Conan the Destroyer (1984), a recap (part 6 of 6)

Last time: Jehnna retrieved the horn, which turned out to be in possession of another faction of Dagoth worshipers. Bombaata escaped with the princess and the horn, leaving the others in the dust with the knowledge that when Taramis gets the horn, the sleeping god will wake up, kill Jehnna, and then destroy the world. It’s time for Conan and friends to save the day!

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We’re back in the marble hall of black peacocks, where Bombaata and Jehnna have returned. The priests note their arrival and Taramis comes out to greet them.

That’s her, way, way up at the top and far back, and I realize now how remiss I was at not noting just how damn nice this set looks. This has to be someplace real that got redressed, because I can’t see Raffaella De Laurentiis spending that kind of cash on a set. Or maybe she did and that’s why the exterior of Thoth Amon’s dream castle looked so cheap. Taramis asks if they got the horn and Jehnna whips it out, causing the head priest to apparently almost have a heart attack.

It’s a great reaction, because I think maybe on some level the guy never really thought this crazy plan would work. I mean, send a teenager out with some oiled-up barbarian to fight a wizard, then sneak into a dungeon full of guards and another chaotic evil priest? (Or wizard? Or maybe the Leader multi-classed? I dunno.) And then get past those guys and return? With the girl’s virginity intact? Someone down there must like them. Taramis tells Bombaata and Jehnna to bring the horn to her; it’s time to prepare for the summoning!

Outside Shadizar, Conan and the others arrive. They watch a patrol ride nearby and note there must be hundreds of them around. We’ll just take their word for it, because Braveheart levels of extra casting and costuming just ain’t in the budget. Malak tries to weasel his way out of the rescue, but Conan grabs his friend’s horse’s bridle and notes the front door can’t be the only way in. Malak lets slip that it isn’t, and Conan responds by saying, “Malak,” in a way that just a teeny bit implies there’s a threat of violence involved if his friend doesn’t spill.

Cut to… a waterfall behind the city. So, within riding distance of Shadizar are deserts, forests, scrubland, and hills high enough that you’ve got to bring cold weather gear to keep the chill off, as well as a river. It feels like this whole world was prepared by a first time twelve-year-old Dungeon Master. Malak explains his “cousin’s sisters’ brother” Shawshanked his way out of the city, and there’s a hole behind the base of the waterfall. On the face of it, that might not make sense, but if his cousin is talking about a sister in-law then it does. I think. Or maybe it makes sense if there’s some inbreeding involved. Considering it’s Malak we’re talking about, that’s probably likely.

Back in the palace, Taramis has just dropped some drug into a glass goblet of wine and it isn’t for her. Sure enough, Jehnna’s led into the room by some handmaidens and she’s swapped out her travel duds for a dress and… damn, that’s showing off a lot of leg for a fifteen-year-old. Maybe I’ve just gotten prudish in my old age. Taramis offers the girl the drugged goblet, and ignorant of the fact she’s been given a pre-sacrificial roofie, Jehnna drinks up.

Back at the waterfall, the gang has to make their way down and Malak falls. And dies. Yay! Oh, but Conan catches him. Boo!

Inside the palace, we’re hearing a really cheesy version of the music Basil Poledouris composed for the orgy scene in Conan the Barbarian. It’s like listening to the opening credits music of Star Trek: The Next Generation after hearing the far superior version used for The Motion Picture. Jehnna ascends a set of stairs, with the jeweled and gold encrusted horn resting on a cute little cushion in her hands. At the top of the stairs on a dais, the chaotic evil priest and Taramis both flank the statue of Dagoth, the causal one. The priest is looking really pleased; I’m sure he was never expecting to see the end of days during his lifetime. And now he gets to be right in the middle of it. Oh, if only the Leader could see him now…

Oh, wait.

Back at the waterfall, the gang reaches the entrance/exit, which as it turns out has been set with steel bars. While the others bicker about Malak’s family tree, Conan gets down to business and peels a pair of the bars far enough apart to allow him to slip though. Our heroes start their crawl into the city.

Elsewhere, the priest has Jehnna approach the statue, and then decides to just give Taramis a little reminder and murmurs to her that at the first sign of life from the statue, Jehnna must be killed, otherwise, according to the “Scrolls of Skellos”, Something Very Bad will happen. I’m sure Taramis already knows this, but hey, when you’re dealing with the Apocalypse it doesn’t hurt to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

In the stables, some guards are patrolling when one gets a torch to the noggin and the other gets tackled by Zula, and Malak finishes up with a quick double love tap with his daggers. In retrospect, I’m surprised that the term “I’ll Malak him!” didn’t become part of the D&D lexicon. Fortunately, we don’t see the old “donning the uniforms” stunt and the gang steal further into the palace. As Jehnna sets the horn in the slot in the reclining god’s forehead, Conan and company come across the entrance to the inner chambers, which is guarded. He tosses a stone that makes the guards look to the right, allowing Zula and Malak to steal around the corner and out of sight. Conan then hops into view and calls a challenge…

…and the pair of guards fall into an ambush. You can see why so many D&D fans love this movie, because that’s pretty much the exact same thing players would do. The gang slips through the door and find themselves in a fancy part of the palace, with silk hangings, braziers full of incense, and tons of the sorts of cushions your mom would throw all over her couch. Their attempts to stealth the rest of the way fail as Bombaata spots them. And man, I love how there are no words here, and just shared murder stares between Conan and the captain of the guard. Bombaata drops his axe in favor of using his badass war mace, slips off his robe for ease of movement, and he and Conan get it on.

Meanwhile, the others wait their chance to get a stab in.

Back at the temple, Jehnna’s now starting to really feel the effects of the drug, as she has to be led around by a pair of acolytes. They help her to her knees as the sacrificial dagger is brought out on its own little cushion. Damn, the cushion industry must be a booming business in Shadizar; everything seems to need one. The priest draws back Jehnna’s head to prepare to slice her throat open. An unnatural storm comes rolling on in and the acolytes look around nervously. I guess green tinted storms weren’t mentioned in the scrolls of Skellos? Taramis is eagerly staring at the statue and no lie, when the head tilted back, I got legit chills seeing this in the theater. Taramis orders the priest to kill Jehnna, while Conan orders the others to “save the girl!” as he slices into Bombaata’s leg. The others manage to dash past the pair and find themselves on a balcony overlooking the temple floor. Zula spots the priest preparing to slit Jehnna’s throat, so she cocks her arm back and lets her spear fly.

Uh oh, something tells me the priest isn’t a virgin, and Dagoth isn’t going to be satisfied with this sacrifice. Conan and Bombaata continue to fight, and the captain of the guard is proving to be a pretty badass opponent for our favorite Cimmerian. Bombaata pulls a Mike Tyson and tries biting Conan’s ear off, but the barbarian finds the captain’s own knife and stabs him with it, forcing him to break off. Conan then kills the captain with his own blade.

Elsewhere in the temple, Taramis is seeing all her well laid plans go straight to hell. She gets it into her head that hey, as long as she kills Jehnna, maybe everything’ll be all right. She grabs the girl, who by now is wide awake, and knows whatever’s going down, she does not want to be in the middle of it. She tries to flee, but Taramis snatches her and tries to drag her niece to the now wide-awake god and the dagger. Conan sees this, and with Bombaata’s battle axe in one hand and his broadsword in the other (or is it a bastard sword? It’s two handed. Hmm) leaps from the balcony by using two guards to cushion his fall while the other heroes take the stairs. Conan races across the floor of the temple while everyone runs around in a panic, because I’m guessing this is totally not the way things went down in rehearsal. He pushes Taramis towards her god…

…who, I’m guessing, is not a morning person. Taramis gets a belly full of horn for all her efforts. Bet she wishes she just settled for being queen of Shadizar.

Conan tells the others to stay back. Yeah, he won’t have to give that command twice. He runs in for a swipe with the axe, but the god easily takes it and face washes Conan with one of those big ole flippers. A guard actually does his job and hacks into the beast, but the movie isn’t called Random Guard the Destroyer and he literally gets stomped on. Conan strikes with his sword but it’s no good. The beast gets his head in a double-flippered head squeeze. But Zula stabs it in the back with her spear and Conan’s free. He hits it again, but the creature grabs his arms and starts to pull him apart. Malak throws one of his knives and gets it right in the face, and Conan’s free again. Lightning comes crashing down and the temple’s starting to come apart around them. The Wizard figures out that the horn’s the key, so he calls out to Conan that he’s got to pull it loose! Conan, who by now has probably figured out this thing’s got like a million hit points, jumps on the god’s back and makes for the horn! He yanks that sucker loose…

…and the dreaming god keels over, dead. And everyone instantly levels. The next day… or some indeterminate time later, the gang is summoned before now Queen Jehnna:

She offers the job of captain of the guard to Zula, who turns and gets the nod from Conan to accept. Next, she offers Malak the job of court fool, for which Malak is eminently qualified. Again, Conan gives the nod and Malak takes his place. And then, she asks the “world’s greatest wizard” to come forth. Well, considering how after Thulsa Doom, Thoth Amon, and the Leader have all bought it across two films, Mako’s probably gone up pretty high in the rankings. Jehnna points out she can’t rule without wisdom, and after another nod from the barbarian, the wizard takes his place in Jehnna’s court. That leaves… Conan. She offers him a throne to sit upon, and to rule at her side. But Conan ain’t taking a throne as a gift; he’ll have his own, as well as a queen. Jehnna gives him a farewell kiss…

…and then, brokenhearted, orders the Cimmerican put to death. Naw, just kidding. Conan departs as Mako ends the film, speaking of the promise of future adventures as once more we see the Cimmerian, aged and seated upon a throne.

And sadly, we never got to see adventures, because Conan the Destroyer didn’t perform at the box office. The financial geniuses who thought making the movie PG would score higher profits didn’t understand their target audience, which were people who went to the first film craving blood, action, and yes, a touch of sex. Arnold would go on to have a hit later that year with The Terminator, and massive success during the rest of the ’80s and into the early ’90s, leaving Conan the Destroyer an afterthought in an otherwise huge career.

So that was Conan the Destroyer. Does it live down to my expectations? Well… it actually isn’t bad. Bear in mind, I hadn’t seen this film in its entirety since maybe 1985 or so, and over the last… wow, thirty-five years… maybe the movie grew worse as I grew older and more cynical. I’m not going to sit here and claim it’s a good movie, because frankly it’s not. Some of the special effects are dodgy, I hate Malak, Poledouris’s score is sorely lacking, and it’s not helped by the PG rating. I also think when it comes to bad guys, the film doesn’t really have a strong central one. We’ve got Thoth Amon, the Leader, and Taramis, none of whom have the same gravitas as James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom from the first flick. And Dagoth? Yeah, well… while back then, I didn’t mind him so much because I was a kid who had grown up on kaiju films, that part of the movie sure hasn’t aged well. By the way, you know who was in that big rubber suit? Andre the Giant. For years, I wondered what was up with this pic…

…and then I found out that little factoid.

Taking all this into consideration, there are positives. The action scenes are decent, and overall the film is competently directed. And after watching the movie with adult eyes, I see what I thought had been plotholes were really not; all this time, I thought it was weird how the Leader (I didn’t know his name back then) seemed to be treated rudely even though he was on Taramis’ side, and only now did I realize there were two factions. The horn room door being super-heavy seemed repetitive, but watching the Leader open it with magic made me realize that was his own security system; only he could open it. And I like Wilt Chamberlain’s Bombaata. Just like how in the first film they had two guys who looked Conan’s physical match, Wilt makes for an imposing figure and he comes across as a competent minion. Grace Jones and Mako are both good in their roles as well, and Olivia d’Abo is decent, and able to convey just enough haughtiness to sell the idea she’s a pampered princess but not too much to make you wish Dagoth ate her. And Arnold? He’s alright. One thing I appreciate from him is he has a sense of humor and isn’t afraid to look foolish to sell a joke. We saw this in the first film and see it a time or two here, and fortunately Conan doesn’t descend into farce. Arnold comes across largely strong and stoic, and he largely carries the film on his broad shoulders.

Well, that’s it for Conan the Destroyer… or is it? You see, the film had a bit of a tumultuous time getting to the big screen, and that was largely due to a lot of back and forth regarding the script. Comic book legends Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway had originally been hired to write the screenplay (Thomas being especially qualified, since he wrote the Conan comic for Marvel), but their original work ultimately wound up in the hands of another screenwriter, and their potential masterpiece turned into something almost unrecognizable. So, what happened to that original story? What became of the masterpiece we could have gotten had they kept the R rating and had a higher budget? Tune in next week to find out.

Multi-Part Article: Conan the Destroyer (1984), a recap

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