“Conan” is known for many things, one of which is making an international star out of a then unknown bodybuilder name Arnold Schwarzenegger; the other is setting the benchmark for all Barbarian films to come. After the success of “Conan,” the markets were flooded with imitators, some more successful than others. But none of them were able to — and has been able to, to this day — match the sheer balls that made “Conan” so great in 1982.
“Conan the Barbarian” tells the tell of Conan, a young boy who grows up as a slave after his village is slaughtered by a band of marauders led by the evil Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). Sold into slavery and growing up in chains, Conan becomes a barbarian in every sense of the word — ruthless, strong, and skilled in the arts of killing. As his father once told him, there is nothing he can count on or trust except his steel. After he gains his freedom, Conan sets out to make his mark in the world, and along the way gets the chance to confront the men who orphaned him…
It may come as a surprise to many that “Conan” is co-written by director John Milius and a then newcomer name Oliver Stone (“Platoon”). Since I’m hardpressed to find any remnants of Stone’s signature on the film (what, no conspiracy angles?), I am prone to believe that “Conan” is the genius child of John Milius. If Stone did contribute to the screenplay, I can’t see, or feel, it anywhere.
The film, shot by Duke Callaghan, looks great. The primitive environment is quite spectacular, and Milius never spares the gory details of the era. The battle scenes are incredible and blood splatters, pours, and splashes in all directions. The weapons are appropriately large, the kind that assures only the strong will survive since, obviously, one needs to be pretty strong to wield them effectively.
There isn’t really a historical time period for the movie, since the film itself seems to exist in a time bubble of its own. Also, the movie’s involvement in black magic and supernatural happenings keep it from being firmly dated. The film is more fantasy than history anyway, and the fantastic stories told by characters within the movie only seems to further drive home the movie’s lack of a time source.
Even though Arnold is the unquestionable star of “Conan,” there are a number of good supporting players that keeps the film lively. Mako appears as the Wizard, an Eastern magician who also narrates the movie. A buffed and sexy Sandahl Bergman appears as Valeria, a female warrior who proves to be Conan’s equal in combat and ambition. Gerry Lopez rounds out the cast as Subotai, a master archer who, saved by Conan from death, joins him in his battle against Doom and his horde of killers.
It goes without saying that “Conan” is not heavy on storyline. (The absence of anything complicated also makes me doubt Oliver Stone’s involvement in crafting the final screenplay, since if Stone is known for anything it’s complex story threads.) Once Conan is freed from his master, he encounters a series of adventures, many of which are tied in with supernatural elements. In one interesting sequence, Conan is seduced by a demon; and in another, his friends must prevent ghostly spirits from stealing his soul.
The film eventually ends up with Conan taking on Doom, who has now set himself up as the master of a growing snake cult. The movie treats Doom as an enigmatic sorcerer, able to turn snakes into arrows and seduce with a look. Doom is not muscle-bound like Conan, but he’s certainly more than a match for our barbarian.
There are giant snakes, commando raids, and brutal swordfights galore, and they’re all done with great skill and involve incredible set pieces. “Conan” is a movie for the ages, and 20 years after its initial release, it remains the benchmark for films in its genre and beyond.
How good is it? So good that the highly overrated “Gladiator” isn’t fit to clean the blood off Conan’s broadsword.
John Milius (director) / John Milius, Oliver Stone (screenplay)
CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger …. Conan
James Earl Jones …. Thulsa Doom
Max von Sydow …. King Osric
Sandahl Bergman …. Valeria
Ben Davidson …. Rexor
Gerry Lopez …. Subotai
Mako …. The Wizard