I remember the first time I saw “Conan the Barbarian” in a theater. It was opening weekend in May, 1982, and it was at the Edwards tri-plex in Monterey Park. While we were there to see “Conan”, one of the reasons I remember the event so well is that there were promotion postcard posters for “Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan” available at the theater, and I was quite excited about that movie. 40 years later, I can say I went to anniversary screenings of both films at a real theater.
We can start with the obvious, Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast in the film. I read a story many years ago about Arnold meeting with Dino DeLaurentis, the film’s producer, as he was being considered for the part. According to what I read, Arnold was his usual arrogant and playful self, and inulted Dino in his office by asking him “Why does such a little man ( De Laurentiis was 5’4”) need such a big desk?’ In spite of that awkward opening, Arnold got the part, because who else were you going to cast? It was his big break into action films and as a lead performer. His Austrian accent might have worked for him a bit as a character, and he trained like the dickens to get the swordplay, stunts and action just right. It also helps that in a two hour or so movie, his character does not speak for the opening twenty five minutes, or in the last twenty five minutes.
Director John Milius is a favorite of mine, I am a big fan of his “Dillinger” and a huge fan of “The Wind and the Lion”. This film seems to fit his sensibilities immediately. The Nietzschean attitude and the strong sense of masculinity, are very much part of his wheelhouse. When I posted that I was at a screening, the first response I got was a prompt for the famous line about what is best in life. Although Oliver Stone originated the script, Milius transformed it with several important changes and when he directed it, those changes become obvious. The opening credit sequence features the powerful Basil Poledouris theme playing over a sequence of the forging of a sword. You can see only brief ghost images of the characters in this sequence, everything is focused on the “steel” and fire of the moment.
Anyone expecting this to be a cartoonish kids adventure will be soon disillusioned. Young Conan’s village is burned to the ground, his father is slain in valiant battle, and his mother is unceremoniously decapitated while she is holding his hand. This is going to be a brutal, violent story with grim surroundings and an air of doom hovering over our lead character. William Smith, who was so often the bad guy in seventies and eighties films, got a nice brief turn here as Conan’s father. Smith, who passed away just a year ago, was always a favorite of mine to spot in a movie or television show.
There is a clever montage sequence where young Conan transforms into the Arnold visage, as he build his muscles and endurance as a slave at a mill site. Slowly he becomes the only surviving slave pushing the wheel, and we see shots of the child shifting to shots of the adult and finally he lifts his head and reveals the face that we all know today. A similar montage shows him developing fighting skills as a pit gladiator and training with a sword master. The muscles that Schwarzenegger is famous for come into full play as the camera captures them in sweaty, bloody combat and sleek sword play sequences in the sun.
Once Conan is freed from his captivity, he acquires companions and they embark on a series of action scenes that tell us more about the character. They are bold thieves with little regard for their own lives, much less the lives of others. Subotai, the thief he rescues from the captivity of a witch, is played by surfing champion Gerry Lopez. Lopez is fine, although his voice ends up being dubbed. Sandahl Bergman on the other hand is excellent. A professional dancer with a few acting credits prior to this film, she puts on a very good performance as Conan’s love interest and thieving companion. She looks great in the action sequences and she did her prep to get the combat moments right, but her dramatic chops were solid in a couple of important moments. As she embraces Conan at one point, she talks about the loneliness of the life she has lead.
“I would look into the huts and the tents of others in the coldest dark and I would see figures holding each other in the night. And I always passed by. You and I, we have warmth. That’s so hard to find in this world. Please. Let someone else pass by in the night. “
This was a terrific character moment. She gets another great scene later when she and Subotai are protecting Conan’s wounded body from the spirits that are trying to take him to the next world. She is more defiant there and this is another great character piece.
The second lead of the film is the villain Thulsa Doom, He murdered Conan’s parents, and heads the snake cult that is engulfing the surrounding kingdoms. James Earl Jones has that magnificent voice to convey ominous power, but his face is also very animated. He has a couple of moments where he uses his eyes to control the women he is adding to his cult. We see that first when he freezes Conan’s mother at the beginning of the film. He attempts to do the same with Conan at the end, as he twists the story of his relationship to the Barbarian, in a manner that will benefit him. With the hair extensions and contact lenses, it might seem like a comic book performance, but it is really a skillful use of expression and voice that makes Thulsa Doom a character that is memorable.
King Osric, the man who sends the thieves after Thulsa Doom to return his daughter to him, is played by the late Max Von Sydow. This is an actor who had a career that spanned from the late forties to just a couple of years ago before his passing. He has been in a dozen of my favorite films over the years and I can’t think of a role where he disappoints. He has only one scene in this film and he practically steals the movie. In the brief trailer above, you will get the immediate sense of fun he seemed to be having as part of this cast.
Although I have seen this movie a dozen time, I was foggy on one moment in particular. I had not remembered the animated effects in the scene on the beach when the spirits are coming for Conan. The subtle images that never look like cartoons but are clearly animated creatures, were very satisfying. I thought it worked much better on the big screen than I remembered from home viewings. Just another example of why seeing a movie in a theater is so much better. This was the thirty third film I saw this year that was a screening of an older film(Five of those films were from 1982). More than a dozen of those have been Fathom Events. Let me offer my heartfelt thanks for Fathom and the studios they work with. I know that sometimes the showings are not much more than commercials for upgraded video releases, but that’s OK with me. I’ll buy the 4K or Blu-Ray, but first let me re-experience it where it belongs.