Oliver StoneArnold SchwarzeneggerMax von Sydow
Conan the Barbarian
Medium: film
Year: 1982
Director: John Milius
Writer: John Milius, Robert E. Howard, Oliver Stone
Keywords: action, fantasy
Country: USA
Actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Max von Sydow, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Ben Davidson, Cassandra Gava, Gerry Lopez, Mako
Format: 129 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082198/
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 7 September 2002
The first time I tried to watch this movie, I got bored and turned it off halfway through. However after I posted my opinion of what I'd seen, enough voices were raised in the film's defence to prompt me to give it another chance. This will therefore be a two-part review.
PART ONE: what I thought after my first viewing...
In another review, I claimed that The Terminator was the film that created Arnie films. Obviously any film that stars Arnold Schwarzenegger is theoretically an Arnie film, but all true devotees of mindless carnage know that the true "Arnie Film" (TM) is a cinematic sub-genre in itself. It has its own narrative rules and its own aesthetic qualities.
Conan the Barbarian pre-dates Terminator, so is my assertion disproved? Nope! It more closely resembles an Arnie film in that this time he plays the massively destructive hero, but in other ways it's even further from the genre than The Terminator. The reason is Schwarzenegger himself. In an Arnie film, Arnie plays Arnie. You know, Arnie. "I'll bei baak." Big muscles. Unstoppable violence. Single-minded engine of destruction that stops at nothing - *nothing*, I tell you - in pursuit of his goal.
But here he's playing Conan.
In some ways it's quite an impressive feat. Schwarzenegger may not be a traditional thespian, but both here and in The Terminator he used his physical presence (and in two very different ways) to create definite characters. The Terminator was a machine. Schwarzenegger's Conan, on the other hand, is little more than an animal. That's not being derogatory, but descriptive. Taken prisoner by raiders as a child, he's lashed to a wheel and subjected to the Worst Childhood Ever. Upon reaching adulthood he's given plenty of training and experience in killing people, then turned loose! Huh? Big mistake, methinks. In a conventional Arnie film, Conan would at this point become a single-minded vengeance-crazed killing machine, bent on avenging his butchered family... but this isn't an Arnie film.
Schwarzenegger's Conan is defined by his patience. He's massively stoical, giving you the impression of someone who could endure absolutely anything, for as long as it takes. It can't be worse than his teenage years! Instead he simply lives in the moment. He'll kill, steal and ravish... but there's something curiously passive about this Conan. Show him a woman and he'll make love to her, albeit with more gentleness and consideration than one might have expected. Show him valuables and he'll steal them. Show him a sword and he'll use it to kill people. Long-term goals? What are those? With one exception, this Conan is concerned with nothing he can't see or feel. It's a primitive, animalistic mentality and rather well conveyed, actually. What with the hair and all, Schwarzenegger gives us a thoroughly convincing Conan.
He's not quite Robert E. Howard's Conan, but never mind. You couldn't quite reproduce those stories on film anyway. Howard's writing wasn't great for its plot or concepts, which were breathless pulp, but for its balls-out visceral prose that grabbed you by the throat and never let go.
However a passive hero will tend to be a boring hero. He's always reacting, never working to a plan more complicated than "kill, steal, make love". You wouldn't think that the incredibly violent adventures of a sword-wielding killing machine played by Arnold Schwarzenegger could be boring, especially when adorned with a fair amount of female nudity, but this film manages it. Curiously, despite the ultra-violence there's remarkably little blood.
The film has other points of interest. It's noticeably reluctant to introduce explicit fantasy elements, for a while instead giving the impression of being a real historical adventure. You can believe in this world of beasts and barbarians. Also note that the former tend to be real-world beasts, e.g. camels, llamas and elephants, rather than more fantastical things like dragons or griffons. There's a giant snake (uh-oh)... but in fact it looks convincing, which must violate some cinematic law or something. Admittedly injured and decapitated snakes thrash around far more violently than this one, but if we're carping about such subtleties then we've passed far beyond the usual comedy rubber effects.
Of course, this film was doomed from the beginning. It's co-written by Oliver Stone. (And if anyone here is tempted to defend Stone, let me say two words to them: "The Doors".) It takes itself deadly seriously, which is kinda refreshing. And I'm sure Conan becomes more goal-motivated later in the film, when he's reunited with the snake cult and its leader, played by James Earl Jones. No film can be all bad that stars James Earl Jones. Apart from anything else, it's great to see his face for once.
But still... for me, Conan the Barbarian is dull. There's always plenty to look at, but as a story it's like watching incredibly violent wallpaper. Probably best watched while drunk ("Arnie cut off its head, ahahahaha!").
PART TWO: two days and a second (complete) viewing later...
When people suggested giving Conan the Barbarian another chance, their most frequently mentioned selling point was the score. It's hardly toe-tapping, but on this second visit I saw what they meant. In the first battle scene, the music is so imposing that it almost becomes the most important bit of the film. The visuals become mere accompaniment, a symphony of images to go with the story being told through your speakers. It's like watching an R-rated Fantasia. Curiously, that battle suddenly flows like a dream when watched through your ears. It's almost poetry.
And then I started *watching* again when James Earl Jones cropped up. Damn, he's good! Even with no dialogue, he's mesmerising. When he eventually gets a decent speech, he'll blow you away. Jones's Thulsa Doom is one of the two stirring characters in this film, the other being Sandahl Bergman's warrior woman. She gives the film its heart, though she's absent for much of it.
Oh, and there's also Max von Sydow. He's great too, though he only gets a couple of minutes' screen time. Also there's "Mako". No surname, just "Mako". Naturally I assumed he was a WWF wrestler imported for the fight scenes, but in fact his full name is Makoto Iwamatsu and he's the magi-narrator. Apparently he's a bit of a legend in the genre film world: Sand Pebbles, Good Guys Wear Black, Killer Elite...
Conan himself comes across differently on a second viewing. What I said about him last time isn't inaccurate, but perhaps unbalanced. Indeed he does start out as a savage killing machine (he doesn't smile when given a naked woman for pleasure, but breaks out an enormous shit-eating grin at serious sword training) but later he unbends a bit and at times becomes almost human. His motivations also become clearer once you know what's going on, for which I blame the direction. His actions tend to be understated, left for the audience to infer from a stony-faced Arnold's wordless stoicism, and for instance I think it could have been signposted more obviously that that he's chasing that snake cult from the moment he enters the first city. Perhaps they didn't want to test Schwarzenegger's accent with too much dialogue? Or perhaps they were trying to make their Conan the strong and silent type?
Also note the scene where Conan's found a sword after being hunted down by dogs. There's a shot of a dog hopping off a rock, then another of Arnie staring past the camera with his new weapon... and that's it. Next scene. Only on second viewing did it sink in for me that Conan's about to get some payback and carve himself some doggie chunks.
The story remains as ponderously po-faced as before. It's quite a long movie, over two hours, and the pace is often extremely deliberate. Also, for a film with very little dialogue, it's surprising how much of it is portentous near-mystical speechifying. The narrator is particularly guilty of this, though in fairness I appreciated the absence of wisecracking banter and other such annoyances. I sense the influence of Oliver Stone, and again with the near-complete lack of humour. I chuckled at a couple of facial expressions and again at a severed head (gotta love those severed heads) but for the most part this movie takes itself more seriously than anything ever. This is refreshing for the most part, though that resurrection nonsense was a bit much. Okay, a lot much.
I admire the anti-heroic nature of the movie, which goes out of its way to avoid the usual indestructible action hero silliness. I particularly appreciated one gladiatorial combat which isn't at all exciting, but instead downright nasty and sordid. The violence also gets steadily gorier as the movie progresses, which I think was sensible. Despite what I said last time, Conan the Barbarian does have a narrative, but you've got to be paying attention to follow it. The pace is slow and the direction sometimes wilfully enigmatic, but if you hang in there you'll eventually be rewarded.
Of all things, it's almost Biblical. I'm thinking of the story of Samson. Don't waste your time looking for the little character moments; this is a story painted in huge, mythic brushstrokes.