They don’t make films like they used to. Hell, they don’t make them like they did back with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the age when CGI can replicate any whim and desire of the filmmaker, it’s always a surprise to see real sets and props. Such was what ran through my mind while watching John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian. The film, starring a chiseled Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first major role as an actor, is an epic fantasy running through the same vein as other sword and sorcerer fantasies such as the equally epic Excalibur.
Imagine, you youngsters, seeing a film in which men ride horses, stuntman do death-defying stunts, and nudity abounds. Imagine a fantasy rated a hard R (something that would not be repeated with in the sequel). The greatest joy in watching this film is appreciating how a much of relic it is of its time. The production values alone merit a requisite viewing.
As the story goes, Conan, played by Schwarzenegger, is a boy from a small village of craftsman and hunters. His father is a blacksmith and can be seen forging a sword as the film opens. Life is gay for our youngster until one day a band of fearsome warriors barges into town and massacre all of the adults. Conan is helpless as he witnesses his father killed by a pack of dogs, before seeing his mother’s head lopped off in an inspired shot.
The scene is reminiscent of the beheading in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, were the action also takes place off camera. It’s a testament to the power of withholding the main action and instead focusing on the reaction of the players. Unfortunately, CGI has loosened the restraints of practical effects and often shows too much.
Conan is taken in by these warriors and is chained to the wheel of pain. It’s a stunning set.
Through a quick succession of shots, we see Conan grown from a scrawny boy into a hulk of a man and is the only one left to push the wheel. Yay for Darwinism. Soon, Conan is sold to a new master and is raised to be a warrior in his own right. We see him rise through the ranks as he battles warriors in gladiator-style matches. He starts as a man unsure of himself but soon is conquering foes with out a sweat. He becomes the toast of the town, eventually traveling to the Far East and training with Asian warriors. At a dinner with all the owners and warriors, Conan sits on the table and barks that the ultimate goal of a warrior is to kill the enemy and rape the woman. They don’t teach those objectives in school anymore.
One night, Conan’s master releases him and tells him that’s he’s free. Conan is left to fend for his own in the wild and eventually stumbles upon an ancient burial where he finds a sword. From there he meets a thief (Gerry Jones) and seductress warrior Valeria, played by the dancer Sandahl Bergman. The band of misfits come together and successfully steal jewels from a local cult, which has ties to Thulsa Doom (a perfectly cast James Earl Jones)–the man responsible for the death of Conan’s parents.
If you were guessing that Conan’s quest is a revenge tale then you’d be right. Like most sword and sorcerer fantasies, the plot is rather predictable. Of course, Conan will defeat the bad guy. Of course, he’ll lose the woman he loves. If predictability bothers you, don’t bother watching the film. For those of you who go to the movies to experience more than just narratives, you’ll be greatly rewarded.
First and foremost, the craftsmanship on display is outstanding. Whether it be the intricate set designs, solid direction, or evocative score, it all adds up to an immensely appealing work of art. I was listening to the accompanying commentary with the DVD–which features a hilarious Schwarzenegger and Milius–and one of the things mentioned was how everything seen in the film was real. The swords used for the film were real metal. Arnold had to get ten stitches his first day of shooting. All this stuff just doesn’t happen today. This film is partly the reason why.
All of this adds up to one hell of a violent film. But unlike most mindlessly violent films, the action isn’t a disservice to the story. Rather, the violence intensifies Conan’s quest, reflecting his own inner turmoil. The film, while taking place at an undisclosed time, feels so medieval and barbaric. You’ll wince as a sword slashes an actor’s torso, sending a gallon of blood spraying. And then you’ll stare in disbelief when you find out the sword was real.
Such is the joy of Conan. It’s a film of the 80s when films weren’t afraid to wear violence and sex on their sleeves. For example, there’s a great set piece in the film where an orgy takes place. We see naked bodies writhing with each other, as an enchanting score accompanies the festivities.
The score perfectly captures the carefree playfulness of the ceremony. I especially like the hand cymbals clapping in the background as well as the multi-line melodies. It’s a perfect match for the fantasy epic. This all is just a small sample of what the film gets right. So many small details are to be found throughout.
Ultimately, if you like your action films visceral, Conan won’t disappoint. But don’t let the film’s violence hid the tender moments of the film. Bergman, who is absolutely gorgeous with her angular face and athletic body, is the beating heart of the film, risking her own life for the man she loves. It truly is a great performance. And I haven’t even said anything about how great Arnold is. Just watch how he handles the sword.
So there it is. If you like you true sword and sorcerer fantasies, if you like your films to have T and A and bulging pecs, if you like to a see a man’s head chopped off sending blood spraying in the wind, well, my friend, this is the film for you.