Directed by John Milius
March 16, 1982 (Spain) / May 14, 1982 (North America)
“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”
A young boy turned a slave gains his freedom and seeks revenge against the wizard leader that slaughtered everyone in his village.
This game changing movie is one of those films that holds up decades after it came out. It is just a great adventure story with amazing action supported by brilliant directing. Conan the Barbarian set a look for fantasy films that did not really change until The Lord of the Rings series came along. The many copycat films this picture spawned dressed their characters much in the same way as you would find someone from this. This even extend into television. Think about the costumes from Xena: Warrior Princess. They would just as easily fit into the Conan universe as they do into that show.
Conan the Barbarian is the film that turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into a bankable star. He had the look they wanted but they did not know if people would understand what he was saying given his thick accent or if he could act well enough once he opened his mouth, so his lines are kept to an extreme minimum for someone playing the title character. If I recall correctly the first time he speaks actual words and does not make his usual Schwarzenegger sounds is when he is asked what is best in life. Reportedly critics could barely understand him.
Having said all that Schwarzenegger does a great job. It is not easy to create a character that barely speaks. We are speaking species. Words are important. That is how we learn information about individuals in real life and the characters in a film or TV show or even those we read of in a book. He had to communicate with his eyes and his face and his actions and he did a good job because if he had not no one would have cared about the character and Schwarzenegger would have been a trivial pursuit question and not one of the biggest action stars of the 80s.
The story itself is a tale of revenge told through an adventure yarn about rescuing a princess from an evil wizard and these events coinciding with Conan’s needs. King Osric (Max von Sydow) requests that Conan, Conan’s lover Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), and Subotai (Gerry Lopez performing / Sab Shimono voicing) rescue his daughter Princess Yasimina (Valérie Quennessen) from Doom’s cult. But it turns into something special and even at times deeper than that.
The famous Riddle of Steel is one of those aspects. Think of it as a philosophical debate between the two major players. Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) does not believe that steel is strong but rather flesh is what is strong, and the flesh wields the steel. Conan believes that steel is what is strong, and flesh is weak but truthfully by the end of the film what you learn is that it is not flesh that is strong nor is it steel that is strong. Flesh can become old and weak. Steel can become brittle but will is what is what makes for strength of the flesh or even the steel. Will is what carries Conan to his revenge. Will helps him overcome the odds.
Think about it. In the battle in the Mounds Conan’s sword breaks. If steel had been what is strong then it would not have broken. But with the aid of the princess who has now seen what a fool she was, he sneaks back into Doom’s temple and Doom tries to control Conan’s flesh with his powers but weakness and doubt with his words weakens Doom. Conan’s will is unbeatable at that point and he decapitates the villain and achieves his revenge.
How many actors get a chance to play not one but two iconic villains? James Earl Jones got to do just that. First as Darth Vader and then again here as Thulsa Doom. And he is just ice cold threatening. He is not maniacal or over the top. He is just cold and controlled and he makes you afraid without doing too much at first.
Mako Iwamatsu, known professionally as “Mako”, is one of those amazing character actors that should be much better known then what he is. The man has a long and dare I say storied career. He has been in so many great films and shows. He was even the voice of Uncle Iroh in the first two seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Aku in Samurai Jack. How do you beat a résumé like that?
Here Mako is great as the Wizard of the Mounds (in the sequel being named Akiro). Perhaps a little crazy but he was definitely a different take on the powerful mystic. No magic wands or potions or even flashing magic affects. Nor was he a wise sage but rather a bit of a jerk and maybe a touch loopy from this isolation with all those dead.
It is a testament to the director and the actors involved that they crafted an effective love story between Valeria and Conan even though the character of Conan barely talks. The first time I ever saw this was on television which meant it was heavily edited. Even then I should have picked up that Conan did not talk that much but John Milius constructed a film in such a way that you do not feel it.
Valeria’s fate is alluded to earlier in the film and it culminates in a very good moment when she comes back from the dead just to save her love. It tugs at the heart because it is exactly what she said she would do and her love really was that strong.
The scene shortly after Conan is free and finds himself in the tomb is just such a great fantasy film moment yet it lacks magic or monsters or anything. There is just something mythic about when Conan sees the dead king that could be mistaken for Crom sitting up on the throne with a sword in his hand.
And who can forget the music? Basil Poledouris was a great composer. He created an iconic score here. I think most of his film scores are great. He created a unique sound for everything he did. They captured the film. You understood the movie in musical form every time. And that is what a film score should do. You should get a sense for the movie you are watching just by listening to the music. Music should tell the story to some degree and he knew how to make that happen. The score is just epic and high stakes. You are transported to an ancient time in a faraway land. You are on the same quest as Conan is.
Conan the Barbarian is an undeniably classic film. It has action and adventure and excitement and surprisingly good performances. I should not have to tell you, but I will say it anyway-watch it!
3 thoughts on “Conan the Barbarian: A Fantasy Classic”
I adore this film, its one of my favourites, which is a little odd as the first time I saw it I didn’t enjoy it very much (too sore about its distance from the REH stories, frankly) but I grew to love it on VHS, and its just gotten better over time (and both LOTR and GOT owe a hell of a lot to it).
I re-watched Predator last night and it reminded me of how good Arnie was in his prime and just how great action films were in that decade. Such a shame it was all downhill for Conan after this film (why oh why did Conan the Destroyer have to be such a low-rent travesty). In an alternate universe Conan stayed adult and violent and Arnie starred in four more over the next two decades, ending with a triumphant King Conan finale.
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Conan the Barbarian is just a masterful work. Milius was the perfect choice to direct this.
I enjoyed Conan the Destroyer for what it was. Not as deep as Barbarian but a fun adventure film.