Join me now as I steer you through the days of high adventure and teach you what is best in life as we journey through the predictably barbaric world of Conan The Barbarian. The directorial debut of notoriously alpha male screenwriter John Millius (a writer on Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now no less) and co-written by a young Oliver Stone, the movie was an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s pulpy tales of the sword wielding Cimmerian and was the film that finally broke Arnold Schwarzenegger to a main stream audience and taught the world the riddle of steel. It’s also as mental as a sack of badgers and loaded with enough lashings of sex and violence to make George R.R. Martin blush.
As a small boy, Conan’s village is sacked and burned by stoney faced cult leader Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones sporting the harshest, cinematic fringe until Jim Carrey in Dumb And Dumber) and he is sent to work for many years on the delightfully named Wheel Of Pain. Thankfully, pushing a massive stone lever in a circle for over a decade proves to be an amazing workout regimen and Conan eventually blossoms into the bulging physique of Mr. Universe champion Arnold Schwarzenegger, and one day he is plucked from his grueling day job of abject slavery and dropped into the world of bloody gladiatorial combat. Surviving his first X Factor-esque trial by beating a man with pointy teeth into a coma, Conan proves to be a natural at killing the shit out of anything standing in his way and is taken to the East to hone his fighting skills. Eventually his slave master, in a fit of drunken pity, gives Conan his freedom and the young Cimmerian is free to seek out his own destiny. After some random adventures that involve getting attacked by wild dogs, finding a sweet broadsword and narrowly avoiding getting killed by an alluring rape demon (nil desperandum, Conan!), our hero eventually teams up with Subotai, the thief and after a debate about the Gods choose to worship, head from kingdom to kingdom to plunder, steal and drunkenly punch camels in the face (no, seriously – animal lovers may want to give this movie a wide birth).
During this whole time Conan drops inquires as to where he can find the snake cult that murdered his people so many years ago and eventually finds a lead and choose to raid Doom’s temples which introduces the pair to warrior woman and fellow thief Valeria. While the trio interrupts various human sacrifices and cannibal orgies with some victimless theft, murder, arson and giant snake killing, both Conan and Varleria strike up a barely clothed romance and are eventually recruited by a king to liberate his daughter from Doom’s cult.
An unrepentant double hard bastard of a film, both bluntly episodic and impressively pretentious for a sword and sorcery movie, Conan The Barbarian is quite unlike any other movie of it’s kind. You see, Crom, the mountain God may laugh at the four winds, but he also chortles in the face of tailor making a movie to fit an audience and this is where Conan soars: because of it’s incredibly refreshing attitude of not giving a flying fuck about being anything other than what it wants to be. Playing much like Nicolas Winding Refn got sozzled on moonshine and mushrooms and chose to make a He-Man movie on a bet while tripping balls (the film opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche for fucks sake) the film has long stretches of silence as characters sit around campfires pondering shit or simply jogging to their next castle like they’re on a sponsored run. While this could get admittedly tiresome, Basil Poledouris’ absurdly and appropriately muscular score bears most of the weight as we patiently wait for our characters to actually say something.
When they do (not counting Arnold’s bizarre wailing screams which curiously take up most of his lines) the dialogue seems forged out of solid steel and is hideously quotable with Millius’ dedication to making things seem as grittily feasible as possible stretching to almost every aspect of the production (the supporting cast features more intriguing bone structures than a Sergio Leone casting call). Quite the achievement considering that the movie contains a scene where James Earl Jones ducks out of one of his own parties early by transforming into a giant snake.
Schwarzenegger is magnificent, not because he’s a good actor mind you, (christ, no) but he INHABITS the role so perfectly that you believe every word he manages to squeeze around that iconic accent while he bloodily slashes at burly stuntmen with an axe the size of a protesters sign.
Obviously a movie THIS male dominated (despite the kickass Valeria, it’s positively awash in testosterone and looks like it should smell overwhelmingly of horseshit and Old Spice) isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea and the pace will most likely put off anyone used to more modern action movies but Millius and his cast and crew should be praised for remaining completely unwilling to compromise their mature, bloodthirsty and often barmy vision and any who disagree are free to contemplate their failures on the Tree Of Woe.