Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

ConanBarbarian

Watched: 7 September 2019
Format: A DVD found in a charity shop.
Seen before? Nope.

Review: In the 1970s and 80s there was a glut of films that mixed medieval settings with magic and fantasy. This sword-and-scorcery fad took in such varied movies as Jabberwocky (1977), Hawk the Slayer (1980), Excalibur (1981), Ladyhawke (1985) and others of a less interesting aspect. Conan the Barbarian, based on the pulp stories of Robert E Howard, was one of the most successful, taking nearly 10 times its budget at the box office. Sadly, it’s possibly the most boring of the whole genre.

Large portions of the film play like a silent movie. Dialogue is sparse, with director John Milius preferring to tell his simplistic revenge story via action, violence, gesture, close-up and an awful lot of Basil Poledouris’s strident, energetic incidental music. Not a bad idea per se, but a bizarre notion if you’ve cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first leading role of note. Playing Conan – an orphaned prisoner in a time before recorded history who hunts down the warlord who murdered his family – Arnie certainly has the physique. But as a character he’s a big blank space where our emotional connection should be.

The film looks handsome enough, thanks to the genius of production designer Ron Cobb, and there are some striking visual sequences such as ethereal demons attempting to abduct an ill and injured Conan. You can also, no doubt, read any number of historical subtexts and precedents in John Milius’s fetishistic love of weaponry and ritual. But the story drags interminably and the cast is variable (ranging from James Earl Jones to a mate of the director’s). It’s often very difficult to care what happens next.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘For Milius, Conan was making a statement that went way beyond action movies and comic books. It all went back to Nietzsche… When Conan opened nationwide on May 14 [1982], it became the first blockbuster of what is still talked about as the best movie summer ever. That summer also brought us The Road Warrior [aka Mad Max 2], Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The World According to Garp, Poltergeist, An Officer and a Gentleman, Tron, The Thing, and, of course, E.T. Conan the Barbarian held its own among them all.’

Four giant snakes out of 10

Next: Sabotage