Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone
By Roderick Heath
Conan the Cimmerian was created by Robert E. Howard, a Texan writer who committed suicide at a young age after writing a string of stories about his ancient warrior hero, mostly published by the fabled pulp magazine Weird Tales in the early 1930s. Howard took inspiration from the rugged landscapes of his native state, particularly around the Rio Grande, whilst his vision of a primal champion in Conan was synthesised from a stew of classical and scholarly sources and anthropological theories of dubious worth and validity. His Conan roamed the vast spaces of Eurasia in an epoch, as the memorable opening narration of the film puts it in slightly paraphrasing Howard, “between the time the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas,” battling not just other warriors but also monsters, sorcerers, sacrificial cults, and many a tyrannical ruler. Rising from an obscure background as the son of a village blacksmith to become a famed pirate and mercenary and eventually capturing his own kingdom, Howard’s Conan was nonetheless also an intelligent and chivalrous figure, a figure who, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, condensed both stubbornly evinced humanity and instinctive natural potency into a singular frame, inhabiting two zones of being at once.
Howard’s stories retained a cultish following amongst sci-fi and fantasy writers, with talents like Poul Anderson, Robert Jordan, and L. Sprague de Camp all writing their own stories featuring the character. The famous cover art Frank Frazetta supplied for such extensions to the mythos helped keep the cult alive, soon backed up by comic books in the 1970s. The success of Star Wars (1977), which fused science fiction with fantasy and captured the imagination of a generation, sparked a brief moment when producers and studios became interested in fantasy films again. This resulted in some lovably cheap and inventive emulations like Terry Marcel’s Hawk the Slayer (1980) and Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster (1982), and a pair of truly great entries in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and Conan the Barbarian. John Milius, the most notoriously eccentric, intense, and intransigent member of the Movie Brat director generation, chose to take on the challenge of bringing Conan to the big screen after shooting his plaintive surfing tale Big Wednesday (1978), and he talked entrepreneur-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the rights owner Edward R. Pressman into joining forces to produce it. An equally intense and wilful, if politically rather dissimilar young Hollywood talent in Oliver Stone, fresh off his breakthrough success writing Midnight Express (1978), had written a script for Pressman. But his purportedly post-apocalyptic take was potentially far too expensive, and Milius fought to revise it.
When it came to who should play the lead, the filmmakers faced the problem of finding someone who could physically inhabit the role of a brawny ancient warrior and act well enough to carry the film. Pressman had kept one man in mind since watching the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1978), an Austrian immigrant who had taken out the Mister Universe title four times, and projected unique charisma despite his thick accent and mouthful of a name – Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan the Barbarian, a big hit on first release that soon spawned its own wave of imitations and rip-offs, has retained despite critical sniffiness its own, special, seemingly ever-growing cult status. One particular, elusive aspect of Conan the Barbarian’s appeal is the way what seems to be its faults prove eventually to be part of its unique power. Rather than offering a straightforwardly action-packed, campy fantasy-adventure, Milius set out to create a movie that plays essentially as a fantastical bildungsroman, an attempt to encompass a hero’s growth from small boy to a man gaining full maturity in the sense not only of physical strength but also mental freedom and moral choice.
This puts Conan the Barbarian in a zone with other great works of fantastical metaphor, like Tolkien’s alternating visions of individual and communal questing and the original Star Wars trilogy’s portrait of adolescence giving way to adulthood: Conan the Barbarian has a very similar motif, but goes further in following its protagonist into the consequences of that adulthood. Milius was certainly assimilating aspects of his friend George Lucas’ hit, borrowing the voice of Darth Vader James Earl Jones to play another dark father figure to his emerging hero, albeit one tweaked to Milius’ sensibility. One accidentally self-imposed hurdle Conan the Barbarian has to surmount is that its early scenes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic evocation of prehistoric lore and drama the rest has a hard time living up to them. The opening narration, voiced by Akiro (Mako Iwamatsu), later revealed as a wizard and eventual helpmate of Conan’s, makes like an ancient storyteller with his throaty voice heard over a field of pitch black, beginning his account of the great hero’s life in “the days of high adventure.”
The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ designedly awesome main theme “The Anvil of Crom,” portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on and help work the billows, in a scene bathed in the light of furnace flames and molten metal. The glowing blade is doused in snow at dawn and the last artisanal features added to complete a masterpiece of craftsmanship, at least by the standards of Conan’s Cimmerian tribe living snowy folds under soaring mountains: the sword is creation not merely of martial artistry but a nexus of cultural and communal expression, implement and totem, tool and artwork. One rite gives way to another as father imparts the lore of their tribe’s god Crom and the Riddle of Steel to his son as they sit on a mountain peak, boiling clouds rushing overhead. The Riddle of Steel, supposedly a piece of arcane wisdom left on the battlefields of ancient gods after some grand Titanomachy, actually has nothing to do with metallurgy and everything to do with humanity, and grasping the answer is the process of a lifetime, immediately setting the terms of Conan’s life, even as his father advises the only thing he can ultimately trust is a good sword.
This lesson proves timely as Conan is about to lose all contact with his roots. A band of mounted raiders, led by the mysterious warlord Thulsa Doom (Jones) and his henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven-Ole Thorsen), riding out of the wintry forests and attack the Cimmerian village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father, mauled to death by dogs after being wounded in the battle. Conan’s mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his oddly limpid, empathetic-seductive 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 taken in chains with the rest of the village children and sold into slavery, driven across the frigid landscape and into a vast, craggy desert region where they’re chained to a huge wheel driving a millstone and forced to keep it turning day in and day out. Milius simply and brilliantly conveys the passage of time in montage as the number of slaves pushing the wheel depletes, whether dying from exhaustion or sold off, but Conan remains and grows, ironically refashioned from a small orphaned boy into a hulking, powerful man through his captors’ cruelties, until he’s pushing the wheel alone.
Here we gain our first glimpse of Schwarzenegger, lifting his shaggy-maned head as he stoically pushes the machine. Conan is bought by a gladiator trainer, Red Beard (Luis Barboo), who pitches him into death matches with vicious duellists for the pleasure of raving audiences. Conan’s great strength and instinctive fighting talent quickly turns him from combat grist to beloved champion, but Conan lacks any sense of his existence beyond the pleasure of victory and the crowd’s cheers. Soon Red Beard takes him east to be trained in swordcraft, and there he’s also introduced to less immediately practical aspects of life, including reading and being given slave girls to impregnate. Conan seems to be forged into the perfect weapon for service to other warriors, glimpsed sitting chained and cross-legged in the camp of some Mongol warlords, a tamed beast perfectly annunciating a blunt and brutal warrior credo. But Red Beard soon takes him out of camp and sets him free, for reasons Akiro in voiceover can only speculate over, as if his owner sensed something untamed, despite his pet status, residing yet in Conan, demanding freedom even without knowing it.
Fleeing wild dogs across the wilderness, Conan falls into a hidden pit and finds himself in an underground chamber, part of some lost ruin of a fallen civilisation, possibly Atlantis, where a long-dead king still sits on his throne, patches of skin and bone still attached to dusty bones. Conan takes the king’s sword and finds it, despite its caking of dirt and age, far superior to any other sword he’s seen, able to cut the shackles still on his ankles away. This long introduction, taking a half-hour to unfold, is particularly notable in managing to convey Conan’s stages of early life whilst playing almost as a silent film. Only a few scattered lines of dialogue and passages of Akiro’s narration are heard, and even those are essentially unnecessary. Milius displays total mastery over cinematic storytelling, creating the mystique of Conan and his family and conveying the nature of the tragedy that comes upon them on an iconographic level, everything rendered larger-than-life and classically vivid. The spur of Thulsa’s raid, his desire for steel weapons, registers in the crucial gesture of Rexor gifting him the sword Conan’s father died wielding, the same one he was forging at the start, whilst his gifts of supernatural power are evinced in his act of murderous mesmerism. Conan’s growth on the wheel and schooling in a cruel, combative life in the gladiator pits is as close to perfect as visual exposition gets.
Whilst the simultaneous emergence of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and the first Harry Potter films finally made fantasy film a powerful pop culture mode befitting the age of blockbusters and prestige television, it was long a notoriously difficult genre to sell. Ever since the monumental sets, huge battles, and amazing steam-puppet dragon featured in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), it was plainly a genre fit for expansive cinematic visions armed with big budgets and significant production values. But fantasy was also a fairly esoteric genre rarely embraced with great passion by mainstream cinema audiences to a degree where producers and studios felt much confidence in making such epics. Occasionally major works like The Thief of Bagdad (1940) were made, whilst scattered international entries drew on various local mythic traditions like Alexander Ptushko’s versions of Russia folklore and Japanese films like The Birth of Japan (1958), but for decades Ray Harryhausen’s beloved stop-motion movies drawn from legends and the Italian peplum genre offered one, epitomised by Mario Bava’s Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (1961), with fervently colourful visions achieved on low budgets, were the only regular examples seen by mass audiences. But this sustenance came at a price, ghettoising the genre for a long time as a zone of wooden musclemen, cheap sets, and tacky monsters, made chiefly for very young audiences.
Conan the Barbarian stood for a long time as one of the few, true examples of a well-produced, highly ambitious fantasy film, and one that represented a rather more mature, or at least more pubescent, wing of the genre at that. Where on the page works like Tolkien’s great sprawls of mythopoeic imagination, built on the example of writers like Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison, epitomised the loftiest reaches of the High Fantasy style, Howard’s early Conan stories helped codify a fierce, weird, violent and sexually aware variation, the so-called “Sword and Sorcery” style. That style would eventually inspire eccentric riffs like Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné tales, and birth more recent, sophisticated and morally complex works like Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher cycle and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, with their emphasis on vast world-building, cruel realism mixed with familiar tropes, and slatherings of sex, violence, and satirical humour. With Conan the Barbarian Milius managed to perfectly reproduce and amplify the visual lore of the early Sword and Sorcery style presented through illustrations from the likes of Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, one where scantily-clad musclemen and amazons clad with glowing bronze skin battle dragons in strange and teeming landscapes, amidst a mythical past replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism.
Milius and Stone’s efforts with their script nonetheless took Conan some distance from Howard’s original concept. Some characters are amalgamations of those found in the stories, like Valeria, who assimilates many aspects of the pirate queen Bêlit, and Thulsa Doom was borrowed from another of Howard’s properties, the King Kull stories. Howard’s Conan was never enslaved and maintained his liberty jealously, whereas the film essentially concerns itself with Conan relearning a sense of his own identity and mission after being schooled in ruthlessly pragmatic things. Milius’ portrayal of Conan as sometimes callow and crude, essentially an overgrown boy on an emotional level, once he’s actually let loose in the world, sits somewhat at odds with the character’s gallant and sophisticated streak in the books. There is a creative reason for this in terms of the film’s overall design, of course, as the journey towards full manhood is Milius’ subject here: Conan is becoming himself, complete as a fantasy projection as a certain ideal of elemental manhood. Milius remakes Conan in the image of his own protagonists, including the hero of his screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson (1972), who thrives beyond civilisation and learns to survive terrible losses, and the surfers of Big Wednesday, who similarly discover the pain of aging is necessary as they leave behind their immature traits and rise to the state of mystic kings in their battle with nature. As in Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan embarks on a mission to bring down a self-appointed messiah. Like the title character of Dillinger (1973) and Sheikh Raisuli of The Wind and the Lion (1975), Conan becomes at once outlaw and a momentary manifestation of the eternal romantic hero, creations out of time that only manifest when history and societies have entered a state of flux.
Conan’s path begins to take shape when he comes across the hut of a solitary witch who seems to promise knowledge that can guide him, demanding her price of having sex with her. This seemingly easy price proves rather more steep when at the point of orgasm she transforms into a vampiric creature: Conan manages to hurl her into the hearth, whereupon she becomes a fireball that flees into the night, her cackling laugh heard all the while. Before her transformation she directs him to the city of Zamora, “crossroads of the world.” In the morning Conan finds a man chained up behind her hut, Subotai (Perry Lopez), who claims to be a great warrior but fell for the same trap as Conan. The two men are fast friends and allies, becoming thieves to live whilst Conan pursues his quest to track down Thulsa Doom through his twinned snake symbol. Eventually he learns this is now the emblem of the Snake Cult of Set, a rapidly spreading religious cult attracting young adherents but with a reputation for foul rituals and nocturnal murder. Conan and Subotai decide to break into one of the cult’s towers hoping to rob the jewels kept within, and meet up with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief, and they quickly make an alliance. The trio successfully rob the sect’s treasures whilst one of the female cultists is prepared for sacrifice to a huge snake living in the tower’s basement, which, unknown to Conan, is supervised by Rexor. Conan is forced to kill the snake rites before he and Subotai flee whilst Valeria runs interference, with Conan pausing to snatch a medallion emblazoned with the cult’s symbol. After escaping, Conan and Valeria become lovers.
Woven in amongst the high and elemental drama are flourishes of humour that keep the film from becoming too onerous whilst resisting feeling shoehorned or removed from the rest of its finite texture. One of Conan’s swordmasters, after slapping his face in censure for a poor move, suddenly swivelling and kicking another trainee in the testicles for grinning at Conan’s humiliation. Later, Conan and Subotai wander about Zamora, stoned on “black lotus,” recalling the heroes of Big Wednesday in their foolish-innocent exploration of the world, and in a gag pinched from Cat Ballou (1965) Conan groggily punches out a camel. “Success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary,” Akiro dryly notes in narrating as the three thieves use their riches to indulge hedonism until Conan faints face-first in his soup, a jokey moment that nonetheless reasserts the basic preoccupation with Conan’s story as a journey through life. More immediately, indulgence robs their keen edge, leaving them easy targets when some guards sent by the King of Zamora, Osric, come to round them up. Osric, played in in a peach of a seriocomic cameo by Max von Sydow, seems to be berating the captive trio but actually wants to congratulate them: Osric loathes the snake cult and is happy the thieves have offended its mysterious leader and his minions. With his own daughter (Valérie Quennessen) recently seduced into the cult’s ranks and their assassins sowing havoc, Osric offers Conan and company his fortune simply to travel to the cult’s base, the Mountain of Power, and kidnap his daughter back. Valeria and Subotai want to run away with their riches, but Conan sets out alone in the belief he will find his nemeses. And sure enough, he does: quickly found out as he tries to infiltrate the cult, Conan is brutalised and brought before his foe.
The intoxicating fantasy allure of Conan and his world is, of course, the dream of unfettered freedom and perfect self-reliance. Milius’ shots of Conan and Subotai running cross vast landscapes, driven on from locale to exotic locale by the sweep of the photography and Poledouris’ romantic strains combine to create the kinds of cinematic visions it’s easy to want to live within. Similarly, Milius distils Conan and Valeria’s love affair into a series of wordless shots that see them moving from first gestures of tenderness – Conan caresses her palm with a huge jewel stolen from the temple – to sexual pleasure, happy companionship, and finally a crucial image of Valeria gathering Conan’s head to her chest, making it perfectly plain that they’ve fallen deeply in love through her look commingling ardour and shock, the surprise of two lonely, hardened souls finding each-other, a moment counterbalanced by the forlorn sight of Valeria awakening to find Conan gone. The quality of warmth and good-humour connects Conan and his small but growing band, and imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential isolation of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital.
If The Terminator (1984) would fully cement Schwarzenegger as a movie star by cleverly exploiting his formidable and alien side, Conan the Barbarian nonetheless gave him his starring break. Whereas in The Terminator the façade of Schwarzenegger’s body would be peeled to reveal steel and mechanics, an illusory construct betraying the breakdown of natural reference points in a specifically modern fashion, Conan the Barbarian shows us rather the perfect body being built, woven in muscle and sinew, as the product of subjugation and adversity, a fantasy ideal of masculinity beheld in its primal cradle. And yet Schwarzenegger’s casting was most canny in comprehending his potential appeal was based not simply in his honed physique and stature but in the almost childlike aspect to his persona. The boyish enthusiasm he expressed even in talking about adult things in Pumping Iron, and which would later make him beloved to young fans for which he represented a sort of cartoon vision of their own ideals of adulthood, informs his Conan on a fundamental level. The character retains a quality of innocence amidst bloodshed and depravity, the violence of his severing from his roots and the segregation of his life from the common run in maturing leaving him bewildered by the world at large, his driving need for revenge long defined by the distraught and immoderate quality of an orphaned boy.
The potentially discomforting scene when Conan is given a slave girl to breed with by the swordmasters is marked by Conan’s appeasing gentleness in calming the fearful girl and wrapping her in a blanket, a gentlemanly act that ironically makes her entirely pliable, and Conan’s expression of curiosity slowly becoming lust reveals some of Schwarzenegger’s nascent skill in gestural acting. The quality of innocence returns at crucial intervals, particularly during his affair with Valeria, plain in that key moment of mutual recognition and also in Valeria’s sorry appeal to Conan not to go after Thulsa, confessing all her feelings of longing whilst surviving alone: despite their strength and guile as survivors, they’re both eternal exiles. Conan gains another oddball friend when he encounters the wizard Akiro (who wouldn’t be named on screen until the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, 1984), living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans on a stretch of coastal plain. Conan and Akiro’s point of bonding is found when the wizard tries to ward off his hulking visitor with warnings of his supernatural power, only to earn Conan’s sceptical laughter, and they connect in their mutually sarcastic sense of the absurd.
Akiro explains he keeps the spirits inhabiting the mounds company with his mystic arts in exchange for the peace and solicitude he gains from living in a taboo spot where even Thulsa Doom won’t bother him. When Conan takes leave of him, he poses as one of the cultists heading to the Mountain of Power. Here Milius indulges some satire on hippiedom and religion in general with the dippy, flower child-like cultists and empty mysticism. “What do you see?” one monk asks him he as she directs him to look into a sacred pool: “Err – eternity!” Conan replies, to the monk’s slightly bewildered approval. An uglier edge to the satire manifests as a male monk tries to seduce Conan under the cover of spiritual ministry. This vignette courts homophobia, but also makes a lucid point about exploiters and abusers hiding within officially benign and beneficent organisations like churches. This idea is reiterated on a more ambitious and crucial scale as Thulsa Doom emerges as the head of the cult, preaching an embracing but apocalyptically cleansing faith to the young cultists he attracts, whilst actually practising foul and egomaniacal arts behind the scenes.
The cult of Set is revealed to be an apparatus designed to snare vast amounts of wealth, power, sexual partners for his core enclave of followers including Rexor and Thorgrim, and human foodstuff for Thulsa who proves something not exactly human. In this portion of the story Milius nods to his steeping in noir sources, including something Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse, in presenting the cult as opportunistic gangster sleazes, mixed with likeness to manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan and friends’ rugged individualism and practicality provides the only firm counterbalance. Milius opens the film with a popular quote from Nietzsche – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – which might be gilding the lily a tad, but it’s also an idea it certainly weaves into its texture, most literally in the mill wheel montage and connecting the rest of the story and its characters. The Riddle of Steel, as Thulsa eventually explains it when he and Conan finally meet again, is connected to this: “Steel isn’t strong, boy – flesh is stronger…What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” Thulsa illustrates his point by encouraging one of his slavish adherents to jump from a cliff face to her death, the power of the mind to convince itself that reality isn’t real when gripped by a powerful idea from without, exposing the deepest nerve of Conan’s formative trauma and the ultimate end goal of his journey as gaining sufficient strength of mind to threw off Thulsa’s mesmeric control, and the things it represents.
The vignettes within the film, which gift titles to Poledouris’ compositions, have a symbolic specificity that signals a sense of the stages of life enacted through Conan’s journey. The wheel of pain. The gift of fury. The tree of woe. Wifeing. All feel like places we’ve all visited from time to time – tiring labour to survive, spurs to strive, pains to be shed, intimate happiness to be gained. Thulsa nominates himself for the role of Conan’s true, spiritual father and Darwinian mentor in forcing him to grow into a powerful man. Thulsa, finally coming into proper focus during his confrontation with Conan after his capture, gives Jones his chance to deploy satanic majesty in the character’s outsized charisma and air of enigmatic potency, shifting with musical precision from note to note as he admonishes Conan like a teacher chastising a naughty student, beams in conspiratorial glee at Conan when he proposes answering the riddle of steel and then exulting in his own strength as a controller of minds and bodies, before finally condemning Conan to be crucified. Jones’ voice, muffled in his famous work as Darth Vader, here gets to resound in all its plangent dimensions: who else could pronounce the words “Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe” so well? Conan’s ordeal on the tree, which sees him snapping a vulture’s neck with his teeth when it stars gnawing on him, is a desperate passage that almost costs him his life, stranded on the twisted bough on a stark and baking plain. Finally he’s saved by Milius’ love for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), that is, by Subotai appearing in the distance and nearing at a run that still feels painfully slow, and Conan starts a febrile laugh that conks out as he falls unconscious, at the very limit of his reserves.
Like all his Movie Brat alumni, Milius had a private roster of beloved movies he would repeatedly reference, wound deep into the texture of his films. This aspect of Conan the Barbarian is particularly notable as Milius tries to create a film sustaining the same self-mythologising texture as certain outsized and legendary epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). The millwheel sequence nods to Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), another film preoccupied with the nexus of physical and moral strength. Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) with its intensely rhythmic and stylised evocation of the past is also repeatedly nodded to (Prokofiev’s score for the film was actually used in Conan the Barbarian’s teaser trailer), and Milius directly recreates some shots from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) whilst taking licence from its basic plot of a sundry band of outsiders battling a malignant army with modest but lethal craft. Of course there’s also the assimilated legacy of every sword-and-sandal flick ever made, as well as many a Western, Sergio Leone in particular.
Another, less expected but insistently referenced touchstone is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). Whilst Kobayashi’s stylised and artificial approach to evoking the past was contrary to Milius’ attempts to conjure a vivid and three-dimensional world, nonetheless something of the same aesthetic runs right through Conan the Barbarian, most specifically in the way Milius shoots Conan’s encounter with the witch woman, signalling transformation in the same way as the “Yukionna” chapter with a shift to a cold blue light, and more direct reference comes later when Akiro paints Conan’s body all over with sacred symbols a la the “Hoichi the Earless” chapter. Some part of Conan the Barbarian’s more singular achievement lies is Milius’ rigour in trying to convey a sense of landscape and setting as concrete and palpable, almost a living thing in its own right, delivering in a manner fantasy cinema had long deserved but never quite received before. The film was shot in Spain by Jeremiah Johnson’s cinematographer Duke Callaghan (with some work by Gilbert Taylor, who dropped out of the production), a cliché locale to film fantasy and historical landscapes by that point, and yet Milius managed to make it feel unfamiliar, a place ripped out of some dark Jungian bole.
From the jagged, snowy mountains of the opening to the sun-baked plains and zoom shots across a wind-tossed sea into the setting sun, Milius made great use of Spanish locations, where ancient Roman and Moorish structures readily supplied Cyclopean ruins, helping deliver the ambience of a world perched between an unknowable legendary past and something more familiar, an ambience that is fascinatingly crucial in much fantasy fiction because past civilisations so often felt just as haunted by their ancestors as we do ours. Conan the Barbarian’s sense of grandeur and galvanising physicality is worked through Milius’ visual language, mostly purveyed through wide and master shots so as to better drink in the athleticism of his actors, with little of the kind of cheat editing used today to make actors look like great fighters. And to give them context in their surrounds, both the locations and the detail and solidity of Ron Cobb’s sets, with a sequence like the heroes’ crashing Thulsa’s orgy unfolding in a painterly fashion, replete with odd, did-I-really-see-that? touches. Watching the film back in the days of VHS and TV-cropped prints was always to lose something because of Milius and Callaghan’s use of deep-focus, widescreen framing.
One of the few others films I can think of to conjure such a rarefied sense of a fantasy landscape as Milius’ film is Ronald Moore’s The Silent Flute (1979), which was adapted from a project begun by Bruce Lee trying to illustrate spiritual concepts inherent in the kind of Zen philosophy attached to martial arts. Milius’ themes are of course earthier, his rugged individualist and Libertarian ideals illustrated in the only kind of setting where they’re vaguely tenable. Part of Conan’s journey is learning how necessary his allies are after his obsessiveness almost gets him killed, saved by Subotai because he and Valeria followed him, and Akiro does his best to keep his soul and body together with mystic healing, whilst warning that the powerful spirits living amidst the mounds will try to claim Conan. Valeria and Subotai literally fight off death in the form of the creepy animated spirits that flock around Conan and try to make off with his body, until his eyes flicker open in the dawn light after a long, dark night of magic and terror. Valeria’s promise to Akiro that she will pay the toll for keeping Conan alive to the spirits later prove to have very real consequences.
Milius chose his lead performers because the film needed physical types, including Davidson and Thorsen who were taller than Schwarzenegger and looked intimidating enough to be threats to him. Bergman, a dancer who had appeared in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), earned a few more fantasy roles thanks to her part here, including the villain of Red Sonja (1985) and the title character in the bizarre She (1985). Her acting limitations quickly became clear, but she’s still nonetheless one of the great elements of Conan the Barbarian, first appearing out of the shadows and squaring off against Conan and Subotai with a sinuous sense of the sword and immediately presenting a potent, female kind of toughness linked with a depth of feeling that’s still rather rare-feeling in movies. She saunters through the rest with her virile physicality, bouncing off walls during sword fights and leaping from the top of the Tower of Set with a laughing cry of joy in impudent survival, and eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother. Despite a couple of flat line readings she’s mostly excellent at inhabiting Valeria as a character, with her unconventional, lived-in beauty and expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes, her flashes of deep passion and fearfulness running under the warrior. Lopez, a professional surfer and pal of Milius, was saddled with having much of his dialogue as Subotai dubbed by another actor to stilted effect, a touch that ironically helps the film keep touch with its peplum and spaghetti western forebears, and also unnecessary as his real, not inapt voice can be heard in a crucial late scene.
As with many of Milius’ works it’s easy to fetishize the many instances of bluff machismo: lines like Conan’s statement about what is best in life to the Mongol warlords (actually a variation on a historical quote from Genghis Khan) have achieved a free-floating life in the annals of awesome cherished by fans with varying degrees of irony. But also as ever in Milius’ work there’s also a uniquely elegiac streak, flashes of intensely romantic poetic feeling throughout. Of course, the outstanding support he gets throughout comes from Poledouris’ score, which is one of the best ever composed for a film. Poledouris was another surfing buddy of Milius’ and one who had studied under Miklos Rosza. He rose to the challenge of providing Milius with a score to provide the connective tissue for his dialogue-light film. His big, Rosza-esque score is wound deeply into the film’s intensely rhythmic structure, like the two long sequences where Conan, Valeria, and Subotai infiltrate enemy lairs with sneaky art before all hell breaks loose, and the incredible twinned sequences of the raid on Conan’s village and the build to the final fight.
Conan’s recovery from his ordeal is signalled when he returns to exercising with his sword, and soon he and his friends prepare to snatch away the Princess, who has become Thulsa’s glaze-eyed and monomaniacal priestess, officiating at his ceremonies with hands wrapped in snakes a la ancient Minoan art. Sneaking into the underground lair beneath the Mountain of Power, they witness scenes of gleeful depravity and sleaze: Thulsa’s henchmen lounge in an orgy pit amidst acres of pliable, slavish flesh, whilst the acolytes are served up stew filled with body parts, whilst Thulsa, the Princess seated at his feet, transforms into a serpentine creature as if all the better to lord over the mortals and indulge his appetites. Milius and Poledouris turn this scene into an odd kind of dance number with the actors moving in choreographed fashion as Conan, Valeria, and Subotai nimbly creep round the edges of this spectacle before attacking, whilst the scoring provides a bolero-esque rhythm offsetting the sick glamour of the bad guys doing bad guy things. When the time finally comes the invaders hack up guards and grab the Princess, Thulsa in snake form slithering away before Conan can attack him. The heroes fight their way out successfully, but Thulsa, using one of the snakes he has such mystical affinity with as an arrow (!), manages to plant one in Valeria, and she dies in Conan’s arms.
As if in recognition and salute, the spirits of the mounds allow Conan to light a fire where usually none can burn for Valeria’s funeral pyre, the pyre erupting in a spectacular fireball that signifies Valeria’s annunciation even as it certainly also gives away their location to Thulsa, so Conan, Subotai, and Akiro begin preparing for the inevitable fight when Thulsa and his warriors come for them. Valeria’s death and funeral, channelling Bêlit’s in the stories, also echoes the death of Jeremiah Johnson’s wife as a moment of crucial loss that signifies Milius’ hero is condemned to forge ahead alone on the most fundamental level but still retaining her memory as a source of strength, signified most literally in the climax when Valeria appears as a glittering Valkyrie long enough to save Conan from Rexor who almost overwhelms him. Anticipation mounts as the heroes build their traps and defences around the mounds, smartly mediated with a meditative pause as Conan and Subotai muse on their exiled, rootless, violent lives and Conan recalls the fresh wind of spring in his homeland.
Poledouris’ music surges to ridiculously awesome heights in a sequence patterned after the charge of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, as Thulsa’s mounted raiders appear on the horizon and charge in for battle, their looming, steel-clad forms and thundering steeds intercut with Conan making a memorably pithy appeal to Crom to grant him revenge: “All that matters is that two stood against many…and if you do not listen, then to hell with you!” Fortunately, Crom seems to be the kind of god who helps those who help themselves. The waiting Conan and Subotai, with some clumsy but effective aid from Akiro, manage to evade and bring down most of the henchmen in a bloody tumult, Thorgrim finishing up skewered upon a mantrap and Rexor finally broken, along with Conan’s father’s sword which is still his weapon of choice, by Conan with the Atlanetean steel, after that timely interruption by Valeria’s shade.
Thulsa, standing off from the fight manages to lose not only his best men but his most loyal adherent when he tries to kill the Princess with one of his snake-arrows only for Subotai to stave off the shot. Her faith dashed, the Princess allies with Conan to lead him into the Mountain of Power and help him cut his way through what’s left of Thulsa’s guards. The ending is anticlimactic in a way in lacking any further explosion of action, but it deals a subtler kind of power in stripping Thulsa’s aura of power, rather than offering a last blast of action, whilst also sharpening to a point the story’s similarities to Apocalypse Now and setting the seal on Conan’s journey as he must destroy a wicked priest-king who’s set himself up in a zone of atavistic non-reality, and resist the temptation to supplant him. He sneaks up on the evil sorcerer just as Thulsa is ordering his adherents to go back to the world and unleashed an orgy of self-sacrificial destruction and slaughter, a touch extending the interesting likeness to known cultish dynamics.
Thulsa attempts to stall Conan’s revenge by arresting him with his mesmeric power and appealing to him as his spiritual son, only for Conan to catch himself on the brink of falling under his spell and immediately hacking Thulsa’s head off, tossing it down amongst his followers like so much garbage, finally breaking the grip of awe Thulsa had on him from childhood. Whereupon the cult disbands, tossing their candles into the mystic pool, leaving Conan and the Princess alone. The Princess bows down to him, ready to accept him as replacement god. Conan elects instead to burn down Thulsa’s temple as a final statement not simply in destroying Thulsa’s legacy but in claiming agency for humankind. The final glimpse of Conan anticipates his canonical ascension to kingship in his own right, “destined to wear the jewelled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow,” in his future, a fated end that also signals his eventual shift into the second and most burdensome part of his life journey, something like fatherhood.