Conan the Barbarian Blu-ray Review
Fox unveil Conan in its original 2.35:1 aspect and provide it with an AVC encode.
Sadly, the transfer, whilst being quite acceptable in many ways, is still disappointing. For a start, the print has not been restored. This is the same master as the one used for the Special Edition DVD from several years ago, and it looks dry and grubby and tired in places. Damage isn't a drawback, although nicks and pops do appear. But the print is soft and not as detailed as one would hope. Grain is intact, which is a bonus when you consider what could have been done with DNR, but its texture isn't consistent throughout the film. Occasionally it can look lumpy and coarse, although I would say that the image does maintain its film-like quality – it's just that it appears "old" and quite tatty right across the board, and yet also vaguely processed in some portions. It also suffers from some mild but noticeable edge enhancement, which I'd hoped would have been eradicated from the SD version we were used to. It isn't as bad though, that's for sure, just a faint ringing that is more prevalent when seen around objects – spears, swords, rocks – that are viewed against a lighter background.
This is not a colourful film. It never was, to my knowledge. Milius and Callaghan seemed to have strived for a realism in the aesthetic that means the vistas are parched, the costumes and décor often masked with dust and wan sunshine. As such, the film is rarely vivid in any way. Obviously, the tiny pockets of supernatural light that the wolf-witch becomes as she takes flight look fine, as does the blood which splashes with a nice, livid hue – although never in the quantities that you crave. Red material flourishes on Thulsa Doom's costume look fine, as do jewels - the purple gleam of the Eye of the Serpent, say, as it shines around Valeria's neck - and the big snake scales offer a rich variety of coiled hues. When the image is bathed in red as our heroes move through the cannibal pantry or during the scene when the Spirits of the Dead try to snatch Conan's tethered body, the image does not yield up to banding, and the saturation looks good. In a way it is good that we don't have much hi-def detail and clarity when it comes to the Spirits, because they really wouldn't hold up to such scrutiny. Skin-tones have not been touched-up. The tans are real and the image keeps them dry and bereft of glow or ruddiness. The appearance of flames I was actually quite fond of. They don't possess that inner-life that the best of transfers and restorations could have bestowed, but they look bright and warm enough to me.
Contrast isn't the best around, but it faithful to every version of the film that I've seen before. Blacks are good. A few of the darker scenes may seem watered-down, but I felt that the majority of them were substantial and pleasing.
Whilst some occasional shots and scenes genuinely look a good deal better than before – we can really some details in the armour, and just look at Thorgrim's entrails hanging off that wooden spike – this transfer remains something of a let-down, I'm afraid. A very solid 6 out of 10, but no more.
Conan The Barbarian clangs and thuds and bludgeons out of your system with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track.
I don't know why but I had high hopes for this lossless mix. The film was originally released in mono, but has since had surround makeovers on its various home video incarnations that attempted, but failed, to bring some vivid life to the sword-swinging, body-bashing epic. Truly it is a movie that cries out for bombast and wraparound aggression. Well this track does make some effort to supply something in the way of immersive action but, personally, I found it sorely wanting.
The most significant benefit of this mix is heard in the presentation of Basil Poledouris' gargantuan score. Here we have good instrumental detail, fine separation, broad bass appeal and cheerfully enabled bleed-through from the rears. The copious anvil-clanging and cymbal clashing comes across with vigour and clarity, certainly putting symphonic meat on the bones of the film. Dialogue doesn't have the sharpness and presence of newer mixes, but it is never drowned-out or swallowed-up by the broadsides of action. And, flying in the face of many critics who were wont to denigrate the vocals of Schwarzenegger, there is never a problem understanding the big guy. Most of his major verbiage consists of a variety of grunts, anyway.
The fighting has a degree of anger to it, but not quite enough for my liking. We have plenty of impacts, but the bash 'n' crash never feels weighty enough. Naturally, this is culled from what is now classed as vintage source material and, unsurprisingly, the mix has its limitations. Blades still clang with sonic violence. The impact of the cauldron of human-soup is nice and thick, as is the tumbling of the marble pillar that Thorgrim brings down. Some metallic slicing and chopping is presented too. Directionality isn't too specific, though. We have moments of steerage – thundering horses, the swinging of Conan's awesome booby-trap at the end, the flight of the spectral wolf-witch, and the tumbling of bodies – but they aren't going to wow or amaze with pinpoint accuracy. I doubt that fans will be hugely disappointed by this upgrade, though. The soundscape has been opened-up, the stereo spread across the front seems wider. The track is certainly more boisterous than it has sounded before … but this isn't what you would crave from a 5.1 set-up for a Conan film at all.
Another solid, but still underwhelming 6 out of 10.
Fox haul over the same roster of supplements that adorned the SD Special Edition … plus they add a couple of tasty new extras.
The commentary with Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Milius isn’t the best around. Both are clearly enamoured with the film they made and don’t seem too concerned with its shortcomings. But it is great to hear them waxing lyrical about a cherished and hugely influential project that meant a lot to them and certainly went a huge way to creating a genuine screen icon. They like the snake! And they love the cinematography too! But we do hear some interesting things about the stunts and the violence and the swords … and how fit certain people were, namely Sandahl Bergman. It is a good track for fans of the film and it tries to be scene-specific, but it is not too analytical of what really went into it and the problems that the production suffered.
NEW! Conan From The Vault offers us newly discovered material from the archives featuring interviews with star and director from the time of the film’s production. Both are on fine and extremely confident and enthusiastic form. Arnie, bless him, has so much self-confidence after winning all those Mr. Universe titles that he truly believes he can conquer the world. Or, at least, become the next Clint Eastwood. The amazing thing about his brazen arrogance is that he does seem able to achieve everything he sets his mind on … so, as smug as he appears to be, with hindsight we can see that he was right to have been so cocksure.
The 52-minute making-of is terrific. Under the title of Conan Unchained, we have interviews with actors, stunt-coordinators, writers, producers, technicians, the director, of course, and Conan, himself. We hear of the script development, the determined approach that certain people took with regards to getting the film off the ground and about Dino’s involvement. The fight-training is discussed, as well as the set design and location work. The late Basil Poledouris talks about his musical approach to evoking the world of the pulp hero. Real wounds, rewrites and influences, as well as the response that the film got, all get mentioned in this rewardingly comprehensive documentary. Arnie, Lopez, Bergman, Sydow, Jones and even the on-screen swordmaster that trains Conan all get to share their memories of this brawny production. Definitely worth your time.
NEW! The Art Of Steel is a great little look at the legacy of sword manufacturing, as continued to this day in the sticks of the USA. We learn bits about this ancient skill and see how it has evolved with the advent of mapping technology. These guys are making the very weapons that we see in the film, including the famous Atlantean Sword, and their enthusiasm is catching. I love this stuff … and have even obtained my own to stand alongside all those replicas from Middle-earth and, best of all, Gladiator.
NEW! Conan – The Rise Of A Fantasy Legend takes a look at the man who created the cult figure (although it brushes over his suicide at a crazily early age) and how his own waif-to-warrior story came to mimic the development of the beefed-up character. This also shows us how Conan moved through the ages in various mediums, most notably in the Marvel comics and the fabulous illustrations and book-jackets from Frank Frazetta.
The Deleted Scene is the footage of the notorious murder of Sydow’s King Osric. We hear grunts and groans and see the poor ruler viciously done-in, but this is rough material with unfinished audio. It is a shame it never made it into the film. As I said in the film review, it would have added a deeper level of danger and treachery to the story.
We also get Special Effects Split Screen that shows us the before-and-after filming of the scene when the Spirits of the Dead try to carry off Conan's body.
The Conan Archives provides us with stills and images from the production and the marketing of the film, all set to Poledouris' score. But, best of all, we get to see some of the original conceptual artwork which, image by image, promised a much more interesting-looking film.
Theatrical Trailers round off a good and worthy selection of extras.
One of the action/fantasy milestones that launched the sword-and-sorcery trend of the early 80's, Conan The Barbarian is a defining moment for both its titanic star and its bull-headed director. It successfully takes a character who was already an icon, and had been for decades, and brings him to lusting and brawling life on the big screen. And, boy, did they ever need a big screen to wrap around Arnold Schwarzenegger and his beefed-up buddies! Together with one of the greatest and most bombastic scores ever composed, John Milius feeds the need for violent, mythical escapism with macho exuberance and a flair for carnage. Whilst the sorcery side of things is sort of downsized in this granite-hewn adventure, the film captures enough that is right about Conan to bring him to a more mass appeal. Arnie nails the part, taking to his new sport of acting with savage aplomb and a customary overdose of self-confidence, his own wry sense of humour and undoubted charisma shining through the sweat and the blood. Sandahl Bergman and James Earl Jones, however, never fail to steal the show from the big feller.
Still, this is an undeniably flawed film and only a shadow of what it could have been. The follow-up was fast, free-wheeling and fun. Somewhere between the two outings was the template for the perfect Conan movie.
Fox's UK Blu-ray release contains a good roster of extra features, including some new stuff, but a somewhat disappointing transfer. A full restoration was sorely needed. The image, as it stands, is no disaster, and there are definitely moments that shine, but this is still pretty lacklustre for such a cult favourite. But, at least we get the full uncut version in the UK at last!
Conan The Barbarian is never quite as gory or as bawdy as we would have liked, but John Milius' ode to the muscular legends of yore is still excellent entertainment. A terrific throwback yarn that showcases Arnie just at the point when he was about to take the celluloid world by the scruff of its neck and bounce some adrenaline back into it!
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £17.99
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