Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone
By Roderick Heath
Looking around lately, I’ve been forced to the conclusion that there’s a terrible paucity of truly good fantasy-adventure films out there, especially if, like me, one gravitates to the grittier side of the genre after the tongue-in-cheek qualities of old swashbucklers and the juvenile-oriented tone of a lot of older films, like the fabled Ray Harryhausen films (which still at least delight the eye), get a bit thin. Recently, of course, we’ve had The Lord of the Rings series, a fine but top-heavy achievement, and endless Harry Potter episodes, which are, for all their entertainment value, relatively static, twee, and disposable, as are so many of the recent CGI-encrusted entries where storytelling is subordinated to immediately dated spectacle. Nor does the disreputable side of the genre have much to offer, with only the likes of The Beastmaster (1982) or Yor: The Hunter from the Future (1983), and flicks starring Lou Ferrigno. Luckily, when I feel the need for bristle and brawn, I always have Conan the Barbarian to cheer me up.
John Milius’ 1982 film of Robert E. Howard’s iconic 1930s pulp hero has long been divisive, however, with deviations from Howard’s mythology. The film’s stately, flavourful approach, sporting much less action than one would usually expect from such a movie, is an acquired taste. But it’s still my favourite by far from the glut of fantasy films that came in the wake the success of Star Wars (1977), whose space-opera zest reinvigorated several genres of fantastic cinema, and it skirts a kind of greatness. John Milius, cigar-chomping, gun-loving, right-wing “zen anarchist,” is one of the most infamous and oddly lovable of the Movie Brats, memorialised by his filmmaking friends as both Paul Le Mat’s drag-racing bad boy in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) and as loopy Walter in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1997).
Milius had a gift for larger-than-life narratives and a giddy energy. Having worked, like Coppola, Cimino, and Malick as a screenwriter and script doctor through much of the early ’70s, including penning the sublime western Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the thoughtful, if not entirely successful, revisionist vigilante flick Magnum Force (1973), Milius also contributed to the script of Jaws (1975) and cowrote Apocalypse Now (1979). The impact he had on the latter project can perhaps be most strongly discerned through Conan the Barbarian.
Once his directing career got off the ground, Milius’ gifts were confirmed by the leisurely, but enjoyable and nuanced The Wind and the Lion (1975), the elegiac surfing saga Big Wednesday (1978), and the contemplative war epic Farewell to the King (1989), but he veered close to self-parody with the Commie-bashing action flick Red Dawn (1984). Conan, the film in between, made a true film star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Mr. Universe who had delighted many with his charisma in the documentary Pumping Iron (1978). Schwarzenegger, his physique still at its peak and his acting skills utterly basic but effective enough for the role, was a miraculous bit of casting luck for Milius. Milius also returned a favour to Lucas by casting James Earl Jones, who had been providing the voice of Lucas’ hugely popular baddie Darth Vader without credit, as his own paternalist supervillain Thulsa Doom, who, in the first few galvanising minutes of this film, exterminates Conan’s tribe of hardy, steel-producing Cimmerians.
A peculiar fault of Conan the Barbarian is that its first 15 minutes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic drama that the rest can hardly live up to them. The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ awesome main theme, portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on. Father then imparts the lore of steel and their tribe’s god Crom to his son as they sit on the peak of a snow-crusted mountain, boiling clouds rushing overhead. Soon, Thulsa and his mounted marauders ride through the wintry forests and crash into their village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father. His mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his mesmerist’s gaze before, in a uniquely shocking moment, casually decapitating her, her headless body swaying away from Conan’s grasp before the boy even realises what’s happened. Conan is then hauled away with the other surviving children who are sold as slaves and put to work turning a colossal mill wheel, growing into the homely Austrian mug of Schwarzenegger, made so strong by his years of labour that he can push the wheel by himself.
What’s particularly impressive about this cavalcade of cruelty and calamity is the fact that it plays as a virtual silent movie, the only dialogue being the recitative exposition of Mako’s gravelly voiceover and the instructions of Conan’s father. Much of the first hour of Conan the Barbarian represents an “origin story,” as Conan finds glory as a gladiator, has his horizons expanded when he’s sold to Mongols and trained in Eastern swordplay, introduced to reading, writing, and sex, and then released by his nervous keeper, who senses something untameable in him. Conan stumbles upon the mausoleum of a long-dead king still enthroned wearing his armour. Conan, thinking this must be Crom, takes the dead man’s sword, which is far superior to any Conan’s seen before. Conan soon survives a grappling with a vampiric witch-woman, and saves Subotei (Gerry Lopez), a Mongol warrior she’s chained up to starve.
Conan and Subotei become partners in thievery and survival, and gain a third fellow, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). They break into a tower that’s a temple of a snake cult which uses the same emblem that Thulsa Doom had once used as his standard, rob its jewels, and kill the colossal serpent the cult keeps as a deistic stand-in. Much of the pleasure Conan the Barbarian offers is in how it sustains a self-mythologising grandeur akin to Star Wars, Ben-Hur (1959), or Lawrence of Arabia (1962), whilst infusing a genre that was all too often fey and tacky with a rugged, tactile, sensualised vibe that channelled the imagery of ’70s fantasy artists. Almost every frame, flagrantly brutal and sexy, looks like something rendered by Boris Vallejo.
Milius leapt feet-first into the material, replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism. It’s a great part of the film’s gamey charm for those of us who wonder if Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter would even know what to do with a boob if presented with one. And yet, a loose, witty, warm humanity is the film’s constant undertone, as Conan and Subotei wander throughout the ancient world with a strange innocence, getting stoned, robbing, killing, getting laid, and punching out camels with much the same boyish incorruptibility that Milius’ all-American surfer dudes exuded in Big Wednesday. They’re rough and murderous, but only as much as they need to be. Conan’s basic decency in spite of his brutalisation is signalled early on when he’s given a stripped-down slave girl as reward and he quickly soothes her fears by wrapping her in a blanket.
That warmth is particularly discernable in Conan’s anxious romance with Valeria, the first time either warrior has found a true partner in love, and in the rhythms of fellowship they share with Subotai and the wizard (Mako) Conan encounters living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans, who will become his chronicler and spiritual helpmate. It’s a quality that imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential loneliness of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital. The ironies of Conan’s life, that his trials have transformed him into an unstoppable force, are drawn clearly when Conan finally tracks down Thulsa Doom, both men now understanding the “riddle of steel” that Conan’s father had mentioned to him and which has totemistic vitality. “Steel is strong, but flesh is stronger!” Thulsa recites as he casually encourages one of his followers to casually leap to her death to prove his own power.
Thulsa has reinvented himself as the magician-priest of the snake cult of Set, a story flourish that Milius uses to take some amusing pot shots at hippie mystics and communal fantasists, with the cult’s followers’ brandishing flowers and Conan easily infiltrating their ranks by answering questions like “What do you see?” posed by a priestess as he looks into a sacred pool, with: “Er…eternity!” Thulsa and his two chief henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven Ole Thorsen) who rode with him back at the fateful beginning, suggest a cross between opportunistic gangster sleazes mixed with manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan’s rugged individualism and practicality provides a firm counterbalance. An uglier edge of Milius’ satire appears when Conan beats up a leathery old cult priest (Jack Taylor) who clearly wants to have sex with Conan in order to steal his robes and infiltrate the cult as its thousands of member converge on Thulsa’s remote mountaintop temple.
It could be argued that Thulsa, Rexor, and Thorgrim aren’t really well-described or worthy opponents for Conan to take down, and yet they gain great stature simply from looming so large and implacable as Conan’s foes. There’s a great deal of pleasure to be wrung from their inevitable comeuppances at Conan’s hands. The henchmen, who resemble two-thirds of Spinal Tap, are a source of humour as well as antagonism, such as Thorgrim’s bug-eyed amazement at his own strength when he knocks down a colossal stone pillar and Rexor, having turned himself into the bare-chested priest surrounded by buxom priestesses, presiding over sacrifices like a homicidal, medieval swinger—all he’s missing is a peace sign hanging around his neck. And Jones brings undeniable gusto to Thulsa that makes him genuinely serpentine in his evil: no one else could pronounce “Tree of Woe” in quite the same way. Max Von Sydow is just as vigorously and hammy in a clever way in alternating comedy (“Lions ate him!”) and pathos in his short appearance as King Osric “the Usurper,” who actually sets Conan and crew on their mission against the snake cult when he asks them to retrieve his daughter, the Princess (Valerie Quennessen), who has become Thulsa’s high priestess.
Milius’ style of staging and shooting was interestingly different to some of his generational fellows, emphasising a deep-focus, rather three-dimensional sense of space, and a flowing mise-en-scène, somewhat different to the rapid, crisply edited illustrative style of, say, Spielberg. Milius’ set-pieces have a balletic complexity of movement, offering many near full-body shots of action designed to show off the physicality of his actors, particularly apparent with Bergman, a trained dancer: in this way, Milius’ fight scenes seem rather less dazzling than those of some other action directors and yet radiate a genuine sense of material force. He also wrings the simple narrative for all the grandeur and beauty he can, evident in hypnotic sequences like the heroes infiltrating one of Thulsa’s orgies, and the conclusion, in which Thulsa’s disillusioned followers toss their torches into a pool. It’s here that the theoretic similarity to Apocalypse Now is strongest (even the fire and water imagery is closely akin), particularly as Conan refuses to take Thulsa’s place as the Princess’s object of veneration.
The film’s impact is enormously deepened by Poledouris’ score, the greatest work he ever offered before his extremely untimely death: indeed, it’s a serious candidate for the greatest movie composition of the past 30 years. Poledouris, a surfing buddy of Milius’s, had studied at USC under Miklos Rozsa, whose mighty work on Ben-Hur is suggested in the Conan score, with its sweeping, pounding anthems and richly orchestrated love themes. However, the original template was Prokofiev’s score for Alexander Nevsky (1938), which Milius had used in editing. Conan the Barbarian was, in that regard, almost as referential as a Tarantino film: the costumes of Thulsa and his henchmen were based on Nevsky’s Teutonic baddies, and touches throughout the film certify the influence of several classic sword-and-sandal flicks, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), and Japanese films like Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964).
Schwarzenegger was and is a perennial candidate for the worst actor to ever be an A-list star, but a part like Conan was perfect, especially as he had at least the gift to not merely look but act as tough, stoic, and strong as a mobile mountain. This blended well with his ability to project a sense of humour and simple, but vivid emotions, particularly evident when in the anticipation of battle with Thulsa’s army, he recalls with pleasure the calm freshness of days in his youth. It’s Bergman though who almost steals the film with her unconventional kind of lived-in beauty and dashing physicality, her expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes balanced by moments such as her eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother that are iconic in the history of on-screen tough gals. Conan the Barbarian the film does what Conan himself does best: it kicks ass.