Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian (1982), directed by John Milius, written by John Milius, Oliver Stone, based on characters created by Robert E. Howard, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez

Conan the Barbarian can be seen as a lot of things. It can be seen as a silly comic book adaptation or as an adaptation of Robert E. Howard's original stories which misses the character of Conan but gets the feeling right. Some even might consider it a campy b-flick or a take on the directors own right-wing worldview. Or you just might think it's an okay fantasy adventure movie. 

But of one thing there's no doubt in my mind, Conan the Barbarian directed by John Milius, still is one of the greatest fantasy movies ever made, even post-Lord of the Rings. It's one of those rare movies, where almost everything lines up correctly. And it's not really campy at all, that's more on the sequel Conan the Destroyer. I wouldn't even consider it a b-flick either.

Most movies tend to age, and they do that badly. A lot of movies made in the 1980's or 1990's feel and look like it, more often than not to a degree which makes them unintentionally funny or just otherwise dated. Some movies just don't manage to stand on their own when taken out from the era and context they were made in. But Conan the Barbarian isn't one of those movies. To elaborate, CtB belongs into the rare breed of movies, which have a certain air of timelessness about them.

There's a spark in CtB than can't be denied. Sure, it's not necessarily the worlds best-acted movie at times. Especially Arnold had very little experience as an actor and that shows when he is uttering his lines. But here's where Milius's genius comes in, as he has limited the amount Arnold actually does speak. A lot of his scenes, even those with Sandahl Bergman (who's pretty great) are done in a manner where the wonderful music of Basil Poledouris sweeps over it all, making the movie feel like an opera. And then there are those great actors, who do the talking, like Max von Sydow and James Earl Jones, who both are giving far better performances than you'd expect to see in a movie like this.

Thulsa Doom isn't a particularly nice guy.
While the character of Conan isn't necessarily very close to the original Conan Robert E. Howard created in his pulp stories, Milius does nail the worldview of Conan stories very nicely.  There's a relentless quality about the character, in how he acts and what he does and why he does what he does.

another aspect of the world that just works is how it looks. The Hyperborean age Conan lives in just looks right like it could have existed. It looks like an ancient world, which was old already when the story begins. It's a worn-out world, which is just waiting to collapse under its own weight as the structures have gotten so old and tired. It shows in the cities, the buildings, the people and the clothes and the locations.

I already mentioned the music, but I do think I need to mention it again, as the soundtrack of Conan the Barbarian is one the best ever done for any movie. It really just is the icing on the cake, which makes a movie based upon a pulp hero so much more credible.

At the core of the story of Conan the Barbarian is Conan's quest for revenge. As a young boy, his whole village was raided by Thulsa Doom (played fantastically by James Earl Jones) and Conan himself was sold into slavery. As he grew he became a gladiator and later on, when he was released, he became a wandering swordman. But he always was seeking a sign of two snakes becoming one, the sign of Thulsa Doom.

Valeria, Conan and Subotai. Unlike in many other incarnations of Conan, he actually is wearing more than just a loin cloth in Milius's vision.
We see Conan travel the fabled hyperborean age with his friends Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). It's a world that is worn and old and fantastic. Filled with awe and wonder. It feels alive and real in a manner not many movies, including the sequel, don't manage to feel and in such the world becomes just as big of a character than the characters themselves. It has always saddened me, that Milius wasn't allowed to continue with the Conan saga and it was practically destroyed with a hamfisted sequel.

As I said, I don't think Conan the Barbarian has really aged at all. Unlike many other movies in the sword and sorcery genre, it hasn't turned into an unintentionally campy comedy.  No, I think it has fared time better than a lot of other movies, even those which in their time were considered superior and were even awarded Oscar's and other awards.

As a movie Conan the Barbarian stands tall. It's still the best take on the character as well as it is the best adaptation of the material written by Robert E. Howard. And that, I think, simply is because Milius just seemed to understand the mind of that alcoholic schizophrenic better than any other director out there.

Had there been justice in the world, we would have gotten two more Conan movies by Milius, ending with the teased King Conan (which might pan out in some form in the future, if not with Milius directing, then at least from his script).


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