'Conan the Barbarian', the 1982 action-adventure film that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, was a sleepover favourite of my friends and mine when we were in our early teens. It had everything - warriors, women in medieval bikinis, shrieking ghosts, giant serpents, magic, and lots of gore. It had tons of catchphrases like, "Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. And to hear the lamentations of their women." It also had Arnold Schwarzenegger ('Terminator' franchise) for a lead, in a role that would prove pivotal in the performer's transition from charismatic bodybuilding bro to world dominance as an action movie star.
Writer/director John Milius opens his movie with a quote from Nietzsche ("That which does not kill us makes us stronger"), a quick introduction by a narrator and a monologue from Conan's dad. It isn't until the iconic "What is best in life?" conversation that the main character speaks his first lines of dialogue. That's around 20 minutes of silence from the protagonist, decades before the introverts in 'There Will Be Blood' or 'Wall-E'.
The two hours and change that follow are an object lesson in stabbing, strength, revenge, more stabbing and religious fanaticism against a backdrop of a dark, dangerous time before recorded history. The pacing of the film is slow and deliberate. Originally scripted by Oliver Stone (then reworked by Milius), it follows a revenge plot that uses names and details from the original Conan stories by pulp writer Robert E. Howard. It's often dry and serious, just the stuff to fuel a teenage boy's imagination, integrating scenes from Howard's stories and classic films like 'Seven Samurai' and 'Kwaidan'.
Schwarzenegger plays the titular hero, a child orphaned when warrior-priest Thulsa Doom (a terrific James Earl Jones) raids his village. Raised as a slave and inexplicably forced to push around a giant hamster wheel for 20 years, Conan is sold to new owners and becomes a pit fighter. The epic montage of Conan ripping apart his foes in the gladiator pits is even more heavy metal knowing that director Milius later helped devise the concepts for what would come to be known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship - it's been reported that he was the person who came up with the idea of staging the fights in the octagon-shaped cage, although he also wanted a moat with alligators and electrified fencing.
Released from the fighting pits, Conan finds an old sword in a cave, kills a bunch of wolves to make a snug jacket, has sex with a witch, befriends an archer named Subotai (champion surfer Gerry Lopez, an amazing sidekick), becomes a thief, beheads a giant snake and ultimately becomes a warrior-for-hire.
It's important to note that Schwarzenegger was completely new to acting, only delivers a handful of lines, and had to reduce his workout regimen prior to filming because his arms were so huge that he could not bring them together to hold a sword with both hands. Yet, despite looking super-awkward during the sex scenes, his casting somehow works. There's a documentary called 'Milius' which recounts the director approaching producer Dino De Laurentiis with his choice of Arnold as Conan. De Laurentiis flat out refuses to use him and asks for the director's second choice. Milius replies Dustin Hoffman. De Laurentiis gave in. Milius is the dude.
Anyway, Conan and Subotai are soon joined by Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a warrior-thief as formidable as Conan is. The trio is sent by King Osric (Max von Sydow) to retrieve his brainwashed daughter from a snake-worshipping cult that's fond of cannibalism, crucifixion and free love. Conan eagerly takes the job, knowing Doom to be its leader. Rather than taking him on a journey into an 'Apocalypto'-style heart of darkness, however, his mission gives its star an opportunity to engage in abundant sword-hacking, bloodletting, and vulture chomping.
'Conan the Barbarian' was beautifully shot in Spain, in the regions around Madrid and the province of Almería. The sets were based on Dark Age cultures and Frank Frazetta's paintings of Conan. Most of the special effects were done practically, rather than using optical effects. This was apparently to highlight the story as one of human strength and triumph in the face of something otherworldly. James Earl Jones really did turn into a snake. He's that talented.
I can't name my favourite scene from 'Conan the Barbarian'. I would have to narrow it down to three. The first would be when Conan infiltrates the temple, but he is discovered and beaten up. Doom then lectures him on the power of flesh, which he demonstrates by hypnotically enticing a girl to leap to her death. It effectively establishes that this bad guy isn't some brute warlord, as the beginning of the story implied, but an intellectual threat whose greatest weapon is persuasiveness. He's a mesmerising, memorable villain, just as compelling as the movie's nominal lead.
My second favourite scene is when Conan and friends don camouflage and interrupt Doom's cannibal orgy - the tension gradually ratchets up until it explodes into a slickly edited fight scene. The third greatest scene is the battle of the burial mounds, where Conan, Subotai and the Wizard (Mako) take on Doom's army of mounted soldiers. Everything about it (Conan's macho prayer to Crom, the henchman who gets impaled on a massive spring-loaded stake, the booming score) makes it feel epic. Conan's gang employs a hit-and-run strategy to oppose the much greater enemy force and it feels like a precursor to later films like Takashi Miike's '13 Assassins'.
On the subject of the film's music, Basil Poledouris' bombastic Wagner-esque score is a huge reason why the film works so well (he also provided the music for 'Robocop' and 'Starship Troopers'). Just listen to the intro or the piece where Conan's village is attacked and slaughtered - they don't make speakers loud enough for that soundtrack, and it adds tremendous power and majesty to shots of musclebound performers running across open fields. 'Anvil of Crom' is the piece that plays in my mind when I have to uncork a particularly stubborn bottle of wine.
It's also worth noting that the commentary track for this movie is possibly the best I've ever heard in my life, at least on par with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell chatting away on 'Big Trouble in Little China' and 'The Thing'. An increasingly drunk-sounding Milius and Arnold laugh, yell and poke fun at various moments in the film, clearly aware that it could have been the worst movie ever but that it never quite crossed the line... which is what makes it so good. Instead, it's the perfect combination of imagery, music, and yes, even acting.
Unfortunately, it was followed by Richard Fleischer's 'Conan the Destroyer', a huge disappointment. Lacking the direction, writing and violence of the first film, the only thing that I really liked about the sequel was Conan encountering the same camel he punched out while stoned in the original movie, which spits on him in revenge. Sure, he uppercuts a horse and fights a caped gorilla in a hall of mirrors, but the animal cruelty in 'Conan the Destroyer' lacks the charm of the first film. Don't even get me started on Fleischer's spinoff, 'Red Sonja', or the Jason Momoa-starring reboot from 2011.
In recent interviews, Schwarzenegger has indicated that the role he is most eager to reprise is Conan. With any luck, a director like James Mangold can see the potential of a 'King Conan' film and give the old guy and his franchise a majestic 'Logan'-style sendoff.