Retro Film Review: Conan the Barbarian (1982)


(SPECIAL NOTE: Capsule version of the review is available here.)

Disparity between popular and critically acclaimed movies isn't something that should catch any reviewer by surprise. On the other hand, sometimes things get a little bit personal. In my case, I was puzzled by the low rating of a film I consider one of my favourite masterpieces of the Seventh Art. Conan the Barbarian by John Milius is, in humble opinion of this author, one of the top ten motion pictures ever made. However, whenever I mention that film to the average filmgoer, they show either disdain, ignorance or indifference.

Unenviable status of Conan the Barbarian among film lovers puzzled me for years. At the beginning I was close to the conclusion that I had been trying to find artistic justification for my ultimate "guilty pleasure". However, years passed and my film taste developed enough for me to distinguish true art from commercial trash, but my affection for Conan stayed the same. Finally, I was beginning to make my own pet theory about Milius' masterpiece and that theory can be summed up in a phrase "wrong time".

However, it looked like a good time for Dino de Laurentiis, Italian film producer who saw mega success of Donner's Superman as an impulse to start making his own film adaptations of popular comic books. His previous attempt in that direction, Flash Gordon, was successful despite being chewed by critics, then allergic to 1970s camp. Unfortunately, when De Laurentiis decided to make another comic book adaptation he chose the wrong hero.

Unlike squeaky clean characters of Superman, Flash Gordon or even Buck Rogers, Conan the Barbarian actually didn't belong to G-rated world of simple morality virtues of late 1930s and early 1940s. His character was indeed invented in 1930s, but the dark imagination of tragically deceased author Robert E. Howard (1906- 1936) kept Conan outside pulp fiction mainstream. It was only in 1960s when, thanks to L. Sprague de Camp and other authors, Conan was rediscovered and later served as some kind of adult alternative to Tolkien-inspired stereotypes in fantasy genre. However, Conan reached the peak of its popularity in the media of comic books, using the new standards of depictions of sex and violence in order to make his character popular among male teeenagers.

De Laurentiis knew that the campy and ironic approach towards Conan's character wouldn't work. So, he needed some real 1970s author to deal with 1970s phenomenon. The choice fell on John Milius, one of the biggest names in so-called "New Hollywood" of 1970s. Milius was perfect, because the vision of Conan as lonely but free character in amoral world was in line with Milius' own individualistic and libertarian views.

According to many Conan purists, the plot is inconsistent with the "canon" of Conan novels and comic books. In other way, it uses many of Conan stories in order to make the story both original and faithful to the works of Robert E. Howard. The story begins in time of Conan, some 12000 years B.C. when the continents of Africa, Europe and Asia were single land mass, and when many ancient but corrupt civilizations shared the space with barbarian tribes. One of such tribes becomes target of a raiders led by evil sorcerer and demigod Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones) who kill all the adults and take children into slavery. One of those children is Conan who, thanks to years of hard work, grows up to be muscular and extremely strong slave. Such qualities later lead him to the career of gladiator, and, after earning freedom from his master, he begins his personal crusade for revenge. The quest leads him to the city of Zamora where he strikes friendship with thieves Subotai (played by Gerry Lopez) and beautiful Valeria (played by Sandahl Bergman). After successfully stealing jewels from the Temple of Snake, they are approached by old King Osric (played by Max Von Sydow), whose own daughter (played by Valerie Quenessen) became the follower of Thulsa Dooom, now the leader of growing and dangerous cult on the way to global domination. Conan accepts the offer to return the Princess to King, although his friends doubt his real motives.

From the perspective of an average film-goer, who expected some escapist mind- blowing adventure, Conan the Barbarian might have been a disappointment or mediocre piece of work. Instead of an adventure, the film is an epic story where the plot and characters tend to be more important than the visual and other attractions. However, the film doesn't lack those attractions - there are fewer action sequences than in an average action/average movie, but they are beautifully shot and choreographed. Also, the film authors paid great attention towards detail, in a quantities unpreccedented from von Stroheim's time. Although the world of Conan is fictitious, Milius cleverly portrayed it as mythical vision of Bronze/Iron Age Europe, using many actual historic details of that time period, usually ignored by Hollywood. Amounts of blood, gore, sex and nudity that may be gratuitous in any other film , here, paradoxically, give great deal of historical realism to the film that is basically a mythical fantasy. But the biggest attraction of all is Basil Poledouris' musical score, so beautiful and perfect, that even some of the biggest critics consider it one of the best in history of cinema.

The acting attractions are very few, but there are some wonderful parts. Conan the Barbarian is now mostly remembered as Arnold Schwarzenegger's first film movie role, that later catapulted his career. Although the future star received one of first "Razzie" anti-awards for his performances, I must say that his role in Conan is perhaps the best in his career. He didn't just worked hard to make his character as physically identical to Conan as possible, but emotionally as well. His role is quite serious, and lacks one-liners that would later become Schwarzenegger's trademark. Schwarzenegger's acting partners in this film weren't that lucky in their later career. James Earl Jones was probably most successful of them all, and it's thrilling to see him here in atypical but brilliant portrayal of the ultimate bad guy. Apart from Max von Sydow, almost everyone else - Gerry Lopez, Sandahl Bergman and Valerie Quenessen - sailed to oblivion, although their parts were adequate at worst.

Apart from the major misunderstanding between the commercial audience and artistically ambitious movie creators, Conan the Barbarian suffers from another, more serious problems in his approach towards viewers. Some critics are prone to appraise this film not on its artistic merit, but on its, sometimes questionable, ideology. Screenplay was written by Oliver Stone in his best screeenwriting years, but also in a period before his attempts to become cinematic conscience of America, and for some, his references to Nietzsche philosophy are enough to brand the screenplay fascistoid. Portrayal of Thulsa Doom's cult in the film might be interpreted as influenced by Nietzsche's unflattering views on Christianity, thus making movie more anti-Christian than some more harmless but more hyped cases (like Last Temptation of Christ, for example). However, John Milius was definitely more involved in the screenplay, and political overtones were lost or hidden behind Milius' own individualistic philosophy. Anyway, even if the film does have some hidden "message", that message wouldn't prevent mature viewer to enjoy in a cinematic masterpiece that is very rare to find these days.

RATING: 10/10 (+++++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on June 27th 1998)


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