by Marc Kandel
Robert E. Howard’s Id brought to glorious, brutal cinematic fruition: Unprecedented, Uncompromised, Unforgettable. “Lord of the Rings” pales, impotent and toothless in comparison. “Conan the Barbarian” is one of the greatest, most monumental films ever created; a primal, uplifting, soul cleaving ode to sex, love, violence, vengeance and death. What more could you possibly want? Pussies need not apply.Conan the Barbarian is an origin tale Howard never penned, a story of ascension detailing Conan’s birth (“on a battlefield” in the books, now a metaphor as young Conan learns horror, pain and loneliness too early in life), providing an impetus for the character’s growth and survival as he endures hard years honing his skills as an instrument of destruction, forging his purpose and place in the universe.
"Suffer no guilt, ye who watch this in the name of Crom."
Born in the snow-frosted steppes of Cimmeria, taught at his father’s knee to respect the purity and majesty of steel, Conan’s mother, father and their entire village are slaughtered before his eyes by marauders. He is pressed into slavery, raised first as a crude laborer, then as a gladiator whose savage cunning and talent for bloodshed is unmatched in the pit. Freed by his owner, Conan seeks fortune in the world, sates lusts, finds love, comradeship and a trade of sorts in clumsy thievery which sets him upon a path to fulfill his life’s ambition- death to the slayers of his family and thieves of his innocence, pursued to the exclusion of all else.
The film utilizes elements from various Howard pulp tales of Conan, but is its own animal in the interests of cinematic compression and linear progression (Howard didn’t much trouble himself with timelines, his stories told from the perspective of a mighty warrior recounting random adventures in a dim tavern, or at his most manic, right over Howard’s shoulder in a darkened room).
There is an adherence to the spirit if not word for word prose of the author. Director John Milius, co-writing the screenplay with Oliver Stone, captures the scope of this primal man’s wanderings across the primitive, breathtaking wind-beaten plains, dark hills and teeming, haunted cities of Hyperboria in sole service to his desires, barely discerning between diluted terms of “good” and “evil” in a world not so easily colored between the two. More often than not, Conan lands on the side of the angels, but it's a near thing, his conflicts and passions merely less depraved than his adversaries. There is a rough sense of justice to the barbarian but he is not above taking what he wants to fulfill his needs, a hero by circumstance.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance is unsurpassed to this day by anything in his theatrical repertoire. Easily dismissed by effete snobs as a series of grunts and flexes, underestimated by those concerned with minute divergences from source material, it's a naturalistic performance playing to Schwarzenegger’s strength as a physical presence. Schwarzenegger successfully portrays a man not given to monologues or overly verbal communication, yet makes every intention, nuance and thought clear to his audience. He could have a place in any Kurosawa film where the actors’ movement, expressions, even the simplest step and stance are every bit as crucial as the spoken word.
Case in point: When Conan confronts his tormentors after being captured, beaten, crucified and brought back from the brink of death, words fail before the sight of joyous rage and righteous defiance seething from Conan’s battle-chiseled form. Rexor, Thulsa Doom’s second in command, halts his charge, staring incredulously at the risen warrior, a terrible being of fury come for reckoning. He vomits an infuriated You towards the painted revenant, and Conan opens into his first fighting stance, eyes aflame, presenting himself, challenging, mocking, hating- Crom’s Living Sword on Earth sharpened and drawn in anticipation of awesome mayhem. What words could possibly serve in place of the corded muscles of Conan’s form, throat choked with scalding blood as he silently demands vengeance? The actor provides a fulfilling emotional display of strength, danger, passion and not a little humor, carefully and hilariously sprinkled throughout the grim and gruesome events. Need I mention the camel punch?
Milius’ insistence in keeping Conan’s speech to a minimum also emphasizes the weight of the ideas Conan has to verbalize when he is called upon to speak, and in one instance no actor could have done better: Conan’s first and only prayer uttered to unsympathetic, indifferent god Crom, seconds before the Riders of Doom commence their final charge pouring down from the hills to eradicate the brash barbarian who has thwarted Doom’s will.
Conan’s prayer is offered brusquely and with unrefined passion by a man unused to asking for anything, and even then Conan cannot compromise- he tells his god what he wants and then snorts and proclaims his intention to do his work unaided, spitting at the very being before which he has reluctantly humbled himself. If there is any one moment of the film where Conan is fully realized as his creator intended him, it is here; a powerful, untamed man striding the earth with impunity, given to rough yet eloquent philosophy on occasion, ultimately preferring action to rhetoric, intellect deferring to the gratifying effectiveness of strength of arms. Schwarzenegger’s eyes fill with the blue sky above him and his words resonate across worlds. Does Crom hear? It matters not- there is killing to be done, for good or ill.
The supporting players Gerry Lopez and Sandahl Bergman do well with their respective characters. Lopez is fantastic as Subotai, a Mongol thief rescued and befriended by Conan. One occasionally notices lapses into his surfer persona (Hey old maaaan, where did you get this stuuuff?) but its forgivable, as he grounds Subotai with unquestionable fealty, a loyal compatriot to Conan that will never leave his side. Bergman is vivaciously apt as Valeria, a warrior woman that wins Conan’s heart with unbridled ferocity, eagerly requited by the barbarian who has known his share of female pleasures but never the emotions of a lifelong companion. The character is a composite of two women from Howard’s tales, her name and vocation taken from the Valeria of Red Nails, and her warrior’s spirit and immortal devotion taken from Belit the She-Pirate of Queen of the Black Coast.
Valeria’s lithe body and knife-edged passion fills the emotional void in Conan’s world. Failing to halt his destructive need for revenge, she pledges herself body and soul to his cause once she realizes he cannot be dissuaded, forging an insuperable bond between the two. Like Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman’s strengths lie in her dancer’s poise and ability to convey volumes of information without verbal communication, though her dialogue rings honest and true when needed. There are more beautiful, more seductive, voluptuous women to be found throughout the film, but Valeria defies the norm, a wanton ass-kicker believably worthy of Conan’s love and respect. Schwarzenegger and Bergman create a devoted, convincing relationship between two warriors.
Even veteran performers give as much attention to the material as they would a work of Shakespeare or Strindberg as the heads roll and grue splashes.
James Earl Jones ignites the screen as Thulsa Doom, the sorcerous leader of the murderous snake cult presiding over the destruction of Conan’s village. Doom is a fascinating evil- he is not given to vulgar displays of magic, and in terms of combat it serves him little. Doom’s real power and danger is that of his charismatic personality, his will carried out through the hundreds of eager, bloodthirsty thralls hypnotized by his perverted brand of enlightenment. Jones plays Doom as an immortal weighed down by the centuries, giving him a soft, mournful presence. When Doom beheads Conan’s mother, do we see a hint of regret? There is no pleasure in the killing, at least, none the character reveals to us. He is not given to sneering or gloating, and his rage is a quiet, slithering thing. Witness his cold, withering response to Conan’s devastating trespass deep in the heart of his citadel: 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. Fuck yo’ mama, David Mamet.
Max von Sydow commands attention for the span of a scene as King Osric the Usurper, who gathers Conan’s group, impressed by their audacity at robbing one of Thulsa Doom’s temples, and sets them on a quest to rescue his daughter who has fallen in with Doom’s rutting cultists. Conan’s formidable presence is actually diminished in proximity to this twilight warrior whose truths fall on deaf ears as Osric explains in a chilling, heartfelt monologue the emptiness and disappointment of treasures and power when compared to the love of a father for his daughter. Yet for all his wisdom, what gives the scene heft is his amusing, ironic blindness as a parent, unable to see his daughter as an individual: She seeks… enlightenment. As if I could not give it to her!, angrily, contemptuously, Osric, weighted down by age, wealth and wine hurls one of Thulsa Doom’s cult daggers into an oaken table in disgust where it sticks with an audible thud as Osric’s hand remains still, fingers outstretched, frozen in the act of the throw. Even an old lion has claws. This beautiful, haunting shot will echo in one’s mind long after the credits roll, and Osric’s turmoil and foreboding is marvelously echoed at the end of the film as King Conan sits, master of all he surveys, troubled and uneasy for some reason we will not be privy to… for now.
Mako Iwamatsu plays the Wizard of the Mounds (given the name Akiro in the clumsy, ridiculous sequel, Conan the Destroyer), pledged in service to Conan, a doddering wizard fearful of the powers he is called upon to unleash, putting his weathered, sharp voice to excellent use as the film’s narrator and occasional comic relief. A wonderful performance, Akiro’s fumbling yet genuine talents at ritualized necromancy are juxtaposed against the deadly composure and horror of Thulsa Doom’s effortless command of the black arts.
So crucial is the lamentably late and honored Basil Poledouris’ grandiose, unrivaled score to this film that years prior to this review I gave it a spotlight in our soundtrack column: http://hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1270
One can glean further appreciation of areas of the film not covered here within this review as well. Here, I will merely state that it is the greatest orchestral composition ever written for cinema, without peer.
Today’s viewer will note the distinct lack of camera tricks during the fight choreography which remains bloodthirsty and extravagant, even without a sword thrust shot from every conceivable angle under the sun at three different speeds or green screens and wires allowing for mid-air pauses and revolving perspectives of the chiseled fighters. The low tech approach showcases true contests of bone and sinew as doughty warriors hack away at each other in a ferocious, satisfying orgy of brutality. The fucking scenes ain’t bad either. Try getting the Governator to do one of those these days.
The violence isn’t even the most disturbing aspect of the film. In fact, the most unnerving moment is when Conan sits on the steps of Thulsa Doom’s temple and contemplates his present and future. Having removed from the world what he has come to perceive as the source of his motivations and will, alone and triumphant in the dark, he considers his next move in a world now empty of the things that drive him. Anyone thinking this is not an intellectual character given to great pontification has missed the mark- this chilling, saddening dénouement revealing a character alone and empty, come to the realization that there may be nothing left for him in the world, gives no easy answers, even in a primitive time rife with simple choices. Conan eventually picks himself up, decisively obliterating the last link to his past, and continues onward to an unknown horizon- but the questions are never answered, and even the final information imparted in the film illustrates the constant questing, unsatisfying nature of life, lifting this film beyond a simple adventure tale and making it one for the ages- a magical epic.
Damn but fantasy movies had some balls back in the day. Imagine Conan made in the now (or at least the proposed 2009 venture): Neutered to a larger audience-netting PG-13 (Conan was released as an R picture, narrowly dodging an X rating, John Milius making no attempt to age-down a genre never meant for children’s consumption). Dumbed down with stupid catchphrases and self-referencing snark, cartoonish in its delivery so as not to disturb the kiddies or offend the gentry, cast solely to parasitically squeeze dollars from the actor of the moment, nay the second. Meaningless, unfulfilling, utterly nutless. Ah, but wait, we have King Kull to step up and give us a bitter taste of this special flavor of failure, don’t we? No? How ‘bout The Scorpion King?
Of course, we do have Gladiator and 300 as exceptions to the rule (one could make an argument for Braveheart, whose combat style most closely mirrors Conan ), but read my plot synopsis again- see anything vaguely familiar? Hell, Gladiator even cast Sven Ole Thorsen (Thulsa Doom’s enforcer Thorgrim) as one of the gladiators and had the unmitigated gall to use the Anvil of Crom theme in the previews of Gladiator. Bah. As for 300, one may note stratagems enacted by Conan during the Battle of the Mounds that mirror tactics used against the Persian army in the more recent film, and Conan’s training and his prayer to Crom echo similar ideology to Leonidas’ rally for his warriors against a much larger force. Conan is the superior film on many levels, but I would be remiss not to point out successful parallels carried out in the kinetically entertaining 300, the history of which was an obvious pool of inspiration for Milius, Stone and probably Howard himself (honestly, I don’t know how much I should credit with Stone, his original concept was throwing Conan into an apocalyptic future, soundly quashed by Milius, thank Crom. Why is Oliver Stone such a dickheaded whackjob sometimes? Honestly).
The hour grows late. Some quick points about the copies of the film presently on the market- one is the no-frills Theatrical Cut, the other an Extended Edition (there is also a UK version with some spectacularly annoying edits of the witch sex scene and horse falls during the “Battle of the Mounds”- which didn’t hurt the goddamn horses, but its unlikely anyone reading this review will fall afoul of this copy- ok, maybe MP Bartley in jolly ole England, but for you, I’ll pay postage and get you the fucking goods in that backwater historical curiosity you call a country.
Get both versions- the Theatrical Cut, despite picture and sound quality rating lower than the Extended, is a superior cut, the added scenes of the latter failing to enhance the film. The first trips up the momentum of the final battle as Conan reveals regrets to Subotai about his pursuit of vengeance and wistfully pines for the simplicity of the days he would pick blueberries with his family in the hills- not a terrible scene, but throwing off the dramatic timing of the impending danger, and the second scene has Osric’s daughter, first hateful of her rescuers, transferring her loyalty to Conan, the stronger Alpha male. She guides him through a less traveled route of Doom’s Mountain of Power, so he can murder the sorcerer. It’s unnecessary, and worse, the scene tromps over James Earl Jones mesmerizing speech to his thousands of followers exhorting them to go forth killing and burning in the name of Set- the finest “Drink the Kool Aid” scene ever put to film, raising the stakes for Conan to put an end to the cult not only for his personal reasons but to save countless lives. Unacceptable.
The extras on the Extended version are great however, other deleted/abandoned scenes, bloopers (one where wild dogs catch up to a Conan that doesn’t get away, where we can hear Arnold cursing “AAAGH! Gahd-Demmit!” as the animals catch him and pull him down on the rocks), fun commentary from Milius and Schwarzenegger, costume designs, so on so forth- a treasure trove of information and visuals.What more needs be said? To paraphrase words spoken by Conan himself: The illusion is real to me. Conan lives, burns with life, he loves, he slays and I am content.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=992&reviewer=358
originally posted: 08/17/07 16:55:30