The Nietzschean, anteTolkien king of fantasy.
Written: Jan 6, 2003 (Updated Jul 11, 2005)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Is it any surprise that only the first ten roles listed under 1982s Conan the Barbarian at imdb.com have speaking parts? Laconic is the word. In fact, the entire cast list doesnt fill the screen. It tapers off into things like Jorge SanzConan when he was young, Leslie Foldvarysacrificial snake girl, and my personal favorite performance, including all of a short sprint through the woods and a leap up on to a rock where he rests with his war paint-smeared pectorals heaving, Franco ColumbuPictish scout.
This combined with the commanding performance of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan, the role that launched his career (and theres never been one better suited for him save perhaps the first Terminator), gives a good idea of just how successful this movie is at avoiding chattiness. Instead, your ears will be treated to such minimalist marvels as the swish of a sword cutting through the air, the beat of a hammer on an anvil, the squeak of a wooden wheel, the background hubbub of a marketplace, the grunts of a straining Schwarzenegger, and a symphonic score that takes itself entirely seriously.
Its easy to see why this story, the protagonist of which has become a byword (if not a hiss), suffers so much abuse. Its an easy target. Conan, the avatar of testosterone, spends two hours searching for his parents killer so he can wreck vengeance, all without so much as a word. Such mindless storytelling, such pointless diversion, such obvious playground posturing by nerdy boys whove never grown up and still wish they could be just a little more like, well, Conan. What can there be of art in such drivel?
Sure, there are those who latch onto the campiness of the film. They may even adore its cartoonish scenarios and cardboard characters. But they dont take it seriously. Their adoration is more like a gaudy pin for their lapel; a conversation piece. Moreover, they misunderstand the film. This is no Superman with a simplistic worldview. Conan is not a pure hero, but a nuanced man who sometimes misuses his great power. Not exactly campy by my standards.
Perhaps Ill lose all credibility, but Im willing to admit that not only do I love Conan the Barbarian with the pure love of childhood remembered, but I also happen to think it a deliciously artful creation. And hopefully after reading my review youll give it a second thought yourself.
Based loosely on the character developed by Robert E. Howard in his pulp stories of the 30s, Conan the Barbarian is a tale of revenge and the costs of pursuing it.
It opens by introducing us to young Conans village. A more or less peaceful place where people are busy going about their business. In a touching scene Conans father teaches him the riddle of steel, the only thing in life that can be trusted. This idyll is short-lived. Thulsa Doom and his ravaging warriors pillage the town. They leave Conans parents and neighbors heads on spikes and sell the surviving children into slavery. Grown into a man, Conan becomes a gladiator. Through his remarkable success in the ring, he gains value and begins to appreciate his own worth and identity.
When he escapes he has little purpose. He befriends a thief, Subotai, and a she-thief, Valeria. They pursue that vocation until Conan stumbles across Thulsa Dooms trail. The quest for revenge begins. Conan is relentless, even as the price he and his friends must pay continues to rise.
I wasnt simply speaking tongue in cheek when I said this has been the best, most appropriate, role Schwarzenegger has filled. Sure his muscles and even his voice fit the part. But its the demeanor that Schwarzenegger nailed. Granted, it may not have taken much acting for him to portray a tight-lipped stoic who isnt sure what to make of his emotions and inter-personal relationships or if he even has any. But the fact is hes good. He makes us believe that hes Conan. And his confusion (real or acted) is perfect, as is his rage and determination. As seen in the DVD commentary, Schwarzenegger has warm memories about this role and the challenge it posed for him (Conan needed to be agile. Schwarzenegger actually had to loose some muscle so he could properly wield a sword). He even talks enthusiastically about prospects for a third Conan film, something I would love to see if done well.
Opposite Conan is Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones. The man doesnt need me to tout his abilities. He is eminently believable as the leader of a wacko cult. The speeches he delivers about flesh being stronger than steel are effective on their own, let alone with the memorable demonstration. Ironically, Doom can be seen as the full extension of Darth Vader. Emotionless. Ruthless. And slightly wrong in the head when it comes to the mystical religion he espouses. But Doom is the stronger character both by virtue of being able to see Joness face, and because of the darkness of Conans tale.
Sandahl Bergman is Valeria, the voluptuous blonde love of Conans life. Not only her body, but her skill with the sword and her playfully cocky do you want to live forever taunts win his heart. Bergman fills this role adequately, sometimes movingly as she confesses the loneliness of her life. She would later play the villain in Red Sonja.
Gerry Lopez plays the Mongol Subotai. His theological conversation with Conan is highly entertaining both for the irony of its participants and for the cross-cultural theme. Unfortunately, as with Valeria, while the character is charismatic, the actor adds little to it through his performancewhich is not to say that Im not satisfied with Lopez. Im just not amazed.
Mako plays the wizard, whom Conan encounters and receives aid from. Its highly unfortunate that an actor with some talent has suffered from such poor roles. The Wizard is overly silly, and Makos Japanese theatrics dont help the situation. Things would only get worse in Conan the Destroyer. It wouldnt be through the Conan movies that Mako would return to the notoriety he had with his 1966 nomination for best supporting actor in The Sand Pebbles. Mako also serves as the narrator. Hey, in a film covering this span of timeall while consciously trying to avoid dialoguetheres got to be some info dumping. While narration can often be annoying, its not overly so here and Makos voice is better suited for it than it is for his character.
Much can be made of Miliuss attempt to recreate Apocalypse Now through Conan. But its certain the latter failed to reach the critical success his earlier film enjoys. Conan is nevertheless iconic in popular culture, and I suspect some credit for this is actually due its artistic merits.
To Miliuss credit (and Oliver Stones who co-wrote the screenplay) he has taken a shallow character and given him soul. Ambitiously he has stripped away one of the strongest tools available to film: dialogue. To film the story with minimal dialogue posed certain challenges. Milius compromised on the point of exposition, using Mako as a narrator. But on the points of tone and meaning he held fast, and these two most crucial aspects of the tale he communicates through visuals and music.
The visuals, ironically, come mostly from the actors, not the sets or landscapes. Their poses in relation to each other. The way they hold their weapons. And especially from their facial expressions, each of the actors acquitting themselves splendidly in this function, especially Schwarzenegger. His gaping mouth, drunken laugh, grimly set jaw, and grimaced exertion always dictate the scenes tone.
Producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted a pop score. Milius insisted on symphonic accompaniment. Basil Poledouris was commissioned and the score he produced is unsurpassed in cinema. It serves in the stead of dialogue, conveying emotions, intentions and mood throughout the entire film. It begins dauntingly strong and trails us along after Conan on the quest like hooked fish. It is superb and nearly flawless. Before I get too carried away, let me say that Im reviewing it separately and will post the link at the end of this piece.
Duke Callaghan shot the film, and despite his predominantly television-oriented experience, under Miliuss direction the movie is breathtaking. Landscapes are beautiful, but appropriately stark for the vaguely Central Asian setting. The opening scenes are particularly remarkable, even if later scenes suffer from poorer locales.
The costumes and art do much to advance the films tone. They supply a beauty not associated with attractiveness. The effects are adequate, considering the period. While the spirits the Wizard summons are simply hokey, the transformation of Doom into a snake is awesome, and achieved solely through cuts. Battle scenes are sometimes overdramatic, but usually well-choreographed. Much of the fighting consists of the staple slash to the guts, but some originality is shown in the more important match-ups. Gratuitous attention is not called to the gore, and nothing is romanticized through camera tricks or hyperbole as is so common in many current adventure films.
This film is the depiction of a man who suffers much and determines to gain vengeance for that suffering. His obsession brings him to ruin, and when his friends save him he responds by continuing his quest, eventually bringing them to ruin. The simplistic conception of Conan is that of a mindless barbarian. But he is a greatly contemplative character. The film begins with his instruction in the mythology of his people. He breaks free from slavery first in his mind when he self-individuates. He holds theological discourse with Subotai. He may struggle with the concepts, but he addresses them.
He learns of love through a trinity of women: a slave who is little more than a breeder, a witch who portends of danger, and Valeria, his soul mate who he comes to hold dear. She reciprocates and the tragedy caused when his quest for revenge severs them is potent.
Finally, victorious, Conan sits and thinks. This is the closing image. Again, nothing is overt. Nothing is said. But it is clear what Conan feels. Perhaps relief, but most certainly remorse. Revenge hasnt removed the hurt from him. It hasnt undone his past. On the contrary, it has only caused him more pain. Everything was taken from him as a child, now he has again lost everything, this time on the altar of vengeance. And there may be, after all, some truth to Dooms assertion that he is the wellspring from which [Conan] flows. When I am gone, you will have never been. Finally, Conan burns the temple, washing his hands as it were, moving on both from revenge, and from what its attainment cost him. One would think critics would laud such subtlety.
Reactions and Recommendation
I have a weakness for fantasy. I admit it. I played D&D. But I like to flatter myself by saying that I can still differentiate a quality film from crap even if both are fantasy. And I feel strongly that Conan the Barbarian really is a good film. In fact, its one of the few good fantasy films ever made. Drangonslayer was pretty good, as was Clash of the Titans. But The Last Unicorn and The Dark Crystal, despite being exceptional films, are not live action. Their dated effects and art detract. And despite my liking for Willow, Labyrinth and Legend (I told you I had a weakness), Im not overly impressed with them as art. Conan is a rare creature. The only comparable film for quality is Excalibur. Interestingly, both are dependent on symphonic scores.
Of course, now Peter Jackson has blown the top off of everything. His project (and notice Im not mentioning Harry Potter; thats because Im convinced the anticipation for Jacksons movies helped make the Harry Potter movies possible, and in that sense they predate) has made fantasy mainstream. Or at least as mainstream as, say, science fiction. His movies to large degree are putting to rest critical qualms about the artistic potential of fantasy. A throng of imitators is expected.
But Conan had its own imitators. From its own sequel Conan the Destroyer to Red Sonja and even to the popular Hercules and Xena TV shows. And lest it be forgotten, He-Man himself originated as a Conan figure who had to be reinvented when Mattel realized Conan wasnt for kids. Conans influence suggests an importance that can perhaps only be compared to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. And Conan is due a certain primacy among high fantasy because of seniority. Both movie and books predate their counterparts in Lord of the Rings. While they have certainly been surpassed by Tolkien and Jacksons work, Conan lives on. And I suspect that Conan himself is more iconic than either Gandalf, Frodo or Aragorn. More so than Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker. It may be that Conan is the most recognizable character ever. Perhaps not by name. But whats a name? The laconic ur-barbarian is a part of our culture nonetheless, and we all recognize him.
Conan the Barbarian is an enjoyable film with great merit. The story is engrossing. The approach ambitious. The too-common failure to appreciate it results from a susceptibility of the impressionable to the dictates of critics who have little imagination and consider those who do to be weak. However, if you look over past and present reviews youll notice something: disdained in its own day, Conan is gaining recognition. Give Conan a chance. You may find enough camp to love. And if youre really brave youll let yourself take it seriously. And come away satisfied.
(Parental advisory: the violence is not gratuitous but it is graphic. There is also some nudity, which, as usual, is gratuitous.)
Other Conan-related Reviews:
The exquisite Basil Poledouris score: http://www.epinions.com/content_85970947716
The disappointing sequel, Conan the Destroyer: http://www.epinions.com/content_106376760964
The Essential Conan, a collection of Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories: http://www.epinions.com/content_125912256132
The Whole Wide World, a quasi-biographical movie about Howard: http://www.epinions.com/content_189404384900
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