Directed By: John Milius
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow
Tag line: "He conquered an empire with his sword. She conquered HIM with her bare hands"
Trivia: Was intended to be the first of a franchise of movies, with at least four sequels
The 1980s was a hell of a decade for Sword and Sorcery films, with movies like Krull, The Beastmaster, and the aptly-titled The Sword and the Sorcerer leading the way (I’d even put Dragonslayer and Excalibur in this category). Of course, like any genre, it had its share of stinkers as well (Conquest, Red Sonja, Ator the Fighting Eagle), but I can’t agree with those critics who, back in the day, considered director John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian an inferior effort. The movie that gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his first big-budget starring role, Conan the Barbarian is a violent, often exciting adventure flick filled with action and magic, and in my opinion ranks as one of the ‘80s best fantasy films.
Having spent the majority of his life as a slave following the murder of his father (William Smith) and mother (Nadiuska), Conan (Schwarzenegger) eventually proves himself an able warrior, winning fight after fight in the arena (and making some influential people a lot of money in the process).
As thanks for his many victories, Conan is set free, and, during his travels, meets Subotai (Gerry Lopez), a beggar; and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a thief. Together, the three decide to steal the Eye of the Serpent, a valuable jewel belonging to Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), the enigmatic leader of a very popular cult (one that centers on snakes).
Though they are nearly captured, Conan and his friends do manage to escape with the jewel, and as a result are summoned to the court of King Osric (Max von Sydow), who wants to strike a deal with them. It seems that the King’s daughter (Valerie Quennessen) has fallen under Thulsa Doom’s spell, and has traveled to the great Temple of Set to join his cult.
Promising them riches beyond their wildest dreams, King Osric asks Conan and the others to retrieve his daughter and return her safely to his castle. While they happily accept the King’s down payment, both Subotai and Valeria are reluctant to carry out such a dangerous mission. As for Conan, he has a personal score to settle with Thulsa Doom, who he recently discovered is the man responsible for the death of his parents. Prepared to take on Thulsa Doom and his throng of followers all by himself, Conan sets off, knowing full well that he may never see his friends again.
A fair portion of Conan the Barbarian was shot on-location in Spain, with Milius and his crew utilizing the country’s vast landscapes and ancient ruins to give the film a mystical feel. As for the performances, Arnold may not have been the strongest actor at this point in his career, but physically he was the perfect guy for the part, and handles the movie’s action scenes like a pro. Equally as bad-ass is Sandahl Bergman as Valeria, Conan’s partner in crime and eventual love interest; while James Earl Jones makes for a charismatic villain (based on his performance alone, you can see why Thulsa Doom has so many followers). Also good in supporting roles are Max Von Sydow as King Osric, Gerry Lopez as Subotai, and Mako, who, along with playing a Wizard, doubles as the narrator.
In addition, Conan the Barbarian has some truly awesome scenes, moments that have stayed with me since the first time I saw the film on cable television. The opening scene, where Conan’s father tells his young son (played as a boy by Jorge Sanz) the story of how mankind learned the secret of steel from the Gods, starts things off on the right foot, and the showdown between Thulsa Doom and Conan’s mother is both intense and heartbreaking.
And that all happens in the first 10 minutes! Still to come is the theft of the Eye of the Serpent (where Conan battles a giant snake), and a sequence late in the movie when Conan, tied to a tree and left for dead, gets his revenge on a pesky vulture. Yet, for my money, the film’s best scene has Valeria and Subotai fending off a collection of demons, which have come to collect the soul of a badly injured Conan. Thanks to some pretty cool animation, this particular sequence is far and away the movie's most impressive.
As mentioned above, not everyone was a fan of Conan the Barbarian. Time Magazine called it “Stupid and stupefying”, while Newsweek criticized it for being “cheerless and styleless”. I even remember reading a negative review in TV Guide (“A series of meaningless adventures punctuated with a lot of clanky, very bloody swordplay”), and a number of critics took issue with the movie’s graphic violence (which, admittedly, is strong even by today’s standards). Maybe nostalgia has clouded my judgment, or perhaps I’m just a sucker for ‘80s fantasy films, but whatever the reason, I love Conan the Barbarian.
And, naysayers be damned, I probably always will.