"That which does not kill us makes us stronger"
On May 14, 1982, John Milius' Conan the Barbarian was released in theatres. Milius both wrote and directed the film. He's best-known as screenwriter of Hollywood classics like Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now. Conan was played by Austrian bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, immediately propelling him to worldwide stardom.
The film is a story about revenge, and perhaps, about loyalty. A young Conan witnesses the destruction of his village and the murder of his parents at the hands of the 1000 year-old sorcerer Thulsa Doom. Conan himself is taken prisoner and forced to work at pushing a great Wheel of Pain in the middle of nowhere for about 20 years. The labour gives Conan the body and strength of Schwarzenegger. Conan's master then trains him to fight as a gladiator and after many brutal victories Conan is given his freedom.
Once free, Conan sets off on his own to hunt down Thulsa Doom and his snake cult. Conan encounters a skanky sorceress who tells him where he might begin to look for Doom and shortly thereafter, Conan befriends a thief called Subotai and the two travel together.
In the city of Shadizar, Conan and Subotai meet a female thief called Valeria and she and Conan become lovers.
The trio infiltrate a Tower of Serpents. Conan kills one of Doom's sacred snake pets and steals a jewel that is precious to Doom and his cult. With this and other stolen treasures, the burglars repair to a local tavern and drink the night away.
They are captured by King Osric's men and Osric asks them to find his daughter who has been seduced away to marry Thulsa Doom. Valeria and Subotai are tempted by the riches Osric promises them but feel the mission is too dangerous to take on. Conan would take it on at no cost since it would enable him to take revenge on Doom.
The trio part ways and Conan continues on his own. The Barbarian encounters a wacky wizard who directs him to Doom's stronghold and Conan disguises himself as a snake cult member to get close to Thulsa Doom.
Unfortunately, Conan is found out and Thulsa Doom has him crucified on the Tree of Woe. In the meantime, Valeria and Subotai have changed their minds. They arrive and rescue Conan but he is close to death.
The re-united trio head back to the wizard who is able to call on the spirits of the land to bring Conan back to health. It is a dangerous procedure and the wizard warns Valeria that the spirits may exact a heavy toll for the favour. She agrees and Conan is restored. Subotai and Valeria then agree to help Conan get into Doom's temple and rescue the princess.
Valeria and Subotai now agree to help Conan complete Osric's task. They sneak into the temple where they discover that the cult members are cannibals. They interrupt a cannibalistic orgy and witness Thulsa Doom transform into a giant snake. The trio are able to rescue the princess but Valeria is mortally wounded by Doom as they make their escape.
Conan and Subotai return to the wizard. Valeria is buried and the princess safe. Knowing that Doom will seek them out Conan begins to set up lethal booby traps. When Doom leads his men to the mounds where Conan is the traps dispatch many of them but Doom escapes back to his temple.
Now, his duty to Osric fulfilled, Conan makes a final trip to the temple. He sneaks in and as Doom is addressing his followers he confronts him. During the battle at the mounds Conan retrieved his father's sword and though it is broken it is still enough to behead Thulsa Doom. Once their leader is dead, the cult members disperse. They are no longer under the sorcerer's power.
The film's coda shows an older Conan as a king upon a throne and the narrator tells us that his rise to royalty is a story for another day.
The film is well directed by John Milius. It is interesting to watch and there are some quite beautiful shots in it. The production design by Ron Cobb is excellent. The film does feel like it takes place in a human world of the distant past. There are many subtle cultural references in the design that ground the film yet it is unique enough to feel brand new. Basil Poledouris provides an operatic score that is wonderful to listen to on its own as well as in the film.
The one major criticism I have of the film is in the casting. The acting is largely quite poor. The only "real", experienced actors in the piece are James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow and their parts are comparatively small. The bulk of Doom's men are played by non-actors who happened to look like hulking warriors and Subotai is played by Gerry Lopez who was a surfer of Milius' acquaintance.
As a serious cinematic effort Conan the Barbarian is probably a failure but if it is viewed as fantasy escapism it can be quite entertaining. It has been released on DVD several times and has recently been re-released on blu-ray. All readers of this blog should definitely seek it out. Conan has become one of the great sword and sandal heroes and he owes it largely to the exposure that this film afforded him.