When I first started doing sci-fi movie reviews, I knew I wanted to tackle Conan sooner or later. It was one of the Fantasy entries I was making room for, and I thought a comparative analysis, old versus new, would be a cool idea. Well, I finally got around to seeing the new one recently, and am all set to pit the original against the remake. I’m not sure if there’s a word for fans of an original beating a remake, but I think the word Fanbashing (which I might have just made up) will suffice! And by that I mean the beating of something BY fans, not the beating OF fans.
Okay, first up, the original version!
Conan The Barbarian(1982):
This movie is a cult favorite for many reasons. On the one hand, it was a pretty good fantasy epic that adapted the long-running comic book series by Robert E. Howard to the big screen. On the other, it was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role. Prior to this, he had spots in B-movies, tv shows, and the cult hit Pumping Iron. After this movie, he would go on to do The Terminator, Predator, Commando, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Twins… in short, every A-movie that he’s known for. But to me, the strength of this movie lies in its direction and storytelling. I tell ya, there are traces of quality and genius that are not commonly acknowledged.
For starters, the casting was superb. Arnie excelled as the brooding, badass known as Conan, James Earl Jones as the hypnotic, charismatic villain Thulsa Doom, Max Von Sydow as the Northman King Osric, and Mako as the narrator/wizard. Hell, even Sandahl Bergman and Gerry Lopez were good as Conan’s love interest and sidekick, Valerie and Subotai. In addition, the story itself was quite creative, weaving epic fantasy and adventure in with real-world history and Nietzschean philosophy.
Despite its small budget and less than pristine production values, you got a real sense that there was a lot of talent and attention to detail went into making this movie. For one, it was directed by John Milius, who’s credits include being the co-writer or director of such movies as Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, Red Dawn, Flight of the Intruder, and the HBO series Rome. Oliver Stone (Born of the 4th of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Alexander) was also attached as co-writer next to Milnius, and famed producer Raffaella De Laurentiis (Dune, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Dragonheart, and The Forbidden Kingdom) helped produce it. In short, a lot of talent went into the creation of this film, and I personally felt it showed!
For many, this movie is a guilty pleasure, being one of those B-movies that’s fun in spite of being cheesy. But for me, this movie is also a sleeper hit and a true cult classic, being smart in a way that few people recognize.
The movie opens with the famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Mako, the famous Japanese-American actor, begins narrating and identifies himself as Conan’s chronicler. He sets the scene by telling us that its the “Hyborian Age”, which takes place “Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryus…”, meaning somewhere between the mythical pre-historic age and the invasion of the Aryan conquerors into the Mediterranean (ca. 40,000-10,000 BCE).
We are then shown an extended scene where a sword is being forged (an apt metaphor) and Conan’s father explaining to him the Riddle of Steel. This “riddle”, which we are never told, runs like a vein through the movie, something which the viewer is no doubt meant to figure out for themselves. After being told of this riddle and of the war-god Crom, both of which are very important to the Cimmerian people (of which Conan is part) we then see his village being set upon by marauders. After killing everyone in the camp, Conan’s mother attempts to shield him when the leader of these attackers shows himself.
We then get to see the villain make his first appearance. Clad all in black, his green eyes beaming, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) manages to hypnotize Conan’s mother and take her sword from her. He then decapitates her in front of the young Conan and sells the poor into slavery. Conan is thus left with only the vague impression of who these men were, which is taken from their black standard of two snakes standing before a black sun. What is most effective about these scenes is how little dialogue takes place. Everything is conveyed through the visuals, the sense of horror and confusion coming through with glances and music instead of lines and declarations.
The next few scenes catalog Conan’s formative years as a slave: pushing a massive wheel in an open field until he is the only slave left (and six feet of pure muscle!), being thrown into the slave pits to fight for the entertainment of others, and then becoming a warrior schooled in the arts of swordplay, hand to hand combat and letters. In keeping with the movie’s Nietzschean theme, we see Conan growing stronger from all this, his hard labor, life of violence and education forging him like his father’s sword.
But the big inciting event happens when one of the slavers, someone he has known since he was a boy, sets him free. Not knowing where to go, Conan runs into the wilderness and chances upon a burial tomb belonging to an old Cimmerian King. In there, he retrieves a sword which he keeps for himself, and sums up the fortuitous experience with one word. “Crom!” That says it all! In this one encounter, Conan is reminded of his people, what his father taught him, and chooses to retrace his origins and find those people that killed his people.
This journey leads him to another chance encounter with an old witch who tells him of a prophecy. In short, the prophecy speaks of a man who would come, who would be king by his own hand, and who would drive the snakes from the land – you know, basic prophecy stuff. But its this last part that intrigues Conan. Remembering the enemy’s standard, he asks the woman what she knows of these snakes. But as always, there’s a price! In exchange for sleeping with her, she tells Conan that he must go to Shadizar in the land of Zamorra – crossroads of the world (a clear reference to Gomorrah and possibly Babylon) where he will find his answers. Having consumated, she then does the black widow thing, turns into a demon and tries to kill him. Conan narrowly manages to toss her into the fire, and which point she becomes a specter and retreats. “Crom…” he says. Yeah, that’s getting to be a real catch-all at this point.
Onto the next scene, where Conan wakes the next day to set out. But before taking to the wilderness again, he finds an archer named Subotai (modelled on Ghengis Khan general and clearly meant to look like a Mongol archer). He claims to be a thief and offers to help Conan, and the two become fast companions and travel buddies. Over a dinner of wild game, Conan tells Subotai of Crom and the Riddle of Steel. Like all Cimmerians, we learn that Conan must tell Crom what the riddle is when he travels to Valhalla, otherwise he will be tossed out. Again, we are given hints but never told of the significance of this. Much like Conan, it seems this riddle is something we are meant to determine for ourselves. This is definitely one of those points of unappreciated quality I mentioned earlier. The genius is there man, it’s there!
When they arrive, they find a city that lives up to its inspirations – big, walled, decadent, and smelly. Replete with whores, drugs, and tons and tons of vendors. And of course, the snakes, which come in the form of snake cult that worship Set – a snake demon-god that was inspired by actual mythology. They decide to break into the temple, and in the process meet Valeria, a beautiful thief who is also determined to steal from the cult’s richess. The scenes that follow are like something out of Caligula or the Old Testament, people in long robes sacrificing a virgin to a giant snake who lives at the heart of the temple. And of course, plenty of rubies, precious stones, and a giant gem (the Eye of the Serpent) that the snake itself protects.
In any case, Conan, Subotai and Valeria manage to kill the giant snake, thwart the sacrifice and steal the prized jewel, narrowly escaping by jumping off the temple’s high tower. Celebrating their new found riches, Conan and Valeria experience a budding romance, and Conan gives her the prized jewel in the form of a necklace. However, the good times are cut short as Shadizar’s ruler – King Osiric, a northman like Conan – has them arrested and brought before him. They suspect their heads are going to roll, until Osiric tells him their audicity in robbing the temple has earned them his respect. Seems the cult of Set had taken his daughter away from him, and he’s prepared to give them enough jewels to buy a small kingdom if they would kind enough to fetch her back.
Subotai and Valeria would rather cash out now, the latter even telling Conan that she would like to settle down with him now. However, Conan still wants his revenge for what Doom did to his people, and sets off alone. In the course of journeying forth, he comes upon a strange hermit who lives next to an ancient burial ground where the bones of dead warrior have been arranged in battle formation next to standing stones. Seems the hermit is none other than Mako, the wizard who is Conan’s chronicler. After getting acquainted and learning of the location of Set’s followers, Conan is off again, leaving the wizard with the distinct impression that they will meet again, and that he will play an important role in Conan’s sage.
What follows are some rather hilarious scenes as Conan finds his way to the cult and tries to infiltrate them. First, he finds them wandering in the wilderness like a bunch of revellers. One of the priests takes an obvious, and borderline homosexual, interest in him. After asking him to speak in private, Conan then beats the snot out of him and steals his robe. He then travels back to the Temple of Set, dressed in the ridiculous robe, and attempts to pass for a priest. “What do you see in there?” some woman asks as he stares into a pool of water. “Uh… Infinity?” says Conan, which the woman seems to approve of. Then, Doom reveals himself along with his chief followers. Conan recognizes them all from when they murdered his people, and slowly approaches them up the Temple steps. However, during a big speech in which Doom, like a true cult leader, predicts the End Of Days, Conan is attacked, beaten and brought before him. It seems they smelt the intruder…
After getting a lecture on how bad he was for ransacking Doom’s temple in Shadizar, Conan then tells Doom exactly who he is – the boy who survived the massacre of his people, and how has come for revenge. Doom’s response is nothing short of perfect. He admits that he does not remember, that he must have done it in his younger days when he too sought to understand the riddle of steel. However, he explains, he’s found a new power that puts steel to shame: the power of flesh! He demonstrated this by asking an accolade to come to him from the cliffs above, and the accolade jumps to their death! “That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste…” He then orders Conan to be crucified, so he can contemplate Doom’s role in making him what he is, and how he squandered it for reasons of revenge.
Conan then dies pinned to a tree, but not before Subotai and Valeria find him and bring him back to the wizard – aka. Mako! He then performs some ritual whereby his spirit is pulled back from the netherworld, and Conan is resurrected. However, they are warned that their will be a price, life for life, etc. But Valeria says she’s willing to risk it because she loves him, which foreshadows what’s to come. The three then set off to invade Doom’s temple and save the princess, but Conan once again has his own plans. In the course of breaking in, they come upon Doom’s men and a big ol’ brawl ensues! Doom is absent from the fight since he morphed into a giant snake and slithered from the room (bit hokey, but okay!). The three then escape with the princess, but Doom makes an appearance on the cliffs above and fires a poisonous arrow/snake into Valeria’s back. She dies, and Conan and Subotai take her body back to the wizard to give it a warriors burial – a big pyre on top of a mound!
Conan, Subotai and the wizard then prepare for an assault, as it is clear that Doom’s men will track them back to the wizard’s home. Turning the standing stones, the warriors remains and every inch of the place into a fortified encampement, Conan then prays to Crom for the first time in years. He asks Crom to grant him revenge, to look upon their valor as they stand against many. He finishes with a line that is both badass and appropriately Conan: “And if you do not listen… then TO HELL WITH YOU!” It takes a special kind of person to tell a god to go to hell, doesn’t it? In any case, battle ensues and its the best part of the movie!
One by one, the bad guys fall as they are either unhorsed by Conan’s sword, shot by Subotai’s arrows, stabbed by the Wizard’s spear, or killed by the booby traps they’ve set up. It all comes down to Conan and Doom’s chief thug, who is wielding Conan’s own father’s sword! Conan is very nearly killed, but is saved at the last second by what appears to be Valeria’s spirit. In keeping with Norse mythology, she appears as a Valkyrie, a warrior spirit since she clearly made it to Valhalla after all! Conan then chops the thug up, breaking his father’s own sword in the process and taking what is left of it back. He then sees Doom ride back to his temple, and decides to use what’s left of his father’s sword for one last duty.
Confronting Doom on the steps of his own temple, Doom tries to pull his hypnotic routine on him. He tells Conan that he is essentially his son, that he made him what he is, and asks him what will he be when Doom is dead. Conan appears to be genuinely falling for it, but then swings his father’s sword around and cuts Doom at the neck! Doom then falls to his knees, where Conan proceeds to hack his head off and toss it down the steps to his followers. He then sets the temple ablaze and marches down the steps and off into the night, Doom’s followers looking on in awe. Conan and Subotai then rides off with the princess, returning to the west to bring her back to her father.
The movie then ends with a picture of an older, bearded Conan sitting on a throne, the epilogue saying that he would go on to become a king himself, as was profesied. But of course, that is another tale 😉
As I said already, this movie is a personal favorite. One of the best selling points for me was the low-budget, high-quality nature of it. Yes, the production values weren’t the best, and some of the acting was a little B-grade too, but the writing, direction and plot contained unmistakable signs of quality and even touches of genius. Rather than going for a pulp fantasy movie, a la Xena and Hercules, John Milius, Oliver Stone, and Raffaella De Laurentiis seemed committed to creating a story that was grounded in history and realism as well as epic adventure. In this respect, the movie was keeping with Howard’s original vision of the franchise. Howard, like Milnius and Stone, had a passion for history and enjoyed working with settings that were real enough to be credible, but still vague enough to allow him to be inventive while at the same time unconstrained by the pressures of historical accuracy.
But of course, this critique would not be clear without some examples: One, Conan’s people are clearly inspired by Norsemen. They live in wintery forests, wield heavy iron swords and worship the “God in the Mountain” Crom, who is apparently warden of Valhalla and keeper of the Riddle of Steel. Doom’s men, the black riders, were clearly inspired by the Huns – dark riders and conquerors who inspired terror and rode over their enemies. James Earl Jones costumes and appearances were also designed to look as Asiatic as possible, his long hair, green eyes and robes adding to the sense of mystique that surrounded him. It was also a testament to his character that he didn’t speak until well into the movie when he is reintroduced.
Ah yes, and the men that Conan takes up with after becoming a warrior slave were also a clear reference to the Mongols. Their costumes, talk and values are all indicative. Consider the following scene where Conan is in the “Mongol” camp:
Mongol General: “What is best in life?”
Mongol: “The open Steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.”
General: “Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?”
Conan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”
Yep, Mongols clearly! The city of Shadizar in Zamorra was also a brilliant piece of set design, calling to mind all kinds of Orientalist, Arab world and Sodom and Gomorrah type motifs.
But perhaps the biggest strength of the film was the thematic consistency of it. The quote by Nietzsche at the beginning not only previewed the plot, it was present throughout the movie as a constant theme. When Conan confronts Doom near the end, he is confounded by the twist Doom puts on his terrible deeds. Would Conan have really grown up to be the warrior-badass he is were it not for the actions of Doom and his henchmen? Hell, Doom even sounds perfectly sincere when he claims that he MADE Conan what he was, and that Conan would be lost the moment Doom was no more. Rather than being some evil megalomaniac, he seemed to capture the essence of Nietzsche’s amoral philosophy quite perfectly.
And lets not forget the Riddle of Steel, which fits in with this philosophy like one of them round pegs! Though we never are told point blank what it is, enough hints are given as to what it might be all about. For one, steel is strong and formidable, unlike flesh which seems weak by comparison. However, steel is useless without flesh, a mere object that is dependent on the hand that wields it. On the other hand, it could be said that steel is much like people in that it is forged. When it is first extracted from the Earth, raw ore is much like a raw person; but tempered and shaped through constant exposure to extremes and violence, it becomes a deadly instrument, capable of great and terrible things. I tell ya, the metaphor is thick here!
In the end, the worst that can be said about this movie was that it was a tad cheesy, a tad hokey, and that at times a little wooden in terms of its acting. That and the low budget nature of it all, which was quite apparent throughout. But for anyone who doesn’t mind looking a little deeper, this movie had plenty of respectable stuff just waiting to be noticed. And really, it made Arnie’s carreer and probably didn’t hurt Stone’s, Laurentiis’s or Milnius’ either. Granted, the studio then made the horrible mistake of producing Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja, two horribly dumbed down sequels that did very poorly, but time has been kind to the original. It has made many a list as one of the top sci-fi fantasy cult classics of all time, and even inspired a re-imagining this past year.
But that, as they say with this franchise, is another tale… 😉
Conan the Barbarian (1982):
Entertainment Value: 8/10