Does that make sense? In any given lifetime, each of us discovers a few handfuls of films that – for whatever reason – simply speak to us almost on a genetic level. They resonate. Some suggest that they transport us to nostalgically back to other eras of our lives, tapping something very deep in our psyche, and the process results in bringing us great joy. I’ve always argued that this isn’t always the case – for example, I’m old but not old enough to have experienced The Maltese Falcon (1941), Citizen Kane (1941), or Casablanca (1942) in their original theatrical runs – but there’s still something to be said for uncorking memories of earlier places, earlier faces, or earlier times. Consequently, critiquing a motion picture that transcends the ordinary is risky: if you look too closely at the sun, then you’ll likely go blind, and that’s just not a risk I take lightly.
But as I’ve gotten older (not wiser, mind you), I have grown far more capable of suppressing that latent but natural human instinct to almost protect these older flicks maternally from scrutiny. I’m far more willing to look a bit more closely – even listen a bit more closely – to try to diagnose not so much why the beating clock ticks but how it does more loudly, more reverently, or more distinctly than do other projects. Today, I can set aside my biases to see not only the good, the bad, and the ugly in a film as groundbreaking as John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian (1982) but also to offer up some substantive observations about why it echoes so stridently with so many who found it mesmerizing back then and still so today over four decades later.
Far from a perfect film, this Conan is still a perfect example of how big screen Fantasy should look, sound, feel, and function if the goal is to have audiences take the subject matter seriously.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“A young boy, Conan, becomes a slave after his parents are killed and his tribe destroyed by a ruthless warlord and sorcerer, Thulsa Doom. When he grows up, he becomes a fearless, invincible fighter. Set free, he plots revenge against Thulsa Doom.”
Author Robert E. Howard certainly led an intensely troubled existence.
While I don’t see the need to recap the highs and lows of the man’s reasonably short life (he committed suicide at age 30 due to what’s been suggested as a variety of circumstances not the least of which may’ve been his mental health), I’ve always thought that he likely used writing as the ultimate escape from those influences that troubled his days and nights. He realized his talent and desire to craft stories when he was very young; and – as the years wore on – he dabbled in a variety of genres much in the same way that the pulp publishers of the day would flex, change, and expand as new readerships were properly wooed into the marketplace. Eventually, he learned that he could make it his life’s pursuit, and he practically leapt into such an opportunity headfirst. He’s often credited with having created the ‘Swords and Sorcery’ genre, so it’s only natural that – when Hollywood decided to tap that vein for theatrical incarnations – Howard’s seminal creation Conan was at the top of their list.
Now – again, I’m not trying to court controversy here, folks, and I’m just trying to convey a few facts – Howard purists might argue that Conan’s story as presented in the 1982 picture isn’t entirely accurate. I’ve read that the origins as depicted on film tie much more closely to another Howard creation – Kull of Atlantis – but having not read the stories I can’t attest to that accuracy. Whatever the case may be, I think it’s fitting that screenwriter Oliver Stone (who penned the first draft) clearly used Howard’s original ideas from whatever character in order to strive for a level of authenticity in bringing the Hyborian Age to the silver screen. Though Stone’s initial idea was to transport Conan to the world of the future – millennia after Earth had fallen into disarray – Milius boarded the project and refocused the narrative into the distant past; and the rest – as they say – is history.
As a boy, Conan watches in abject horror as his parents are violently struck down by the command of Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones). Conscripted into slavery, the youth grows into a man (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he quickly becomes both revered and feared for his abilities in the combat arena. Eventually, he is freed by his master, at which time he embarks on a campaign of adventures until he is hired by King Osric (Max Von Sydow) to rescue his daughter (Valérie Quennessen) from the control of Doom’s dark magic, a mission that will also give the barbarian his chance for revenge.
In fact, one might even see a bit of genius on Milius’ part for keeping such a scene away from the barbarian.
Doom – as an adversary – isn’t exactly a heavyweight big on words, but he does have a sequence or two wherein he recounts a bit of villainous philosophy for life. While he probably accomplishes far more with his menacing eye contact, Doom isn’t exactly ever shown as a man of action, definitely not in the same fashion as is Conan. Schwarzenegger gets into the sweaty mix of things, muscling his way through everything the script throws his way. In contrast, Doom employs a veritable army of thugs, whores, and priests to accomplish his bidding, only opting to finally get his hands dirty when and if he feels it completely necessary. He does – in the beginning – with the beheading of Conan’s mother (the German actress Nadiuska) – every son’s true first love – and again toward the big finish in firing the snake/arrow that robs the barbarian of Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), his chosen mate.
However, there’s something wonderful poetic about Conan – one of literature’s greatest thieves and plunderers – being spurred to action in his first feature film by being the victim of theft itself. Stone and Milius’ script sees the mortal man as less than whole because of the stealing of the signature women of his existence. Had his mother survived, the boy still may’ve learned the ways of the warrior, but he quite probably would not have grown up with such nomadic tendencies. Similarly, had Valeria lived, perhaps Conan would’ve realized that true love was a strong enough prospect for him to settle down, raise a few children, and enjoy a life of respectable solitude. Instead – for better or for worse – theft both spurs and consumes his very existence, a grim reality that threatens to remain his only constant until his end of days as he’s pictured – in flashforward – sitting in silence all alone on his eventual throne.
What gives Conan The Barbarian – as a motion picture – its greatest asset is the fact that Milius treats the material as if its swords and sorcery gospel. This is big and bold mythmaking – almost as big and bold as it ever cinematic Fantasy ever got – and that shows with every scene and sequence in the two-hour-plus runtime. Whereas it became fairly common with pictures emerging in the wake of Conan’s success (and, incidentally, even its vastly inferior popcorn sequel Conan The Destroyer) to introduce far more levity and general goofiness, the first outing avoids camp, period kitsch, and pratfalls that, sadly, become part of the formula only a year or two later. Perhaps this is why that even to this day Conan’s most ardent and faithful supporters point back to this film as being as important for Fantasy as is Howard’s first publications: there’s an aura of respect and admiration to its raw potential that remains unmatched ever since, and maybe we’ll never quite see again.
None of this is meant to dismiss any shortcomings I have with the project.
Tonally, I’d agree that it stays on track most of the time, but there are scenes here and there that just don’t work. For example, a segment that displays the Conan crew’s descent into thieving gluttony that has the exhausted barbarian falling face-first into a bowl of gruel … and, sigh, I could’ve done without the obvious, cheap laugh. Conan punches a camel in its face at another point – a screen bit that drew the ire of animal rights activists – and, again, it feels like a lowbrow attempt to muster up a snicker from audiences here and there. The stark realism of a barbarian’s life gets a bit supernatural in the last reel when the fallen Valeria returns from the beyond to save her betrothed when he needs assistance most; and, yes, I realize this isn’t an uncommon occurrence in Fantasy, but it still felt a bit too staged for my liking. Love conquers all, true, but … I mean … come on! How about a little nuance, Milius?
Lastly, I’d be remiss in my duties as a genre historian if I failed to mention that Conan definitely turned heads as well as lopping off a few for good measure. Actress Bergman took home the 1983 Golden Globes Award in the category of ‘New Star Of The Year In A Motion Picture – Female’ for her efforts; and she also cornered the critical market with a 1983 Saturn Award in the category of ‘Best Actress.’ The picture itself also garnered such Saturn Award nominations as ‘Best Make-Up,’ ‘Best Costumes,’ ‘Best Music,’ and ‘Best Fantasy Film.’ It was clear that Fantasy emerged in a big way, and audiences remained hungry for more over several years.
Conan The Barbarian (1982) was produced by the Dino De Laurentiis Company and Pressman Film. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the fine folks at Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I found the sights-and-sounds to this reported brand new 4K remastering to be nothing short of phenomenal: this is an incredible cinematic experience, and I’m thrilled to report that it’s never looked better. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? Friends, this is Arrow Films, and they rarely disappoint. I’m doing the faithful copy-and-paste below:
Special Features and Techncial Specs:
DISC ONE - 4K BLU-RAY
- BRAND NEW 4K RESTORATION from the original negative by Arrow Films
- DOLBY VISION/HDR PRESENTATION of three versions of the film via seamless branching: the Theatrical Cut (127 mins), the International Cut (129 mins) and the Extended Cut (130 mins)
- Newly restored original mono audio and remixed Dolby Atmos surround audio on all three cuts
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing on all three cuts
- Archive feature commentary by director John Milius and star Arnold Schwarzenegger (Extended Cut only)
- Brand new feature commentary by genre historian Paul M. Sammon, author of Conan: The Phenomenon (Extended Cut only)
- Newly assembled isolated score track in lossless stereo (Extended Cut only)
- Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan, an archive documentary from 2000 featuring interviews with Schwarzenegger, Milius, Stone, Jones, Lopez, Bergman, Poledouris and several others
- Designing Conan, a newly filmed interview with production artist William Stout
- Costuming Conan, a newly filmed interview with costume designer John Bloomfield
- Barbaric Effects, a newly filmed interview with special effects crew members Colin Arthur and Ron Hone
- Young Conan, a newly filmed interview with actor Jorge Sanz
- Conan & The Priest, a newly filmed interview with actor Jack Taylor
- Cutting the Barbarian, a newly filmed interview with assistant editor Peck Prior
- Crafting Conan's Magic, a newly filmed interview with visual effects crew members Peter Kuran and Katherine Kean
- Barbarians and Northmen, a newly filmed interview with filmmaker Robert Eggers on the film's influence on The Northman
- Behind the Barbarian, a newly filmed interview with John Walsh, author of Conan the Barbarian: The Official History of the Film
- A Line in the Sand, a newly filmed interview with Alfio Leotta, author of The Cinema of John Milius
- Conan: The Rise of a Fantasy Legend, an archive featurette on the film's literary and comic book roots
- Art of Steel: Sword Makers & Masters, an archive interview with sword master Kiyoshi Yamasaki
- Conan: From the Vault, an archive compilation of on-set cast and crew interviews
- A Tribute to Basil Poledouris, a series of videos produced by the Úbeda Film Music Festival, including video of Poledouris conducting a concert of music from the film in 2006 (remixed in 5.1 surround) and interviews with collaborators such as Paul Verhoeven and Randal Kleiser
- Rarely-seen electronic press kit from 1982, featuring over half an hour of on-set footage and cast and crew interviews (from a watermarked tape source)
- Outtakes, including a deleted cameo by Milius
- Split-screen "Valeria Battles Spirits" visual effects comparison
- Conan: The Archives, a gallery of photos and production images from 2000
- Conan the Barbarian: The Musical, an affectionate comic tribute to the film by Jon & Al Kaplan
- US and International teaser and theatrical trailers
- Image gallery
- Double-sided fold-out poster
- Six double-sided collectors' postcards
- Illustrated collectors' booklet featuring new writing by Walter Chaw and John Walsh, and an archive set report by Paul M. Sammon
Highest recommendation possible.
Sadly, it just doesn’t get any better than this when you’re considering bare bones, pre-CGI Fantasy storytelling … and that’s perhaps the most important reason to enjoy Conan The Barbarian (1982) in this package: there’s just nothing else quite like it, nor will there be, ever. Along with the actors, the artisans and craftsmen who made this picture one of the definitive theatrical experiences of its day need to be celebrated again and again so that their contributions won’t be lost to history. While the genre went in a more family-friendly direction after this, this Barbarian was brash, bloody, and brutish just the way I think creators intended, and there’s no way to discount this one’s legacy even with the passage of time. It’s a veritable masterpiece, and it deserves to be a part of any genre fan’s collection.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Films provided me with a complimentary 4K Ultra HD screener copy of Conan The Barbarian (1982) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.