Conan the Barbarian: Then and Now
Conan the Barbarian (1982) is a special film for me. It was my first R-rated experience and did a wonder on my pre-teen sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex -- especially Conan's coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm -- and a deluge of blood and gore, I was utterly stupefied, and if not for the subject material which interested me, would have probably taken days to recover. Come to think of it, it did take a while to recover. Conan threw me into a world of lust and brutality I was so unprepared for at age 12, but it also felt like a real-life Dungeons and Dragons game. This was high adventure in which thieves robbed the temples of evil priests, rescued their victims, battled giant snakes, and stumbled on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons -- the kind of scenarios I fantasized about daily when throwing the 20-sided die.
Today it holds up rather well. Astoundingly well, in fact, when compared to inferior PG cousins like Willow, Krull, Legend, and of course the abysmal sequel Conan the Destroyer. The '80s gave fantasy such a bad name that I came to view Conan the Barbarian as a one-time exception in a genre flooded by cliche and hollow characters, and not until Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings would I be forced to revise my opinion. The first fifteen minutes alone make clear that Milius is about serious business and refuses to pull punches, as the young Conan witnesses his entire people slaughtered in a village raid, and his mother decapitated as he clings to her. Battles are so violent that the film feels like an historical epic instead of fantasy, as if Hyboria were exactly as Robert Howard intended: a mythic version of the ancient world, like Middle-Earth.
The film in fact anticipates Lord of the Rings in some interesting ways, but most fundamentally with the score. It is no exaggeration to say that Basil Poledouris' compositions are amongst the most powerful ever written for any film, and this is agreed on by even critics who aren't terribly wild about Conan. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme play at just the right moments, and a gothic choir creeps in almost unnoticeably on the slow melodies. Then there is the waltz, one of my favorite pieces, for the orgy scene: the redundant movements fit perfectly over the sex, cannibalism, and Thulsa Doom polymorphing into a snake, and oddly puts me in mind of Ravel's Bolero. I still listen to this soundtrack as much as I do Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings, and am floored by how much talent Poledouris was able to poor into such an obscure project.
The acting performances are the film's only liability, but not in a major way, and in Schwarzenegger's case his poor talents actually work for him. His barbaric role demands little more than grunting out one-liners, swinging a sword, maiming foes, punching camels, and fucking women, and his Austrian accent somehow, amusingly, fits just right in this context. Dialogue is used frugally throughout the film in any case, so Conan's companions (cast more for their athletic than acting talents) don't come off terribly bad either. But James Earl Jones is genius, and he completely steals the show as Thulsa Doom, the high priest of Set based on Thoth-Amon from Howard's books. Jones oozes malevolence with all the trappings of a hippy cult leader, hypnotizing with a stare, and commanding loyal followers to jump to their deaths on a whim. The snake theme is milked for all its worth, and considering production values of the early '80s it's a wonder how convincing the giant serpents are. Doom even shoots snakes from his longbow, and one of them of course kills Valeria, pushing Conan completely over the edge in his hunger for revenge.
In terms of its treatment of source material, Conan has been a bone of contention, pleasing and displeasing fans of the Howard classics in equal measure. Most everything is pastiche (Valeria is an acrobatic thief more like Belit instead of Howard's pirate; the high priest of Set is named after a sorcerer who never even met Conan), distortion (the god Crom invites prayer-challenges and has a jovial side reminiscent of our viking gods, unlike Howard's Crom who disdains all prayer as weak and is completely cheerless), or invention (Conan's early years on the Wheel of Pain). As one who never got around to reading Howard's books until much later, none of this could bother me, but my best friend knew Howard inside and out and loved the film as much I did. I've always believed that strict adaptations are too stifling (and again Lord of the Rings is instructive), and anyone with a good ear knows that the name of Thulsa Doom cuts deeper than Thoth-Amon.
Milius' film is precious enough to me that I expect this Friday's remake will make my piles fester, and the trailer certainly doesn't inspire confidence. Special effects notwithstanding, it looks like a bombardment of visual chaos, and the dialogue sounds cheesy. Even Milius' occasional cheese was endearing, not least Conan's infamous answer to the question, "What is best in life?" You have to imagine Schwarzenegger's Austrian accent for the full effect: "Crush the enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!" My friend and I got more mileage out of that ridiculous saying than it deserves, and it pretty much sums up Conan better than anything I can think of.
Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.