Conan The Barbarian (1982)
By: Mr Intolerance on January 24, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
DVD
20th Century Fox (Australia). Region 2 & 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1. Croatian, Czech, Danish, English (FHI), Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish Subtitles.
The Movie
Credits
Director: John Milius
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Ben Davidson, Gerry Lopez, Mako, William Smith, Max Von Sydow
Writer: John Milius, Oliver Stone
Country: USA
Based on Robert E. Howard's, and later L. Sprague de Camp's, novels about the Cimmerian barbarian Conan, the film, is sure to disappoint purists of the novels, but guaranteed to please fans of action films, and fans of good cinema generally. Conan The Barbarian is epic beyond belief, and a superb story well-told. If you are a purist, you'll spot references to a number of Conan stories, as well as some of Kull the Conqueror. Don't expect the much more philosophical Conan of the written tales, this is action-Conan, and should be approached as such.

As the film begins, on the screen appears Nietzsche's famous dictum: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger", which is the philosophy that drives this film. Conan endures a shit-load of misfortune and really rises above, not in spite of it, but pretty much because of it.

Conan's whole life is well and truly fucked up – or made, depending on how you look at it - by the arrival in his village of immortal sorcerer Thulsa Doom (a truly awesome performance by James Earl Jones – best speaking voice this side of Christopher Lee). Doom turns up to young Conan's village, kills the young lad's father (well, okay, the father is killed by armoured Rottweilers, but Doom is ultimately responsible) and his mother, steals his father's sword, torches the village, kills all the adults and sends the children into slavery and the whole chain of events, not unlike in Greek tragedy, is set in motion. The opening slaughter scene in Conan's village is an iconic moment of action cinema, beautifully photographed – although it does makes me laugh that Thulsa Doom's two major henchmen look like members of 80s metal band Manowar, who spent all too many years lifting weights and posing in leather pouches, covered in oil; all a bit too homo-erotic for my taste, thank you.

Sorry – back to the story: Conan is enslaved, and forced to work for years pushing a wheel around in the desert, some kind of primitive grain mill affair – being a cog in the machine, if you want to get all metaphorical about it, becoming an extraordinarily strong fellow in the process – somewhat akin to the opening sequence, with the forging of his father's sword – hardening the already strong material.

Conan goes on to become something like the Ultimate Cage Fighting Champion for awhile, doing some work for the gorehounds, if nothing else, before gaining a sense of purpose studying with the Orientals – when he learns a bit of finesse to the whole being a warrior thing. He's set free and left to his own devices. Then (after a brief interlude with a nudie sex-obsessed witch) it's all revenge against Thulsa Doom, who's become less a two-bit murderer and gangster, and more a kind of prophet, to his followers, with some slight side-tracking involving an aspiring career in larceny. Conan enlists the help of archer-thief Subotai, and Valkyrie-like queen of thieves Valeria (watching this as a teenager, she had me thinking many lecherous thoughts…) along the way, having been paid in as many rubies as they can carry by King Osric to get his daughter back from the Doom-ster, who's been swayed by his wily ways. Osric (the usually dependable Max Von Sydow) has been impressed our hero's infiltrating one of Doom's temples and causing havoc, stealing the Eye of the Serpent, a great big fuck-off gem, the theft of which really gives Doom the hump, as does the killing of one of his "pets" – a giant snake.

Doom has been setting up temples all over the shop, Temples of Set (which does beg the question: where is the fucking thing set? It certainly isn't Egypt, where Set worship originates from. Conan is Cimmerian, Subotai is Hyrkanian, it would appear, the Magician is Asian and Valeria would seem to be Norse (that's all I can gather from a later battle scene) – so where the hell are we?), with the obvious worship of snakes, a central motif in the film. When Doom's temples are penetrated (oo-er, Vicar!), we can see that things are bad – and that his rule is corrupt, his power evil. Say for example, when Conan, Valeria and Subotai raid Doom's temple for the first time – it's not good – there is definite bad news going on, sacrificing near-to-nekkid ladies to giant serpents and so forth. When they head in the second time at Doom's Mountain of Power to retrieve Osric's daughter, it's even worse, with intimations of cannibalism, lycanthropy (although not in the traditional Lon Chaney/Oliver Reed turning into a wolf way) and black magic.

In terms of Doom's religion, it seems to simply entail emptiness, the negation of self, total sacrifice – the absence of individuality and free will; a nihilist cult more than a religion, an anti-spiritual anti-religion, if anything. In a heavy-handed way, the director and the scriptwriter seem to be attacking the idea of following any mode of belief unquestioningly (this being a Hollywood film, I immediately suspected Scientology being under deserving assault, but maybe I'm reading a little too much into things) – the exposition scene where Doom expounds to Conan his value system makes this point pretty obvious. He then gets to deliver one of cinema's great lines, "Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe." Conan's belief in his own god, Crom (who would seem to be Odin in fancy dress, as Crom resides in Valhalla), appears to be little better than lip-service for the better part (one hardly impassioned prayer abd saying "Crom" in stunned disbelief when weird shit happens does not a belief system make…), ditto Subotai's belief in the Four Winds – Conan gets where he goes through self-determination alone; the gods don't step in and intervene on his behalf or to his detriment like in Homer's classics The Iliad and The Odyssey. Only at two points of the film do we see the spirit world intrude on 'reality' – once for ill, once for good – but it's not like Odysseus being prevented from returning to Ithaca by Poseidon, or Achilles having his shield forged by Hephaestus. Religion definitely cops a serve in this film – a good thing, in my opinion: always question everything. Except my reviews, of course.

Basil Poledouris' score is sweeping and vast, by turns martial, bombastic and heroic, then lush and exotic, and covers almost the entire film (I don't think anyone's ever told him what understatement means) – it adds to the whole epic nature of Conan The Barbarian. I can't honestly think what the whole experience would be like without it. There's barely a scene that isn't scored, and scored well, at that. You actually start to notice the lack of diagetic and non-diagetic music as being intrusive, which is rather odd.

As an action adventure film, this is practically non-pareil. As a sword and sorcery film, ditto. As an epic drama, the same. This is one of the few films Oliver Stone has scripted that hasn't made me want to vomit blood instantly. The acting veers from the merely serviceable to the very bloody good indeed (a big tip of the hat to James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom here – a nice bit of work), the special effects not too bad for the day, the fight scenes – that's where this film really comes to life. I'm not saying this is a plot-less slaughterhouse, but the set-pieces are what make this film tick: the opening assault on Conan's village, the theft of the Eye of the Serpent, the attempt to steal back Osric's daughter, the attack at the graveyard – the climax seems almost, well, anti-climactic by comparison.

So what are the themes? Revenge? Greed? Power? Corruption? Heroism? Loyalty? Answer: all of the above. And so what if it's told in a flamboyant, comic-book fashion? Like The Lord of the Rings, it's all played deadly straight, in total earnest: there's no knowing post-modern wink at the camera stuff here like in a Tarantino flick. Normally that would bother me, that level of poker-faced seriousness, but it's one of Conan The Barbarian's strengths, and helps you to buy into the film and its message.  

Message is something that the cheapie knock-down look-alike films that followed in this film's footsteps (or exploited the success of, more accurately) didn't have. While The Beastmaster (okay, so the opening few moments are possibly the most unintentionally (I think…) footage in celluloid history) and Ator The Invincible are highly enjoyable romps, they lacked the gravity of this film, the weight and depth. Comparing those films to Conan The Barbarian is like comparing Kylie Minogue to Wagner. 

This is Arnie in a pre-Governator-role, and it's all good fun. Okay, so he's been in some stinkers – End of Days springs pretty rapidly to mind – but this is when he was given decent roles, and before he became a parody of himself – that would be after Predator. He actually possesses a real charisma, and genuine presence, as he did in The Terminator and Commando, and thankfully doesn't have to spout any of those stupid one-liners that eventually became part of the whole Arnie-experience. It's just a great disappointment to me that the sequel was so lightweight. The action scenes here are amazingly well done, the scene in Doom's Throne Room is pure brilliance – practically mesmerising – and one that really makes this film a stand out, like Poledouris' score, as I mentioned before. And, in an earlier scene, watching Arnie punch out a camel is excellence incarnate.

For true fans of this film, can I recommend black metal/Viking metal band Bathory's album "Blood on Ice", which basically retells this whole saga (or one remarkably like it, anyway) in song form. The same deal, but from a Viking point of view. It's very good, and suitably heroic.
Video
Presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement, the picture is as good as you could want it to be. This is Conan looking crystal clear, in all his blood-drenched, sword-wielding glory.
Audio
Again, the 5.1 remix is all good. Conan won't sound too much better than this. Basil Poledouris' score is worth the price of admission alone.
Extra Features
Not a bad package – a commentary with the director and Arnie (which is often unintentionally hilarious), a making of featurette (Conan Unchained), some deleted scenes, the Conan Archives, some theatrical trailers (yawn) and production notes (even more yawns).
The Verdict
One of the best films ever. If you don't own this and love it, your mother will burn in hell. Fuck the fact that the Governator is in it, if you aren't an Arnie fan (I am, depending on the film), just watch it for the amazing visual spectacle it is. Epic as all fuck, Conan The Barbarian is one of the greatest films you will ever see, and if you don't agree with me, you can get fucked and I hate you.
Movie Score
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