Every film fan has a favourite actor, someone that can happily watch in any movie no matter how good or bad it is. Growing up mine was Arnold Schwarzenegger. There was nothing I wouldn’t watch that featured the Austrian Oak, from his early steps in to cinema, The Villain/Cactus Jack (1979), to his eighties megahits Commando (1985) and Predator (1987). Of all his films though there was one I rarely returned to, the film that launched him as a legitimate star, Conan the Barbarian (1982).
Access to movies growing up was limited. We didn’t have the funds to raid video shops so we had to hope that the television schedules were kind. Whenever a new Arnie film made it on to TV I’d set the video recorder and soon I’d amassed a full Schwarzenegger back catalogue. Conan the Barbarian was the one that gathered the most dust, my homemade TDK Conan double bill tape rarely sliding out of its cardboard case. Remembering the film as something of a bore I hadn’t rewatched it since the early nineties. It thus presented prime material for a movie marathon.
A rainy November Saturday also provided ample excuse to spend the day on the sofa with snacks. Schwarzenegger’s full ‘sword and sorcery’ trilogy was lined up, starting with Conan the Barbarian.
Conan was the creation of Richard E. Howard, debuting in 1932 in the pages of Weird Tales magazine. The characters reputation grew in the 1960’s when new novels about the character were published, featuring the inimitable cover art of Frank Frazetta. Marvel Comics then added to the mythos by publishing two Conan comics in the 1970s; written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Smith they become two of the most popular comic titles of the decade.
Bringing Conan to the big screen though was a tricky task. There were rights issues to get through following the passing of creator Howard, but with Star Wars (1977) showing how much money could be earned from big screen fantasy tales Paramount persevered and eventually secured Conan. In a curious move they hired John Milius to direct, partnering him with Oliver Stone to write the script; neither of them had anything close to a traditional blockbuster or fantasy film in their back catalogue.
Since I first saw Conan the Barbarian my fondness for sword and sorcery epics has increased significantly. Thanks to computer games such as Elder Scrolls and The Witcher, and The Lord of the Rings film series, I now fully embrace anything based in fantastical lands of yore. When Barbarian starts at 14.00 ten minutes in I’m already enjoying myself more than I did as a twelve year old sat in front of my 14” portable TV.
It helps that I’m now watching the film on blu-ray on a 55” HD television. With greater appreciation of the language of cinema I can see now why Milius’ film remained the gold standard of fantasy epics until Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga came along. Barbarian looks fantastic. It also sounds superb, Basil Poledouris’ bombastic soundtrack is reminiscent of the old school epics that accompanied the likes of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). The opening credits and theme are particularly stirring. The music also goes a long way in upping the scale of the film, perfectly accompanying the massive vistas Milius superbly captured
Looking equally colossal is Schwarzenegger. He might not have honed his line delivery by 1982 (not that he had many lines to learn) but visually he was the living embodiment of Frazetta’s muscle-bound Conan. Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone and William Smith had all been considered but when producers saw a rough cut of the Mr Universe documentary Pumping Iron (1977) and saw Schwarzenegger they knew they had found their Hyborian hero. Despite his size Arnold actually dropped from 240lbs to 210lbs for the part, incorporating more stamina driven exercises like swimming, running, climbing and horse riding in to his weightlifting regime. Even so, he’s still a towering presence and there are numerous shots of him in battle poses, wielding his sword, backed by wide vistas, that immediately became cinematic classics.
Despite enjoying the film more than I did as a child, it’s clear that Barbarian is still far from a perfect movie. At two hours and ten minutes it’s too long; on more than one occasion I was reaching for my mobile phone to check social media updates, the twenty-first century sign that a film has lost your attention. Conan should have been on a mighty quest that gripped the viewer from start to finish. Instead his story is stop-start and meanders between motivations, seeking vengeance for the death of his parents one minute, stealing jewels the next, then heading off to kidnap a princess after Max von Sydow waves some rubies under his nose. The film could do with more focus and a tighter runtime.
I had high hopes before seeing Barbarian for the first time. I pictured a swashbuckling ride with Arnold battling dragons, smashing villains over the head with axes, and saving busty, scantily clad maidens. Milius and Stone were never going to make that sort of film though. Though their Hyborian world is closer in reality to what Conan’s existence might have been like, it’s a more ponderous than adventurous. With dialogue weighed down in mythos, it’s all quite dour, moving along more like a Greek tragedy than a Hollywood spectacle.
Worst of all is the writing for Conan himself. Despite seeing his parents slaughtered (with young Conan played by Jorge Sanz, who with long hair looks spookily like Linda Hamilton in Sarah Connor mode) there isn’t much sympathy for Conan. His personality doesn’t stretch much beyond battling thugs, eating turkey legs, and punching camels. It’s the weirdest scene in the movie that does the most damage to his character as he appears to rape a woman who has been brought to his cell to take advantage of his good genes ; as Conan ‘breeds’ the woman a group of curious and leering onlookers watch. It’s a scene that adds nothing to the story and Milius would have been better off dropping it, for the sake of our hero’s reputation.
Sandahl Bergman does wonders as Valeria, Conan’s love interest. A novice actor herself, she sells the relationship with Conan despite Arnold’s awkwardness during the more tender scenes. She also makes for a kickass heroine, strong enough in stature and good enough with a sword to be Conan’s equal (she would have made a great Red Sonja we muse later on). James Earl Jones also creates a memorable villain with Thulsa Doom, despite being saddled with a ridiculous wig. Defeating him doesn’t make for a happy ending though. In a mostly wordless finale, Conan beheads Doom and sits forlorn on the steps of his temple. It wouldn’t have matched the tone of Milius’ movie to give Conan a happy ending, but after spending so much time invested in his story it feels like we should have been given more. We are treated to one final teaser shot as Conan (Arnold looking absolutely badass in a full beard and king’s robes) is shown sat on the throne he craves; more tales are to come in Conan’s journey to the top of the Hyborian ladder.
Conan’s next tale was only two years away and was Arnold’s next onscreen outing, Conan the Destroyer (1984). Milius and Stone opted not to return, with directorial duties given to veteran director Richard Fleischer. Fortunately for Conan fans screenwriting duties were given to Conan comic writer Roy Thomas, helped by fellow comic writer Gerry Conway. Destroyer was thus much closer in tone to the sword swinging adventures of the comic.
I much preferred Destroyer as a child and the position remained during the marathon. I enjoyed Barbarian much more than I did in my pre-teen days, but Destroyer is still a more fun watch. At 101 minutes it’s a lot leaner than Milius’ film. Its story is also a lot more focused; Conan and his right hand man the thief Malak (Tracey Walter) are hired by Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas) to accompany her niece Jehnna (Olivia D’Abo) to retrieve the jewelled horn of the dreaming god Dagoth. They are supported by Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain), Zula (Grace Jones), and Akira (Mako, reprising his character from Barbarian). The group make for a charismatic bunch, much closer to the gang-on-a-quest theme that perfectly suits a fantasy film (see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)). Jones, Chamberlain, Walter and Mako all support Arnold well, ensuring that the weight of the film doesn’t rest entirely on his shoulders.
The heavy mythos and dour tone of Milius film is ditched, though Conan remains a gruff hero not easily swayed or won over. Despite this Conan is shown to have a heart; his motivation for helping Taramis is to see the love of his life Valeria brought back from the dead (though he rather foolishly doesn’t question how this is actually doable). It’s just as well Fleischer kept this plot thread, as there’s also a clear indication that Princess Jehnna has a crush on Conan. This is fine in terms of a plot point but in reality its slightly creepy when you consider that D’Abo was only fifteen when she made the film. Even more dubious are the outfits they give to D’Abo. How Fleischer got away with having D’Abo’s breasts almost fully on display is questionable. Fortunately Conan does the right thing in the final scene by not returning the newly minted Queen’s kiss.
Suspect casting choices aside, Destroyer remains a cheesy romp that’s much more accessible than Barbarian. Poledouris provides another great soundtrack and Fleischer shoots some more fine fantasy vistas. It’s not without its faults though, chief amongst which is the climatic showdown with ‘god’ Dagoth. Seeing Schwarzenegger do battle with this cut-price rubbery monstrosity is unintentionally hilarious (the ‘beast’ was played by wrestler Andre the Giant). It so bad it looks like it’s from a bygone era inhabited by cheap Star Trek television show effects and films that featured ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot something-or-other’. It rather spoils what had been a fun film up to that point.
Barbarian plundered the box office to the tune of $120million off of $16million budget, but Destroyer only took $31million after an $18million outlay. Destroyer finished again with that grand shot of bearded Conan on his throne, implying that there would be a third and final adventure to follow Conan on. Schwarzenegger quickly moved on to The Terminator (1984) during the remains of 1984 and cemented his position as the new big thing in Hollywood. The wheels started turning on a third Conan film, to be entitled Conan the Conqueror but as Schwarzenegger’s star rose the film got bogged down in a development quandary (the script for it was later resurrected for Kull the Conqueror (1997), Kull being another of Howard’s creations in his Hyborian world).
Schwarzenegger was persuaded to wield his sword again though by producer Dino De Laurentiis for another fantasy epic the following year, Red Sonja (1985). Another Arnold outing I had fonder memories of than Barbarian, we capped off our marathon with the flame haired heroine. Based on the character Red Sonja, the red headed warrior was created for Marvel Comics in 1973 by Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith. Confusingly Sonja was partly based on Red Sonya of Rogatino and Dark Agnes de Chastillon, both created by Howard around the same time as Conan.
When the Red Sonja trailer arrived young fans assumed that Arnold was reprising his Conan role again, this time as sidekick to a female warrior. Further links were drawn when it was confirmed that Richard Fleischer would be in the director’s chair again and Sandahl Bergman would also be in the cast. Confusingly though Schwarzenegger was playing a supporting role, that of Lord Kalidor, and Bergman would be playing the villainess, Queen Gedren. Puzzling as this was it wouldn’t have been so bad if they had cast an actress of reasonable quality in the titular role, but De Laurentiis, desperate after searching for over a year for an actress of sufficient physical stature, cast Danish model Brigette Nielsen after seeing her on the cover of a fashion magazine.
Whilst Nielsen looks striking, she’s nowhere near muscular enough to convince as a battle hardened female warrior. What passed me by as a youngster but what is glaring now is just how bad Nielsen is reading her lines; some of them are the worst you will ever hear in a blockbuster movie. Red Sonja isn’t a complete loss as a result but a number of the laughs are unintentional, whether its Nielsen’s stiff performance, ‘If danger is a trade I’ll learn it by myself’ or some of the other giggle-some lines ‘So it’s true, only women may touch it’. Schwarzenegger is still finding his acting feet, his lack of humanity in some of his lines genuinely funny, ‘Your sister is dying’. His red velvet outfit is also ridiculous and wisely ditched at the halfway point.
Elsewhere, you wonder what the screenwriters were thinking coming up with a character like Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jnr). For half the film he’s the epitome of a spoilt brat, and while he was written to be such it’s not a great choice to make one of your heroes this grating. Still, its testament to Reyes Jnr and Paul Smith as his man-servant Falkon that they are actually likeable by the finale, with Tarn taking on a cute Sonja protector role.
The plot itself is thin and falls back on the more cliché aspects of Barbarian and Destroyer, Arnold pushing rock-wall doors open and lifting beams and boulders when some muscle is needed, characters fighting over a glowing orb with secret powers, and the opening scene a repeat of Barbarian with Sonja’s parents and village destroyed by an evil Queen. The sword fights that litter the film are the best we’ve seen all day, with Nielsen and Arnold particular adept at swinging their blades. Overall though there just isn’t enough going on with the story. In comparison with the first two films of the day Red Sonja feels exactly like what it is, a small budget Conan knock-off. At 89 minutes there was room for more scenes, and those scenes should have been given to Arnold; when he is on screen with Nielsen the film immediately lifts.
Fans certainly agreed; Sonja only made $7million off of a $17.9million budget. Critics were scathing and Schwarzenegger regards it as the worst film he has made. Despite this it’s been a fun movie marathon and even when the three films were at their low points it was still fun to be in the various Hyborian locales, the castles, deserts, woodlands, dungeons, and caves. Conan got new life in 2011 with Conan the Barbarian (2011) but typically it was humourless CGI fest lacking all of the texture and warmth of the movies we’ve seen today; even Arnie’s ‘worst’ movie Red Sonja is a more enjoyable watch. Making only half of its $90million budget it was a deathblow to the resurrection of Conan cinema. Looks like we may never get to see that badass bearded Arnold Conan on screen, which given the fun we’ve had today is truly something to lament.