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Conan the Barbarian Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 14, 2011 at 11:57 PM

  • Movies review

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    Conan the Barbarian Review

    Conan – what is best in life?”

    To crush your enemies! See them driven before you! And to hear the lamentation of their women!”

    At the absolute zenith of his muscular might, Arnold Schwarzenegger took on the role that seemed absolutely made for him. He'd attained fame and household-name status with his barnstorming appearance in Pumping Iron and, naturally, being the seven-times holder of the Mr. Universe title, he already had a cult following. Fiercely proclaiming that bodybuilding held no more challenges for him, Arnie declared that he would wrestle Tinseltown to the ground and conquer it with his indomitable willpower.

    As the orphaned son of a philosophical blacksmith, the adult Conan, as played by Schwarzenegger, learns how to fight in the pits as a gladiator, fine-tunes his swordsmanship under an oriental mentor and then drifts through a complexly created ancient world of snake cults, wizened old kings, lonely witches and jittery wizards. His quest for emotional fulfilment and to understand his father's belief in the Riddle of Steel comes to a head when he recognises the man who was responsible for the deaths of his parents, as well as those of his entire village during a fierce tribal raid. This man, called Thulsa Doom, is now a powerful sorcerer who leads a mighty snake cult that Conan must infiltrate and defeat. He is aided in his personal war by two strong allies in the archer, Subotai, and the swordswoman, Valeria, and a cantankerous old wizard, but Conan's arc of self-discovery and vengeance will ultimately signify his passage from wandering wastrel to would-be king.

    The path to bringing Ron E. Howard's exultant pulp icon to the screen wasn't exactly strewn with monolithic obstacles – it was a project that many people cherished and an idea certainly ripe for a cinematic treatment – but finding the right ingredients to see it through to fruition would prove costly and time-consuming. Edward R. Pressman, a regular producer for Brian De Palma, was the main instigator of Conan's transition from prose and comic-book to the live-action arena. The young Oliver Stone was then fresh off directing the hokey chiller, The Hand, with Michael Caine, and, more importantly, had netted for himself an Academy Award in honour of his screenplay for Midnight Express, when he approached Pressman with his pitch to get Conan off the ground. His initial script was massively ambitious and would have cost the equivalent of a Michael Bay blockbuster to realise on the screen, but with some major tweaking and a red hot director with fire in his belly, Pressman was convinced that Conan would find his celluloid legs. Alan Parker, who had worked with Stone on Midnight Express, baulked at the size of the challenge. Animation-supremo Ralph Bakshi was also considered, his imagination and flair very highly respected after his enjoyable stab at The Lord Of The Rings. But this was to be live-action, though, and Bakshi may not have had the marshalling talents for such an epic undertaking. John Frankenheimer was even approached at one stage, but the most elaborate, sophisticated and inspired choice was that of Ridley Scott. Both The Duellists and Alien seemed to indicate that he was a force to be reckoned with, and someone with a singular and unswayable vision, give the right material. Keen on the idea, obviously, Scott's own pet project of Blade Runner threw the Conan endeavour a bit of a wobbler but, as Legend, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Kingdom Of Heaven have since proven, he would, quite possibly, have been the best man for the job. We can only dream of what he could have done with the material.

    All throughout this messy set-up, one man remained steadfast in his willingness to bring raw bloody meat to the barbarian's table. Already strongly considered, John Milius had backed-out previously only because the production wrangles with the various owners of the rights to Conan (Robert E. Howard's estate, obviously, but also the fantasy authors who had carried the battering baton afterwards, people like Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp) were threatening to clog-up his chance to make the semi-autobiographical and now classic surfer-flick Big Wednesday, but his passion for the character of the Cimmeran mercenary was unflagging. Once his beach-buddies, coming-of-age saga was released, he was free to immerse himself in a bygone era … and hungry for blood. He provided another screenplay, reworking the various major themes of Stone's original, and brought with him the chief player and uber-financier, Dino De Laurentiis, who had just scored big time with another vaunted fantasy icon in Flash Gordon, and legendary composer Basil Poledouris, who had scored Big Wednesday for the filmmaker, and would go on to deliver superb music for his films Farewell To The King and Red Dawn. With production design by Ron (Alien) Cobb, who even gets a fun cameo in the film, and visual effects from Star Wars' Peter Kuran, Milius amassed an army of technicians and commenced work on what was touted as being the flagship of the new sword and sorcery trend that was beginning to prove popular at the box office. We'd had Excalibur and Dragonslayer, which hadn't won commercial acclaim but had whet the appetite of fantasy-fans the world over, and the time now seemed right to stir hearts with action and violence. Like the books the film was based on, Conan The Barbarian wasn't aiming for the high brow. Milius wanted the myth and raw heroism of Beowulf. He wanted to bring the larger-than-life warrior smashing his way into the ideology of audiences who, he figured, had gotten off lightly with the infinitely cuter fantasies of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.

    Milius was a strong personality all right. And he had that same singular vision as Ridley Scott. He was a bull-by-the-horns sort of director. He wouldn't pulls his punches and he wouldn't take any prisoners. He needed a cast who thought likewise.

    Arnie was a given. Milius had wanted him right from the word go, and it is impossible to think of anybody else around at that time who could conceivably have pulled off the role of the muscle-hewn warrior. It was a gamble, though. With only bit-parts in the riotous Western spoof Cactus Jack and Scavenger Hunt, and the rather naff turn in Hercules In New York, the Austrian Oak really only had his stunning show in Pumping Iron, in which he simply played himself, to herald this debut in a leading role. But what an inspired gamble it turned out to be! Mangled vowels and sullen delivery notwithstanding, the man-mountain proved that he had as much charisma as he had strength. During that celebrated sequence when we watch him grow from grieving slave-boy to rage-fuelled adult as he drives the metaphorical Wheel of Pain around and around, there is a palpable sense of rising grandeur as his fellow slaves fall away until, with Basil Poledouris' churning pomp-filled music, he is the only one left … and finally he looks up into the camera and we see that it is Arnie. At the time of the film's release, even the harshest critics – and there were many on both sides of the Pond – seemed to all agree on the fact that he carried the film in spite of the traits that normally derailed the rugged hero of the sword-and-sandal epics of old. His woodenness actually helped the character fit into this brusque, semi-operatic world of broad motivations, bold unsubtlety and one dimensionality. It's kill or be killed for Conan, but this doesn't mean that Arnie doesn't find time to throw in a little humour. His overly emphatic way with each new revelation and his lethargic thought processes are what makes his characterisation so worthwhile. It would be absurd to have a man who has thirsted for revenge all of his life, whilst being subjugated to nothing other than violence, humiliation and extreme manual labour, who is articulate, urbane and quick-witted. Conan is a thug, only removed from near Neanderthal lineage by his sheer dedication to the skills of combat and his bluntly scheming anger … and his reluctant, when-it-suits-him, faith in his tribe's god, Crom. Tellingly, and amusingly, his belief crumbles when someone with an opposing viewpoint stands their ground. Subotai clearly gets the better of him in this regard as the pair discuss the use of praying to their separate deities.

    I like the fact that he is highly fallible. You have to admire his self-confidence at believing he can simply walk into Doom's biggest temple retreat, dressed as one of his monks and bowing to all and sundry in an attempt to get close enough to assassinate the black magician. Arnie nails this cocksure stupidity completely, smiling benignly as literally everyone around him has sussed-out what his intentions are and are about to close-in, en mass. But this is only right. Conan is no master-tactician. He is most certainly not a Jason Bourne or an Ethan Hunt. He's a lumbering badass who acts before he thinks and the character that Howard created definitely had moments of just such foolhardy gumption.

    Grant me revenge! And if you don't listen … then to Hell with you!”

    But the elaborate casting didn't stop with Arnie.

    For the Mongol-esque swordsman-thief, Subotai, Milius found only one person who fit the roguish, athletic bill. The director turned to his long-time friend and celebrated surfer, Jerry Lopez, when everyone else that the producers found failed to make an impact. If placing a bodybuilding champion in the lead role was a disaster that many believed was just waiting to happen, populating his surrounding cast with other sportsmen and women just smacked of large-scale gimmickry. Lopez does very well and is immediately likeable as Conan's man-at-arms and loyal companion. His persona is clearly modelled on that of Toshiro Mifune's clownish renegade Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. Arnie's close friend and competitive rival, Sven Ole-Thorsen dons a massive wig and hefts the biggest hammer in history as one of Conan's three main enemies, the vastly sculpted Thorgrim. For Thorsen, who had also been seen in Pumping Iron, this was the start of a long career in the movies. He would join Arnie in the next Conan film, Raw Deal, Predator, The Running Man and Red Heat, and would chew cigars in Hard Target, threaten Murtaugh's kidnapped daughter in Lethal Weapon and even battle Maximus with some savage tiger-allies in Gladiator. Not given much in the way of dialogue – well, nothing, to be precise – he still generates some great screen presence in his growling confrontations with Conan, although there is one spell of drastic acting when he reacts with surprise to the crashing down of a massive marble pillar that his own hammer caused. But dwarfing even these hulks is Ben Davidson as the Viking-like thug, Rexor. Hailing from the NFL, this was another casting decision that should have caused howls of derision from some quarters, yet Davidson is also a tremendous nemesis for Arnie's bludgeoning brute. He looks old and shaggy in his long Norse wig and whiskers but, man, I wouldn't even come up to his kneecap! Arnie's training buddy Franco Columbu makes a brief but blood-curdling impression as the feral Pictish scout leading Thulsa Doom's raiding party at the start.

    Do you wanna live forever?”

    Milius' major coup, however, was in securing the ultra-sexy and impressively honed dancer Sandahl Bergman to play Conan's sword-swinging love interest, Valeria. Now, okay, the Californian twang is unmistakable, and the romance between she and Arnie not entirely convincing, but Bergman is, by far, one of the best elements of the film. With massive brown eyes, luxuriously long blonde hair and that physique, she owns every scene she is in. She is also clearly the most athletic of the heroic trio. Her prowess during the commando raid on Thulsa Doom's temple in which they rescue King Osric's cult-smitten daughter is breathtaking. Even when creeping across the marble floor to ignite the silk drapes with a candle, her physical beauty and undoubted fitness become a marvel to behold far more than Arnie's clay-like clumsiness during the same scene. Her fighting acumen is second to none, and it is she, and not Conan, that makes the escape from Thulsa's orgy-chamber so exciting and violent. Lashed with exotic white/black lightning-streak war-paint (as, indeed, all three of our heroes are), Bergman is a vision of lethally supreme sexuality, long-limbed and lithe, as she cavorts, sprints and pirouettes her way through the guards, cutting them down as nimbly as a gazelle. Although her accent would have needed some work, it is she who should have played the great fantasy heroine, Red Sonja.

    Infidel defilers! They shall all drown in lakes of blood. Now they shall know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they shall understand why they fear the night ...”

    After providing the most sinister voice in the galaxy as Darth Vader, classically trained theatrical actor James Earl Jones came to the ancient world of Conan as the enigmatic cult leader and sinister mystic, Thulsa Doom. When a captured Conan tells him that he wants revenge for the slaying of his parents, Doom marvellously reflects that the deed was something he must have committed in his youth, casually dismissing it as the mere folly of some passing fad he once enjoyed. A problem with the screenplay is that it stubbornly refuses to give us anything tangible regarding how Doom gained his snake/people-charming skills and precisely what his masterplan is. He's a tremendous and very memorable baddie, as played by Jones, but he is nothing more than a cypher for evil and corruption. With the performance of mellifluous and calculated menace and charisma that only a Sith Lord is able to convey, you really feel short-changed that Stone and Milius didn't pause to flesh him out a lot more. His mesmeric ability to cause young followers to leap to their deaths is matched by a dark eloquence instilling the idea that he has voyaged far beyond the domain of steel. To wit, his memorable threat about making his enemies “fear the night”. Here, you can fully appreciate that he has some profound occult knowledge … even if you weren't convinced by his serpentine transformations and ghastly knack for turning snakes into venomous arrows. And it is also interesting to note that he gets to address another dazed and confused youth who is out for his blood … as “my son.” The Force is certainly strong with this one … the force of deja vu.

    Critical status was clearly the deciding factor in obtaining Max Von Sydow for his brief role as the pragmatic King Osric. But he's good as the wily old ruler whose daughter has been brainwashed by the snake-people. Seeing considerable worth in the covert talents of Conan and his two comrades he wastes little time in enlisting them to take back his girl. Just a few lines, maybe, but he supplies infinitely more gravitas and soul than the overwhelming majority of other characters in the film. It's too bad that his death scene – murdered by his own bodyguards – remains cut out. However, it can be viewed as a Deleted Scene on this release. Although it adds nothing of worth, plot wise, to the story, it would have been a hugely atmospheric and potent reminder of just how dangerous and treacherous this world can be. And to add to the pulp-status of the story, Milius brought in the king of serial TV villainy, William Smith, to play Conan's old man in the film's moody prologue. A veteran of virtually every action show that has ever been made from SWAT to Logan's Run and Buck Rogers to The A-Team, Airwolf and, er, Simon & Simon, he, nonetheless, brought a Northern mountain man nobility to his Cimmerian chieftain. Another regular face from TV was Mako, who would essay Conan's chronicler and the wacky wizard who's shady spells save the barbarian from being whisked off to the afterlife. Although a tremendous actor with an extensive list of memorable roles in movies such as The Sand Pebbles and Memoirs Of A Geisha, he is squandered here as a grinning, gurning warlock. Despite a weak and actually quite daft performance here, he would reprise the role in Conan The Destroyer.

    A wonderful early sequence in the thrall of a seductive wolf-witch points towards the more magical side of Conan's realm, but it was clear that Milius was not a fan of such occult elements. Milius, like a general, is very practical and down to earth, far more comfortable with swords and armour, bawdiness and booby-traps. The wolf-witch, played with frightening allure by Cassandra Gava represents a genuine touch of Howard's original storytelling, although it does, sadly, become a rather illogical episode in a story that is, otherwise, played mainly as a hard-hitting adventure yarn. Forgetting the rather lamentable transformation of Thulsa Doom into a vast snake – which really doesn't seem to be anything other than a passing fancy – the only other supernatural element is when Conan has been rescued from his crucifixion on the Tree Of Woe and his friends, led by Mako's cussing wizard, battle to keep the spirits of the dead from claiming him. With Conan's body painted with a complex dressing of arcane symbols, the three struggle against some visually captivating red demons, from Frank Van der Veer, that wisp and curl around their intended prey whilst a fierce dust storm swirls about the desert setting. The visual style of these crimson animated entities is reminiscent of Forbidden Planet's Monster from the Id, but the overall episode has actually been lifted from the great Japanese ghost story, Kwaidan (1964). in his excuse, though, Milius does love his Eastern elements and the respect he pays to the Samurai code and the films of Kurosawa is purely intentional. This scene, and the seduction by the wolf-witch, are genuinely creepy, though they do seem to have drifted in from an altogether different Conan story than this belligerent “origin” tale.

    You killed my snake!”

    You killed my mother!!!!”

    Everyone hates the snake. The big snake, I mean. Designed by Nick Allder, this fantastical python tries to wrap-up Conan as he makes off with one of Thulsa Doom's treasures, the fabled Eye of the Serpent, but ends up getting a right mouthful of cold, hard steel instead. Now, Dino hasn't had much luck with super-serpents in his movies. There was also that one that foolishly meddled with King Kong in his '76 remake. But I think the bad rap this mechanical critter gets is a little cruel. Admittedly, it is obvious that Milius and co. weren't too happy with what the effects people came up with – it's barely even shown and the scene doesn't last very long at all which, for a big FX-action set-piece, doesn't ring true. You can even sense the animosity that the director felt towards the creation as it is he, doubling for Subotai, who fires the arrows into it right over Arnie's head! Milius is no fan of special effects – he prefers things hands-on, ruggedly alive and totally in-camera. That way they can feel pain! This is why Conan The Barbarian is at its best when dealing with the rites-of-passage of boy into man, and man into warrior and then, subsequently, warrior into myth.

    Although I really like the location work – a smattering of Yugoslavia before political unrest scared the production away to the Spanish plains – and the set design, I have to say that the cinematography from Duke Callaghan, who replaced Gill Taylor quite early on, isn't very inspiring. Luxuriously wide the frame might be, but the camerawork is strangely uninvolving at best and drama-sapping at worst. Everything is shot flat and middle-ground, the action observed with a weirdly deliberate detachment. Great visual scenes such as the Wheel of Pain, the Tree of Woe and the Battle of the Mounds are diluted of vigour and majesty because of what could be a lack of confidence on the part of Callaghan. He'd worked with Milius on Big Wednesday, in which he'd definitely caught the glory of the summer sun and the bronzed heroes of the surf, but there is a huge dearth of flair or excitement or even passion to his work here. Having said this, I do love the shot that tracks Subotai moving over the dunes when he first spies Doom's men on the far ridge – this grasps the appropriately epic feel of the coming storm. The final fight is a classic, of course, but it is still somewhat haphazard in its choreography and Callaghan's rather static approach seems hell-bent on hamstringing the action. It is always embarrassing to see Lopez fire that imaginary arrow at the riders pursuing him, but that spiked boob-trap that slams into Sven-Ole Thorsen provides one of the most physically jolting instances that Cinema had provided since Ben Gardner's head popped out of the hole in his boat in Jaws! The raid on the orgy/feast is handled much better, though. Here, both Milius and Callaghan move with more fluidity, tailing our heroes as they creep through the chamber and allowing us to savour the cannibalistic feast without haste. Check out the racks of fresh bodies hanging in the red-tinted pantry, and watch for Valeria actually using a severed head as a club! I've read some critics complaining about the sparsity of the sets when seen against the vast backdrops of Spain – the isolation of the Wheel of Pain and the dwarfing of Thulsa Doom's temple on the slopes of an arid mountain – but I have to say that these people are, perhaps, missing the point. I think Milius wants these edifices and structures to be seen sitting against these huge landscapes as though they have just been deposited there, or dropped from some giant's pocket. Because of this one-sided scale, when we see Conan striding about them, the impression we get of him is that he is just as big. By isolating such creations in the centre of the frame, he is accentuating his title character all the more.

    Something that no-one ever complains about is the music of Conan. Basil Poledouris' main title theme has become a classic in its own right. With anvils clanging, brass roaring in blood-pumping fanfares of the purest bravado and percussion pummelling all-comers into submission, it becomes the song of chaos, both magnificently rousing and truly archaic in its composition and mythic fervour. Used in sporting events, advertising, and election campaigns alike, its best exposure outside of the film, itself, was to be found bolstering the theatrical trailer for Gladiator, which neatly reminds us of who almost helmed this earlier chunk of gore-drenched testosterone. It is also the perfect “workout track” to get the blood pumping as you try to chisel out some Cimmerian mass, yourself. Poledouris would bring this unique brand of “muscle-music” to Conan The Destroyer for Richard Fleischer, Flesh & Blood, Robocop and Starship Troopers for Paul Verhoeven, Iron Eagle for Sydney J. Furie and Breakdown for Jonathan Mostow, his brash and uncompromising orchestral tempest a signature for pride and heroism. Yet he was also uncannily clever at creating an authentic sound milieu for a period of history that simply didn't exist. Elsewhere in Conan, there are quasi-medieval and European Dark Age material, Oriental and Eastern flavours and bizarre “unknown” motifs for a time lost and barely imagined. Often, his music is actually stronger than the visual representations on the screen. His cue for Valeria's funeral pyre is more profound and haunting than any of the emotions that Arnie or Milius can conjure. Likewise, his elemental lament for the collapse of Doom's cult, as the lost followers cast flowers and lanterns into the pool in misery, which then flows into the elegiac passage of Conan's final understanding that he is now free from his burden of revenge. Without his music for these two crucial scenes, the film would be somehow set adrift, and our emotions left hanging.

    What is steel compared to the flesh that wields it?”

    Perhaps it is inevitable to perceive things differently now, but there is something ominously prescient about the snake-cult of Doom. Slowly and irresistibly drawing innocents into its false doctrines, and with its power spreading far and wide and its symbolism and ornate Eastern towers sprouting in practically every province in the land, it is almost a proto-riff on the expansion of extremism in today's troubled world. One character even talks about the snake-headed emblem that is being seen in more and more towns and cities, which seems to herald some of the xenophobic attitudes that people today, Westerners, are feeling about being increasingly insular and infiltrated. Conan is not a political film, and nor is its main character predisposed to anything other than selfish aims of power and greed and survival, but these fresh perspectives lend texture to the might and the muscle.

    Watching the film now becomes a slower, more brooding and more measured experience than it seemed all those years ago when it first came out. Schwarzenegger has a dour sense of dignity about him, Milius careful never to let him to ruminate upon the mysteries of his lot verbally. The director's fascination for the rituals of combat, for the ancient martial arts and for the acceptance of warriorhood are at the crux of this intensely physical film, yet he is as keen to simply admire the Olympian stature of his cast as he is to see them rampage across the screen, delighting in the sheer physicality of heroism. With Jason Momoa about to cleave heads in two with the savage sword of Conan in Marcus Nispel's new adaptation, and the film sure to spray claret in many a blade-twirling frenzy of breakneck, adrenalised skirmishing, Milius' take seems positively thoughtful and ponderous by comparison. It is true that Milius loves the grandeur of machismo perhaps a touch too much. For him, just having Schwarzenegger fill the screen and looking mean is often enough.

    The film opened the floodgates onto the more muscular variety of fantasy. After Conan and its inferior but still incredibly enjoyable sequel, we had Marc Singer in The Beastmaster for Don (Phantasm) Coscarelli, Red Sonja (with Arnie and Brigitte Nielsen) and my own personal favourite, Albert Pyun's The Sword And The Sorcerer (where's that BD release, and what the hell happened to the sequel?????) amongst a plethora of Spaghetti variations. Dino De Laurentiis would go on to founder with a series of lavishly financed bombs and turkeys. John Milius would allow the Russians to invade the USA in Red Dawn and then have explosive aerial fun in Flight Of The Intruder. Oliver Stone would tear America's cultural, political and moral conscience apart in Platoon, Born On The 4th July, The Doors and JFK. Arnold Schwarzenegger would go on to make a film or two, marry a Kennedy and govern California. After his colourful but more juvenile second romp, Conan would morph into TV's Hercules and would languish in fanboy dreams once again. His legacy, however, would lead to things such as Gladiator, Troy and 300 and Lord Of The Rings, and on the small screen, Spartacus and Game Of Thrones.

    One thing is for certain, Jason Momoa has some mighty big boots to fill … but let's hope that Conan's forthcoming big screen rampage is enough to shake the pillars once more. For now, you could do a lot worse than settling down to marvel at the brawn, the brutality and the brilliant excess of Milius' Crom-angering sturm and drang.

    Snakes or not, Conan The Barbarian is a true cult-favourite.

    There's been some concern over the BBFC cuts that have been a consistent thorn in Conan's side. The trimming of the illegal “horse-falls” that plague the final battle of the mounds may have been perpetrated with the best will in the world – nobody wants to see a horse in jeopardy – but they play havoc with the scenes that surround them, the cutting rendering some of the action confusing and lacklustre. Milius, himself, as well stunt-coordinator Terry Leonard, have always maintained that no animal was hurt in the making of the film – no, not even the camel that Arnie punches out – so the activists who lobbied the release, and anyone else concerned for the welfare of horses and snakes, can lay their fears to rest. But, best of all, though, the version found on this UK release is finally presented uncut, with ALL these shots intact. Forums have discussed the “work-around” to enable this more powerful cut to be seen - switching your player to “French” in the settings menu for instance runs the full version, whilst the “English” setting presents the trimmed version – but I had no problem at all playing the uncensored film on my US PS3. It played automatically right from the get-go. But the important thing to remember is that the uncut print IS on this disc.