August 8, 2011

Movie Mondays: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Frank Frazetta would be proud
Frank Frazetta would be proud

This poster (inspired by the work of legendary painter and Conan illustrator Frank Frazetta) kicks ass!!!

Title: Conan The Barbarian
Director: John Milius
John Milius, Oliver Stone, Edward Summer
Distributed By:
Universal Pictures
Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Mako, Gerry Lopez, Max von Sydow
Release Date:
May 14, 1982
Rated R

[Hey everyone!!! Welcome to part one of our month long tribute to everyone’s favorite sword-swinging, pirating, thieving, king-slaying, demon killing Low-Fantasy adventurer!!! Conan the Cimmerian! Or Conan the Barbarian as he’s known by most! The new movie is fast approaching! So, in honor of the new release this month, we’ll be taking a look at the Conan franchise as a whole! I hope you all enjoy!]

Article written by guest journalist Aaron Nicewonger

This story is based loosely on the literary works of author Robert E. Howard. This is the story of Conan. Set in the mythical Hyborian Age, Conan is a Cimmerian who wanders the land pillaging, thieving, questing, and adventuring. All the while, he searches to kill a man who grievously wronged him in the past, and has since grown to be a powerful cult leader spreading his influence throughout the land. Along his journey he meets a few companions; a friend, a crazed wizard, and a lover; who join his glory and danger filled quest.

Conan The Cimmerian!

Ahhhuhld The Governator will cut you if you haven’t seen this movie!

The movie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular Conan. In the opinion of this critic, he plays the role well enough. This movie generally has fans of Robert E. Howard’s work rather divided (I’ll get more into that later). Some REH fans complain that good ol’ “Ahhhnold” is nothing like Conan, going so far as to arguing even the smallest things like hair color. I think his dark brown hair is close enough to black that it doesn’t bother me.

The biggest complaint that seems to divide fans is in regards to the story. While it’s a good story and well thought out, it’s not based on any particular REH Conan story. Instead, the film borrows various elements from several REH stories and combines them into a new plot exclusive to the film.

Darth... I mean Thusla Doom

What better way for Mr. Jones to follow up Darth Vader!?

For instance, Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones) is the name of a character from REH’s “Kull” stories, not his “Conan” works. But the character worships the serpent god Set, much like Thoth-Amon from REH’s “Conan” stories. Didn’t know you were gonna be getting an education, did ya?

Sandahl Bergman is hott!!!

What do you get when you cross Valeria with Belit and add a touch of Red Sonja for good measure? Hottness! That’s what!

Next we have Valeria (played by Sandahl Bergman) who is also a combination of characters. In the stories, Valeria was a pirate who accompanied Conan on a particular quest. In the film, she’s a thief. While still sporting the curved sword and blonde hair from her literary description, and being a lover of Conan, the similarity stops there. She has more in common with another character, Belit (a Pirate captain, fighter, and one of Conan’s lovers) who promises that even in death, she would come back to save Conan’s life.

All of our lead players (Schwarzenegger, Jones, and Bergman) give knockout performances. I highly recommend you watch the extended cut of the film on DVD. It provides a few extra moments of character development, and we get to see Arnold portray an even more sympathetic side of his character, with a bit more depth.

Our supporting characters are played by fun surfer-turned-actor Gerry Lopez, and veteran performers Mako and Max von Sydow. Lopez gives a good performance, not phoning it in like one might expect from someone who is more of a surfer than an actor (in fact mostly appearing in beach-related movies). And Mako and Max von Sydow knock it out of the park like one would expect.

Our Heroes

One thing this movie certainly got right…the costumes. Lots of lavish outfits. Not just the simple loin-cloth a lot of illustrators would have you imagine.

The story is good. Not great. But good. It’s a typical revenge plot. Doom kills a lot of people, and ruins Conan’s life, and once their paths cross again later in the film, Conan vows to set things right by going after Doom and inadvertently freeing the land from the evil sorcerer’s grip in the process. Not very complex, but it’s also not too simplistic that it comes across as cliché or boring.

The special effects are great for the time. Just watch the scene when James Earl Jones transforms into a giant serpent during a huge orgy being had by his cult followers. And of course, keep in mind that it’s 1982.

The absolute best part of this film, and the one thing that no one seems to be divided on (and rightly so), is the musical score provided by Basil Poledouris. Quite arguably one of the greatest musical composers of his time, he provides one of the best compositions in the history of American cinema. Sweeping, vibrant, sullen, moving, inspiring, and descriptive; the music accentuates the story at every moment. In fact, the music alone tells a story, and like listening to a grand opera, if you only had the music and a program pamphlet you could still experience the full story. But despite all this, it manages to not overpower the movie, or distract from it. It merely emphasizes, which is the mark of a great score.

Now, the movie isn’t without its faults. As I said, the story isn’t complex at all, really. And while I think the lead performance is fine, there’s enough yelling and grunting with all the fighting to make even the staunchest Arnold defender cringe. So, you fans and haters alike who love to rip on “The Governator” have a lot of ammo with this movie. And the dialog can be pretty campy at times (well, everything not spoken by James Earl Jones, who just makes everything work so perfectly).

This movie takes various elements of Robert E. Howard’s literary canon and combines them into one action packed story.

Without giving away any specific plot details (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen the film, and learn what I mean if you go watch it for the first time), here are examples:
* The Crucifixion/Vulture scene is taken from A Witch Shall Be Born.
* The character Valeria is featured in Red Nails, but uses story elements mirroring Bêlit of Queen of the Black Coast.
* The snake-shifting and the Thulsa Doom character are from REH’s Kull stories. Though his worship of Set and sorcery mirror Thoth-Amon.
* The witch scene is borrowed from the REH story Worms of the Earth from his Bran Mak Morn series.
* Thulsa Doom’s monologue about fearing the dark is also drawn from that work.
The wolves/sword discovery sequence was lifted from The Thing in the Crypt, a Conan story by L. Sprague DeCamp.

So while the STORY isn’t exactly a Conan story, to me, it certainly feels like a Conan story. As a stand-alone film, I’d give this sword-and-sorcery/fantasy flick a solid 9 out of 10. As an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, I’d give it a 6 out of 10. As an adaption of REH’s work as a whole, I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. And I hope you stick with us for our month-long tribute to Conan.

Next week, Conan the Destroyer! Come on! It’ll be fun! And the week after, the NEW CONAN MOVIE COMES OUT! Hope you all come back for my review!

Aaron Nicewonger



  1. Moses

    This film is personal favorite of mine. I watched it as a kid and it defined Schwarzenegger for me. The film also is a benchmark for me for the sword-and-sorcery genre. I can always watch Conan the Barbarian for a good night of entertainment.
    The score gives the best performance of the film. I have the soundtrack and you’re right; it can tell the story on its own.

    Overall, a great film!

  2. Aaron

    Thanks for the feedback.

    It’s a wonderful benchmark for sword and sorcery films.
    And yeah. Best performance in the film is the music.

    Damn good stuff.

    BTW, be sure to check out next weeks write-up.

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