Warrior Week: The Days of High Adventure… 30 Years of Conan on Film
by Ben Bussey
Between the time when the ocean drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of… a time when there was a conspicuous lack of movies featuring muscle-bound swordsmen doing battle with hideous monsters and black-hearted warlocks whilst quivering, nubile, near-enough butt naked women gripped feverishly at their calves. Then on May 14th 1982, Conan the Barbarian was unleashed on American cinemagoers, and things changed. It is in honour of the thirtieth anniversary of John Milius’s film that we declare this the first day of Warrior Week at Brutal As Hell, in which we will pay tribute to all manner of sword-swinging, limb-lopping, manly-smelling action adventure bloodfests. And what better way to kick things off than a look back at the big screen history of Conan?
We should get one thing out of the way first, however: I must confess to knowing very little of Conan beyond the films. To date I’ve read but a few of the 21 stories written by Robert E. Howard, and none of the later stories by Bjorn Nyborg and L. Sprague de Camp. I’ve heard murmurings that none of the films to date really get to the heart of the character as conceived by Howard, much as how few, if any, of the Bond movies reflected Ian Fleming’s creation until Casino Royale. This is a valid question, but it’s neither here nor there for my purposes. I suspect the filmmakers behind the Conan movies were ultimately less concerned with capturing the spirit of Howard than that of Frank Frazetta, whose justly famed paintings adorned the Conan paperback covers, luring many a casual bookshop browser with their grandiose blend of horror, musculature and sex appeal. These were very much the same visceral thrills offered by the film which kickstarted the sword and sorcery craze of the 80s, and launched the career of one of the most – how to put it diplomatically – singular Hollywood stars of the last three decades…
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
In a nutshell: when a Cimmerian village is devastated by an attack from an enigmatic horde, the young and newly orphaned Conan is sold into slavery. However, the arduous task he is assigned – pushing a massive heavy wheel for some untold purpose – proves better than a gym membership and a shit-ton of steroids, as after some years of it Conan grows into an absurdly big and beefy man (Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course). From here he’s sold or part-exchanged from the wheel-pushing trade to the gladiator industry, where he proves a dab hand at battering other big beefy men to death. Samurai sword school follows, which of course he also takes to like a duck to water. Before long Conan finds himself a free man, and there is only one thing on his mind; to hunt down the evil buggers who wiped out his people, and introduce them to the pointy end of his sword. And if he has to shag the odd witch, skewer a giant snake and spill a few gallons of blood in the process, then by Crom, that’s what he’ll do.
Impressions: I recall being less than taken with Milius’s film when I first saw it as a teenager. It all struck me as utterly pompous, overblown, overlong, and taking itself far too seriously whilst seeming to have no sense of its own inherent absurdity. Just goes to show, sometimes you don’t know shit when you’re young. To complain that both the movie and its leading man are impossible to take seriously or relate to on a real, human level is to completely miss the point. This is arch melodrama, played out on an epic scale, with suitably epic performers; nuance and subtlety is not the name of the game. And sure, it’s outwardly played straight for the most part, but there’s certainly no shortage of understated wit here. Schwarzenegger’s deadpan delivery came to be his trademark, and while he doesn’t quite have it down to a ‘T’ yet it’s still in evidence. And please don’t tell me we’re not supposed to bark with laughter when, whilst crucified and being pecked at by a vulture, he bites the fucking bird in the neck.
Of course, given that I have of late been musing on the problematic relationship between film and politics, I feel duty-bound to address the political overtones of Conan the Barbarian that have long troubled critics; specifically, there are those who condemn the film as an endorsement of fascism. Now, there is plenty here that runs contrary to my leftie pacifist leanings, but even I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a pro-fascist film. Many, I suspect, have haphazardly classed it as such immediately thanks to the opening quote from Nietzsche – that old, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” chestnut – based on the common misconception that Nietzsche created Nazism. Yes, Nazis were influenced by Nietzsche, but so too were Anarchists, and in many respects Conan the Barbarian has stronger echoes of the latter philosophy, emphasising as it does that its liberated hero lives a free life without masters. In contrast with Conan’s free will and steely resolve, witness the disciples of Thulsa Doom (an agreeably Shakespearean James Earl Jones), portrayed as deluded fools who have given up all individuality under the thrall of hypocrites and charlatans, in what feels very much like a thinly veiled stab at guru-worshipping, soul-searching hippy culture. Conan’s stance would appear to be that a free life must be defended by force, and to lower your defences is the greatest folly; unsurprising, given that his father instructed him to trust only his sword.
But once again – being against violence in real life does not mean you have to abandon the fantasy of crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, hearing the lamentations of their women and all that jive. Conan’s the kind of man that all men daydream about being from time to time; a take-no-shit, take-no-prisoners type who does what he wants when he wants with whoever he wants, and dismembers anyone who tries to keep him from doing so. On top of which, I daresay all men from time to time wish they were built like Arnie, particularly as he is here with his pro-bodybuilding days not long behind him. As hard as it may be to believe, he actually slimmed down quite a bit for this film, to make him more physically suited to the athletic requirements of the role. While he doesn’t actually spend the duration of the film wearing nothing more than a loincloth (as he would in the sequel), his imposing physique is unavoidable, sending every male viewer into fits of inadequacy that invariably result in a few press-ups on the living room rug and a pledge to start a proper exercise regimen the next day. No, I don’t believe that’s just me…
However, if Arnie looking uber-buff was all it took for a movie to achieve instant cult status and inspire a slew of imitators, then we could just as easily be talking about Hercules in New York right now. To at least scratch the surface of the enduring appeal of Conan the Barbarian, we have to mention Ron Cobb’s beautiful sets, Basil Poledouris’s rousing score, and of course writer-director John Milius. His ear for a memorable turn of phrase, long since proven by such writing credits as Jaws and Apocalypse Now, really gives the film its teeth. From Mako’s gripping narration (note the opening speech delivered over a plain black screen, which surely inspired the prologue of the first Lord of the Rings), to Arnie’s unforgettable first line, to Sandahl Bergman’s militant declaration of love: “all the gods, they cannot sever us; if I were dead, and you still fighting for life, I’d come back from the darkness, back from the pit of Hell to fight at your side.” Sigh… and the most us boys usually get to hear is, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Yes, on that note, Sandahl Bergman (pictured above) is hypnotic as Valeria; not only does she brandish a blade and put boot to arse just as capably as Arnie, but she’s far more comfortable delivering that kind of colourful dialogue. No, she doesn’t take the spotlight as much as the Austrian Oak, but she’s every bit as pivotal to the film, and it’s a crying shame she didn’t go on to greater success as a leading lady. (Keep an eye out, though, as this is not the last time we’ll touch on Ms Bergman in Warrior Week...)
Significant addition to the Schwarzenegger repertoire – Arnie’s sex face. This is actually one of the few films in which the future Governator has sex scenes, apparently as he found them uncomfortable. One instance of the art clearly not reflecting the artist, I suppose…
Conan the Destroyer (1984)
In a nutshell: evil Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas from Superman 2) asks Conan to go on a quest to steal some magic jewel thing. He does. She double crosses him. Fighting ensues.
Impressions: first of all, is it just me or does Arnie look strangely like Jason Mewes in the still above? “Noinch, noinch, noinch, schmokin’ weed, schmokin’ weed, crushin’ enemies, drivin’ ‘em before you, hearin’ the lamentations of the bitches…” Anyway, it seems my younger self wasn’t the only one concerned that Conan the Barbarian had taken itself a bit too seriously. Much as how the second Mission: Impossible movie was deliberately dumbed down after criticisms that first film was hard to follow, this sequel abandons the more sombre, operatic tone of Conan the Barbarian in favour of Saturday matinee theatrics. The result is a film that’s fairly good fun, but in no way, shape or form a worthy successor to Conan the Barbarian.
It’s perhaps inevitable that Conan the Destroyer (not the most appropriate title, given how mild the action is) feels closer to a 50s/60s B-movie than an 80s action-fest, seeing that Milius’s vacant director’s chair is filled by Richard Fleischer, the man behind such time-honoured classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, and one of the all-time greatest adventure movies, The Vikings. His approach here is considerably more workmanlike and surface-based than his predecessor. Where Milius aimed for a certain verisimilitude, eschewing the excessively fantastical, Fleischer seems determined to make things as over the top as possible. Perhaps most notably, whilst Conan the Barbarian sported a relatively slimmed down Arnie, Fleischer actually instructed Arnie to put weight on for his role here, making him more ridiculously pneumatic than ever. As may be reflected by the presence of Conan comic writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway on script duties (though their draft was rewritten, to their displeasure), Conan the Destroyer seems intended as a live-action comic book, rather than a timeless myth. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the real crux of the problem is that the producers caved to pressure for a more family friendly film. Net result: sex is completely out of the picture, violence is turned down several notches, and goofy humour is shoved in to fill the void.
Really, beyond the name of the character and the presence of Arnie and Mako, there’s very little here to relate the film to the original. Sure, there are a great many sequels in which this is the case, but it really stings here as there’s no avoiding the sense that the character and his universe have been severely short-changed. In the retrospective documentary on the first film’s DVD, Oliver Stone laments that at least a dozen Conan films should have been made, a new film every few years, James Bond style, paving the way to the grand, final story of Conan becoming a king. While references are made here to the big C’s prophesied future, as well as to his lost love Valeria (sorry Grace Jones and Olivia D’Abo, you don’t come close to filling Sandahl’s sandals), these moments feel very tacked-on; they’re feeble attempts to create a sense of continuity that simply isn’t there. Take also the use of music from the original’s temple orgy sequence in the climactic sacrifice scene, which makes no real sense given the absence of any connection between Thulsa Doom’s cult and Queen Taramis; it might be intended to give the impression of an organic link between the films, but it feels like laziness, using what was already available because it was easier to do so.
Still, if you don’t have too great a connection to the first film and enjoy a bit of silliness, Conan the Destroyer is still perfectly passable as a simple sword and sorcery adventure. There’s very little plot to follow, and plenty of cartoonish action along the way, with plenty of magic and monsters, all realised in a simplistic fashion. Apparently Andre the Giant fills one of the rubber suits in question.
Significant addition to the Schwarzenegger repertoire – Arnie’s drunk face. Conan the Destroyer has one of the all-time worst drunk scenes ever put to film: “The promise I was kingdommed!” “Lot on your knife!” Crom almighty… even Martin Lawrence on ecstasy in Bad Boys 2 wasn’t as embarrassingly awful as this.
Red Sonja (1985)
In a nutshell: not unlike young Conan, Sonja (Brigitte Nielson) is the sole survivor of a raid on her village. Not that she gets off too lightly, as she is gang-raped and left for dead. Visited by a goddess – or, if you prefer, suffering delusions in her near-death state – Sonja is imbued with the strength to fight back, and vows never to let another man touch her unless he can best her in combat. Off she goes to learn the way of the sword. Years later, her sister Varna (Janet Agren – okay, so I guess that means Sonja wasn’t the sole survivor) is a priestess in a temple that guards a magic talisman with the power to destroy the world. The power hungry Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) – who, funnily enough, was responsible for the attack on Sonja’s village, and tried to have her own wicked way with Sonja – ambushes the temple, steals the talisman and takes it back to her kingdom. Mortally wounded, Varna heads off to seek Sonja’s help. Along the way she meets Kalidor (Arnie), a big muscular long-haired sword-swinging type (sound familiar…?) who locates Sonja for her. So begins Sonja’s journey to Gedren’s kingdom, where she will battle to both save the world and avenge herself against the bitch that wronged her.
Impressions: Okay, so officially this isn’t a Conan film. Despite featuring another Robert E. Howard creation and being made by the same team behind the existing Conan films, rights issues prevented the old Cimmerian appearing here as had originally been intended. However, much as the Godzilla of the 1998 US version is known by daikaiju purists as GINO (Godzilla In Name Only), we might very well refer to Kalidor as CIABN (Conan In All But Name)… okay, I’m not holding my breath for that to catch on…
Apparently Arnie calls this the worst film he ever made, but I have to disagree. While I’m sure this is partly down to sentimental attachment – I have fond memories of seeing it as a child – I do find Red Sonja much more satisfying than Conan the Destroyer, and certainly a more competent effort from returning director Richard Fleischer. I suppose as the narrative is that bit further removed from Conan, it makes it easier to forgive the film’s failings, of which there are of course many. Perhaps the biggest complaint for the contemporary fan is how little the title character resembles that of the comics. Far from the ruthless thief and mercenary of the comics, here she’s tough but sensitive, not to mention a bit prim and proper; witness how she lectures the obnoxious boy prince on minding his manners. Of course, it’s not just her persona but her look that has been tampered with. There can be little debate that the character’s enduring popularity is based in no small part on her sex appeal, and that’s rather lacking here, for not only is the iconic chain mail bikini ditched in favour of a rather more modest and less distinctive red cloak/leather onesie combo, but also the person filling that outfit is – well – Brigitte Nielson. Now, I don’t mean to seem shallow or insensitive, but while Brigitte Nielson may be many things… sexy just ain’t one of them. Or is that just me?
Of course, provided we can get our male chauvinist arses past that, there’s plenty to enjoy about her performance and the movie overall. Apparently our beloved Sandahl Bergman was the first choice for the lead, but she decided she wanted to mix things up and play the big bad Queen Gedren instead, which she does to amusingly pantomime effect. (As Gedren is a lesbian whose hatred of Sonja is rooted in having her advances spurned, some critics condemned the film as homophobic. I can see their point, but this is a very small, underemphasised plot detail; much as is the sexual nature of Sonja’s assault in the prologue.) Sure, it would have been a pleasure to see Bergman in the lead – especially if the chain mail bikini had been reinstated – but while Nielson may not be the foxier of the two actresses, she certainly holds her own as a warrior woman, leaving the viewer in no doubt that she’d kill you as soon as look at you. On top of which, having Arnie share scenes with someone whose accent is just as thickly European as his own makes for a refreshing change, and in a way boosts the sense of Norse myth about the whole enterprise. Not unlike Conan the Destroyer, it’s all annoyingly family-friendly and about as intellectually enriching as doing the Macarena in a bath of warm cheese, but there’s a certain perverse pleasure to be taken nonetheless. It’s just a bit sad that it wound up marking the last time the Hyborian Age would grace the big screen for just over twenty five years.
Significant addition to the Schwarzenegger repertoire – Arnie’s “someone’s sneaking up behind me” face.
Supplemental: Arnie’s horny face.
And on a side note: Brigitte Nielson’s utterly bugnuts insane face.
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
In a nutshell: once again, young Conan is the sole survivor when his Cimmerian village is attacked. However, this time his dad’s Ron Perlman, and the attack is not led by Thulsa Doom but Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang of Avatar), who’s looking for the pieces of a magic mask that will make him (drum roll please) all-powerful. Years later, the fully-grown Conan (Jason Momoa) roams free, loving and slaying his way across the land, but still searching for his revenge. He gets his chance when he crosses paths with vestal virgin-type Tamara (Rachel Nichols) whom Zym needs as a sacrifice to gain his (another drum roll) all-powerfulness. Before our tale is over, Conan will see to it that both Zym and Tamara meet the receiving end of his respective weapons…
Impressions: now here’s something that will be hard for me to confess… it’s a Marcus Nispel film that I actually quite like. Yes, I am currently flogging myself, much in the manner of Paul Bettany in the Da Vinci Code. The thing is, Nispel’s excessively glossy visual style and penchant for low humour, which so soured his Chainsaw and Friday the 13th remakes, are actually far more suited to this kind of rip-roaring adventure. Happily, all concerned saw better than to reign things in for PG-13; there’s a lot of full-on, head-smashing violence here, with as much emphasis on suffering and degradation as many a contemporary torture horror: witness our hero force-feeding a gaoler his own master key, then handing a knife to his prisoners so they can carve their way to freedom. To my mind, this film carries one of the more surprising 15 certificates the BBFC has given out of late.
I think a great deal of my affection for Conan 2011 comes from my complete lack of expectations beforehand; it’s not that the film is especially great, just that it could have been so much worse. As I said, I flat-out hated everything I’d seen from Nispel up to then, and as for the new Cimmerian Jason Momoa, at that point I only knew him from what little I’d seen of Stargate Atlantis, where he didn’t make much of an impression (I’m only just getting on the Game of Thrones train), but he was clearly the sensible choice given the competition for the role: the other two contenders were Kellan Lutz and Jared Padelecki, for Crom’s sake. However, Momoa proved to be something more than the best of a bad bunch; he was, I think, absolutely the best actor they could have cast right now. Not only does he score points for being ever-so big and buff, but he’s also smart enough not to emulate Arnie; if Superman Returns taught us anything, it’s that no matter how iconic their predecessor may have been, a new actor must be allowed to make a role their own. And boy, does Momoa make the role his own. It doesn’t quite reach Jack Sparrow-ish levels of theatricality, but this is one of the most unhinged, eccentric heroes I’ve seen in a major motion picture for quite some time, as the muscle-bound, gravel-throated actor proceeds to grunt, gurn, scowl and bark his way through every minute of his screentime, all the while clad in what looks suspiciously like a dress.
Momoa comes off like a kid in a candy shop in the role, and it’s an infectious spirit that goes some way to helping one overlook the film’s many little problems. For starters, it could have done without the half-hour prologue, and would have benefited from a more interesting story and better supporting performances: Nichols is just a bit bland, Lang and Perlman are doing it by the numbers, and Rose McGowan seems to be in a different film altogether (though not her would-be Red Sonja, of course). Still, when push comes to shove, Conan 2011 remains great fun. We don’t get enough fantasy films on this scale and budget that are unrepentantly family un-friendly, with plenty of gore and nudity to go along with the special effects. Alas, given how badly this film did at the box office, it may be a while before we see any more of this ilk; its underperformance seems likely to have scuppered any further Conan movies with Momoa, and from the looks of things may also have put the kibosh on the latest proposed Red Sonja reboot which might have seen Amber Heard don the chain mail bikini. To which I must say CROM-DAMMIT. (Still, there’s some comfort knowing Robert Rodriguez’s live-action Fire and Ice remake is also said to be on the horizon.)
Significant addition to the Schwarzenegger repertoire: Arnie’s “wait a minute, I’m not Arnie” face.
So there we have it. There’s been a cartoon, a live-action TV show and some video games, but otherwise this is it for Conan and the Hyborian Age on screen to date. And while it’s been fun, I truly hope these four films don’t wind up being Conan’s last, for while the original clearly remains the strongest so far, I get the feeling we’ve still yet to see a truly definitive cinematic outing for the great Cimmerian. There are without doubt many more Conan stories to tell, both written and unwritten; and we can but hope that, as the first film promised, those stories shall also be told…