“A village is attacked by the evil ruler of the Snake Cult, Thulsa Doom and his evil warriors, and a young boy named Conan is enslaved. Years later, Conan grows up and becomes a mighty warrior and is trained as a fighter. After years as a slave and as a gladiator, Conan is set free. Conan sets out on a quest as he vows to avenge his parents and solve the riddle of steel. Joined by a archer named Subotai, a beautiful thief who falls in love with Conan, Valeria and a Chinese wizard, Conan and his companions sets out to rescue Princess Yasmina, daughter of King Osric, from the Snake Cult, and get his revenge on Thulsa Doom and avenge his parents.” (courtesy IMDB)
After five years of development hell. Robert E. Howard‘s much beloved musclebound hero was eventually brought to life with obvious relish by writer-director John Milius who, with the financial aid of Dino De Laurentiis, managed to turn this lusty, violent sword-and-sorcery epic into easily the best of its kind. Now, if you’re familiar with the other fantasy films of the era such as The Beastmaster (1982), The Sword And The Sorcerer (1982) and Dragonslayer (1981), that may sound like faint praise, but this influential muscular blood-soaked romp featuring a truly Wagnerian soundtrack by Basil Poledouris has aged remarkably well.
While Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s star may have waned since the turn of the century, here the massively pumped gap-toothed giant’s career is on the verge of going supernova. Here you can savour those last sweet moments before Hollywood took this raw clay and modeled it into that suave and debonair superstar we know and love today…or not. But certainly the cigar-chomping Austrian seizes the title role and is given surprisingly solid support from dancer Sandahl Bergman and champion surfer Gerry Lopez as Conan’s accomplices. Indeed, Milius’s decision to populate key parts with such non-actors might have proven disastrous yet, against all odds, it works.
Though Bergman’s looks are hardly conventional leading-lady material, her height and graceful agility make her absolutely the right choice. Somehow Milius managed to bypass the usual actor equity problems and populated many of the minor roles with friends and co-workers. Consequently production designer Ron Cobb turns up as a drug dealer, and Milius himself ended up on the cutting room floor, as a street vendor selling lizard-on-a-stick. In casting the heavies however, Milius has played it much safer, enlisting the great James Earl Jones to bring the evil snake-like sorcerer Thulsa Doom to life. Jones is aided immensely by a pair of vivid blue contact lenses that would make Paul Newman jealous, and a long wig of straight black hair that wouldn’t look out-of-place at a heavy metal concert. With his glum face and sad eyes, Jones makes Thulsa Doom a strangely compelling, almost tragic figure.
Mako Iwamatsu, a veteran television actor since the late fifties, makes his first major film appearance as the enigmatic and amusing magic user assigned to keep Conan alive. Since then Mako (his professional name) has made almost a hundred more film and television appearances, his memorable voice heard in such Saturday morning cartoon fare as Dexter’s Laboratory and the excellent Samurai Jack. Dino De Laurentiis regular Max Von Sydow plays King Osric, whose teenage daughter has fallen under the hypnotic spell of the moody but undeniably charismatic Doom. Unfortunately, Doom’s temple is home to perennial orgies, which doesn’t sound too bad – unless she’s your daughter, of course – and we’re given a better look at the special ingredient that goes into the green stew that Doom regularly serves at his temple.
But Schwarzenegger is the real drawcard here, who fits the role of Conan as well as Christopher Reeve did as Superman (1978), and is the most formidable character to turn up in the sword-and-sandal genre since Steve Reeves as Hercules (1958). His introduction as the adult Conan on the Wheel Of Pain, as he slowly raises his head to reveal his neanderthal features, is one of the most distinct announcements of the arrival of a major star you’ll ever see. Filled with Ron Cobb’s grandiose sets, spectacular Spanish locations and some curiously old-school special effects like Carlo Rambaldi‘s giant snake, Conan The Barbarian is superb fun, and it’s truly unfortunate that Milius was unable to return to direct the intended third sequel.
The DVD I viewed recently has an often hilarious commentary from both Milius and Schwarzenegger which makes this disc worth purchasing for their comments alone. Milius enthuses about the characters and their non-existent backgrounds while Schwarzenegger basically describes what’s on the screen with his broken English. “I was getting laid a lot here,” notes the razor-sharp Schwarzenneger during one scene. When Conan looks a little worse for wear after a serious booze binge he quips, “Ha ha, I look like an Alka Seltzer commercial!” Keep watching after the credits to see Schwarzenegger’s reaction to being hit in the head with the microphone boom.
There’s an exhaustive documentary entitled Unchained produced by Laurent Bouzereau, fifty-three minutes packed with anecdotes from Milius, Schwarzenegger, Bergman, Lopez, Cobb, producer Ed Pressman, co-writer Oliver Stone, and stunt coordinator Terry Leonard. There’s also deleted scenes, most notably Milius’s cameo and King Osric’s death scene, which goes on so long it rivals Peter Sellers‘ prolonged death scene from the opening of The Party (1968). The best deleted scene features Conan being chased and eventually caught by the wolves – he’s dragged down from the rock kicking and screaming as the handler rushes in to pull the rabid pooches off him. There’s also conceptual artwork, character designs, production photos, special effects, publicity artwork, filmmakers notes and a couple of trailers that round-out an entirely satisfying, excellent DVD.
Whereas most comic book and pulp adaptations were box office failures in the eighties, Conan The Barbarian was one of the few that made a profit, and became the standard against which all sword-and-sorcery films were measured until Peter Jackson‘s Lord Of The Rings (2001) trilogy. Conan’s success inspired low-budget copycats such as Ator The Fighting Eagle (1982) and Deathstalker (1983). There was a short-lived television series entitled Conan The Adventurer (1997) starring Ralf Möller as a rather kind, sympathetic and jovial Conan (instead of a moody loner looking out for himself), a contented member of a merry band of adventurers with a humanitarian quest. The tone of the series resembled its contemporaries Hercules The Legendary Journeys and Xena Warrior Princess.
Speaking of which, the recent reboot Conan The Barbarian (2011) starring Jason Momoa feels more like an episode of Hercules The Legendary Journeys, and only highlights the importance of actor Schwarzenegger, composer Poledouris and designer Cobb. Plans were announced in 2012 for Schwarzenegger to return in The Legend Of Conan to be released in 2014, and is intended to be a direct sequel to the original film, bypassing the official sequel Conan The Destroyer (1984), which had only a few of those who participated in the original, namely Schwarzenegger, Mako and Poledouris. But that’s another story for another time. Right now I’ll quickly make my farewells, and ask you to hit the road with me again next week while I drive you to delirium to witness another car crash on the gridlocked streets of Hollywood for…Horror News! Toodles!