Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

SCHWARZENEGGER SWEEPS: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

In the early seventies, producers Edward Summer and Edward R. Pressman had the idea to adapt Robert L. Howard’s “Conan” stories to the screen. Howard’s pulp novels had remained popular through the decades and Marvel’s comic adaptations made Conan bigger then ever before. Pre-production was an extended process, preventing the film from being made until the early eighties. There were legal issues to settle. Oliver Stone wrote a bonkers, cocaine-influenced, hugely ambitious screenplay that ultimately wasn’t used. Eventually, Hollywood tough guy John Milius would direct with mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis putting up the money. Throughout the troubled pre-production of “Conan the Barbarian,” one name remained consistent: Arnold Schwarzenegger. After seeing his posturing, posing performance in “Pumping Iron,” the filmmakers agreed that the Austrian bodybuilder was the only man who could play Conan. Arnold, as much a savvy businessman as anything else, realized the character could make him an internationally recognized name. He was right. “Conan the Barbarian” is the beginning of a golden age of cinema, the Age of Arnold.

Milius’ film doesn’t follow the plot of any one Howard story. Instead, he takes many elements from Howard’s texts – not even limiting himself to Conan stories – and combines it with a bunch of new ideas. The film is quite literally an origin story. It begins with Conan as a young boy, raised in his village by his father and mother. A rampaging band of marauders, led by wizard Thulsa Doom, raids the village, killing the boy’s parents, and taking him capture. He grows up a slave, molding his muscular frame on the Wheel of Pain. He becomes a gladiator, learning the art of killing. He earns his freedom, becomes a thief, meets a merry band of fellow adventurers, and sets about finding Thulsa Doom and avenging his family’s death.

As originally envisioned by Oliver Stone, “Conan the Barbarian” was to be a four hour epic. John Milius’ goals for the film were no less ambitious. Milius approached Howard’s character as a Wagnerian epic. With opera in mind, the film is frequently short on dialogue. Conan doesn’t speak until the twenty minute mark and is a man of action, not words, for the whole of the film. The exposition falls to an omniscient narrator, played by an appropriately sage-like Mako. As the titular character doesn’t talk much, “Conan” is instead powered by Basil Poledouris’ incomparable score. The punishing percussion provides the film’s epic but tribal tone while the soaring brass creates the feeling of high adventure. Frequently, Conan is silent, such as when killing in the gladiator pit or exploring an Atlantian tomb, but Poledouris’ music fills the audience in. Is it exaggerating to say it’s the greatest adventure score of all time? Maybe but it’s certainly one of my favorites.

Meanwhile, the film’s themes are no less epic. As a boy, Conan’s father tells him of the Riddle of Steel, that his sword is the only thing in this world that won’t let him down. That philosophy sees Conan through when he’s killing the shit out of other gladiators. When he confronts Thulsa Doom, the wizard tells him that steel is weak and flesh is stronger. In the end, Conan realizes they are both wrong. The will, the individual’s drive to meet his goal and defeat his enemies, is the most powerful thing in the world. Moreover, the movie is not short on epic fantasy situations. A hero is brought back from the dead, among swirling ghosts. There are magical diamonds to steal, towers to scale, witches, wizards, epic quests, big ass swords, giant snakes, orgy pits, and worldly travel.

Even at the beginning of his career, haters were talking shit about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reviews at the time frequently said his performance was one-note, wooden, or badly hampered by his still-heavy accent. These views ignored the actor’s obvious command of the screen. The moment we first see Arnold is when he lifts his heavy brow from the Wheel of Pain. His face framed by a mane of hair, he stares intensely ahead, establishing the character’s drive. Arnold carries that intensity with him throughout the entire film, when slicing apart enemies or riding towards adventure. That the character is mostly silent isn’t a problem, as Arnold is mostly a physical performer. Schwarzenegger’s soon-to-be trademark humor also works well, when punching out a camel, informing others of Crom’s strength, or falling face down in his gruel. Considering how iconic that accent is now, it’s hard to laugh at it. A modern viewer simply understands that this is just how Arnold, and by association Conan, sounds. He even manages to generate some much-needed pathos, when praying to his god, to grant him revenge. In short, Arnold is perfect in the part.

It doesn’t hurt that the Austrian is back-up by a prime supporting cast. For the rest of Conan’s band, Milius made the decision to also cast untrained actors. Gerry Lopez, as Conan’s best bro Subotai, was a surfer before this. Sandahl Bergman, as Conan’s one true love Valeria, was primarily a dancer. Just as Milius got a naturalistic but oddly powerful performance out of Schwarzenegger, Bergman and Lopez do fine. Bergman is especially eye-catching, her valkyrie-esque beauty being perfect for the part. Valeria is as steely as her lover but Bergman infuses the part with a quiet humor. More importantly, she seems to be genuinely in love with Conan. Lopez, meanwhile, is also funny when verbally sparring with his friend. Yet I’m also sort of touched during the moment when he cries for his friend that cannot. Further supporting the leads are an experienced cast of character actors. James Earl Jones is eerily convincing as the leader of a snake-worshipping cult, mad with power. He treats the material with utmost seriousness, making Thulsa Doom an intimidating, frightening presence. Mako is well cast as the wise wizard, as is Max von Sydow as a king tired of his crown.

If everything else didn’t work, “Conan the Barbarian” would still be a bad ass action flick. The film is full of gory violence, explicit sex, and copious nudity, at levels unseen in a mainstream blockbuster in 1982. The battle scenes are brutal. Conan cleaves through enemies as a gladiator. He cuts a giant snake’s fucking head off. He interrupts an orgy, clad in striking black body paint, and slices through the leather clad guards. He even upturns the human soup at the chamber’s center. The climatic battle in a stone circle is especially riveting, with Conan knocking his pursuers off their horses or impaling them with booby traps. As for the nudity, the film doesn’t let an oppretunity for a bare pair of breasts to go by. Bergman, special guest witch Cassandra Gava, and a few random female sacrifices and orgy attendants bare their chests. It would not be inaccurate to describe “Conan the Barbarian” as a juvenile male power fantasy. Yet it’s hard to criticize a film that gives the audience exactly what they want.

Along with its adolescent attitudes comes some arguably troubling politics. It’s not impossible to find crossovers between Conan fans and Objectivists. Hardcore Howard heads even dismiss 1982’s “Conan” because its version of the barbarian is not sufficiently individualistic. At the time of its release, before the internet caused Ayn Rand to butt her head into practically any discussion, the film was accused of being fascist. It starts with a quote from Nietzsche, stars a blonde Aryan ubermensch, and features a hero that doesn’t fight for the greater good but his own revenge. This was the beginning of the eighties, before every action movies was like this. I don’t see anything especially fascist or Randian about Conan’s quest. He’s not the kind of hero to fight to save the world and that’s fine. Not every hero should. I can even overlook a super-white protagonist chopping a black villain’s head off. However, the movie’s treatment of women hasn’t aged the best. Most of them are winches, whores, thieves, or fodder. One is a blood-sucking succubus that, after Conan bones her, gets tossed into a fire. Even Valeria, otherwise a strong female character, falls in love with Conan at first sight, gets naked, and winds up dead. Then there’s Milius’ obvious anti-hippy sentiment, when Conan infiltrates and mocks a cult of back-to-the-Earth flower children. Most of this comes with the time period and the territory and doesn’t diminish the film’s entertainment value.

“Conan the Barbarian” is a blood-soaked sex-and-violence extravaganza. It’s also an appealingly epic fantasy adventure, with great production values, an iconic cast, incredible music, and a straightforward storyline. It would define the cinematic fantasy genre for quite some time, spawning hordes of imitators with names like “Deathstalker,” “Ator,” or “Yor.” It would even influence children’s media, such as “He-Man.” More important then all of this, it’s the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star and a household name. That alone makes it pretty great and we’re lucky that the movie is pretty great in most every other way too. [9/10]

[X] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[X] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm

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