Retro Review: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Here are some updated thoughts (2015):  I think it appropriate since I just posted a review of Robert E. Howard’s only novelized Conan story, The Hour of the Dragon, that I unearth an old review of the only decent Conan movie . . . Conan the Barbarian.   This review was written as part of a Collector’s Edition DVD review back in 2000, but I did see the movie on the silver screen when it was released in 1982.

Good fantasy movies can be counted on one hand, maybe two depending on your opinion and tastes.  I consider Conan the Barbarian to fit on one finger of one of those hands.  It’s sequel and 2011 reboot . . . not so much.

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

Friedrich Nietzsche

So begins the opening of 1982’s Conan the Barbarian.  Nietzsche’s idea will be a theme brought to life in the story of Conan as he struggles from orphaned youth to king of Aquilonia.  But more on that later.

I was a huge Conan fan back in Junior High School.  I read most of the original Robert E. Howard stories, and many of the L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter tales that were written later to flesh out the unofficial Hyborian milieu.  While some of these stories were interesting, they never held the flair that was evident in Howard’s original work produced from 1932 to 1936 before he tragically took his own life.  From time to time I still revisit Hyboria when I need to whet my appetite for some high adventure.

When Conan the Barbarian came to theaters in the spring of 1982, all of my nerdy friends and I hit the sticky floored and popcorn smelling cinema to soak in the action.  My first impression of the movie was lukewarm.  I was expecting something a little different, something that better fit the expectations in my mind.  But when has a movie ever done that?  Rarely.  Still, I thought they made the character of Conan too soft (he is pretty ruthless in the books) and the story too weak.  In my youth Nietzsche’s theme was completely lost on me.

Time passed (and my brain started working) and I realized what they (John Milius and Oliver Stone . . . yes, that Oliver Stone) were trying to do with the movie.  It had originally progressed from a fantasy piece to more of a medieval piece with some fantasy elements sprinkled in. Magic, sorcery, and necromancy are present in the Conan tales, but they aren’t prevalent, nor are they often a driving factor.  Howard’s tales are about opponents Conan can defeat without otherworldly aid, and Conan the Barbarian reflects that storytelling.

Conan the Barbarian posterConan is captured as a child after his parents are savagely murdered by Thulsa Doom, priest of the malignant snake-cult of Set.  Fifteen years of agony, first chained to the Wheel of Pain grinding grain and then enslaved pit fighter, forge a magnificent body and indomitable spirit.  Freed miraculously one day by his owner, Conan, with his companion Subotai the Mongol and Valeria, Queen of Thieves, sets forth upon his quest to learn “the riddle of steel” which, his father has prophesied, will confer ultimate power; and to kill the arch-villain Thulsa Doom.

Conan the Barbarian
Director: John Milius
Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman
Genre:  Fantasy
Media:  Film, 129 minutes
Rating: R
Budget: $16 million
Box Office: $69 million, worldwide
Year: May 14, 1982
4 out of 5 stars

The whole story revolves around the strengthening of steel, the analogy as it applies to the strengthening of the character of Conan, and the extension of Nietzsche’s philosophy above.  The wizard Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) understands the “riddle of steel” and in his pursuit of it kills Conan’s parents, destroys his village, and exiles him into slavery and violence.  Unbeknownst to Thulsa Doom (or perhaps not) he set about the strengthening of Conan by a similar method by which steel is strengthened . . . work hardening under intense heat, then quenching that fire with coldness of crushing defeats to make it strong, hard, unforgiving.  Conan spends years in servitude at the Wheel of Pain and later as an enslaved pit fighter, the whole time being strengthened and tempered into a fighting machine bent on revenge.

So that’s the real motivator for Conan in this film . . . revenge.  Later in the movie Thulsa Doom drops a revelation on Conan saying that he has been a father figure to him, for who else has had more of an impact forming the man Conan had become but himself?  He also confides that in the end steel is not strong . . .strength is in the flesh, the flesh that wields the steel, or the flesh that can command others to do your bidding.  Conan later drops a revelation on Thulsa Doom . . . that steel is in fact MUCH stronger when wielded by tempered flesh!

Interspersed in these interesting pseudo philosophical parables is a tragic romance, a rescue of a princess, lots of manly swordplay, and ultimately the revenge Conan so sorely craves.  But at the end, after killing Thulsa Doom and watching his head thump down the steps of the temple, Conan sits and stares into oblivion.  The impetus of his drive is now gone.  The tempering process is complete.  The riddle of steel has been answered.  Can he continue to be the same Conan that was tempered and molded since youth?  As viewers the answer is easy, in Conan’s head it is much harder to answer.

Another highlight of the movie has to be the epic and perfectly scored soundtrack by Basil Poledouris.  It’s one of my favorites of all time.  The musical soundtrack fits this movie like a glove.

Conan has been a fantasy staple for nearly 80 years, and Conan the Barbarian could have been the start of a great movie franchise, but unfortunately someone screwed up when making the sequel Conan the Destroyer.  The sequel is a pale shadow of its predecessor, and the 2011 remake is, well, just terrible CGI laden, melodramatic bullshit.  Conan the Barbarian made Arnold Schwarzenegger Hollywood’s newest action star, and as it is, his version of Conan is one of the better medieval/fantasy flicks out there.

Anyone for Legend of Conan?

© 2000-2019, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
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