Almost nothing is better than finding a movie that you enjoyed as a child and realizing how much you still liked it. The only thing better than that is watching that same movie with someone who has never seen it before, revitalizing the experience and making it something special not only between you and the film, but between you and (gasp!) another human being. I had forgotten, in my cynical adulthood, about a staple film of my childhood, Conan the Barbarian. A filthy, bloody nightmare of a fantasy movie, it wore its R rating on its sleeve for all to see, as nudity and extreme violence were both on the menu in large portions. But with wonderful music, amazing effects for 1982, haunting imagery, and a few examples of perfect casting, this one deservedly goes in the books as one of my new (and old) favorites.
Based on the terrifying character Conan the Cimmeran by author and possible misogynist Robert E. Howard, we’re told the beginnings of the legend of Conan and his trials of youth. He was born into a small kingdom, his father the king being a wise and kind ruler. But one day his father’s tiny kingdom is besieged by the evil wizard Thulsa Doom, who annihilates all in his path, including Conan’s parents, with his superior army. He even cuts his mother’s head off in front of his eyes! So little Conan is sold into slavery, where he is bought by a group who forces children to turn a massive wooden wheel in the desert all day. For some reason. Time passes, and he grows to be the only survivor of a life so harsh, but that harsh work has made him brutally strong and broad. He’s so strong, his owners sell him to a man who makes him fight in the arena, bloody battles to the death for fame and acclaim. He is very successful in this, and becomes a famous fighter. He’s taken to the East, to train with the best in the world, but even they cannot contain his savagery. Fearing what he has, his owner frees him in what appears to be a drunken stupor. Suddenly a free man for the first time in his life, Conan knows what he must do; he must seek out the thousand year-old sorcerer Thulsa Doom and wreak bloody vengeance upon him for what he did to his family. Along the way, he meets allies who will accompany him on his quest, and even a fierce fighter named Valeria, who becomes a lover who truly understands him. But will all his strength and cunning be enough to face the might power of Thulsa Doom’s terrible magic and power?
I watched this with Steven and Jenni, two people who had never before witnessed the power and the glory of Conan, and watching them watch it really made me appreciate just how great a movie this is. All these movies I’ve been watching must have jaded me, because not once did I think to re-watch this little slice of brutal heaven. And motherfucker is it brutal! You’ve never seen a fantasy movie this hardcore before, and considering the climate fantasy inhabits nowadays and the lack of risk-taking for R-rated movies, you might not ever again. You have decapitations, lots and lots of (female) nudity, people being sliced up every which way, human soup (!!!), girls being thrown into roaring fires, and at one point Conan drunkenly punches out a camel!!! And he drops in one hit, probably killing him as far as the audience knows!
The reason I could believe someone punching and murdering a camel in one hit is simply because of the man we’re talking about here. Conan is famously played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is massive and terror-inducing beyond belief here. There is no way a guy in medieval times without the aid of creatine and 5 hours of workout time scheduled every day could look that good, but I don’t want to doubt him as Arnold could still crush me in his old age. This was the role that really brought him to American audiences, and the role that made him an action force to be reckoned with. He gives that icy, silent Schwarzenegger stare most of the damn movie (he couldn’t speak extremely good English yet, so they didn’t give him a lot of lines), and I could feel the fear welling up in me when I put myself into his enemies’ shoes. He’s fucking scary as Conan; it’s the demeanor of dominance he puts on that you can’t really argue with. He’s great, and other cast members excel as well, in particular James Earl Jones, who is Thulsa Doom. His presence is mighty indeed, and he has such a commanding way of communicating with it that pitting him against Arnold doesn’t seem so one-sided after all. Also keep an eye out for Max Von Sydow, who makes a cameo as an old king. He has a speech that is at once insightful, as well as too insightful for a movie about beating people to death with blunt objects.
A lot of care has been put into this film. The sets are lavish and extraordinary, filled with exquisite medieval details that set it apart from other cheesy sword-and-sandal epics of the time. Even though it’s set in a fictional world, it has a refreshing realism to the design. Conan the Barbarian looks like director John Milius actually CARED about how things looked, and it pays off; my favorite scene is at the orgy in Thulsa Doom’s palace, where you can see right down to the marble columns in the inner sanctum that the set designers were in detail mode.
But the best part of the movie might just be the score. I fell in love with the bombastic orchestral arrangements from the opening sequence, and I’m still feeling the crush even as I write this. The songs are so good and so appropriate. Nothing seems out of place; it almost has that feeling that maybe some of the scenes were not worthy to be scored by something so epic and amazing. Basil Poledouris, who is probably one of the top 5 score composers of all time (i.e. “Robocop Theme”), really outdoes himself here, and created a living, breathing, skulking masterpiece of majesty that transcends its inspiration and breathes to its own vibrant rhythm.
Don’t skip on this movie because it seems cheesy. The only thing that will be cheesy then is your Professor Grumps attitude, and I don’t want to call anyone names at this website. So, please, do yourself a favor and at least give it a try. You might find an appreciation for it, as I did, and even if you didn’t, you’ll have to admit that this movie was finely crafted and well-done by everyone involved. I give Conan the Barbarian 8 1/2 one hitter quitter camels out of 10.
Tomorrow I’ll do a short write-up of Street Trash. I promise this time. But it will be short, because Bren’s coming home tomorrow! Yay! Until then, digest this amazing piece of homespun knowledge passed down from Conan to all of us little people:
Wise words from a wise man…