Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, Ben Davidson, Cassandra Gava, Gerry Lopez, Mako, Valérie Quennessen, William Smith, Luis Barboo, Franco Columbu, Leslie Foldvary
Directed by John Milius
Expectations: Extremely high.
Conan the Barbarian opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” A far better actor than many give him credit for, Conan the Barbarian provided Arnold Schwarzenegger a chance at destiny. The films leading him to the role of Conan were of varying quality, but the fires of Pumping Iron or The Jayne Mansfield Story tested, trained and forged the steel of his resolve like the steel of the sword that is forged during Conan‘s opening credits. These experiences shaped Arnold into the hulking beast of a man awaiting his rightful place in the spotlight of Hollywood’s explosive action films. He seized this opportunity like a champion, delivering a muscular, vengeful performance that continues to resonate over 30 years later. Conan the Barbarian is a stunning achievement, and one of my favorite films.
Conan the Barbarian tells a very simple tale, but like all great fantasy stories, there is a focus on grand adventure that sets Conan apart from other films of its vintage. Watching it this time, it reminded me a lot of Richard Donner’s Superman, in that it takes a story that many would have made into a trashy genre film and treats it with respect and verisimilitude. Conan is not a B-Movie with swords, it’s an epic journey of revenge across the wide plains of Hyboria.
Conan the Barbarian also succeeds because it is largely a visual film, telling its thrilling adventure story without dialogue for long stretches of the movie. This allows us to drink in the luscious visuals, feast on the exciting action, and revel in the epic spectacle of it all. For a film this empty of dialogue, it is rich and bountiful in its set-pieces and its story. Conan the Barbarian has an exceptional ability to transport you to a distant time and place, and it mostly does so without the use of special FX. The illusion is all in the filming of the locations and in the wondrous production design. The sets range from the opulent temples of Thulsa Doom to the dingy back alleys of crowded cities, and every one is interesting and intriguing in its design. Only occasionally do FX come into play, and when they do, in scenes like the one when Valeria and Subotai fight off a group of spirits, they are unique and viscerally exciting. These animated spirits are especially magical, lending the scene a haunting quality that “better” CG FX would most likely not.
Also over the past year or so, I’ve had the chance to read through a whole book of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan tales. While there are definite differences between the two versions of the character (and purists likely still scoff at the mention of this film), I find the stories and the film to share a very similar feel. Conan the Barbarian may not hold true to the mythology or the history that Howard built for the character, but it does hold true to the spirit of the character and to the world. There’s also a few quick references to the stories in the movie that I never noticed before (such as the mention of black lotus as a mind-altering substance).
Conan the Barbarian remains one of the greatest fantasy films ever made. I love it to death, and every time I watch it, it weaves its powerful spell of adventure and epic revenge over my stay-at-home, boring little soul. And through its careful usage of locations and resources, Conan the Barbarian continues to be as effective a film as it was in 1982. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m willing to bet the 2011 remake won’t stand up to that test in 2042. And if you still need more convincing, Conan beheads a gigantic snake during one of the many iconic scenes and the film’s score is one of the greatest works in the history of fantasy film scores.
Conan the Barbarian is a must-see for all fantasy fans, as well as anyone who digs on testosterone-fueled movies designed to make you want to buy a home gym, an anvil and a loincloth. Conan is the shit.
Dude, I’m totally with you. Conan the Barbarian is awesome movie. I’ve watched it so many times I can practically recite every line.
Shame they had to give Arnie a comedy sidekick, wonky props and a duff story in the sequel.
I too have read a fair few of Howard’s short stories. I think you’re right. Stone and Milius don’t follow the story to the letter but they capture the atmosphere very well. There are a few bits that they do borrow from Howard’s stories. The part where Conan is chased by wolves and hides in a cave where he finds a sword is directly taken from The Thing in the Crypt.
Thanks for coming by and commenting, Jack! Aw man, I know… the sequel is such a disappointment. I’m hoping that when I get around to reviewing that one, my increased love of B-Movies will allow me to like it more than the first time I saw it.
I love that part when he stumbles upon that cave and the sword within. Definitely ripped right outta that story.
While it certainly has some strong B-movie elements, you’re right that it transcends this to become something more. Definitely a high point of the “sword and sorcery” fantasy genre.
I definitely need to delve a little deeper into those B-Movie swords and sorcery movies that got so popular around this film, but yeah, this is the definite high point. Nobody can touch Arnold.
I loved this film as a kid! I really did. I haven’t seen it in years, but my plan is to review both this film and the recent remake at some stage soon. Hopefully early in 2014!
Ah man, give it another watch for sure. It’s such an awesome movie that really holds up. When I get through Conan 2: Cruise Control and Red Sonja I’m planning on reviewing the remake (which I haven’t seen yet and have zero expectations for). I look forward to your thoughts on it too!
Ah, you made me watch this again. I hadn’t watched my blu ray copy yet, so it was a good excuse break it in. I’ve only seen it a few times before, but every time I like it better than before. This time I was struck by how much visual storytelling it does, maybe because you mentioned it here.
I hadn’t realized before how much of the narrative is done purely by watching the characters. Like young Conan growing up at the mill, or the way it doesn’t even bother mentioning that after Conan’s run in with the wild dogs he is suddenly sporting a wolf skin coat in the next scene.
Definitely one of the best fantasy movies ever. Can’t wait to see what you say about the sequel.
Hahahaha, I “made” you watch it. Sorry to force you into re-watching one of the best movies ever. 🙂
Yeah, I really noticed how visual it was this time. I don’t remember noticing that as much before. I love that bit where he goes into the cave and has the wolf coat in the next scene! Always makes me smile. Although, I’m pretty much smiling through the whole movie.
I’m looking forward to the sequel a lot actually, even though I hated it the first time I saw it a few years ago. I have a suspicion I’ll be a lot less critical because of my enhanced B-Movie love these days, but we’ll see. I remember it being pretty bad. This time I definitely won’t be expecting Conan 2 so much as a totally different take on the character.
Yes all that smiling and laughing, and now I can’t get that awesome soundtrack out of my head. How dare you do that to me.
I hope you like the sequel more this time. I recall when I watched it a couple years back being surprised that is wasn’t as terrible as the hype had led me to believe. Sure, it was no Conan the Barbarian, but I didn’t understand why it got such vehement hatred.
Thanks for making me feel like an asshole. Sorry, man, I’ll try not to do that sort of thing to you again.
I imagine I’ll enjoy the sequel more this time, if nothing else I at least know what to expect this time, so I can’t be as disappointed as the first time when I thought it’d be like the first one, even after multiple warnings from people. I would love to write a fun review of why it shouldn’t be hated (ala Superman 4), but we’ll see.
Excellent movie. Of course, you knew it was one of my favorites based on my famous blog post. I must say, your intro paragraph has to be the best description of Arnold I have ever read. I’m jealous that I didn’t write it!
Fuck yeah, Conan is one of the all-time greats. I’d take it over many well-loved classics any day. Glad you liked that paragraph, I worked hard on it! Thanks!