After some not unpleasant opening narration from a man who dubs himself, The Chronicler (Mako: THE KILLER ELITE, TESTAMENT, CONAN THE DESTROYER, PACIFIC HEIGHTS, ROBOCOP 3, RISING SUN, RISE: BLOOD HUNTER), we see a sword being created during the opening credits. I can't think of a slower yet more fascinating way to introduce all of the sturm und drang that is to come. The visuals of fire and steel promises us of all we are about to see.
The period is sometime before Rome in the Barbarian lands of old Europe: Before the time of Empires.
The man who makes the sword is young Conan's father (William Smith: THE THING WITH TWO HEADS, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS, TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN, MANIAC COP), who tells him the Secret of steel. But young Conan must discover the Riddle of steel for himself. The child who plays young Conan (Jorge Sanz) was a good choice as he physically looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger may have looked as a child.
Soon young Conan, maybe seven or eight, sees his village attacked by a marauding horde. The spoilers ride beneath the standard of the heads of two snakes facing each other, yet sharing the same body. The horde is led by Thulsa Doom (James Earle Jones: EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, BLOOD TIDE, TERRORGRAM, THE AMBULANCE, GRIM PRAIRIE TALES). By the end of the attack, Conan is an orphan and taken with the rest of the children as a slave.
The entire battle sequence is without dialogue and remarkable in its execution.
Narration by The Chronicler is sparse, to the point, and actually welcome. Instead of serving as needless exposition, it serves as it should: a bridge.
The slave child Conan is put to work upon a wheel, to do nothing more than turn it around and around, every single day, through the seasons and through the years. Eventually the Conan child grows into Conan the man and here is where Arnold Schwarzenegger (THE TERMINATOR [all], TOTAL RECALL, PREDATOR, END OF DAYS, THE 6TH DAY) comes in.
A red haired Slaver (Luis Barboo: RETURN OF THE BLIND DEAD, WHEN THE SCREAMING STOPS) comes to the wheel and buys Conan, training him to be a champion pit fighter. Here we see Conan develop from a muscle bound innocent to a brutal warrior who thinks nothing of death and dying except to be its cause rather than its victim. He learns hand combat and sword fighting.
After a time, the slaver, battling his personal demons in a drunken pique, frees Conan.
With nothing left in his life, Conan fills it by searching for the man who destroyed his tribe and made him a slave: Thulsa Doom. Revenge now drives Conan and he learns from a witch (Cassandra Gaviola: THE AMITYVILLE CURSE, MYSTERIA), builds a strong friendship among thieves like Subotai (Gerry Lopez), and finds something in a fellow warrior thief, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman: PROGRAMMED TO KILL, HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN, ICE CREAM MAN) he never dreamed: love.
During a successful theft on a temple, Conan discovers to his surprise that the once warrior, Thulsa Doom, has become the "God" Thulsa Doom: it's one of his temples. Thulsa is now worshiped as a Wizard who can call forth demons, and his cannibal religion spreads across many lands and many kingdoms.
Celebrating with food and drink, the drunken friends are arrested and brought before King Osiric (Max Von Sydow: THE VIRGIN SPRING, THE EXORCIST, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, FLASH GORDON, GHOSTBUSTERS II, MINORITY REPORT, SHUTTER ISLAND), who delights in knowing of their attack on one of the temples of Thulsa Doom.
King Osiric pays the thieves to steal back his daughter, who has fallen under the spell of Doom. He pays them in all of the jewels they could need to do the job and more. Because Valeria is a thief, she later tries to convince Conan that they have all they need to start a life of their own and leave thieving behind. But despite Conan's newly discovered love for Valeria, the decade of torture, anger, and revenge for his parents and tribe are his very being. It will take time for Valeria to realize that what she loves about Conan is the very thing that relentlessly drives him on his quest to destroy Thulsa Doom.
Most of the movie is visual with few words. But under the beautiful cinematography of Duke Callaghan the visuals aren't mere empty eye candy, but a powerful, convincing foundation of the period and place: the world of Conan's time. Though he made his name in television, Duke used a nature documentarian's eye that reveals and embraces the harsh beauty of our planet.
Inspired by a script from Oliver Stone (THE HAND), Director John Milus re-wrote the whole thing and amazingly captured the very spirit of Robert E. Howard's character and story even though he knew very little of it and had never read the books. Milius admitted that he gathered inspiration not just from Conan and Stone's script, but from other sources like Howard's Kull. What's more, Milius knew how to direct Arnold through the body language that gives Conan an inner life, purpose, and morality.
Conan is a true barbarian, with a morality that is anathema to civilization even as he fights for it and saves it (though that is not his intent. The civilization he fights for - his village - is already dead and forgotten by the world). Even Conan doesn't know if he is the bad guy or good guy in his quest to avenge his people.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN, with thrilling music by Basil Poledouris (TINTORERRA: KILLER SHARK, CONAN THE DESTROYER, ROBOCOP, ROBOCOP 3, STARSHIP TROOPERS, CECIL B. DEMENTED) and outstanding primitive Production Design by Ron Cobb (ALIEN, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, ALIENS, THE ABYSS, TOTAL RECALL, LEVIATHAN, THE 6TH DAY, FIREFLY [TV]) and Production Art by William Stout (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, CONAN THE DESTROYER, HOUSE, THE HITCHER, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, INVADERS FROM MARS , PAN'S LABYRINTH, THE MIST) was the best Sword and Sorcery Thriller ever made until the release, 20 years later, of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. And as much as I love Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS, John Milius was able to fully accomplish in one movie what it took Peter Jackson to accomplish in three.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sandahl Bergman shine in their roles and neither would again display the emotionally powerful acting they did under the sure and talented guidance of Milius.
Thrilling, exciting, scary, and sexy, to this day CONAN THE BARBARIAN stands as a magnificent classic and the apex of John Milius' career.
5 Shriek Girls.
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