Retrospect: Conan the Barbarian

For the longest time, I had this notion that the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a giant, laughable cheese-fest with bad acting, terrible hair and costumes with poor understanding of filmmaking. And while it is cheesy, laughable cheese-fest with some bad acting here and there and some even worse hair with mainly a lot of ho-hum costumes, the film actually really surprised me when I recently saw it for the first time. I figured, why not kill some time and watch it in the background. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover a well made, beautifully shot and sophisticated fantasy epic that took itself a lot more seriously for the better.

Regrettably, my first experience with the Conan series was with the 2011 remake starring Jason Momoa, who was just about the only good thing in that adaptation. Bad acting, bad costumes, an awful villain and bland story made it a sub par action film that felt more like a video game adaptation…and we all know how those movies are. But Momoa stood out as the Barbarian, bringing a fierce level of ferocity to the role. Seemingly the perfect hit to play the barbarian, I wondered in passing what the Arnold version would compare to this modern, gritty adaptation that was heavy on the action, light on the depth.

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For those who don’t know, Conan is based on the works of Robert. E. Howard, who created the character in the 1930s. Conan would be featured in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Fantasy Fan before the author’s untimely death in 1936 by suicide. In the books and the films, Conan grows up a slave before becoming a gladiator, a thief, a pirate, a warrior before ending up as king of the fictional land of Hyboria, a forgotten age of Earth after the sinking of Atlantis.  I think it’s safe to say that even those who have never seen or read Conan have at least heard of him, his staying power in pop culture is up there with other fictitious characters like Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan.

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What grabbed me right away about the ’82 version was, surprisingly, the dialogue. Or the lack there of. But what was there felt relevant to the plot and there was no throw away lines for the sake of dialogue. Most of the story was told through imagery and actions. The film opens with a quote from Nietzsche “what does not kill us…” before giving us exposition from the narrator. A truly epic score kicks in for the credits before settling down to deliver a humble opening monologue courtesy of Conan’s father, where he tells his son about the simplicity of being human in a world of gods and war. “Fire and wind struck down these giants, and they threw their bodies into the waters, but in their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. We who found it are just men. Not gods. Not giants. Just men.” he laments. “Just men” stood out as an interesting statement to me noting the multi cultural cast playing all manner of fictitious creeds with their own beliefs. Yet Conan seems to not even notice these things, he recognizes loyalty and friendship above all, something many could take to heart. Conan himself is a man of few words but of many actions and deeds, something that stands out when compared to the modern action film.

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Even the villain shows unexpected maturity and complexity. I initially James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom was going to be a one dimensional villain, hell bent on controlling the world or something like that (which the remake nailed). However, I was surprised to see that Doom had layers, and it didn’t hurt that Jones’ smooth Mufasa voice delivered dialogue about personal regret and immaturity of youth. It was a surprising and refreshing take on the usual mustache twirling villain that would’ve been an easy solution for a film like this. But nope and that extra layer is most appreciated.

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I think this is a movie that for some reason sadly faded away from the spotlight of pop culture, possibly due to an outrageously toned down sequel or a generic reboot that has muddled the Barbarian’s good name. In a post Lord of the Rings world and with seemingly everyone’s obsession over Game of Thrones, Conan the Barbarian may just be the fun unexpected film for you…if you can forgive it’s outdated shortcomings. Who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired to give the books a go. I know I have.

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