Wednesday, September 4, 2013

My Favorite Era: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Little something different this year as I decided to extend the Halloween Countdown to a two month thing (because damn it all, my favorite holiday deserves it) and also add in Spies, Swords and Sorcery.  With that in mind, let's kick off two months of Spies, Swords, Sorcery and Screams in barbaric fashion.
What better way to kick off the sword and sorcery part of this project than with the film that really started the 80's phase of it?  Conan the Barbarian is both majestic and hilarious as while director John Milius seems to take the story as seriously as one possibly can, everyone else appears to be there just for the fun of it.

We follow Conan from his youth to adulthood as he struggles against an evil snake cult led by James Earl Jones, falling in love along the way and encountering tons of wild characters.  It's bloody violence, some unintentional comedy (with Arnold that just comes with the territory) and general coolness all thew way,  Let's take a closer look.
  • Right off the bat, we get a sense of where the film is coming from as it begins with the quote"That which does not kill us makes us stronger." Pretty sure that was a Milius idea.  I like the guy as a writer/director but boy he takes his stuff way too seriously!  The commentary track on the DVD is a marvel, 129 minutes of Milius getting really, really intense about the themes in the film and Arnold chiming in with jokes and simply describing the action on screen.  It's quite a fun track to listen to.
  • This the first collaboration of Arnold and Dino DeLaurentiis, and definitely the best.  The others, Raw Deal, Red Sonja and Conan the Destroyer range from, okay to bad.
  • The Basil Poledouris score is quite impactful, definitely one of his best efforts.  The narration by Mako (who also has a role later in the film) is also fun.
  • The attack by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones and his Cher wig) and his goons is a nicely done bit of mayhem.
  • An interesting thing I noticed, before the attack we see Conan's father lecturing him on how important steel is...Only for him to turn out to be not all that great with a sword during the attack.  In fact, he sort of goes down easy all things considered.  That might be the only way the 2011 Conan film improves on things, Ron Perlman goes down hard in that one.
  • James Earl Jones is really good as Doom, he;s got a low key manner and is just damn creepy.  The fact that he can stare at you and somehow make your neck extend a little so he can m,ore easily decapitate you is another nice touch.
  • Obligatory reference everyone makes time: Yes, the Wheel of Pain is a weird concept.  The best guess I can make is that it was just a cool way to transition to Arnold in all his muscled up glory.
  • A funny thing regarding the "What is best in life?" scene: I didn't pick up on this until listening to the Greatest Movie Ever! podcast on the film but apart from the gladiator stuff, Conan has only experienced the whole "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of the women" thing from the side getting its butt handed to it.  I can only guess he's thinking during the question is "Well the crowd cheering me whenever I gouge a guy's face out is cool,  and the guys who slaughtered my people and beheaded my mother right in front of me seemed sort at ease with themselves, may as well go with that."
  • I also just noticed that in the beginning of that scene, the guy in charge is worrying that his sons will never understand him.   Interesting.
  • It's nice to see that some things never change.  Whether his character is bonding with his daughter or mastering the art of swordplay, Arnold Schwarzenegger looks like a mildly challenged special needs adult when he smiles broadly.   Poor bastard.
  • Conan being set free is done without any pomp or circumstance and the next time we see him, wild dogs are chasing him.  Okay...
  • Actually, it's a pretty neat sequence as Conan gets his sword and you have to give Arnold all the credit in the world for doing some of his own stunts here.
  • The scene with the wolf witch is interesting in that when you're a kid and you first see it, you don't notice that the scene serves no purpose other than throwing in some nudity.  When you're an adult and you see it, you notice the scene serves no purpose and is only there for some nudity but you don't give a damn.
  • I do like Arnold's performance here though, he just has a great "WTF?" face for most of it.  Classic.
  • Gerry Lopez is fun as Subotai, Arnold's sidekick for the film.
  • Milius adds a little bit of Norse mythology here and there with a reference to Valhalla at one point and one other thing I'll get to later.  It doesn't quite fit the Conan character but it's not really a major issue.
  • I love the film's rather bizarre sense of humor: Conan and his buddy drunkenly walking through a village, asking about the snake symbol Doom uses, getting high, seeing people screwing livestock and punching out a camel.  It's not high comedy but if it makes you laugh...
  • The sequence of them sneaking into the snake tower to steal a jewel is a fun set piece with a nicely fake looking snake and the decidedly very real Sandahl Bergman as Valeria.  She's quite good in her role.
  • Even better is the aftermath of their success which has Arnold wooing Bergman for a bit and then just falling face first into a bowl of food.
  • Max von Sydow is fun in his one scene which basically gives us the main plot for the film almost an hour in: he sends the trio to rescue his daughter who has fallen in with Doom's cult.
  •  Mako is fun as the wizard who ends up helping Conan.
  •  The one issue I have is that the film's pace slackens a little in the beginning of the second hour.  There's a little too much travel footage.
  • Conan infiltrating the snake cult is amusing.
  • Now is as good a time as any to mention Doom's main henchmen: Thorgrim (Sven Ole Thorsen) and Rexor (Ben Davidson).  Both are intimidatingly large and fun to see in action.  Sure, neither one is really a match for Conan but still!  I also get a chuckle out of Thorsen being a bit of a dullard.
  • Dooms' speech to Conan before having him crucified is a nice bit of acting from Jones.
  • As horrific as the scene is, having Conan bite the vulture nibbling at him was an inspired idea.
  • The sequence where they bring Conan back from the dead is nicely over the top, though how to do this sort of scene in a subtle manner is not something I can imagine right now.
  • I never noticed the snake cult was also a bunch of cannibals until the film came out on DVD.  Not sure how I missed that little detail, I guess it helps I saw the sequel more than the original when I was a kid.
  • The orgy scene that leads into the big fight in the temple is amusing, if only for Arnold's comment on it during the commentary track which more or less amounts to "Look, everybody is banging!"  Well, he did marry into the Kennedy family, we can all guess why he fit in so well.
  • I have no idea why Doom can just turn into a snake, but damn is it cool!  Equally cool is the fight that ensues, capped by Doom using a snake as an arrow to kill Valeria.
  • I think the funeral pyre scene is maybe the one time a film has found a good reason to not have Arnold try to emote.  As anyone who has seen Batman & Robin will tell you, it's not a pretty sight.
  • Sort of funny that the big ambush Conan plans for the remaining villains is really the only time he's actively barbaric.  Good deaths for Davidson and Thorsen though.  I also love how Conan's idea of a prayer is to say "Help if you can but if not, screw off."
  • Valeria coming back as a Valkyrie was another Milius idea.  To be fair, Bergman does look good in that outfit.
  • Doom's death is gruesomely satisfying.  He's not politely beheaded, it takes a damn bloody long time to pull it off.
  • I also find it amusing that Jones has built up a track record of hit movies where him mentioning that he either another character';s father or father figure ends up costing him.  In the Star Wars films, he ends up losing a hand and here he loses his head.
The first Conan is a solid, entertaining bit of action that is still entertaining today.  A good cast, decent enough script and solid production design make for a fun movie that's even more amusing when you consider how damn seriously the director took it.  Good stuff.

2 comments:

  1. I know its going on 3 years since this review but d@mn, dude, what a fine piece of written observation of a fairly good film. Everything you have written is spot-on. I consider this the beginning of the Trifecta that Arnold did in the 80s that earned him his big bucks ("Terminator" and "Predator" being the other two.). Its refreshing to read something from someone who hasn't forgotten that films are just entertainment and if it delivers, well done!

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.