Back in 1984, we returned to the times of high adventure with a direct sequel to John Milius’ absurdly macho take on Robert E. Howard’s eponymous sword swinging hero with Conan The Destroyer. However, under the eye of veteran filmmaker Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage, The Vikings), the muscle bound Cimmerian had a new challenge to deal with that was going to be a bit tougher to overcome than James Earl Jones’ bowl cut or being nailed to the Tree Of Woe… no, what returning star Arnold Schwarzenegger and his glistening pecs had to deal with was a sizable injection of camp into the deep tissue of his clenching butt cheek. Gone was the filmmakers treating the subject matter as seriously as a fucking heart attack and it’s intriguingly esoteric tone and in it’s place was a more traditional bout of sword and sorcery pulp that included monsters, wizards and a sense of childlike escapism that sat awkwardly alongside scenes of Conan’s sword bloodily divorcing men’s limbs from their bodies…
Conan, riding with his weasley, thief compatriot Malak, stumbles into the middle of a quest when his particular set of skills attract the notice of the slinky Queen Taramis who recruits his help in order to play escort to the virginal Princess Jehnna – a bambi-eyed slice of jailbait who takes one look at Conan’s rippling bod and decides she wants to ride it like a boogie board. The mission is for Conan, Malak and Bombaata – the human skyscraper that acts as Taramis’ captain of the guard – to lead the princess to a jewel that will in turn lead her to a sacred horn that will allegedly revive Dagoth: The Dreaming God; whom she worships.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Conan film if there wasn’t some sort of obvious double-cross waiting in the wings and it turns out that the Queen is totally evil (a fact immediately given away as she’s played by Ursa from Superman II) and is planning to sacrifice the crap out of Jehnna upon her successful return.
However, Conan has been undergoing an unofficial recruitment drive and picks up the services of crusty magician Akiro and snarling warrior woman Zula to aid on their quest. As Conan & Co. square off against various wizards, rubbery creatures and even members of their own fellowship (Bombaata is hardly subtle), the legendary Barbarian has to find a way to unde the chaos caused by the exact quest he’s just been on before someone (ie. him) fucks up the prophecy and leads Dagoth to destroy the world…
Conan The Destroyer is yet another of those weird 80’s Fantasy movies that feels scripted for the family and yet enthusiastically promotes such hilarious imagery such as a severed head twirling through the air in slow motion, Conan ripping a monster’s horn out at the roots and seeing far more of Grace Jones’ exposed butt cheeks than is strictly necessary and thus loses some of the gritted teeth lunacy of the original.
What’s left is a silly, frequently stupid and yet bizarrely sweet nostalgia trip from a time when a man with an inpenetrable Austrian accent and an unpronouncable name was just about to conquer Hollywood (The Terminator was out later the same year) and film censors looked the other way for big blockbusters. The script feels like someone jotted down the results of a drunken Dungeons And Dragons campaign and then changed the names to make it more Conan-y and yet despite a complete overhaul in tone, the film still sticks to a lot of the lore established in the first movie. Despite being roughly the same size and build as a Mini Metro, we’re still supposed to believe that Conan is a master thief that somehow tiptoes through enemy castles inconspicuously while wearing nothing but a loincloth, boots and a sword so big you could use it as a runway. Other welcome returns include Mako as trampy spellcaster Akiro, numerous mentions to Valeria – Conan’s deceased love, Schwarzenegger decides to punch another camel (odd choice for a callback if I’m being honest) and best of all, composer Basil Poledouris’ bombastic score returns in all it’s crashing glory. The newcomers to the cast are an admittedly stirring mixture of genre actors and stunt casting that tackle the flimsy material with an admirable professionalism that nearly groans under the weight of all the tongues being pushed into cheeks as everyone here just seems to be having fun while being draped in ridiculous costumes and having to spit out po-faced lines like: “It is written a woman child will make a perilous journey.” while keeping a straight face.
Sarah Douglas unleashes the full force of her frosty accent as the villainous Queen, Grace Jones is legitimately terrifying as Zula as she looks like she’s actually trying to kill people with her pointy staff and future Wonder Years alumni Olivia d’Abo (Kevin’s hippy sister, in case you were wondering) weaponizes the puppy fat in her cheeks to endearing effect despite the worrying fact that lusting after the man-tank body of Arnold while being all of 15…
The camp weirdness of the story throws some memorably wonky set pieces at you at a healthy rate and there’s something oddly satisfying when Conan thwacks some poor bastard with his sword causing a bright red gout of stage blood to explode out from where their kidneys used to be, but the bigger the scale gets, the dodgier the production values get. WATCH as Arnold clumsily gets into a WWE style scrap with a creature played by Pat Roach from Aufwiedersehen Pet in a shit halloween mask and a pound shop Dracula cape! SHOCK as our hero struggles with Dagoth’s final form, that of a Lovecraftian salamander monster who sports the same cavernous distance between his eyes as Sid The Sloth from ice age! RECOIL as Arnie does some truly memorable drunk acting after Conan gets shitfaced on wine – “I suppose nothing hurts you.” Coos Jehnna at one point, “Only pain.” is his typically Schwarzeneggerian reply….
Fleischer and Schwarzenegger returned to the genre barely a year later with the similarly creaky Bridget Nielsen vehicle Red Sonja, but Destroyer remains the more fun of the two and may still be a good source of goofy, throwback fun but it isn’t in the same league as it’s more serious and yet somehow more enjoyably preposterous predecessor.
To this day (while smartly sidestepping the Jason Mamoa reboot) people are still hoping the former Govenator will don the loin cloth one more time and give us the long mooted King Conan much in the same way Stallone banged out a couple more Rambo flicks, but after a few false starts it looks less likely that the lumpy Cimmerian will ever return to twirl his sword like some kind of wide-eyed, neanderthal cheerleader for our entertainment.
A thought, I’m sure you’d agree, that is nothing short of barbaric.