Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian back from the dead.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Director: John Milius
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman
IMDb rating: 6.9
Really, Metacritic? 43? Good job, critics. Good job. You’ve made it necessary to explain why Conan the Barbarian, the gold standard for epic fantasy filmmaking prior to The Lord of the Rings, and an all-time classic of the genre, is a good movie. I hope you’re proud of yourselves. Better get on with it, then. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
John Milius wasn’t interested in complexity, but rather in distilling epic fantasy down to its purest, most essential elements
Is the story for John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian about as simple and straightforward as they come? Well, yes. That’s kind of the point. Conan’s village gets wiped out by Thulsa Doom, then he is enslaved and forced to become a gladiator, before being freed and setting out on a quest for vengeance. Sure, we’ve seen this story before, but Robert E Howard’s stories of Conan more or less created the sword-and-sorcery genre as we know it, so we expect a certain amount of familiarity.
The whole thing is deliberately classical and archetypal: director John Milius wasn’t interested in complexity, but rather in distilling epic fantasy down to its purest, most essential elements and putting them up on screen as big as possible. The barbarian on a quest for vengeance; his best friend, a thief and archer; a warrior woman that he falls in love with; and of course, the diabolically evil wizard who murdered his family.
The fact that all the characters are so arch is what makes the potentially dubious casting decisions really work. Because these are supposed to be simple archetypes of fantasy storytelling – the fact that the trio of heroes are played by a dancer (Sandahl Bergman), a surfer (Gerry Lopez) and Arnold is actually a benefit rather than a hindrance, because the relatively simplistic acting taps into the same vibe that the whole film is aiming for.
Basil Poledouris’s score remains one of the best ever written, up there with Howard Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings
To be sure, the Terminator is still Arnold’s best role, but Conan isn’t far behind – and if it weren’t for Conan, it’s doubtful that Schwarzenegger would have been the Terminator. This interpretation of the character is fondly remembered enough that a new film, The Legend of Conan, is in the works right now, picking up where this film left off. And it would be poor form indeed to not mention James Earl Jones’s masterful performance as the villain, magnificently hammy and evil to the point that his name is Doom, which brings just enough gravitas to the film to offset some of the sillier aspects (like his frankly bizarre transformation into a snake).
Further adding to the classical nature of the whole thing is Basil Poledouris’s truly remarkable score, which perhaps more than anything else in the film is what really conjures up the spirit of epic fantasy. It remains to this day one of the best epic film scores ever written, up there with Howard Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings: it achieves a perfect balance between the grandiosity and bombast we expect from Conan, and tender, quieter moments that help to build the relationships between the heroes just enough that we can really connect with what are essentially stock characters.
Before Peter Jackson came along in 2001 and forever changed the way we would think about epic fantasy cinema, Conan the Barbarian was the genre’s high water mark, and is still easily one of the best fantasy movies out there. It’s head and shoulders over practically everything else that came out of the 80s fantasy boom: Clash of the Titans, Ladyhawke and Highlander have their merits but are all very flawed, and Hawk the Slayer is better compared to The Room than to Conan.
It is something of a shame that another follow-up to this classic is due to be made as part of Hollywood’s current mission to strip-mine the 1980s of anything with any nostalgia value, but it might be good to come back to Arnold’s Hyboria after all this time. Since this was the film that made Arnold a star, a return to this world would be a fitting capstone to his acting career, and it would be a lot of fun to see him take up the sword again. It would certainly help wash away the taste of the Jason Momoa reboot.
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All images: Universal/Fox