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CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)

They said you would come. From the north - a man of great strength - a conqueror - a man who would one day be king by his own hand...."




  Director:
 
John Milius

  Starring: 
Arnold Swarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Mako, Max von Sydow, William Smith, Ben Davidson, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Cassandra Gaviola, Jorge Sanz

  Screenplay: 
John Milius and Oliver Stone, based upon the writings of Robert E. Howard

Synopsis:   As a child, Conan (Jorge Sanz) is told by his father (William Smith) that his god is Crom, who lives in the earth; and of how the giants who also lived in the earth stole from Crom the Secret of Steel; and that in the ensuing battle, the Secret of Steel was lost upon the surface, where it fell into the hands of Man. Conan’s father warns his son that no-one in the world is to be depended upon – not men, not women, not beasts – only the sword. A marauding band sweeps into the village in search of weapons made of steel. They slaughter the adults, including Conan’s parents, and capture the children, who will be sold into slavery. Conan focusses upon the band’s leader (James Earl Jones) and his standard, a double-headed snake meeting itself over a black sun and and a black moon…. As an adult, the slave Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is turned into a pit fighter. He proves to be such an expert killer that he is taken to the East to be trained in the martial arts, and in writing and language, poetry and philosophy. Given his freedom, Conan begins a relentless search for his parents’ killers. Chased by wolves across a plain, Conan falls into an underground cavern. Lighting a fire, he finds himself in a ruined throne-room, confronted by a skeleton in armour. Convinced that he has found the earthly remains of his god, Crom, Conan takes a steel sword from the figures skeletal hand. As he continues on his journey, Conan is invited into the home of a woman (Cassandra Gaviola) who tells him that his coming was prophesied; that one day he will, by his own hand, become a king; that he will crush the snakes of the earth…. At this, Conan reacts violently, describing to the woman the banner carried by the band that destroyed his village. The two have sex. In the middle of the act the woman transforms, first into a snarling demon, which Conan throws from him, then into a fire-ball. She vanishes into the night, laughing…. The next morning, Conan finds a man chained up nearby and frees him from his bonds. The man introduces himself as Subotai (Gerry Lopez), thief and archer. The two become comrades, searching together for more clues to the killers of Conan’s parents. Finally, they are told of a snake cult that has spread across the land. Subotai takes Conan to the Tower Of The Serpent where, he promises, lies wealth without end and the greatest jewel of all – the Eye Of The Serpent. However, someone is there before them: a female warrior-thief named Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). The three join forces, climbing the tower and lowering themselves down inside using ropes. Upon the first level of the tower, people in white robes are carrying out a ritual. Valeria points out Rexor (Ben Davidson), High Priest of the cult, second only to its leader, Thulsa Doom. She then sends the men into an underground pit, while she steals some robes and joins in the ritual, as a girl prepares to sacrifice herself…. Conan and Subotai recoil in disgust from the human remains scattered around the pit, but succeed in locating the Eye of the Serpent, an enormous ruby. Conan lifts it from its resting place in the sculpture of a snake. As he and Subotai turn to leave, Conan sees upon the wall a carved jade icon, a representation of the standard he has been searching for: the two-headed snake above a black moon and sun. He begins to cut it down. So engrossed is Conan in his discovery that he fails to notice that a gigantic snake is moving towards him….

 

Comments:  While its roots lie amongst the pepla that enjoyed such popularity in the wake of the release of Le Fatiche Di Ercole in 1958, the burgeoning of the sword ‘n’ sorcery film during the 1980s may be more properly attributed to two remarkable fantasy films that appeared as if from nowhere during the early years of that decade. Heroic fantasy generally had enjoyed a revival during the 1970s, but it did not make any real impact upon the cinema until the release of Excalibur in 1981, and Conan The Barbarian the following year. Although in literary terms these two films took a quite disparate approach, the one drawing upon Arthurian legend and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D'Arthur in particular, and the other upon the pulp writings of Robert E. Howard, they had one thing very much in common: they both took themselves very seriously indeed. An entirely po-faced approach to the fantastique can be fraught with the dangers of unintentional comedy (as, indeed, no-one knows better than John Boorman), but in these instances the approach worked brilliantly; and it is this above all else that separates Conan The Barbarian from the inevitable flood of imitations that appeared in the wake of its success. The majority of these knock-offs took their cue from the first of the Conan cash-ins, The Sword And The Sorcerer, and acknowledge themselves to be no more than a bit of silly fun, often playing their material for camp. Conan The Barbarian, on the other hand, behaves like – and demands to be treated as – high art.

 

 

Conan The Barbarian is essentially the story of a quest for vengeance, and its opening scenes create an appropriately epic background for its hero. The child Conan is born of a hardy people from the north, the Cimmerians, denizens of the snows, who hold the secret to fashioning weapons from steel. This, we learn, is a gift from the gods, although an inadvertent one. The attitude of this film to religion is one of its most critical aspects; and it is entirely appropriate that the god of these people, Crom, is a far-from-infallible entity who can be tricked, who loses his temper, and who is careless enough to leave the Secret of Steel lying around where men can find it. It is during this talk that Conan’s father imbues him with the philosophy that is to shape his life, warning him that while no living thing on earth is entirely to be trusted, he may always put his faith in the sword.

 

However, that the sword, too, may sometimes fail is soon brutally illustrated. Conan’s people are attacked by a marauding band that, not having the Secret of Steel, must acquire their weapons from those that do. The villagers fight back valiantly – Conan’s father alone accounts for a good dozen of the invaders – but at last they are overwhelmed, until the only adult left alive is Conan’s mother, who stands over her son with a sword of her husband’s making in her hand, daring the attackers to approach them. It seems that they do not dare. They stand at a distance, removing their helmets (Sven-Ole Thorsen is immediately recognisable amongst them), and waiting. At length, the leader of the band walks up bearing a steel sword, that which fell at the last from the hand of Conan’s father. He, too, removes his helmet, and we get our first look at the man who we shall later know as Thulsa Doom. Although he comes armed, Doom does not engage Conan’s mother – at least, not with his sword. Instead, he meets and hold her gaze. Confusion shows in the woman’s face. She seems dazed....and she lowers her sword. Doom turns away, seemingly satisfied – and then, with a single stroke of the sword, he decapitates the woman before her son’s eyes. The boy, bewildered past even the point of horror, turns and gazes up at Thulsa Doom, and at the standard that his people carry: a snake with a head at each end, which face each other over a black sun and a black moon....

 

With that, the weapons are collected, and the children of the village rounded up to be sold into slavery; and we enter into the phase of Conan The Barbarian that, quite frankly, makes precious little dramatic sense, visually arresting as it is. Most famously, the child Conan is set to work on a grinding-wheel, pushing it around and around and around, apparently for the next ten years. We assume that, despite appearances, there is a purpose to this work. We also assume that, from time to time, the boy is allowed to push the wheel clockwise as well as anti-clockwise, because when we re-join him as an adult his physique has not only built up to the point of grotesqueness, it is quite symmetrical.

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It also belongs to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 

This was the true beginning to Arnie’s film career, after the humiliating false starts of Hercules In New York and The Jayne Mansfield Story (in which, opposite Loni Anderson, he played Mickey Hargitay). It is really rather astonishing to think that there were two excellent action films of the early eighties that required a behemoth who was the strong, silent type, and whose sheer physical presence compensated for all manner of artistic and dramatic defects. However, given the combined power of Conan The Barbarian and The Terminator, it is easy to understand how in the mid-eighties, Arnie came to rule the box-office. Of course, later on things hit a bit of a snag when people gave Arnie roles that required him to speak; even to act. Be that as it may, there is no denying the impact of his casting here, nor that John Milius made exactly the right choice in casting for physical credibility. However, even keeping Arnie’s dialogue to an astonishing bare minimum – Conan has about thirty lines in the whole two hour film, and two of them are just exclamations of, “Crom!” – his extreme woodenness is painfully apparent whenever he opens his mouth. This is not a problem for large stretches of the film, where the action is allowed to predominate. However, towards the climax, where the adult Conan must face off against his life-long enemy, Thulsa Doom, Arnie’s verbal incapacity is shown up and painfully emphasised by contrast with the charisma and oratory power of James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom.

 

But that is a long way off. First we must follow Conan through the confusing days of his young adulthood. (As I say “young adulthood”--- It’s easy to forget just how long ago this film was made, until you get some shots of Arnie in which he is positively baby-faced. I get the same sense of temporal shock these days watching Conan The Barbarian as I do watching Mad Max.) Presumably because of his physique, Conan ends up being purchased and turned into a professional pit-fighter. Thrown unprepared into his first fight, Conan is so bewildered that he very nearly has his jugular ripped out by his opponent’s bite before he collects himself enough to defend himself, which he finally does with fatal consequences. At length, Conan becomes such a skilful killer that he earns a fortune for his owner. (Here I can say again, presumably: very little that happens in this stretch of the film is explicated.) Eventually, Conan is rewarded for his countless victories in the pit by being taken to the East and formally trained in all aspects of the warrior arts. Furthermore, he is taught to read and write, and later educated in poetry and philosophy; a touch that probably seems funnier now than when the film was first released; at any rate, no evidence of the gentler side of Conan’s education is later evident. During this time, Conan is also introduced to the pleasures of women”, who are sent to him as breeding partners. Here the film shamelessly rips off Spartacus, as Conan behaves with unexpected gentleness towards his assigned “mate”, as his guards leer at them through the bars of his prison.

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It is also during this sequence, a full twenty-three minutes into the film, that Conan speaks his first words – and a career-defining opening line it is, too. Asked by his warrior-master what is “best in life”, Conan earns his approval by replying, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Unforgettable as this moment is, we really can’t help but wonder where Conan picked up that accent, which in no way resembles that of anyone who has so far had anything to do with him.

 

And then, having spent endless months and, we assume, a considerable sum of money upon training Conan, his owner gives him his freedom, for no reason we can fathom beyond a hint that he was drunk at the time. This sets up the first of many scenes that, unexpectedly, are amongst the most memorable that the film has to offer, Conan running across the open steppe. There are many, many scenes of Conan simply running in this film, sometimes alone, sometimes in company; and that they never seem boring, or like padding, but on the contrary strike us as stirringly exciting may be attributed to the extraordinary music that accompanies them. Arguably Basil Poledouris’ most famous work, the score of Conan The Barbarian is a sweeping, vaguely Wagnerian mixture of brass and woodwind, drums and chimes, interspersed with soaring choral interludes. With this music thundering out of your speakers, a guy doing nothing more than wandering across a patch of dirt can suddenly seem immeasurably heroic. Hell, listen to this music often enough, and you might feel like taking on a psychotic cult leader or two yourself....

 

But we are still not up to that part of the film. Conan’s first taste of freedom is almost his last, as he is pursued across the steppe by a pack of wolves. He manages to elude them by climbing up onto an outcrop, and in the darkness tumbles through an opening in the rocks. He manages to make a fire by striking flints, and finds himself in an underground tomb occupied by the skeletal remains of a warrior in armour, who holds in his bony hand a sword like the ones made by Conan’s father; a sword forged by someone possessing the Secret of Steel. Remembering the tales told by his father, Conan concludes, not unreasonably, that he has stumbled across the earthly remains of Crom himself, and appropriates the sword for his own use.

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This arming of Conan does indeed form the prelude to the first hint of our story proper, as he is offered shelter from a growing storm by a mysterious woman, who announces to the traveller that he is the fulfillment of a prophecy. “They said you would come,” she murmurs, going on to speak of someone “from the north; a man of great strength”; one who would “become a king by his own hand”; and who would “crush the snakes of the earth”. The promise of a kingdom provokes little reaction from Conan, but at the mention of snakes the woman has his full attention: he describes to her the standard that he remembers from his childhood, the symbol of the two-headed snake. The woman intimates that she has the information that Conan seeks, but warns him that first he must pay a price. Cut to the two of them having sex.

 

Well, you know: it’s a tough job, but....

 

Granted, though, the woman does transform into a demon in the middle of the act; although she has at least the decency to reveal first that Conan will find what he is looking for in “Zamora, crossroads of the world”. Then she starts fanging and snarling, to which Conan responds by throwing her into her own fire. This seems at first to have destroyed her, but she reconstitutes herself as a fire-ball and streaks off through the night, leaving mocking laughter and a tail of flame in her wake.

 

Evidently unfased by this turn of events, Conan spends the night in the demon-woman’s cottage, and in the morning finds chained up almost on her doorstep a man called Subotai, who introduces himself as a “thief and archer”; his tone making it clear that he considers each of those professions as honourable as the other. Conan frees him, and then it’s time for more running across the steppe, which finally brings the two of them to something at least resembling civilisation. Within the walls of a city, Conan sees his first elephant, eats meat off a stick, gets stoned on “black lotus – the good stuff!”, rebuffs prostitutes, laughs at a man having sex with a llama, punches out a camel (Mel Brooks totally shouldve sued), and finally gets some solid information about the people he is seeking.

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The man who sells Conan and Subotai the black lotus is also able to fill them in on the significance of the snake-headed towers that we see looming over both cities visited by the travellers. They belong, he says, to the followers of Set. Until a few years earlier this was just another snake cult; now it thrives throughout the land, and is notorious for spreading deceit and death.... Although “Set” (or “Seteh”, or “Sutekh”) was the Egyptian god of the desert, and of storms and chaos, brother to Osiris and Isis, this particular use of the name “Set” is taken directly from Robert E. Howard, who used it in his stories to signify the snake god worshipped in Stygia, a southern land occupied by a people well-versed in the mystic arts.

 

There is another passing nod to this aspect of Howard’s mythology here when it is revealed that “the good stuff” offered to Conan and Subotai, of which they partake with, perhaps, more enthusiasm than judgement, is Stygian in origin. Subotai is still under the influence of the lotus when he recounts to Conan a local tale that insists that “wealth without end” is to be found in the Tower Of The Serpent, most notably in the form of a fabulous jewel known as the Eye Of The Serpent. The two decide to begin their new professional partnership by staging a raid upon the tower. They succeed in making their way inside, but then discover that they are not alone. Already there is a female warrior-thief named Valeria, who also has her eyes on the prize. There is an immediate sense that Valeria is far more experienced in her profession even than Subotai (hearing that they intend to climb the tower, she jeers, “You don’t even have a rope!”), and also that she has a better grasp of the dangers involved in infiltrating the territory of the snake cult. It is probably the latter that prompts her to propose a partnership.

 

For me, one of the greatest pleasures of Conan The Barbarian, as well as one of its most unexpected ones, is the performance of Sandahl Bergman as Valeria. Although cast, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, chiefly for her physique, Bergman gives easily the performance of her acting career here – although considering the rest of that career, to say so seems a bit too much like damning her with faint praise, which I certainly don’t intend. She is, it is true, a bit awkward in her non-action scenes, but certainly no more so than Arnie himself, and she had a hell of a lot more dialogue to cope with than Arnie. Tall, strong and athletic (she was trained as a dancer, and had success on Broadway before turning to acting), convincing in the handling of her weaponry, and with a nice way with a sarcastic remark, Bergman creates a thoroughly credible Valeria, and her contribution has a lot to do with the ultimate success of the film.

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Living as we are these days, in an era when, heaven help us, we are asked to accept Kate Beckinsale as an action star, what a genuine to pleasure to watch a film with a sword-wielding, head-kicking heroine who actually looks the part! Moreover, like Arnie himself, and for the same reason – they were unable to find anyone who could double for her believably – Sandahl Bergman did all her own stunt-work during the making of Conan The Barbarian. No CGI, no green-screen, no wire-work here: Bergman took a real battering in the course of production, and indeed at one point suffered an accident that nearly cost her a finger. She has, however, always downplayed the incident in question, saying only, of the legion of professional stuntmen who worked and suffered alongside her, that you should have seen the other guys.

 

It is also thanks to Sandahl Bergman’s efforts that we are so convinced of the mutual passion of Conan and Valeria: after the initial meeting of the two, Conan does not speak one word directly to Valeria. Indeed, in spite of the critical role played in film’s action of the love between the two, there is a unmistakable feeling in the way that the scenes between Conan and Valeria are handled that the only person in the world more uncomfortable with the “romance” stuff than Arnold Schwarzenegger was John Milius. It is left entirely to Sandahl Bergman to carry the dramatic weight of this relationship, and she does an admirable job. Among the most memorable moments in Conan The Barbarian are two of Valeria’s speeches to Conan, the first in which, in the course of trying to dissuade him from accepting a dangerous mission, she speaks of her existence before meeting him – All my life I have been alone. Many times I have faced death with no-one to know….” – and the other, when she declares for Conan a love that transcends death: “All the gods....they cannot sever us. If I were dead, and you still fighting for life, I would come back from the darkness, back from the pit of hell, to fight at your side....”

 

When the new partners infiltrate the Tower Of The Serpent, they find a cult ritual under way. Valeria recognises the man in charge of it as Rexor, the High Priest of the cult. It is at this point in the film that the name “Thulsa Doom” is first spoken, but it means nothing as yet to Conan. Valeria decides to see what is going on with the ritual, while ordering Subotai and Conan into the pit below the gallery where it is being carried out. The two lower themselves obediently, recoiling in nauseated disgust from the rotting human remains they find underfoot. However, they are soon distracted from their surroundings by the discovery that the stories were true: snake imagery is everywhere within the tower, and forming a part of a snake sculpture is a huge ruby, the legendary Eye Of The Serpent. The thieves immediately appropriate it and then turn to leave; but as Subotai scuttles up the passageway that leads back to their ropes, Conan’s attention is arrested by another piece of snake imagery: a jade icon on the far wall, depicting a two-headed snake. Conan begins to cut the symbol down; and so intent is he upon this first solid evidence that he has found what he has been searching for that he fails to notice there is movement behind him, as a huge snake uncoils itself and begins to glide towards him....

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I am (as I am sure my regular readers won’t be too surprised to hear) just a bit ambivalent about the whole “snake cult” aspect of Conan The Barbarian. While there is no doubt whatsoever about the fundamental evil of Thulsa Doom and the religion he heads, either in a general sense or in light of the specific philosophy at work within the film, I can’t help but be entranced by the ubiquitous snake imagery, and by the many real – or, at least, “real” – snakes that populate the story, from the small pythons worn like bracelets by the High Priestess of the cult, to the monstrous creature currently sneaking up on the oblivious Conan. I can’t say that Our Hero does much to endear himself to me here when, upon belatedly realising his danger, he gruesomely butchers the great snake with the sword of Crom.

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It is, however, this scene that sets up what is my favourite moment in Conan The Barbarian, when Conan later finds himself in the power of Thulsa Doom after an abortive attempt to infiltrate the cult. Pacing up and down, Doom says bitterly, You broke into my house – stole my property – murdered my servants – and my pets. And that is what grieves me the most: you killed my snake!

 

I mean, c’mon: I’m not supposed to sympathise?

 

We get our first true insight into the workings of Thulsa Doom’s cult here as, upon the High Priest’s signal, a girl willingly casts herself into the pit of the giant snake as a sacrifice....only to lie there untouched and bewildered, thanks to Conan’s sword-work. Taking advantage of the shock of the other cult members, the three thieves succeed in fighting their way back out of the tower, the Eye Of The Serpent safely in their possession. This is the beginning of a glorious career in thievery for Conan, Subotai and Valeria, who rob their way across the land, earning both wealth (which they mostly fritter away on wine, gambling, clothes and possibly more black lotus) and a reputation for skill and bravery.

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However, in the aftermath of what we take to be a spectacular night’s debauchery, as Valeria sits slumped against Conan looking very much the worse for wear, and as Conan himself lies with his face buried in a bowl of gruel, or worse, the three thieves are rounded up by a troop of guards and delivered to King Osric, ruler of the region they have been busy plundering. To their surprise, the thieves find that they are not being called to account for their activities, but being offered a job; and ironically, that it is a complaint lodged against them by Rexor, after their robbing of the tower, that has brought the trio to Osric’s attention. We learn that Osric’s daughter has run away to become a member of the snake-cult; and a reward beyond their wildest imaginings will be theirs, “all that you can carry, enough to become kings yourselves”, if they will go after the crowds swarming east to join Thulsa Doom at his “Mountain Of Power”, capture Osric’s daughter, and bring her home.

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The immediate effect of this offer is to divide the friends. Osric has paid a portion of their reward up-front, and Valeria is blunt in declaring that they should take what they have been given, and cut and run. Subotai agrees with her; but Conan knows that seeking out Thulsa Doom will bring him within his reach of his life’s goal. He does not, however, announce his intentions (which would, of course, require him to speak to Valeria), but instead slips away during the night to pursue his aims alone. More heroic running, and riding, across the landscape follows (as Basil Poledouris comes back into his own), until Conan finds himself looking down upon a strange forest of stone pillars. It is a burial mound, and within it Conan finds the skeletal remains of “kings, great kings”, while the land itself is described as a realm once populated by “giants; gods”. Beyond the stone forest, Conan meets a man who identifies himself only as “a wizard”. This, it is belatedly revealed – very belatedly revealed (one hour in) – is who has been narrating the film up until now, who has throughout has referred to Conan as “my master”; and this, in turn, provides an obvious basis for examining Conan The Barbarian on a philosophical level.

 

Past Conan The Barbarian, in the wake of The Sword And The Sorcerer, magic would play a far more significant role in movies such as these than it does here. Here it is simply one aspect of life, as likely to be a nuisance as either a danger or a help. While it works, those who practice it have no particular advantage over those that do not; while the wizard willingly enters the service of the entirely earthly Conan. But although magic does not play a particularly important part in Conan The Barbarian in and of itself, its handling does point the way towards one of the film’s most important aspects, its attitude towards religion and spiritual matters, of which it could scarcely be more contemptuous.

 

When Conan first encounters the wizard, the latter, after identifying himself, announces, “This place is kept by powerful gods, and spirits of kings are my flesh! – and you will have to deal with the dead!” This could hardly be more obviously a bluff. Indeed, we almost expect Conan to retort, “Ooh, I’m so scared!” As it is, he laughingly inquires whether the wizard can summon up demons, and laughs again when the wizard threatens to invoke, “A demon more ferocious than all in hell!” It is not that the wizard cannot do as he claims; merely, that these demons hold no particular terrors for the right kind of mortal. Likewise, while everyone in Conan The Barbarian has a god, no-one seems to expect much practical assistance from that direction, and what help does come is likely to do so at a very high price. Meanwhile, the wizards dealings with the spirits of the plain are couched in terms of quid pro quo. “Do the spirits owe you any favours?” Valeria demands of him, as she and Subotai later fight to save Conan as he hovers between life and death. The wizard paints Conan’s skin with magical symbols (shades of Kwaidan), but it is not these that save him, but the courage and strength of the two thieves, who stand over Conan and literally fight off the spirits that have come to claim him. This is a world where the mystical can be conquered by anyone who can handle a sword or throw a punch. Indeed, Conan’s own relationship with the subterranean Crom seems less like that of worshipper and idol than it does like something you’d find in a buddy picture. “Valour pleases you, Crom, so grant me this one request: grant me revenge!” Conan famously prays at one point. “And if you do not listen, then the HELL with you!”

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However, Conan The Barbarian saves its real scorn for the followers of Thulsa Doom who, in seeking something beyond the merely temporal, are posited as weak-minded and delusional. Their spiritual questing is foolishness at best; at worst, an invitation to be exploited. The depiction of the cultists is crude in the extreme: they are, literally, flower-children: festooned in flowers themselves, they exhort Conan to “throw down his sword and return to the earth”; while the ultimate aim of the Doom cult is later revealed as “to reach emptiness”. When Conan drapes himself in flowers in order to pass as a pilgrim, the film takes care to emphasise his embarrassment and discomfort, and his disdain for those around him; while the very first thing that happens to Conan within the confines of Doom’s camp is that he is hit upon by a gay priest, who is only too eager to take Conan “where the others will not see”….

 

(This scene gave me a shock, all right, but not for the reason that John Milius intended: I’d forgotten that Jack Taylor was in this!)

 

Conan The Barbarian is not shy in making claims for Conan’s “greatness”, although it does so as much through what we are told as through what we see; while the action of the film makes it very clear that this “greatness” lies in the very qualities in Conan that might make some viewers inclined to doubt it. Conan gets older, bigger, stronger and more skilful as a fighter as the film progresses, but there is no parallel internal change – unless starting out mad and getting madder counts as “change”. Within the world of this film, however, spiritual growth, spiritual anything, is not a positive quality. It is not through his education, his exposure to “poetry” and “philosophy”, that Conan finds himself: it is his victories as a pit-fighter, his skill as a killer, that first imbue him with a sense of self-worth. Ultimately, it is no quality of the soul, but rather Conan’s single-mindedness and sheer strength of will that mark him not just as a leader, but as a ruler; one whom even a wizard with supernatural powers and the ability to communicate with the gods might be glad to call “my master”. We are left in no doubt that this is John Milius’ own viewpoint at work: the whole of Conan The Barbarian is shot through with an almost wistful longing for a time when people solved their problems not through talk, or negotiation, but by hacking at each other with swords until somebody died; for a time when “men were men”….and women were “breeding stock”.

 

But consciously or not, the film ends up undermining itself when it finally brings Conan face to face with the object of his quest. Disguised in the stolen robes of his would-be seducer, Conan succeeds in infiltrating the cult of Thulsa Doom, but gives his identity away by flashing the jade snake-icon, which he has been using as a pass to access the temple, at the wrong person. A suspicious guard points out the “priest” in question to Thulsa Doom’s main men, Rexor and Thorgrim; and soon, a bloodied and battered Conan is thrown down at the feet of Thulsa Doom….who is, as we have long suspected, the leader of the bandits who slaughtered Conan’s people, and sold him into slavery.

 

 

One major problem with Conan The Barbarian, however much it might be in concordance with John Milius’ main argument, is that Thulsa Doom is simply a much more interesting character than Conan himself – and not just because James Earl Jones has so much more personality than Arnold Schwarzenegger (although that’s certainly part of it). We know Conan at a glance; but Thulsa Doom is a mystery that remains unsolved at the film’s conclusion. When we first see him, Doom is the leader of a brutal but entirely earthly band of marauders; when he next appears, he is the leader of a no-less brutal religion, with thousands of followers ready and willing to kill at his command – or to die.

 

(To demonstrate his powers to Conan, Doom looks up at a young woman gazing down at them from a rock ledge nearby and says gently, “Come to me, my child.” She does – directly.)

 

Even at the beginning, Doom possesses power over the minds of others: he essentially hypnotises Conan’s mother into lowering her sword and letting him kill her; while at that time he was already riding under the banner of the snake. Legend insists that Doom is “over a thousand years old” – he claims as much himself – but we never know the truth of it. Nor do we ever learn how he came to head this cult, although there is a tantalising hint that he took advantage of an existing but moribund snake-cult, and built his own religion upon its bones. Whether the hordes who flock to him do so of their own volition or under his command is never clear, and nor indeed is what Doom intends to do with all his followers. Although we are told that individuals have killed for him, and we see others die for him, it is difficult to envisage this rabble of spiritual seekers as an actual army, even though when the “Day Of Doom” arrives, we are told that it will entail “a purging, a great cleansing”. The stronger implication is that Doom is gathering so many simply for his own satisfaction, to feed his megalomania upon their willing subjection. Only four years before the release of Conan The Barbarian, the world stood stunned and horrified before the revelations of mass suicide and murder at Jonestown, Guyana; and everything about the depiction of Thulsa Doom and his cult, which is marked by both cannibalism and willing human sacrifice, seems intended to evoke the viewer’s nightmarish memories of its real-life counterpart.

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(At the same time, I’m assuming that the similarity of names – Jim Jones and James Earl Jones – is simply a morbid coincidence.)

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However, in its rather simplistic insistence upon the sheer evil of the snake-cult, there is no doubt that Conan The Barbarian is guilty of avoiding its own issues. There are, after all, thousands upon thousands from all over the land who have given themselves to the snake-cult. What are they looking for? What is missing in their lives, that they should abandon their homes and families to follow Thulsa Doom? It’s not good enough simply to say, well, they’re wrong; but that’s what the film does. It never even begins to engage with these questions. Instead, it just ignores them, or deflects them. An example of the latter is the handling of Osric’s daughter, who has run away from her father’s court to join up with Thulsa Doom – literally, as it turns out. Mourning her loss, Osric comments, “There comes a time when the jewels cease to sparkle – when the gold loses its lustre – when the throne-room becomes a prison.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that it may have been precisely this feeling that drove his daughter to Thulsa Doom in the first place; nor that his effort to be priest to her as well as father and king may have failed. “She seeks for the truth of her soul – as if I could not give it to her!” he complains. It seems evident to us that he could not – but no sooner has this point been raised than it is thrust aside, with Osric’s horrified exclamation – “She is to be his!” – changing the issue from one of his daughter’s spiritual quest to one cast in crudely sexual terms. Conan and the others are not to save her soul, merely her virginity.

 

Cast, upon his capture, at the feet of Thulsa Doom, Conan first has the Eye Of The Serpent demanded of him, and is then accused of the killing of Doom’s snake. We also learn that Thorgrim, who we just watched take a particular pleasure in beating Conan, “Raised that snake from the time that it was born!” and is, consequently, “Beside himself with grief”; and again, my sympathies here may be just a tad misplaced….particularly when Conan responds by crying, “You killed my mother – you killed my father – you killed my people! You took my father’s sword!” Even this last statement does not seem to answer for Thulsa Doom the question of who this insanely reckless intruder could be: those days of slaughter and banditry were all so long ago, back when “steel meant more to me than gold or jewels”. Doom does, however, provide Conan with the answer to the Riddle of Steel – or with what he considers to be the answer: that steel is not strong; it is flesh that is strong, and above all the heart, and the mind….

 

And having illustrated his point by inducing the suicide of one of his followers, Doom then sends Conan off to, “Contemplate this on the tree of woe.”

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There are any number of iconic pieces of imagery in Conan The Barbarian, but surely the greatest among them is this, the sight of Conan crucified upon a twisted tree in the heart of a barren wilderness. Whatever he might think of Doom’s philosophy, there is no question that Conan’s own flesh takes a lot of killing (a vulture that ventures a little too close a little too early gets a horrible shock); and Conan is still with us, just barely, when a solitary figure appears on the horizon….

 

Subotai drags Conan back to the wizard on a litter, where Valeria is waiting for them. It is here that the great battle for Conan takes place, with Valeria and Subotai fighting off the spirits with fist and sword and knife, as they literally bind their companion to the earth. It is also here that Valeria makes her great promise, that she would return to Conan even after death, should he be in need of her; and that she is willing to pay whatever price the gods demand in order to save his life, even though the wizard warns her that the spirits of this place “exact a heavy toll”….

 

It takes some time for Conan to recover from his ordeal, but once he has, there is no question of his leaving Valeria and Subotai again. However, the other two insist that things must go no further than fulfilling their mission for Osric, and that Thulsa Doom must be left for another day; to which Conan finally, and with bitter reluctance, agrees.

 

The final half-hour of Conan The Barbarian is almost non-stop action. First, the thieves again manage to infiltrate the “Mountain Of Power”, where they succeed in rescuing Osric’s daughter – against her will – and we discover that amongst his other powers, Thulsa Doom has the ability to transform into a giant snake.

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(At which point, I give up the struggle and start officially siding with the bad guys….)

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This raid upon Doom’s stronghold provokes retaliation, with Doom’s forces descending upon Conan for an incredibly violent showdown set amongst the stone forest. And finally, there is the inevitable confrontation between Conan and Doom, during which the latter waxes philosophical, calling Conan, “My son. For who now is your father if it is not me?” he asks, arguing that everything Conan has done, all that he has made of himself, can be traced back to his hatred and his quest for revenge; and that a world without Thulsa Doom in it would be for Conan a very empty world indeed. Doom then tries to hypnotise Conan, as he did to his mother before him; while at last, the film provides a definitive answer to the question of just which is the stronger, flesh or steel….

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While there usually is a gap between influential films and the knock-offs they inspire, in the case of Conan The Barbarian it’s not so much a gap as a gulf. Even the very first of the rip-offs, The Sword And The Sorcerer, keeps only the barbarian characters and the fantasy world setting of its predecessor, and jettisons everything that, in truth, makes its model so worthwhile. Thus, in place of the gravity of Conan The Barbarian, we find a camp sensibility and an air of jokiness; far from sharing its suspicion of magic and indeed all matters spiritual, we find a reliance upon the supernatural that manifests mostly in hokey special effects; and instead of the tangible world that stretches from the snowy forests of Conan’s childhood home to the desert enclave of the wizard to the mountain stronghold of Thulsa Doom, we find a lot of very obvious studio sets, disguised (not always successfully) with silk hangings and tinsel. The sad thing is, in time even Conan himself was forced to bow before these new conventions, so completely had the second wave of films come to dominate the public consciousness of what a barbarian film – or by now, a sword ‘n’ sorcery film – should be. In a phenomenon perhaps best compared to the shift in approach between Halloween and Halloween II as a result of the intervening influence of Friday The 13th, by the time Conan The Destroyer appeared in 1984, it too had jettisoned the virtues of its forebear, and was playing much of its story for laughs. It doesn’t really work.

 

But an astonishing amount of Conan The Barbarian does work; astonishing not least because it dared to build itself around a dearth of acting talent, and got away with it. That this is the film that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star is perfectly understandable – his sheer screen presence here is amazing – but the plain fact is, everyone around him out-acts him; even Sandahl Bergman; even Gerry Lopez. Indeed, the single scene that these three share with Max von Sydow, who has a glorified cameo as Osric, is almost comical, given the way that von Sydow just sits there, and lets acting sweep around and over his non-professional co-stars like floodwater. Meanwhile, James Earl Jones towers over this film like a colossus….which isn’t a bad thing. Action films generally tend to stand or fall according to how credible a threat is posed by their villains, and we don’t doubt the threat of Thulsa Doom for as much as a moment.

 

(Besides which, “Thulsa Doom” is surely the most perfectly bad-ass bad guy name ever concocted. The moments when his followers are chanting, “Do-oo-oom! Do-oo-oom!” are quite chilling.)

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Ultimately, though, it is the daring gravitas of Conan The Barbarian that really makes it work. While the film’s philosophy is certainly flawed, the very fact that it has a philosophy in the first place is sufficient to indicate the distance that lies between itself and its copyists. From its opening (mis)quotation from Nietzsche to its closing narration, this is a film that demands we take it seriously – and remarkably enough, we do, if perhaps not quite as seriously as John Milius himself. The thought and the effort that went into creating a credible world for Conan and his companions – and his enemies – to inhabit, and credible conflicts to drive them, is apparent in every frame. The film’s production design is meticulously rendered and exquisitely detailed, as indeed is its costuming and its presentation of its characters….right down to such details as (a touch that truly makes me love it) the fact that Valeria’s fingernails are both short and dirty. Finally, the score, which on its own is powerful enough to lift a much lesser film than this one to a higher plain, is here simply the production’s crowning glory. The end result is, if not quite a great film, then a thoroughly enjoyable one, an exciting and bloody spectacle with a welcome sense of grandeur.
 
Want a second opinion of Conan The Barbarian? Visit Teleport City and 1000 Misspent Hours - and Counting.
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----revised 22/02/2010