Conan and I go way back. My first impression of the character was when I went to Universal Studios in California in 1983, just a wee tyke, taking notice of the brochure’s advertisement for the Conan the Barbarian stunt show that featured a sword-wielding muscleman battling a giant serpent in a temple. We didn’t go (but I did get to battle Cylons in the Battlestar Galactica section of the tram tour, and had my picture taken next to Jaws and Frankenstein’s monster). A few years later we moved to Wisconsin. General Mitchell, the Milwaukee airport, had (has?) a great used bookstore called Renaissance Books, and whenever we were about to fly somewhere I’d take time out to rummage through their books and comics. There I found a small paperback omnibus of the first couple of issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith. Associating it immediately with that awesome-looking Universal Studios show, and satisfied that it began with issue #1, I picked it up. A short time later I was reading the Lancer/Ace paperbacks with the Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo covers, compiling the original 1930’s Weird Tales Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, plus fill-in-the-gaps pastiches by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. At the larger version of Renaissance Books in downtown Milwaukee, I found a back issue of The Savage Sword of Conan, and was mesmerized by the violence and sex in beautiful black-and-white. I started collecting the ongoing monthly Conan titles as well. My Trapper Keeper that I took to school was decorated with Savage Sword pin-ups by Ernie Chan. I was a fan of ALF (who wasn’t?), and wrote to the ALF comic book asking that they do a Conan parody. They printed my letter, and complied by running an ALF story called “Gordon the Barbarian” or whatever. Those last two sentences weren’t written with pride.
And somewhere along the way, I saw Conan the Barbarian (1982) – first on television in edited form, and then, almost illicitly, at a friend’s house during a sleepover. He had HBO! He had the R-rated cut! My parents had a strict PG-only policy. To have Conan the Barbarian be the first R-rated film I ever saw boggled my little head. When Conan swept his steel sword, geysers of red blood burst from the torsos and necks and limbs of his adversaries. Slave girls dropped their fur cloaks and submitted to his desires. At a semi-nude orgy, the cultists of Set participate in cannibalism, and James Earl Jones turns into a snake. Is this what all R-rated movies were like? What a world I had waiting for me!
I’ve seen the movie countless times since then, and even though its flaws have become more obvious as I’ve grown older, I just can’t help it: as soon as the opening credits begin, and we see every stage in the forging of a sword while Basil Poledouris’s music thunders, I’m a goner. No – I’m a kid. It not only connects me to my youth, but hits all these other chords which leave me a helpless, grinning fool. I suspect that everyone has a film like this in their life, a film so essential to their identity that, if they acknowledge its flaws it all, they embrace them. (Digressing: that’s why so many people want George Lucas to acknowledge the original, unaltered Star Wars films. Every flaw that irks Lucas, the fans have long since taken to their hearts. They don’t want CG revisions; they want to relive their childhood memories. That’s important to them in a way that Lucas doesn’t seem to grasp.) So yes, I get Conan’s flaws. I get that Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t speak much in this film, and when he does, it comes out marble-mouthed. I get that the “lamentations of the women” line is ridiculously silly, as is every scene involving Mako as a misfit sorcerer. But I’ve grown accustomed to all these things; I enjoy them. This isn’t Ingmar Bergman; this is a story about a man seeking revenge on the cult leader who murdered his parents, and battling monsters and demons along the way. Until Lord of the Rings came along at the turn of the century, you could count on one hand the number of good sword-and-sorcery films, and Conan the Barbarian had to sit near the very top of the list.
Odd that the list was so short, because sword-and-sorcery was all the rage through the 70’s, reaching its peak of excitement in the early 80’s. Wizards and warriors were all over paperback books and comics; posters by Frank Frazetta and of Tolkien’s Middle Earth were hung beside pin-ups of rock and roll stars, and those same fanboys might also paint the side of their vans in Frazetta-esque imagery; “Dungeons & Dragons” took hold of pop culture and briefly caused an absurd hysteria that it was a cult brainwashing the young (my own mother was convinced that D&D and Satanism were synonymous, which is why I never played role-playing games). In the early 70’s, when Marvel’s Roy Thomas tried to convince Stan Lee that Conan was a property they should license, it was a hard sell. But very soon it was one of their tentpole comics, a hit that spawned spin-offs like Red Sonja and Kull the Conqueror, and even a daily newspaper comic strip. For years there was talk of a Conan movie; even stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen wanted to make one, at some point or another. John Milius, who had written Apocalypse Now (1979), was finally attached to direct a script that had been written by Oliver Stone. Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as Conan; he’d acted in a few films (like 1976’s Stay Hungry), but was still best known as that really-ripped bodybuilder from the documentary Pumping Iron (1977). Conan the Barbarian made him a bona fide movie star.
Milius shot in Spain, using a largely Spanish crew, and considering that the majority of the film takes place outdoors, the locations used to represent “the Hyborian Age” are spectacular, right from the very start. The film begins in wintry Cimmeria, where the young Conan (Jorge Sanz, with no dialogue but soulful eyes) is raised in a small village by his father (William Smith) to worship the grim god Crom and seek out the “riddle of steel.” After this opening monologue (and an on-screen quote from Nietzsche!), we’re witness to Conan’s village being razed to the ground by a band of raiders. Leading these men is Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones, doubtless cast because of his recognizably sonorous Darth Vader voice. Thulsa Doom was actually a character from Howard’s Kull stories, which take place thousands of years before the Conan tales; so Jones wears blue contact lenses to underline his “lost race” ancestry. He clearly relishes the opportunity to play a villain with more than just his voice. He’s introduced with no dialogue, just a confrontation with Conan and his mother (Nadiuska), drawn out Sergio Leone-style, in which he first mesmerizes the woman, then swiftly decapitates her.
Young Conan is sold off with other Cimmerian children to push a giant wheel in the wilderness, which turns and turns, presumably operating some great hidden works below. This art design is typical of the film: a spectacular construction in the Spanish hills, hinting at more than Milius can afford to show. In a now-famous montage, we see Conan spend all his youth chained to that wheel, until he grows into Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the music surges proudly. He’s sold off again, this time as a gladiator, and he quickly learns to fight (another famous montage, bloody and brutal, in which Conan sports all kinds of man-mangling weaponry). He learns how to read and write; he’s bred with slave girls. At last having become the Nietzschean superman, Conan is granted his freedom. This conception of Conan’s origins, incidentally, is pretty much all Oliver Stone and John Milius, and doesn’t really resemble the roguish adventurer created by Robert E. Howard. Nevertheless, it shaped the public’s perception of “Conan the Barbarian” for decades to come, and foreshadowed Schwarzenegger’s superhuman roles in his other 80’s action films, from The Terminator (1984) to Predator (1987).
After an interlude adapted from L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s story “The Thing in the Crypt” (de Camp served as “technical advisor” on the film), and a sexual encounter with a witch that ends with a female orgasm, flashy special effects, and immolation, Conan frees a thief named Subotai (the endearingly laconic Gerry Lopez), and together they journey out of the wilderness and toward civilization, in the kingdom of Zamora. Subotai wants to find some treasure to steal, but Conan’s more interested in tracking down Thulsa Doom to avenge his parents’ murder. They quickly learn that Doom’s snake-worshiping cult is spreading throughout the country. While infiltrating one of the cult strongholds, the Tower of the Serpent, they meet Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a swordswoman and thief. After a successful raid (and a battle in which Conan faces a giant snake), they become fabulously wealthy, attracting the attention of King Osric (Max Von Sydow), who pleads with them to steal into Thulsa Doom’s lair and rescue his daughter (Valérie Quennessen), who has fallen under Doom’s thrall. Conan decides to set out alone on this suicide mission, though soon enough he requires the help of Valeria and Subotai, as well as an eccentric old wizard (Mako) – who also happens to be narrating the film.
Milius decided to cast his principals by physical type, rather than acting ability, and for better or worse, that decision defines the film. Schwarzenegger was a bodybuilder, Bergman a dancer, Lopez a surfer. This means that Conan looks like the Conan of the comic books, and Bergman and Lopez are lithe and athletic. Still, just when you get settled into their level of performance, along comes The Seventh Seal‘s Max Von Sydow, playing Osric like he’s in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear, and the effect is jarring. Similarly, when James Earl Jones moves to center stage a few scenes later, his monologues are powerful and spellbinding (exactly what Thulsa Doom needs to be). The two actors steal the film, by default as much as by merit. Now, maybe the inexperienced Schwarzenegger would have been upstaged in every scene if his two loyal companions were professional actors, but when Von Sydow and Jones are on screen, it’s hard not to think that the movie needs more of this.
Jones’ speech about the “riddle of steel,” in which he lures one of his acolytes to jump to her death, is effectively chilling: he’s less Darth Vader than Charles Manson. And like Manson, his followers are hippies, youths who have abandoned their parents to don white robs and flowers, practicing meditation and mindlessly chanting “Dooooom” at their great magical leader. It’s a strange choice, but the idea that the followers of doom are equivalent to the Manson Family is underlined time and again, particularly in Von Sydow’s voiced horror that his brainwashed daughter might come back and murder him on Doom’s command. The analogy also leads to some nice parody when Conan first arrives in Doom’s camp, and tries to blend in amongst the dopey flock – as much as an Arnold Schwarzenegger can. This introduces the film’s most spectacular set: a temple in the mountains, giant steps cast down from it, at the bottom of which hundreds of extras gather. The climax gives Milius a chance to shoot this set at night, with each of the cultists holding a candle, recasting Thulsa Doom not as Charles Manson but as a rock and roll idol, looking down upon his audience who might as well be holding up cigarette lighters in allegiance to his song.
Here is my theory, or at least my excuse for why I unabashedly love this film: the star is not Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hardly has any dialogue, and spends most of his time brooding in that melancholy way that R.E.H. liked to write about. No, the real star is Basil Poledouris, whose score is surely is one of the greatest ever written for a motion picture. Now finally remixed in 5.1 for the new Blu-Ray edition, it roars, swoons, waltzes, and swashbuckles. He wears his influences – in particular Wagner, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – on his sleeve, and it’s unapologetically romantic in a way that all adventure films ought to be. This was a golden age for film music. With John Williams’ work on Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Superman (1978), lush orchestration was fashionable in soundtracks again (The Graduate had made contemporary pop music the de rigueur movie composer for a good decade). Thus, Poledouris had permission to go all-out, and his themes, from the muscle-flexing opening title march (“Anvil of Crom”), to the rousing music accompanying the journey to Zamora, and the honey-sweet waltz that plays during Thulsa Doom’s orgy, are all uniquely memorable. His score works overtime, sometimes nearly drowning out Schwarzenegger’s poor line delivery, as though overcompensating. When Conan and Valeria consummate their feelings, the sweaty, grunty sex scene is scored with a theme that swells with a feeling of tragedy, as Poledouris foreshadows their eventual separation. (Incidentally, the theme is called “Wifeing”!)
But Poledouris is not the only one working hard to make Conan the Barbarian a film to last. Milius treats the source material with fanboyish respect, and even if he occasionally rewrites Conan lore to suit the cinematic telling, he draws equally from Robert E. Howard, the comics and pastiches, Frazetta paintings (one of which is explicitly reproduced in the film, if you look fast), Norse mythology, Sergio Leone Westerns, and Japanese cinema to craft a film that resonates with a seriousness to match its score. To that latter category, the climax has the feel of Kurosawa’s samurai films, in particular Seven Samurai (1954), and there’s a most explicit homage to the great Japanese ghost story Kwaidan (1964), when Mako’s wizard inks runic writing onto Conan’s face to protect his unconscious body from evil spirits. Those spirits are cel-animated, in a pre-CG touch, and the way they’re portrayed, anatomy like charcoal pencil drawings, brings to mind the Marvel comics. Though Conan is a bit too dim-witted to represent the Conan Robert E. Howard fans know and love, the character of Valeria is lifted from Howard’s classic story “Red Nails” pretty intact, and her relationship with Conan recalls “Queen of the Black Coast.” Passing references to other kingdoms from the stories, like Aquilonia and Hyrkania, wink to the fans, as does the black-lotus dealer who peddles it like heroin (which it pretty much is).
Though some purists turn up their nose at this film, there’s enough here of quality that most fans have embraced it; indeed, many Conan fans have come to the character through this film like a gateway drug. So it’s gained some nostalgia value over the years, but it’s also, oddly, gained in stature when all of its sequels and rip-offs have fallen short. Conan the Barbarian was part of a short-lived surge of barbarian movies. Cluttered around it were the likes of The Beastmaster (1982), Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Fire & Ice (1983), Deathstalker (1983), and The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984). Over the years, unless it was a permanent part of your video library, you were likely to forget that Conan the Barbarian was better than those films, and much better than its own campy follow-ups, Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Red Sonja (1985). There’s an integrity to the original film, one that’s likely to be lacking in the upcoming remake. John Milius, Oliver Stone, Basil Poledouris, and James Earl Jones all cared deeply – some would argue, too deeply – about making this project stand out. With adult eyes, it’s not bad at all. If you’re an adolescent boy, there’s nothing better in the land.