Film Reviews:

Conan the Barbarian

(John Milius, US, 1982)

Conan the Barbarian Milius' genuinely seminal film that spawned a global run on (mostly low budget) sword and sorcery/sword and sandals 'epics' in the 1980s. Whereas most of it imitators were classics only for demonstrating the art of exploitation film making, having little in the way of a decent script but plenty of sword fighting and scantily-clad, nubile young women, Conan the Barbarian did justice to its source material in Robert E. Howard's pulp novels bringing to the screen a hero of mythic proportions.

The plot follows a predictable path but it is delivered with such conviction that the familiarity isn't a drawback. After his mother and father are slaughtered before him as a young boy by the evil warlord Thulsa Doom (love that name!), Conan is sold into slavery and spends years in chains and hard labour. All the time recalling how he came to be there and all the time building up a formidable physique. It is this that brings him to the world of gladatorial fighting and, again over a period of time, he hones his fighting skills to fully exploit his natural brute strength. Having been given the skills by the system, he uses them to turn against it. He escapes captivity and vows to track down Thulsa Doom so that he may avenge his parents' deaths.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast in the role of Conan. Although hardly as taxing as Shakespeare, this was the Austrian bodybuilder's first leading role and one that focuses our attention on him at all times. His physical performance is commanding and faultless, the more cerebral moments emphasise his inexperience - there are numerous hilarious moments when an often wordless Conan stares, eyes wide open as something amazing happening. Supposedly in awe, Schwarzenegger looks more like a cartoon character whose eyes are about to pop out of his head. But these shortcomings pale against the rest of the film. Co-written by director Milius and a certain, young Oliver Stone, this really is Milius' film. It is his conviction in the subject that comes across throughout.

It expertly mixes sorcery, magic, legend and mythology, creating a rounded and believable world. From the pre-credits, on-screen introduction it's clear that Milius has gone to great lengths to create the universe in which Conan exists and it perfectly sets to mood for what follows. It even ends with a similar, on-screen post script describing how what we have just witnessed was the creation of a legend who went on to further battles against evil and eventually went on to be a King (as the original poster tagline suggested). The first part of this is explored in the inferior sequel Conan the Destroyer. The transformation into King was to the be basis of the, as yet un-made and increasingly unlikely ever to be made, third part of what was originally hoped to be a trilogy. (This subsequently emerged as the plot for the dire Kull the Conquerer in 1997.) The art direction is spot on. Although there are some big sets they never overpower the action taking place on them, and there are some powerful images such as Conan being crucified on a lone tree in the desert. Basil (Robocop) Poledouris delivers a brilliant, epic soundtrack that captures the tone of Milius' mood perfectly. The main Conan theme is, even after many years between viewings, instantly recognisable and a major asset. In summary then, Conan the Barbarian is two hours of rousing, muscle-bound entertainment, and one of the very finest examples of its genre.

Rob Dyer

See also:
Kull the Conquerer
For a similar personal journey also see Gladiator

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