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Review: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Directed by: John Milius

Premise: An adaptation of the stories by Robert E. Howard. Set in a fantasy world, a young man emerges from a life of slavery and swears vengeance on the warlord who massacred his village.  

What Works: One of the more underappreciated cinematic trends of the early 1980s was the resurgence in sword and shield fantasy films. Most of them, like The Beastmaster and Dragonslayer, have been largely and deservedly forgotten but 1982’s Conan the Barbarian remains an interesting and even impressive picture from this time. Directed by John Milius and co-written by Milius and Oliver Stone, the film is an updated version of the fantasy pictures of the 1950s and 60s like the Steve Reeves Hercules films and Ray Harryhausen’s adventure pictures. It has the unapologetically masculine appeal of those films and it shares their admiration for strength, adventure, and warrior camaraderie. The filmmakers of Conan updated those pictures for their own time and they tap into the allure of fantasy. Viewers respond to fantasy stories for some of the same reasons that people are allured to religious narratives and traditions; these stories act out deeply embedded ideas and watching them has a ritualistic appeal. Conan the Barbarian successfully invokes that quality in its sets, costumes, and overall look. Conan’s adventures are heroic deeds to be told around a fireplace and the dialogue often has the sound of ritualistic poetry. The mythological qualities of Conan are also supported by the outstanding music score by Basil Poledouris. This is a very good example of a score contributing breadth and emotional resonance to a film and Poledouris’s score adds to Conan’s epic scope and to the fantastical setting. This is a very visually oriented film; director Milius makes a lot of interesting choices in blocking the action and the performances are very physical. For that reason the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger is important to the success of the film. Although Conan did not make Schwarzenegger a star (that honor goes to 1984’s The Terminator), this was the film that introduced him to mainstream audiences. Schwarzenegger is effective in the role and his screen presence and charisma compensates for his shortcomings as an actor. Sandahl Bergman is featured in a supporting role as Valeria, Conan’s companion and love interest. The film’s handling of her character is admirable. As of 1982 most women in fantasy films were relegated to the damsel-in-distress roles but Valeria is assertive and proactive while retaining her femininity.

What Doesn’t: Although Conan the Barbarian is better than most other sword and shield fantasy pictures from the early 1980s, it does have awkward moments. The visual effects are hokey in places, even for the time in which this picture was made, and Schwarzenegger’s acting skills are quite obtuse. The story struggles with coherence and the narrative is very episodic; scenes like Conan’s encounter with a witch (Cassandra Gava) come across as random and don’t lead him or the story anywhere. The ending in particular is troubled. After Conan rescues the princess, the momentum of the film is building toward a large scale battle scene (one that was probably beyond the budgetary means of this production). Instead of a grandiose climax or just a final confrontation that brings the central conflict to a satisfying conclusion, the movie ends in an underwhelming and confusing finale. Conan the Barbarian is also awkward because it is a political anachronism. Conan and films like it preceded the Rambo-esque action pictures that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Chuck Norris would produce throughout the 1980s. These so-called “hard body” films look silly in retrospect, in part because of their crude masculinity and Neanderthal politics. Although these qualities actually suit the film, Conan is now appealing because of its kitsch value.

DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes, image galleries.

Bottom Line: Conan the Barbarian inspired a lot of forgettable fantasy films that followed such as Barbarian Queen and Red Sonja but echoes of Conan are observable in more recent films like The Scorpion King, the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans and even The Lord of the Rings. It remains an amusing fantasy film even if it is something of a guilty pleasure.

Episode: #408 (October 7, 2012)