Sunday, April 27, 2014
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Conan the Barbarian opens (as the epic, bombastic orchestral score by Basil Poledouris that carries the movie and I can't say enough good things about plays) with a montage of a sword being built. We see it poured and hammered into shape and form by Conan's father as his mother watches, and this opening really captures what the movie is about: the making of Conan. Just as we see the sword crafted into something strong and rigid, so too do we witness the making of Conan into a powerful, determined warrior.
As a child, shortly after his father crafts that sword and teaches him about their god Crom and the Riddle of Steel, Conan watches as his whole village is wiped out by the marauding horde of Thulsa Doom (a chilling James Earl Jones), the leader of a snake cult. Conan is enslaved, but by the time he's grown, his body has become incredibly strong. Bought and trained as a gladiator, he is freed, falls in with the thief Subotai (Gerry Lopez), and romances the warrior woman Valeria (Sandhal Bergman). All the while, Conan nurtures his desire for revenge agains the snake cult.
In some way, the movie can be viewed as a sword-and-sorcery coming of age story. Conan begins as a small child and becomes a slave who spends years pushing a wheel to grind grain and then is forced into the life of a pit fighter, where at first he doesn't so much fight as he struggles to survive, his master having dropped him in with no training or preparation. Then, through a montage, Milius shows how Conan becomes a dominant fighter and then is trained as swordsman and educated. Out on his own as thief, he makes friends and finds love for the first time before finding his purpose and life's mission to avenge his family. By film's end, through brute strength, swordsmanship, and crafty combat strategy, he is able to stand against Doom's men, establishing himself as mighty warrior. Only then is he ready to confront Doom himself.
Arnold has never been considered a "great" actor, but he's perfect for the role of the barbarian warrior who is craftier and more determined than those around him think. He doesn't say much (in fact he says all of five words to Valeria), but he carries a powerful presence. It's one of the few roles of his where I don't see him as Arnold (although he gets a couple of laughs with some of those patented Arnold faces). Without Arnold, this movie doesn't work as well.
Early on in the movie, it is foretold Conan will one day become a king by his own hand. Conan the Barbarian does such a good job establishing Conan's character that it's easy to imagine future movies building on this groundwork as he works to become a king, but alas, neither Milius nor Stone returned for a sequel that was ultimately watered down and dumbed down. But that is another story.