, but fun and tense when it needs to be.
There is something very un-PC about this film and there are things in it that you would not get away with today. But by the same token it feels authentic for the fantasy barbarian time that is being portrayed. TV shows like “Xena: Warrion Princess” or “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” feel too clean and PG in comparison to this. Likewise, “The Scorpion King” (2002) and “Warcraft”(2016) feel fake and forced next to this film. Even in today’s post 2020 there is a brutal but poetic beauty about this film, something that even the 2011 Jason Momoa remake fails to fully capture.
I enjoyed this film a lot. I would air on the side of caution if contemplating watching this with kids or people that don’t like violent films. If, however you are OK with that, then this is a rip-roaring fantasy adventure film which sees a young and emerging Austrian powerhouse bash his way onto the silver screen with authority.