Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... until your screen glows... infinite

Monday, June 21, 2010

Great Films of the 80s: CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)

What a time 1982 was to be a comic book addict and Robert E. Howard-ophile with a shellacked completed jigsaw puzzle of Frazetta's "Death Dealer" up on his wall and a stack of paperback reprints on his shelf (including Howard's non-Conan stuff, like all those grisly stories about sailors' bare-knuckle boxing). Suffering the 15 year-old virgin blues in a world gone mad with conservative backlash, Howard was like a proto-punk bidding us hold on until into this hell might ride a horseman. Herald of the new world! Conan! The Thulsa Doom serpent cult was a perfect analogy for the hippie movement (which we were too young to be part of) with its focus on converting young people to blood orgies and training them to kill their parents and ignore us--their little brothers--in favor of some monstrous charismatic cult leader; and the whole twin serpent motif was very pagan and old school unchristian, (twin serpent motifs are common hallucinations in drug experiences, and exist today in our conception of the double helix and in the symbol of the American Medical Association). For kids, wondering why they weren't growing up drowned in orgies like their older brothers in the 1970s, the Thulsa Doom crowd was the perfect demonization tool. We didn't do orgies by choice, not because we weren't invited.

Directed by John Milius from a script he co-wrote with Oliver Stone, the movie was better than we could hope. You could fit the dialogue in this movie on the back of a bar napkin, but the orchestral score probably took down a whole old-growth forest on its own, and that's maybe why it works so well as a repeat viewing mythical rite. Conan doesn't even say a word until his famous answer to the question 'what is best in life" -- "To crush your enemies, to see 'dem driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of der wimmen." We both laughed at his accent and thrilled to it in a kind of pre-stoner rapture.

Still, the film would be a thunder-headed downer if not for the lively, lithe and lovely Sandahl Bergman as Valeria. She had a whole arc of her own in the Marvel comic books, where she had black hair and was a pirate captain. The Valeria of the movie is blonde, and not in it nearly enough, but that's why the film works so well as a revenge scenario, since we experience the horrible pain of Conan's childhood for the first half hour of running time--forced into slavery, forced to kill like a pit bull, forced to watch his parents be murdered and his people destroyed by Thulsa (James "Vader" Earle Jones)--and then the next ten or twenty minutes weeping as he finds this weird kind of outlaw love, and then--after kicking ass and trashing Doom's orgy room in one of the best sequences in all movies, Conan loses Valeria, also to Thulsa, this time via a serpent arrow. Oh man but you're pissed at old Thulsa by then! "I am the wellspring from which you flow," Doom tells him, and he's right. And in killing him, Conan loses his entire reason for being. The movie ends mainly watching him watch the massive stairway set burn and light up the darkened desert. And then we see a shot of him much later, during the King Conan era (a whole separate Marvel comic, from when he's older and established). We're promised, by Mako's narration, a whole series of films to come, even moodier and more adult than this one. All the more tragic, they would not come.

Though time has worn my vengeance-craving edge down to a dull memory, the scars of being a sexually frustrated, physically un-mighty teenager linger on, as does the memory of the exaltation I felt watching Conan, the sense of vindication (which would not come again in any movie until Fight Club) for my masculine angst. Finally, here was a hero we teens could get behind. He was swinging for our team, crashing our older sibling's orgy and trashing the joint, and if there's any place that howls of bloodlust are still okay, it should be in the theater, with the old ladies behind you going "sshhhh!" We may not have been raised pushing a dumb wheel in the middle of nowhere for seemingly no reason, but we could relate, in our hatred of school, of third period geometry class. Conan was our liberator. School's Aowt foah Summah!

Back to Valeria for a moment. When she and Conan bond in a luxurious fur-covered tent after robbing the tower of serpents, we feel him finally beginning to relax, and the whole unbearably rough and dismal film unclenches its fists for the first time and our heart melts as these two orphaned lone wolves find a temporary peace. Though we see lots of Bergman's hot dancer thighs, some breast here and there, and of course Schwarzenegger's acres of muscles, Milius clearly doesn't intend their sex scene should titillate so much as warm our hearts a bit, sincerely and without mawkishness, and as such, it's one of the best sex scenes of all time, with just as much detail on faces and textures--furs, fires, tent walls, jewels--as nudity and moaning, and it's all "earned" so to speak, through character development. Valeria's fierce devotion and her beautiful monologue about passing other people in couples in tents in the night breaks our hearts because we feel that way too, and when Conan leaves her to pursue his quest for vengeance we understand her sorrow and still understand his quest, because in this case Valeria's reasons not to ride against Doom aren't based on fear of death, but fear of losing this love so soon after she found it. Laugh all you want, but this was our Titanic!

Re-visiting it on DVD is cool, because there's a lot of stuff a boy who saw this film a million times on duped, cropped VHS would finally get to see again after the one time in the theater. I was always pissed that the visceral early raid on Conan's village, which blew my mind in the theater, was cropped to the point it was impossible to follow on the pan and scan, and it's been so long since I've seen even that it all seems new, especially in the new remastered extended (!) version, which includes a monologue wherein Conan remembers picking blueberries with his father, and in it he seems for the first time both eloquent and at peace, a bit straight out of The Seventh Seal but that's okay --it's earned, even if it does kill the mood of slowly building menace. My sharper adult eyes and the high res of DVD now notice the importance of a huge jewel stolen from Thulsa Doom, which Conan gives to Valeria which she wears around her neck from then on, and which he later takes back and wears after she's killed; and the way Doom's riders in the beginning of the film know to take off their helmets in respect to Conan's mom, via admiring the handle detailing of an animal skull on her slain husband's awesome sword. In its weird militaristic way (Milius is a great one for armor and warrior codes) this nearly dialogue-free film is damned eloquent.

Because of all the hack job imitations that followed in the wake of Conan's box office success we've become conditioned to dismiss 'sword and sorcery' (as it was known the) as juvenile tripe, and indeed most of the other films are weighed heavy by contemptuous screenwriters, and incompetent directors who never deign to hire acting coaches or fight choreographers to fill the gaping holes in their qualifications for the subject matter. Some of these imitations are made with wit and mythic savvy, but no money (i.e. Beastmaster), some are made with money but no care (i.e. the two Richard "make ten million dollar budget look like zero" Fleischer Conan sequel and Red Sonja). But John Milius has wit and savvy to spare, and knows his ordinance. Despite (or maybe because of) his crazy militarism, he's not just a close collaborator of artsy fuckers like Coppola and Paul Schrader, but a genuine NRA badass, and producer Dino De Laurentiis was able to give the film a huge budget, rather than merely spending it; and it's all up there on the screen: thousands of extras, vast beautiful serpentine sets, dozens of horses, a huge temple exterior staircase on a hilltop and a vast interior mountain cave with a marble orgy chamber that looks like something out of an early Argento (designed by Ron Cobb, of Star Wars and Alien fame). Whatever happened to beautiful, boldly original art direction like this? What have we lost since 1982? I think I know, but if I told you, I'd go to hell, or PC jail.

On widescreen DVD you can see there's actually lots of corpses hanging upside down along the walls in the orgy scene, though you'd expect an orgy scene to be more smoky and with more writhing. But I love the special effects here, which occur without rupturing the soundtrack, which plays almost nonstop thunderous versions of De Falla's El Brujo and doesn't break from the track to announce hey look, "Doom is turning into a snake!" or a giant snake has just woken up, or the sandy wind surrounding Conan's body--covered in writing ala Kwaidan to protect him from evil spirits---is writhing like shadowy reptoid men with long wind tails. The animated bits are slight and beautiful, clearly frame-by- frame hand-painted, using the actual sandstorm wind in the scene as the jumping off point for whirling figurative specters (see below). Not since Forbidden Planet and never since has this sort of thing been done with such class.

Nothing quite illuminates that you're old like realizing the last time you saw Conan you saw him and Valeria as adults and now you see them as children. Arnold's youthfulness and pre-catch phrase sincerity make him quite charismatic; this is the film he made before launching into superstardom with The Terminator and as with that film, it's a true original, made with lots of care and imagination and research, that should never be confused with the imitative junk that followed.

A lot of us Conan fans were initially wary that a German body builder who'd been in one film, Pumping Iron as himself, would be too flippant, too jovial, too A-Team if you will, to be a good Conan. We figured he'd make sure through his contract that he doesn't actually kill anyone, just beats them up and tells them to drink milk and stay in school and don't do drugs. So we were all surprised by the gleeful amorality and downright thuggishness of his barbarian. That's one of the things that makes Conan great -- he ain't no role model. On two different occasions Conan basically breaks into someone else's party, trashes the joint, kills loads, kidnaps a girl and/or kills a priceless pet snake and steals jewels, all without direct provocation. He doesn't wait for them to draw first; he kills people in cold blood, punches out a camel who was just standing there (Conan bumped into him), pushes beggars, steals property and throws witches into the fire. You wouldn't see the A-Team doing that shit. And he doesn't just conk them on the head and then lament about killing to Gabrielle, like Xena used to do. He chops off their heads and kicks over their candelabras. He's been dealt a raw deal by fate and he's out to steal and kill to his heart's content, as he's entitled. And there's no dutiful cop trailing him, determined to take him down no matter what the cost. There's no annoyingly liberal captain of police telling him to do things "by the book." Conan is wronged and owed a debt by the social order and the cults therein while at the same time not asking for the liberal government's help in getting it --he's a true conservative antihero, ready and able to lead us out of the 70s, beyond even the range of Clint's .44 Magnum.

And so, to our surprise, we loved Arnold to death. Every line he speaks in the film became cherished and repeated endlessly: "Can we go over theah? Wheah the others do not see?" he tells the priest." / "Crom, I have never pwayed to you befoah!" he tells Crom / Oil the sowahd... and feed the hoahse," he tells feisty sorcerer Mako, himself a great fountain of quotability through his weird accentuation of random words ("Learning and writing were made... available"). And when he asks about the cult's standard, Conan points his two giant fists together and says, awestruck, "two snakes... facing each otha... but theah ONE!"  Man, we could crack up for hours saying lines like that in our German Arnold voices, even well past college. I don't mean that at all as a put-down. We all love Arnold. And he does a great job. He invests himself. He does most of his own stunts, as do Sandahl and Gerry Lopez. It makes a difference.

Time doesn't permit me to praise Lopez, also a fountain of quotes ("Dinner for wolve"). A surfer Milius bonded with making Big Wednesday. Lopez speaks in the broken English expected of an Asian-looking actor at the time, but isn't stupid and when he occasionally breaks into Cali bro-style enunciation, it's a joy. With Schwarzenegger a bodybuilder, Bergman a Fosse dancer and Lopez a surfer--none of the are three actual trained actors--there's a kind of outsider status as non-actors amongst the three that binds them to each other and works beautifully for conveying their outsider status within the film. They are not just "high adventurers," not bland actors cast for their looks or adults with a sense of responsibility. They're just young, motivated, physically fit people willing to try anything. They rejected society but had their own code of honor as bodybuilders, surfers, and dancers. They were as we felt we would become once our goddamned schools were burned forever to the ground and the world became scorched and run by warring gangs of the road. Until that day came, we would wait, and watch Conan the Barbarian over and over, and stockpile shields and swords, and later knives and guns.

It would be only a matter of time before Columbine. 


  1. You sum up my own memories of a film I saw once a week for at least a month that summer, when one of the local theaters had a dollar night. For me it's supremely quotable, and the score really is one of the all-time best. The funny thing I learned from the DVD was that Stone, not Milius, was the Howard afficianado, though I think there was a natural affinity between director and subject. For me, a hero who told his god "Giff me vengeance! And if not, zen to hell vit you!" was something I could believe in.

  2. Awesome review! I love this film for all the reasons you stated so eloquently. The film's greatness made the crappy sequel all the more of a head-scratcher as the powers that be decided to dump Milius in favor of a PG-friendly Conan that was just plain wrong. I don't have high hopes for the reboot that's in the works. It's pretty hard to see anyone BUT Arnie as Conan and I just can't see any contemporary filmmaker going for it quite like Milius did back in the day.

  3. 1982 was indeed an awesome summer to go through a theater lobby as a kid. Conan the Barbarian is one of my favorite B-movies ever and your smart bomb article points out why, Erich.

    Whether or not Milius was a fan of Robert E. Howard, I can't say, but the style and imagery of the film seems a fit for the material. Where I think it really excels is the casting, with body builders, dancers or surfers who fit the role physically and turned out to be pretty good actors.

    It's hard for me to imagine the remake being this glorious. 16 year olds today would probably run screaming up the aisle if you gave them blood cults or orgies. OMG indeed.

  4. First off, a really excellent review, great stuff.

    Generally Howard fans are incredibly ambivalent towards Conan the Barbarian. On the one hand, it isn't an adaptation of any of Howard's stories, and the story Milius & Stone came up with is not just incompatible, but in many was the polar opposite of Howard's creation. The entire backstory, characterisation, plot, and even things like Cobb's art direction, have divergences with the tone and letter of the stories.

    On the other hand, there's also a respect and appreciation of the film on its own merits, for many of the reasons you point out here. It's a good piece of filmmaking, fantastic performances by Max von Sydow and James Earl Jones, beautiful art direction, one of the greatest scores in cinematic history. It's one of the best - probably the best - Sword-and-Sorcery film out there. That's what makes it difficult for many Howard fans to explain: yes, Conan the Barbarian was awesome, but it had next to nothing to do with the stories. Even the staunchest defenders of the film among Howard scholars would not consider it remotely Howardian.

    And I don't mean like the differences between the novel and film trilogy of Lord of the Rings, or the differences between comic and film Spider-Man: we're talking "none of the characters except Conan himself appear in any of the stories" level difference. We're talking "half the Conan stories are incompatible with the film, simply because the film happens while the stories should be." We're talking "Conan is practically nothing like Howard's original creation, and is in many ways the direct opposite."

    So it's a great film, but swinging by the official Robert E. Howard Forums would be an enlightening experience. Despite our reputation, we're a relaxed bunch, and many forumers still like the film despite the divergences: we just lament how few people seem to know how divergent the film is.

    Samuel: you'd probably best forget anything you "learned" about Howard from the DVD (assuming this is the "Conan Unchained" documentary). Anything that comes out of Stone's or Milius' mouths are grotesque exaggerations: Howard being a paranoid "gun nut" who boarded up his windows at night, to the stories of him actually hallucinating the ghost of Conan was stalking him as he typed his stories. All nonsense based on colourful similes and metaphors from Howard's letters twisted into representation of fact. Stone may like to consider himself an aficionado, but that doesn't mean he has any clue about the man or his work.

  5. I happend to stumble upon your review and all I can say is, awesome. I have met very few people who feel the same way about Conan as I do. I was 3 yrs old when Conan was in theaters so naturally I was too young to watch it. I had a copy that was recored of of TV around 1986. It was HEAVILY EDITED but I still watched it many times a week in addition to Conan the Destroyer. I never saw an unedited version until years later and I was blown away about how much of this great movie I missed. It went from a movie I grew up watching as a child to something that I view as a little know masterpiece. The art direction and the overall look and feel of the film is fantastic. I love how much time went into making each sword and weapon into a piece of art. Conan is not without its flaws but you can tell that a lot of effort went into making it feel real. Its feels as if the world it took place in could have existed. The soundtrack is absolutely amazing and makes up for the sparse dialog. It sets up every scene and really sets this film apart from many of its genre. I just wish Milius could have completed his vision for a trilogy.

    Thanks for the great review.

  6. Love CtB, it's a great effin' movie for all the reasons listed and more. The only thing that would have made it better? The main character not being called Conan.


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