Review: Conan the Barbarian (dir. by John Milius)


Khitan General: “Conan, what is best in life?”
Conan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!”

1982 premiered what has to be one of my favorite films ever. It was a film that was year’s in the making and had as one of it’s producers the eccentric and powerful Hollywood icon, Dino De Laurentiis. It also starred who was then a very much unknown Austrian bodybuilder-turned-actor in Arnold Schwarzenneger. To round out this unusual cast of characters producing this film would be the maverick screenwriter-director John Milius not to mention a young writer still fresh from Vietnam, Oliver Stone. During it’s production there were conflicts between producer and director as to the tone of the film right up to who should actually play the lead character. It’s a good thing that Milius was the ringmaster of this group of characters as his personality was able to steer things to what finally ended up as the film legions of fans have known and seen throughout the decades since it’s release. Conan the Barbarian was, and still is, a fantasy film of quality which still remains as action-packed and full of flights of fancy in the beginning of 2011 as it did when it premiered in 11982.

Milius and Stone adapted the stories of Robert E. Howard while adding their own flourishes to the iconic Cimmerian character. While many Howard purists were aghast at how these two writers had turned a character who was muscular but also athletic and lean into the hulking muscle-bound one Schwarzenneger inhabited the final result would silence most of these critics. The film kept the more outlandish backstory of Howard’s writing, but left enough to allow the film’s story and background to remain something out of Earth’s past prehistory. It was a film which was part origin tale for the title character, part coming of age film and part revenge story.

The film begins with a sequence narrated by iconic Asian-actor Mako as he tells of the beginnings of his liege and master Conan and the high adventures which would soon follow. Conan the Barbarian actually has little dialogue in the very beginning outside of that narration and a brief interlude between a young Conan and his father about the meaning of the “riddle of steel”. Most of the film’s beginning is quite silent in terms of dialogue. This didn’t matter as film composer Basil Poledouris’ symphonic score lent an air of the operatic to the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film. It’s here we’re introduced to James Earl Jones’ Atlantean-survivor and warlord in Thulsa Doom whose barband scours the land trying to find the meaning to the “riddle of steel”. The destruction of Conan’s village and people is the impetus which would drive the young Conan to stay alive through years of slavery, pit-fighting and banditry. He would have his revenge on Thulsa Doom and along the way he meets up and befriends two other thieves in Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman whose presence almost matches Schwarzenneger’s in intensity and confidence).

The rest of the film sees these three having the very tales of high adventures mentioned of in the film’s beginning narration and how an unfortunate, albeit succcesful robbery of a cult temple, leads Conan to the very thing he desires most and that’s to find Thulsa Doom. It’s here we get veteran actor Max Von Sydow as King Osric in a great scene as he tasks Conan and his companions to find and rescue his bewitched daughter from the clutches of Doom. In King Osric we see a character who may or may not be a glimpse into Conan’s future, but as Conan’s chronicler says later in the film that would be a tale told at another time.

Conan the Barbarian is a film that was able to balance both storytelling and action setpieces quite well that one never really gets distracted by the dialogue that at times came off clunky. Plus, what action setpieces they were to behold. From the initial raid by Doom and his men on Conan’s village right up to the final and climactic “Battle of the Mounds” where Doom and his men square off against Conan and his outnumbered friends in an ancient battlefield full of graveyard mounds. The film is quite bloody, but never truly in a gratuitous manner. Blood almost flows like what one would see in comic books. Conan is shown as an almost primal force of nature in his violence. In the end it’s what made the film such a success when it first premiered and decades since. It was Howard’s character (though changed somewhat in the adaptation) through and through and audiences young and old, male and female, would end up loving the film upon watching it.

This film would generate a sequel that had even more action and piled one even more of the fantastical elements of the Howard creation, but fans of the first film consider it of lesser quality though still somewhat entertaining. The film would become the breakout role for Arnold Schwarzenneger and catapult him into action-hero status that would make him one of the best-known and highest paid actor’s in Hollywood for two decades. It would also catapult him to such popularity that some would say it was one of the stepping stones which would earn him seven years as California’s governor at the turn of the new millenium.

In the end, Conan the Barbarian succeeds in giving it’s audience the very tales of myths and high adventures spoken of by Conan’s chronicler. It’s a testament to the work by Milius and Schwarzenneger couple with one of the most beloved and iconic film scores in film history by Basil Poledouris that Conan the Barbarian continues and remains one of the best films of it’s genre and one which helped spawn off not just a sequel but countless of grindhouse and exploitation copies and imitation both good and bad. The film also is a great in that it helped bring audiences to want to learn more about the character of Conan and as a lover of the written word the impact this film had on Howard’s legacy is the best compliment I can give about this film.