Friday, January 13, 2012

What is best in life? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Okay, so I watched the 2011 remake of Conan the Barbarian recently and found myself reaching for the 1982 version in my DVD collection to cleanse my palate and feel better. I don’t want to sound like I’m slagging off remakes, but if Hollywood is going to produce one it should equal or exceed the original. In fact, there are a few films that succeeded; Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and The Departed (2006) are two good examples. Then there are some that should never be considered for a remake, such as The Empire Strikes Back (1980). That being said, I retreated to the safe confines of my TV area and popped in the original Conan the Barbarian (1982) to convince myself the remake never happened, or at least it was a dream (all of you Dallas fans can understand that).

Set in the fictitious Hyborean Age (40,000 B.C.) of author Robert E. Howard’s novels, thousands of years before modern civilization. Young Conan lives with his parents and other Cimmerians in their remote village. Conan helps his father (the village swordsmith) forge a sword; the two sit on a mountaintop as Conan’s father tells him about the Riddle of Steel, an aphorism on how important steel is to the Cimmerians.

Roger Ebert commented how this film is “a perfect fantasy for the alienated preadolescent.” The Cimmerians are massacred by marauding warriors led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), who kills Conan’s parents and takes his father’s sword. Conan and the other children are sold into slavery and chained to a large mill, the Wheel of Pain, where he goes around in circles endlessly (a metaphor for school?). Now an adult, Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a massively muscled man, having pushed the grindstone for years and is then trained as a gladiator. After countless victories, Conan is set free and teams up with Subotai (Gerry Lopez), the Best Pal trope, and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), the Queen of Thieves and Conan’s love interest.

With Subotai and Valeria at his side, Conan seeks out Thulsa Doom to avenge his parents’ death and recover his father’s sword. This involves travel to Eastern lands unknown, with tower fortresses and mountain temples, where Doom has created a snake cult that blossoms in every major city. Here the themes of death and rebirth are used as effective motifs in the film; the first one occurs just after Conan, freed and chased by wild dogs, falls into a tomb where he finds a sword to cut his chains with his newfound power. The second occurs when Conan and company burgle the Tower of Serpents and battle a giant serpent to steal a large jewel and other valuables. They celebrate their success in a local inn and in a drunken stupor, find themselves arrested by the city guards. They are presented before King Osric (Max von Sydow), who requests they rescue his daughter who joined Thulsa Doom’s cult. Conan’s hatred leads to an assault on Doom’s Temple of Set and an eventual showdown with Doom and his henchmen, Rexor (former NFLer Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven Ole-Thorsen, bodybuilder and Tigris of Gaul from Gladiator). Helping our heroes is the Wizard of the Mounds (Mako), whose sorcery brings Conan back from the brink of death.

The film’s casting is solid; Schwarzenegger embodies the visualization of author Robert E. Howard’s creation, and his accent is a definite advantage; something he uses to further success in The Terminator and its sequels. It also didn’t hurt that he was already in great physical shape from his years as a champion bodybuilder; he actually slimmed down from 240 to 210 pounds. Now we read stories of how actors work out hard to put on twenty pounds of muscle for this role or that. Frankly, I cannot see how it can be done without some chemical assistance, just sayin’. Bergman had a career as a dancer, so her athletic and slim physique helped lend an authenticity to a physically demanding role. Schwarzenegger, Bergman and Lopez trained in sword fighting, horseback riding, martial arts and rope climbing to prepare for the film and performed their own stunts. James Earl Jones, a wonderful actor whose baritone voice made him famous as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars series, brings conviction and power to the role of Thulsa Doom which is necessary; a hero is only as good as his adversary, and if the villain is a wee bit badder and slightly more powerful it makes for a great payoff when the hero triumphs. And even Max von Sydow’s scene carries weight; the film presents experienced and classically trained actors who provide a nice balance against Schwarzenegger, Bergman and Lopez, who were relatively new.

While the film strays from the source material, Conan the Barbarian was one of the few comic book adaptations to be a commercial success in the early 80s and was the standard against most sword and sorcery films were measured, arguably until the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Writer/director John Milius (with help from Oliver Stone) crafts a story that pulls no punches as a revenge piece; at the same time the central theme is the Riddle of Steel and the trust one must place in it and its power. However, we and Conan come to realize, in an allusion to Homer, the hero makes the sword rather than the sword makes the hero. Is it violent? Sure, but what do you expect? These are rough and tumble characters in a world with a pre-Judeo/Christian ethic, no loving thy neighbour here. Besides, the violence is a reality in the world we are watching and not there for the sake of violence. In fact, Arnie’s Conan might seem tame in today’s world with films in release that are described as “torture porn’. The violence fits because these are violent men and women living in violent times, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt there is also some nudity as well. All work and no play makes Conan a dull barbarian, after all.


  1. Phips2:47 pm

    Id like to see you do a follow up review of the new Conan....maybe youve already done one, i havent looked.

  2. You know what made me really appreciate this film? The terrible Conan remake that came out last summer. Nice review

  3. Roger Ebert commented how this film is “a perfect fantasy for the alienated preadolescent.”

    Yeah, kids would really dig all the Nietzche references, the lack of dialogue, and many scenes of quiet contemplation...

    While the film strays from the source material

    Strays? It runs off into the forest perpendicular to the road. And flies into the sky. Into space.

  4. It's a sign of how bad the remake is that it makes this film look good. Yes, I liked the original Conan, but it's not a very good movie. The remake, however, is Conan the Destroyer bad.

    By the way, the original wasn't a comic book adaptation; it was a book adaptation. The comics started out based on the books.

    By the way, how fitting is it that the text verification I have to type in to post this is "hydra"?

  5. The 2011 remake is a dreadful film.

    Good review, but not too interested in this.

  6. I can't help but see it as a little weird that Oliver Stone helped pen this movie. Has he ever done anything similar? Maybe 'Scarface'? And even then.

    One of the film's qualities that gets me pumped is that title theme music. Now THAT he how you introduce a barbarian!

  7. I am pleased this review managed quite a few comments so quickly.


    I have not written a review for the 2011 Conan; I felt the studio was more interested in getting it filmed and 3D and it promotion.


    I admit I have a soft spot for the 1982 film; I must have seen it a hundred times.


    I appreciate your comments contain a certain cheekiness, however, I dug the references, dialogue and scenes of quiet contemplation as a pre-adolescent. I might be the oddball exception though....

    @Chip Lary

    I agree that Conan the Destroyer is a bad movie; I would assume Schwarzenegger had contractual obligations to do the sequel.

    You are correct about the comics and the novel and I knew that as well; I was commenting in general about the adaptations in the late 70s and early 80s. Probably should have used "adaptations" without the "comic book".


    Thank you for the kind words and I hope there was no implied imperative for all readers to see this film. I like the film and wanted to share my thoughts.


    I understand Stone proposed a story that was four and a half hours long and was inspired from two of Howard's stories. He was also addicted to cocaine and depressants, which might have put off Milius, for he chucked the last half of Stone's script and used scenes from the first half.

    As far as Stone writing anything near similar, the only thing that comes to mind in the sword and sandal vein is Alexander.

    Thank you all for taking the time to post comments, I really appreciate it.


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