From the Archive – Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Barbarian

Directed by John Milius
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Mako and James Earl Jones

Young Conan of Cimmeria is orphaned when a warband slaughters his parents’ village, steal his blacksmith father’s finest sword and sell him into slavery. He goes from manual labour to gladiatorial combat (in preparation for which he is – for no readily apparent reason – taught to read), as he grows up into Arnold Schwarzenegger, then wins his freedom by escaping from a pack of dogs, finding at the same time a Sword of Obvious Significance in an ancient tomb.

Conan sets out to avenge his parents, and takes up with a wandering Mongol archer named Subotai (Gerry Lopez). Discovering that Thulsa Doom (Jones), the leader of the warband, has become a snake-cult leader, Conan and Subotai break into his temple for a spot of thievery, and run into Valeria (Bergman), the Queen of Thieves. They make the big score, kill a big snake, and make out like bandits. Conan and Valeria get it on in a fashion which can only bode ill for later developments. Shortly after, they are arrested by the Exorcist (Max von Sydow as an elderly king) who mumbles something about his daughter joining Thulsa Doom’s cult. Subotai and Valeria feel that their best bet is to run away, but Conan goes for the revenge shtick and sets out to bring back the king’s daughter, and to cause some egregious property damage and personal injury en route.

Conan fails miserably at his attempt to go undercover, and is strapped, Christlike, to the Tree of Woe. Here Subotai finds him, and Conan is resurrected by a wizard (Mako), who warns of terrible costs. Conan, Valeria and Subotai then paint themselves black and white, break into Thulsa Doom’s temple, wreck the joint and steal the princess. Understandably miffed, Doom shoots an arrow made from a snake after the heroes, killing Valeria, who – it turns out – made a pact with the spirits of death to take her in place of Conan (told you it boded ill). Doom’s troops come after the heroes, who defeat them in a bloody combat, Valeria’s ghost saving Conan at a critical moment, and his Sword of Obvious Significance shearing through his father’s stolen sword.

Finally, Conan goes back to Doom’s compound, and hacks him to death, ignoring Doom’s claim that he is as much his father as the man who was killed, because he made him what he is. Seriously folks, James Earl Jones does the ‘I am your father’ bit again.

What’s wrong with it?

Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest movies are hampered by his poor acting, but he’s only gone up from his early days. There’s also a lot of fairly random plot jumps, as the filmmakers try to wedge a lot of material into the film. Oh, and being an eighties film, there’s the hair. Oh god, the hair.

What’s right with it?

Well, aside from the storming Basil Poledouris score, the film is a pretty functional Sword and Sorcery offering. It has some good fight scenes, and two pretty atmospheric sneak-raids.

How bad is it really?

Not that bad at all. It’s mostly in the blog at all for the sake of completeness, and to demonstrate that S&S doesn’t have to blow completely.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Our heroes get smashed and Conan gets into a fist-fight with a camel.

What’s up with…?

  • The random plot witch? It’s like this chick turns up, hits on Conan, does the gratuitous sex scene, feeds him a plot hook, tries to eat him (in the not-sexy way), then turns into a fireball and flies off, without ever bothering to try and explain herself. She’s just the plot witch: “Here’s a hook and a murder attempt; on your way now”. Whatever.
  • Mumbling Max von Sydow? I maintain he was drunk or stoned and didn’t really know he was doing the movie.

Ratings:

Production values – Solid, if unexceptional. Good – and consistent – costumes, sets and SFX, decent direction and camerawork. 6

Dialogue and performances  Hem. Well, dialogue is probably Conan’s weak point. It’s mostly either trite or mumbled or both. Mako’s narration is particularly bizarre. 16

Plot and Execution – Standard revenge-quest fare, with bonus props for having the guts to off the love interest, and not replace her, as is common, with some random woman he just met. Nothing new, but decently executed. 12

Randomness – All pretty clear, except for the random plot witch. 8

Waste of potential – Not really at all. As Sword & Sorcery goes, this is the cat’s pyjamas. 0

Overall: 42%

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