Based on the character in pulp comics and featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in an early role that put him on the map just before he hit superstardom , Conan the Barbarian is nothing if not a dazzling, testosterone filled action-adventure fantasy that has its share of problems but is still riotously entertaining and a fun ride to experience.
In Ancient times, a young boy by the name of Conan is the son of a blacksmith and a loving mother. Unfortunately, brutality strikes when the followers of the evil cult leader Thulsa Doom( James Earl Jones) attack his village. His father is wounded and then mauled to death by dogs, while Doom himself hypnotises Conan’s mother before beheading her in front of her terrified son. Doom then takes a powerful sword owned by Conan’s father before leaving the carnage in his wake. The children of the village are spared and sold into slavery, being charged with pushing a giant wheel in back breaking fashion. Over the years of pushing the wheel, Conan( now played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a muscle bound mountain of a man with incredible strength. He becomes a gladiator of immense renown and is taught many things by his master. Later he is set free into the wild, which is where he starts trying to track down Thulsa Doom, where he discovers an ancient sword, a strange prophecy and encounters three important people in his quest . Firstly he meets thief and archer Subotai(Gerry Lopez) , then he encounters beautiful and lethal bandit Valeria(Sandahl Bergman). Lastly there is Akiro the Wizard(Mako), who provides the narration for the film. Valeria and Subotai are soon faithful friends and in the case of Valeria, a romantic interest who assist Conan on his journey, while Akiro instils wisdom and prophecy. The trio of wonderers hear of a jewel that they decide to steal, mainly because the snake symbol is something that Conan believes will lead him to his nemesis. They are then summoned by the old King Osric( Max Von Sydow), who knows they stole the jewel but doesn’t wish to imprison them, he actually wants their help. His daughter has fell under the influence of Thulsa Doom and he wants Conan and his friends to retrieve her for a good reward. They decide to accept this offer as Conan continues on his path of vengeance hoping to meet Doom and enact brutality upon him as retribution for what he did to his family.
John Milius and his work here are the definition of macho and it’s perfectly suited to this kind of film. He’s the well appointed director of Conan the Barbarian and he keeps events ticking over, even when it gets a bit laboured and indulgent towards the end. got what you want from a swords and sorcery; lots of violent action( standout being the opening raid on Conan’s childhood village), unusual fantasy, well muscled heroes and buxom ladies, alongside traps, tricks and magic. And it’s unapologetic and upfront about it too which is rather refreshing in that way, especially as the violence isn’t sugarcoated . The action set pieces are staged with verve and efficiency, making them very memorable as Conan fights his way across a desolate land. Now at two hours, Conan the Barbarian does feel a bit longwinded in the grand scheme of things and that is a flaw. But for the majority, the adventure, excitement and brutality of the movie is done to a high standard. You don’t need to invest intellect into the story as it’s pretty much what you’d expect. Though that, in my book at least, is not something that should be seen as a fault. Sometimes it’s great to go into a movie that takes you to another place and doesn’t require you to think about it deeply. And I for one don’t mind when a movie does that when it does it as well as Conan the Barbarian. Sure it’s not going to stimulate your mind in a sense of depth, but who can begrudge this swords and sorcery concoction that simply wants to thrill? Saying this however, it feels more rough and gritty than some fantasy and that does make it stand out a bit from the crowd. It’s not Shakespeare by any stretch of the imagination, but nor is it trying to be. So sit back and lap it up the best way you can with enjoyment in mind and thrills by the minute . The largely practical effects are decent for their time, though looking through modern eyes they look rather dated. Still at least the film isn’t overblown when it comes to effects, instead when they are used in scenes of the spirits healing but also attempting to snatch our hero away and a fireside vision by a seductive but lethal witch, they are impactful. And the look of Conan the Barbarian is one of its strongest aspects with the vast open spaces, mountainous terrain and creepy atmosphere of the opulent Snake Cult rendered with great detail. Things feel epic here and this contributes well in keeping the whole highly charged atmosphere alive. One of the finest elements of Conan the Barbarian is the stupendous score from Basil Poledouris. With thundering drums aplenty and a sweeping scope that benefits the action, it’s one score you won’t forget in a hurry.
Arnold Schwarzenegger heads proceedings as the eponymous warrior out for revenge and makes quite an impression. Physically, he is a hulking being that is intimidating and strong from the moment we see him and the fact he doesn’t speak a lot adds to this feeling of immense presence. Schwarzenegger isn’t known for being the finest actor out there, but his work here is an example of fantastic casting as he exudes strength, intense vengeance and physicality throughout. I can’t imagine anyone else filling the role of Conan quite as effectively as Schwarzenegger. Embodying an eerily menacing villainy, James Earl Jones is the ideal counterpart to our hero. He’s got such a chilling presence( mainly through that iconic voice)throughout that comes from his seeming calmness that belies inner psychopathic tendencies. Gerry Lopez provides some comic relief and sense of friendship as the skilled thief Subotai . He works well against with Schwarzenegger; the two of them being opposites physically but in terms of mindset definitely on the ball and understanding of each other. Ferocity and athleticism is provided by Sandahl Bergman with added doses of sex appeal to boot . Though not what you’d call the most versatile or nuanced performer, Bergman nonetheless contributes a physical charm and action to that can’t be denied . Mako and his off the wall appeal that is twinned with his impressive narration adds a layer of epic awesomeness to Conan the Barbarian. The only person who feels wasted is the great Max Von Sydow as the elderly king. Someone of his calibre should at least have been given more to work with, even if his role is small. Most of the acting isn’t what you’d call award worthy, but not is it trying to be. The cast is called upon to play these characters in a certain way and they each do what the film demands handsomely.
So aside from some flaws along the way, Conan the Barbarian still stands out as a fantastic spectacle of action and fantasy that is enjoyably full of action set pieces and sweeping spectacle.