My love for Conan the Barbarian is a bit strange. I was already 30 when I fell in love with the film. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen so often nowadays.
Arnie was one of my childhood heroes although of course I didn’t see his best films until I was maybe 15 or 16. More harmless action movies or even the comedies I had seen early, many other movies were known without having seen them at all. Terminator and Predator I could only watch relatively late myself, Total Recall I could even enjoy only in my twenties. Nevertheless, Arnie was of course one of the greatest of my generation. In the 90’s there was no way around action stars like Stallone, Willis or Chan – even if you weren’t allowed to see their greatest films yet.
The fine path between art and trash
Sometimes art speaks to you and you can’t explain what it is that fascinates you so much. For sure, some readers will now have their coffee cups slipping out of their hands: Did he just call Conan art?
Take it easy! I could easily retreat to the position that, yes, art is always subjective. But please let me explain. When I was in the phase of wanting to see all Schwarzenegger flicks, for me it was mostly about Terminator, Predator, True Lies and co. I knew nothing about Conan and didn’t know anyone who had seen it or recommended it. It passed me by and later I simply had no interest in catching up with it, as I knew Hercules in New York and suspected Conan to be similarly trashy. Here’s the trailer again for Arnie’s first Hollywood glory. Probably all the text parts of him are already in the trailer. There weren’t many more, since he spoke horrible English and they wanted him to talk as little as possible. Of course, Mister Universe wasn’t cast for profound dialogues either:
It was then a few years ago, when I discovered Conan the Barbarian on the tablet while ironing and finally wanted to take a look. One holds something on his film education and wants to close obvious gaps. I then came less to iron than planned and was so blown away that I watched the film a few days later immediately a second time on a large TV.
The movie event
For me, Conan the Barbarian is still a unique film that lives from a very special mixture. Here, the main actors, every single supporting actor, director, screenwriter, composer, set designer, cinematographer are all lucky finds. Something magical emerges, which for many people is certainly trash despite everything. For others, it is simply genius. First of all, Arnold is purely physically, of course, the perfect embodiment of the novel’s hero Conan. You can tell how much he wanted to play the role and that he saw it as his longed-for chance to break through. He plays Conan seriously and humorously and is completely convincing – he didn’t have to become a differentiated mime.
The antagonists will be discussed elsewhere. But how blatant is James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom? And then you have the internationally known character actor Max von Sydow in a completely unimportant supporting role. And cast Conan’s two companions as dancer Sandahl Bergman and surfer Gerry Lopez. Clearly, the two were to play primarily physical roles, which is why their athleticism was in demand. Nevertheless, Bergman was even nominated for the Golden Globe as Best Newcomer.
Then there’s the script: Conan the Barbarian tells a story of revenge that is epic in scale, yet has no lengths. In the spirit of the hero’s journey, Conan’s search for revenge and fulfillment is portrayed. He has to cope with many strokes of fate. The development is always comprehensible and at the end is a mature character who has relentlessly pursued his goal. The film stands well on its own, but would be perfect for a sequel. However, the screenplay also benefited from a very special combination:
Brilliance behind the camera
The film was directed by John Milius. The screenplay was written by Milius and none other than Oliver Stone. I guess, the material seemed to fit well with the two politically contentious creatives, and they did indeed deliver: Milius is known as an author of catchy, heroic sentences that always convey a certain masculinity. In the 70’s he worked a lot as a script doctor to improve screenplays. For example, he wrote the legendary “punk” line for Dirty Harry and contributed the equally legendary monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis to Jaws. He also penned the “Napalm in the Morning” line from Apocalypse Now. Clearly, the man is suited for Conan:
Milius also directed the film with a fine sense for the epic and heroic and for the necessary space in between. Gritty action and pathetic dialogue alternate with great landscape shots and smaller, narrative scenes.
An indispensable part of the myth for me is the dreamlike soundtrack by Basil Poledouris. Poledouris had already met Milius at university (as, incidentally, did George Lucas) and worked with him on Big Wednesday. He achieved his breakthrough with the soundtrack to Conan and that definitely has its justification. The music is orchestral and epic and gives the film the sheen of a blockbuster. Some of the themes are spontaneously in my ears and have a formative effect on the whole film for me.
One could write much more about the film. There is simply a reason why it set off a wave of barbarian films – but none of them even came close to its class. Two circumstances are painful, though:
- The sequel Conan the Destroyer (also starring Arnie) is a single disaster. I know that the film also has its fans, but I maintain that the film must then be considered a singular machination. As a sequel to The Barbarian, The Destroyer is simply unbearable. It was directed by Richard Fleischer and the script was written by Stanley Mann. At least on the script, the film unfortunately had to fail. The score is once again by Poledouris, but even he can not prove his class here again. A difficult film, which I have seen only once and gladly forget when I watch the barbarian again.
- John Milius even wrote a script for a third Conan film: King Conan. The reason that it never happened is that none of the people involved wanted to make a third film. Schwarzenegger was even committed to a third film, which is why he had to shoot Red Sonja against his will. I’d still rather see another Conan movie penned by Milius than the Snyder cut of Justice League. Unfortunately, that’s how life plays out.
By the way, if you are interested in Schwarzenegger and anecdotes about his movies, you should read his autobiography “Total Recall” (affiliate link). Especially about the two Conan movies he tells a lot of interesting and funny things about the shooting and his own training. Of course his whole life from the first weight training in Austria to his bodybuilding career and his way to movie stardom is included as well as his terms as governor of California. As an Arnie fan, I really enjoyed the book and gained some new insights. According to Arnie’s self-promotion, he stubbornly pursued the goal of financial security from the beginning and invested in real estate and companies early on to achieve it. I find the man and his single-mindedness fascinating.
After Conan the Barbarian captured my heart, I naturally had to have a miniature to match. There are many Conan incarnations in tabletop realm, but one really excited me:
The figure is by von Elladan and was modeled by Andy Peters. I think Andy read one of Arnie’s books on bodybuilding before modeling this – the muscle tone is just amazing, not to mention the excellent face, which really does a great job of conveying Arnie’s signature look. It was insanely fun to paint this figure and bring my own Conan to life.
The joy was great when I found miniatures of Subotai and Valeria at Rogue Miniatures. Both were ordered immediately and after arrival also gleih painted. I like Subotai very much, even if the figure is more muscular than he was. He looks more barbaric like Conan and not the agile thief he is in the movie. Still, I like him a lot and I think he’s instantly recognizable as well.
Update: Rogue Miniatures no longer exist. Fortunately, the figures have been sold and are now available through Caliver Books.
Did you know that Gerry Lopez was dubbed in the movie because director John Milius was not satisfied with his voice? Lopez was a professional surfer and not an actor, he had no experience in using his voice. How fortunate that he didn’t have many lines anyway!
Valeria is also from Rogue Miniatures. I don’t like her as much as Subotai, as I find her design a bit rough. “Old school” might be the right word. Possibly the miniature is also very old, I don’t know. I struggled with the (very) thick hair. I thought it would be even easier to paint because it’s not so delicate, but somehow that wasn’t the case. However, I find the dynamic, combative pose beautiful!