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.

conan2The 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, ValeriaConan 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 conan1thieves 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 conan3him 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.


  1. I've never seen any of the Conan movies but I am currently reading some of the Robert E. Howard stories and enjoying them very much.

  2. Awesome post. I love the Conan movies, especially this one. This is how you make an exciting adventure film. And that terrific booming music score is one of the best music scores ever. Great post Kim. And Rupert you have to see this film. You won't be disappointed.

  3. Kim, I love Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. I own both on DVD. It is a guilty pleasure movie. It doesn't bother me the least that it isnt' a great movie. I love the exciting plot, the sword fights, the humorous lines, the love scene between Conan and Valeria is hot, the horses, and Jones makes a great villain...of course he would, after all he became Darth Vader!! You are right about Basil Poledouris's music being fantastic. Conan the Barbarian theme was the first thing I purchased for my iPod. In fact I listened to it this morning before reading your review. Can't wait to see the remake with Jason Momoa. He was awesome on the TV show Stargate Atlantis as Ronan. He will make a good Conan. Kim, I enjoyed your review!!

  4. Kim, this was a thoroughly entertaining read. Looking back, one realizes how influential CONAN was. Along with THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, it inspired a slew of imitators, such as SORCERESS, BEASTMASTER (a guilty pleasure for me), KRULL, YOR, ATOR, and RED SONJA. Kim, have you seen THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, an account of part of Robert E. Howard's life?

  5. Kim, I'm a fan of this film. Though BARBARIAN is a better made film, I prefer CONAN THE DESTROYER, mostly because a local channel used to run it frequently when I was younger. But I appreciate BARBARIAN's decidedly darker tone (I still think the James Earl Jones transformation scene is a great effect and fairly creepy), successfully evading camp. And Schwarzenegger may not be the best actor, but he certainly looks the part; he made Conan his own. Compare that to promo pics of Jason Momoa, who looks like he's posing. Thanks for a terrific post, Kim!

  6. No, Rick, I haven't seen that movie. I'll look for it on Netflix, though.

  7. Kim, I'm running behind with my reading and commenting, so I hope you get to see this. I had to laugh at that picture of Arnold -- I had forgotten he was ever that young and buff with very little neck. LOL. I was not a fan of the Conan movies, but my sons were just the right ages (10 and 7) when the first one came out. They didn't actually see the movie until it came to TV, but from the beginning they loved all things Conan, posters, books, everything.

    I didn't know the Conan books went as far back as the 30's. And I did not know that Sandahl Bergman was in it. She has to have the most fantastic body ever -- did you ever see her in "All That Jazz"? What a dancer...

    Really fun post, Kim!

  8. Kim, the most wonderful thing about a "guilty pleasure" movie is that it really doesn't matter if something is a cinematic masterpiece if enough elements come together and collectively add up to entertainment. It is always fun to see a film with someone else's perspective in mind. The next time I have a chance to see "Conan" I will remember your homage to it. I truly enjoyed your post and especially appreciated the pulp magazine information.

  9. It's not a guilty pleasure, it's just a pleasure. It has terrific cinematography and production design, a powerful and moving orchestral score by Basil Poledouris, genuine thematic and philosophical depth (do you think the Nietzsche quote at the beginning is a pretentious throwaway, or the unequivocal heart of the story?), and a sense of gritty realism thanks to the old-world sensibilities and historical obsessions of John Milius. Honestly, this movie belongs on any list of the best fantasy films of all time.