Conan the Barbarian (United States, 1982)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Know, O Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of... Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandled feet.
-- The Nemedian Chronicles

Conan the Barbarian was one of the most anticipated releases of 1982, especially by those who considered themselves fantasy/science fiction aficionados. Conan, the pulp hero created by Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, was at the height of his popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During those years, the so-called "Swords and Sorcery" genre was experiencing a boom (in part due to the growth of a new role playing game called "Dungeons & Dragons" and in part because of the increased number of book titles available in mainstream stores). In addition to the dozen "original" paperbacks detailing Conan's exploits (compilations penned by Howard, L. Sprague De Camp, and Lin Carter), there were several new novels, and at least three comic books: "Conan the Barbarian", "King Conan", and "The Savage Sword of Conan."

Conan began life nearly 70 years ago in the pages of the magazine Weird Tales. Before his suicide in 1936 at the age of 30, Howard completed or began more than two dozen Conan stories, 18 of which were published. Of all the mythical heroes he wrote about, including the likes of King Kull and Solomon Kane, Conan was the most popular. In the late 1960s, L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter, two established authors who admired Howard's work, engaged in a massive project to organize and clean-up the existing Conan canon, as well as write new stories to fill in chronological gaps. This resulted in a 12 volume series that has been in print since it hit bookstore shelves in the 1967-68 time period.

Conan the Barbarian is designed to entertain both fans of the Howard stories and those who are unfamiliar with the character. The movie takes place some 12,000 years ago, during a legendary era when magic was real, monsters wandered the land, and the gods occasionally walked the Earth. Borrowing liberally from the official Conan canon, the film chronicles the barbarian's early years, beginning with the sacking of his village and the murder of his parents, and ending with his vengeance upon his first great enemy. Elements of several Howard stories have made their way into the screenplay (penned by director John Milius and Oliver Stone - yes, that Oliver Stone). Fans will particularly notice similarities to "The Thing in the Crypt", "The Elephant Tower", "Queen of the Black Coast", and "A Witch Shall Be Born."

Milius' greatest success with Conan the Barbarian was creating an entirely new and believable world. The settings are spectacular, the special effects are low key but effective, and the costumes and accoutrements have the proper feel for the era. In short, Conan's land, a lavishly detailed, long-ago place, feels as real as modern-day New York City. It's the kind of world where high adventure, magical intrigue, and heroic battles can take place without ever threatening our suspension of disbelief. Milius may have made some mistakes in his approach to Conan, but this is not one of them.

Another wise choice was hiring Basil Poledouris to compose the music. Dino De Laurentiis, the man ultimately responsible for bringing Conan to the screen, wanted a pop music soundtrack, but Milius argued for something more traditional. In the end, the director won, and the result was one of the best scores of the '80s. Poledouris' music, which includes both choral and instrumental compositions, is powerful and perfectly wedded to the material. It's hard to imagine the film being as entertaining without this element of its production.

The plot is broad and adventurous, with plenty of the elements that have made Conan popular: voluptuous women, brawny men, a vile wizard, grotesque monsters, faithful sidekicks, and plenty of violent, bloody battle action. Those who have an inherent distaste for this sort of entertainment will appreciate Conan the Barbarian's impeccable production values without enjoying the story; most everyone else will be swept away by the film's spectacle. Conan is not designed to have broad appeal. It is a well-made motion picture, but it is constricted by the constraints of the genre.

As the movie opens, Conan (Jorge Sanz), is a boy learning the "Riddle of Steel" from his father. Shortly thereafter, the young barbarian is in chains, a prisoner of the wizard Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his henchman, Rexor (Ben Davidson), who have burned down his village and killed his parents. Conan grows up as a slave, and, once he is an adult (now played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), he becomes a gladiator champion and is used to breed prime slave stock. Eventually, his owner, fearing Conan's physical prowess, sets him free. After stealing a sword from a crypt and picking up a thief sidekick named Subotai (Gerry Lopez), he heads for the riches of civilization. In the city of Zamora, he meets Valeria, Queen of the Thieves (Sandahl Bergman), and, with her help, robs the Tower of the Serpent. He and Valeria become lovers, but Conan is only temporarily sated by gold, drink, and sex. The flame of revenge burns within him, and he is given valuable information to find Thulsa Doom when King Osrik (Max von Sydow), the ruler of Zamora, summons him to the palace with a proposition.

The level of acting is definitely not one of Conan the Barbarian's strong suits (although it is significantly better here than in the sequel, Conan the Destroyer). Despite having extremely limited range, Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually an excellent choice for the lead. The only things required of Schwarzenegger are that he flexes his muscles, looks good in a fight, and grunts an occasional line of dialogue - all of which he does capably. There's no great emotional depth to the part, and Milius does not demand that Schwarzenegger reach beyond the bounds of his talent. The role was a breakthrough for the bodybuilder-turned-actor. Previously relegated to muscle-bound parts in cheesy movies, Conan put him on the fast track. Only two years later, he would star in James Cameron's The Terminator.

Schwarzenegger wasn't the only non-actor to appear in Conan the Barbarian. Dancer Sandahl Bergman matches him for woodenness. Mako and Gerry Lopez, playing Conan's sidekicks, are on hand primarily for comic relief. Two performers of some stature appear in the credits. The first, James Earl Jones, makes an adequate villain, although there are too few scenes in which he radiates true evil. Instead of going over-the-top, Jones' interpretation of Doom is subdued, which limits his effectiveness. Meanwhile, Max von Sydow has an entertaining turn as grizzled King Osrik. Von Sydow, the Ingmar Bergman regular, seems oddly at home in a part that some would regard as beneath him.

To date, Conan the Barbarian has been one of the few successful Swords and Sorcery movies to reach theaters. Other contenders (like Willow, Dragonheart, and Kull the Conqueror) have failed to follow in Conan's broad footsteps. The reasons for this film's effectiveness are not difficult to understand. It treats its characters and subject matter seriously without becoming lugubrious. There is some humor, but it is mostly underplayed, and Milius avoids any overt suggestions of camp. Conan the Barbarian is also adult in nature - the battles are bloody and the women take their clothes off. Most movies of the genre (including the Conan sequel) veer off into comic book territory, failing to treat their protagonists with dignity and cleaning things up to obtain the coveted PG-13 rating. Instead of the slightly overblown epic aura of Conan, most other films adopt a jokey tone. Even 17 years after its release, Conan the Barbarian still weaves a spell capable of ensorcelling fans of fantasy adventure.

Conan the Barbarian (United States, 1982)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 1982-05-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1