Conan the Barbarian holds a special place in the history of cinema as the movie that effectively launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger and kickstarted a heady decade of sword and sorcery epics. Yet to writer Oliver Stone, two words will forever hang over John Milius’ rough-and-ready adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s proto comic book hero: What if.
Stone may have earned a writing credit on the finished film, but what ended up on the screen was a far cry of “Crom!” from what he had envisioned in the script he presented to producer Edward R. Pressman in 1978.
That screenplay was bold, brilliant, and, potentially, unfilmable. But to Stone at least those two words will linger on: What if. Pressman had recruited Stone amid the buzz surrounding his script for Midnight Express, the real-life story of the imprisonment and eventual escape of American national Billy Hayes from a Turkish prison, which eventually bagged the scribe a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
With Paramount willing to back the Conan the Barbarian production, provided a notable name was behind the script, Stone was seen as the ideal fit, particularly after he impressed Pressman by sending over an early draft of Platoon by way of a writing sample.
Initially, Stone was attached to write and co-direct alongside Joe Alves, who had worked under Steven Spielberg on the first Jaws film and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That didn’t last, of course, but then few things would during the initial pre-production stages of the project. Besides which, there was still the matter of Stone’s script to think about.
As any aficionado of Stone’s work knows, whether it’s Wall Street, JFK, or Alexander, he’s never been a man to do things by halves, and Conan was no exception. Stone spent four months writing his version of the barbarian’s story, later recalling how both Paramount and Pressman encouraged him to “to go ahead without restraining myself” in a piece of advice they likely came to regret.
Getting Medieval in the Future
Stone’s preparations were meticulous; he immersed himself in Howard’s writing, reading every book, short story, or Conan comic he could get his hands on. Viewing Conan as a “kind of post-modern Tarzan, less noble but more mischievous,” Stone immediately identified something in the author’s writing that had his brain crackling with wild ideas.
“He [Howard] had a great gift for this perverted mythos of darkness and death, raging and mad Wagnerian mentality,” he later recalled, noting the way the author conferred a “science-fictional quality” in his work that opened up a realm of world-building possibilities.
“In the novels of Howard, there is no more barrier between the past and the future,” he explained. That inspired arguably the most striking difference between Stone’s script and the one Milius shot, with the former opting to set his movie in a post-apocalyptic Earth that’s been so ravaged by the effects of nuclear war that it’s come to resemble something from medieval times.“I made the same kind of outward journeys and returns, suggesting thus that all that the spectator saw could occur very well in the future,” wrote Stone.
Stone saw Conan not as some medieval fantasy but rather a post-apocalyptic tale for the ages. Stone’s enthusiasm for the project was not limited to the source material either. By then Pressman had already signed Schwarzenegger up to star as the titular hero, and the writer was rather smitten.
While some expressed doubts over the Austrian bodybuilder’s acting credentials, particularly as his only starring role at the time had been in the fish-out-of-water fantasy comedy Hercules in New York, Stone saw something God-like in Schwarzenegger that resonated with the character of Conan.
Writing in his autobiography, Chasing the Light, the writer recalled: “He possessed that singular quality the movies worship: charisma, which radiated from him with his ready smile and sense of humor. Strangers were drawn to him immediately.”
“One Sunday, I went along with him to the Santa Monica Beach to hang out. We started as two sunbathers, and within an hour, I was surprised to see 20 people that already circled his towel with their own, like smaller planets around the sun and within two hours, there must have been 50 or 60 fellow bathers, all proud to join the orbit around the people’s hero of Gold’s Gym in Venice.”
Schwarzenegger played a key role in the development of Stone’s script, with the writer enlisting the Austrian to read excerpts from the Conan comics and stories in order to get a better handle on how best to craft the character in the actor’s image.
Yet in truth, his version of the character was as much shaped after Stone as it was Schwarzenegger. Speaking in one interview, Stone recalled viewing Conan as a “classical story” in the sense that he “had been a slave, had suffered, and managed to rise.”
He explained: “What is great in Howard’s novels is that Conan passes from the stage of peasant to that of a king. A young peasant gains his royalty through a series of tests and marries one of the most beautiful society women.”
That summation is telling when you consider the assessment of Matt Zoller Seitz, journalist and author of 2016’s The Oliver Stone Experience, who posited the idea that Conan was as much a story about Stone as it was Howard’s larger-than-life character:
“The more you know about Stone’s own biography… his emotional estrangement from his parents, his self-reinvention in the brothels and killing fields of Southeast Asia [Stone served in Vietnam], his fondness for stories about both real and fictional adventurers… the more Conan seems like an exuberant and perverse autobiography.”
Even so, the results were way too fantastical to draw any direct comparison.
Taking several of Howard’s stories as inspiration, Stone pushed his imagination to the very limits, infusing his script with his own burgeoning fascination for cloning and DNA—another reason behind his desire to set the film in a futuristic nuclear wasteland, which would serve as the breeding ground for many of Conan’s deformed and terrifying adversaries. The result was a reported four-hour epic that shared many similarities with the finished film, yet regularly went off on chaotic but vividly realized tangents.
A Different Kind of Barbarian
While the opening begins in similar fashion with Conan as a child witnessing his family being killed during a raid on his village, plot-wise there are dramatic differences. For one thing, Thulsa Doom, played to chilling perfection by James Earl Jones in the finished movie, was reduced to something of a secondary villain in this draft, with no connection to the death of Conan’s parents. In his place came the witch Queen Taramis, with much of the plot essentially cribbed from the Howard story A Witch Shall Be Born along another story, Black Colossus, also served as inspiration.
Stone’s script saw Taramis return from her exile as a witch in the desert to seize power from her newly-crowned twin sister, Queen Yasmina. Conan, who happens to be in town as part of a high-stakes robbery similar to the Stygian Tower heist that featured in the final version of the film, ends up becoming embroiled in the main action of the plot after Yasmina recruits him as a bodyguard.
Things then take a dramatic twist when Taramis, having assumed control, opens the gates of the kingdom to a legion of mutants who previously resided in the cursed earth outside and Thulsa Doom. All hell breaks loose. Conan eventually teams up with a band of mercenaries, led by love interest Valeria, to march on the city with what remains of Yasmina’s army.
During a final epic battle, Conan would decapitate Thulsa Doom only for the tentacled serpent God of Set to rise from the group and scoop up the defeated sorcerer’s head. Stone’s script depicted scenes of all-out war involving anywhere up to 500 mutants, described in vivid detail in his most recent biography as a “medieval armageddon.”
“Out of the forest, the army of hell comes now to the beating of the drum, steel points twinkling to the sun,” he writes. “First, the mutants have the heavy infantry, their fangs curling up over their lips to their cheekbones. And their vivid green horned helmets… the pig mutants, bodies of men with tusks, and filthy pink faces of wild boars… pigs with bulbous snouts and small red bloodshot eyes under Nazi-shaped helmets wearing their chain in ball and triple irons.
“The insect mutants have varied massive beaks, prong shells with wings, goggling eyeballs, elongated snouts, scalloped ears, some with horns and sneaky tails. The hyenas have come on their tufts with ponies and whips, and lassos. They ride stark naked without saddle or bridle, supple in life, and rising upwards to the sky above this mass of maniacs. A legion of flies and worrying insects, bugs and dark and poisonous clouds blackening this sun, oppressing the senses, the very soul.”
Inspired by the paintings of Jerome Bosch and poetry of Willam Blake, it may have been vividly ambitious and a borderline acid trip, but the scene set by Stone would not have looked entirely out of place in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, save for a few minor changes. Unfortunately, for Stone, this was 1978 rather than 2001.
Stone’s scope was nevertheless grand to say the least. At the end of his version of the film, Conan rejects an offer of marriage from Queen Yasmina and, with it, the chance to be king, telling her, “I…just can’t be king. I can’t stand it…it’s not for me. Not now. Maybe some day.” This was the 1970s.
Envisioning Conan as a Clint Eastwood-like Western hero, riding off into the sunset to embark on another adventure, Stone saw the film as the first in a long-running series that he believed would come to rival one of the very greats.
“I always thought there would be 12 movies,” he said. “Arnold should have come back every year or two years like James Bond, and done one.” Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly for Stone, Pressman and the studio balked at his vision for the film. At the time, big budget films were being made for around $8 million—this would cost them around $40 million with Stone detailing plans for filming in “a luxuriant forest of Germany” with his mutant armies shown “eating human flesh.”
Acknowledging the “insane chaos” of his draft, Stone later recalled how filmmaker Ralph Bakshi, known for animated versions of The Lord of the Rings and Fritz the Cat at the time, was enlisted to try and make the script work, but the writer was still keen to explore a live-action version.
Going from Ridley Scott to John Milius
Stone’s one hope was a “British newcomer from the world of commercials,” Ridley Scott, who had caught Stone’s eye with his 1977 historical drama debut, The Duellists. Pinning his hopes on Scott, Stone traveled to London with Pressman to discuss the project with the English director, who had expressed an interest. However, Scott was busy finishing Alien at the time and told them that there was “something else” he was keen to work on next. That something else was Blade Runner, of course.
Running out of options, attention instead turned to young director John Milius, best known for the surfing drama Big Wednesday and for his writing on films like Apocalypse Now and Jaws. Milius had been flirting with the idea of taking the reins of Conan for some time, however it was only at this juncture that he signed on. Things then took a turn for the worse for Stone’s draft with the arrival of Dino De Laurentis as producer.
With Pressman eager to make back the “large amounts” he had invested in the project while turning a “good profit,” and Stone offered a “generous yet limited fee,” the pair agreed to sell the rights to the project to De Laurentis on the condition he “respect” their script. Stone would later recall how, while walking back together through Hyde Park, he had “the uneasy feeling that we rushed it.” He was probably right.
Though Stone retained a writing credit, Milius soon set about dismantling his script in favor of a stripped-back barbarian story, describing Stone’s first draft a “drug fever dream” of a film.
“Milius had no real interest in collaboration,” Stone remembered. “He took what he wanted from my script, characters and sets, and made it into a strange hybrid of a spaghetti western and a sword and sandals saga using techniques from his Cinecitta cost cutting days.”
Stone later bemoaned the film’s lack of set design and cinematography, while the cast was dismissed as a “strange mix of John surfer friends, stunt men, and over the top actors wandering around without much direction.” Reflecting their political leanings, with Stone the more liberal-minded of the pair, the two writers clashed over their fundamental view on Conan with Stone believing him to be a more subtle and complex hero, whereas Milius had him marked as “the bringer of death.”
Stone also disliked Milius’s Thulsa Doom, having never envisioned Earl-Jones in the role, and certainly not in the manner he was portrayed.
“John’s villain was essentially the leader of a Charlie Manson cult who likes to hypnotize and bluster,” he recalled. “I think in John’s view of the world, the hippies and drugs from the ‘60s were to blame for most of the world’s ills.”
Though the rewriting of his work created a tension between Stone and Milius, the two eventually made peace, even if little from his original script made it into the final film, save for Conan’s iconic invocation of Crom before one battle and a crucifixion scene cribbed from one of Howard’s books. Other lines remained here or there, but the epic battles Stone had envisioned were gone, never to return again.
His misery over the project was compounded further by the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, which took elements from Stone’s script including the main villain, drew rank reviews upon release, and swiftly died a death at the box office, taking his dreams of a 12-film saga with them.
Forty years on from the original’s release, however, time has thankfully healed old wounds. Stone went on to bigger and better things in the years following the Conan debacle, Ridley Scott was right to take Blade Runner, and Milius’ vision of Conan remains an unbridled classic.
Still, that probably won’t stop Stone wondering, “what if.”