Conan the Barbarian

The narrator, played by Mako (you may know him as the world-swallowing villain Aku from Samurai Jack) begins Conan the Barbarian by calling it a tale “from the days of high adventure.” For certain kinds of children, this is as heart-warming as “Once upon a time.” Conan concerns rape and beheading and the occult, it deals through drunkenness and greed, lust and vengeance and lamentation. But the high spirit with which it is conceived transforms these bad things into odd exploits and sweaty play pretend. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tooth-gap lends a certain kind of silly blatancy to the whole thing: he’s a big kid who grew up but never stopped playing; he crowned himself king of the backyard by virtue of having more puberty than anyone else.

We’ve seen him in interviews: we know the guy thinks highly of himself. Do you see how arrogance is the secret to the appeal of Conan? Arnold never talks down to this material (neither does director John Milius). And it’s not because he thinks little of himself, but because he thinks highly of Conan. Like so many celebrity actors, this movie is a workout for him. The difference is that there’s nothing he takes more seriously in the whole world than working out (he’s famous for saying, “Pumping is like coming,” though, to be fair, there isn’t much he isn’t famous for).

The opening credits are a sweaty montage of tempered metal and soot and cave walls. Basil Poledouris’ score is forgotten by the music themists – that’s what I call the people who only like movie music you can hum – but it shouldn’t be. It’s full of vibrant pounding and knife scrapes and drive. This music has inertia; it’s destiny broken into drums and bone charms and crying horns. It begs for steam and skin. It’s rare you come across music more suited to its material than this – like Star Wars, Conan would be a lost cause equipped with music that sounded like its era (see Lady Hawke: you expect its ancient warrior kings to be steadies at the disco).

The way the music unironically shoots the feeling of this world into your bones is mirrored by the story’s setup. Conan’s family dies before his eyes; on the “Wheel of Pain” he becomes Arnold Schwarzenegger through decades of torment (I’ve read that Arnold actually had to tone down for this movie; you can’t understand the shape this guy was in until you realize that a role drawn into graphic fiction as anatomical perfection, a portrait of power, required him to get flabbier or it wouldn’t be believable that he exists). This movie is armed with a living drawing by Frank Frazetta, the guy who grunged up the fantasy of the medieval world with proud feminine ribs and fully extended downswings and lots of snakes (he liked them almost as much as the De Laurentiises, producing Conan, who include one in most of their movies). The feel of this movie is a magnificent high; it’s a marriage of glossy Burroughs-esque fantasy maleness, powerful, barbaric femininity, and just a hint of cultural blindness, as a medieval tale produced by mythologically eccentric Italians who never seem to work in the style of Italy, and played out by a smiley Austrian who thinks that lifting weights is as good as sex.

You may be wondering why my review seems to be more about Conan than the plot, and even more about Arnold as Conan than Conan himself. This is the role that created Arnold Schwarzenegger, the iconic figure as opposed to the man, and that threatens to take over your impression of the film. But it’s more than that. In the way that descriptions of Captain Kirk are inseparable from descriptions of Star Trek, Arnold lives out the tone of Conan within himself. Everything he is, translates to this world. He makes it potentially brutal but also forcefully warm, subtly perverse but childishly unrepentant for it. There are few ways to praise this movie without also praising him. This is not only because he exists as the living myth of growing up, the eternal pony rides and bench-presses and first kisses, that he somehow manages to behead people for a living and possess not one crumb of cynicism; it’s also because the movie outside of him can’t live up to such a man. It’s afraid of him, and can’t ask him for help with the story because it knows that he doesn’t know too much English. It can’t keep up.

Conan loses the part of itself that really matters once its storyline activates. It’s a simple revenge movie – the top of a dreaded snake cult, the boomy Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) has to answer for the death of Conan’s parents. Our hero has a silly archer friend (Gerry Lopez, a surfer dude in King Conan’s court) and an iron-thighed Queen of Thieves (Sandahl Bergman) as sidekicks; Mako shows up in canon as a witch doctor. It leads to many predictably meaty shenanigans but not a lot of heart. This movie needed to be jagged and oratory: it needed to challenge structure and defy action movie clichés, in order to become truly ancient and epic. It’s full of adventure but never feels too adventurous.

Writing this movie, I would have allowed Conan to defeat Thulsa Doom in minutes. Now here’s a question: what’s left, after the “movie plot?” Adventure, drunkenness, ennui, conquests, disparity, flaccidity, brooding, kingliness, death. I wanted to see a series of tales built around a man’s self-image: a sort of high-kitsch rendition of Beowulf. It needed to be wilder and more blood lusty. Despite some severings and beheadings and lots of Arnold side-boob when assuming romantic caveman positions, Conan comes across a little tame. Tame is the last thing it should have been.

The reason isn’t that it lacks thrills but that it’s bolted down to those uninteresting goals – infiltrate enemy stronghold, endure Lopez’s quipping, crush the enemies. The archer should have been developed with heart and fire, to stay around so long. The movie uses him as a literary trope, a friend in name, absolute in being named. Conan knows that people can’t be too important in this story but it also doesn’t know what to do without them. The plot tells Conan he will pay for his vengeance, but the bad things that happen don’t come as a result of it. The plot fears to thwart Conan, and that’s what thwarts him.

Production designer Ron Cobb incants this universe into existence; if he was a Goth pulpist on Alien, here he’s all pulp. The actors are singularly stellar resources for him. Arnold is always a living version of an artist’s rendition of Arnold; Conan’s easy arrogance pours out of him by nature rather than by action, and that’s what makes it honorable. Bergman’s Valeria is the kind of girl that likes hanging out with the boys; Conan looks at her with the look with which Dennis the Menace used to say, “You’re not bad … fer a girl.” She doesn’t arm-wrestle Conan but says everything to him with the tone of doing so (she talks of romance occasionally, but it comes off as flippant; their sexual foreplay has the tone that kids use when they “Double-dog-dare” each other). Mako is a mercurial little guy; Max Von Sydow briefly plays an aging Nordic king with the kind of sadness always reserved for characters in Arnold’s movies who don’t get to be him. Jones is a tremendous presence (he’s like Stalin crossed with Baron Samedi: you get the sense they cut his screen-time to prevent audiences from joining his ranks). But churned up into this plot, he’s more like the McGuffin than the villain. Conan trying to defeat him is a challenge but in the same way that a marathon would be: you know he’ll get there eventually. Even if it takes him a while, he’s always coming.

Conan the Barbarian is built up by childhood anguish and dream-making, and torn down by convention. We get rid of the parents early, torture ourselves to become strong enough to have adventures without them (watching Conan pushing the wheel of pain, I recalled myself lugging an over-heavy, proto-scoliosis backpack full of books on my first day of school), but we might as well have kept mom and dad around. They cautiously guide the movie’s structure, its three acts of bouncy hero worship and attempted conversations. I wanted this movie to explode; it’s a self-serious, stylistic simmer that makes everyone involved seem like the version of themselves that seems to enjoy it. I’ll watch it again and again, still wanting. I have Conan’s want, watching Conan. It makes the playground come alive. But it forgets to take down the fences.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

John Milius

John Milius (screenplay and story)

Oliver Stone (screenplay)

Robert E. Howard (book)

Conan the Barbarian Arnold Schwarzenegger
Subotai Gerry Lopez
Valeria Sandahl Bergman
Thulsa Doom James Earl Jones
King Osric Max von Sydow
Wizard of the Mounds Mako Iwamatsu

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