Robert 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.
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.
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.