Saturday, February 5, 2011
Conan the Barbarian, a Guilty Pleasure
Before he was the Governator or the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was Conan the Barbarian (1982). A role that required him to show off his heaping muscles and sport a loin cloth, and occasionally mangle the English language with some interesting dialogue. Though it is somewhat cheesy by today’s standards, this film was a favorite of mine and my siblings—it even made by dyslexic brother read as many books and comics about the character as he could find.
The pulp writer Robert E. Howard created Conan in 1932. The most famous barbarian in fiction first appeared in the short story “People of the Dark” in the pulp magazine Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror. While he wasn’t the main character in this story, he did capture his creator’s interest. So much so that Howard would go on to craft whole stories centered around his heroic barbarian creation. As the stories grew popular, collections were compiled and other authors even took up the pen and carried on Conan’s quest.
The film opens rather ominously, with a young Conan being instructed by his father that the only thing in the world he can trust is his sword. Soon Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) is killing all of the adults in Conan’s village and taking all of the children to the slave market—he also takes that trustworthy sword.
Flash forward some years, and we find Conan being bought by a man who trains fighters. Just a human specimen of physical strength, Conan does well in this world. When he is freed by his master, Conan sets off into the cruel world and meets many creatures that want nothing more than to kill him. One of the more interesting of these happens to be a witch/demon (Cassandra Gava) who seduces him (yes, there is a sex scene) and she finds herself thrown into the fire. After this bit is done, Conan finds what one can only assume to be an earlier conquest of the witch behind her hut--Subotai (Gerry Lopez). A thief, Subotai, proves useful to Conan and so they join forces.
Still looking for the man who killed his family, Conan makes inquires across the countryside about a man who wears a serpent symbol (Doom). When they are pointed in the direction of the temple of a serpent worshiping cult they make plans to raid it. It is around here that they join up with the thief Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). The three thieves make out quite well at this temple—although they have to kill a very large snake in the process. This brings them to the notice of King Osric (Max von Sydow…who obviously hadn’t had enough with cheesy sci-fi flicks yet, see: Flash Gordon), whose daughter (Valerie Quennessen) has ran off with Doom. Osric offers them a large reward to return his daughter and kill Thulsa.
With reward and revenge on his mind, Conan sets off to the Mountain of Power (creativity?). On the journey he meets a wizard (Mako) who warns him about Doom’s power. They concoct a plan where Conan disguises himself as a cult member. When he is discovered, Doom orders Conan to be nailed to the Tree of Woe. You’d think somebody would wait to see him die from asphyxiation(even the Romans did that with Christ!), but they don’t, and so Subotai and Valeria rescue him. This sets up two very memorable showdowns between Doom and Conan.
In the first Doom reveals himself to be a shape-shifter by turning himself into a snake and escaping through a tunnel. He also kills Valeria with some very potent snake arrow. In the second, and best showdown, Conan confronts Doom while he is conducting a sacred snake ceremony (I just had to say it). It is quite a sight to see Conan behead Doom and then hold it up for all the followers to see…but the best is when he tosses it on the steps and it just rolls and rolls.
Quite honestly, I don’t know why I like this film. Although there are some stellar actors in the film (Sydow and Jones), the overall performances leave something to be desired. The story, written by Oliver Stone and John Milius (who also directed), is a rather predictable hero story—even with Valeria dying. Yet, it has a nihilistic feel to it (one of the themes in the Howard stories) that I enjoy watching. I also like sword-play films, and there is a lot of that in here. I also know that I love Basil Poledouris’ music—this might be the best thing about the entire film.
I just suppose it is just a guilty pleasure of mine. It must have been a guilty pleasure of others too, because they made a sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984) and this year a remake of the original Conan is coming out starring Jason Momoa, Ron Perlman, and Rose McGowan.