Director: John Milius
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman
Conan seeks revenge against Thulsa Doom, the slayer of his parents.
The first time I saw Conan the Barbarian—on opening night in 1982—I remember leaving the theater feeling as if I had been punched in the stomach. I was a huge fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan novels, and was looking for every reason to like the movie, but even I knew that Conan the Barbarian fell well short of expectations. I was hoping that more than two decades would give me a new perspective on the film, and it did: I liked it even less the second time around. There are a few redeeming features to this movie. The combat, for example, has some excellent moments. But the awful script, neolithic acting, stuttering pace, and weak direction are too much to overcome.
First, let’s talk about the script and acting, or rather, the lack of these features. Seriously, I think they forgot to to include a script and simply told the characters to act like gorillas. The movie is supposed to be set in the Hyporborian Age, not the Neolithic Age. Characters grunt, scowl, and crawl around as if they missed the evolutionary boat. To give you and example of the near total lack of script, according to a random fact on IMDB, Conan says a total of five words to Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), his lover and accomplice for much of the movie, and all of them occur the instant they meet. Even the little dialog that exists is often delivered with such barbaric exaggeration that it becomes comical. Critically, despite visually fitting the mold, Arnold Schwarzenegger is abysmal as Conan; he says little, scowls deeply for much of the movie, and captures little of the intelligence, humor, and fire of the written Conan. James Earl Jones, as Thulsa Doom, is perhaps the sole exception acting-wise. He must say twice as much as any other character in the movie. Unfortunately, as bizarre as this may seem, he manages to drone on too long in many of his scenes. I often found myself wanting to shut him up. As one can imagine, the awful script and poor acting wreak havoc with the characterization in the movie; if you hadn’t read the Conan novels you’d likely be clueless as to who and what the characters are.
You could probably forgive these negatives somewhat if the pace of the movie were better, but Conan the Barbarian moves between scenes too slowly, drags many scenes too long, and throws in too many filler scenes that add little to the movie. With so little being said in the movie, I found myself wondering if I had somehow magically turned off the voice track and left the soundtrack on. To give you an example, I swore it took five minutes for Thulsa Doom to decide to kill Conan’s mother, during which time the two of them simply stare at each other, saying nothing. Flash to Thulsa Doom. Flash to Conan’s mother. Flash to little Conan. Back to Thulsa Doom. Repeat for five minutes. Argh! What is the point? I almost cheered when Thulsa finally chopped her head off. In all seriousness, this movie might best be viewed at double speed. You won’t miss any dialog, that’s for sure.
The saving grace is the action in Conan the Barbarian. The combat may well be the only reason to see the movie, but even this is a stretch, as there just didn’t seem to be much fighting for a movie that is over two hours long. On the whole, sword combat is bloody and well depicted, with the exception of a silly incident where Conan fights an evil serpent that looks every bit like the big toy rubber snake that it is. Even the good combat scenes, however, suffer from some premise-bending elements. Conan’s stand against Thulsa Doom’s forces, for example, has some solid hack and slash duels, but the enemy forces are extraordinarily dopey, which takes a lot of the luster off the graphic melee combat. At another point, Conan, Subotai, and Valeria sneak into Thulsa Doom’s temple with such ease that it’s a bit ridiculous, and later Conan uses the same route, which Thulsa Doom had discovered! Apparently the brilliant Thulsa Doom is a moron.
If we hunt around for other positives, the cinematography and musical score stand out well. Both are well above average, and pull the viewer in Conan’s world. I suppose we could say that the story is decent, but there really isn’t much of story to start with. Basically, Conan seeks revenge for the slaughter of his village when he was a boy. Yup, that’s the entire plot. And the conclusion does wrap up this story nicely, but again, that’s not too difficult when you consider its simplicity.
From a film-making perspective, 1982 sits on the doorstep of the digital effects age, and there are a couple of basic attempts at enhancing Conan the Barbarian with some evil spirits. For the most part they work, but they don’t add much to the movie.
Babe-wise, Conan is a delicate subject. There is quite a bit of sex, with two rather explicit sex scenes and one controversial orgy. Normally this would help the babe rating, but females are often portrayed as chattel in the movie, which puts a damper on the whole situation. Furthermore, the babe factor is essentially supplied by Sandahl Bergman, who is one of those women who can look fine from one angle, then bland from the next. Most of the time they seem to have gotten her from the bland angle, however. The most provocative scene would have to be Conan’s night stop in a witch’s hut. The witch, Cassandra Gava, is rather hot, and the scene does a bit to boost the babe factor. From a male-viewing perspective, there is a beefed-up Arnold, James Earl Jones in a wig, and not much else. Arnold broods for most of the movie, so that doesn’t help.
All in all, it’s a shame that Conan the Barbarian doesn’t come close to its potential. The problems with the script, acting, and pace heavily outweigh the solid combat scenes, a great musical score, and some fine cinematography. With the right production, I’ve always felt that the Conan series could have become a sort of James Bond of the Sword and Sworcery world. But this movie crippled any such effort, and the subsequent Conan the Destroyer nailed the coffin shut.
Corrie Jansen makes a 182-foot freefall from a cliff in this movie. It has remained the world record freefall stunt for a woman. The men’s record is 220 feet, set in Sharky’s Machine.
Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer are best purchased in the combination set, Conan the Complete Quest (This set is currently on sale at DeepDiscount.com for $6.28, shipping included).
Consistent Premise: 63
Body Count: 63
Time to First Dead Body: About 7 minutes
Special Effects: 17
Overall: 32 (Disposable)