A beefy and bloody pulp fantasy, John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian is based on Robert E. Howard’s character of the same name and features Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role. Oliver Stone was tapped to come up with the screenplay in the mid-1970s, but Milius wound up rewriting it after the property was sold to Dino De Laurentiis.Howard developed Conan in the 1930s and published stories about him in Weird Tales, with Frank Frazetta’s cover art solidifying the overall look of the warrior. By the time 1970s cinema came around, macho movies were in and studios were looking for the next big thing. Schwarzenegger was in the game after Pumping Iron and the producers loved his look.
Schwarzenegger stars as Conan, a Cimmerian living in the Hyborian Age before the rise of modern civilization. When Conan was a boy, his father and mother were killed by the noxious Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). Young Conan (Jorge Sanz) was pressed into slavery. Eventually, he earns his freedom and befriends Subotai (Gerry Lopez).
The plan is revenge. Conan sets out across Zamora to find Doom. He picks up Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a brigand, and sets upon the villain’s stupid snake cult. This draws the group to the Temple of Set, where Doom is carrying out his influence on his followers and holding an orgy because that’s how the stupid snake cult gets down.
There is some debate over the portrayal of Conan in Milius’ picture, with some Howard scholars suggesting that Schwarzenegger’s rendition is too inert and contained. Regardless of any comparison to the source material, the Conan of Conan the Barbarian is still an imposing figure.
That’s not to say that Schwarzenegger imbues him with any particular emotional depth, of course. He runs the crude gamut to revenge and beds a few ladies. He gets the best friend in Subotai and sets out on a fairly classic road tale. This means he has to swing a broadsword and look good without a shirt. Mission accomplished.
Bergman, too, matches the artistic rendition of what a character of her ilk should look like. She’s ripped from a magazine cover, all sweat and sex, and she’s a delight when she’s taking apart her enemies. She’s defiantly entertaining, giving the movie a pulse when a heaving bosom is required and managing her penultimate scene with all the right wheezy spaces.
Conan the Barbarian is impressively scaled, with ornate sets giving weight to this sword-and-sandals world. The Temple of Set looks like a great place to wriggle around with its phallic pillars and emblematic plushness, while the caves and far-reaching vistas are lapped up by Duke Callaghan’s diligent lens.
Basil Poledouris keeps the virile score pumping and Milius gets a read on one bloody fight after another. The use of crane shots makes the battles count and provides a certain sense of motion, plus the sword-fighting is efficient and brutal. There are plenty of gruesome sequences, plus at one point Conan punches a camel right in the face.
Conan the Barbarian exists in the tradition of other over-the-top masculine movies like 300 and that’s okay. Milius’ film works because it’s aware enough to coast through its macho idiocy. It owns all the snakes and sorcery in a way that makes its underground mythology resonate. Its concerns with death and trust, exemplified through the “Riddle of Steel,” land with ass-clenched import.
Without a doubt, Conan the Barbarian is ripe for controversial readings. Any film that begins with a Nietzsche consideration is purposely prodding the bear and Milius knows his terrain. But the movie is more than any one ideal and more than any one philosophical corner. It’s a slab of granite, an often corny and often wonderful ode to brawn and metal in ambiguous times.