I wasn’t really into sword and sorcery when I was a kid. Most of my awareness of the genre came from He-Man & the Masters of the Universe and Thundarr the Barbarian (I was a kid, after all). My only acquaintance with Conan came from the films and, God help me, that awful cartoon where he had kid sidekicks and taught lessons about honor and friendship. So I never really liked Conan.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
A few years ago, I picked up a couple collections of the Marvel Comics Conan series by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. I loved it. This was the Conan I never saw: the plunderer, the murderer, the rapist… in other words, the Barbarian. I made haste to pick up collections of the original stories by Robert E. Howard and found them to be even more violent and gruesome. I pretty much became a Conan fan over night, it seems. That eventually led me to pick up the Arnold Schwarzenegger films, which have found their way onto a DVD two-pack which regularly sells for $8 bucks.
The original, R-rated Conan the Barbarian is a gloriously brutal and respectful representation of Robert E. Howard’s sword-swinging killing machine.
Back in the Hyborean Age, a sorcerer and marauder named Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) wiped out the people of Cimmeria, sending their children into slavery. As the years pressed on, only a single Cimmerian was left: Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger). A lifetime of slavery, combat and warfare hardened him into a barbaric killer. Gaining his freedom, Conan begins his quest across Hyborea to track down Thulsa Doom and see his people avenged. Along the way, he accumulates several companions: an archer named Subotai (Gerry Lopez), a shapely thief named Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) and a raspy old wizard who acts as Conan’s chronicler (Mako). Together, they seek to infiltrate Doom’s Mountain of Power, rescue a princess and slay their foe in the process.
Conan the Destroyer was the movie I recall seeing snippets of as a child and feeling ambivalent toward. So when I sat down to watch the original Conan the Barbarian, I was anticipating a movie with a similar child-friendly atmosphere, bearing a resemblance to Howard’s original Conan in name only. How tremendously wrong I was. Conan the Barbarian is absolutely brutal. This isn’t the nice and friendly He-Man-esque version of Conan you see in cartoons and on TV; this is the real deal. He kills like a madman, feels no remorse and (though they only touch upon it) rapes the comely lasses. He even punches a camel. This Conan isn’t a nice guy… and that’s exactly the way he’s supposed to be.
Arnold plays Conan as a man of few words, which is both accurate to the source and a mercy upon the audience. I like Arnold as much as anybody else, but he isn’t one for particularly well-delivered dialogue. Coming two years before The Terminator, this was the movie that really ignited Arnold’s career. And with good measure, too, because he is the spitting image of Conan, as if he basically jumped off the page and punched you in the face.
So far as the story goes, it takes place very early in Conan’s days of adventuring, as if writers John Milius and Oliver Stone were actively trying not to interfere with the original stories. Regardless, even though it isn’t a direct adaptation of any one Conan story, Milius and Stone do borrow from several. The scaling of the Tower of Set and Conan’s introduction to Valeria bears a slight resemblance to “The Tower of the Elephant” (but in those elements only). The serpent guarding the massive bloodstone within the tower seems taken from the beginning of “Black Colossus”, particularly in the way the serpent is killed (sword through the jaws).
Perhaps the most obvious grab from the stories, though, is Valeria-herself. Her vow to fight by Conan’s side and subsequent return as a spirit are a direct rip on the character of Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast”. I have to admit, Valeria’s ghost appearing to save Conan was pretty goofy; I didn’t much like it when Belit did it in the book, either.
Still, for all intents and purposes, it’s a brand new story. Thulsa Doom was actually a villain from Howard’s Kull series, not his Conan stories. Oddly, Doom appears to be a dead ringer for Thoth-Amon, a villain who did appear in several Conan stories (though the two never actually met). Why they didn’t just name him “Thoth-Amon” I can’t say; perhaps they thought “Thulsa Doom” was a cooler name? Whatever the case, watching James Earl Jones play a villain was pretty weird. I may sound crazy for saying that, but really, it’s true. In movies like Star Wars and The Flight of Dragons, he only voices bad guys. As a screen actor, I’m used to seeing him play nice guys like in Field of Dreams or The Sandlot. And yet he still makes for a pretty intimidating villain.
I have a hard time taking a lot of ’80s fantasy films seriously. Special effects just weren’t ready for the genre of sword & sorcery at the time; I’ll point you toward Krull and Ladyhawk as proof of that. Yes, the effects were good for the time, but simply quaint by today’s standards. Conan the Barbarian chooses to put the emphasis on “sword” over “sorcery”, with magic and monsters kept to a minimum. The giant serpent in the Tower of Set looks rather lame, though I did kind of dig the scene where Doom transforms into a snake. Probably the most over-the-top moment comes when Valeria and Subotai attempt to fend off a horde of demons from spiriting away Conan’s soul. The animation on the demons actually blends in fairly well with the live actors and likely would have looked just as goofy if it had been done in modern low-budget CGI. I didn’t find that scene to be as offensive as others find it to be, but it was still silly.
At just over two hours, Conan the Barbarian is a long movie and worthy of claiming itself to be “epic”. The production values are immense, the carnage is spectacular and the movie is just an all-around worthy rendition of Robert E. Howard’s character. Sadly, while Conan the Destroyer is an okay flick, future Howard adaptations would prove nigh-unwatchable. I’ll point you toward Red Sonja and Kull the Conqueror, but you’re better off just taking my word for it.
Simply put, no matter how much Hollywood tries to dress it up, Conan just isn’t for kids. And with a hard R-rating, Conan the Barbarian is anything but a kid’s movie.