Updated: Jun 19
Conan the Barbarian Week continues at Interstellar Intersection. Coverage spotlights the 38th anniversary of the “Conan the Barbarian” film from 1982, and all things Conan-related.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Many of the 20th century’s signature action films premiered in 1980s, and it should come as no surprise that Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in several of them.
“The Terminator.” “Commando.” “Predator.” “Red Heat.”
Schwarzenegger was featured in each of them, but in a lot of ways “Conan the Barbarian” is where things started for the championship bodybuilder who turned to acting as the 1970s waned.
Thirty-eight years ago, “Conan the Barbarian,” which stars Schwarzenegger as the title character, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez and Mako, premiered in the United States. Directed by John Milius, the film was distributed by Universal Pictures and it endures as a genre and action film that best represents the 1980s.
In the movie’s opening scene, a great deal of world-building is established as watchers learn of Crom, the god whom Cimmerians worship, and the power of steel — all highlighted with epic music produced by Basil Poledouris, who went on to do great things with the “RoboCop” and “Starship Troopers” soundtracks. With “Conan the Barbarian,” Poledouris’ music from the film’s opening moments is so intense it should come with a disclaimer that states listening may cause viewers to want throw a Pict through a plate-glass window.
In his 1982 review of the film, critic Roger Ebert wrote, “There are a lot of battles and a few interesting nights at crude wayside inns and, in general, nothing to tax the unsophisticated. ‘Conan the Barbarian’ is, in fact, a very nearly perfect visualization of the Conan legend, of Robert E. Howard's tale of a superman who lived beyond the mists of time, when people were so pure, straightforward, and simple that a 1930s pulp magazine writer could write about them at one cent a word and not have to pause to puzzle out their motivations.”
It’s this simplicity that Ebert identifies which helps the movie and its titular character endure today, as Conan, who was born of the Great Depression, continues to be relevant in pop culture.
Created by Howard, Conan first saw publication in the pages of Weird Tales in 1932. For 50 years, the sword-and-sandal-clad warrior lived in the pulps, waiting in the shadows for his big-screen debut. His first feature film remains epic, showing off a grand world — a proper Hyborian Age — as Conan has a code of conduct that’s easy to understand (revenge) with a plot that’s as straightforward as the script for “Mad Max: Fury Road” from 2015.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Schwarzenegger, who wasn’t particularly gifted at speaking English in the early '80s, relies less on dialogue, and instead invests his effort in physical actions and gestures to help convey his character attributes. The approach lacks refinement, but that’s expected of a barbarian who’s on the hunt for revenge. It’s also a nice juxtaposition to interactions with the eloquent Thulsa Doom, the film’s villain, portrayed by Jones.
The film’s setting, and the acting of Schwarzenegger, Jones and Bergman in particular, is so convincing that it’s easy to overlook the problems the movie has. Yes, “Conan the Barbarian” is campy, Lopez’s character of Subotai is underdeveloped, and Mako’s wizard won’t even get a name until the 1984 sequel “Conan the Destroyer” is released.
But the rest is all rather charming if you don’t take it too seriously.
There are Doberman dogs wearing hats working for Thulsa Doom. Bergman’s Valeria repeatedly says “Do you want to live forever?” and it somehow works. All of these characters and interactions fit into Conan’s world as nicely as papers stashed away in a trunk in the attic.
Rated R, Conan’s tale is dark and sexual. But there’s a morality to it, except when it involves Thulsa Doom, Conan’s survival, or drinking too much alcohol — the poor camel that Conan whacks while drunk, yikes.
Thulsa Doom is the most complex character, and much of that stems from him being over a thousand years old and having a change of heart regarding his career trajectory. He goes from being a wizard with an army who pursues steel, which is how Conan encounters him at a young age, to growing a cult with snake worshipers who follow him around like hippies idolizing Charles Manson; his arc is sinister and worthy of challenging Conan’s growing legend.
If character isn’t enough, there’s plenty of action, fascinating side characters and set design to awe over as well.
There’s a witch who seduces Conan, an angry king who wants his daughter back so bad he’s willing to enlist three thieves to kidnap her, a crucifixion, and there’s even some cannibal soup and an orgy. That’s a lot packed into a film with a 129-minute running time. Good thing characterization is straightforward.
Conan is asked in one scene what is best in life. His reply? He says, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of their women.” He is a barbarian who knows what he wants and he always finds a way to get it. Consequences be damned — his simplicity and character speak to his origins in the Great Depression.
If only more contemporary films had this approach.