Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius

By Roderick Heath

Looking around lately, I’ve been forced to the conclusion that there’s a terrible paucity of truly good fantasy-adventure films out there, especially if, like me, one gravitates to the grittier side of the genre after the tongue-in-cheek qualities of old swashbucklers and the juvenile-oriented tone of a lot of older films, like the fabled Ray Harryhausen films (which still at least delight the eye), get a bit thin. Recently, of course, we’ve had The Lord of the Rings series, a fine but top-heavy achievement, and endless Harry Potter episodes, which are, for all their mild entertainment value, relatively static, twee, and disposable, as are so many of the recent CGI-encrusted entries where storytelling is subordinated to immediately dated spectacle. Nor does the disreputable side of the genre have much to offer, with only the likes of Beastmaster (1982) or Yor: The Hunter from the Future (1983), and flicks starring Lou Ferrigno. Luckily, when I feel the need for bristle and brawn, I always have Conan the Barbarian to cheer me up.

Not that John Milius’ 1982 film is perfect: it has a sometimes too-stately pace and a thin story, sports some stodgy touches, could use more action, and irks fans of Robert E. Howard’s iconic 1930s pulp hero with deviations from Howard’s mythology. But it’s still my favourite by far from the glut of fantasy films that came in the wake the success of Star Wars (1977), whose space-opera zest reinvigorated several genres of fantastic cinema, and it skirts a kind of greatness. John Milius, cigar-chomping, gun-loving, right-wing “zen anarchist,” is one of the most infamous and oddly lovable of the Movie Brats, memorialised by his filmmaking friends as both Paul Le Mat’s drag-racing bad boy in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) and as loopy Walter in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1997). He had a gift for larger-than-life narratives and a giddy energy. Having worked, like Coppola, Cimino, and Malick as a screenwriter and script doctor through much of the early ’70s, including penning the thoughtful, if not entirely successful, revisionist vigilante flick Magnum Force (1973), Milius also contributed to the script of Jaws (1975) and cowrote Apocalypse Now (1979). The impact he had on the latter project can perhaps be most strongly discerned through Conan the Barbarian.

Once his directing career got off the ground, Milius’ gifts were confirmed by the uneven, but enjoyable and nuanced The Wind and the Lion (1975), and the elegiac surfing saga Big Wednesday (1978), but he descended into self-parody with the Commie-bashing epic Red Dawn (1984). Conan, the film in between, made a true film star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Mr. Universe who had delighted many with his charisma in the documentary Pumping Iron (1978). Schwarzenegger, his physique still at its peak and his acting skills utterly basic but effective enough for the role, was a miraculous bit of casting luck for Milius. Milius also returned a favour to Lucas by casting James Earl Jones, who had been providing the voice of Lucas’ hugely popular baddie Darth Vader without credit, as his own paternalist supervillain Thulsa Doom, who, in the first few galvanising minutes of this film, exterminates Conan’s tribe of hardy, steel-producing Cimmerians.

A peculiar fault of Conan the Barbarian is that its first 15 minutes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic drama that the rest can hardly live up to them. The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ awesome main theme, portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on. Father then imparts the lore of steel and their tribe’s god Crom to his son as they sit on the peak of a snow-crusted mountain, boiling clouds rushing overhead. Soon, Thulsa and his mounted marauders ride through the wintry forests and crash into their village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father. His mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his mesmerist’s gaze before, in a uniquely shocking moment, casually decapitating her, her headless body swaying away from Conan’s grasp before the boy even realises what’s happened. Conan is then hauled away with the other surviving children who are sold as slaves and put to work turning a colossal mill wheel, growing into the homely Austrian mug of Schwarzenegger, made so strong by his years of labour that he can push the wheel by himself.

What’s particularly impressive about this cavalcade of cruelty and calamity is the fact that it plays as a virtual silent movie, the only dialogue being the recitative exposition of Mako’s gravelly voiceover and the instructions of Conan’s father. Much of the first hour of Conan the Barbarian represents an “origin story,” as Conan finds glory as a gladiator, has his horizons expanded when he’s sold to Mongols and trained in Eastern swordplay, introduced to reading, writing, and sex, and then released by his nervous keeper, who senses something untameable in him. Conan stumbles upon the mausoleum of a long-dead king still enthroned wearing his armour. Conan, thinking this must be Crom, takes the dead man’s sword, which is far superior to any Conan’s seen before. Conan soon survives a grappling with a vampiric witch-woman, and saves Subotei (Gerry Lopez), a Mongol warrior she’s chained up to starve. Conan and Subotei become partners in thievery and survival, and gain a third fellow, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). They break into a tower that’s a temple of a snake cult which uses the same emblem that Thulsa Doom had once used as his standard, rob its jewels, and kill the colossal serpent the cult keeps as a deistic stand-in.

Much of the pleasure Conan the Barbarian offers is in how it sustains a self-mythologising grandeur akin to Star Wars, Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia, whilst infusing a genre that was all too often fey and tacky with a rugged, tactile, sensualised vibe that channelled the imagery of ’70s fantasy artists. Almost every frame, flagrantly brutal and sexy, looks like something rendered by Boris Vallejo. Milius leapt feet-first into the material, replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism. It’s a great part of the film’s gamey charm for those of us who wonder if Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter would even know what to do with a boob if presented with one. And yet, a loose, witty, warm humanity is the film’s constant undertone, as Conan and Subotei wander throughout the ancient world with a strange innocence, getting stoned, robbing, killing, getting laid, and punching out camels with much the same boyish incorruptibility that Milius’ all-American surfer dudes exuded in Big Wednesday. They’re rough and murderous, but only as much as they need to be. Conan’s basic decency in spite of his brutalisation is signalled early on when he’s given a stripped-down slave girl as reward and he quickly soothes her fears by wrapping her in a blanket.

That warmth is particularly discernable in Conan’s anxious romance with Valeria, the first time either warrior has found a true partner in love, and in the rhythms of fellowship they share with Subotai and the wizard (Mako) Conan encounters living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans, who will become his chronicler and spiritual helpmate. It’s a quality that imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential loneliness of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital. The ironies of Conan’s life, that his trials have transformed him into an unstoppable force, are drawn clearly when Conan finally tracks down Thulsa Doom, both men now understanding the “riddle of steel” that Conan’s father had mentioned to him and which has totemistic vitality. “Steel is strong, but flesh is stronger!” Thulsa recites as he casually encourages one of his followers to casually leap to her death to prove his own power.

Thulsa has reinvented himself as the magician-priest of the snake cult of Set, a story flourish that Milius uses to take some amusing pot shots at hippie mystics and communal fantasists, with the cult’s followers’ brandishing flowers and Conan easily infiltrating their ranks by answering questions like “What do you see?” posed by a priestess as he looks into a sacred pool, with: “Er…eternity!” Thulsa and his two chief henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven Ole Thorsen) who rode with him back at the fateful beginning, suggest a cross between opportunistic gangster sleazes mixed with manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan’s rugged individualism and practicality provides a firm counterbalance. An uglier edge of Milius’ satire appears when Conan beats up a leathery old cult priest (Jack Taylor) who clearly wants to have sex with Conan in order to steal his robes and infiltrate the cult as its thousands of member converge on Thulsa’s remote mountaintop temple.

A more significant fault with the film is that Thulsa, Rexor, and Thorgrim aren’t really well-described or worthy opponents for Conan to take down. There’s still a great deal of pleasure to be wrung, however, from their inevitable comeuppances at Conan’s hands. The henchmen, who resemble two-thirds of Spinal Tap, are a source of humour as well as antagonism, such as Thorgrim’s bug-eyed amazement at his own strength when he knocks down a colossal stone pillar and Rexor, having turned himself into the bare-chested priest surrounded by buxom priestesses, presiding over sacrifices like a homicidal, medieval swinger—all he’s missing is a peace sign hanging around his neck. And Jones brings undeniable gusto to Thulsa that makes him genuinely serpentine in his evil: no one else could pronounce “Tree of Woe” in quite the same way. Max Von Sydow is as vigorously hammy in his short appearance as King Osric “the Usurper,” who actually sets Conan and crew on their mission against the snake cult when he asks them to retrieve his daughter, the Princess (Valerie Quennessen), who has become Thulsa’s high priestess.

Milius’ style of staging and shooting was interestingly different to some of his generational fellows, emphasising a deep-focus, rather three-dimensional sense of space, and a flowing mise-en-scène, somewhat different to the rapid, crisply edited illustrative style of, say, Spielberg. Milius’ set-pieces have a balletic complexity of movement, offering many near full-body shots of action designed to show off the physicality of his actors, particularly apparent with Bergman, a trained dancer: in this way, Milius’ fight scenes seem rather less dazzling than those of some other action directors and yet radiate a genuine sense of material force. He also wrings the simple narrative for all the grandeur and beauty he can, evident in hypnotic sequences like the heroes infiltrating one of Thulsa’s orgies, and the conclusion, in which Thulsa’s disillusioned followers toss their torches into a pool. It’s here that the theoretic similarity to Apocalypse Now is strongest (even the fire and water imagery is closely akin), particularly as Conan refuses to take Thulsa’s place as the Princess’s object of veneration.

The film’s impact is enormously deepened by Poledouris’ score, the greatest work he ever offered before his extremely untimely death: indeed, it’s a serious candidate for the greatest movie composition of the past 30 years. Poledouris, a surfing buddy of Milius’s, had studied at USC under Miklos Rozsa, whose mighty work on Ben-Hur is suggested in the Conan score, with its sweeping, pounding anthems and richly orchestrated love themes. However, the original template was Prokofiev’s score for Alexander Nevsky (1938), which Milius had used in editing. Conan the Barbarian was, in that regard, almost as referential as a Tarantino film: the costumes of Thulsa and his henchmen were based on Nevsky’s Teutonic baddies, and touches throughout the film certify the influence of several classic sword-and-sandal flicks, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), and Japanese films like Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964).

Schwarzenegger was and is a perennial candidate for the worst actor to ever be an A-list star, but a part like Conan was perfect, especially as he had at least the gift to not merely look but act as tough, stoic, and strong as a mobile mountain. This blended well with his ability to project a sense of humour and simple, but vivid emotions, particularly evident when in the anticipation of battle with Thulsa’s army, he recalls with pleasure the calm freshness of days in his youth. It’s Bergman though who almost steals the film with her unconventional kind of lived-in beauty and dashing physicality, her expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes balanced by moments such as her eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother that are iconic in the history of on-screen tough gals. Conan the Barbarian will soon, as all things are, be remade, but the old one, in spite of its faults, does exactly what Conan himself does best: it kicks ass.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/05/2010 to 12:30 pm

    “Do you want to live forever?” After I saw this movie, that was the line that really stuck with me about risk-taking. Bergman is astonishingly good in this. I’m not as taken with Arnold because it was harder for him to project some kind of a brain inside the brawn, but I did rather warm to this childlike approach to life he had. He really did seem like a barbarian in that simplicity, and I really liked the scene he shared with Subotai when they talked about their respective religious beliefs. He seemed even more the child in that.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    7th/05/2010 to 2:17 pm

    It’s a guilty pleasure for this REH reader – I kinda wince a lot watching it, but it is the benchmark for S&S films, and Bergman is worth watching it just for her. Ahnold’s best is in the fantasy of “Predator”, which is kind of like Conan vs a Sorcerer’s creation, and he does quite well in that one.

    It would be nice to mash-up the best parts of the pre-CG fantasies like “Willow”, “Beastmaster”, “Circle of Iron”, most of “Legend” and a few others, just to get a decent film, but most of the stars would be eliminated, I s’pose. The best of the lot for me is “Dragonslayer”, an almost perfect little thing. No other fantasy film stacks up to that one.

  • J.D. spoke:
    7th/05/2010 to 3:38 pm

    I agree that Arnie’s finest film is still PREDATOR but he’s perfectly cast as CONAN and brings the right amount of swagger and physicality to the role. Sure, the film is goofy in parts and it isn’t completely faithful to Howard’s stories but I always felt that Oliver Stone and Milius’ got the spirit of them right. The raid on the snake cult sequence is probably my fave moment in the film if only to see Conan and his crew take on a huge freakin’ snake, which scared the crap out of me as a kid! So did the awkward transformation of Thulsa Doom into a snake. It looks kinda primitive now but that’s kinda the charm of the film, esp. in this day and age of wall-to-wall CGI. I am really dreading the remake that’s in the works.

    As for other fantasy films of the 1980s, I really enjoyed EXCALIBUR, LEGEND (Tim Curry’s Devil was an incredible achievement of make-up!) and perhaps the mack-daddy of dragon films, DRAGONSLAYER! You really can’t go wrong with any of these films, IMO.

    Anyways, excellent review and it’s got me all fired up to watch CONAN now. Of course, the lesser said about the sequel the better. Ouch!

  • tdraicer spoke:
    7th/05/2010 to 9:02 pm

    Those looking for dark fantasy should keep an eye out for HBO’s upcoming adaptation of the first book of George RR Martin’s still ongoing Song of Ice and Fire books. The idea-if it does well-is to adapt each of Martin’s books as a season.

  • Rod spoke:
    7th/05/2010 to 11:17 pm

    Marilyn: Yes, the word “childlike” is very accurate for describing Ahnuld’s persona here, and it works well in context. The idea that Conan, although he grows strong as an ox, essentially remains the boy he is when his people are slaughtered, is for me a surprisingly powerful notion. But Bergman, man, she’s terrific. The first few times I saw it her character took time to register with me, but these days I can’t look away. She manages to bring not just soul to her role but a sense of humour, and that’s something a lot female action heroes are cheated of.

    Van the Man, JD: I can’t get behind Dragonslayer with you, unfortunately. It starts well and then goes totally kaput. Excalibur is great, if uneven, but considering that’s really more of an arthouse variation on this genre I didn’t want to compare it to this type of film. I’ll admit I haven’t read any of Howard’s work – I did rent The Whole Wide World once! – so I’m entirely neutral on what the film does with his invention.

    I started writing a commentary on Legend recently but never finished it, chiefly because I got the serious feeling I needed to watch the director’s cut that’s drifting about. The theatrical cut is an interesting but lopsided mess. The film should really be about the Darkness’s efforts to seduce the Princess, which has a perfect morbid romanticism that if it was brought out in a film these days would set all the young goths’ hearts in overdrive, but there’s all that silliness with the wood sprites and Tom Cruise to wade through.

    I would have once preferred Predator too, but perhaps watching it once too often as an adolescent has dulled me on it. It seems to me now not much more than a list of classically campy moments. Still hugely enjoyable, of course, but it doesn’t have the heft and beauty this does in the end.

    I fear a remake of this will inevitably be a joke. I rented Conan the Destroyer just last week to see how it matched up, but the damn DVD was unplayable.

    I may be the only film fan in the world who doesn’t think in clear pre and post CGI terms – although when pressed I’d confess I still consider the late ’70s and ’80s as the heyday of SFX, perhaps because I still prefer the ingenuity of those days, and remember watching all the “making of” docos in those days with real fascination for how the film crews of those days, with a revived sense of professionalism and enthusiasm for that side of their craft. I consider CGI, unless used very well (a la The Lord of the Rings, which had the sense to mix the techniques a lot) very damaging to this genre. When I watching Stardust recently – which is actually quite good and one of the few comedic cross-breeds in the genre that completely works – I find my eyes utterly bored with all the sparkling ribboning magic effects completely interchangeable with the ones in the Harry Potter films, et al. Special effects crews can be lazy: if a director doesn’t have a new vision, they’ll just turn in what they’ve turned in before.

    TD: I’ll keep an eye out for that. Of course Hollywood’s been looking around frantically for a new genre franchise and failing miserably, mainly because they’ve all cookie-cutter exercises, although I did actually rather like The Golden Compass which certainly didn’t deserve the treatment it received.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    8th/05/2010 to 8:58 pm

    Back in 1982 Tuesdays were dollar nights at one of the local theaters, and though slightly underaged I watched Conan on a weekly basis for at least a month. It’s still one of my favorites for pure entertainment. I can still quote many of its great/cheesy lines like: “Infidel defilers! They will all drown in lakes of blood.” Pouledoris’s score is one of the best ever. All you need to do is compare this with its Milius-less sequel, Conan the Destroyer, to recognize the original’s greatness. My one regret is that the slightly re-edited edition with more princess footage and a weaker finish is now the definitive version.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    8th/05/2010 to 10:55 pm

    My dad took my brother and me to see Conan the Barbarian when we were 9 and 7. The show was sold out, but my dad grabbed the last ticket anyway. I ended up sharing a seat with him and some lady next to us offered to let my little brother sit with her. No one on theater staff apparently questioned the parenting skills involved here, but it was 1982, before anyone thought to put a helmet on a kid who wanted to ride his bike.

    There’s so much to love about Conan the Barbarian and you touched on almost every reason in your spectacular review, Rod.

    I dig the fact that it’s a dedicated B-movie, with cast members whose acting skills are suspect to say the least. Milius cast bodybuilders, dancers or surfers who looked the part and hoped they wouldn’t embarrass anyone. I would say he lucked out, particularly with Sandahl Berhman.

    Comparing Conan to Harry Potter is like comparing The Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” to “Bridges To Babylon” or anything else sold at Starbucks. The supernatural and the sensual are woven into the movie so supremely well. A movie like this today would probably scare kids so badly they’d drop their iPhones in the aisle.

  • Rod spoke:
    8th/05/2010 to 11:47 pm

    Sam: everything that James Earl Jones says in this film sounds like an admonition welling up from the depths of Hades. One of my favourite great/cheesy lines is Thulsa’s explaining Thorgrim’s heartbreak over the death of that giant grotesque snake which he raised from a baby; another is Conan’s prayer to Crom before the battle, where he concludes with “then to hell with you!” Yeah, trash-talking your divinity before battle would often be considered unwise, but fortunately Crom, being the god of badasses, understands.

    I seem to have everyone else beat when it comes to inappropriately youthful viewing of this film, having been about five or six when I first saw about the first half of the film on VHS. It was too long for my then very small brain to be enthused about, although I certainly never forgot the images like Conan’s mother’s head tumbling to the ground. Around the same time I used to watch Yor: The Hunter from the Future with my cousins, and I did watch that to the end a few times…I’m not certain if brain damage resulted.

    Joe: Yes, it’s an unabashed B movie in its essentials, but it’s got an A movie’s visual style and sweep: Milius’s framings of the characters against the landscape are definitely Lean-esque. Milius treats the whole thing like it’s Die Niebelungenlied, not a tribute to a pulp muscle-man fantasy. I wish Milius hadn’t turned himself into a joke, because he had a sensibility modern Hollywood badly needs (although his telemovie about the Rough Riders had something of the same mix of cheeky humour and inflated heroism).

    Bridges to Babylon? Hell, why not Taylor Swift?

  • J.D. spoke:
    10th/05/2010 to 8:46 am

    Rod:

    I would be really interested reading your thoughts about LEGEND in depth. And yes, watching the Director’s Cut is a MUST, if only to hear Jerry Goldsmith’s score as well. I’ve been ruminated on doing something about this film on my own blog as I have fond memories of seeing it in a nearly deserted theater when it first came out and many of its images (a Goth Mia Sara dancing by herself) have stuck with me ever since.

    As for PREDATOR. I know what you mean. I took a break from it for almost 10 years and then came back to just recently with fresh eyes and enjoyed the hell out of it. I have to say that it has aged well, esp. in lieu of the lame sequel and the ALIEN VS. PREDATOR spin-offs.

    I agree with you that the heyday of SFX was the late 1970s and 1980s when you had giants like Tom Savini, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin creating such amazing make-up effects that I dare say will never be equaled – certainly not by CGI!

    Not a huge fan of STARDUST – I actually really enjoyed THE GOLDEN COMPASS, which many were not thrilled about, but I have to say I got caught up in the epic spectacle of it all and thought that the cast was uniformly pretty wonderful.

  • Rod spoke:
    10th/05/2010 to 10:02 am

    I at least watched a DVD of the European theatrical version of Legend which always had the Goldsmith score attached, so I didn’t miss out on that, and it is a super score. Scott’s cut was apparently nearly 3 hours originally, and then hacked to a bit under two hours, and then down further to an hour and a half – how much substance and aspects of the visual tapestry hit the floor then? It’s telling that quite a few of Scott’s most ambitious and potentially impressive works have often been hacked to incoherence. Anyway, yes, some of the images are amazing, and the whole sequence of the Princess in the dark castle is quite transcendently gorgeous and erotic.

    I actually kind of like Predator 2, I do admit, in an utterly trashy way. Certainly both films are in a different universe to the, I shall be blunt, utter turds and cinematic disgraces that are the AVP spin-offs.

    I found Stardust a very pleasant surprise, albeit one that succumbed to tired conventionality in look and staging in the end; similar points of conventionality afflicted The Golden Compass, but that film had a chic look along with, as you mention, the great cast.

  • shane spoke:
    10th/05/2010 to 10:09 am

    How fun to have just watched back to back Conans just the other night and now to have your review with some give and take worth reading. You probably hit all the key points and more but I will say a couple of things. The expressions Arnold uses lend credence to the childlike comments. There are times when he seems to be just that scared kid, which considering they were two different people is wild, facing some terrible fate he really would rather not take on. This gave so much to the role I felt a kinship with his stark fear. The magical combination of actors, director and all sadly comes to us so rarely that we must remember these as gifts from Crom!!!

  • Rod spoke:
    10th/05/2010 to 10:27 am

    Well said, Shane. As for us watching it so coincidentally close together, the stars were obviously aligned…or Crom was controlling our actions…It’s also quite remarkable how much young Jorge Sanz looks like Schwarzenegger in the credits sequence: it really makes the link between the boy and the man palpable. His childishness is also apparent in his behaviour when he gets stoned on the Stygian weed and punches out the camel, and when he and Valeria live it up after getting rich robbing the temple. Their way of spending loot is so silly you can’t help but love them. It’s important that Conan recalls his early childhood just before the battle too, like a circle is finally closing. Most of all, the way he screams: “You killed my family!” to Thulsa and Doom doesn’t even remember, dismissing it as youthful folly and replacing it with head-twisting philosophy. There’s something true there about how the world takes things away from many people and doesn’t actually care.

  • Al Harron spoke:
    10th/05/2010 to 12:05 pm

    First of all, this is an excellent review of Conan the Barbarian. I had noticed many of the cinematic references to Eisenstein and Kurosawa, but not the Kobayashi.

    I’d just like to expand a little on the relationship between Howard and the film: it’s tenuous. See, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films make deviations from the source material: ommissions, alterations, inventions, and whatnot. However, they’re still recognizably based on the books. Looking at the plot of the books and the films side-by-side, and you get the same basic story & characters. This isn’t the case with Conan the Barbarian. It isn’t just making “deviations” from the stories, it starts off on another road entirely. In another country. On another planet.

    Conan the Barbarian is not only not based on any Howard story (outside one or two scene borrowed and diluted from different, unrelated stories and put out of context, which take up a matter of minutes of screen time), it’s actually antithetical to Howard’s creation. Outside a few names and the fact that the film is set in the ancient past, there’s practically nothing in common with Howard’s stories.

    Case in point: Conan’s origin in the film. None of it happened, and none of it could happen, since it contradicts the little we do know about Conan’s life. His village was never wiped out, his parents are not known to have died, he was never a slave, he didn’t spend 20 years pushing a wheel, nor was he a gladiator, he was never shipped off to “learn” war & philosophy in the far east, he never met Thulsa Doom… Basically, nothing that happens in the film happens in the stories in the context they appear here. The other characters from Howard – Thulsa Doom & Valeria – are virtually unrecognizable from the originals. The geography and politics wreak havoc with Howard’s carefully plotted world. Conan isn’t even a barbarian in this film at all: he’s a freed slave who’s the product of civilized learning.

    Perhaps most damning is that the character is almost the polar opposite of Howard’s creation: slave instead of free, trained by civilized methods instead of innately skilled, educated instead of learned. He’s big, he wields a sword, and he comes from a place called “Cimmeria” – and therein the similarities end. A lot of people say that Milius & Stone capture the “feel” or “spirit” of Howard, but frankly, I don’t think it even does that, considering everything is so vastly different.

    Therefore, the only way one can really appreciate Conan the Barbarian is to completely divorce it from the source material. I’m glad you tackled the film without bringing Howard into it, personally, since once that happens, the film can’t help but suffer. The original stories are full of subtlety, symbolism and literary/historical allusions that makes Milius’ nods to Alexander Nevsky look like Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker parodies.

    Conan the Barbarian is a film that really needs to be judged on its own merits, since as an adaptation it’s an utter failure: it must be considered completely separately from the stories. That way, one can appreciate it all the more.

  • J.D. spoke:
    10th/05/2010 to 12:55 pm

    Watching the two CONAN films back-to-back is almost like night and day – the hard R blood and guts incarnation versus its hokey, PG-13 sequel – a sobering reminder just how much Stone and Milius brought to the first film.

  • Rod spoke:
    10th/05/2010 to 9:56 pm

    “The original stories are full of subtlety, symbolism and literary/historical allusions that makes Milius’ nods to Alexander Nevsky look like Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker parodies.”

    I’ll, er, take your word for it.

    JD: At least a point in Conan the Destroyer‘s favour is that it’s directed by Richard Fleischer and shot by Jack Cardiff; it could be looked at a kind of follow-up to The Vikings.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    11th/05/2010 to 8:55 pm

    A sad loss to the whole Conan fantasy world – Frank Frazetta has passed away, the brilliant painter who created not just the modern look of Conan that brought in hordes of readers, but most of the fantasy we see, and hell, even Governor Ahnold himself – I posit that Conan would’ve stayed a minor mention in any fantasy history without Frazetta’s genius visualization of a hyper-muscular barbarian whacking demons, vikings, tribesman, what have you, while beautiful, zaftig babes lay at his feet, waiting; without that key look, Schwartzenegger may have stayed a steroided freak. The film got the Frazetta vibes dead on, the REH vibes, not too much, but that was the nature of time passing – the cover paintings are much closer to this film than the printed words. As an aside, this particular image:

    http://www.wizards-keep.com/graphics/RTE/RTEPage-007_frank_frazetta_manape.jpg

    has a resonance with “Predator” – there are times that Arnold’s eyes are glowing like Conan’s in this fight to the death – especially when he’s covered in mud.

  • Rod spoke:
    11th/05/2010 to 10:32 pm

    Hey, thanks for that Van the Man. Frazetta’s work was indeed great and his breed of artist helped make fantasy look cool back when it needed it.

  • Al Harron spoke:
    21st/05/2010 to 3:28 am

    “I’ll, er, take your word for it.”

    I can tell from the “er” that you might be a tad skeptical. All I can say is that there are dozens of fanzines, magazines, journals and websites dedicated to studying Howard’s work from a more studious point of view. Don’t just take *my* word for it: take a gander at thecimmerian.com, rehupa.com, robert-e-howard.org, howardworks.com, even conan.com.

  • Bond spoke:
    7th/03/2011 to 2:48 pm

    Who played the slave girl that Conan wrapped in the blanket. The girl that the article mentions?

  • Rod spoke:
    7th/03/2011 to 8:45 pm

    Can’t help you Bond, sorry. The IMDb’s no help.

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