Conan the Destroyer Review
Enlisted by an evil queen to steal a sacred key that will help resurrect an ancient god, the heroic Conan journeys deep into the badlands of a time undreamed-of, encountering cannibals, sorcerers, crypts and multitudes of nasty, blade-wielding, blood-hungry henchmen. And Grace Jones. Swapping the arid plains of Spain for the mesas of Mexico, and dropping the rugged philosophies and the riddles of steel for knockabout, episodic, sword-clanging fun, Dino De Laurentiis' second stab at bringing Robert E. Howard's seminal Crom-taunting uber-warrior to the masses aimed for a much wider market. The first film had been a success, but it had also courted criticism for its dark and brooding tone, its brutality and its lack of a final hook to ensure that audiences wanted to see more. Both Dino and his canny producer daughter, Rafaella, had writer Stanley Mann dumb things down, and speed things up a bit in an attempt to bring in the flavour of the old swashbucklers from Fairbanks and Flynn to the adventures of Harryhausen's Sinbad and Jason.
There would still be plenty of heavy metal and wanton machismo in the story, much altered from what Marvel Comics' Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway had originally supplied Laurentiis, but the tone would be lighter, more accessible and more fantastical. There would still be violence, but it would be reined-in to avoid an R rating. Dino wanted monsters and magic and merriment. He wanted the kids to see the film and to keep on seeing it. He wanted Conan to be an epic franchise with a new yarn every other year.
Instead, the film took less than the first and sealed the big screen fate of Conan for almost twenty-seven years. Arnie went on to become one of the biggest stars in the world – almost literally – and Dino lapsed back into vastly overblown hyperbole with which to smother slipshod cheapo productions. But Conan The Destroyer is nowhere near as bad as many make out. As I shall endeavour to reveal.
“I suppose nothing hurts you.”
Ahhhh … it's Conan the Comedian.
Although the movie gets a lot of stick from people, I've always been very fond of it. Having discussed, at length, the original Conan The Barbarian in its BD review already, and poured scorn over Marcus Nispel's poor reimagining of the character, it seems only fair that we return to the mighty Cimmerian's more light-hearted and comic-book style 1984 adventure from Richard Fleischer. In fact, what becomes quite apparent when watching this flamboyant outing is now similar it is to the new Conan flick. Both revolve around a reluctant mission that the hero undertakes to keep a virgin save and avert the rebirth of an ancient evil. Both require much travelling across dangerous realms. Both also boast a knockabout scenario with flurries of action and a last minute skirmish to halt the coming apocalypse. But Conan The Destroyer is much more fun and consistently entertaining. Two vital ingredients that Nispel's boring Barbarian doesn't have.
Once the inevitable sequel to Conan The Barbarian was greenlit, Arnie invited Dino's newly appointed director, Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage, 20,000 Leagues Under The Seas, Soylent Green) around to his house to let him see just how developed his sword-fighting skills had become. With sword-master Yamasaki, who had trained him and the rest of the cast and appeared in the first film, he wowed Fleischer with stunning non-stop combinations and furious set-pieces. At the end of the session, his director then applauded and said, “That's great … but can you do all that with, um, more muscle?”
Although shocked that someone actually believed he wasn't packing quite enough meat, Arnie hit the gym, five hours a day, for a full two months before shooting began … and the result was phenomenal.
In the second Conan, Arnie is at the absolute pinnacle of his cinematic physical fitness – his bulk ripped and gleaming, the muscles twitching in pride at the knowledge that audiences the world over would be gasping in the same sort of admiration that they'd paid him many times over during years of pose-offs on the podium. But just as amazing as that physique is how well he uses it. In a great many films, Arnie's sheer size has been iconic and intimidating – but you can't argue that he has looked incredibly clumsy and ungainly throughout much of his exploits. From just after Commando it was clear that he couldn't run without looking kind of stupid, and his fight scenes, though enjoyable, were becoming slower and more laborious, real slogs that took some considerable effort in choreography and editing to have them appear anywhere near exciting or dynamic. No so here. In Conan The Destroyer, he is terrific – fast, agile, powerful, unstoppable. The fact that he has his body on show the whole time is also something of a testament to just how in-shape he had gotten, and how in-shape he would remain throughout the entire arduous shoot. Right from his very first scene, when the evil queen's raiding party attempts to trap him, Arnie reveals this stamina-infused tiger-on-the-loose approach, leaping onto the stone shrine and taking on all comers with a variety of instinctive moves. Twisting and pivoting and spinning his way through lots of skirmishes, indoors and out, he reveals considerably more sword-swinging prowess than he possessed in Barbarian and, fittingly enough for a character who is actually in love with his own ever-growing legend, Arnie is having a whale of a time. Look at how he adopts the muscle-poses from his competition days throughout the action. His “ready stance” just before engaging in a duel; his reaction to the figures seen surrounding him in the hall of mirrors; his showing-off before the Elite Guard (his buddy Sven Ole-Thorsen again) in the forest fight; and his bellow of brazen bravado towards a charging horde of warriors down in the crypt. Arnie's never been more confident and capable in a role. Jason Momoa is quicker in the new version and more acrobatic … but then he's only half the size of Schwarzenegger.
This physicality had to be balanced with the rest of the cast – the mismatched companions that Conan must take with him and the various forces opposed to him on the quest. Spindly stick-insect and jewel-swallowing thief accomplice Malak (the great Tracey Walter, doing his finest Peter Lorre vocal impersonation), curmudgeonly wizard Akira (a returning Mako from the first outing) and, of course, the delectable jail-bait of Olivia d'Abo in her first feature film, as the sacrificial virgin princess Jehnna, were the vulnerable corners of this motley band of adventurers. But then came some stunt casting to rival that of the previous venture. Legendary basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, all seven-foot-one of him, was the imposing, battle-hardened and not altogether trustworthy royal bodyguard to Jehnna, Bombaata – an absolute titan of a man, bedecked with bunched-back dreadlocks and sporting one enormous spiked club, he absolutely towers over Schwarzenegger and has a subwoofer for a voice-box. And the living nightmare that is Grace Jones as the Amazonian bandit, Zula. A woman who has always given me the creeps, Jones is, nevertheless, excellent as the staff-spinning, nose-shattering, ball-breaking, head-butting warrior of the wasteland. Issuing shocking battle-cries whenever she bests an opponent and doing some bizarre buttock-jiggling war-dances in the midst of combat, she is a dark delight of blood-curdling ferocity. We are introduced to her as the last surviving member of a captured bandit party, shackled to a stump by a chain and beset from all around by tormentors. Her bravado elicits the charity of Conan and, once unleashed with a swing of his sword, she reveals awesome gusto and athleticism as she takes out the mob. Fleischer does exceptionally well here at combining her savagery with the comedy of the terrified crowd.
Throwing the almost nude and ebony Jones in with the giant Chamberlain, it is no wonder that Arnie once promoted the film has being filled with “outrageous bodies”.
Opposed to this crew are the then-ubiquitous Pat Roach as the sorcerer Toth-Amon whose crystal fortress houses part of the key, and the evil Queen Taramis, played by the gorgeous Sarah Douglas, who sets the whole quest in motion. Both were, by now, veterans of fantasy cinema. Roach had brawled with Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, before getting minced by a propeller-blade. He would, of course, return in Temple Of Doom … to get flattened by a rock crusher. Sarah Douglas had battled the Man of Steel in Superman II, been a wife for Jack Palance's Dracula in the TV movie version of the Count's bloody tale from the great Dan Curtis, and portrayed one of the rodent-swallowing, and more short-lived visitors in V. Roach is badly used in this, though. Transforming himself into a weird beast-man to engage Conan in a grapple in a hall of spectral mirrors, the film takes a very backward step indeed. The mask, the cape, the moves … it is a homage to Mexican wrestling and to Roach's own background in the ring. But it just doesn't work. It is clearly Arnie in a wig fighting a wrestler in a rubbish mask. Part of me appreciates the fun aspect of this, but most of me just laments the silliness of it. Roach's two big Indy-fights were incredible – scary, violent and extremely exciting. This is played for laughs. Surely. At one stage, the beast (El Superbeasto, anyone?) grabs Conan by the ankles and swings him around and around in slow, wire-assisted circles before letting him fly off. Oh dear. This is not good.
But let's look at Sarah Douglas, eh? Mmmm … I could be looking for some time.
With that arrogant English air and those massive Barbara Steele eyes, Douglas cuts a fine figure of aristocratic nastiness. A duplicitous bitch, Taramis wastes no time in setting Conan up for a fall, and Douglas does so with plenty of regal relish. Of particular interest are the revealing gowns that she wears. She flashed some milky-white Kryptonian thigh in Superman II whilst reclining on top of the President's desk, but here we get some full leg presentations, all be they teasingly swept across with slinky robes, and some barely contained heaving cleavage. And, just to throw my pitch in with the endless fan-boy debate about whether you do or you don't – that brief shot of unintentional nudity does show more than just a strategically placed strap. You have to feel for people trapped into roles such as this. The scheming villain, or villainess, gets to spout some awful proclamations about what they intend should come to pass, engage the usual gaggle of wise men to give it some credence, send forth the bribed, brainwashed or blackmailed patsy to get the necessary ingredients – usually a virgin or an occult trinket, or both – and then, just when the plan is about to come to fruition, get to watch impotently as it all backfires and their palace comes crashing down around their ears. Hardly something to put down on your evil CV, is it? Douglas doesn't get a great deal of screen-time, but she makes her presence felt, nonetheless.
Just as essential to any fantasy yarn from the era were the thief and wizard sidekicks.
Tracey Walter (The Hunter, Batman) is one of cinema's perennial supports. His weaselly, dishevelled appearance suits his role here as a gutter-dwelling opportunist thief. Quite how Malak got involved with Conan is up for question – he is hardly an evolution of archer Subotai from the first film, although he does seem to remember the Cimmerian knocking-out a camel in the previous adventure. Incidentally, Conan smacks the same camel here and, in a surprisingly shrewd move, convincingly punches-out a horse during a scrap with its rider. As comedy relief, Walter is actually pretty decent. It's going to be a thankless task, as always, but you definitely warm to him. Although it is never properly stated, Mako is clearly reprising his wizard character from the first story. Lessened in idiosyncrasy somewhat, and much less twitchy to boot, Mako is still a strong connective tissue to our cinematic introduction to Conan. I love the way that Mako supplies his own sound effects to various scenes and does that hand-shimmying thing to help his mind focus on the task at hand.
As new to the game as both Chamberlain and Jones were, they still provide sterling work when compared to d'Abo, who has many moments of being utterly dross. Her introduction, awakening from a terrible nightmare (of Grace Jones, perhaps?) is possibly the worst piece of acting that I have ever seen. If you look you can see that Sarah Douglas is fighting off laughter at the abysmal mediocrity of d'Abo's performance. Plus, the amount of times that Jehnna cries out for Bombaata throughout the film defies belief. Honestly, this would make for a good drinking game. Maybe she just loved saying the name. It does sound good though, doesn't it? Say it with me now – BOMBAATA!!!! Come on, do it properly. Do it out loud. That's it. Say it again. Yeah … now you're getting it. I don't think I can knock her for that now.
Another claim to fame for the film is the amount of ill-considered costume gaffs for the ladies. As well as Sarah Douglas revealing a little more than she expected to, both Olivia d'Abo and Grace Jones flash their intimates for the camera too. The latter's case is something that my mates at school all raved about. Me? Well, I couldn't sleep for a week … and not for the reasons you're thinking. The film is filled with surprisingly sexual connotations. We have Arnie insisting that the young Jehnna learn how to handle his mighty sword; Malak's hand moving further and further up Zula's injured thigh on the pretext of rubbing healing-ointment into it; and, most overtly of all, the whole deal of returning the sacred “horn” to the effigy of Dagoth. Dino may have been aiming for a more family oriented market ... but he wasn't above slipping a few nudge-nudge, wink-winks into the pot as well.
Fleischer's film moves along at a brisk clip, with vicious encounters all along the way. He brings in a lot of comedy, some of which works well … some of which doesn't. I don't think it's fair to mock the film for this, though. It's a spirited high adventure in a very traditional mould. The ensemble of characters are all neatly and adroitly drawn. We get their measure very quickly without people suddenly arriving or disappearing or merely hanging-on, as happens in Nispel's new variant, or even the poor Clash Of The Titans remake, for example. For every clunky moment of dialogue (“Show me the desire in your deepest heart,” has he got differently positioned hearts in his chest, then?), there's some knowing nods to the audience during many more exchanges. Arnie, especially, is playing with his new-found status as a movie-star and it is rewarding to see him sending his own character up with a few slapstick moments. His drunk act during the lengthy camp-fire respite from battle is a hoot. Mann drops the ball with his coy/cute handling of Jehnna's request for information about how to win a bloke over, although I still can't help smirking at Tracey Walter's pathetic and exasperated attempt to explain the birds and the bees to her - “I mean, how do you think flowers grow?!!”
Composer Basil Poledouris reworked his themes from the first film, losing some of the iconic and operatic aggression in the process but still providing a wonderful score. There is one repeated motif that is simply stunning. Used during combat whenever Conan gets an opportunity to step back from his foes and dazzle them with some dexterous sword swinging machismo. For those of you with a copy of the score, it can be found at its most exciting and neck-hair-bristling during the track The Elite Guard Attack. We've had numerous versions of the music for the first film released over the years, most notably at the start of the year with Nic Raine's superb double-discer of the complete score from Prometheus, and there is even a good chance that Poledouris' original recordings (in complete form) will become available at some point soon. But his evocative and more magical work for Destroyer has not yet seen a full release. It is high time that this was put right. As well as the pounding action motifs, including a fabulous ethnic percussion theme for Zula and the cannibal clan, he evokes ethereal mystery and shimmering suspense with Toth-Amon's crystal fortress, and he even broadens the tapestry with some Western-tinged elements that add a swagger to the cross-country saga.
I've been guilty of ridiculing special effects man Carlo Rambaldi in the past and expressing doubts over how he has attained such a legendary status. Sure, I would say, there was the little space-turd, ET (for which he won an Oscar), the horrible troll in Cat's Eye and, best of all, his work on animating the Alien's head for Ridley Scott (for which he got another Oscar), but this was the man responsible for such lamentable creations as the titular beast in The White Buffalo (which actually lollops along like a mechanical rabbit, and we can even see the tracks that it runs on as well as its wheels!), the ill-fitting ape suit for the '76 take on King Kong (in which the zipper, as well as rips and tears can clearly be seen) and the lousy full-size, fifty-foot animatronic, and the rather naff killer bats in Nightwing. But I keep forgetting that he also designed the intimidating werewolf suit for Silver Bullet, the menacingly creepy severed set-of-five in The Hand, the hideous mutant-thing in Possession and the imaginative gore-gags in Bava's Bay Of Blood and Argento's Deep Red. So the guy clearly had some talent. But then I come to Conan The Destroyer, and become instantly reminded of just how unpredictably shoddy he could also be. For Dino's production he provided the two worst visual elements in the film – the ape-mask that Pat Roach is forced to don in his bizarre wrestling bout with Arnie, and, far worse still, the overtly rubbery monstrosity, the horned Dagoth, that is resurrected during the finale. At the same time as this, Stan Winston was developing the outstanding FX for The Terminator, which would be released the same year as Conan The Destroyer. Increasingly, Rambaldi was becoming outdated in his methods … as his work here clearly shows.
But even if Rambaldi conspires to undermine the film with some shoddy creations, we still have the impeccable cinematography from the great Jack Cardiff to ensure that even the tussle with the shambling Dagoth at the end at least showcases some of the genius' flair for composition and lighting. The acclaimed veteran of Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The African Queen had also proved quite adept at lensing action, including sword-swinging mayhem in the likes of Errol Flynn's The Master Of Ballantrae and the extraordinarily dynamic The Vikings, both of which would influence the manner in which he shot Conan The Destroyer. Fleischer clearly remembered how well Cardiff had done on the classic Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis actioner as it had been he who'd directed it. Cardiff films the wide-open desert plains and the rocky mesas with an acute eye, following the action with assuredness and depth. The interiors, which boast some fantastic and hugely elaborate sets – such as the Queen Taramis' temple at Shadazar, which is beautiful (look at the peacocks parading on the marble steps), and the crypt set is terrifically evocative with its oriental dragon mouth of flames – are brilliantly captured in lavishly big, old school, no CG style. Look at how he pulls back from the corner of the opening door to the crypt and drops down a level to then slowly reveal our band of heroes entering a huge, two-tiered chamber. After his work for Fleischer he would embellish the mood of the Stephen King anthology Cat's Eye (with Rambaldi again), brilliantly aiding the atmosphere of the troll segment entitled “The General”, and even bringing a quite unique look to Stallone's Rambo: First Blood Part II, leaving it as the most visually striking of all of John J.'s outings.
So, Conan The Destroyer is never boring and it always looks grand too.
Despite its lesser brutality and more adventurous tone, the film encountered some difficulties in the UK with regards to a few of the horse stunts, just like its forbear had, the subsequent cutting rendering elements of the early sequence of Conan's desert recruitment, and an equine collision in the woods, quite incomprehensible. I can't recall the last time that I saw that particular version on home video because I've had US copies since the late 80's but you can rest assured that this BD remains untouched and the scenes of Conan taking down numerous assorted riders are fully intact.
Richard Fleischer was a good and reliable director. He could easily work in any genre, from war-torn dramas such as the awesome Tora! Tora! Tora! to horror with 10 Rillington Place and Amityville 3D, from tough guy thrillers like Bronson's Mr. Majestyck and Westerns like The Spikes Gang to strong personal stories like The Jazz Singer. Sadly, he thought he'd found his niche with heroic fantasies and stepped straight from Conan to the risible Red Sonja, also for Dino, which was, unmistakably, the final damning death-knell for the genre in the mid-80's. He even dragged Arnie and Pat Roach with him. Whilst I cannot defend Sonja, I heartily stand by my claim that Conan The Destroyer is a supreme slice of ripe old entertainment, whose great bits far outweigh the naff.