Conan the Barbarian (1982), a recap (part 3 of 6)

When we last left our (ahem) heroes, Conan and Subotai had met a new friend, a woman (played by Sandahl Bergman). Whose name is never, ever stated in the movie. She’s Valeria, by the way, and yes, for convenience’s sake I’m going to be calling her that. The trio decide to join forces and we find them climbing up the side of the tower. Good thing for the guys Valeria came with a rope. And a grappling hook. And good thing for her Conan was along to throw it what looks like twenty stories up to catch on the lip.

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While he and Valeria use the rope, Subotai just shows off and free climbs it. They discover the center of the tower is hollow, and Subotai notes something down there stinks. Valeria asks if he wants to live forever, and I get the feeling we just got the movie’s first catchphrase. Well, it’s catchier than Nietzsche. Conveniently for our heroes, there are a series of ropes and pulleys that allow them to scurry down into the guts of the temple. The trio stop on a level to see a group of white clad females who sort of look like what you get if the Klu Klux Klan sponsored a girl scout troop.

Valeria points out a dude with his back to them, kneeling at an altar. He’s the “high priest” and he’s second only to Thulsa Doom. Rumor has it that Doom is a thousand years old. Valeria tells the boys she’ll check out this level and they should go down deeper, and I love Subotai’s expression at having a girl tell him what to do. He probably hasn’t had a female boss him around since his mom. Right here I’m beginning to suspect Valeria’s motives. Why ditch the boys? Is it because she figures these two stoned jackasses are going to get her caught? Or she’s thinking they’d make a good distraction when she makes her escape? Hey, I’m not judging; she just met Conan and Subotai tonight; it’s not like she’s betraying friends.

The guys do as their told because a) Valeria obviously has done her homework, and b) they’re probably still a little buzzed and have enough sense to let someone else drive. They reach the bottom of the well and it’s empty, but there’s a round tunnel about three feet or so in diameter. Hey, nothing strange in that; Subotai smelled something bad, so maybe this is a sewer pipe or something. The guys head down the tunnel, and…

…yeah. Giant snake. I can’t help but wonder if these guys weren’t still a little high they wouldn’t have just backed the hell out of there. Me, when I originally watched this I didn’t realize it was a giant snake; I thought it was just a really cool decoration. In retrospect, I should’ve known better since I had seen Clash of the Titans a year before. And if you’re thinking the boys here think it’s a decoration, I’ll quash that theory right now, because while you get why the pair are prudently being very, very quiet as they loot the pit of sweet, sweet swag, when Conan goes for the big ruby he’s verrrry careful not to touch the super-serpent. No, these guys know that thing’s real.

Unfortunately, Conan sweats under pressure (that, or Black Lotus is like molly and dehydrates you) and drops right into the serpent’s eye. The slit pupil opens and I remember getting this thrill in the theater when I realized that, oh shit, it’s alive! Up above, Valeria hasn’t been idle; she pulls the old grab-the-last-person-in-line gag to snag an acolyte’s outfit. It’s really well-shot, where one moment she’s right behind the woman, they cut to the guys below, and when we come back to Valeria she’s wearing the white robes. She’s in the back row as the priest…

Hey! It’s that guy! Motorhead! The dude in charge of the raid on Conan’s village, who was going to throw down with the boy’s mom! And he’s looking pretty spry for a guy who did that at least twenty years ago. Now you know why Valeria dropped that Thulsa Doom story earlier. When I first saw this movie, I didn’t think too much of it, probably because by this point one of the women had taken her robes off and was topless. It didn’t take much to distract fourteen year old me. It turns out there’s some sort of ritual going on, and since the half-naked woman is on the other side of the pit, I’m thinking it’s not sexual and more sacrificial. Hey, a giant snake’s gotta eat, right?

Down below, the pair have scored as much swag as they can carry, which is pretty much whatever they could slip down their shirts. Dudes, you bring pouches, sacks, and backpacks! But hell, these guys forgot the rope (and the ten foot pole. Every adventuring party has a ten foot pole), so why am I not surprised? Subotai leaves first and Conan’s right behind when he sees the emblem. It’s a lot like the standard that the raiders used during the attack on his village. Conan zones out as he suffers a flashback, and we get one of those bizarre “Arnold” faces that kind of conveys fear or surprise or the fact there’s no one home upstairs. He’s so distracted by the emblem as he reaches for it, he doesn’t sense the snake slithering up behind him. Subotai, thinking there might be something wrong, scrambles back down the tunnel just in time to see Conan turn and face off against the snake. Our barbarian, pit-fighting bad-ass drives his backup weapon up through the snake’s lower jaw…

…and through its head, but it’s a whole lotta beast and it slams him into the wall and starts constricting on him. Subotai proves there’s honor among thieves, and instead of bailing, he waits for his shot and takes it; three arrows pin the serpent against the wall and then he tosses Conan his sword, and then the Cimmerian decapitates the snake. The boys split and the half-naked girl, entranced, drops down into the pit. And then she starts to scream. The priest and women stare down to see the snake body still writhing around, the head pinned to the wall, and the girl—back probably broken—laying there. Some of the women see Conan and Subotai stealing up the shaft, and everyone races over including the priest and some guard. Valeria plays her part and points up just like everyone else. Only, she forgets her hand is holding a knife. Whoops. It’s mistakes like these that make dungeon masters cackle with glee.

The priest sees the blade and is no fool, but before he can grab or stab her, Valeria slugs an archer and pushes him into Motorhead. She then guts another guard, wraps a rope around his neck, and uses him as a counterweight. Valeria zips to the top of the tower, and she and the boys look down over the lip and realize that yeah, by the time they climb back down the guards will be waiting for them. But hey, there’s a large pool of water here to dive into! It’s like Milius and Stone were writing the script, realized they had painted their heroes in a corner, and didn’t know how to get ‘em out. Or something. Valeria backs up, and screaming out her catchphrase, leaps over the edge with the guys following. And then they realize the pool is only three feet deep and they all break their necks. The end.

But wait! It turns out they survived! Back at some tavern, meat is getting cut up, women are dancing to music, and in the background I can only assume a bunch of player characters have met for the first time and are planning on a first level adventure. Valeria sees the guys’ loot and her eyes light up. She reaches for the big ruby but Conan stops her, then slips it into her hand. Sandhal Bergman does a credible job of conveying some sexual tension, but Arnold’s got this smarmy look on his mug like he knows he’s God’s gift to women. Soon the pair head off and engage in what is probably Conan’s first sexually consensual experience.

What follows was to my horny teenage brain (the one I had then, not the one I have now) was the best seventy five seconds of the movie as the pair get it on. Hey, it was more than a decade before the internet and easily accessible porn, and my parents didn’t subscribe to Skinemax. Later, Conan is sporting new gear and Valeria has decided to turn her sweet ruby into a necklace that a half-drunk Conan is trying to tie around her neck. Nearby, Subotai is with a girl and fondling her like he’s heard of this new thing called “woman” and there’s stuff you can do with them but he’s not quite sure what or how. You gotta lay off that Black Lotus, man.

A smashed Conan is trying on new hats and checking out potential new duds and handing out cash like it’s Christmas. Or whatever passes for Christmas in Zamura Zamora. Hmm, looking that up, I see Zamora is a nation and not a city; it lies to the border of the western Hyborian world, with Corinthia on its western borders and Turan in the east. It also shares borders with Brythunia to the north and Koth to the south. Now you know. Our host returns and talks about how success can test a man as surely as any adversary, and Conan proves this to be true:

This is when the city guard arrives. Valeria tries to shake Conan awake but the dude’s totally blotto. She’s not doing much better and she pulls her blade, but the guard’s not having it; they drop their face shields and pull steel. The pair get taken to “the hall of King Osric, the Usurper” and… oh my God, it’s (the sadly recently departed) Max von Sydow!

Father Merrin from The Exorcist (at the time, the scariest movie I’d ever seen. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s still the scariest movie I’ve ever seen) and Ming the Merciless! Damn, now I want a Osric movie to see how he done gone and usurped Zamora. He’s chilling on a throne with his fur-clad honeys at his feet as he takes note of the pair before him. Osric says he heard there were three and Valeria, stand-up pal that she is, claims Subotai got eaten by “the lions”. It’s then that more guards roll on in with Subotai, and Osric finds this pretty damn funny. Poor guy probably hasn’t had anything to amuse him since the snakes showed up in town. Osric says “Rexor himself” paid him a visit and he wasn’t too happy with his temple getting raided and his snake getting cut up. Ah, so Motorhead has a name. Still calling him Motorhead.

Von Sydow reads the trio the riot act: “What daring! What outrageousness, what insolence, what arrogance!” And then he leans in and with a smile and says… “I salute you.” This floors his chief minion, and it seems Osric is no fan of the Set cult. He tells the trio that those towers are all over the place, in different countries, and nobody’s stood up to them until this trio of thieves came along. Osric pulls out a pretty inefficient looking knife with a double snake motif and says it’s called “the fangs of the serpent”…

…and he explains some son killed his dad with it. I love how the three are standing there with these befuddled expressions, wondering what the hell they’re doing here. Osric explains that his own baby girl is under Doom’s control and she’s bugged out, heading east to Doom’s “mountain of power”. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to get daddy’s little girl back, and in return, they get as much swag as they can carry. Osric ends by saying that a day will come when “the jewels lose their sparkle, the gold loses its luster, the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.” Max von Sydow is in the movie three minutes and he nails it. In a deleted scene he’s murdered by his own men, presumably because Motorhead has bribed them, and I’m glad they opted to cut that out of the movie.

Later, Valeria and Conan are alone and she tries to convince him to run away with her. She talks about how she’s always been alone, while they pass by huts and tents and see people holding each other in the night. She’s “never had more than what she has now” and she’s not just talking about the loot. Sandhal Bergman is not a great actor by any stretch, but I have to say it’s like Max von Sydow a couple minutes earlier caused her to step up her game, and she really sells her vulnerability here. She begs Conan to “please let someone else pass alone in the night”. Yeah, these two have known each other for about twelve minutes of screen time but she does a great job of convincing me that she and Conan have formed a fierce bond. And Conan’s response? In the morning, Valeria wakes up alone. Conan can’t let his hate go, and he has to see this through. You can argue that Valeria feels more for Conan than the other way around, and maybe that’s true. Or, it’s just that his hate for Doom is far, far stronger than anything he feels for Valeria.

Conan has left behind the giant ruby and she holds it, and the expression on her face reads volumes as she now knows Osric was right. When it comes to many of these sword and sorcery movies, they’re usually so damn cheesy; the action is poorly choreographed, the acting bad, the dialogue terrible, the music subpar. And it’s things like this entire scene where there’s character development, a compelling plot, even mediocre actors stepping up to deliver a credible performance accompanied by a great score, and you can understand why this film is head and shoulders above schlock like The Sword and the Sorcerer or Deathstalker. Oh sure, those other films are entertaining. Just for the wrong reasons.

Conan hits the road on horseback, and I’m still too blown away by the scene before to ask where he learned how to ride. He journeys through fields and across snowy plains, and it all implies it’s a helluva trip. He comes across some hippies and they’re Set cultists on their way to the mountain of power. They want Conan to drop his sword and join them, but he’s not having it. He travels on and ultimately comes across a primitive stone altar on a small hill, and a collection of stone pillars with skeletal guards. At this point, if I were the DM I’d be rolling up a random encounter; if I was feeling particularly dickish, it wouldn’t be so random and I might sicc a rust monster or intellect devourer on the party. Conan rides on and soon he comes to a hut. And who lives in this hut?

Why, it’s our chronicler, Mako!

Next Week: Conan has a plan and he’s off to the mountain of power to face his destiny.

Multi-Part Article: Conan the Barbarian (1982), a recap

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