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.