Conan the Barbarian (1982). She's done other work since but these are the roles that endure, that make her the graceful warrior woman in cinema's gallery of archetypes, for my generation at least.
Of course by now you've guessed it: after seeing Conan at the local multiplex in 1982, I fell madly in love with Sandahl Bergman. I was an avid fantasy novel reader and a huge fan of Conan author Robert E. Howard, and my buddy Alan and I pronounced it "Con-an, like Con Air) so we were indignant the film used the long 'o' pronunciation. We came to the film ready to be affirmed in our disdain (after needing to get my mom to buy us tickets - as it was 'R') and instead immediately swooned, first with joy over the solid battle scenes and atmosphere, then over Sandahl. She had accessible 'real' beauty (no garish make-up), physical grace and amazing swordsmanship-- everything a 15 year old comic book collecting boy trapped in the sterile hell of suburban central New Jersey pined for in a dream girl. Her fighting prowess and selfless devotion to big brutish Schwarzenegger were larger than life: mythic yet down-to-earth, tender yet ferocious/ In a 1982 Sneak Previews episode, both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave Conan a thumbs up, based almost entirely on their romance. I was all misty over it.
Bergman was a dancer and Arnold a weight lifter so they did most of their own stunts and all their own fights but in love scenes were clearly virgins (as actors) and their relative inexperience and sweet tender trust in each other as actors fits perfectly with their characters' wounded bird-style discovery. ; We feel the wonderment and joy of these two hard knock lifers, so used to stealing and fighting every step of the way without fear, suddenly having something to lose. Chuckle in disbelief if you will but Bergman and Schwarzenegger in Conan have the same fragile first-love sweetness that James Dean and Natalie Wood had in Rebel Without a Cause or any of the best Nicholas Ray or Frank Borzage couples, or even Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in Cronenberg's Fly remake.
Sexy as she is while gyrating and grinding and having her pilot clothes torn off in All that Jazz there's still no topping the amount of hotness that is Bergman charging into battle in her black full body war paint in Conan. And there's no cutting away to a stunt double, which makes her battles look markedly different--and worlds better--than most in say Buffy or Xena, much as I love stuntwoman Zoë Bell. And you want reckless realism? She almost lost a finger in one of those fights!
Such healthy Nordic recklessness gained her the loyal devotion of millions of socially maladjusted young cinema goers like myself. I was so loyal that it took awhile for me to warm up to her scene in All that Jazz, actually, because I felt she was being exploited! I didn't want these dancers all pawing at her just to fulfill some titillation quota for the Fosse backers. Whoa! Easy there, killer! It's art. I dated a girl (as an adult) because she looked like her (same aquiline profile) and as a kid I had the posters of her as represented in the left two images for years; I fell in love with her quizzical look while holding her scimitar in the pic below, as if she wasn't sure whether to kiss you or kill you. I tell you she made my own German-Scandinavian blood rise up like an anguished tide.
Alas, Ms. Bergman became caught up in a different tide, the post-Conan gold rush, wherein every two bit Italian outfit that could scrounge a few old peplum props out of Cinecittà's
dumpsters was pumping our drive-ins full of romps like The Beastmaster, Sword and Sorcery, Hearts and Armour, Krull, Dragonslayer and Deathstalker. Looking for a change of pace, Bergman opted to play the evil queen instead of the lead in Red Sonja, but regardless of this twist, the film is a major endurance test-- more Supergirl than Conan, with endlessly dragged out scenes of bad special effects and way too many ceremonial robes. So Bergman went back to the stage, TV, etc., and there you have it, another great screen presence spat through the star maker machinery and dumped in the wastelands of late-night cable before her wings could all the way extend. Nothing to be ashamed of in that. Nothing for her to be ashamed of anyway. The rest of us should all be ashamed for not creating a universe wherein a whole series of cool Valeria sequels utilizing her natural grace and charm might have thrived. O John Milius, why did Valeria have to die?!?!?! She hung around for whole mythic arcs in the comics (where she was a pirate captain).
But that's show biz, big boy, you got to be cruel to be kind, and even if she really only appears in two enduring classics (and a slew of future cult items like Hell Comes to Frog Town and Xanadu), Bergman's effortlessly sexy screen presence, catlike grace and natural warmth are enough to ensure she'll never be just a mere cinematic footnote... especially not as long as guys who were awkward teenagers in 1982 continue to age into blog-writing pedagogues. So, Sandahl, happy birthday from one of the many boys you helped along the demon and serpent-bestrewn road out of suburban dullness. May you stay forever hot, forever sweet, forever warm, forever young... and forever ferociously lithe!
PS - since writing this I finally saw Hell Comes to Frogtown and She and they are both awesome. Bergman never lets us down. She's so sexy and cool in both you want to follow her off a cliff. (4/20)
See these other Bergman links
HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN (1988)
and also my in depth review of CONAN (1982) here.