Conan the Destroyer (1984), a recap (part 1 of 6)
It’s safe to say that Conan the Barbarian was and is one of my favorite movies from my youth. Arnold seemed like a larger than life demi-god with that inhuman physique of his, the action was the most violent I had seen to date, and it was the first movie where I actually saw real sex going on. I’m sure anyone who read my recap could tell how much I loved that film. So back then, when I heard they were coming out with a sequel titled Conan the Destroyer in 1984, I was so on board with that. Arnold was back, and he was probably bringing Subotai with him. What new bloody adventures would this badass duo have? The trailer dropped…
…and okay, no Subotai, but that was alright. The movie looked to have a Dungeons & Dragons vibe, with barbarian Conan teaming up with a fighter, a wizard and… whatever the hell Grace Jones was supposed to be.
It wasn’t until later that I realized the film was going to be PG. Not a problem, I thought; that makes sense. A lower rating means more people seeing it. Even I knew the first film didn’t do super-well at the box office. And you have to understand this was on the eve of the newly created PG-13 rating; PG movies could be pretty damn violent, and it wasn’t unusual to have partial nudity in them, so my teenage self figured things would be just fine. Just go watch Gremlins to see what I mean. And also, there was always a chance for some partial nudity because America wasn’t as prudish back then. So the day finally arrived and me and my nerd friends went to the theater, and settled in for some barbaric badassery.
The movie opens with a desert scene, where we get a re-use of the first movie’s fonts as the credits pop up, and Mako gives his spiel regarding who Conan is and how Mako is the man’s chronicler… and it lacks, well, gravitas. In the first movie, his voice sounded deep and powerful, and it resonated with importance. And now it just sounds like he’s cashing a check. Yeah, we’ll be seeing a lot of that. Cue the main theme music and a horde of dudes in armor riding horses and… damn, what the hell am I listening to?
Skip the first 97 seconds. You hear that bit with the horns? That’s what they led off with. Now compare it with “Anvil of Crom” from the first film.
Can you hear the difference? Do you hear how Destroyer’s theme pales in comparison to Barbarian? How the first movie’s theme is so powerful, so raw? The second movie’s theme feels so…limp in comparison. And it’s shocking because both scores are composed by Basil Poledouris. Remember what I said about Mako phoning it in? Well, he’s not the only one.
The credits roll and as we follow our horde riding across the desert, and among them is the man, the myth, the legend… Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, who at one time claimed he had slept with some 20,000 women in his lifetime. That’s almost as impressive as his 30-point average across 1,045 games. There’s this red filter across the screen, and at first I thought this implied dawn or dusk, but then boom, we cut from our riders to Conan…
…in all his insanely proportioned glory. Is it me, or does Arnold look even bigger in this movie? He’s kneeling before an altar, although I have no ideawhy . We already established in the first film he seldom prays to Crom because he doesn’t listen. And Crom already granted Conan revenge in the last film; I can’t see the god taking Conan’s calls again any time soon. Along with Conan, we have, of course, Sub—
—who the holy hell is this?! Oh gawd, please… please don’t let it be… comic relief? What jackass thought Conan needed a comedic sidekick? Subotai was utterly, thorough awesome as Conan’s best bud. Why no Subotai? Well, that question was answered in Starlog issue #84.
In total, [Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway] did five complete script drafts for [producer Dino] De Laurentiis. […] In the first draft, the writers even brought back the first film’s Subotai the Mongol (Gerry Lopez), killing him off during the tale. However, De Laurentiis ordered that only the character of Conan be retained from the original feature, forcing Thomas and Conway to rewrite Subotai as Malak the Quick, at one point to be portrayed by Danny (Taxi) De Vito but now played by Tracey Walter of Best of the West.
Sure, having Subotai die would have sucked, but it would have really been the manner of his death that I might have objected to. These are hard men leading extremely dangerous lives; very seldom do the like live to old age. Then again, judging by what we got, I think Subotai would have been dumbed down or made to look ineffectual. And Danny DeVito in a Conan movie? I… okay, I admit it, I’m intrigued. DeVito is a master talent, and he might have made it work.
Our horsemen weave their steeds through the rocks, and looking at their outfits, I can’t help but wonder if these are some of Thulsa Doom’s boys, out for some old school revenge. Not-Subotai, who we now know is named Malak, has been sitting on the ground and playing with his loot like a kid post-Halloween checking out his candy stash. He hears the riders first, but Conan’s not too lost in… whatever he’s doing that he hears them too. Conan has his sword up and he’s ready for carnage while his buddy dives under the stone altar. So, no early trampling then? Dammit. While the pair are being surrounded, Wilt and this masked rider watch from a distance.
Malak assumes these guys are from “the merchant” and wonders why the guy’s so angry, since they didn’t steal everything. Conan, sword at the ready and assuming he’s fighting this one solo, says they didn’t have time. Okay, yes, that made me smile when I saw this in the theater. The riders break out nets. Judging by the wagon cage a pair of horses were pulling in the opening credits, it seems the pair are slated for capture. They’re gonna need a bigger net. One man rides Conan down, but he yanks him off his horse and throws him. Another makes a go and the Cimmerian hacks him right out of his saddle. Meanwhile he-whom-we-wish-was-Subotai starts swallowing precious stones. Big ones. To paraphrase Hellboy, he’s gonna need a lot of fiber to move that out. Oh hey, look, they did bring a bigger net after all.
Though, a fat lot of good it did them. Not-Subotai wonders why the men in black aren’t trying to kill them and Conan speculates they maybe want to capture and torture them to death, which sends Malak scurrying back under the altar. It’s hard to remember, but I think a ten-year-old four rows ahead of me laughed at that. Another pair with a big net try to run Conan down, but he cleaveth yon net in twain!
Meanwhile, Malak slithers out from under the altar, whips out a pair of tiny daggers, and hops onto the back of a horse of some dude who politely just sits there and allows his kidneys to get aired out. Two guys get fed up with attempting to net Conan, and one gets hacked open with an impressive spray of blood, while our guy punches the other dude’s horse unconscious. Okay, that did make me laugh back then. It makes me laugh now. I’m such a bastard. Malak gives out a muffled cry of help because (hah. Hah) he’s pinned under the guy he stabbed. Conan frees his friend and goes back to hacking and slashing, because by now the bad guys (well, Conan is a thief, so… badder guys?) swarm him. But superior numbers don’t help, and Conan racks up a respectable body count seeing as we’re only about seven minutes in. Malak gets clubbed unconscious and netted. Oh. What. A. Surprise. That. Was. The fight ends when Wilt whips this thing over his head attached to a leather thong that creates a whistling noise. He and his fellow observer walk their horses down and the masked one removes his helmet…
…to reveal he is really a she! It’s Sarah Douglas, aka Ursa from Superman II. She asks Conan if he knows who she is, and he says, “Taramis!” She corrects him with “Queen Taramis” and Conan snaps back, “Not my queen!” What follows is a touch of exposition as Taramis points out how Conan’s a barbarian who does his own thing and goes where he wants. She admits she needs his help and he right away says, “No!” Because yeah, Taramis and her proto-goth legion here just scream “evil”. But Taramis isn’t one to take no for an answer. Instead, she notes she saw Conan praying and asks what he was praying for. She has him look at the shrine (I was about to nitpick here, but it turns out shrine is another word for altar. The thesaurus is your friend) and think on what he was praying for. What appears…
…is Valeria! Fun fact: this is the first time Conan’s true love is identified by name. (Queen) Taramis asks where this Valeria is, and Conan explains she’s with Crom. Smirking, Taramis says she can arrange for her return. All Conan has to do is one little job. Okay, we got ourselves maybe a little quest action going here. I can dig it.
Conan and Not-Subotai join what’s left of her men on a ride back into town, I’m assuming maybe the corpses were dumped into the caged wagon. And I’m sure the remaining guys bear Conan no ill will for slaughtering all their friends. Really. As our heroes ride to the outskirts of the city through a bazaar, it seems everybody knows Conan. Isn’t the point of being a thief to not be noticed? Then again, seeing how utterly, ridiculously jacked Conan is, he kind of stands out no matter what he does.
A merchant spots the gang coming in and covers up his bling (do the kids still say “bling”? It’s so hard to keep up. I still say things like “Extreme!” and “Bogus!”). Malak points out a camel and asks Conan if he remembers it. How the holy hell would he know about the camel Conan KO’d in the first movie? I get the feeling this was a leftover from the first script and Subotai was supposed to say that. Conan starts apologizing to the camel. The camel…
…spits all over Conan. Conan in turn punches the camel on the top of its head and knocks him on his ass. Damn, if Conan’s not careful, he’s going to have Sarah McLachlan to answer to. The group finish riding in to cheers, and Malak notes how everyone loves them. They ain’t chanting your name, jackass. In fact, I don’t think his name’s been dropped yet. Not that I care. I’m hoping what they originally planned for Subotai happens to you. Soon.
Okay, look. I don’t have a problem with comic relief… when it’s funny. For example, if you watch Big Trouble in Little China, Kurt Russell isn’t the hero; he’s the comedic sidekick. And he’s funny. Marlon Wayans as Snails from Dungeons & Dragons? Not remotely funny. And it would be tolerable if the comedic sidekick were at least competent. Russell’s Jack Burton has moments where he actually shines and proves useful. But this joker and Snails? They aren’t even good thieves. Okay, rant over, back to the film.
The party reaches the palace, and hey, I’m digging the white marble décor, and the black swans swimming in the pool, and the sexy handmaidens. I’m not sure if I would have gone with the swans; I’d probably have a couple of black panthers myself, but Taramis has a talented interior designer on staff. The queen dismounts and she bows to a dude in a robe…
…whose outfit just screams “lawful evil priest”. Damn, and he’s sporting the most metal staff I’ve ever seen. Taramis heads into the palace proper and… oh damn, she’s even got black peacocks, too! I admire a woman whose fashion sense stays consistent. Later, after she’s slipped into something more comfortable but no less evil, she’s sharing drinks with Conan. She hands him a classy chalice and says they’ll drink to Dagoth, the “dreaming god”.
Conan’s probably thinking Crom would kick this pansy god’s ass, but living among civilization seems to have taught him a tiny bit of tact. He instead turns the conversation to what Taramis wants him to do so he can get Valeria back. Taramis starts talking about a prophecy about a woman with a special mark who must make a perilous journey. Taramis’ niece, Jenna, has that mark. Conan’s job? Escort duty for Jenna, who’s supposed to find a key that only she can touch. And all of this was written in the “Scrolls of Skellis”. Yeah, this all sounds like classic D&D dungeon master flavor text and I’m diggin’ it.
Conan asks where the key is, and learns it’s in a castle guarded by a wizard named Thoth Amon. Oh yeah, this here is some old school Conanry right here; Thoth Amon is one of the few bad guys to appear more than once in the original Conan stories. Conan’s a little leery of magic, but he assures Taramis he’ll figure it out. He asks what the key unlocks, and Taramis says it’ll give up a treasure, in the form of a jeweled horn. She says all this while stroking Conan’s epic pecs. So Conan has to make sure Jenna gets the key, to get the horn, and then bring them both back. It’s a simple fetch quest. But before Conan can ask for more details, a girl is heard crying out from the adjoining room.
Oh. My. God. It’s Olivia d’Abo! I don’t know who was prettier, Olivia or her cousin Maryam, whose most famous role was cellist Kara Milovy from the James Bond movie The Living Daylights. This was Olivia’s first film and she would later garner real success on The Wonder Years. Jenna’s being consoled by Wilt, and credit to his acting chops, he sounds legitimately concerned for the girl and is trying to calm her down after her nightmare. Taramis manages to talk the girl down and magically puts her to sleep. Wilt says the queen doesn’t need Conan, but Taramis disagrees and says what she needs is a thief. Wilt’s job is to bring Jenna back with the horn… and with her virginity intact. Wow, you sure did pick the wrong man for that job, Taramis.
The queen then tells Wilt (whose name here is actually “Bombaata”) that there’s one more thing: once the key is in his hands, she wants his sword in Conan’s heart. The elite guard will be trailing along to help. One way or another, when the time comes, Conan must die!
Next time: The quest begins, and Conan runs into an old friend… who isn’t Subotai.