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Conan the Barbarian (Collector's Edition) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 30 May 2000

Conan The Barbarian

Universal Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Max von Sydow, Mako, Ben Davidson, Valerie Quennessen
release year: 1982
film rating: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

'Conan the Barbarian' rouses all kinds of contradictory responses and comments. At once irritating and entertaining, it's also sophisticated and childish, imaginative and prosaic, exciting and ponderous, stunning and forgettable. It's hard to resist the idea that it would have been better if the Robert E. Howard's ideas had been adhered to more faithfully -- but then would the film have been the hit it was? Would John Milius have agreed to direct it?

The movie opens in some past before the dawn of history; young "barbarian" Conan (Jorge Sanz) is told by his sword-making father (William Smith, brilliantly cast) that there is a "riddle of steel." Soon thereafter, their peaceful village, tucked into a snowy forest, is raided by well-armored men; all the adults are slaughtered, including Conan's father. His beautiful mother (Nadiuska) is decapitated by the mysterious Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), the dark-skinned, blue-eyed leader of the invaders.

Young Conan is delivered to "the wheel of pain," a foolish-looking grain-grinder out in the middle of nowhere. As the years pass, all the other wheel-pushers die, leaving only the adult Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger). He is sold into a kind of slavery, where as a "pit fighter" (Milius' invention) he battles one opponent after another. Arnold's first line in the film describes a warrior's greatest pleasure: "to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, to hear the lamentation of their women." Of course, Conan's never done that.

Anyway, he eventually is set free, and wanders about the pre-history landscape, becoming buddies with Subotai (surfer Gerry Lopez) and, finally, lovers with Valeria (dancer Sandahl Bergman). Supposedly they carry on as thieves, though the montage at this point shows more athletic sex between Conan and Valeria than actual robbery.
Conan is always looking for warriors who bear the two-headed snake sigil he saw on the armor of the men who destroyed his village. He's hired by roughly dignified King Osrik the Usurper (Max von Sydow, splendid) to rescue his daughter from the leader of a snake cult. The emblem of the cult is that two-headed snake -- and the leader is Thulsa Doom.

Conan rides on without Valeria and Subotai; he meets wise old Akiro (Mako), who's also the narrator of the film. Conan's first adult encounter with Thulsa Doom doesn't go exactly as he planned, and he ends up crucified to a picturesque tree laden with vultures. But Subotai, and then Valeria, turn up to help him in his big showdown.
The movie is accompanied by a brand-new, very well-done documentary, directed by the reliable Laurent Bouzereau, on the making of the film. Through interviews with a surprisingly large number of participants, the documentary, called "Conan Unchained," traces the evolution of the film from the first moment producer Edward R. Pressman initially heard of Robert E. Howard's Cimmerian adventurer. After an initial script by Michael Uslan and Roy Thomas (the latter wrote Marvel's excellent "Conan" comic book series) was rejected, they turned to Oliver Stone (who's interviewed) -- and that, in a sense, is where they went wrong. Stone basically tossed out most of Howard's ideas, choosing to set his story in some wacky never-never land that might even be the future. Instead of Howard's sorcery, he tossed in what might be science fiction, since there are hordes of "mutants" for the mighty-thewed Conan to battle.

Schwarzenegger famously almost lost the job of playing Conan on his first meeting with Dino De Laurentiis, whose company ended up producing the film (though Pressman stayed aboard too). Entering Dino's ostentatious office, Arnold laughed and said, "Such a big desk for such a little man." Things got better thereafter, and Schwarzenegger did land the job that changed him from a dilettante actor/body builder into a movie star.

Hired as director, Milius extensively rewrote Stone's draft, thereby saving the day and annoying Robert E. Howard fans -- and others, as well. He insisted that the swordplay in the movie be based on the Japanese samurai style, totally inappropriate for the broadsword Conan wields, but more photogenic. He added the "riddle of steel" nonsense, which never pays off in any way. The cult of Thulsa Doom became an embarrassing parody of the hippie movement -- but not half as embarrassing as the scene of repellent homophobia. He has his bodybuilder, surfer and dancer heroes don body paint for one excursion -- but it's only to look cool, since it has no possible use in the brightly-lit "sex chamber" they invade. Throughout, Milius insisted on a manly man approach to the material; as in too many of his movies, his ideas of what's cool, admirable and impressive are those of a 16-year-old. Howard was quite young when he wrote this stuff, but his stories are still more adult and sophisticated than that of 'Conan the Barbarian.' And the movie could have done with both more swords and more sorcery; Howard's stories were ripe with a dark, mysterious magic. (To learn more about Howard, watch 'The Whole Wide World.')

But without Milius, the movie might well have lacked the rock-solid sense of conviction he brings to it. Despite all the absurdities and occasional anachronisms, Milius devoutly believed in this world and these characters, and he makes you believe it, too. Shot mostly in Spain, 'Conan the Barbarian' presents an ancient time as convincingly as any movie like this ever has. This is thanks in no small part to Arnold Schwarzenegger's massive presence. He wasn't really an actor yet (and only barely is now), but he had and has a strong, vital screen presence; he is Conan.

James Earl Jones is riveting as Thulsa Doom, but the script doesn't make clear just what he's up to, other than creating a snake cult (which has little to do with snakes, even though at one point Doom turns into one). The final clash between Thulsa Doom and Conan isn't anywhere near as dramatic and dynamic as it should have been, but that's not Jones' fault. Dancer Bergman looks great in her barbarian togs, and swings a sword with the best of them; fortunately, the script doesn't require her to deliver much dialog. Gerry Lopez, a champion surfer, is okay as Subotai, better than you might expect -- perhaps because, as the documentary reveals, of the entire cast he was the only Robert E. Howard fan.

The production design by long-time Howard reader Ron Cobb (who has a cameo, too) is superb, majestic but not overwhelming, flavored with echoes of Conan illustrator Frank Frazetta, but still entirely Cobb's work. For a too-brief period, Cobb was one of the greatest production designers working, but he drifted away from the field.
The DVD presents the film in ideal form in a crystal-clear anamorphic print. The sound, though mono, is superbly rendered, though there's not too much here to show off your sound system -- other than the outstanding, majestic score by Basil Poledouris, which manages to sound barbaric and timeless at once.

The deleted scenes are of little interest, though one does include director Milius' cameo. The special effects clips, showing simultaneously a scene before and after the effects were added, are uninstructive because they have no narration. And the narration track by Schwarzenegger and Milius is dismayingly ordinary, with far too many comments like "Look! Armored Rottweillers -- isn't that great?" The two are clearly enjoying themselves, but not enough of the fun is communicated.

On the other hand, "Conan Unchained" is an outstanding documentary, thorough, clear and engrossing, one of the best of this sort available on DVD. Oddly, though, no mention is made of the sequel, 'Conan the Destroyer' (1984), or of the short-lived TV series of a couple of seasons ago, and there isn't enough about the original stories. These, however, are minor lapses.

'Conan the Barbarian' was a huge hit for Universal, instantly establishing the "sword and sorcery" subgenre of action films, which continues on to this day, bolstered by TV's "Hercules: The Incredible Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess," the first of which was very strongly influenced by Howard's stories. It's safe to assume that Conan will eventually return to the big screen. Until then, this well-done DVD of the first movie should satisfy most Conan cravings.

If you liked this DVD, you might like...
Red Sonja, 7th Voyage of Sinbad,

more details
sound format:
Dolby stereo, Dolby digital mono
aspect ratio(s):
anamorphic widescreen
special features: Many extras, including a new documentary, commentary track by Schwarzenegger and writer-director John Milius, production art, deleted scenes, etc.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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