Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Release Date: May 14th, 1982 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Milius Actors: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, Cassandra Gaviola, Gerry Lopez, Mako, Valerie Quennessen
n an age undreamed of, when the oceans drank Atlantis and warlord Conan was destined to wear the crown of Aquilonia, a chronicler recounts the adventures and conquests of the unstoppable conqueror. As a young child, Conan is taught the ways of survival and to trust nothing but the might of his steel sword. When a squadron of murderous raiders descends upon his snow-covered village and slaughters the entire community, the small boy is left with only his slender mother (Nadiuska) at his side. But Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), the feared leader of the marauders, mercilessly executes the woman and enslaves the child. Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) grows up to be surprisingly strong, doing manual labor for years, until one night he’s thrown into a fighting pit against a nearly inhuman opponent who favors animalistic biting over sportsmanlike dueling. In time, Conan becomes a victorious gladiatorial combatant, interested only in cheers from the crowd and staying triumphant against his challengers.
He’s educated and revered and, for some unexplained reason, given his freedom. He comes upon a mysterious woman (Cassandra Gaviola) in the middle of nowhere, who invites him into her hut for the comfort of a warm fire. Having never given up on the notion of revenge, he inquires about the snake symbols used by the men who massacred his family and is given advice by the witch (in exchange for sex). As he continues traveling from city to city, he meets Subotai (Gerry Lopez), a master thief and archer who accompanies him in a quest to discover the whereabouts of his lifelong nemeses. They discover a much feared snake cult (using ouroboros-like imagery) conducting sacrificial rituals inside massive brick towers, and breach the walls with the help of fellow adventurer Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). After escaping and imbibing in celebration of their discovery, the revelers are easily captured by town guards. They’re taken to the hall of King Osric the Usurper (Max von Sydow), a ruler who reveals that he’s also an enemy of the snake cult. He offers countless treasures to head to sorcerer Thulsa Doom’s Mountain of Power and retrieve Osric’s daughter, the princess (Valérie Quennessen), who is under the spell of the warlock.
It’s based on Robert E. Howard characters, with a screenplay co-written by Oliver Stone (alongside director John Milius), though it doesn’t possess the serious edge necessary to effectively realize the source material’s formidable warrior (nor does it stay faithful to the Cimmerian’s origins, adolescence, and conquests). It’s bad enough that Conan only looks the part, without exhibiting the ferocity to be a convincing commander, tactician, and strategist (Howard wrote him to be far more intelligent than the term “barbarian” would suggest). He also possesses a puzzling accent, which he certainly didn’t acquire from his upbringing. Clearly, Schwarzenegger was cast for his appearance first and his acting skills second. The hulking Austrian is in top physical form, but it doesn’t give him the severity to be ideal in the role. A few scenes are even geared entirely toward comic relief.
The narrator (a self-proclaimed wizard, played by Mako) has a gruff, monotonic voice, which grows tiresome within the first few minutes, and is largely unnecessary to begin with. His character isn’t even introduced until more than an hour into the film. This presents the major problem: an overly lengthy running time. The movie is simply too long for its own good, clocking in at just over two hours (which would be perfectly acceptable if there was enough exciting content to stuff into the picture). Despite battling an enormous rubber snake monster early on (and breaking the neck of a mechanized buzzard with his teeth), Conan doesn’t encounter enough antagonists to engage in showy destruction. And James Earl Jones is a particularly unintimidating villain, though his acting skills are above the rest of the out-of-place supporting cast.
Redeeming some of the blandness is Basil Poledouris’ music, which is once again sensational. But it carries the momentous drive of a knights-in-shining-armor tale and not the Viking-like barbarism and sorcery that dominates Conan’s tale. Similarly, some of the action at the conclusion is grandly bloody and representational of Frank Frazetta’s widely publicized paintings of Conan. But the happenings are spaced too far apart to keep the excitement consistent, even with multiple, drawn-out, stale showdowns – and therefore numerous missed opportunities to end the repetitive mayhem.
– Mike Massie