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

When we last left our band, they abducted the princess but Valeria paid with her life. And now with Thulsa Doom on his way to reclaim what is his, Conan and Subotai must prepare for the fight of their lives!

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Conan and Subotai prepare set up pit traps, walls of sharp sticks, and what looks to be some sort of crude massive spike trap. As I’m watching this, I can’t help but think that man, Thulsa Doom is sure taking his sweet time getting here. Looking at all the time and effort that Subotai and Conan are taking turning the mounds into a killing field, this has to be a long, arduous task for two men. Maybe Doom’s recalling some of his troops? I know Conan and Company laid waste to a whole lot of them and I’m guessing it might take a bit to call in reinforcements. But maybe the Laws of Montages are in play here and time is, well, flexible. The Wizard throws in a helping hand, showing up carrying a heavy load of old weapons and armor.

He explains he pretty much looted the dead. Any adventurer worth their salt would approve. Hey, the corpses ain’t using this stuff any more, amirite? The Wizard informs the duo that the gods are pleased and will be watching the battle. Conan asks if the gods will help and with a grin the Wizard tells him, “No!” Conan’s response? “Well, then, tell them to stay out of the way!” At last, Thulsa Doom and his men arrive on horseback, armed and ready for war. Sadly, the wild Pict is not with them this time. As the music swells and the riders close in, Conan looks up to the sky and begins to pray.

Conan: Crom, I have never prayed to you before; I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought or why we died. No. All that matters is two stood against many. That’s what’s important! Valor pleases you, Crom. So grant me one wish: grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!

Arnold delivers the goods here; this prayer still gives me chills. The riders come upon and around the stone altar where Valeria was burned, and none of them are slowing. Ooh, big mistake—Conan steps out from behind a stone and says hello…

…with what looks like a fifty pound axe. The thing looks like it’s made of iron or stone with a dull edge, but in the hands of a guy who looks like he can bench press a Ford F-150, it gets the job done. More riders bear down on Conan and soon his broad, blunt blade is covered in gore. Elsewhere, Subotai has his own foes to fight. A rider gets just a tiny bit too close and eats a spear, then Subotai clips another… and then another! Damn, watching Subotai and his plethora of murderskills makes me wonder how the hell he ever got chained to that rock in the first place. Conan is using his sword now and he clips a horse’s legs, causing its rider to take what looks like a lethal spill. Damn, that’s cold, Conan. Our Cimmerian retreats and a guy tries to run him down, but Subotai ambushes him with a spear to the kidney. A horseman charges Subotai and Conan returns the favor, blindsiding the fool! The death count here is glorious; I’m guessing the gods who wagered against Conan and Subotai are regretting it now. Thulsa Doom shows up just in time to watch his boys getting creamed by two dudes.

More riders come, so Subotai retreats to where he left his bow. He grabs it plus two arrows and shoots true, sending a horseman tumbling. He catches another one and that poor bastard goes down. Two more come on but Subotai only pretends he’s gonna shoot. The pair rear back and fall off their horses and our hero bails before they get back up. Heh, never underestimate the value of making a bluff check.

Elsewhere, Conan stalks the stones, looking for a target, but Thorgrim finds him first and clips him with that big ass mallet. Conan goes down and Rexor spots him and comes charging in but Conan cuts his horse out from under him. Meanwhile, Subotai ambushes a horseman, knocking him out of his saddle. A couple of blows from his sword and the man’s dead, but now the last rider is bearing down on him and Subotai’s out of tricks. The horsemen slits Subotai’s thigh and causes what honestly looks like a realistic spray of blood. Subotai looks like he’s finished, but the Wizard sneaks up and impales the horseman with his spear. Thorgrim stalks Conan through the stones, and pauses when he catches a glimpse of the Cimmerian’s helmet. Smiling, he spins and strikes down with his massive mallet. But oh noes, it was a ruse! It turns out he just set off this ancient Rube Goldberg device of death and he’s triggered a counterweight, which releases a massive wooden spike.

Oh, that doesn’t look good. And you know, this scene never, ever gets old. Conan surveys his work and is pleased. But he spends too much time watching the look on Thorgrim’s face as he dies; Rexor is up and he’s coming on full bore. Conan is staggered by the ferocity of Rexor’s assault, and soon he’s on the ropes. Rexor prepares a death stroke, only a sword comes in from off-camera and blocks the blow, then the back slash catches him in the face. Rexor staggers back. Conan turns to see who he has to thank and it’s…

Best. Girlfriend. Ever. Valeria, newly arrived from the underworld, asks Conan if he wants to live forever. Conan gets the hint and turns to grab his sword. When he turns back Valeria is gone, but Rexor is still on hand. Having been only temporarily blinded, he can see now, and he can see Conan is on his feet and has blood in his eye. The two men trade blows but Rexor is outmatched. Conan cuts him to ribbons and then shatters the man’s sword. He then finishes him off and realizes the sword Rexor was using had been his father’s. A quick aside here: both Valeria’s funeral and her return in Conan’s time of need are borrowed from the epic original Robert E. Howard story “Queen of the Black Coast”, where the pirate queen Belit and Conan became companions and lovers and where she met a tragic end.

Thulsa Doom, seeing his entire force wiped out, decides discretion is yadda yadda yadda. But before he leaves, he has one final bit of business to attend to. He pulls out one of his snakes and turns it into a makeshift arrow the way he did with Valeria. The princess is horrified to discover that the man she saw as her father sees her as less than nothing. Doom shoots but Subotai, desperately scaling the side of the hill, leaps and blocks the shot with a spear. Doom’s failure is complete and he rides away.

Of all the fight scenes I’ve seen over the years, this in my mind is one of the greatest. It’s brutal and bloody, action packed, and yes, fun. Very few fights measure up to it. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back, Aragorn vs. the Urukai in The Fellowship of the Ring, Bruce Lee vs. Han in Enter the Dragon, and the final battle at the nunnery in Richard Lester’s Four Musketeers all rank up there with it. I’m sure after I submit this article a half dozen more will spring to mind, but off the top of my head it’s a short list. But in the aftermath of this fight I do wonder if maybe there was another reason why Doom lost. In part four, I mentioned how this place of the gods where the Wizard made his home might have been a big blind spot for Doom. What if because it was also so suffused in ancient magic that Doom’s powers waned here? That whatever edge Doom’s men might have had was lost in this place? Milius makes no hint at any of this; this is just the nerd in me speculating.

That night, Thulsa Doom collects his acolytes and you get the feeling he’s either 1) psyching them up for some suicide march, or 2) trying to make himself feel better after nearly all his soldiers got wiped out by just a couple of people. I’m sure by now he’s thinking every god above and below has it in for him and his lord Set would rather devour him whole than lend a hand. Conan stalks the caverns and… Okay, this is new. The princess is with him. All of these scenes with the princess weren’t in the theatrical release. She glides through the caverns along with Conan and in one bit seems to act as a distraction for the Cimmerian to kill one of the few remaining guards. Doom continues his spiel, but his head priest on the steps below gasps in horror: Conan is here!

Doom turns and realizes he’s close to death, so he turns to his final, most effective weapon: his voice. He tells Conan everything he is was due to him and hey, once Doom is gone, Conan will cease to be. He tells Conan he is his father. Conan looks down at the remains of his father’s sword in his hand, and I’m guessing he remembers what happened to his real father, because the expression of doubt on his face turns to grim resolve, and…

Conan crudely hacks away at Doom’s neck. It’s butcher’s work, but it gets the job done. Then he tosses the head down the steps. With Doom’s sway over his minions shattered, one by one they douse their torches in the pool at the base of the steps. Conan watches as the last of Thulsa Doom’s power wanes until it’s just he and the princess alone. And here again this bothers me. The princess being here diminishes the scene; originally, it was Conan sitting on the steps, alone with his thoughts, perhaps pondering what Doom said, and maybe wondering what his life will be now that his vengeance has been achieved. He doesn’t need an audience. Ultimately, Conan gets to his feet, grabs a brazier by its chains, and swing it about his head. He lets it fly and it crashes to the top of the steps. Foolish Conan, stone doesn’t burn—

Oh. I guess it does. To my mind, this goes back to the Wizard telling Conan how fire didn’t burn on the top of that hill and Valeria’s body did anyway. Perhaps the gods spoke to Conan and he responded, and as a result this is the gods scouring the earth of any trace of Doom? Again, this is nerd speculation. Conan carries the princess down the hill and the scene fades to…

Mako speaks of Conan’s further adventures after returning Osric’s daughter home, heading west with his friends to engage in many wars and feuds, which will eventually end with his achieving a throne of his own at his own hand. Mako ends with, “And this story also shall be told.” Eh, wishful thinking, but at the time it held the promise of many, many epic Conan movies to follow. And did we get them? Well…

In watching the closing credits, I see L. Sprague De Camp was a technical advisor, which as a writer of some Conan tales of his own might explain a few of the references to the original source material. And as… “spiritual advisor” [?] we have Dr. Fred L. Rexer. According to Wikipedia, he was a Vietnam combat veteran and was the inspiration for Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now. He also contributed to screenplays written by both Walter Hill and John Milius, and the character of Rexor in this film was named after him. Damn, all that makes me want to pay closer attention to closing credits.

So, after almost forty years, does Conan the Barbarian hold up? I would say hell yes, it does! I’m not claiming the movie is perfect. I justifiably criticized Arnold’s acting, and to be honest, I do have problems with the way the movie was structured. As someone who read the original stories, I wish more elements from the classic tales could have been incorporated into the film somehow. Having Conan run that millstone for, what, twenty years? That just felt weak. Having him trained by eastern warlords and then given his freedom by Redbeard? Lame. So yeah, a lot of act one could have been handled much better. All that being said, I love the look and feel of the movie. John Milius is a good director who got the most out of a novice actor, and when Arnold is on point he looks utterly devastating as a living engine of destruction. The film’s production values hold up to this day. Well, okay, the giant snake looks a bit fake, but hey, they did the best they could with what they had at the time.

James Earl Jones doesn’t appear in the movie a great deal and that’s perfect; Doom should be heard of more than seen, and he dominates every scene he’s in. Ben Davidson and Sven-Ole Thorsen are fantastic as henchmen Rexor and Thorgrim, respectively. Both men have a presence to them and look like guys who could give Arnold a run for his money. Sandahl Bergman and Gerry Lopez as Valeria and Subotai are likewise strong as Conan’s staunch friends. While it could have been easy to make the pair into weak characters in order to make Conan look strong, Milius had enough faith in his protagonist to give him equally strong sidekicks, and that just makes the film better. Mako as the Wizard is a treat and his narration contributes a great deal to making the movie feel more epic. The fight choreography is spectacular, especially during the battle of the mounds which is an action set-piece that remains one of my favorites. As for the added scenes, honestly I prefer the theatrical release more. Yes, the part with Conan and Subotai speaking is good but not really necessary, and all the bits with the princess just feel weird to me. Why would Conan bring her? Wouldn’t he have left her with Subotai in the event he died at Thulsa Doom’s hands? It’s not always the case, but here, less truly is more.

When I was much younger and my fellow Dungeons & Dragons players talked about fantasy films, this one was always our favorite. Oh, the animated Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were enjoyable, and we liked Dragon Slayer. We dug both Clash of the Titans and Excalibur. Beastmaster was cool and The Dark Crystal was a joy to behold. The Sword and the Sorcerer and Hawk the Slayer were stupid fun. But Conan the Barbarian? Conan was king, baby.

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

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  • danbreunig

    Hey, Thomas–I’m very late in saying something here, so I may as well now.

    This recap you wrote is really my favorite on the site thus far into 2020 as I write this. Maybe more than others potentially coming up in the year. (The Picard series doesn’t intrigue me at all and I’m still waiting on some more of The Black Hole.)

    Mostly it’s because you hit on so many nuances within the film that I either never picked up on in years and decades of watching, or else put into words the exact same feelings I have about it without knowing how to say them myself . For me the biggest jolt was switching over from the vhs pressings to my first dvd copy and saw the fuller cut (the extra scenes with the Princess near the end and talks with Subotai, plus the original sequel-setting closing tag). Sure, as far as recaps go this was more informative than funny, and yet I still had *fun* with it. I first saw it back in 1994 and I wish I had your insights then to help beef up what I already enjoyed. In fact Conan helped me in my Old English Lit. course at the time with increasing my appreciation of the original Beowulf. And Basil’s score (the soundtrack for which I soon after found on a tape when tapes were still around) made me want to churn out so much fanfic with my then favorite other literature stories that I ultimately never got around to…

    What is best in life? We know.

  • Bahamut255

    Yeah, the fact that both Subotai & Valeria could be considered Conan’ equals is a major reason (to me) why this movie works so well. Not like 1984’s…

    The Princess (Yasimina) coming with Conan actually allows that part to make sense to me. It shows how he managed to get past the guards – who, given prior events, would a rather more vigilant – and get right up close to Doom

    Who makes a fatal error here (Palpatine Syndrome) in that his efforts to break Conan’s Will come to nothing (even though it appears he’s about to for a moment). As Conan’s life up to that point (of which Doom played a significant role in) has hardened, tempered, forged him to the point where his Will is stronger.

    Indeed, you could say that as the Sword was forged in the Opening, so the movie showed the forging of the Man. Conan.