Conan the Barbarian (1982), a recap (part 5 of 6)

Last time, Conan attempted to stealth his way through a level and got caught, tortured, and left for dead. His friends saved him, but at what cost?

Conan practices the katas his masters in the East had taught him, seemingly to take comfort in something familiar as he tries to process the fact that he almost died and all his wounds are now healed. At least, I think that’s what we’re supposed to be seeing. Arnold doesn’t quite sell it here; his acting has been one of the movie’s weaknesses and John Milius has done a credible job so far of working around it… for the most part. But scenes like this show that Arnold lacks a certain subtlety. Earlier at the hippie campfire when he seems uncertain and lonely, he’s aided by how the scene was crafted; there wasn’t even any music, as if even the composer had abandoned him. But here? In the harsh light of day? Arnold’s shortcomings are laid bare. It’s not a terrible scene, just awkward.

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Night comes and the trio are around a fire. Subotai explains to his friends that the wizard says the mountain is hollow and in the back is a gorge leading to some caves. Good thieves could sneak in and snatch the girl. Unless Doom might have realized how close a thief got earlier and upped his security. Valeria and Subotai try to get Conan to agree to just snatch the princess and leave Thulsa Doom alone for now. Conan’s response?

Yeah, you know this is gonna turn out badly. The trio ride out in the morning, with Conan pausing to give the wizard a final look. The pair share a respectful nod to one another, because real men don’t go all weepy and share their feelings and stuff. That night around another fire, the trio put on camo paint of black and white. The black I get, but the white? I have no clue. Maybe they shot some test footage and the three of them looked too dark and they wanted more contrast. Conan and Valeria’s paint looks fine, but Subotai’s looks a little sloppy. Next time, bring a girlfriend to do your war paint, Subotai. The trio steal into the caverns and find the kitchen, and back then I hadn’t noticed it before, but now it’s glaringly obvious those are human corpses they’re cutting up. I have no idea why I didn’t notice it before; maybe my fourteen year old brain just couldn’t process the idea of cannibalism. Yet. Seeing this makes me wonder if the creators of Diablo were inspired by this movie when they made the Butcher.

A group of soldiers carry a massive stone pot full of steaming… something from the kitchen to the tunnels deeper into the mountain, and the thieves opt to follow where they lead. And where do they lead? Why, to an orgy, of course. I’m starting to wonder if Milius is giving us a seven deadly sins motif here. Conan experiences wrath, and the cannibalism and mindless consumption of human flesh show gluttony. We’ve got lust on display here, and maybe mindless obedience is sloth? Thulsa Doom’s greed prompted him to murder and steal steel from Conan’s people, he envies the power of other kingdoms so he takes it for himself, and perhaps he personifies pride. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it and giving the scene too much weight. I’ll say this much: having watched the likes of Hawk the Slayer, I was never prompted to think a moment past the realization that it was just a fantasy version of The Magnificent Seven. Our heroes get a gander at the goings-on:

Damn, I wonder if Milius told the gang to look a bit goofy to offset the sheer horror of the scene before. Or it was like what Spielberg did with The Goonies, where the kids didn’t see the pirate ship until the scene was shot, so he could capture the authentic wonder in their faces. Watching the scene now I can pick up on little details, like the glowing mushrooms, and the eggs stacked up against the outer wall of the orgy chamber. Perhaps this bunch is being fattened up as a meal for Thulsa Doom’s new snakes? The men certainly seemed almost too stoned to fight. It could be that our heroes showed up just in time to fend off a reptilian apocalypse! The guards set the giant cauldron down and the royal soup mixer takes his station. One of the women shows up for a helping, and…

…yeah, okay, now fourteen year old me understood what they were cookin’ up in the kitchen. Man, someone sure does love their finger food. How does Doom decide who goes into the pot? It is the old, the ugly, or the just-a-little-too-smart-for-cult-work? Subotai murmurs, “So this is paradise,” and I guess, uh, maybe? If you don’t think too hard about what you’re eating. It sure as hell ain’t paradise for vegetarians. Oh well, they probably went into the pot first.

Valeria spots the princess watching from atop a flight of stairs and with her is Thulsa Doom. Doom looks totally indifferent as we cut to various face shots and quick cut close-ups until you see Doom’s eyes become snake-like, then his face begins to distend. Whatever he’s turning into can’t be good. The thieves split up and prep for the attack while Doom turns into a giant snake—

—and I’m wondering what’s about to go down. Was Doom about to feed on some hapless bastard? Does he have to return to his true form once in a while? Is he sensing danger and is preparing to throw down in snake form? Is it better that some things remain a mystery?

Subotai steals around the rough wall while Valeria moves panther-like in the opposite direction, and you can see Sandhal Bergman’s dance background in how she handles herself. She uses a candle to set a curtain on fire, and my inner Dungeons & Dragons player approves; never pass up an opportunity to set something ablaze. Subotai sneaks up on the royal soup mixer and taps him on the shoulder. Well, that was darn polite of him. The soup mixer turns and gets a pair of slashes from Subotai’s blade, and the score kicks into high gear as the man falls. Now Valeria opens up, killing one dude and beheading another. Conan enters the fray, pushing aside some half-naked stoned woman (I’m sure Thulsa Doom has only the best black lotus on hand) and starts working his way directly across the orgy chamber, cleaving at will while Subotai holds his own at the midpoint on the stairs. Women are running for their lives, screaming as the thieves steal one life after another. Meanwhile, Valeria reaches the top of the stairs. I wonder how she’s going to handle Giant Snake Thul—

—oh. Doom decides to take a powder and flees. But why? Is it because all that talk about strength of the flesh is bull? That for all his pretensions, Thulsa Doom isn’t as powerful as he claims? Or perhaps he’s the sort to only act when he knows he has a winning hand. Valeria grabs the princess, who hisses at her like a snake. Sure, babe, that’ll scare Valeria off. Instead of running away, Val undoes a leather thong tied around her calf and binds the princess’ wrists. Conan motions for Subotai to back Valeria while reinforcements show up, and it’s…

…Rexor and Thorgrim! The music kicks up another notch as we hear the anvil of Crom, Conan dumps that honkin’ huge cauldron and it scatters some of the soldiers, and Rexor immediately recognizes the Cimmerian and murmurs “You!” Conan comes down the stairs, ready to throw down with both dudes. Damn, Conan, didn’t your masters in the East teach you to never give up the high ground? It’s a rookie move. Then I realize Rex and Thor are standing between him and the exit, and he hasn’t got a choice. Okay, Conan, my bad.

The Cimmerian fends off Thorgrim, but Rexor’s right there ready for a counter attack, and he pins Conan up against the massive marble column in the center of the chamber. Conan throws Rex off just as Thorgrim comes in again. Conan dodges and Thorgrim shatters a section of column, and his buddy bends down to get his axe just as what looks like five hundred pounds of marble falls on his head. Conan bails and the column falls. Thorgrim stares at his work, then at his mallet, probably wondering just how much trouble he’s in. Conan carries the princess out of the caves while Subotai flanks him, bow at the ready. Valeria runs rear guard, hacking and slashing anyone stupid enough to follow, and she leaves behind a trail of corpses. Four guards surround her, but she wipes out a pair. The remaining two hesitate, probably because they just now realized they’re the last two guards standing and her sword is practically dripping with the blood of a bunch of dudes they had lunch with a few hours ago. Valeria can practically smell their fear as she bounces off the wall and carves up the guy holding the shield, then slices open the last dude and she’s off. I gotta say, it’s sad that when people talk about the badass women in cinema they bring up Ripley and Sarah Connor, but no one gives this woman—

—the attention she deserves. Back in the… throne room? Orgy room? Whatever you want to call it, Doom’s back and he’s more than a little pissed. I’m wondering if Thorgrim owned up to wrecking the pillar, or if he blamed it on Conan. I know I would. Doom makes a pronouncement.

Doom: Infidel defilers. They shall all drown in lakes of blood. Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they will learn why they fear the night…

Outside, Valeria catches up with the guys and they ride out with the Princess. Soon, Thulsa and his boys reach the exit with a priest in tow. Doom slips a snake from around his neck and he whispers “Seek,” and then he straightens it, then fires the snake like an arrow from a bow. It’s a little goofy, but cool at the same time. The arrow hits Valeria in the side and now the prophecy comes true. As she’s lowered to the ground, she admits she told the wizard she would pay the gods. Conan tosses the snake aside and holds Valeria close, and she dies in his arms. Now Conan has another reason to hate Thulsa Doom. Conan’s only regret will probably be that he can only kill him once.

Back at the mounds, Valeria is laid out upon a funeral pyre, dressed in warrior finery. The wizard notes Subotai’s torch and once more says that fire won’t burn up here. Subotai’s response is to run the torch up to Conan. He lights Valeria’s pyre…

…and to the wizard’s shock it burns with fury! He notes that Subotai is crying and asks him why. Subotai’s response: He is Conan, a Cimmerian. He will not cry, so I cry for him.

What I said before about real men not getting weepy? I take it back. The trio watch as the pyre burns, in defiance of the gods… or in tribute? Or both? Conan tears off his slave necklace and replaces it with Valeria’s eye of the serpent. The next morning, Conan sits alone at the foot of a mound, pondering. Perhaps he wonders what his next move should be? And then the princess, chained to one of the stones, tells Conan that Thulsa Doom has seen his fire and they will come. Conan turns to regard the princess, who stares down at him in defiance. And then…

Whoa, this is unexpected. Up until now, every scene in the movie is more or less as I remember it. But this is the first scene that wasn’t in the theatrical release I saw. Subotai and Conan sit and prepare stakes, and the Cimmerian talks of remembering days when he was a boy and his father took him to the woods to pick blueberries, and of how dark and green the woods were. Arnold really sells it here, and I wonder if he’s pulling a page from his childhood of sweet reminiscences. It soon turns sour as he thinks about all the fighting and bloodshed he’s endured since. Subotai says every man feels that wind “in the North of every man’s heart”. Conan offers to let Subotai return home, but Subotai turns him down, saying he’d just be back there another time, facing death. And he jokingly points out it’d be “in even worse company”. It’s a nice scene and both men do a credible job. Or should I say all three men, as the voice of Subotai is provided by somebody else. But I can see why it was cut from the theatrical release because it does slow down the action, and as nice as it is, the movie doesn’t really suffer from its absence. Conan says for men like them there is no spring, just the wind that smells fresh before the storm.

Next time: Our final chapter as a storm named Thulsa Doom comes to collect what he feels is his.

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

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