This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
The legend begins with a young Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least once he’s grown up) given a lesson on theology by his father which boils down to ‘trust no-one but your sword’, a message later simplified by the X-Files. This life of forging swords and making snowmen doesn’t last long, as Conan’s entire village is mercilessly is slaughtered by a rampaging horde, my favourite being the guy who smacks people with a huge mallet like one of those arcade Whack-A-Mole machines. After offing Conan’s father, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) nicks his sword and kills Conan’s mother with it. What a bad man. The children are spared and sent to work as slaves, Conan’s specialty being pushing a large wheel. If nothing else it’s great for his muscles.
He grows up into a strapping beefcake of a lad and it’s not long before his potential to be a gladiator is noticed by his captors. He turns into a legendary brute of a fighter, happy in his work smashing people’s heads in. After beating everyone there was to beat he’s sent off to the vaguely described East for yet more training to be turned into a disciplined warrior and killer. He’s taught philosophy, his own being that what’s best in life is to ‘Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women’. For the purposes of plot advancement he’s randomly set free one night.
He stumbles into a tomb, robbing a sword for the dead king. He stumble across a breathy temptress who tells him where to find his families murderers before turning into a snake-woman, trying to kill him then turning into pure energy and flying off. Typical woman. After this he meets an archer and thief Subotai (Gerry Lopez), becoming friends after a debate on theology settled on ‘which God is highest wins’. No, really. They go to a city where Arnie decks a camel. No, really. This is all just preamble though, the build-up to Conan’s blood filled quest to avenge his family.
He’s up against the forces of an evil snake cult, first incurring their wrath by infiltrating a sacrificial ceremony in one of their temples and nicking one of their jewels. He has to fight a large snake to escape, a suspiciously rubbery one. The feat is made more difficult by Arnie having to supply the snake’s motion himself. Along the way a female thief and warrior joins them, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). Being a Dino De Laurentis production you’re guaranteed it’s not long before she’s got her baps out and rolling around in soft focus with Arnie in fits of passion. They become successful thieves, and grow lazy and weak in the lap of luxury. They are captured and brought before the old and melodramatic King Osric the Usurper (Max Von Sydow, strangely). He wants them to rescue her daughter from the hands and brainwashing of the snake cult, and pays them handsomely to do so. His bird’s a bit reluctant, but Arnie wants vengeance so buggers off by himself in the middle of the night. Doesn’t even leave a note. Typical man.
He travels for days on horseback over the plains, and it’s all very nicely and epically shot. The barrenness of it all somehow is very effective in making it feels like a far earlier age, in this time where buildings shoot up on nearly every bit of available flat land. The film establishes the faintly comic but suitable heroic tone early and sustains it throughout. He bumps into a magician, and also narrator of the tale. He swaps his horse for a camel and goes after the evil clan, infiltrating the bizarre clan of followers who want to reach emptiness. Using the old ‘clobber a priest and nick his robe’ method he enters the big Temple O’ Evil, I suppose I should point out that with all these white-hooded honkeys wandering about it looks like the biggest KKK rally ever.
He never really pulls off the pious look too well, do he’s busted as an infidel and tortured for a while before Thulsa shows up for a chat. James Earl Jones puts in a very stately performance, but it’s almost out of place given the ridiculous things he has to say and do. Witness him beckoning to a follower on a ledge twenty feet above, who happily jumps off to her death. Fair enough, it’s battering home the point that his followers will do anything for him but it’s still daft. Why evil leaders continually slaughter their own goons I’ll never understand.
Arnie is crucified to the Tree Of Woe and left for dead, and we’re treated to a particularly silly scene of him biting off a peckish vultures head. Again, the animal’s motion provided by Arnie. There aren’t a huge amount of effects shots in the movie, but it’s fair to say they haven’t aged well. He’s save by his cronies who take his wounded form back to the magician. He performs a ritual to help ward off the spirits who come to claim his life. It works, largely because these spirits can somehow be batted away by swatting them. Eternal life ought to be a cinch, as long as you sleep with a baseball bat by your side.
A fully regenerated Ah-nold and his chums decide on a plan of action for attacking the Evil Temple On The Hill. Basically it’s sneak in the back way with some charcoal smeared on their bodies. Each to their own. Inside Thulsa’s harem they stage their assault, after witnessing him turning into a giant snake. As you do. It’s taken over an hour but this is the proper hack ‘n’ slash mayhem that we want from the film, and while hardly a showcase of swordsmanship it’s entertaining enough. They peg it with the Princess, much to the dismay of Thulsa who promises to drown them in a lake of blood, which seems excessive.
I hope you’ve got your disbelief thoroughly suspended by this point, otherwise your brain may well shut down when Thulsa fires a magical infidel seeking snake(!) from his bow with fatal consequences for Valeria, who has an embarrassingly bad death soliloquy. Arnie’s never been much of an emoter, so lets fill in the ‘sad’ for him in our heads shall we? He can however do ‘stoic and angry’, which is what we get while the remaining members of Conan’s party get ready for an assault by Thulsa’s forces.
A battle of two vs. many seems bad odds, but hey, it’s Conan, what you gonna do? Much blade-based bloodletting occurs, hampered only by some dodgy editing of bits presumably too gory or where contact was never properly made, giving it a choppy feel which isn’t too satisfying, although it’s nice seeing the Whack-A-Mole fellow impaled. For the film’s real final battle it’s disappointing, especially as it’s done better previously, leaving a slight sour taste to the final quarter hour. Things look grim for Conan at one point but he’s saved by his girlfriend in Shiny Valkyrie form, because not quite enough silly things have happened yet.
Thulsa bust out another Infidel seeking snake missile to fire at the Princess, but it’s intercepted by Subotai’s shield. Later, Conan gatecrashes another cult rally and listens to another patented Evil Overlord Hero-demotivating speech, but that has the same level of success as they usually do (none), and Thulsa soon finds himself in possession of one less head than is usual for humans. His enemies vanquished, he sets off in search of new adventures..but that is another tale.
Everyone in this takes it far too seriously, but that’s only a problem because the effects make much of this film laughable by today’s standards. Somehow only Arnie himself escapes this, as much of his sparse lines are about the death of his family and subsequent treatment, and he delivers them with the bluster and venom expected. When James Earl Jones tries the same earnestness for his speeches it doesn’t have quite the same effect, sounding as stilted and silly as the acts he performs. The story would perhaps work better if random daftness that isn’t even followed up on weren’t continually happening, like transforming into snakes and the like. What was the point? It’s not like it’s ever referred to again, it’s just like the makers got a cheap deal on unconvincing rubber snakes and wanted to use them.
It’s hardly a classic of character development, apart from some of them developing to be dead. The story itself is a simple tale of revenge that isn’t complicated by any side goals for once, because even the side goal of rescuing the Princess is directly tied in to Conan’s ultimate quest for vengeance. The biggest complaint I had wasn’t anything to do with the acting or the effects or the direction, but with the fights. There just aren’t enough of them. If you’re doing an action swordplay film it should be chock full of severed limbs from start to finish. If you’re not chopping people up you better have a damn good reason not to be, and all too often this film doesn’t, with characters sitting about discussing something entirely unrelated to anything.
At least they have good backing music for their discussions. Basil Poledouris puts in a score that fits the mood and the visuals to a tee, sweeping and epic during reveals and transitions, tub-thumping and dramatic during the battles.
Conan The Barbarian has it’s moments, but not enough of them to give a particularly good recommendation. With Hollywood finally recognising the superiority of the Eastern fight choreographers they’ve made some tremendous advances in the quality of swordplay scenes, which is sadly lacking here. It’s not that they’re bad, just they’ve been done better since. Not that that’s a direct criticism of this film, which is certainly as good as if not better than it’s contemporaries, but it’s something that has to be accounted for. Time has not been too kind to this film, but it should take heart that it’s still better than a fair proportion of films being released today.