The sword and sandal movie was really, really huge in the 1960s, especially in Europe. These movies were usually Greek or Roman in origin and would depict people like Hercules or Belerophon or other such heroes and generals.
In the ’80s, it was a little bit different; it was the sword and sorcery genre, and it wasn’t nearly as popular, though it did offer up some
great weird offerings, blending horses, armor, loin cloths, and magic of some measure or other. This brief period of film history seemed perfect for an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s incredibly popular Conan stories, which date back to 1932.
It’s lucky that Arnold Schwarzenegger existed in 1982 because without him, Conan the Barbarian would have been unmemorable.
The original script for Conan the Barbarian was written by, of all people, Oliver Stone, who was brought on the film after Paramount would only give the film its $2.6 million budget if a “name screenwriter” was attached. At this point in Stone’s career, he’d written and directed two less-than-good horror movies (Seizure in 1974 and The Hand in 1981) and had written the screenplay for Midnight Express. That’s it, but apparently that was “name” enough for Paramount. Stone’s screenplay would have been way too expensive, so they needed to tamper it down a bit, take out some of the more insane elements, and bring it back to Earth.
Eventually, John Milius, the screenwriter of Dirty Harry, who had been attached to the project initially back in the ’70s, was brought back in to do a draft and to direct. With all the pieces in place, including the reigning Mr. Universe, they headed off to Spain.
The movie begins with narration by the actor Mako who plays a character we meet much later in the movie. He’s meant to be the chronicler of Conan’s life. Mako is the absolute perfect voice for this narration. (You might know Mako as the voice of the evil Aku from Samurai Jack.) He tells the beginnings of Conan’s life, somewhere in a snowy land. His father (William Smith) tells him all about the old gods of the earth and their god, Krom, and about the Riddle of Steel, a way of explaining the importance of steel to his people, the Cimmerians.
Tragedy befalls Conan one day when a group of marauders led by the snake-charming Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) descends on the village and ransacks it. Conan’s father is eaten by dogs and Thulsa Doom beheads Conan’s mother while she stands holding his hand, trying to defend him. As Conan stares into Thulsa Doom’s eyes, he is spared and instead sold into slavery, where he is tied to a milling wheel and told to walk around with the other slaves and turn it, day after day.
So years go by, and Conan is angry. All the other slaves turning the wheel have died or gone away somewhere, but Conan, driven by nothing more than hate and the thirst for revenge, has become a pile of muscle. Eventually, his masters put him in a gladiatorial match against a seasoned fighter. Somehow, amid a lot of trademark Schwarzenegger gargle-yelling, Conan emerges victorious and we see a montage of him slaying dozens of opponents in the pit. He’s so impressive that they send him to The East to learn swordsmanship (from some samurai) and is watched as he copulates with women hoping for him to sire equally powerful fighters. (Get it, he’s like an animal!)
We also learn that Conan knows what’s best in life: “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”
Eventually, Conan is freed and makes his way in the world. He finds the tomb of an Atlantean general and he takes the corpse’s sword as his own. He also meets a witch who has information about Thulsa Doom and she’ll give it to him in exchange for sex — the way it always happens in the fantasy world created by a man in the 1930s. She, mid-coitus, turns into a demon and Conan has to drive her away. He frees a captive named Subotai, a thief and archer, who becomes Conan’s companion. They eventually meet a warrior woman named Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) who joins them in their quest, basically just causing trouble wherever they go drinking and fornicating. They rob one of Doom’s serpent temples (Doom has become a religious figure at this point and has legions of followers) and afterwards, Conan and Valeria fall in love, of course.
They’re all captured and brought before King Osric (Max von Sydow), who at first chastises their ways, but then applauds their brazenness. He has a task for them: his daughter the princess has fallen in with Thulsa Doom, under his snake-charming spell, and the King wants her returned safely. He’ll pay, of course, but for the opportunity to kill Thulsa Doom, Conan needs only be pointed in the right direction. Subotai and Valeria don’t want to take up this mission, though, so Conan goes alone.
He infiltrates the cult by stealing a priest’s robes and tries to take out Doom, who discovers him. Doom says Conan should owe him everything, for it was he who made him the man his today. He also says the Riddle of Steel is meaningless and that the power of flesh is far more powerful, which he demonstrates by compelling a young girl to jump to her death.
Anyway, there’s a lot of plot, but suffice to say, Conan and the team reunite, they meet the Wizard on the Mound (Mako, remember him?) and Conan faces Thulsa Doom and his minions. The final big fight scene features Conan and his friends and their deadly obstacle course. Having rescued the Princess, who did NOT want to be rescued, they tie her to a tree on a hill and create booby traps all the way up, also leaving themselves plenty of weapons to pick up if they need to. This is a really cool sequence and is especially bloody. I mean, the whole film is bloody, but there’s lots of grotty stuff here. Conan wields a battleaxe for most of it, and that doles out the harshness.
Conan the Barbarian is not a great movie; it’s silly in places, and, though undeniably compelling, Arnold’s performance is every bit as bug-eyed and grunt-filled as it often was (especially this early in his career). It’s a macho dude movie and the women, Valeria aside, are just objects to prance around nude. Even Valeria herself shows her fair share of skin, though she has a bit more to do in the plot. That said, for being a dude movie, it’s not without its charm, and it’s probably the best of these Sword and Sorcery movies.
It’s also easy to make fun of, as this hilarious opera version of the film can attest: