Conan The Barbarian (1982)
Directed by: John Milius
Written by: Edward Summer, John Milius, Oliver Stone, Robert E. Howard
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gerry Lopez, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman
HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still can not forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word. So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore….our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection. This week, with the new Conan The Barbarian movie about to be released, Dr Lenera looks at the original movie, the one responsible for making Arnie a star!
HCF REWIND NO.16.CONAN THE BARBARIAN 
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU RAY:Now
DIRECTED BY:John Milius
WRITTEN BY:Oliver Stone
STARRING:Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez
RUNNING TIME:126 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
It is the dawn of time, in a world that existed before recorded history. Young Conan’s village is raided, destroyed by men carrying a standard of two snakes entwined, and his parents killed. He spends the rest of his childhood in slavery, then has a brief spell as a gladiator before he is turned loose, having become too dangerous for the school. He sets off to find Thulsa Doom, accompanied by a fellow warrior, Subotai, and reaching a city, learns that a deadly snake cult is responsible for mysterious towers springing up everywhere. Hoping to find both great treasure and a clue to his parent’s killers, he sets out to rob the tower in the city, but encounters a warrior woman, Valeria, also out to rob the tower………..
If you’re as old as me you will no doubt remember the short-lived ‘Sword and Sorcery’ craze of the early 80s, where cinemas and especially video shops were, for a while, filled with muscular men, and sometimes women, striding through fantasy settings dispatching all and sundry with a bloody great big sword. Most of these films were low budget affairs, but it’s sometimes the tackiest that were the most fun, such as The Sword And The Sorcerer and Hundra. All these films were influenced by the success of one film, Conan The Barbarian, and few actually differed very much from it [The Beastmaster was virtually an unofficial remake]. Conan The Barbarian remains probably the best of these films, not really because it was the only one with a big budget, but because it was made with care and skill, with director John Milius and writer Oliver Stone seemingly not content with just making a cinematic version of Robert E.Howard’s stories, but out to make a great movie full stop. I think they almost succeeded, I wouldn’t say this is a great movie, but it is a very good one, almost operatic in its style, though some have said that it’s approach is too serious for the pulpy material. I will say that it is not really a faithful adaptation of Howard, whose books and comics I used to read quite a bit when I was young. While the film combines elements of several Howard stories, the basic plot is invented and Conan himself is quite different to Howard’s character. Instead of an intelligent, agile and talkative hero, we have a strong, silent and slightly dumb one. Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfect in the role as written, but it’s not Howard’s Conan at all.
There had been several aborted plans for a Conan film prior to the making of this one, including one by Ray Harryhausen which would have probably been great [though would he have allowed for all that essential blood and gore?], but eventually producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights and Oliver Stone wrote a hugely ambitious script that took bits from several Howard stories but set then in the future. When the proposed budget was ludicrously expensive, Stone relocated the story to the distant past and also drastically scaled down his script. When Milius came on board he added his own things into the script. Filmed mainly in Spain in some of the same locations that Sergio Leone used for his ‘Dollars’ trilogy, and with the exception of James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow using a mostly inexperienced or not well known cast, the original cut ran almost two and a half hours and was apparently far too gory. The film lost a great deal of brutality, though even the version that was released remains very bloody and violent, and I’m always amazed it got a ‘15’ certificate in the UK, considering how much stricter the BBFC were then. Some of the cut scenes sound quite interesting such as Conan battling a female gladiator and a fight with a monster outside the Tower Of Set. Milius’ final cut ran 131 mins but the studio removed a couple more minutes which are now present and correct in most versions of the film. In the UK the film lost a few seconds from a sex scene but was most extensively cut to remove horse falls, which causes the final battle to suffer gaps in the music which are probably obvious even if you don’t have the soundtrack. Conan The Barbarian was a big success, despite mostly terrible reviews, and made Arnie a star.
Conan The Barbarian is really a film of two halves, the first showing how he ‘becomes’ Conan, the second showing how he goes on his first major quest and in doing so avenges his parents. The opening half hour or so is terrific, stylised in a manner resembling Akira Kurosawa or even Sergio Leone, with certain moments, such as the death of Conan’s mother [a brilliantly staged scene] taking ages to play out and long sections which have no dialogue at all. There is though a narrator who gets a little annoying but does actually become a major character in the film later on. There are lots of montages, sometimes featuring graphic brutality such as a gladiator sequence, sometimes emphasising the wonderful Spain scenery, and almost always featuring Basil Poledouris’ amazing score. There’s a startling scene where Conan has sex with a woman who turns into a demon in the middle of coitus, and the film seems to be building up to be really good indeed. Well, it remains good, but, despite encounters with everything from a giant snake to Valeria, the lady who becomes the love of his life, the film does start to drag around the middle. Stone and Milius seem to be holding back a bit on the expected action – we don’t even see Conan fight with his sword until the last half an hour, and I’m not sure that the philosophical elements that they bring in to the story really suit it. I do respect them though for incorporating things like Nietzsche and ‘the riddle of steel’ into a sword and sorcery movie, and giving the film a feel of a real epic rather than a straight forward actioner. Milius really did give himself full reign to explore his own interests though, such as the nature of true manliness, and I must say this is a very right wing movie indeed – notice, for example, the jibes at hippies!
There are striking scenes throughout though, such as Conan biting the head of a vulture whilst crucified, and the fighting in the final quarter is superbly staged and quite astonishing in the violence of its slashing, slicing and dicing. The special effects are mostly very good and often simply done, for example some ‘mound demons’, who just look like cartoons but are all the more effective that way, as they are only vaguely seen. There is though a rather shoddy giant snake though it’s footage appears to be cut down. Thulsa Doom’s later transformation into another large snake is superbly handled though through just effective cutting. Oddly, despite the presence of at least two wizards in the film, we don’t see much actual magic at all, though James Earl Jones’ performance as Thulsa Doom is so effective that he gives the impression of being able to do anything if he wanted to. There is a far amount of quotable dialogue in this movie, some of it slightly amusing especially when delivered by Arnie, such as his reply when asked what is best in life, “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women”, a quote which was actually attributed to Genghis Khan. There certainly is a slight camp element to the film, however seriously Stone and Milius take it, and some might say because it’s taken to so seriously. That said, there is some intentional humour, such as Arnie punching out a camel.
Ron Cobb’s production design superbly evokes a variety of historical periods while still looking quite original, whilst Basil Poledouris’ powerful and often rousing score is one of the greatest ever composed for a fantasy movie. With lots of scenes without dialogue and some seemingly edited around the music, the film almost relies on the music at times to tell the story. Now unsurprisingly the performances are a mixed bag, for example surfer Gerry Lopez is very wooden as Subotai, but Mako is wonderful and actually pretty funny as the Wizard. Sadly Sandahl Bergman doesn’t do Valeria justice though she most certainly looks the part and I love the way that their romance is handled with hardly any dialogue. Arnie is just Arnie, and probably even more wooden than normal because this was one of his first films, but it’s safe to say he didn’t improve much afterwards! He does have a distinct presence though, you can’t take your eyes of him when watching him on screen, and there’s something distinctly funny about him, something which was later cleverly exploited. In most of his successive films he was cast very well so his lack of acting skill didn’t matter much and I readily admit I was a bit of a fan for a while [and I still enjoy watching him from time to time]. There is a lot in Conan The Barbarian which is extremely praise-worthy and I think critics tended to miss many of the film’s strong points because of the genre it belongs to. Passionate, convincing and uncompromising, if just a bit more action was added I reckon it would be almost perfect of its type. Although I’m usually very dubious about all these remakes, I’m actually rather looking forward to the new movie, for a start it seems that Conan is more like Howard’s creation. Will it be as good a film though? I somehow doubt it!