Conan the Barbarian


US | 1982 | Directed by John Milius

Logline: A barbarian warrior embarks on a mission to avenge the death of his parents and tribe slain by a powerful and evil sorcerer when he was a boy.

A vicious horde of marauders attacks a Cimmerian village. A young village boy, Conan, watches as his father is savaged to death by dogs and mother beheaded by the evil leader. The boy is enslaved, forced to push the Wheel of Pain season after season for countless moons. Finally as an adult, yet still a slave, Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is released and thrust into the pit to fight as a gladiator where he refines his survival skills. Soon enough he becomes unbeatable and is sent to the Far East to train as a warrior and to learn the way of the sword. His enslaver eventually sets Conan free, after making sure Conan understands the discipline of steel, which echoes the words of his father to trust no one, but your sword. 

And so unfolds Conan the Barbarian, the iconic fantasy hero’s big screen exploits as penned and helmed by John Milius, co-written by Oliver Stone (one of Stone’s NYC School of Arts colleagues, Edward Summer, apparently provided the story, but was uncredited). At $US20 million, this was a big budget epic, but essentially it’s a elaborate B-movie, hampered by length and uneven pacing, and sporting a central performance that ranks amongst the worst ever.


But the movie is ripe with cult appeal; a lurid and leathery piece of deep trash that gleams like a stash of dirty gems.


Based on the short stories of Robert E. Howard, which were first published in Weird Tales magazine between 1932 -1936, Conan the Cimmerian lived during the prehistoric Hyborean Age, and was described by Howard as black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, treading the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet. He swore by a deity called Crom, and according to The Wizard, who saved his life, “Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”


Conan is on a quest to solve the riddle of steel. Along the way he escapes the clutches of a cave witch (Cassandra Gava), befriends an archer, Subotai (Gerry Lopez), becomes lovers with a thief, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), and sets out to rescue Princess Yasmina (Valerie Quennessen, who died tragically several years after the movie was released), the daughter of King Osric (Max Von Sydow), from the Snake Cult, and, ultimately, ending the sinister reign of its ruler, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” say the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, which open the movie. Milius loves his mythology and his warfare (he provided much of Apocalypse Now with its mortal combat portentousness), and he wore a military beret through much of Conan’s shoot. Shot on location throughout Spain, the production values is impressive, especially the incredible Mountain of Power temple, a massive $250,000 set on the side of a hill (though much of the rest is hokey, by today’s standards). Much of the movie’s look was based on the brilliant art of illustrator Frank Frazetta, which production designer Ron Cobb had a field day with (in fact teaser poster art utilized a Frazetta original).


Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physical presence is formidable, but his acting is awful (he was nominated in the 1983 Razzie Awards, but lost to Lawrence Olivier!) It’s curious to note that Sandahl Bergman, a lithe dancer with an equally impressive figure, scored a Golden Globe win as best adult newcomer, however her only other notable role was as co-star in Milius’s Red Sonja. Conan and Valeria exchange few words. In fact dialogue, ripe as it is, is kept to an absolute minimum throughout the whole movie, with nothing spoken on-screen for the first twenty minutes. Conan’s first utterance has become legendary; “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”


Despite its endearing tackiness, the movie is simply way too long; as it passes its first hour the pace begins to drag terribly, and an uneven sense of humour begins to rear its head, for example Conan punching out a camel, or biting back a persistent vulture. By the time we’ve reached the climactic finale, Doom’s menace has evaporated, and Schwarzenegger’s attempts at dialogue and emotion have severely stretched one’s tolerance. However, like many cult movies, there is more than enough to enjoy along the way, especially if you embrace its inherent trashiness; Conan falling into a cave after being chased by savage dogs and discovering Kull the Conqueror (?), he then steals the king’s sword, climbs out, and with the help of a wolf, dons a fine suit of fur, and apparently a snazzy new haircut.


The elements of horror and supernatural menace provide the movie its best thrills; Thulsa executing Conan’s mother, Conan’s encounter with the Euroasian witch, the demon spectre trying to steal Conan’s spirit, Thulsa Doom’s transformation into the giant snake (a superb piece of animatronics and editing), Thulsa Doom’s snake arrows, and not forgetting the cult priestess ordered to step off a ledge and fall to her death (which set a world stunt record of 182 feet!)                                    


“So, did Conan return the wayward daughter of King Osric to her home. And having no further concern, he and his companions sought adventure in the West. Many wars and feuds did Conan fight. Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand ... And this story shall also be told.”

But, alas, it never was, and I doubt it shall come to pass (the far less interesting Conan the Destroyer followed soon after, as did a woeful remake in 2011). But hey, we’ve always got the voluptuous indulgence of Conan the Barbarian, “Suffer no guilt, ye who wield this in the name of Crom.”