Dir. by John Milius - 2 hrs. 9 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Once again, there is a relevant question:
Yes, yes I do. And what we've got here is a doozy of a gladiator movie, the king of all barbarians. By Crom, I'm talking about Conan the Barbarian. Conan, the character that inspired not one, but two spoof comic books that each ran for hundreds of issues (Sergio Aragones' "Groo the Wanderer," and Dave Sim's "Cerebus," which ran for three hundred issues). Conan, the character that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action star. Conan, whose paperback covers by Frank Frazetta are still revered and (poorly) imitated, and sometimes painted on the sides of vans. Conan the Barbarian!
As a child, Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) watches his entire village and family slaughtered by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his minions, and Conan is taken as a slave. He spends his entire childhood pushing a giant wooden wheel around (to what purpose I don't really know) until he's the last one standing, and all swole! Conan then is thrown into hand-to-hand combat, where he excels, vanquishing foe after foe. Only at this point is he educated and trained in actual combat, and he is eventually freed in the middle of the night by one of his captors. From here, Conan embarks on the life of a thief, which leads to interesting company, and eventually, the opportunity to try to exact revenge on Thulsa Doom.
There are a lot of ways to look at "Conan the Barbarian," and to admire it. This is a very masculine film (as one might suspect), and it's played straight. Conan's world is one where there is only one consequence to stepping out of line: death. As a result, one must either be very good and very aggressive, or be completely under the radar. Conan is a bad-ass, and is always willing to tackle anything head on. He even punches a camel in the face while tripping balls on black lotus. I'm not saying that I want to see more camels getting punched in movies, but if it's already there, I'm not going to say no. There's a real fine line when making such an explicitly masculine movie - a lot of people's instincts are to undercut the tension and start mocking the dynamic (or the characters themselves), and some filmmakers simply don't have the chops not to understand the absurdity of an ultra-serious approach. John Milius does a great job here; the action is sufficiently gritty (and none of that shaky-cam crap that has since infested action movies), there's great moments of humor that don't undermine the characters or their environment.
Beyond that, one of the things that I most enjoyed about "Conan the Barbarian" was that, in comparison to other swords-and-sandals movies, it didn't feel like an "epic." There's certainly an appeal to those kinds of movies, but this is a movie about a kid who was enslaved, and then conquered the world (according to the post-script), and that kind of movie is going to be told mostly in deserts, and in crappy towns and their crappy taverns. There are "large" moments, though, and they come across as a bigger deal because this film isn't packed wall-to-wall with them. Thulsa Doom's palace in the middle of BFE is a great example, and there was nothing around to distract from this piece of awesomeness in the middle of nowhere.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about "Conan" is that this is a textbook example of how you work around an actor's limitations. It would be awesome if every actor (and especially every star) was like Lawrence Olivier, and could tackle anything put in front of them. But they aren't. And Arnold Schwarzenegger was not, at this point in his career, particularly versatile. He had some stuff going for him - his look, mainly, and some charisma - but he also was doing a movie in a second langauge, this seems to have been his first starring role, and probably had to eat a third of the world's chicken population in order to consume enough protein to maintain his look. Director Milius did the smart thing: focus on what he could do. Conan doesn't talk a ton, he does fight quite a bit, and when he's not fighting, he's doing something active. His character is paired up with Subotai (Gerry Lopez), who handles some of the talking for them. Most importantly, Arnold isn't ever hung out to dry. Yeah, some of the lines are hilarious, especially as read by Arnold, but since he kills approximately the population of South Dakota over the course of the film, via swordplay, you still have to take him seriously. And his character is a doer, not a talker, which is entirely the right way to handle things.
"Conan the Barbarian" is a gory, nasty, occasionally silly movie that still holds up as pretty awesome. More to the point, it's a pivotal movie in film history, in that no one seems to be able to do any kind of movie in this vein without directly copping huge pieces of "Conan." I watched "Pompeii" not two weeks ago, and you could pretty much just swap in the first hour of "Conan," and the story wouldn't be dramatically changed. John Milius, co-writer Oliver Stone, and star Arnold Schwarzenegger absolutely nailed this, defining the tropes that make up this genre's hallmarks. This isn't a perfect film, it's a little too long for my taste, but it's pretty darned good. Plus, rampant toplessness, and Arnold punches out a camel. Again, I'm not saying I need to see more of this in movies, but if those sorts of things are already there, I'm watching.
3.5 / 5 - Theatre