On John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian (1982)

On June 21, 2016, The Royal Cinema will be screening Conan The Barbarian, my most favourite film of all time, on the big screen at 8pm (with an awesome pre-show beforehand). Come join me as I cry and see it for the first time the way it was meant to be seen. This write up is a quick run down on the film and my thoughts on it.

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by Jacqueline Valencia

“As the third tribesmen clumped his way past Conan to his death, the Cimmerian, his veins bulging in his temples with his efforts to break past the unseen barrier that held him., was suddenly aware of allied forces, unseen barrier that held him, but waking into life about him. This realization came without warning, but so powerfully that he could not doubt his instinct. His left hand slid involuntarily under his Bakhariot belt and closed on the Stygian girdle. And as he gripped it he felt new strength flood his numbed limbs; the will to live was a pulsing white-hot fire, matched by the intensity of his burning rage.” – Robert E. Howard, Conan The Barbarian, pg. 210, (Orion Books, 2011 edition)

“Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!” – John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian

Unlike many of the films that have stuck with me, I don’t remember when I first saw Conan the Barbarian. It must have been on an afternoon when it was already formatted for television. I just know that whenever it came up on a weekend afternoon, I’d abandon everything I was doing to watch it. It would be many years later as a teenager and then as a lover of film that I came to understand why this film made such an impact on me. So when I start with words like high adventure, I mean, high adventure here is because Conan is an incredibly fun film to watch because of its characters and the cheesy, yet iconic scenes that inhabit it.

Directed by John Milius, a self-described “Zen fascist,” co-written by Oliver Stone, and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, a muscle-bound macho man in his breakout role, this film put sword-and-sorcery/adventure films on the map. It is informed by self-determining values drawn from the resilience of comic-book hero mythologies. And despite its hyper-masculinity, it withstands scrutiny under my usual critical feminist lens because it is a finely crafted film that went on to spawn many imitators, such as Red Sonja, Yor, Labyrinth, and later films like The Scorpion King, after its 1982 premiere. Ok, these aren’t exemplary films by cinema auteur standards, but they are films that remain memorable, not just for genre fans, but for lovers of fantasy and adventure put on film.

Milius apparently knew nothing about the Robert E. Howard novels nor of Conan as a character, but he had always wanted to do a Viking film. It just so happened that Milius was under contract with Dino De Laurentiis and since De Laurentiis loved fantasy everything fell into place. Schwarzenegger came along after producers saw him do the press junkets for Pumping Iron (ie. he was being his cocky/narcissistic comedic self. He maybe the biggest asshole machista out there or he’s been constantly trolling us since time immemorial).

 

Through heroic imagery Conan transcends ideas of what a hero should be. This anti-hero and his loyal band of friends became influential archetypes for me. The women around Conan are warriors possessed by an agency ahead of their time and their strength empowered my earlier warrior visions of feminism.

Valeria (dancer, singer, actress Sandahl Bergman) is a Valkyrie and the loyal love of Conan’s life. She in particular embodied the self made woman I’ve always wanted to be. Valeria is both the driving force for the hero and a warrior in her own right. Her famous words, “Do you want to live forever?” dares our hero into a life of choice, risk, and growth.

The exotic forest witch (Cassandra Gava) snatches men in exchange for the souls, power, and/or meat for her dogs. She lives on her own under her rules, but in her conquering of men, she inspires them to seek out the magic within, but in turn, laughs at their faulty ambitions. The young princess (Valérie Quennessen) who Conan is ordered to save, learns quietly from her ordeal that instead of being the passive queen of  a ruler, she must become master of her own heart. She is the silent fighter. The girl who doesn’t kick ass, but can eventually with the fire within.

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The male companions are just as great. Subotai (surfing champion Gerry Lopez), thief and archer, not only meets our hero in dire straights, but shares in a sort of cultural exchange as they talk of their gods to see which is mightier. In turn, their bond sees them saving each other through thick and thin. Overseeing and narrating the film is the wise old  Wizard (Mako). The eccentric wizard pulls magic from the skies to bring Conan a new strength after he is tortured by the enemy, but emboldened by comedic love for the spirits and his sage words about the realities of life. These resilient oddball characters with their life lessons show an interesting take on the power of individual actions coming together as a whole.

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And what an enemy Conan has Thulsa Doom. Played by James Earl Jones there are several scenes where the character inhabits the space like a force against nature. He’s into raping and pillaging at the beginning of the film. He makes his enterprise, killing all that stand in his way. Then he evolves into the leader of an intimidating snake cult that believes that “Steel isn’t strong, boy. Flesh is stronger. Look around you.” Jones’ big green eyes look forlornly at the camera, enticing the viewer into his gaze, almost for a full embrace, only the audience is met with the brutal and bloody bite of his sword or orders his bodyguards to do the work for him. One of those bodyguards is Thorgrim (Sven-Ole Thorsen, trusted film muscle for hire and one of Schwarzenegger’s oldest friends) loyal to his cult, but bloodthirsty at the loss of his beloved snake.

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Oh there are so many people in this movie I want to mention, most especially Max Von Sydow who plays King Osiric. But let’s keep it real. Conan is all about the Nietzschean Superman born out of revenge to become a self-made king and this scene:

(no camels where hurt during the making of this film however, in the sequel, Conan The Destroyer, the camel spits back at him with similar conclusions though.)

Last, but not least, there is Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) himself. I will never see an Arnold Schwarzenegger film without Conan in mind. As in his bodybuilding (and later on in his political career), Schwarzenegger puts in his all into his acting work. He might not be an Oscar winning contender, but he knows what he’s working with and how that can work for him.

“(Milius) started sending me experts to trains me: masters in martial arts, armorers, stunt people who were horse-riding specialists. For three months I was tutored in broadsword combat two hours a day….”

“…Right away Milius had me start watching movies he thought were important for my preparation. He’d put on the 1954 Japanese classic Seven Samurai and say, “You’ve got to see Toshiro Mifune. Notice the way he wipes his mouth, the way he talks, the way he grabs women? Everything has style, everything’s a little bit larger than life and done with mischief. That’s the way Conan is.” – Schwarzenegger (on the making of Conan the Barbarian), Total Recall, pg. 235  (Simon Schuster, 2012)

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Conan was a defining role for Schwarzenegger, catapulting him as a powerhouse action star. Without him we wouldn’t have Commando, Predator, or The Terminator. John Milius would never recapture the glory of his work with Conan the Barbarian again (the exception for some being Red Dawn); however, he continues on as a master for his work on the film. Conan the Barbarian influenced the running montages in Lord of the Rings and the scene in which minions of the old ruler bow down to their new leader in The Chronicles of Riddick—a nod to Thulsa Doom’s downfall. It has also been parodied in UHF’s “Conan the Librarian,” and satirized by Saturday Night Live and Robot Chicken (“Why say what is best in life, when you can express it in song?”).

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As a new generation watches Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian (2011) starring Jason Mamoa (a film very much based on the original Howard pulp novels), audiences still hunger for the original film. In October 2013, Deadline.com confirmed that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be reprising his role in The Legend of Conan. While no production date has been set, writers Will Beal (Gangster Squad) and Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) were last reportedly attached to the project. Director Paul Verhoeven, a long-time Conan fan (he references the film in many of his pictures, including Robocop and Starship Troopers), has expressed interest in directing the project.

Fans of the Conan the Barbarian franchise come from all over including (and are not limited to), role-playing gamers (Magic and Dungeons & Dragons), fantasy epics lovers (Game of Thrones and Vikings), and cult film fanatics in general.

There’s something intangible about the films that stick with viewers. Readers of this blog know that a lot of my tastes go all over the map. However, I come back to Conan because it reminds of a time when we used to have fun with film. Special effects and movie narratives have taken on the form of well-crafted novels today. However, there’s a certain charm that very few films today capture as well as Conan The Barbarian has for me. The one liners are incredibly versatile and quotable. The sweeping Basil Poledouris soundtrack is one of the greatest soundtracks made for film. Culled from both Poledouris’ and Milius’ influences, it still lingered with the composer and you can hear bits of it still in his work with the soundtrack for The Hunt For Red October.

A combination of fantasty, humour, cheese, and gorgeous locales (Spain)the film stayed true to the time it was made (the 80s) while still being a universal tale of a man finding identity in creating peace in the midst of vengeful rage. Film is a poetics best understood as an art form that entertains. To many people, especially myself, Conan the Barbarian is great poetry put to film.

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jackie1

Everything you never knew about Conan The Barbarian: http://io9.gizmodo.com/everything-you-never-knew-about-the-making-of-conan-the-1686337892

15 Things You May Not Know About Conan The Barbarian:  http://mentalfloss.com/article/58041/15-things-you-may-not-have-known-about-conan-barbarian

Just a few of some of my favourite parts of the film:

  1. When Conan is training and his master fixes his stance then kicks a guy in the nuts.
  2. When the line of worshippers throws the torches in the water, one of the guys lags behind and has to catch up at the end. It’s hilarious.
  3. When Conan punches the camel because he’s so high.
  4. When Valeria jumps into the unknown and yells “Do you want to live forever?”
  5. When Thorgrim makes a sad face because his snake is dead.
  6. “This better not be HAGA!”
  7. When a cult guy finds Conan and glides towards him to seduce him. I don’t know why he is gliding.
  8. The orgy scene where nobody is really doing anything, but just lying there. BEST.

And yes, I have seen the blu-ray with the drunken Schwarzenegger and Milius commentary. You should one day as well!

Edited to add: other films to see from the canon before Conan: Dragonslayer and Excalibur. But those are fantasy based. Conan is more akin to the Viking warrior mythos.

 

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