Movie Review – Conan the Barbarian (1982)

1982 Universal Studios

Four Stars

In 1982 Robert E. Howard’s classic Conan the Barbarian character arrived on the big screen in a big budget highly anticipated movie. With amazing production design, one of the best music scores ever, and a (mostly) good cast Conan fared pretty well at the box office and became an instant cult classic.

As Conan the Barbarian begins Conan is a mute and pathetically boring young boy who seems to have all the energy of a dead turkey. He sits and stares as his father makes an awesome sword, sits and stares as his father tells him the riddle of steel, and sits and stares at a frozen pond as invaders approach his village. A warrior this kid is not. Maybe he got the mute and dull genes from his mother who also never utters a single word.

After his people are slaughtered Conan spends god knows how long walking in circles until he is forced into service as a pit fighter. He is freed after god knows how long when his master takes pity on the poor bastard. After finding a very cool sword in a tomb he gets laid by a crazy witch, finds a compatriot, and tries to find the men responsible for killing his people.

Conan the Barbarian is certainly not the greatest movie ever made but as far as barbarian fantasies goes it’s pretty damn good. As mentioned above the production design by Ron Cobb is incredible and the score by Basil Poledouris is one of my favorites. The fight scenes are just plain awesome. The main problem here is the characters, Conan is not very interesting simply because he rarely speaks and just goes with the flow too often. Valeria talks too damn much which is unfortunate because Sandal Bergman is not that good an actress. Subotai is more interesting even though Gerry Lopez is obviously inexperienced as an actor and his voice is dubbed. The Wizard (Akiro) is a fun character played very well by Mako but he doesn’t get too much screen time.

Despite the somewhat dim characters Conan the Barbarian is a really good movie. I really love the epic feel and tone and I highly recommend this to anyone who likes bloody combat, fantasy, and oiled half naked women.

Well at least it's close.

It could cause PTSD as well and guarantes a lifetime of therapy. I suppose it depends on the barbarian.

The good:

A beautifully designed movie. The Hyborian world created here is utterly believable.

Incredible sword, set, and costume designs.

The perfect music score by Basil Poledouris. I have listened to it countless times since I first saw this movie.

Great direction by John Milius. He thankfully seems to have understood the limitations of his cast and made them mostly mute.

The battle scenes are awesome. Manly men pose and blood fly’s everywhere (sometimes for no reason).

Conan likes to distract his opponents with flagrant posing.

The not so good:

Conan spends most of the movie listening to everybody else talk while he takes it all in with a dull and boneheaded look on his face. He moves with the grace of a bodybuilder who has overdeveloped his body to a ridiculous extent. He is a passive character who rarely initiates any action. He is a slave too stupid to try and free himself from a lifetime of walking in circles and then fighting in a pit. He is finally set free by his master who almost has to carry Conan to freedom. Once free he is led to civilization by Subotai, and he is given purpose by Subotai and Valeria. He proceeds to get himself killed and has to be brought back by sorcery. On top of that he almost allows Thulsa Doom to talk him out of killing him. He is a physically strong but mentally dull character.

I like to stare and listen.

Conan never did figure out that you need a decent hole in the ice to properly catch fish.

Thulsa Doom is a very boring villain. He does nothing but spout goofy threatening lines and turns himself into a snake for some strange reason. The only thing he does in the entire movie is murder three women. Even James Earl Jones admits the character was pretty lame. His sidekicks Thorgrim and Rexor are a little more impressive with their bulging muscles, oversize hammer, and ornate wardrobes but again they rarely speak and do nothing but look menacing. Maybe if they had combined all three characters it would have made one good villain.

I will stare at you until you get bored then cut your head off.

We will stand around and watch.

We will continue to wander around and look at things.

I will turn myself into a snake. Why will I do this? I have no idea.

Here I go!

Don’t I look just silly? Now I will slither away and have nothing at all to do with the next scene.

What an impractical and stupid weapon. In the time it takes for him to bring this thing over his head and start the downward swing you could skewer him like a shish-kabob. It looks cool at least.

The pretty boy. Worst shot in the movie. Nice sword though.

Original stories and movie comparison:

In the original stories Conan is the only Cimmerian mentioned specifically and Conan’s past in Cimmeria is only mentioned briefly, there is no mention of Conan seeking revenge for the death of his people.

It is mentioned that the Cimmerians attacked and totally decimated the inhabitants of a fortress built too close to the Cimmerian border. Conan was not even fifteen at the time but proved himself a warrior of merit. A far cry from the idiot boy seen in this movie.

Conan is crucified in the original stories but survives by will alone until freed. He is not magically resurrected and healed.

Conan moves from woman to woman without a thought and never loses and “mourns his lost Valeria”.

Conan uses whatever weapon happens to be within reach and does not luckily happen upon a magnificent Atlantean sword that he miraculously manages to hang onto.

Conan is a quick thinker with a keen sense of humor; physically he is graceful and fast moving like a panther. Conan actually talks in the original stories, quite a bit in fact and can speak many languages.

Conan does not seek his own kingdom in the stories. He does eventually become a king but loses the kingdom. He is not very upset at losing it.

There is no Thulsa Doom in the stories.

Theatrical versus Directors Cut:

Let me just say upfront I despise the Directors Cut of this movie.  For me there is nothing in the restored footage that adds one bit of value to the movie. I found the scene where Conan and Subotai talk about picking blueberries and the springtime utterly hilarious because the acting and dialogue is so lame. Also the fact that Gerry Lopez is not dubbed in this scene is a clear indication as to why he was dubbed, he sounds exactly like a surfer trying to act.

I read a long time ago that King Osric’s daughter was featured more prominently but that almost all her scenes were cut. After finally viewing the cut footage I can see why. She comes across as a completely unlikable wingnut and her presence at the end when Conan gets revenge on Thulsa Doom adds nothing to the narrative. I am still puzzled what they were going for in these scenes.

Valérie Quennessen as Princess Weirdo floats around and looks comatose as Conan seeks to avenge his mudda and fadda.

Random thoughts and observations:

When I first saw this movie in the theater in 1982 (and for countless viewings afterwards) I had not read any of the original stories. Now having read them I definitely have a different perspective on how it was adapted. I still enjoy it immensely but think they could have done a far better job on certain aspects. It has a Cimmerian barbarian named Conan and that is pretty much where the similarities to the source material end. Director John Milius delivered an epic operatic ponderous and very serious adaptation that is a very entertaining movie both visually and viscerally but is a far cry from the original adventures.

For a supposedly fierce warrior race Conan’s people don’t put up that much of a fight when their village is attacked.

Mako plays the wizard character onscreen as mostly crazy but as the narrator he sounds pretty sane. There seems to be a disconnect between the character seen onscreen and the one only heard. Maybe the wizard has multiple personalities.

Not exactly as I pictured a Pict while reading the stories. Would a Pict even be working with people from other races?

Conan was chained to this thing and he didn’t try to escape? More like Conan the Chowderhead.

Conan and Subotai aren’t the smartest thieves ever. Steal some horses you idiots!

Kill the snake while it’s sleeping and then take the big shiny jewel.

The guy on the right has blood on his chest before Conan slashes him.

Conan slashes this dude but clearly misses…

…but suddenly his stomach bursts open. What luck!

Valeria whacks this guy on the shoulder…

…and a wound miraculously appears lower on his back. She’s good.

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