Conan the Barbarian (1982), a recap (part 2 of 6)
When we last left our favorite (and apparently last) Cimmerian, he had gone from boy to man, and from pushing a wheel to dealing death to the roar of the crowd. We open now with him being “taken to the East, a great prize where warmasters would teach him deep secrets.”
Sadly, acting would not be one of these secrets. Fun fact: the main cast went through a grueling training regimen at the hands of martial arts master Kiyoshi Yamazaki. That’s him in the pic above. Conan proves to be a good student, allowing his trainer to smack him around when he needs to drive the point home. Hey, the guy pushed a wheel for twenty years; he’s willing to put up with anything if he gets three meals a day. One of the other students laughs at Conan getting slapped and just taking it, so the master gives the jackass a kick to the gut for his trouble. Focus on your own game, fool.
Later, we find Conan in a cave with some reading material, and it turns out he’s been given the chance to learn how to read and he’s checking out the “poetry of Kitai” and “the philosophy of Soong”. I’m not sure why they think a slave needs to learn how to read, let alone be given philosophical texts, but okay. I just feel this whole first act, while technically awesome, feels kind of unnecessary. Why does Conan need an origin story? Robert E. Howard wrote seventeen Conan stories; none of them were suitable material for a movie adaptation? I also think maybe they could have framed the film differently, by telling Conan’s origin via flashbacks induced every time he sees one of them there snake standards.
Back to the story. Conan is chilling with his scrolls, and immersing himself in some deep philosophizing. And then they send in the slave girl.
The woman’s topless but hey, this is a family friendly web site. It seems they want to breed Conan so they pair him up with “the finest stock”. Yeah, I can’t imagine them remotely doing anything like this in a movie today. I get where they’re going with this; Conan is property, and pretty much a tame lion so he doesn’t get a whole lot of say, and he’ll take his pleasures as they come, because moral compass? What’s that? All the same, it’s a little creepy. The locals watch, because just about everyone in this age are pretty much bastards.
Conan is training night and day, and he’s digging the swords he gets to play with because it reminds him of the “riddle of steel” his dad talked about, and all the while his handler Red looks on like a proud papa. And just what is Red getting out of all this training? Hell, I bet he was making some pretty sweet coin with Conan as a pit fighter. Just how much is all this training costing him, anyway? Does he get a cut rate for them using Conan like a bull stud? These questions plague me now, but back then I was mainly focused on bare boobs, so answering questions like this wasn’t really a priority.
Still later, a group of warriors are talking, and the boss points out they scored another victory. Was Conan involved in this victory? He’s sitting on the table like Red is showing him off or something, and the boss asks the group what’s best in life. One guy goes on about horses and falcons and wind and stuff. But the boss ain’t having it; he asks Conan what’s best in life, and he responds.
Conan: To crush your enemies. See them driven before you. And to hear the lamentation of the women…
Yeah, Arnold’s accent is pretty thick, and you can see why Mako got the narrator’s job. The gang is pretty darn impressed with Conan’s answer. Later, our hero is sleeping rough out in the open when Red shows up holding an axe. He takes off Conan’s leather headband and then uses the axe to cut his chains, and then he sends Conan on his way, telling him he’s free. Why? They never say. Red’s pretty drunk, so maybe he’s just in a sentimental mood. I read the book adaptation decades ago, and if I remember it right, Red gets a wagon dropped on him and Conan leaves him to die. I’m not really crazy about either scenario, but at least in the latter case, Conan has a touch more agency; he sees his chance and takes it.
Conan goes on the run and in no time he’s being chased down by a pack of German Shepherds that I think are supposed to be a stand-in for wolves. He makes for a stand of rocks, and in a scene cut from the film when Arnold did this stunt (Arnold did all his own stunts since they couldn’t find a body double his size), he fell and you could hear him cry out “God damn it!” It’s only funny because it happened to somebody else.
Conan decides this is as good a place as any for a last stand, even though his only weapon is the length of chain attached to his ankle. It’s then that he realizes he’s standing on top of a cave or something. He tries to make his way down the stone steps, but he’s about as graceful as you’d expect; he falls down into the hole and into a puddle of water. Conan remembers his childhood survival skills and soon he’s got a fire going, and he realizes he’s in a crypt. That either means easy loot, or he’s about the waken a ghoul, vampire, wight, or demi-lich, depending on what edition of Dungeons & Dragons we’re dealing with. Conan whips up a makeshift torch and gets a better look at his surroundings, and cautiously makes his way to a dude in a throne.
I’m digging the vibe Milius is laying down, with the flickering torchlight, and Conan’s almost superstitious dread at being in a tomb, along with Basil Polidoris’ moody score. Conan approaches the skeleton on the throne and his eyes are drawn to the sword in his hand. Conan carefully relieves the dude of his property, and if this movie had been done today, we would have probably gotten a bitchin’ fight with Conan vs. a CGI skeleton. Back then, if Ray Harrihausen hadn’t retired after Clash of the Titans, maybe we could have a stop motion fight, or hey, just a few years after this we had seen a pretty sweet fight between Ripley and the Alien Queen in Aliens, and that was largely a giant puppet. But considering what happens later, the fight would have felt a bit much.
Conan gingerly reaches for the sword, and I love how he never takes his eyes off the skeleton as he loots it. He admires the blade a moment, then slams it into the stone, and back then I thought he was knocking the rust off it, but it’s actually the leather scabbard and it breaks away. Then the skeleton falls apart, with its massive helmet crashing to the ground. Conan murmurs “Crom” and almost seems to pray to his stoic god for thanks. I really feel like Milius is working around Arnold’s accent and is going for a less is more approach dialogue-wise, and it works. Arnold isn’t the world’s greatest actor by any means, but he does alright, especially when it comes to conveying fear. Which is surprising for a guy who looks like he shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Conan exits the tomb and smashes his leg iron with the blade. The “wolves” perk up and get ready to attack…
…and in the next scene, Conan’s got himself a wolf hide leisure suit, complete with wolf skin sword scabbard. He continues his journey and soon is outside the home of a woman. Conan is a little leery; after all, it’s a harsh land and the woman seems to be all alone; where are the menfolk to protect her? She says, “There is warmth and fire,” which makes Conan clutch his sword hilt with suspicion. She then asks, “Don’t you wish to warm yourself by my fire?” Damn, I was just fourteen, and I could see that double meaning a mile away. Conan does what most dudes would do in the situation and he takes the woman up on her offer. Inside, the woman talks of how “they” said Conan was coming, and how he was going to be totally badass and a king, but you can tell he’s not buying it. At least, not until she mentions how he’s going to “crush the snakes of the Earth”. Now she’s got his attention. Conan describes the standard of the guys who wiped out his village and the woman finishes the description: she’s the real deal. Conan wants to know more but she says there’s a price.
Well hey, what’s the harm in that, right? As the pair get it on, the woman says that what Conan seeks is in Zamura. So far, so good, right? Conan’s warmed by the fire; he gets to eat something that ain’t wolf meat, and he’s makin’ time with this sexy ba—
Jesus Christ! Conan’s been trained to fight dudes, not witches! She’s all over him, clawing at his back and going for the throat. But our hero manages to throw her into the fire. There’s a pause, and then a screaming ball of fire explodes from the pit and launches itself out of the hut and into the air. Conan stares in shock and mutters, “Crom.” What the hell was that? We never find out and honestly that’s kinda cool. We’re just like Conan, traveling through this land and running into stuff we barely understand. If someone had actually explained who or what the woman is/was, that would kind of take the fun out of it.
The next morning, Conan’s looted the hut for whatever’s useful, and he’s ready for the Zamura road trip. But just as he’s ready to head out, he hears a plaintive voice call out, “Food!” He finds a man nearby chained to the rocks who wishes to have food for strength for when the wolves come so he can “die in combat”. Uh, yeah, no wolves are showing up any time soon, pal. Conan asks who he is.
He’s Subatai, thief and archer. What’s he doing here? Well, pretty much “dinner for wolves”. Conan takes a liking to the little fella and sets him free. The fact that he has no idea where Zamura is, and Subatai might, just may have influenced his decision. Later, the pair are having dinner and roasting what look like a pair of free range chickens on a spit over an open fire. And what do these guys talk about? You’d think Conan would start off a conversation like, “Hey, did you meet that crazy woman in the hut? She tried to rip my throat out and then turned into a ball of fire,” or, “Hey, Subatai, who chained you to that rock and why?” Instead, the pair start talking religion. Subatai worships the Four Winds, and Conan explains why Crom is sooo much cooler, and how he lives in the Earth, and when Conan dies and faces him and doesn’t know the riddle of steel he’ll get kicked to the curb, and how Crom won’t even answer prayers ‘cause he’s too emo or something to listen.
Subatai points out how the Four Winds are much cooler because they’re the everlasting sky and live above Crom. It looks like the the philosophy of Soong has failed you, Conan. Look at what little good all that book learnin’s done ya. What follows is a montage as the two friends hit the road, jogging over grassland… and more grassland… and more grassland. Finally, they reach a walled city and Subatai says, “Civilization! Ancient and wicked.” Conan’s never seen a city before, and he’s all excited to get a look. There’s another montage as Conan sees his first elephant, eats his first fast food (lizard on a stick), and finds out that civilization stinks—literally. The pair hit the road once more, traveling from town to town, depicted via a montage of furred feet. Conan stops and asks people about snakes, but nobody’s got news for him, until finally they come across a shopkeeper who says the only snakes he knows about are the “towers of Set” that have spread to every city.
And it’s cool because I went back and checked, and sure enough, a tower of Set looms over two of the cities the pair visited. The dude explains that Set was “just another snake cult”, like us saying Ariana Grande was just another pop star, but like Grande, Set is everywhere now and you can’t get away from them. The dude says there are rumors those Set guys murder people in the night, but he knows nothing. But hey, he’s got himself some black lotus. “It’s Stygian, the best!” Our best buds decide to try a bowl, and the two are now pretty high. How high? Conan punches a camel because it caught him off guard; that’s how high. The pair get looks from the locals, like, “Dude, what did that camel ever do to you?” or, “Dude, you better be on your way before that camel gets up and comes looking for you.”
The pair shamble off and Subatai gets an idea into his head; he points out to Conan that if he’s looking for snakes, why, there’s that tower, right? And he heard tell that it’s loaded with goodies. He doesn’t say where he heard that from, but one gets the feeling he’s making stuff up to sell Conan on his idea to burgle the place. The two sneak onto the grounds and run into someone else; a woman.
A well armed woman. But she’s no guard; she’s another thief. Like recognizes like and everyone puts up their blades. The woman notes how totally unprepared these dudes are and what follows is one of my favorite exchanges of all time:
Woman: Do you know what horrors lie beyond those walls?
Woman: Then you go first!
Next week: Our trio discovers what horrors lie beyond those walls.