onan" 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.