Conan the Barbarian (1982), a recap (part 1 of 6)
There are those who trash the United States, but for me I think it’s a wonderful place. Where else can an Austrian body builder become one of the most iconic personalities in the world, having an impressive Hollywood career, marrying into one of the country’s most politically prestigious families, and being elected governor of California? Any one of those things are pretty impressive, but all three? Damn. I am, of course, talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold’s first appearance on the big screen was Hercules in New York. I’ve seen the movie and, um…it’s a movie. Over the next decade, he would have sporadic work both in movies and TV, but it wasn’t until 1982 that one can say he truly arrived. And the motion picture that put him on the map was Conan the Barbarian.
I have a real soft spot for this film; my dad was a huge Conan fan whose old collection of Robert E. Howard paperbacks I discovered and promptly devoured. (I can still remember my mom seeing salacious covers depicting scenes like Conan dismembering a frost giant and asking with concern, “Should he be reading those?” and my dad’s response: “He’ll be fine.”) He took me to see the film because it was rated R and I was just fourteen. I remember utterly geeking out at the sight of the trailer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; up until then, I had no idea it was even being made. So to this day, that night was pretty special. But over the years, as I grew older and more “sophisticated” and certainly more cynical, I grew to like the movie less. It wasn’t very much like the source material, I thought as I inwardly demanded a slavish adherence to “canon”. And I don’t know when it happened, but one day I was looking at the DVD on the shelf and thinking maybe I should get over myself and give the movie another look. My inner child said, “It’s about god-damn time!” And so, here we are.
The film went through a bit of a struggle to come to be, with film rights originally being owned by Lancer Books, which went into receivership. It took the efforts of a dude named Edward Summer, who according to Wikipedia was a “painter, motion picture director, screenwriter, internet publisher, magazine editor, journalist and science writer, comic book writer, novelist, book designer, actor, cinematographer, motion picture editor, documentary filmmaker, film festival founder, and educator.” Now that’s one helluva resume. He talked executive producer Edward R. Pressman (who worked on such projects as the Crow franchise and… Judge Dredd. Well, not everyone’s perfect) into obtaining the rights, and after considerable time and money got them. Director John Milius was attached to the project, left, then came back, and after some seven years of laborious effort the film was finally produced. So, is it any good? Let’s see if my cynical adult self agrees or disagrees with my inner fourteen year old.
Our movie opens with an attempt to class things up with a quote from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us serves to make us stronger.” That’s actually a misquote from Watergate break-in artist G. Gordon Liddy, which is funny because the film is co-written by JFK director Oliver Stone. I would have gone with “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Personally, I feel the latter fits the overall theme of the movie a bit better, but that’s just me. I guess if you were going for something a bit more esoteric they could have used “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” Truer words, man. Then we hear the voice of the immortal Mako as our narrator:
Narrator: Between the time the oceans drank Atlantis,
And the rise of the sons of Arias,
There was an age undreamed of,
And unto this, Conan,
Destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aqualonia upon a troubled brow
It is I, his chronicler, of who alone can tell thee of his saga
Let me tell you of the days of High Adventure!
Arnold was originally supposed to narrate, but the producers thought his accent was a bit tough to understand. As much as I love Arnold, I think they might have had a point. Besides, Mako has more gravitas. What then follows is one of the most devastatingly awesome pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life: Basil Poledorius’ “Anvil of Crom”.
Damn, that’s some potent stuff. We’re graced with visuals of the forging of a sword by epically barbaric types, among them a man with the most manly of beards, and in the darkness, with their faces framed in flickering firelight, a woman and boy watch. The finished product is a rune-etched blade that I’m guessing is a broadsword, which deals 2-8 hit points of damage to small and medium opponents. Back in the day, I preferred the longsword because it dealt superior damage to large creatures, but if you wanted to guarantee that extra hit point of damage for most encounters then yeah, you could do worse than the broadsword. The short sword? Sure, that made sense if you were playing a Halfling. Or a girl. I went to an old school role playing Facebook group for advice on this weighty matter, and after much deliberation and declarations of blood feuds by some members… I received about thirty different opinions.
The pommel of this awesome man-killer is etched with bitchin’ skulls, while the hilt is wrapped in leather thongs by that savagely attractive woman we saw earlier.
Man, I can’t wait to find out more about her (hint: we never do.). Later, the blacksmith sits upon a mountain with the boy and it’s William Smith, an actor who rises far above his banal name. Smith was famous for mostly playing bad guys, because he had that sort of face; the face that said “Don’t trust me, I’m going to betray you sooner or later. It’s just my nature”. Guys like him and Billy Drago were just born with scary looking mugs. But oddly enough, the beard actually humanizes William. He tells who we discover is Young Conan a tale about their god Crom, who “lives in the Earth”. So… Crom is Satan? It turns out there was a battle between gods and giants and the “enigma of steel” was left on the battlefield, forgotten by all, and it was Man who discovered it. It’s only in steel that you can trust, Conan’s father (and that’s how he’s referred to in the credits) tells his boy. Smith does a great job here; I can’t wait to see how this father/son dynamic develops.
Later on, it’s a typical day in your typical barbarian village, with the men and womenfolk going about their chores; hunters come in with a deer, a horse drawn wagon is full of firewood, some dudes are turning a horizontal stone wheel… I dunno, maybe they’re grinding wheat or corn or something. Maybe they’re trying to invent the bicycle and have got a long way to go. Conan is by a stream trying his hand at ice fishing, because nobody’s invented hockey yet. I’m looking at this kid and I’m thinking by age ten he can probably: trap, kill, and skin a rabbit; catch, scale and bone a fish; likely navigate the woods in the dark by the stars and knowing what side moss grows on a tree; knows which mushrooms and berries are poisonous; and can probably jog ten miles if he’s got to. Me, I can’t remember if black is positive or negative when I’m trying to jump start my car. Savage horsemen ride through the woods as the music swells, and Young Conan looks up and spots a shirtless tattooed man, oblivious to the frigid cold.
Ah, he must be Canadian. Man, I can’t wait to find out this dude’s backstory (note: he has none). The savage horsemen sweep past him and into the village, where they proceed to hack and slash with abandon. Conan’s dad goes for his epic sword while the woman tears off looking for their boy. Among the horsemen is a man wielding a really impractical looking giant mallet, but damn if it doesn’t make me want to roll up a barbarian and to make that my weapon focus. Conan’s dad is doing just a little too well in the hackin’ and slashin’ department, so the leader points him out and tells people to get that guy. Conan’s dad gets an axe to the back, and then they sic the war dogs on him as Conan and the woman, his mom, stare in horror. In the aftermath, all the men and women are dead, save for Conan’s mom. The leader and mallet guy remove their helmets…
…and these guys could be the ancestors of the lead singers of Motorhead and Iron Maiden. There’s a reason why it’s heavy metal that’s associated with Dungeons & Dragons and not bubblegum pop. Mallet Guy (or is that “Mullet Guy”?) is given Conan’s dad’s sword and he presents it to his leader, who’s suitably impressed. Conan’s mom points her own sword at the man, essentially calling him out, and suddenly that derogatory comment I made about girls and swords earlier feels just a little bit dumb, because in her place I’d probably be using Young Conan as a human shield. Props to the leader, because he points his new sword back at her and seems ready to throw down with her like she was his equal, but a newcomer arrives; it seems the boss has a boss. The man removes his helmet…
…and it’s James Earl Jones. I remember back then, I had no idea really who he was other than him being the voice of Darth Vader. I can’t wait to see what he has to say, what awesome monologue he’s going to deliver to this woman to get her to surrender.
And he says… nothing. Honestly, not a word. Instead, he stares at the woman with those compelling, intense dark blue… eyes that… captiv… ate… the.. w… The woman lowers her blade annnnnd then James Earl Jones decapitates her. With Conan’s dad’s sword. The only way I could see James Earl Jones making Conan even more insane for vengeance is if he kicked his dog on the way out.
Later, the boys of the village are led out by riders in a line, roped together. I… don’t want to speculate on what happened to the girls, and Milius wisely doesn’t touch upon that point. We get some magnificent scenery in the form of majestic snowcapped mountains. After seeing the Lord of the Rings movies, I assumed any location that shows more than one type of climate/terrain must have been shot in New Zealand, but Conan the Barbarian was shot in Spain’s Madrid and Almeria regions. Originally, it was supposed to be shot in Yugoslavia, but political unrest there made that… unwise.
“No one knows what they were after”, Mako intones. If this were a Western, I’d assume it was to kill settlers to make way for the railroad. But Mako suggests it was maybe for steel, or murder. And yeah, what we find out later on actually bears that out, but more on that in the weeks to come. While the butchers ride south, Conan and the other surviving boys are taken north to the land of the Vanir to be yoked to “the wheel”.
A redheaded boy seals Conan’s chain to the spoke, and with a few suggestive swishes of a crop, our hero gets the hint and gets to pushin’. What the wheel is, no one ever explains. It might be for grinding up grain, but why is it in the middle of nowhere? Or is it some sort of metaphor I’m too dense to comprehend? Who knows? For purposes of plot, it allows the director to jump ahead some twenty or so years so we see that out of all the slaves that were originally chained to the thing, now it’s just Conan pushing the damn thing along.
A redheaded man rides up, and what’s cool here (well, cool to me, at least) is that it’s never said but you can assume this is the boy from earlier who chained Conan to the wheel. I’ll bet he has an awesome backstory; I just can’t wait to see it unfold (can you guess what we don’t get? can you?). Soon, Red is riding off with Conan in tow. The pair come to a stone pit and Conan is told to sit, and Conan gives the guy a look like it’s been so long since he’s done that he might have forgotten how. But sit he does, opposite a chained up masked dude. If this were a Stanley Kubrick film, I’d be really worried about the potential direction the movie might be taking. Day turns to night and the stone pit is surrounded by the dregs of humanity, laying down bets. On the other side of the pit, the other dude’s owner unleashes his beast.
Ruh-roh. Red sends Conan in and he has utterly no clue what’s about to go down. But the cat with the mask and filed teeth literally goes for the throat. Conan makes those Arnold noises, which are sort of hard to describe. I imagine these sounds coming out of some beast in a Star Wars movie and I get the feeling Arnold and Sly Stallone had some sort of competition going even back then on who could make the weirdest pain noises. The two tussle and Arnold’s inner ten year old wakes up and he remembers how to fight. He grabs Razorteeth’s arm and breaks it, then delivers a pair of neck-snapping uppercuts. Razorteeth is down and Conan wins! Red gives him a standard to hold, and Conan has utterly no clue what the hell just happened. What soon follows is a montage of brutality as Conan is thrown into fight after fight, becoming a pit fighter par excellence as Mako talks of how our hero begins to realize “he has value”. Eventually, Conan’s reputation is known far and wide, and he’s sent to “the east”.
Wow, this movie moves pretty damn fast; we go from a sword being forged to a burned village, a boy tied to a spoke becoming a man who then becomes a gladiator. At this rate, Conan will be wearing that Aqualonian crown on his troubled brow in no time. Or will he? Check back next week to find out.