Crom Laughs at Your Four Decades: A Look Back On John Milius’ ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982) – Retro Review

“Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”

John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982) is one kickass sword and sorcery flick. The film launched Arnold Schwarzenegger (End of Days 1999 – our retro review) into megastardom despite the Austrian Oak having minimal dialogue. A thrilling and gorgeous production, the film still holds up today. May 14, 2022, is the film’s fortieth birthday, and we’re ready to take a look back.

I’m far from a Conan purist, though I’ve read my fair share of comics from Marvel and Dark Horse as well as some of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s original stories. I recognize the film is inspired by Howard’s cumulative work rather than a close adaptation of any one story.

Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers 1994 – our retro review) wrote the initial script adaption in the depths of drug addiction and imagined the titular Cimmerian in a post-apocalyptic future pitted against grotesque mutants. When John Milius (Red Dawn 1984) was brought on to direct, he kept some of Stone’s sequences and ideas, though he reportedly rewrote the entire piece and immediately placed it back in a mythical pre-history. Incorporating Nietzschean philosophy, elements of Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai films, and Wagnerian operatic flourishes, Milius delivers a tale befitting a larger than life hero that is rich and engaging, if not the literal Conan.

Arnold gives a pitch perfect performance for what Conan the Barbarian requires. Much of it is physical, to be sure, but it’s not just his impressive physique that captures the character. We feel his naiveté when he’s first shoved into the fighting pits, we understand his resolve upon the discovery of the Atlanteans’ tomb, we revel in his debauchery after his success at the Tower of Set, and we embrace his grim determination when he utters a prayer to his god, Crom, before the film’s climactic action sequence. There are many who would say that Arnold’s performance is flat, distracted as they are by his iconic accent, but I think there are deceptively subtle emotions at play here, teased out by Milius’ expert direction.

Sandahl Bergman’s (Hell Comes to Frogtown 1988) turn as the fierce thief, Valeria, is absolutely believable. She holds her own in fight sequences and plays the lithe counterpoint to Arnold’s hulking strength. The legendary James Earl Jones (Grim Prairie Tales 1990) is charismatic and creepily malevolent as snake cult leader and conqueror Thulsa Doom. His line delivery during the riddle of steel scene is devastating and haunting in its implications.

Holy shit, are the sets amazing! From young Conan’s village to the fighting pits to the Atlanteans’ cave tomb to the Tower of Set to the Tree of Woe to the ruins at the mounds to Doom’s temple (assisted by thousands of extras), the attention to detail for backgrounds allows for complete immersion into Conan’s fantastical world. It’s mythical and grounded at the same time.

Costumes are impressive and help give distinct personalities to all the players. I particularly enjoy the helmets and the raiment of the wizard played by Mako Iwamatsu (Robocop 3 1993). The photography by Duke Callaghan (The Scalphunters 1968) captures all of this with admirable grace. His location shooting makes ample use of Spain’s countryside to firmly place us in a recognizable, if ahistorical, world.

Conan the Barbarian’s stunts and action scenes are topnotch. Arnold and Bergman performed many of their own stunts, giving realism to all the slicing, stabbing, and chopping. This is a remarkably violent film with battles being more brutal than kinetic. Heads are hacked off, limbs are hewn, and blood spills into the dirt in Conan’s bid for vengeance. Effects mostly hold up. I particularly like the practical mechanical work with the giant serpent and the makeup used with the impaling of Thorgrim, played by Sven-Ole Thorsen (Mallrats 1995). The animation used when the ghostly demons try to abscond with Conan to the underworld looks fairly dated, but it’s not without a certain charm.

Of course, the score by Basil Poledouris (Robocop 1987) is rightly lionized by fans. It’s befitting of Milius’ epic storytelling, complimenting the larger than life characters, mythical aesthetic, and operatic sensibilities in grand fashion. Lush and rousing, it’s the type of music you feel in some ancient part of your brain as it calls you to battle and glory.

John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian is a highpoint in its genre and is yet another example of an ‘80s film that stands the test of time. Arnold Schwarzenegger captivates as the lead without the need for extensive dialogue. The truly amazing production has weight due to beautiful sets, astounding locations, and practical effects, and I really hope this same approach is used if we ever get the long rumored King Conan story hinted at in the closing moments of this flick. There is never a moment of not being completely enraptured during the film’s 129-minute runtime, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Highly recommended for fans of indifferent and cruel gods, killing vultures with your teeth, and party crashing, cannibal orgies.

About Mike Cavender

How many movies and comics can one man consume in a lifetime? Mike intends to find out. Occasionally, he'll tell you about it. Whether you want to hear about it or not.

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