Conan The Barbarian: Underappreciated movies

Conan The Barbarian tends to get forgotten among the Arnie back catalogue. But for a young Mark Pickavance, it was a cinematic highlight...

Conan

It was on a wet day in 1982 that I sneaked away from an animated commercial I was working on and headed into Leicester Square. It wasn’t a speculative adventure, I knew exactly where I was heading, and why.

Soon I was out of the rain and embraced by the darkness with a half a dozen other people, subjected to 129 minutes of mythos and mayhem courtesy of Director John Milius. While critically mauled, much for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s less than thespian performance, retrospectively this is – with the possibly exception of Lord Of The Rings – the finest sword and sorcery movie ever made.

Even now, I recall the chill that ran down my spine when the late Basil Poledouris seminal ‘Anvil of Crom’ theme began to pound out the forging of the sword. This music alone is so powerful that it’s been borrowed by almost every fantasy and sword and sandals trailer since.

After the sword is finished, the ‘Riddle of Steel’ is explained giving us our thread for the entire movie. After a little Farther/Son time we’re then exposed to the brutality of living in feudal world dominated by the charismatic snake fiend and sociopath, Thulsa Doom. He arrives, kills his father and mother, enslaves young Conan and takes the sword. It’s an iconic start to a journey spanning an imaginary world fraught with iconic figures, the darkest magic and bloodiest battles.

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Much was made at the time, and since, about Arnold in regard to his lacks of emotional range. Strangely, it’s one of the aspects that helps the whole film work for me. Conan is about action and not words. Okay, it possibly takes this idea too far for Schwarzenegger’s benefit, he only says 54 words in the entire movie, but it’s not like it’s a conversational piece, is it?

So was Arnie the Conan that Robert E Howard had imagined when he wrote his tales in the early 1930s? Obviously he’s not here to comment, but he described his sword wielding hero so: ”Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

I don’t recall much laughing on Arnold’s part, but the rest is reasonably close.

The events portrayed in the books are radically different and the literary Conan is a much more talkative character, but intrinsically the source material is direct in a manner that the film portrays well. It would have been so easy to tone down the violence and gone for a more family audience, but thankfully, they resisted that temptation.

Iconic

There are so many parts of the movie that will forever live with me, but I’ll mention a few I especially like.

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The first is the iconic image of Schwarzenegger stood on a sand dune practicing his sword kata, after his unfortunate encounter with the ‘tree of woe’. Reputedly, this scene was originally to be shot in the early phase of the production schedule, but the size of Schwarzenegger’s physique – due to his final appearance in the Mr Olympia bodybuilding competition a year early – made it impossible for him to wield the sword correctly.

Arnold trimmed down his muscles, and the sequence was shot later. Watching it since I’m still slightly in awe of how elegantly he pivots what is a very large sword by any standards. It’s hard to imagine anyone else making this look so good and effortless, and it’s entirely believable that he’d wielded the sword from childhood.

The best fight in the movie, and superior in many respects to the ending, is the ‘Kitchen Orgy’ scene. Looking at it today it’s let down a little by some slightly dodgy prosthetic effects on those that are killed and maimed, but the whole scene is wonderfully staged with a gentle erotic theme that precursors the utter carnage.

Doom’s escape, transformed into a giant snake, is curiously bizarre and yet mesmerising. This is a great ensemble sequence that allows screen time and action for all the main players, including Sandahl Bergman. As they exit the cave complex she encounters two guards blocking her way. She pauses and taps her sword impatiently.

Then, just for a couple of frames, the jewel she wears around her neck flashes purple via a simple optical effect. She the runs up the wall to outflank and kill the first opponent before dispatching the second. It’s never explained what the flash of light represents, but it doesn’t matter, it’s pure magic.

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The third sequence of note is the death of Sandahl Bergman’s character, Valeria, where Gary Lopez’s character cries. Mako, who plays a wonderfully eccentric wizard – and the teller of Conan’s tale – asks why Conan’s companion Subotai cries. He replies, “He is Conan, Cimmerian. He won’t cry, so I cry for him”.

This pretty much sums up Conan’s relationship with Valeria, as in the entire movie he only speaks five words to her (okay, that’s 10% of his dialogue!). Conan’s focus is never far away from finding Doom and killing him, and that’s all that drives him. Valeria is unfortunately a distraction from his ultimate objective, although even in death she has a role to play in his success.

That said, the cremation of Valeria is the setup for the final battle, and then subsequent confrontation between Conan and Doom on the steps of his temple. This scene is both incredibly cheesy, yet undeniably powerful.

As Doom explains to dumb old Conan the scope of his influence, “My child, you have come to me, my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? I am the wellspring, from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What would your world be, without me?”

Despite this chilling revelation of his place in the scheme of things, Conan still chops off his head, and it makes an implausibly realistic sound as it bounces down the steps, much to the disappointment of his many followers below.

The Sequel & Legacy

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Conan The Destroyer was made two years later, but is a sad shadow of the original production. It doesn’t have any of the memorable action, although it still has Arnold, and the music. It stands now as a typical sequel of that era, which aimed to cash in the on the success of the original without costing too much. Audience reaction to Destroyer effectively killed the franchise at that point, and Arnold’s career had moved on significantly enough for it not to concern him.

So what makes Conan worth celebrating? Having watched the original movie again, I’m still struck by the strength and power of many images in Conan. Subotai and Conan running across a huge open plain, travelling light and fast. Doom’s heavily armoured raiders emerging from a snow-laden forest to attack the Cimmerian village. Doom’s temple burning on a distant hillside while Conan guides the King Osric’s daughter home. Much of the film is visually stunning, and bears comparison with the best cinematography around at the time.

I could point also at the screenplay by Oliver Stone, but what pulls it all together is the Conan theme music, that if put alongside domino playing could make it seem viscerally exciting.

With fantasy films being considered more favourably these days, and all Robert E Howard’s works out of copyright, it’s probably about time for another Conan. I just hope that if it does happen they take note of what was right in his first screen outing, and secure the rights to that evocative theme music along the way.

And it will happen. After all, the wizard’s final words are, “So, did Conan return the wayward daughter of King Osric to her home. And having no further concern, he and his companions sought adventure in the West. Many wars and feuds did Conan fight. Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, Conan became a king by his own hand. And this story shall also be told.”