by Mark Greig
Conan the Barbarian has got everything you would expect from a cheesy 80s sword and sorcery film: blood, sex, magic and a drunken Arnie punching a camel. How could I not love it?
Conan was the film that helped make Arnold a star (we'll let history decide whether or not that was a good thing). Like a cyborg killing machine from the future, fantasy fiction’s most famous Cimmerian is a role that is perfectly tailored for the limited skills of the Austrian Oak. Acting, speaking, competently running California, remaining faithful to his wife, these are not things that Arnold is good at. Killing loads of bad guys with massive weapons -- that is what Arnold is good at.
Is it faithful to Robert E. Howard original stories? I can't really say since I haven't read Howard's work, despite owning the complete chronicles (I'll get around to them eventually, I swear). It is one of the few 80s fantasy films to take the genre seriously, maybe a little too seriously. Humour is mostly kept to a minimum.The script (penned by such contrasting egos as Oliver Stone and John Milimus) plays to Arnie's strengths by giving him as little dialogue as possible. He says only five words to his main love interest throughout the entire film. Some scenes are almost complete wordless, allowing Basil Poledouris more chances to show off his thundering score. It is one of the greatest ever pieces of film music and helps to elevate the whole thing to Wagnerian levels of epic.
Acting in general is something the film is lacking. Most of the cast were amateurs with limited or no acting experience. Doom's henchmen were cast primarily for their size. To make up for the leading man's complete lack of Thespian talent we have a cameo from Max Von Sydow and James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom. Doom himself comes across more like a crazy cult leader than a serious Dark Lord. It is difficult to imagine him a major threat.
Despite the obvious limited budget, the actions scenes are impressive. The opening attack on Conan's village is spectacular; ditto the final battle on the mounds. The film benefits from being made at a time when fantasy films weren’t required to be family friendly. There's lots of bloody violence, nudity and an orgy where human soup is being served. It is also a sword and sorcery film with more sword than sorcery. Like the humour, magic in general is kept to a minimum. In the rare times that magic is used, Milimus keeps it subdued and obscure.
Notes and Quotes
--Seriously, those are some very dodgy giants snakes.
--I adore the scene where Conan and his new partner in crime play a game of My God is Bigger than Yours.
--That was a real dead vulture Arnie bit into during the Tree of Woe scene. After the director shouted cut, Arnold immediately had to rinse his mouth out to avoid disease.
--Milimus is making no effort to hide his rightwing political views. Doom's followers are depicted as just a bunch of hippies. Foolish, peace loving hippies who have no clue they’re on tonight's menu.
-- Conan’s final confrontation with Doom recalls Willard’s killing of Kurtz. I guess Milimus hadn’t completely left Apocalypse Now behind.
King Osric: "There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father's love for his child."
Mongol General: "What is best in life?"
Conan: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."
Conan: "Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That's what's important! Valor pleases you, Crom... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!"
Valeria: "Do you want to live forever?"
Three out of four punched camels.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.