Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #26 – Conan the Destroyer

Posted: March 11, 2020 in Uncategorized

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Going back to the era “between the time the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Arius” proved generally fun in the form of Conan the Destroyer.

This time around Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is just minding his own business somewhere near the fabulous city of Shadrizar. He has a new thief sidekick, Malak (Tracey Walter) has the wizard Akiro (Mako) on the Hyborian Age version of speed dial and life is good…except for still mourning Valeria (Sandahl Bergman, file footage).

Unbeknownst to Conan, Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas) plots to send her niece Jehnna (Olivia d’Abo) on a quest to retrieve a jeweled horn sending Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain) as protector to the virgin princess, who will then be sacrificed once the demon/evil god Dagoth is released. And Bombaata will stick Conan in the back once he’s served his usefulness.

Everyone gets on their horses and rides this way and that in the cinematic Mexican countryside doubling for Shadrizar, an ancient city that Robert E. Howard placed on his fictional Hyborian world map in what is now the Middle East. Deserts. Greenery. Lakes. Pretty landscapes galore.

Depending on how drunk or nit-picky snippy one wants to get about watching this sequel, we either really hate it or cock our heads to one side and say something like – “I see what they tried for.” Gone is the supreme bombast of the origin story of the first movie directed by John Milius who couldn’t do a Conan movie any other way than balls out R-rated. Replaced by an intentional desire to tone it down to a PG rating, while acknowledging the first movie at the hands of equally veteran director, Richard Fleischer.

The basic plot of “hire the hero as the disposable outsider to escort the virgin princess on her quest to retrieve, count ‘em, two related McGuffins and then kill both Conan and the girl” should automatically work under any circumstances and should’ve worked better than what’s on screen. Hell, I think Raymond Chandler used elements of this general plot in at least two of his Phillip Marlowe novels (or not I’ll look it up eventually).

For my money, this plot that requires the Bodyguard/Escort to start having feelings for the Princess/Protectee basically needs more on screen in this pairing of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s Conan and Ms. d’Abo’s Princess Jehnna. They went for naïve and petulant little girl against the war-hardened barbarian and the film never really finds a way for said princess to actually break through Conan’s romantic armor concerning his mythologizing of his lost love, Valeria.

The princess pretty much does everything she can, except wearing a sign – NEEDY VIRGIN PRINCESS, PLEASE MOLEST – around her neck to get Conan’s attention. An obvious way to milk the plot for more danger to the mission missed. Having Jehnna discussing the problem with Zula (Grace Jones) a warrior woman freed from a village vigilante mob by Conan doesn’t help much. It’s just kind of a flat relationship, acting, writing…blame somebody.

Part of me hopes that the cuts made to the movie to get the rating down from the R the film still had after shooting despite going trying to go family friendly are buried somewhere on my Blu-Ray’s secondary features. Having a sex scene between Conan and Queen Taramis would distract a little from the flat pairing of Princess and Barbarian. It might add more to the understanding of the evil queen lying and doing everything she can to unleash Dagoth’s darkness. But I digress…

Anyway, the movie isn’t horrible and manages quite a few interesting one-off gags, some that reference the first movie. The team enters Shadrizar. There’s a camel. Malak, despite having been recast from the previous Subotai (Gerry Lopez, not in the sequel) points out the camel. And Conan attempts to apologize for punching said beast in the first movie.  

Early in the movie, Akiro is captured by cannibals that want to eat the wizard to consume his power. He is rescued after struggling the way Han Solo comically struggled against his being tied up and cooked on a spit by the Ewoks. Malak and Akiro share a few barbs about – “why would they want to eat such a sourpuss as you?” Fun. Almost union-mandated, but still fun.

The movie gets better contemplating at least one of the two stops on Princess Jehnna’s quest. The crystal castle in the middle of a lake owned by wizard Toth-Amon (Pat Roach) proves almost worth the ticket price (disk price in my case) all by itself. Jehnna is spirited away across the water by Toth-Amon, daring the heroes across in the boat.

This leads to a visually interesting wizard fight in a hall of mirrors where Conan destroys each mirror in turn to destroy the monstrous form of the wizard. That and the having to swim to sneak into the villain base makes for a nice sequence that generally makes the movie.

And then second major stop that takes the key (a big honking grapefruit sized diamond) from the lake castle to use retrieving the jeweled horn to return to Shadrizar. Everything about this sequence that isn’t human works without question or quibble. The production found just the right tightly spaced rock formations in Mexico for a claustrophobic fear-inducing sequence. They also dressed up the studio set with a really interesting set with a lot of fire and trick locks and a lot of writing on the wall.

That last part is important, writing on the wall, because Akiro ably demonstrates the common superpower of all fantasy wizards, the ability to read. He reads the prophecy on the wall that gives away that Queen Taramis wants to unleash Dagoth and Jehnna must be killed. And we go with all of this right up to the point where a small part named Leader (Ferdy Mayne), the second evil wizard to die in this movie appears on screen. Mostly, I couldn’t stop laughing at the typewriter bell sound effects as he did his magic. Pollutes much about an otherwise acceptable scene.

 Depending on the number of bad breakfast burritos I had the morning of viewing, I’m either going to go all out asserting that basketball great, Wilt Chamberlain, doesn’t belong in this movie at the level of thespianship, or just shrug and grade on a curve. For Conan movies, I always grade on a curve. It helps having the Big Man as the final boss fight.

Similarly, I’ve gone back and forth on Grace Jones as a cinema presence since the beginning of her career. Need a semi-scary, odd wild woman in your film, Ms. Jones is your lady. As an aside, it’s a pity that her performance as Zula, which has generally grown on me over the years, couldn’t help anything about Mayday or A View to a Kill, but I digress…

This time around, Conan thrilled me at the level of needing stuff in the fantasy genre to watch on Saturday nights inserting the disk. Most of the stuff I’ve mentioned that sounds like I’m basing on the whole experience really just lands in the – “well, they did their best and it’s still generally fun” – area…except for the lack of apparent relationship between Conan and Jehnna. Thus endeth the review…

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