Conan of Cimmeria was the creation of Robert E. Howard who wrote numerous adventure tales of the powerful wandering warrior. Even after his death the character continued to capture the imagination of readers, and also authors as many since Howard have taken it upon themselves to write new adventures for Conan. Thanks to comic books and evocative paintings by Frank Frazetta the characters popularity eventually culminated in the 1982 release of “Conan the Barbarian.” A new incarnation of the character has been released but the original still stands on its own as a top notch adventure, albeit a somewhat dated one at this point.
In an age before recorded history a young boy witnesses the slaughter of his village at the hands of the cult leader Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones. Sold into slavery the boy is subject to harsh unending labor causing him to mature into the muscle-bound man named Conan, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan is moved from labor to gladiatorial combat where he enjoys a string of endless victories and is trained in the ways of combat by his owners. Eventually set free Conan finds allies in the form of two thieves, played by Sandahl Bergman and Jerry Lopez. The trio robs a temple of Thulsa Doom’s followers. This inspires King Osric, portrayed by Max von Sydow, to enlist their help to retrieve his daughter from Thulsa Doom. Conan leads his friends on a rescue mission that also holds for him the possibility of revenge.
Even nearly 30 years after its release there are a number of things about “Conan the Barbarian” that still work extremely well. The first is Arnold Schwazenegger, who is not only the perfect physical embodiment of the character but also is able to relay a great deal with just his looks. Director John Milius took a slightly different approach to the character than how he was portrayed in the original stories, making him more of the strong silent type as opposed to the more boisterous personality he is in the stories. This approach is perfect for Schwazenegger who at this early point in his career was better seen than heard, but he is able to express so much about the nature of the character with just a glance or an intense look. Conan only says five words in the entire to the love interest character, yet the interactions still work thanks to what Schwarzenegger is able to communicate without words.
The scale of the film is also very impressive. While the story is not especially epic, it was intended to just be a fairly straight forward adventure film; the scope of the world is wonderful. Part of it has to do with the impressive and very large sets that were built, particularly the temple that factors into much of the last third of the movie. The great variance of the supporting cast also helps with the sense of scale. They come from all ethnic backgrounds from Sandahl Bergman’s Valkyrie styled Valeria to Mako as a slightly crazed Asian wizard. They just make the world feel bigger since it has to encompass all these different kinds of people.
The score also deserves special mention, composed by Basil Poledouris. The orchestral and often operatic score is considered by some to be amongst the finest written for film, and it’s hard to argue with that assertion. The music is beautiful and it elevates the entire film. It’s not always blaring, at times it’s even subtle but it always adds another layer to what is being shown on the screen. There had been plans initially to include a pop soundtrack, and one can only imagine how badly that would have ruined the final product.
For all its strengths “Conan the Barbarian” feels extremely dated in a number of areas. The big one is in the area of effects. There is a giant snake which works well for the most part but at times is extremely puppet-like. There are otherworldly demons that look like something lifted from the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from “Fantasia.” The combat feels clumsy at times, probably owing to the actors focusing so hard on hitting the blood bags and cause the gory mess the film needed (it’s worth noting that this film truly embraced its R rating.) Some of the commentary on the power of cults, which had seen a major surge in the decade before the film’s release, is well done but that issue is also somewhat dated now.
While it hasn’t aged as well as some of its fans are willing to admit, “Conan the Barbarian” still set the standard for sword and sorcery films. There have been many imitators since this movie came out, and somehow none has managed to quite capture the feeling of adventure like this film did. It embraces its premise of a powerful man out for blood, money and the occasional company of a woman in a way that more modern films can’t seem to do. It’s not trying to be clever or subversive about the male fantasy of it all, it embraces it fully and that’s what makes it fun.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5