Before Arnie became The Terminator he was Conan the Barbarian in this visually stunning fantasy film based on the books of Robert E. Howard. An endlessly influential film, withe recent films such as the Matrix and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy taking elements from it, a film with much greater depth than most give it credit for, clever, emotive, with a smart script, one of the best soundtracks of all time, strong performances and great action. Conan the Barbarian is an underrated classic, but one which all Arnie fans love, one which deserves to be recognised for what it is rather than criticising it as brainless violence.
John Milius, director of Big Wednesday, writer of the Apocalypse Now screenplay and famous sections of Jaws and Dirty Harry decided to turn Howard’s classic stories into a big screen adventure. With a script by himself and Oliver Stone, they found Schwarzenegger, convinced actors such as Max Von Sydow and James Earl Jones to join the cast, and made the definitive fantasy film. Along with Basil Poledouris making the score, and a host of talented set designers and effects guys, Conan the Barbarian should not be taken lightly.
Conan tells the story of a man whose entire village was slaughtered when he was a child, and taken into slavery until he became an adult. During the period of slavery he pushes a giant wheel until he has grown, become strong, and everyone else has died. He is then taken and trained as a fighter and killer in small arenas, soon becoming the famous and bloodthirsty warrior in the land, forgetting his past, and becoming an emotionless machine. However, when he is released his past soon comes back to him and he seeks vengeance for the man who killed his family-Thulsa Doom. On his travels he rescues Subotai, played by surfer Gerry Lopez, a thief and they become friends. Soon they encounter Valeria, a beautiful young warrior thief who is infiltrating an evil tower owned by Doom. They go in, butcher the bad guys, steal a diamond, and Conan and Valeria fall in love. Her attitude towards life overpowers him, and the three go around the land stealing. However, the draw of the past is too much and they search for Doom who is taking over the land with his hypnotic powers, believing flesh to be stronger than steal. He is a powerful wizard and sacrifices many innocent young people who succumb to his ways, much like a modern religious cult. Doom and Conan meet again, and Doom is too strong, teaching Conan about his power, much like Conan’s father spoke of the riddle of steel. Conan is left for dead, but his friends find him, and with the help of a magician restore him in a very touching and powerful scene. Renewed, Conan once more seeks Doom, but this time it is not him who is killed, enraging him further.
Arnold’s performance here is one of his best, the kind of role he should be given and proving that he is the best at what he does. Sydow is good in a smaller part, Jones is awesome-just watch his eyes. Mako is very good as the Wizard, Gerry Lopez is superb, and Sandahl Bergman is excellent in a performance which should have sent her on to greatness. The score is easily among the best ever, perfectly complementing every scene, heightening the emotional impact whether it be a battle scene or funeral. The action is also very impressive, before masses of CG beasties, with heads sailing off and swords clashing. It is also one of the most beautifully shot films of the decade, the camera panning over wide areas much like Kurosawa in movement, a technique used again by Peter Jackson. The script is full of quotable dialogue, mixing serious ones with typical Arnie one-liners, Nietchze is referenced and other philosophical issues are discussed with an odd amount of skill for an action movie. Rather than discussion, a few one-liners are given, but they are to good effect. Certain scenes are highly emotional, and they are dealt with skilfully, and Conan is a tragic figure rather than a murderer. No-one can ever get close to him again, anyone who does dies. It is not only a great action and fantasy film, but a great love story. Worthy of Oscar nominations, but of course this type of film is always regarded as pointless. Even if you are not an Arnie film, if you are not someone with a closed mind who has made a decision as to whether you will like a film or not before you see it, then you should see the many merits here. One of the best films of the early 80’s, though unfortunately it is mostly discarded.
Try to get a 2 disc special eidition of the movie- although no matter which you choose the classification boards have done it again, cutting parts of the film which may destory our souls if we were to view them (again), but there are lots of worthwhile extra features to make this version the one to buy over others. Deleted scenes, handy commentaries, interesting documentaries. A must-have.
As always, feel free to comment on my review and the movie. Is the movie unfairly lost in the archives? Does Arnie look his toughest here? How strong an adaptation did you find the film?