Sunday, April 27, 2014

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

I don't know if we'll ever see another movie like the original Conan the Barbarian (1982) ever again. Directed by John Milius, written by Milius and Oliver Stone, and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Barbarian is, to be sure, a violent, pulpy fantasy epic but one made with a lot more care (and a higher budget) than most other ilk of the genre at the time. Since then, while we have gotten bigger and bolder fantasy adventures such as The Lord of the Rings, Conan feels more grounded and lived-in than the CGI blockbusters that dominate Hollywood today.  And it's Rated R; it doesn't shy away from blood, guts, decapitations, dismemberments, sex, and other material you don't normally find in a movie genre dominated by dwarves, elves, and concerns about building a franchise.

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.

Drawing on characters, plots, and other elements from a number of different Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian is a to a degree episodic. Several passages of the film - Conan's days as a pit fighter, the break-in of a snake cult tower, an encounter with a witch - can almost be seen as their own self-contained stories. There is a certain red-blooded, primal, macho aggression in these types of stories, where the heroes must be strong, brutal, and dominant if they are to succeed. Steel clashes against steel, blood is spilled freely, the way is lit by torches, and the weak are cast aside. When asked what is best in life, Conan replies, "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

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.

That is the line running through Conan the Barbarian, and on this line, the movie includes first-rate production design, dark and awe-inspiring special effects, fun performances, and exciting action sequences. Made in the days before CGI, the movie, through practical sets and real locations, looks and feels like a big, fantasy world filled witches who turn into harpies, spectral beings that arrive at night to claim the dead, giant snakes (one of which we see change from human form), underground tombs, massive mountain-side temples, opulent throne rooms, and gorgeous landscapes.  Milius includes several stand-out images: the approaching horde of Doom out at the horizon, Conan crucified to a tree, the large congregation of robed zealots of Doom who carry candles, Conan swinging his sword as he stands at the end of ledge gazing out at the ocean, and more. Nothing about the movie feels hokey or cheap (except for one obviously fake vulture Conan chews to pieces while on the tree). There is some humor, but it's not at the expense of the story.

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.

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