Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #25 – Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Posted: March 11, 2020 in Uncategorized

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Arius…”

So begins the filmed version of the world’s most popular barbarian, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. An empirically fun movie and that’s all it needs to be.

We begin, as with most versions, with some variation of the bad people come to mug the village and young Conan is the only or one of few survivors trope. This time Conan’s father (William Smith) is the village blacksmith with a fondness for making swords makes what seems a great blade.

His font of fatherly wisdom includes reverence for the fictional Cimmerian deity of Crom and, in what now seems like a minor writing flaw, a lot of words concerning the “Riddle of Steel.” Steel attracts the aforementioned mugging party…this time at the hands of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). Daddy skewered. Mommy beheaded. Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) enslaved first upon the Wheel of Pain (a human-driven flour mill) and then to points further away as a gladiator until freed upon the world as barbarian, thief, soldier, pirate and lover. Soon to gain vengeance upon Thulsa Doom and his snake cult…

This movie lands so well largely because of the combined talents of two titans of cinema of the era (1970-1990), director and co-writer John Milius and co-writer Oliver Stone (imagine that!). Guided by L. Sprague de Camp (wrote a large proportion of the continuation novels) as technical advisor, the script pretty much hits all the high spots of the books and comics without actually being based on any one thing. Certainly, it gives the feel of a production that hit the cinema magic of writing to enhance what it had instead of writing to some mythical standard of what didn’t exist.

Casting a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead makes absolute sense physically. The muscles, of course, and it’s a short leap of hair dye and other costuming choices to get the former Mr. Olympia to look sort of like how Robert Howard described the character. Seeing the movie reveals some of that magic that landed on paper because…

…despite a later career where we sometimes laughed at the Arnold’s casting in this or that (e.g. Mr. Freeze anyone?), this production gives us a character that fits the perceived nature of the actor. Conan sometimes just needs to be all about the presence on screen that also translates to the one-sheet poster. And keeping his emotive range to determination, anger and the fundamentally unimpressed by the magic and other folderol of his enemies…I guess we’ll be arguing for many decades whether Mr. Schwarzenegger was a good actor, or an amazing presence that it didn’t matter. Projects that create that kind of ambiguity are, by definition, well written.

There are other ways in which this movie was destined to go well from the script stage like choosing snakes as the villain motif. True, the snakes of the Stygian (pseudo-Egyptian) god Set run all throughout the entirety of the mythos whether written by Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter or even on the comic book side, Roy Thomas. And yes, we as a species don’t really like snakes with the easy harken back to Genesis 2 and later.

However, I speak about the practical reasons you go with snakes as the villain motif in a movie filmed in about 1980-1981, the puppets. In context, the production came just a few years after Bruce the Animatronic Shark scared the bejesus out of the average beachgoer greatly aided by a now famous music cue, but looked kinda animatronic and fake when actually seen on screen. The absolutely terrifying believability of the snakes here (one a giant pet, the other something Thulsa Doom transforms into) is just something to be seen. Either the art of animatronics advanced into the stratosphere, or snakes are just easer to pull off. Awesome result!

The movie landed well with casting across the board. Max von Sydow as King Osric who sends Conan, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and later Akiro (Mako) all help make a story about an angry father hiring disposable goons to retrieve a wayward daughter from a cult shine. Von Sydow eats up the scenery telling the wayward adventurers “all that remains is a father’s lover for his child.”

Let’s shout out for James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom. Filmed roughly between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi this performance chose to just put Mr. Jones on screen as the villain strutting around creating his snake based religious cult after realizing his answer to the “Riddle of Steel,” that steel is nothing compared to the hand that wields it. Good choice.

There are a few moments that play out simply on Thulsa Doom’s face that alternately show the character’s otherworldly creepiness, much like the snakes he favors. Or we get to see the charisma of the snake charmer that simply asks a follower to jump off the ledge to prove his point about the power of flesh. That the actor pretty much managed all these variations of evil, greed and contempt without breaking a sweat just speaks to your casting director. We must remain eternally grateful that Mr. Jones only used his powers for good as an actor, instead of forming his own religion…

This does bring up a quibble. Young Conan is told about the “Riddle of Steel.” Older Conan brings it up that he has to say what the riddle is or be booted out of Valhalla. I never really got to hear what Messers. Milius and Stone thought the riddle was, at least in terms of Conan’s perspective on the matter. To this observer’s way of thinking, this leaves a large conceptual hole in an otherwise great script.

At a metallurgical level, the riddle is fairly simple…add charcoal in just the right amount to the iron to get steel in the first place. Of course, we aren’t going to sit through a treatise on blacksmithing and swords, even though much know-how went in at the front end where sometimes the core of the blade was shaped differently than the edge. Sorry this whole bit is boring after a few sentences even here in the review.

The movie remains silent as to the other aspects of the riddle. So, a pseudo-Viking/samurai bushido philosophy about making the warrior worthy of his weapon that destroys the previous bronze weapons? Conan in his original conception is surprisingly well-educated as depicted in the sequences set in pre-historic Asia where he is trained with what look to be katanas without the fancy hilt decorations. He would’ve read the works of Sun-Tzu if Howard hadn’t specifically set his world before even ancient China rose out of the Stone Age. So, what is the riddle, Guys? Or is that the point, that it’s ultimately meaningless…a spiritual MacGuffin? You decide kids.

One of my favorite film composers has always been Basil Poledouris, largely because if you wanted a drums, brass and choral heavy score during the era this is who you hired. I can’t tell if the best music in the score made the scenes it was placed under, a green stew of human body parts (Yeeesh!), attacking the tower, falling in love with Valeria etc., or if the scenes were already strong and just needed music worth the trip. Either way, music and visuals knit together to make everything work. Okay, so I got bored and just wanted to see a movie from my youth the four-zillionth time to see if it held up. Yes, it does. I’m a sucker for sword and sorcery and movies that turn out better than expected. Well worth the $3.99 to rent this from Apple.

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