Conan the Barbarian: Movie Review

Conan the Barbarian is a 1982 film written and directed by John Milius (the screenplay is also attributed to Oliver Stone because he wrote the first draft in what was an actual productive odyssey, but Milius changed it almost entirely). It’s the film that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Olympus of the most famous actors in Hollywood since it was his first film as the protagonist and, let’s face it, he was perfect for the role. Extremely physical, with the dialogues to a minimum, he gave life to a memorable character.

But let’s proceed orderly, since this film is chock full of memorable things! Many years before the birth of Christ, Conan is a little boy in a village (he’s played by the Spanish Jorge Sanz: the film was shot in Spain). His father (William Smith) teaches him that the only thing he can trust in his life is the steel of his sword. Thus, after opening the film with a quote from Nietzsche, Milius continues with his ideas of extreme individualism (not surprisingly he had written, among other things, the screenplay for Dirty Harry, 1971) and which show his love for weapons (like Charlton Heston, Milius was also one of the top names of the National Rifle Association, NRA).

But I’m already digressing! Conan’s village is set on fire by some knights for unknown reasons. The adults are all killed while the children are deported to spin a huge wheel in the middle of the desert. What’s shocking is that the leader of the knights, James Earl Jones, beheads Conan’s mother (Nadiuska) with him witnessing the whole thing. After several years, Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) remains the only one to spin that wheel and is finally sold to a merchant (Luis Barboo) who has him trained to fight in arenas where he quickly becomes unbeatable.

After some time, the merchant frees Conan and he decides to avenge his parents’ death along with his two companions Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). Valeria is more than a friend, and love blossoms between her and Conan, albeit with a tragic ending…

What about Conan the Barbarian? I could simply call it an epic masterpiece and stop writing, but I prefer to explain why I think so. It’s most certainly an epic adventure, and a fantasy one too since there’s no shortage of wizards and witches in the story. The world is a pout-pourri of eras and places ranging from the decadent Roman Empire to Genghis Khan’s Mongolia, and the movie manages to create its own world based on the pulp tales of Robert E. Howard of the 1930s which were expanded decades later by various authors. It should be said, though, that Milius took a lot of liberties compared to the original character.

The epicness is ensured by the classic journey of the archetypal hero (the one described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces published in 1949), by the incredible soundtrack by Basil Poledouris, and by a series of locations and sets which give life to the world’s stories and legends (in full Tolkien’s Middle-Earth style).

Then, Schwarzenegger was born to be the protagonist of this film. He barely speaks, his physique was unbelievable, he and he threw himself body and soul into the movie by doing his own stunts and trying to improve in every way both his English pronunciation, which suffered from his characteristic Austrian accent, and his acting skills (it seems that Max von Sydow, who plays King Osric, helped him a lot in the latter).

The world-building is perfect: Conan’s world is hard, dusty in the desert and freezing cold in the mountains. Blood flows freely in battles and fights in the arena (and there are various anecdotes on the extras enjoying the fake blood prepared with vodka), and even if sometimes some sets seem a bit fake, the practical special effects like the giant snake or the extreme physicality of the fights save everything from a visual point of view.

The soundtrack, as mentioned, is phenomenal, memorable, very powerful (and apparently it was the first in Hollywood history to be systematically synchronized with the action on the screen with special software). The composer confirmed his talent by working on Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997), just to name a couple of other movies, but just listen to Riddle of Steel / Riders of Doom to imagine hordes of knights and epic battles. It’s baroque (even with the choirs sung in fake Latin to imitate Carmina Burana), but perfect in evoking the grandeur that a character like Conan needed.

The intent was to create a real epic saga, but the movie didn’t smash the box office and it only led to a sequel two years later, Conan the Destroyer. And the 2011 remake directed by Marcus Nispel did nothing to revive the brand!

It doesn’t really matter, though, because Milius’s film is a joy for the eyes and ears and it’s absolutely rewatchable. Personally, every one or two years I rewatch it and every time I find it exciting like the first time and for days I hum the main themes of the soundtrack… In short, I couldn’t recommend it more, Ciao!

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