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Non-Review Review: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

The 1982 Conan the Barbarian is one of what might be described as the “pop culture epics” of the eighties, a decidedly cheesy and campy take on an epic mythology – like Masters of the Universe or Flash Gordon. To be fair, John Milius’ adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s pulp hero holds up considerably better than most similar efforts to get an epic pulp product to screen. It’s still more than a little campy and cheesy, and more than a little dated. It still takes itself, perhaps, a little too seriously. However, it’s also a more thoughtful and considerate film than most give it credit for, and exceptionally nuanced in its portrayal of themes and ideas that most critics and pundits casually dismiss.

Steeling himself…

To be entirely fair, Conan the Barbarian is a product of its time. This is most obvious in the execution of some of its special effects. There are sequences that hold up surprisingly well (the animated ghouls and ghosts during Conan’s resurrection), but a lot of the film looks a little silly now – to the point where it’s easier to laugh at some of the dated special effects than it is to engage with the story being told.

The first scene, in which Conan and his father discuss “the riddle of steel”looks exceptionally dodgy, with some questionable use of green screen. After all, given it’s a scene of a father and son talking against a skyline, one wonders why the green screen was necessary. Even if it was, it’s hard to imagine that this is what cutting-edge looked like in 1982. There are other sequences throughout the film that stand out – for example, during some of the fight scenes, it seems quite clear that some of the troops are swinging plastic weapons instead of sturdier props. (Then again, perhaps this is the result of watching the movie in high definition, a format for which it was not intended.)

Time for a cutting retort?

That’s not to suggest that none of these sequences are strangely charming in their own way. There’s a sequence of Conan wrestling with a snake that works surprisingly well – the snake is rendered as a model and, while it’s hardly convincing, it does feel a great deal more tangible than most computer-generated effects. The audience obviously knows that it isn’t a real giant snake, and the model’s convincing enough for those willing to make that leap. As mentioned above, I also like the rotoscoped spirits during Conan’s resurrection sequence.

The execution isn’t necessarily the only problem, though. I like the script to Conan the Barbarian. I think that – between Oliver Stone and John Milius – it’s a lot smarter than most people give it credit for. However, I will concede that some of the dialogue (especially the faux mysticism stuff) is just a little bit too heavy handed. Again, consider this dialogue from the introductory scene:

Fire and wind struck down these giants, and they threw their bodies into the waters, but in their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. We who found it are just men. Not gods. Not giants. Just men. The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline.

It feels just a little bit overloaded – although it could just be down to the actor delivering the lines. Even the narrator sees vaguely zoned out as he tells us, “His was a tale of sorrow.” There’s no sense that the mystical narrator is really engaged with what we’re being shown. Describing Conan’s time in the ring, he seems positively lethargic, “He did not care any more… life and death… the same.”

“… And hear the lamentations of their women!”

Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan is generally portrayed as a stoic and silent type. He’s spared too many of these overloaded monologues, perhaps a wise decision given Schwarzenegger’s lack of experience at that point. (I think that Schwarzenegger is underrated as an actor because he doesn’t fare too well with dramatic material – he is, however, a wonderful physical presence, and not just because of his size.) However, James Earl Jones gets more than his fair share of grandiose statements as the villain of the piece, and Jones does a pretty impressive job with the material.

I’m actually quite fond of John Milius’ direction, despite many of the oft-cited problems. I think that he elevates the film to campy melodrama, acknowledging the over-the-top nature of the material. Perhaps he plays it a little too straight, but the earnestness of the film is one of its endearing qualities. And there are some lovely moments and shots to be found here – using the image of Conan pushing the wheel to demonstrate the passing of time is a simple and stunningly effective technique. Milius recruited composer Basil Poledouris to work on the film, and the composer’s almost overwhelming score has become a trademark of the swords-and-sorcery epic.

Is Conan Doomed?

The violence in the film has been the subject of much discussion. Some commentators decried it as too violent, while others suggested that the violence had been rather toned down from that present in Howard’s stories. The studio actually pushed back the original release of the film (from Christmas 1981) because they balked at the violence in the original cut. In the final released version, there’s a sense that Milius is restraining himself. There’s nothing even remotely excessive by today’s standards, so Milius’ restraint in this film about a pre-historic barbarian seems slightly surreal.

However, it does force Milius to make some interesting artistic choices, which lend the film a decidedly unique flavour. Despite the brutality on display here, Milius’ direction feels quite distinct from most other similar movies. It gives everything a slightly overblown melodramatic quality that suits the material – like the most surreal indie film ever made. This is most obvious during the early attack on Conan’s village – witness the camera zooming around as the dogs attack Conan’s father, the almost arthouse way that the decapitation of his mother is depicted. It’s almost comedic, and yet strangely graceful.

Tree of “Woah, that is a hardcore punishment…”

We’re not used to seeing violence portrayed quite like that, and so Milius’ direction gives the film a bit of an edge that it wouldn’t otherwise have. There’s another fascinating shot at the climax that I’m quite fond of as well, as Valeria repeated hacks at a guard who attacked her as he lies on the ground, partially obscured by the design of the set. It’s a surprisingly brutal act, but Milius positions the camera in such a way that we know what’s going on, but the act itself is just out of view.

Conan the Barbarian often comes under fire as a vaguely fascist movie. A surface reading of the material certainly supports such a view. It is, at its most basic level, the story of a Germanic superman who overthrows and murders a black man, using force as his primary weapon. Indeed, a lot of swords-and-sorcery stories contain similarly fascist or xenophobic undercurrents. Norman Spinrad, after all, wrote The Iron Dreamas an exploration of those themes and ideas, centred around a fantasy novel written by an alternate-universe Adolf Hitler.

Conan often feels like his life is just going in circles…

Still, I’m not really convinced that Conan the Barbarian is just as shallow or as simplistic as most critics would argue. For one thing, I would suggest that it’s almost a bitter inversion of the hero’s journey. Richard Schnickel described Conan the Barbarian as “a sort of psychopathic Star Wars.” While it seems a little excessive, I think that Conan the Barbarian does merit comparison with George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope. However, while Lucas distilled the hero’s journey in Luke Skywalker’s evolution from lowly orphan to galactic saviour, Milius plays with the idea that the journey isn’t always a good thing.

Luke loses his adoptive parents, but it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. He gets to live his romantic fantasy, saving the universe, rescuing princesses, discovering that he is the son of one of the most powerful figures in the universe. He even gets to redeem his father (and arguably Han Solo) while overthrowing tyranny and making the galaxy a better place. The final scene of Star Wars: Return of the Jedisees a happy and contented Luke who has accomplished everything he set out to do. His voyage of self-discovery has left him more complete, more happy, more developed.

Never too far afield…

In contrast, Conan the Barbarian subverts this. Conan embarks on a similar journey to Luke, setting out to overthrow an evil ruler and earn his place in the world. He’s driven to confront Doom in order to avenge the loss of his parents – up until the climax of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke thinks the same is true of his campaign against Vader. However, Conan’s journey brings him power, but it doesn’t bring him piece. Those final shots of Conan don’t show a man who is happy or content – they show a man who almost seems to regret his heroic journey or epic quest, despite the success he has achieved. (Fitting, then, that Conan the Barbarian positions its scroll text at the end of the movie, perhaps acknowledging the inversion.)

The irony is that Conan had a much more tangible happiness before he set out on his adventure. He and Valeria seem content with one another. She even begs him not to pursue Doom, to let his sense of obligation lie. “You and I, we have warmth,” she pleads. “That’s so hard to find in this world. Please, let someone else pass by in the night. Let us take the world by the throat and make it give us what we desire.” Conan, however, can’t let that lie, and the result is that he completes his own journey of self-discovery, only to accomplish the most hallow of victories.

His camouflage is perfect… “Man, that wall is really ripped…”

That doesn’t seem like an inherently fascist narrative to me. It seems far more tragic. It doesn’t celebrate power. Instead it suggests that power is not everything, and that the pursuit of it can cause incredible damage. Indeed, even Doom has learned this. He seems quite bitter about the power he has acquired, suggesting that it hasn’t brought him the peace he so desperately sought when he was younger. “There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel. When steel meant more to me than gold or jewels. The riddle of steel.” Although he holds the absolute power he sought as a boy, Doom doesn’t seem content – perhaps foreshadowing Conan’s own journey.

Conan the Barbarian explores a universe where knowledge and power are not trophies that grant their owners some sense of comfort. Instead, they are poisoned chalices, that slowly eat away at those who would claim them. There’s been a bit of discussion about how Conan exists in the same universe as the creations of H.P. Lovecraft. Certainly that makes sense, the universe is just as bleak and dark an uncaring, and knowledge is only a pathway to insanity. After Conan rescues the princess, Doom vows revenge, “Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they will learn why they fear the night.” In the world of Conan the Barbarian, knowledge does not afford one power over the universe, only an understanding of how incredibly hostile it is.

He’s a snake, that one…

Conan the Barbarian plays as the story of a man coming to understand the universe. A lot of the character’s (admittedly limited) dialogue is decidedly inquisitive. Even exploring an old city, Conan is flush with questions for his guide. Encountering one particularly smelly alleyway, he asks, “Does it always smell like this? How does the wind ever get in here?” The sounds like it could be an insult, but Arnie plays it as sincere curiosity.

A lot of Conan’s early encounters after he leaves the life of a slave seem to reflect a man who has little understanding of how the world works. He encounters a skeleton in a gave that grants him a sword, one that almost seems to move after he claims he. He is taken advantage of by a woman in a shack, who reveals her true form to him in the midst of their love-making – one of a demon. These would confuse and startle anybody, but Arnie plays Conan with an almost endearing wide-eyed innocence. It seems like all he can bring himself to utter, faced with weird and mystical moments like this, is “Crom”, a euphemism for “God.”

No bones about it, giants once walked the earth…

(I have to admit that Conan the Barbarian also takes a somewhat progressive stance on gender. Conan is just as objectified as any of the women in the picture – both by the other characters and also by the film itself. A bit of beefcake, Arnie shows far more skin than leading lady Sandahl Bergman. While there’s a lot of gratuitous skin on show during the film, Conan’s physique is just as visible and his lack of clothing just as gratuitous. Even within the narrative, Conan is just as objectified by his masters. When they tried to “breed” Conan, a woman is thrown into his cage while the masters leer on, an act that objectifies Conan as much as the female slave involved.)

Indeed, Conan the Barbarian is, for a movie frequently derided as “a right-wing fantasy”,  it takes a rather bold view of religion. Conan exists in a world that has gods. There is no debating that fact. Magic, mysticism, spirits, demons, witches, giants – they all exist in this strange world. As such, it seems just as likely that Crom exists. At the very least, we get proof of the afterlife. However, despite all that, Conan the Barbarianseems positively atheist in its outlook. Gods exist, but they are cruel and uncaring. They are indifferent to the suffering of man, either deaf or actively hostile to his pleas for assistance.

Carrying a torch…

Early in the story, Conan explains the afterlife that awaits him. “If I die, I have to go before him, and he will ask me, “What is the riddle of steel?” If I don’t know it, he will cast me out of Valhalla and laugh at me.” Later on, at the climax of the film, an older and wiser Conan seems positively belligerent towards his god:

Crom…  I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought or why we died. No. All that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what’s important. Valor pleases you, Crom, so grant me one request.  Grant me revenge. And if you do not listen, then to hell with you.

It’s a decidedly bold challenge to present to your deity, and one which effectively denounces him. This is a world where Conan accepts that Crom is indifferent at best – “not even”an all-powerful deity could be concerned with this conflict. Whether Crom agrees with Conan’s cause or not, Conan will pay no heed to him – Conan will do what Conan will do, and Crom may bless or condemn him as he pleases.

Going to town on his family’s murderers…

I am quite fond of Conan the Barbarian, despite its cheese and its camp – in fact, I find some of that quite endearing. I also think it’s a much smarter movie than most would suggest, and probably the best of the cheesy epics of the eighties.

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