CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Jeffrey Kramer, Jeffrey Voorhees, Lee Fierro, Robert Nevin, Susan Backlinie
Screenplay: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based upon the novel by Peter Benchley

Synopsis: As a child, Conan (Jorge Sanz) is taught the Riddle Of Steel by his father (William Smith). A marauding band sweeps into Conan’s village, slaughtering the adults, including his parents; capturing the children, who will be sold into slavery; and taking all the weapons, which are made of steel. Conan focuses upon the band’s leader, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), and his standard, two snakes over a black sun and 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, surrounded by skeletons in armour. Conan takes the steel sword of the body on the throne, becoming convinced that these are the earthly remains of his god, Crom. 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 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…. The next morning, Conan finds a man chained up nearby. He frees the man, who introduces himself as Subotai (Gerry Lopez), thief and archer. The two become comrades, searching together for a clue 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 before them: a female warrior-thief named Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). The three join forces, climbing the tower. Inside, people in white robes are carrying out a ritual. Valeria points out Rexor (Ben Davidson), High Priest of the cult, second only to Thulsa Doom. She then sends the men into an underground pit, while she steals some robes and joins the ritual as a girl prepares to sacrifice herself…. Conan and Subotai find the Eye of the Serpent, an enormous ruby. Conan lifts it from its resting place. As he turns to leave, he sees a hanging bearing the standard he has been searching for: two snakes, facing each other, above a black moon and sun. So engrossed is he in his discovery that he fails to notice that he is not alone: a gigantic python is moving towards him….

Comments: What, more Arnold!? Yes, indeedy. After a couple of false starts to his cinematic career (which we will, in due course, be examining here), Arnold established himself as a "star" (if not necessarily as an actor) by taking the lead role in Conan The Barbarian. The film itself is a surprisingly well-made fantasy-epic. It was both extremely successful in its own right, and enormously influential. The sword ‘n’ sandal film, which became popular after the release of The Labours Of Hercules in 1957 and died away a decade later, was revived in the wake of Conan, but with a new twist: the sword ‘n’ sorcery film was born. In America, the first cab off the rank was The Sword And The Sorcerer, which was released the same year as Conan, and which unleashed Albert Pyun upon an unsuspecting world. This was followed by the inevitable Conan sequel, Conan The Destroyer; further Howard adaptations in Red Sonja and Kull The Conqueror; odd co-productions such as Hundra and Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom; and the Beastmaster and Deathstalker series. Meanwhile, Italy came to the party with the Ator series, and some other legendary clunkers including Yor, The Hunter From The Future. What distinguishes Conan The Barbarian from most of these imitations is not its acting, which is truly not that much better here than elsewhere; nor its plot, which is perfunctory; nor its special effects, which are nothing special; but the absolute seriousness with which it is treated by its makers. (Well, let’s face it: neither John Milius nor Oliver Stone is exactly known for his sense of humour, is he?) The majority of the sword 'n' sorcery knock-offs that followed chose to take a lead from The Sword And The Sorcerer, and play their material for camp. Conan, on the other hand, is handled like high art. This dead-straight seriousness could have turned the entire project into a debacle, but miraculously, it worked. Conan The Barbarian is long for a film of its type, and that it never drags is a credit to its writers and director. A lot of thought and care (and money) went into the making of this movie, and it shows. The result is, if not a great film, then an exciting and bloody spectacle with a welcome sense of grandeur.

One of the biggest flaws in Conan The Barbarian is the character of Conan himself. He simply isn’t very interesting. He undergoes no change – unless starting out mad and getting madder counts as "change". He grows physically, but not spiritually. He develops as a warrior, but not as a human being. Of course, it is entirely possible that this is exactly what John Milius intended. Perhaps it is Conan’s very simplicity and single-mindedness that in the director’s opinion, marks him for greatness. The film does in fact radiate a love of "when men were men" (and women were "breeding stock"); there is an almost wistful longing for a time when people solved their problems not by talking, but by hacking at each other with swords until one of them died. At this Conan does excel; the difficulty for the viewer is translating that ability into a belief in Conan’s "greatness". Schwarzenegger’s woodenness is a major liability here. It is clear that John Milius chose his cast for their physical attributes, not their thespian qualities; and on the whole this was a wise move, as the frequent fight scenes are brutally convincing. However, when his characters are finally called upon to speak, we have a problem. Conan, this king in the making, this leader of men, has about thirty lines of dialogue in the whole two-hour film – and two of those are exclamations of, "Crom!" (Another whole two are directed at Conan’s great love, Valeria, when they first meet. After the pair become lovers, he never speaks to her.) Arnold may – hell, does – look the part, but when he opens his mouth, it’s hard not to wince. Milius’ decision to restrict his dialogue was wise, but it makes it difficult for the viewer to see Conan as anything more than a killing machine. In an effort to overcome this, we are given told from the outset (and again later in the film) that Conan will become a king "by his own hand". The wizard who narrates the story refers to Conan throughout as "my master" – if a wizard’s serving him, he must be great, right? And when Conan suffers a tragic loss late in the film, it is his loyal companion, Subotai, who cries – "because he will not". And so on it goes, all of it intended to convince the audience of Conan’s less tangible qualities, but on the whole falling short of the intended mark. Less successful still is our brief, narrated glimpse of Conan’s training. That he became adept at the martial arts we can believe, but when we are further told that he was given access to "language and writing", to "poetry and philosophy"---well, it all becomes a bit difficult to swallow; unless, that is, the "philosophy" he was taught was "if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all".

Okay, now I’m going to say something I truly never expected to say when I set out to review this film. Do you know what I really enjoyed about Conan The Barbarian? Sandahl Bergman. Honestly! My only previous experience of Bergman as an "actress" was in Red Sonja, a film in every way grossly inferior to this one, and my memories of her were not very kind. Imagine my surprise when her Valeria turned out to be one of the brightest spots in this production. Cast, like Schwarzenegger, for her athleticism (she was a professional dancer before turning to acting), Bergman nevertheless gives an enthusiastic, if not particularly skilled performance. Valeria is smart, strong, and good at her job. (Okay, so her job is being a thief. In this world, that’s practically honourable.) She can match the men in her handling of a sword, and displays an iron-nerve at every step. She and Conan are partners, equals, not merely lovers. (Interestingly, we get the same sense of equality in the brief glimpse we are given of Conan’s parents – an odd touch, perhaps, in a story that sees women generally dismissed as breeders, sex objects, or mere pawns in the manoeuvring of men.) When their brief idyll is brought to an end by Conan’s acceptance of King Osric’s mission, she first tries to talk him out of it. When this fails, and he leaves her, she follows him anyway, and saves his life when his abortive attempt to infiltrate Thulsa Doom’s cult ends in his crucifixion. When Conan lies close to death, Valeria swears to him that nothing can separate them; that if he needed her, she would return to him even from beyond the grave - a promise which, in due time, she keeps. In short – she’s way too good for him. Now, I don’t want to oversell Bergman’s contribution here. Her acting isn’t much better than Arnold’s; but still, it’s effective. And unlike Arnold, Bergman has to deal with dialogue – Valeria is a lot chattier than either of her male comrades (which isn’t saying much, granted). While her delivery leaves a bit to be desired, she does get some memorable lines, such as her initial encounter with Conan ("Do you know what horrors lie beyond that wall?" "No." "Then you can go first!"), and her attempt to talk him out of his quest ("All my life I have been alone. Many times I have faced death with no-one to know…."). If only she'd spent one less week working with the swordmaster while preparing for this film, and one more week working with the dialogue director---well, we might have really had something.

What acting chops this film has lie elsewhere – first of all, with Max von Sydow as King Osric. Von Sydow’s appearance is little more than a glorified cameo, but he makes the most of it, sitting almost without moving and letting his effortlessly-delivered dialogue sweep over his muscle-bound co-stars. The real star of Conan The Barbarian, however – and the film’s biggest problem – is James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom. Jones towers over this film like a colossus, his acting ability and his charisma – and that wonderful voice - combining to create an unforgettable character – and to throw the production completely off-balance. Doom is by far the most interesting thing about this story; and frankly, I would rather have spent more time with him, and less with Conan & Co. Conan may be a one-note character, but Doom is not. When we first see him, he is the leader of a band of brigands who pillage the countryside and deal in slavery. When he appears next, he is the head of a new and powerful movement (which is called a "cult", not a "religion", so we know it’s bad), and possessed of magical powers. How did he get from one extreme to the other? Did he always have such powers? (It’s possible that he did: in the opening scene, Doom effectively hypnotises Conan’s mother into standing still and letting him kill her.) How has his cult grown from "just another snake cult", to have spread across the land? Is it Doom’s powers alone that draw his followers to him, or is there more to it? Questions such as these nag at the viewer, no matter how much the screenplay struggles to deflect attention from them. A significant moment comes when King Osric describes the loss of his daughter, and he mourns that, "There comes a time when the jewels cease to sparkle – when the gold loses its lustre – when the throne-room becomes a prison." It never occurs to him, or course, that it may have been precisely this feeling that drove his daughter to Thulsa Doom. Instead he complains that, "She seeks for the truth of her soul – as if I could not give it to her!" Well, Osric, obviously you couldn’t. Unsurprisingly, the threat to Osric’s daughter is ultimately couched in sexual terms – "She is to be his!" – which shies away from the issue of her needs being spiritual rather than physical.

Indeed, spiritual matters generally are not handled very respectfully in Conan The Barbarian, which implies - not to put too fine a point on it - that religion is for wussies. Conan’s relationship with his god, the subterranean Crom, seems more like something you’d find in a buddy picture than that of worshipper and idol. "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!" Similarly, the wizard's dealings with the spirits of the plain are also couched in terms of quid pro quo. "Do the spirits owe you any favours?" Valeria demands of him, as she and Subotai fight to save Conan's life. The wizard paints Conan's skin with magical symbols (shades of Kwaidan), but when the spirits do arrive, it is not these symbols that save him, but the courage and strength of the two thieves, who literally fight them off. This is a world where the mystical can be conquered by anyone who can handle a sword or throw a punch. Conversely, Thulsa Doom's followers, who do worship, who do seek something beyond the merely temporal, are depicted as helpless and delusional. Their spiritual questing is foolishness at best; at worst, a weakness to be exploited - which the power-hungry Doom proceeds to do. A certain ambiguity enters the story here, as it is not entirely clear whether the cultists are drawn and controlled by Doom’s magical powers, or simply by the force of his personality – the latter a distinct possibility. Whatever the ultimate cause, Doom’s own motives are clear enough: his megalomania feeds upon his followers’ subjection. When a woman commits suicide at Doom’s mere word ("Come to me, my child," he says gently to a woman standing upon a ledge above him, and she instantly does, very directly), it is as frightening as it is convincing – and was even more so, I imagine, at the time when this film was released. Only four years earlier, the world sat stunned at the revelations of the Jonestown massacre, when 913 people died in a mass murder-suicide at the command of their leader, Jim Jones. Doom’s cult, marked by both cannibalism and willing human sacrifice, is certainly intended to echo its real-life counterpart.

The film boasts three showdowns between Conan and Doom, each fascinating in its own right. The first comes when Conan, unwisely ignoring the pleas and arguments of his companions, sets out alone to infiltrate the cult, and gives himself away by flashing one of the relics stolen from the Tower of the Serpent. Savagely beaten, Conan ends up at Doom's feet, spitting accusations (and blood) at him over the fate of his people. (JEJ gets a classic moment here: as Doom listens to Conan, his expression changes not to one of guilt or shame, but rather dawning enlightenment. Ohhhh, that's who you are!) Doom's response to Conan's transgressions against himself (and more on that subject later) is to have him nailed to the Tree of Woe, where he can think about what he's done - and, presumably, die. Valeria and Subotai have other ideas, however, and when Conan has recovered from his injuries, the three of them break into Doom's stronghold (one of the film's truly great sequences), and successfully re-capture Osric's daughter. It is during their escape that Valeria is fatally injured (Doom turns a venomous snake into an arrow), and soon afterwards, Doom himself comes after Conan, who must save the princess from meeting the same fate as Valeria. After this, Doom sends his men to finish off the barbarian and his companion, leading to a climactic set-piece that is simply astonishing, as Conan and Subotai ("Two stood against many," Conan prays to Crom) must do battle against overwhelming odds. This scene is suspenseful, exciting, wonderfully choreographed and horrendously bloody. (It also features our final, brief glimpse of Valeria, as she fulfills her oath.) Conan is left standing at the end, but only just. We cannot wonder that Doom is somewhat surprised to see him when, with the help of the repentant princess, Conan confronts the cult leader once more as he addresses his followers. This scene, as much as any other, encapsulates the film's main theme, as Doom tries to reason his way out of the situation, calling Conan "my son. For who is your father if not I?" he asks, arguing that it is hatred of him, the desire for revenge, that has shaped Conan's life and made him what he is. Unfortunately for Doom, Conan - like the film itself - has little patience with philosophical debate. Although for one brief moment it seems as if Doom's powers will control Conan as they did his mother, the sword is soon in the barbarian's hand; and we discover, in graphic fashion, that Doom was wrong: steel is stronger than flesh....

Perhaps the thing that stands out most about Conan The Barbarian, when seen from this distance, is that it is not a film for children. It is full of brutal violence, copious bloodshed, gratuitous nudity, and sex scenes, including an orgy. (Not a very convincing orgy, but it's there.) In contrast, most of the imitations that followed it opted for a more "family" approach, with broad humour and bloodless fights abounding. (The gratuitous boob shot hung around for quite a while longer, however.) In keeping with this shift in focus, the "sorcery" part of the designation began to predominate over the "sword", with special effects (a great many of them extremely lame) becoming fore-grounded. In contrast, Conan strives for a sense of relative realism, with the magic scenes and special effects kept strictly to the margins. No doubt this was a conscious choice, but there is also a feeling that John Milius was not as comfortable with these scenes as he was with those of violence. (In fact, you get the impression that Milius' philosophy is remarkably close to Conan's own: when you've got a sword in your hand, why bother with that namby-pamby magic stuff?) A woman transforms during sex, first into a wolf-demon, then into a fireball; we never know why. A giant python glides towards Conan: he kills it, bloodily, before it can do anything. Thulsa Doom turns himself into a snake - how? Why? The arbitrary nature of these scenes does not detract too much from the film as a whole, but they do seem out of place in a production that otherwise projects a thorough sense of purpose. The only other place where this wavers somewhat is with the sketchy depiction of Conan's childhood. Once captured by Thulsa Doom and his men, the boy is chained to some huge (grinding?) wheel; and there, we are left to assume, he spends the next ten or fifteen years of his life - a fairly pointless (and profitless) way for slave traders to run their business, I would have thought. (Another thing we're left to assume is that, offscreen, the young Conan gets to push that darn wheel clockwise every now and then: as an adult, he's not just buffed, but nice and symmetrical.) After becoming a champion fighter, and finishing his training, Conan is given his freedom by his owners (we never do learn why), and sets out on his quest to find his parents' killers. From there the film really gets down to business. As Conan enjoys his first taste of freedom, our narrator worries in voiceover that perhaps, like an animal, he has been kept in captivity too long. The screenplay follows this with some entertaining vignettes of Conan's "re-adjustment", as he marvels at "civilisation", drunkenly punches out a camel (Mel Brooks shoulda sued), and avidly wolfs down meat on a stick that he bought at a market, an act which horrifies his more worldly-wise companion, Subotai. Once Conan gets his first clue to the identity of his parents' killers, however, the film sobers, and produces a string of truly memorable action set-pieces. Also memorable - more than memorable, remarkable - is the film's production design. Meticulously rendered, exquisitely detailed, the look of this film is a pleasure from beginning to end. And there is one more thing about Conan The Barbarian that demands attention, and that is the score by Basil Poledouris. You may not notice it at the time, but a considerable portion of this film's running time is taken up with people walking, running or riding across the desert. That these scenes, far from being dull, seem exciting, imperative, is due to their being backed by Poledouris' most famous work, 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....

Footnote: If this piece seems overly sympathetic to Thulsa Doom, well, there's a reason. Time to come clean: it's not just JEJ's dominant performance that won me over, but the specifics of his cult. You see, I like snakes. In fact, I love them. (Like Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve: "Snakes are my life!") Of all the bloody scenes in this film, it is Conan's gruesome butchering of Doom's pet python that bothers me the most. John Milius may be contemptuous of Doom's followers, but I understand. I mean, c'mon! - this is a guy who not only surrounds himself with snakes, he can turn himself into one! And he has his very own "Mountain Of Power"! Man, I am so-oo-oo there....

My highlight from this film isn't any of the obvious ones. It's Doom's outraged speech to Conan when the barbarian makes his 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!!" Amen, bro'! Amen!