Conan the Barbarian (1982)

*. Does anyone still read the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard? I’m sure there’s still a fan base, and the character has been spun off in countless ways, but from the few of them I’ve read I don’t think the originals are very good. Nevertheless, a big dude with a big sword gets people’s attention.
*. Oliver Stone and John Milius? I can certainly understand the latter name, but I was a little surprised to see Stone had a co-writer credit on the screenplay. I’d forgotten his involvement with the project. As it turns out, his initial draft was far from canonical, being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It was also going to run 4 hours and involve a lot of special monster effects. The producers wanted something more orthodox and less expensive. Mainly less expensive.
*. Milius, on the other hand, was definitely the man for the job. He’d already written Dirty Harry and Magnum Force and as far as I can tell took all of this shit seriously. This is a comic book movie before comic book movies discovered irony. We begin with a quote from Nietzsche, though what the philosopher would think of Conan is hard to say. I doubt he would approve of Conan’s crude recipe for happiness. I think Nietzsche meant something a little more by amor fati than just crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. And I’m not sure he would have cared much for Crom either.
*. Conan does, however, get to beat up a bunch of hippies and flower children. Milius must have loved that, and knocking the fruity cult priest on the head. This is a world where men are men and women are (a) valkyries; (b) pleasure slaves; (c) breeding units; or (d) witches.
*. Milius had also written Apocalypse Now, and the end of this movie seems a clear echo of the end of that earlier film, with Conan as Willard ritually beheading the cult leader Thulsa Doom/Colonel Kurtz at the top of the stairs.
*. Come to think of it, there’s something of the end of De Palma’s Scarface (written by Stone) there too. It seems to have been a bit of a motif at the time.
*. Shouldn’t a he-man like Conan have been able to chop Thulsa Doom’s head off with one swing of that mighty broadsword? It looks like he’s up there chopping wood.
*. The design of the film was inspired by the art of Frank Frazetta, who I guess is pretty much the only visual source for this kind of material. It looks nice in the traditional fantasy style, with lots of corkscrew stone pillars and scantily-clad slave girls. Aside from the crowd scenes though I don’t think there’s anything else much to be impressed by. Conan’s swords apparently cost $10,000 a piece but they might have been made out of plastic for all I could tell. The giant snake is a bit of a yawn. The ghosts are hardly worth the trouble.
*. Milius took the business of painting magic words on Conan’s body from Kwaidan. Influence is a funny thing.
*. Sandahl Bergman is pretty good, in what was to be her biggest role. She really had a striking look. And for parts like this, what else did she need?
*. Maybe she just plays well against Arnold. Schwarzenegger went on to get a bit better, or at least more comfortable, with acting, but really he’s just terrible here. The only thing he can do is pose (which is something he does a lot). He delivers his lines as though he doesn’t even understand what he’s saying, much less anything about their timing. This was to be a breakout movie for him, but at the time it was hard to see much in the way of promise. He was just another hunk of beefcake.
*. I immediately recognized Basil Poledouris’s familiar stirring score, but it might not have been from this movie. Apparently it has been sampled extensively by other epics. This is understandable, as it’s very good.
*. I guess I’ve been pretty negative here, but to be honest I was actually quite surprised at how well this movie has held up. It’s a bit ponderous and could have really used some more humour, but for its genre it manages to stand out. Mind you, there were a lot of terrible swords-and-sandals movies that came out around this time so that’s not saying much. Still, I enjoyed seeing it again — for the first time in probably thirty years — and I think I might even end up watching it again sometime. I mean, James Earl Jones turns into a snake! That’s something you can never forget.

16 thoughts on “Conan the Barbarian (1982)

  1. Tom Moody

    The snake transformation scene, and the music that accompanies it, is notably eerie. By itself, Poledouris’ tune would be rather lilting and beautiful, but with the snake crawling past his orgiastic followers it becomes something else.
    I read all Howard’s Conan stories fairly recently, and found them surprisingly thoughtful, melancholy, and wry.
    Here’s a passage I saved from “The Tower of the Elephant,” 1933:
    “[Conan’s] gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death. It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian’s mind, was all any god should be expected to do.”

    1. Alex Good Post author

      That snake will live forever. The actual transformation, however, is done on the cheap with I think only one cutaway shot showing the change to Thulsa Doom’s head. Still, it makes an impact. It’s one of the only scenes from the film I remembered. That and Conan punching the camel.

      You read all the Conan stories? I only read a couple and I got the sense they were all going to be pretty much the same. But I’ve never been that attached to the fantasy genre. I’m still trying to get through the first volume of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Been at it for years.

      There seems to be a weird law though that says great books rarely make great movies, whereas bad novels, usually the most generic, are the ones that get turned into hits. Just fairly recently I was re-reading some of Ian Fleming’s Bond books (which I tore through when I was a kid) and I was amazed at how terrible they were. But Hollywood turned them into something good.

  2. Tom Moody

    whoops — “the snake crawling past the orgiastic followers” — I wrote “his” which could unintentionally refer to Poledouris — bad writing — darn this internet

  3. Tom Moody

    Yes, I think Howard is considerably better than Fleming. You have some of Lovecraft’s atmosphere and a Dashiell Hammett tough guy in the form of a laconic barbarian. My sense is Howard grew as a writer and later stories such as Red Nails, Beyond the Black River, and People of the Black Circle show this development. This film of Milius’s is pretty true to the Howard spirit, and I like it, but we deserve a better Conan than Ahnuld (iconic as this role may be).

  4. Tom Moody

    For example, the “eating the vulture scene” on the crucifix is direct from Howard — it’s a detail from an otherwise throwaway story that Milius smartly incorporated into this script.

  5. Tom Moody

    As for fantasy as a genre, I’m more of an sf person, exceptions being LOTR, Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stories, or some of the offbeat hybrid items like Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. I haven’t read George RR Martin’s epic or seen the TV version, which puts me on a small boat adrift from the rest of the culture. By fantasy I mean sword & sorcery as opposed to occult horror (Machen, Hodgson, etc).
    Howard occupies a special place as a member of the Lovecraft circle and closet existentialist. The Conan saga is essentially tales of the occult with a mercenary muscleman running around seeking advantage in a chaotic medieval world. There are swords and wizards but not a lot of escapism — Conan kicks ass but he’s mostly adrift in a milieu of ever-changing threats.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I’m a Swanwick fan too, though mostly of his SF short stories. I haven’t read The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. I think I’ve only read a couple of his novels (In the Drift and Jack Faust). Savage sense of humour.

      I don’t know Howard well enough to evaluate him as an existentialist. Conan is so without introspection or angst does he represent a parody or an ideal of the type? I might need some convincing!

  6. SBrannan

    For me, the Snake Transformation Scene served as a powerful visual message. It was one of three (to me) points where they Showed the lack of value Thulsa Doom placed on his followers. In this instance, abandoning Princess Yasimina while he slithered away to safety.

    Also for me, I feel this movie holds up well thanks to two factors.

    The first is that they did a lot of Showing (as mentioned earlier) what happened and why, as opposed to just telling it (which to me seemed to be the case in The Destroyer).

    The second reason, is that this movie feels like it really came from a time that pre-dated Recorded History.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I always had the sense that Thulsa Doom was eating those slave girls after he turned into a snake. I’m not sure if that’s supported by anything in the film but it might just be one of those movies-within-the-movie that I like to imagine.

      I wonder how much of the feel of the movie you mention comes from the pre-CGI effects. There’s something to be said for crowds of people that really were crowds of extras and not just computer-animated hordes.

      1. SBrannan

        For me, it was the Showing of his means of escape, forcing Conan to Stay his Execution – and again, showing how little value he placed on his followers.

        Indeed, the reason – at least according to the Novelisation – for his having Princess Yasimina at all, was that through marrying her, he’d secure a legitimate claim to the Zamorian Throne held by King Oscric: The Usurper. And was still willing to kill her himself once he couldn’t get her back from Conan, Subotai, The Wizard, and Valeria – who proved that even being Dead was no obstacle for her.

        As for why it took so many hits for Doom to lose his head? I feel that’s down to Conan wanting to make certain he Felt them, so he didn’t put ALL his strength into the blows.

        And yes, the fact that all the crowds of extras, really were living people and not CGI stand-ins, goes a long way to helping it feel like it was something that really could have happened.

  7. Tom Moody

    Conan as Howard wrote him is light years from parody but neither is he an “ideal” barbarian (whatever that might be) — any more than the Continental Op is a parody or ideal Pinkerton man, or Mifune’s Sanjuro is a parody or ideal samurai. The Nietzschean superman Conan is mostly Schwarzenegger/Milius (and for Stone it probably is parody). Howard’s Conan is immensely strong and gets what he wants — by the end of the series he is a king but doesn’t actually want that. He is guided by an indifferent god (as noted above) and “existential” in that Howard never gives him a holy mission or noble purpose. He is a cunning and resourceful opportunist; “self-actualized” is a word often used. (From a quick review of essays it appears that later writers of Conan stories added missions from God or “good guy” motivations that Howard shunned.)


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