Arnold Schwarzenegger is such a staple of our culture today that it’s hard to remember a time when his place in it was anything but assured. But if it was ever in doubt, the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian cemented it. Two years later, the bodybuilder from a small town in Austria would take on another iconic role, that of the Terminator.
For a movie stuffed full of blood, violence, sex, and oddly enough, more than a few philosophical discussions, Conan also knows how to embrace the less is more mindset. It knows just when to hold back, to go all-out, and sometimes get weird for no reason. Conan himself may be destined, but there is no contact with a higher power that deems him worthy of fulfilling a grand plan. There is also no real reason for the horrors he witnessed as a young child. They occurred because the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his band of followers wanted power, and they brutalized Conan and his people to get it. After Thulsa’s people destroy Conan’s home and his parents, they sell Conan into slavery. For the next decade or two, his life seems to consist of being chained to a wheel and pushing it around. After he is traded to a gladiator and wins a few fights, he gets more serious combat training with martial arts masters, and his owner eventually frees him with no explanation. Conan then seeks vengeance upon the man who destroyed his childhood, Thulsa Doom.
At the time of its release, the movie received mixed reviews, with many critics condemning the film’s violence, and especially Schwarzenegger’s acting. If it’s hard to deny the truth of some of these criticisms, it’s less difficult to see just why Conan the Barbarian is so enjoyable. Its star is clearly the main reason, even if he’s a bit problematic. Although Schwarzenegger’s acting is wooden at times, he’s clearly committed, with the body, if not the right accent, to show for it. There’s a reason he not only became one of the biggest action stars in the world, but was able to marry into a prominent political family and get elected as the governor of California. The charm and power of his performance, whether in film or politics, is hard to deny, and Schwarzenegger has proven his shrewdness at exploiting his strengths and building a long, profitable career that has proven more durable than several box office duds and a sex scandal, with his subsequent return to film resulting in a career resurgence.
Conan the Barbarian is also smart enough to give its hero some great sidekicks who are more than able to compensate for any acting weaknesses the lead may have. His best friend Subotai (Gerry Lopez) is a competent thief and archer who is a source of fun without being a stereotype. He’s less comic relief than comedian. Love interest Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) is also treated in a surprisingly respectful way for a film where scantily clad women abound. She’s also a thief and a kick-ass warrior to boot. When she falls behind or works alone, she fights her way out alone every time. When she is unable to save herself, Conan and Subotai are equally powerless, because magic, not the sword, is her undoing.
The film’s dialogue, which Oliver Stone helped write, is not witty, but it is fitting for the movie’s primitive setting. It’s short, to the point, enjoyable, and packs a punch while seamlessly integrating some of those aforementioned philosophical discussions. It also matches well with effects that are practical and realistic even for the times, showing us what the violence inherent in such a world could actually look like, which means blood galore. (On the other hand, some felt that the film wasn’t violent enough to be true to the pulpy 1930s source material.)
A movie succeeds only if every component works in tandem to serve its greater purpose, and every part of Conan comes together perfectly to promote its nihistic view of life. We’re told what we need to know and not one thing more. We only know Conan’s background because he is the one the movie has chosen to follow. We barely get a hint of anyone else’s, including his sidekicks or the villain. We don’t even get a reason for why Thulsa Doom turns into a snake. And when Thulsa isn’t turning into a snake for no discernible reason, he’s seen as a more dangerous man not because he built his small army into a formidable military force, but because he has become the leader of a cult, with mindless followers who are willing to die for him on the slightest whim. Conan knows there is no inherent meaning in what he’s doing. He doesn’t think anyone, including his god Crom, will care or remember him. Thulsa Doom’s followers do think they have found a reason, and that reason is why they have surrendered all thought and fear of death. It’s also probably why many have accused the movie of promoting fascism, since many of Thulsa’s followers are basically depicted as pacifist, peace-loving hippies, defeated by the ultimate ideal man.
But the artisanship of the film is far stronger than its flaws. The sheer physical effort that everyone involved with Conan the Barbarian brought to the film shows clearly. The stunts. The action. The giant snake that actually looks and moves like a real animal. The cinematography, which actually gives the feel of a deeply ancient world. The seeming multitudes of extras. And that script, which encompasses all the humor, violence, and sex that Conan has become known for. Efforts to continue the franchise, including a sequel just two years later in 1984 and a 2011 remake, have all fallen flat in one way or another. But even now, 35 years after Conan was unleashed, Hollywood still hasn’t given up on the beloved character. Rumors of another sequel, Legend of Conan, have been floating around for years, and now that the film has officially been declared dead, suggestions that it may be resurrected as a TV series have starting circulating. Seems that everyone’s favorite barbarian is just as hard to kill in real life as on-screen.