Conan the Barbarian is a spiritual descendent of those loincloth B-movies from Classic Hollywood, merged with expensive talent and an 80s taste for bawdiness. The result is an eccentric, fascinating mishmash that works in fits and starts. It launched Arnold as an above-the-title attraction, and will forever remain a curiosity for that reason alone. How well it stands on its own merit will depend on your taste for its lusty, violent subject matter.
Based on the character created by pulp novelist Robert E. Howard, Conan tells an expansive origin story. Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) begins life as a Cimmerian, a warrior tribe that places great importance on the strength of steel. One day, young Conan’s village is attacked by black-clad raiders. These villains are led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), an icy sociopath with necromantic abilities. Doom demolishes Conan’s village, murders his parents, and sends the boy north for a life of miserable servitude.
As the years pass, Conan’s hard labor transforms him into a Herculean brute. His captors quickly realize his raw potential, and toss him into the fighting pits as a gladiatorial champion. Conan bashes one opponent after another, and a legend quickly grows around him. Ultimately, Conan wins his freedom, and begins an odyssey of revenge.
This journey will take him on a series of adventures, with a wide gallery of characters. These include: Subotai (Gerry Lopez), a roguish thief and archer who snaps right in as Conan’s plucky sidekick; Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief who becomes his love interest. The Wizard of the Mounds (Mako) is a kooky sorcerer who is about one notch away from Monty Python status. (“What an eccentric performance!”) Finally, Max Von Sydow lends a little gravitas, as a heartbroken king who’s grown weary of ruling his kingdom.
Conan the Barbarian is a tale only the 80s could tell: Boobies, broadswords, and James Earl Jones in a wig straight from Cher’s walk-in. Also, we see witches, snakes, and lots of gory battle wounds. It’s almost a shame this movie picked up an R rating, because no release in Hollywood history has been better pitched to randy middle school boys.
It’s also the first hint that Schwarzenegger had the DNA of a superstar. By my guesstimate, he speaks about 100 words throughout the film. Rambo III sounds like an Aaron Sorkin movie by comparison. But the Governator commands the screen in a way few others ever have. He’s imposing, charismatic, with an Olympian physique that elevates every fight scene. (The filmmakers often up the stakes by giving him even larger opponents.) The Terminator might have made him an icon, but this film was the first clue a major force had arrived.
Of course, Arnie’s Conan is far from perfect: At nearly 130 minutes, the story droops every now and then. There are too many tavern scenes, with too many tiddies and grog, as strange as that sounds. Some of the battle scenes drone on a little. If you’ve seen one giant, rubbery snake hacked into gooey pieces, you’ve seen ’em all. I know this was a movie built for excess, but a little less could’ve been more.
Still, good on the filmmakers for slapping a little ambition into a genre known for creaky production values and pea-brained storytelling. Based on pedigree alone, this Conan has no excuses: Director John Milius co-wrote Apocalypse Now, and he pens with Oliver Stone, who has won multiple Oscars for writing and directing. Emmy-winning composer Basil Poledouris (Lonesome Dove) supplies the template for every future sword-and-sorcery epic, and the music for a thousand trailers.
I didn’t love Conan nearly as much as when I was, you know, a middle school boy. It’s forty years old and feels like it. Still, the film delivers just enough campy fun and nostalgia vibes to be worth a look. As a bonus, you get to see cinema’s biggest action hero crush a few bad guys for the very first time.
129 min. R. On demand.