This summer marks the 30th anniversary of what is considered the greatest blockbuster season of all-time: summer, 1982. That year, the cinemas were loaded with genre-defining classics that are still shaping the worlds of science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and action to this day. In this retrospective series, 1982: The Greatest Year, Jeff and other members of the Geek League of America will take a fond, and sometimes funny, look back at this monumental time in nerd culture history.
The year 1982 was bursting at the seams with movie magic. We saw some amazing things and met some really great characters that would become icons in film history and pop culture itself. My single favorite character to emerge from that summer was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian. At the time, most of the world knew Arnold as Mr. Olympia. He was the undisputed king of bodybuilders for over a decade, but that wasn’t enough for him. Arnold had much bigger aspirations.
Literally larger than life, he had an unbelievable charisma and an insatiable hunger for stardom. He brought a star quality to an otherwise dull “sport.” This was captured perfectly in the hilarious documentary Pumping Iron. While he wouldn’t become a true household name all over the world until a few years later with his stellar performance as the unstoppable killing machine in The Terminator; Conan was an essential and huge stepping stone in Arnold’s climb to the top. Arnold would go on to star in many movies over the years, several of which became instant favorites of mine. Conan the Barbarian is at the very top of that list. Batman and Robin is at the very bottom. With that being said, I believe Arnold was born to play Conan. I simply couldn’t imagine, nor will I ever support or condone another actor taking the role. The version that came out in 2011 is something I simply refuse to see. I’ll hate it. I’ll hate it because Arnold is Conan, and no one else ever should be. For me, it’d be like someone else playing Charles Foster Kane or T.E. Lawrence.
Like so many others, I’m sure that my early viewings of Conan the Barbarian were on HBO. As a matter of fact, a lot of my early memories of the movie were of it being my LEAST favorite of the two Conan movies. In my infinite wisdom that came with being the age of five or six, I determined that I liked Conan the Destroyer much more. As I got older, I started to see how hokey and silly Destroyer was compared to the original, although there is some humor in it. For instance, Conan punched camels in the face and proclaimed the women of entire cities to be “slots” and whatnot, but there was a seriousness and depth to this movie that was just almost lacking entirely in the campy sequel.
John Milius crafted a very striking visual film. The shots are big and dynamic with great texture, the images cling to your mind, and the words resonate. Milius and Oliver Stone combined to write a really solid adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s original character. There are a lot of iconic scenes and epic moments in this movie: Conan, as a young child, watching his mother beheaded by Thulsa Doom. His discovery of the Atlantean sword. The wheel of pain. The riddle of steel. The tree of woe. The look on Conan’s face after he watches a witch turn into a demon after he has wild barbarian sex with her and calls out to his god “CROM!” Still to this day, it never feels cheesy to me.
This is not a mindless venture into a savage world. There were great moments of pain, loss, and suffering for our titular character. We are even greeted in the opening titles with one of Nietzsche’s most insightful and famous quotes:“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”This would be the tone and theme that would run through the film. Conan was forged by these trials of fire, like the steel he would ultimately master, into the warrior of all warriors. This is a tale of bitter and violent revenge. Everything is just done so well and it’s such a satisfying movie to watch from beginning to end.
There are many great things about this movie that make it what it is. One component of perfection to this film, not to be ignored, is Basil Polodouris’ greatly underrated, thumping and booming score. I simply couldn’t imagine the movie without it. It’s as iconic for Conan as John Williams’ scores are for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jaws. I love it. It’s phenomenal. It does exactly what a movie score is supposed to do. It fits every scene perfectly and adds dramatic flair to the narrative and the character’s journey.
The fight scenes are well choreographed and downright brutal. It’s bloody and gory, but never gets to be ludicrous. I have to admit, the swooping sound of Conan’s sword slicing through bad guy flesh is music to my ears. The art direction is also very well done, with a more than a nod and wink to fantasy masterpieces painted by the legendary Frank Frazetta. The sets, costumes, and weapons are all superb. I love swords, and can’t help but to mention that Conan’s Atlantean sword is a piece of art. It’s as beautiful a weapon and as well crafted as anything that would later be seen onscreen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Conan the Barbarian left an impression on me in multiple ways. I read the Conan comic book from Marvel for a number of years and really enjoyed them. Whenever I read Conan’s words in the books, I always imagined hearing them with Arnold’s voice. It also, along with others, really opened doors for me on what movies can be. Since then I’ve seen films by Kubrick, Bergman, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, and Leone. I love Conan as much as I do the The Seventh Seal or The Godfather. Why? Because no matter how you carve it (no pun intended), this is a great, entertaining film.
There’s huge part of me that yearns for a final Conan film with Arnold. It’d be a shame to end this series on the awful Conan the Destroyer. For years there were rumors that we would see a third Conan movie with Schwarzenegger, but it was ultimately shelved. As many of you know, both movies tease a “King Conan.” It’s a shame that we’ll never see it come to fruition. Then again, they are making a sequel to Twins. Because that’s what the people want to see.
Conan isn’t alone on his adventures. He has friends who aid him and foes who want to cleave him in two or crucify him. Let’s take a roll call shall we?
Subotai: Subotai is a“Thief! and Archer!” How do we know this? Well, he tells us more or less as soon as we meet him. He’s Conan’s pal. If you’re battling a giant snake and you need backup? Assuming Robin Hood, Hawkeye, or Green Arrow aren’t available, Subotai is your man. He actually cries FOR Conan at Valeria’s funeral because Conan is too fucking stubborn to cry, even when he slices and dices onions. Nothin’. He was played by Gerry Lopez, a legendary surfer. He was a friend of writer/director John Milius and had little to no acting experience.
Valeria: Valeria is Conan’s love interest as well as a fellow warrior. So apparently Conan can have his cake and eat it too. She was played by Sandahl Bergman. She came from more of a theater background as opposed to tv or films. She’s had a pretty steady career over the years with film and tv. The height of her career came a few years later when she would land one of the starring roles in Stewardess School.
Akiro: Akiro the wizard is played by the actor Mako. Just Mako, that’s it. Mako had a long and distinguished career that spanned six decades. He conjures the spell that resurrects Conan. He is the only character besides Conan that appears in the sequel. Too bad for him. I guess there’s no solid spell for exclusion from awful sequels. If there was, Akiro would be all over that shit.
Thulsa Doom: Thulsa Doom is the Jim Jones of the barbarian world. He recruits the masses to drink his proverbial kool-aid. In his case it’s snakes. So if you want to drink snakes, google him and you’ll be directed to your closest chapter. In all seriousness now, Thulsa Doom is a real badass. He’s the head of a cult of devoted worshippers and fierce warriors of Set. Doom personally murders Conan’s mother and has his father and fellow Cimmerian villagers slaughtered and their homes burned to the ground. He also later has Conan crucified and kills Valeria with an arrow. Did I mention the arrow was a snake? The guy shoots fucking SNAKE ARROWS. Thulsa Doom was played by James Earl Jones. ‘Nuff said. The genius in his performance comes with the subtlety of it. He delivers it with a chilling calmness that makes the character all the more unsettling in the power and control that he wields.
King Osric: Sterling Hayden was originally cast to play King Osric but he became ill. John Milius then went looking for a “Max von Sydow” type to replace him. Luckily they were able to get the best “Max von Sydow” type available in the actual Max Von Sydow. His casting, along with Jones’, brought a real legitimacy to the production. King Osric’s daughter has been kidnapped and he propositions Conan to rescue her for him.
FUN FACTS / TRIVIA
- The swordmaster that you see in the film who smacks Conan in the face and kicks the other grinning swordsman in the stomach is the actual swordmaster for the movie. His name is Kiyoshi Yamasaki.
- Conan hates camels. He punches them in the head in both movies where he plays the role.
- Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone were considered for the lead role.
- During the opening scene after Conan’s father is finished forging his sword, it’s actually Arnold’s arms that are shown sharpening the sword with a stone.
- If you tell Conan that your god is stronger than his god, Crom, he will make a confused and frustrated expression at you.
- Arnold said in the behind the scenes features that during the crucifixion scene, they used a live vulture to peck at his wounds. Then for the close up they used a real dead vulture they found for him to actually bite into its throat. After they cut, they immediately and had Arnold rinse his mouth out to avoid disease.
- The commentary by Schwarzenegger and Milius, which is on both the special edition DVD and Blu-Ray, is simply one of the best things to ever happen to a home video release. Period. It’s laugh out loud hilarious. It’s obvious that both of them were high and/or shit faced when they recorded this. Arnold is either the smartest person or the biggest idiot on the planet. I’d like to think he’s an amazing amalgamation of those two things. Here’s a little taste of what went on…