Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan1982-PosterRobert E. Howard published the first Conan story in 1932. Fifty years later, the sword-and-sorcery epic would get its first film adaptation, directed by John Milius. While it was never on the level of Star Wars, the Conan franchise remained a part of pop culture — recognizable, if not necessarily top tier. An attempt to do a reboot was made in 2011, and failed, and now there is talk of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the first actor to play Conan, returning to the role for The Legend of Conan, focusing on the barbarian hero’s twilight years.

Having never seen the original Conan the Barbarian, I decided to take a look at Arnold’s first outing as the Cimmerian warrior. What I found is a movie that, while certainly cheesy, is also quite entertaining.

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A significant part of the cheese comes from James Earl Jones’ hair.

The story opens with sorcerer-warrior Thulsa Doom (Jones) slaughtering Conan’s people and selling all the children, young Conan included, into slavery. It then follows Conan’s growth into adulthood and eventual freedom, his adventures as a thief, and — eventually — his quest for vengeance against Thulsa Doom. Though Schwarzenegger, as Conan, is the main character, the role doesn’t stretch his acting capabilities much; Conan is a stoic warrior, only occasionally given to emotion. He doesn’t even have that many lines, comparatively speaking. Much of the film’s dialogue and characterization is given through the secondary characters instead. This includes narration from Mako, and Conan’s sidekick Subotai (Gerry Lopez), who provides a little comic relief but is mostly there to serve as the emotional voice of the hero; as he says at one point, “He is Conan, Cimmerian; he will not cry, so I cry for him.” Max von Sydow has a small but memorable role as King Osric, who hires Conan to retrieve his daughter from Thulsa Doom, who has lured her and several others into his snake cult.

The other important character in the film is Conan’s love interest, played by Sandahl Bergman. Her name is given in the credits as Valeria, but you’d never know this from the movie; it is never spoken. It would be easy to assume that an essentially-unnamed character was simply disposable, yet Valeria is nearly as important to the film as Conan himself. She is an energetic, dynamic personality, forceful and courageous; she is, essentially, the female equivalent of the classic barbarian hero, and it’s fitting that her name is reminiscent of the word “Valkyrie”. With Conan being fairly quiet throughout most of the film, it helps to have Valeria and Subotai keeping the dialogue going during battles, and she holds her own admirably during the battle scenes.

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She only supports about half the movie, the least they could do is mention her name.

The story follows a simple sword-and-sorcery structure, of the type that the novels popularized originally, and it’s easy to see how the film could have inspired other imitators to come (though few, if any, are as notable). There are some cheesy, goofy moments in the film — some intentional, such as Conan punching out a camel, and some not, such as Thulsa Doom turning into a snake — but these do not detract from the experience. The fight scenes are exciting, the dialogue is reasonably interesting, and the acting is good, if not remarkable. The special effects, used for the occasional bit of magic, hold up reasonably well after thirty years, and director Milius chose some great shots to establish the film as being set in a different age.

Of particular note is the film’s score, conducted by Basil Poledouris. The orchestral music permeates every scene, and is not just high quality, but also exciting and appropriate to the film; it is exactly what most people would imagine for great fantasy movie music.

Conan the Barbarian may not have a lot of depth to it, but taken just as a fantasy adventure film, it’s a very solid effort. Arnold’s acting isn’t completely honed at this stage of his career, but it’s good enough that within the confines of this film, with his supporting cast bearing a lot of the weight, it adds up to an enjoyable fantasy experience.

Rating: 4 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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30 Responses to Conan the Barbarian (1982)

  1. le0pard13 says:

    It’s a masterpiece of cinema compared to the 2011 effort, if you ask me.

  2. yourothermotherhere says:

    Although I’m not normally attracted to body builders, I watched Conan because of his magnificent body. He was, in my opinion, the perfect warrior\hero\fantasy figure.

    • There’s no doubt Schwarzenegger was chosen for his physique; and given how much effort the director put into showing it off, there’s also not much doubt they were hoping for that effect on female viewers.

  3. I got to hear Arnold Schwarzenegger say this live. It’s one of the highlights of my geek life.

    I actually think his accent and lack of acting polish work great for this role. It was serendipitous!

  4. James Earl Jones’ hair is amazing in this haha xD

    • Amazing is one word. 😀

      Apparently they were trying to make Thulsa Doom look like he was of a race that no longer exists on Earth, by giving him dark skin but blue eyes and that hair… it succeeds at making him look strange, I’ll give them that.

  5. sanclementejedi says:

    By Crom that is a good write up Morgan! Sort of makes me want to go and watch this one right now. As some others mentioned don’t even waste your time on that remake ;-(….

    • Yeah, I don’t really plan on checking out the remake. Didn’t seem to be much point in it.

      • sanclementejedi says:

        Morgan I love me some sword and sorcery and the Conan you just reviewed is far superior.

        • What do you think about the idea of Arnold revisiting the character as an old man?

        • sanclementejedi says:

          something like the King Conan comics? I would be all over that like my dog on a bowl of the cat’s food.

        • I haven’t read the comics, but I think that’s the idea; it’s called The Legend of Conan, and it’s supposed to be about Conan after he’s been king for quite a while… acknowledging how much Arnold has aged in the meantime.

        • sanclementejedi says:

          Well as long as it doesn’t have him banging some ugly chamber maid at the castle, I am all about it.

          so no Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan for you growing up?

        • Nope… never came across the books and I didn’t really read many comics when I was a kid. Pretty much just Asterix.

        • sanclementejedi says:

          is that magna? no comics were you raised Amish? 😉

        • Nah, I was raised broke. 🙂 Didn’t even get an allowance most of the time, and when I did it wasn’t enough to spending on comic books, even assuming I could find a place to buy them. I made up for it when I was in college, mind you.

          Asterix is a French comic, which was translated into English quite a long time ago. My local library had hardbound copies. It’s about a couple of Gauls with superhuman strength fighting back against the Roman empire. Absolutely hilarious — arguably even more so now that I’m an adult, and I get all the jokes.

        • sanclementejedi says:

          hmmm maybe I will have to try and check that out.

          Also I am old and comics were only 25 cents when I was a kid. I also had a grandma always slipping me a dollar when I saw her.

        • I think they were probably around 75 cents when I was a kid. But even if I’d had money, I don’t know if there was any place selling them within bike distance of my house (when I lived in town anyway; I moved outside city limits during middle school, so obviously there wasn’t any place in biking distance then.)

        • sanclementejedi says:

          damn I thought my town was small with 9,000 people and one traffic light lol

        • Springfield’s actually a good-sized city; would have been about 30,000 people then, 60,000 now. Just never had a comics shop, and I don’t remember any of the card shops or grocery stores selling comics.

          Nah. What change I did come by usually went to the video arcade.

        • sanclementejedi says:

          Springfield of Simpsons fame?

        • Yep, Springfield, Oregon. Though how much the Simpsons’ town is based on it varies depending on who Groening feels like winding up on any given week.

  6. Can you imagine what James Earl Jones must’ve thought the moment he saw himself in the mirror with that wig on for the first time? ha

    I like the original. it is cheesy, but you’re right, it’s fun!

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