CONAN THE BARBARIAN, 1982
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, Ben Davidson, Cassandra Gava
StA barbarian trained in the arts of war joins with thieves in a quest to solve the riddle of steel and find the sorcerer responsible for the genocide of his people in this faithful adaptation of Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery adventures. This film briefly sparked a wave of fantasy films including the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, in the early 80s.
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I have found this particular review incredibly difficult to A cracking sword and sorcery yarn that has divided movie goer opinions since it's release. Some believing it's a beefy and shallow action movie, glossed up with big sets and fancy costumes. Others believing it is a truly eye popping visual feast of a film with hidden depth. The film was panned on its original release but since then has been something of a critical favourite. While the film is too murky and turgid at times, it is still engaging, despite needing to lighten up a touch, because this is based on a comic book after all. The film is fantastical but at the same time the film doesn't go quite as fantastical as the comic books did. This seems to be more based in reality but it still features a snake-man, giant snakes, and witches.
The film follows Conan from childhood when his parents are killed, through his early years as a slave, to adulthood when he becomes a fighter and a thief. What drives Conan is pure bloodthirsty revenge on the man who killed his parents(James Earl Jones) and he is constantly spurred on by the belief he is doing his god's (Crom the god of steel) will. Conan constantly interprets important moments as messages from Crom. This film is so visual. The dialogue is minimal and yet meaningful.
This gives the film a great atmosphere and really brings to mind two other fantasy action movies I really love, Crying Freeman and Highlander. They are all very similar in style. They all have the same strengths, in that they are both great looking, have a lead character driven by a spirit guide, controlled by his beliefs and a sense of destiny and all three have similar romantic subplot, all told with visuals, and little dialogue. They are all also blessed with unique and rousing scores. It's all very mythical and philosophical in each, with love at first sight a theme. It is the love of the women that drive the men to their goals. In Freeman Dacascos wants to break away from his controlled regime, and take back his life when his love gives him the will to do so. In Highlander McLeod wants to lead a mortal life, to love and grow old with someone, to be human. Conan wants a life after he takes his revenge. The greatness of their romantic story and the purely visual way it is told is that during the movie he says only 5 words to her,and they all come in their first meeting. The film should not get away with something like that, yet it works well.
The cast are good. Arnold was made into a star here. He is physically the best shape he's ever been in a movie. He is smaller than his bodybuilding days yet as big as he's ever been on screen and at the same time fleet of foot and nimble. Lest we not forget by the time he hit mega stardom he was in his 40's, but Arnold is truly in his prime here. It is a performance though of glaring inconsistency which is the likes of which I have never seen. It is at once his best and his worst performance. For all that Schwarzenegger does with a depth and humanity not seen in his films since, he overplays and looks amateurish in others, because of course he was an amateur here. What really does work is the chemistry between Sandahl Bergman and Schwarzy. She gets the best out of him and their scenes together are generally his best. Bergman received a Golden Globe for this and had Arnie consistently been as good as his higher points here, who knows? You get the feeling the philosophical side might occasionally have gone over his head. At times he would bawl out "Craaoomm!!!" without knowing why he was delivering the line. Bergman is good. She is enigmatic and quite sexy in a "why is she sexy?" kind of a way. Bergman kicks ass and her dance background shows as she moves with grace. The showstoppers though are the supporting cast with the legend Mako, excellent as the wizard and narrator. Max Von Sydow is superb as king Osric and he gets some of the best dialogue but it is the chilling James Earl Jones who is particularly excellent as Thulsa Doom.
What makes this film great is the fact that it feels older than it is. It feels like a b-movie fantasy film from the golden ages of the 50's and 60's, with some of the charming elements of the legendarily cheap Italian fantasy films. The film even at times feels like it is dubbed. While all it lacks is a stand out Ray Harryhausen moment. The nearest we get is the giant snake. I would have loved to have seen more creatures and beasts in this movie with some HarryHausen effects but it came a tad too late really.
The greatest strength of the film though, is Basil Poledourisí wonderful score. Majestic, old fashioned, rousing, imperial, moving and unique. It is a work of art in my opinion. One of the most brilliant movie scores ever written, but sadly so rarely appreciated as such. Unfortunately given the films reputation as a sword and sandals B-movie, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, even a score as good as this did, and still does, fly under the radar somewhat. This really should have at least won an Oscar. Utterly beautiful music and totally compelling. It also elevates the film, and in particular makes those visual moments carry more resonance than they might have done.
The film is directed with visual flourish by John Milius, whose tragically lame career since makes you wonder what happened. In that sense it has another similarity with Highlander as the even more talented Russell Mulcahy was never matched the quality or success of Highlander since. Still, Miliusí directorial career high here, is a film that stands the test of time, and feels unique. This is a top notch fantasy that genre enthusiasts will love.