Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at Conan The Barbarian, often overlooked for its artistic merits…
There were a number of archetypal films which became popular during the 80’s. Some fads lasted longer than others, whilst some died out. The success of First Blood (but more-so Part 2) would usher in a stream of one many army flicks, with everyone from Arnold, Chuck Norris and Dolph Lundgren getting in on the action, all the way down to a slew of cheaply made imitators (often Italian made and/or shot in the Philippines). You also had the Mad Max archetype, and again, the dusty post apocalyptic aesthetic would be seen in masses of cheaply made films with the likes of David Carradine and Patrick Swayze being some of the more famous to get in the act. Die Hard then kicked off a new wave of Die Hard clones. Now of course most of the kickstarters themselves weren’t exactly original themselves, but they reached a level of success that was impossible for imitators to ignore.
In the early 80’s a couple of successful Sword and Sorcery films would just start to open a fascination with that genre, which had fallen out of favour since a golden period of B movies in the 50’s and early 60’s. Hawk the Slayer, and more prominently, Excalibur. There just seemed by the success of them (and indeed, perhaps the success of Star Wars helped a general fascination with fantasy in general) to be a new surge in audience demand for more films of that ilk. Step forward Conan the Barbarian. Arnold Schwarzenegger was deemed something of a difficult sell as a movie star. By this point he’d gained fame as a bodybuilder, and particularly more widespread thanks to the documentary, Pumping Iron. Producers were reluctant to cast him though. Edward Pressman in particular had long sought to get a project ‘right’ for Schwarzenegger. One where his enormous size would feel natural and his strong accent would also fit. Robert E. Howard’s comic book creation, oft animated as a man of enormous muscle mass and ripped within an inch of his sinewy life, was deemed a perfect fit.
Eventually the film was shot. A big budget spectacular. A few names had floated about but somewhere in the projects gestation, Oliver Stone was brought in to redraft the script (and grounding Conan into a slightly more naturalistic, almost Nordic adventure story over pure fantasy). It still had giant snakes, witches and some magical elements, but it was hugely pared back from the origin comics as far as fantastical elements. Then throw in a director like John Milius, and man of usually very serious aspirations with a pre-occupation (comically homaged by John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski) for the Vietnam conflict.
Conan when looked back on, is treated with a someone mixed response. Some people think it lacks the fantasy levels required for the genre. Others find the style of it a little odd. Still, for the fans who can really get into what Milius created, it’s considered with a degree of awe. Milius wanted to create something almost operatic. He sought to make a film that could be watched with the dialogue track switched off and still be followed. A gritty, violent and surprisingly affecting muscle opera. To that end he knocks it out of the park. Others, who may enjoy it, often dismiss it as dumb because the notion and image of Barbarians has always brought associations with being dumb. It’s really not.
The more I’ve watched Conan over the years, the more I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more. In my earlier years it left me cold. It didn’t have quite the wonder of many of those films which followed in its footsteps (as a kid this was my genre, and the more fantastical the better). It wasn’t lavish in colour, monsters, fantasy and whimsy. It wasn’t Conan the Destroyer, a sequel that more pertinently ticked the boxes of Sword and Sorcery adventures. I’ve become attuned to the synergy between the visuals and the music. A connection that borders perfection. The world looks natural, the colours earthy, but shot beautifully in widescreen and looking wonderfully cinematic. The violence can be felt. The consequence of it through the films is felt when characters die (particularly on the side of our heroes). The love story, with maybe a handful of lines ever exchanged between Conan and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) works beautifully too. Maybe it’s the era it was made and those associations that come with being an 80’s fantasy, but Conan has never been treated as seriously for its artistic merits as something like Lord of the Rings more recently.
At this point, Arnie was well travelled as a performer, if limited to lots of walk-ons and bit turns, but he was still rough around the edges. That being said, when he’s not sometimes awkwardly chewing on dialogue (kind of fits a Barbarian anyway), he’s effectively showing plenty of introspection in others, in a role very light on actual dialogue anyway. Rough around the edges he might be, but as a living breathing character, he’s rarely been better since. Despite being a Barbarian in his loin cloth and wielding a sword, he’s less larger than life than some later iconic human roles, where he’s more about charisma over character.
Sandahl Bergman actually won for a Golden Globe for her role here. It’s something often forgotten but also partly I guess because films like this very rarely got attention in award season. She’s fantastic though. Absolutely magnetic as a charismatic, characterful and physical performer. She’s that good in fact I’ve named a character after her in an upcoming Conan-esque film I’m writing. Great support from Max Von Sydow and Mako adds to this solid cast. There’s some real Oscar pedigree between those two, but then you throw in James Earl Jones as the villain. He’s chilling. Again, very minimal dialogue, but what he says has power (only amplified by the fact it’s Jones’ inimitable voice).
A fine cast, impeccably shot, minimal but excellent practical effects, brutal and punishing action scenes and what weaves it altogether? Probably the greatest Orchestral score of all time. Hyperbole? Well, it’s certainly my favourite. Basil Poledouris delivers his master opus. He’d go on to have a number of great scores and themes, Robocop in particular, but his work in Conan as an overall mix of eclectic tracks is exceptional. The score also felt delightfully old school. Harking back to some classic fantasy scores of the 50’s, with some baroque undertones as well. The music, as it is in any opera is absolutely essential to the success because it’s here to help weave the story together and to embellish the characters emotions. It’s a great score. There haven’t been too many like this since. A truly unique work (which often accompanies my many writing assignments).
Conan as an overall piece, may be Arnold’s greatest, bar probably The Terminator. Is it as outright cool as Predator or Total Recall? No. Is it quite as lithe and efficient? Again maybe not but as this wonderful epic tale of long sought revenge and romance, Conan is probably unsurpassed in its genre. Still, lets give Arnie a huge amount of credit, he’s got a selection of films between 82 and 91 which are absolutely iconic and essential in the action genre. No other action specialist has come close to that level of strike rate.
The legacy Conan left would be felt through the rest of the decade with several imitators like Deathstalker, Beastmaster, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Barbarian Brothers, Warrior Queen and even a number of popular films from Arnies old Pumping Iron rival, Lou Ferrigno (Hercules, The Seven Magnificent Gladiators and Sinbad of the Seven Seas). Into the 90’s that success would see a rise in popular TV shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). As with many films which trigger a wave (Die Hard), those films following the blue print are almost always pale imitators. Conan the Barbarian might just be a masterpiece, and will hopefully one day be fully appreciated for all the artistry within.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.