Movies »Conan the Barbarian

The all-time greatest sword and sorcery epic, CtB is a masterpiece. It was a seminal film when I was kid and, compared to other VHS tapes we regularly rented (the animated Hobbit starring Orson Bean; Willow; Red Sonja; Ladyhawke; The Emerald Forest), this is the one that, like The Shining, whenever it appears on TV (thanks, Ted Turner) I've got little choice but to watch whatever scene is currently unfolding through to the next commercial for the Summer's biggest drama, The Closer. There's something grown up about this film that always appealed to me a kid, it's not remotely family friendly and, think what you may, I'm going to go ahead and call it sophisticated.

While it's certainly true that not every thing works all the time (James Earl Jones's crazy wig comes to mind), there's so much here that is awesome: the score, by Basil Poledouris, who just passed away; the part where Conan builds the traps that kill Thorgrim; the part where Conan's father discusses the riddle of steel; the part where they break into the tower of Set and rob it, killing that huge snake along the way; the part where he throws the vampire into the fireplace; Thulsa Doom's logo: 'Two Snakes Like This'; the part where Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe; the part where they break into the crazy orgy in their awesome camouflage makeup; and the quotes! This is one of the two movies I've ever felt semi-comfortable quoting aloud (the other one is the Big Lebowski). If the environment is dorky dude-oriented enough and someone happens to ask, 'What is best in life?' how can I not reply, 'To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women'. (This is actually attributed to Ghengis Khan, who knew?)

It's never been easy for me to forget that that bit of paraphrase was penned by two of Hollywood's heaviest hitters, '80s/early '90s edition: Milius himself (screenwriter of Apocalypse Now; etc) and Oliver Stone. And while I've always considered the sparse dialogue and action heavy plotting pretty masterfully handled, it seems that nerd controversy continues to boil. Robert E. Howard, Conan's tragic creator (depicted, I'm sure, with much restraint and subtlety by Adam West acting school alumni Vincent D'Onofrio in The Whole Wide World), envisioned the Cimmerian a bit tougher than the governor of California's portrayal. Conan breaks into tears numerous times in the film, once in front of one of the greatest B-movie scene chewers of all time, Ingmar Bergman player Max von Sydow. According to Howard scholars, Conan would never break down like that — maybe those Howard scholars should watch Through a Glass Darkly some cold Winter night. Also, I guess, much of the narrative is either inconsistently borrowed from multiple Howardian sources, or is completely invented by Stone and Milius.

Our good friend Ashleigh's dad, Mr. Carraway, has written a splendid review of this film that I think goes a long way in justifying its greatness while other customer reviews focus on the campy qualities, but I don't think this movie is cheesy at all. I don't think Mommy Dearest is campy either, in fact I consider it a sober look celebrity parenting, so keep that in mind.

Also, the commentary on the Collector's edition DVD is priceless. Arnold is astounded by the quality of the film, which it almost seems like he's never seen before, and wonders aloud why a second one was never made. Then someone reminds him of the sequel he starred in, the dismal Conan the Destroyer.

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Posted on December 3, 2007

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