In the early ‘80s, fantasy and sword-and-sorcery genre was the rage. If you were looking for tough guys in loin cloths fighting with really big swords and scantily clad women as the female leads, then this was the “age” for you. Sadly, a lot of that genre was filled with ugly, pathetic attempts to make epic films without an inspired vision. What I mean is, those films were nicknamed “hack-and-slash” because that was the only real substance to them. They featured brutal violence and cheesy costumes, not to mention some horrific acting. In almost all cases, these films were never treated as serious and they almost always were filmed overseas and often in Italy. I admit, I have seen (I think) every single one of these films.
In 1982, there was the film that kicked it all off: “Conan the Barbarian”. It would be the film to launch Arnold Schwarzenegger into stardom (although not his 1st film). Produced by Dino DeLaurentis and directed by John Milius, the film chronicles the tale of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Arnold is MASSIVE in this film, maybe not as huge as he was in “Pumping Iron” but gargantuan by any measure still. However, I dare say that this film was not designed around the concept of Arnold showing off his huge muscles while wearing furry boots and a loin cloth. Yes, this film had substance.
“Conan the Barbarian” may not be the best acted movie that Arnold ever did (I would recommend “Terminator” and “End of Days” for that), but it had a story. The story follows Conan from his tragic past through slavery and his profession as a Gladiator to finally his quest for vengeance. Along the way, he makes friends, gets crucified, finds religion, and falls in love. Now, does that sound pretty epic to you? The best part about this film is that it has a great tale woven into the action sequences. You almost have to be in a very peaceful state of mind to sit back and really “get” the deeper moments of this film, but they are there I assure you. I will always remember Conan’s famous “prayer” that begins with the line “Crom, I have never prayed to you before; I have no tongue for it.”
Beyond the story, there was the supporting cast. James Earl Jones is one of the greatest and most-overlooked villains in cinema history as Thulsa Doom. His performance is hypnotic and his costumes were inspired to say the least! His lines are just plain classic! “Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark; Now they learn why they fear the night.” I guess I am just a sucker for villains that know how to speak and are utterly creepy. The legendary Mako stars as a wizard and narrator of the film. King Osric is played by none other than Max Von Sydow. Needless to say, the supporting cast helped this movie succeed where others of its kind would fail utterly in the coming years.
A key to all great fantasy genre films though is always the music. (Special Effects are great but they show their age as time goes by and that can detract from the overall quality of the film.) The late and truly great Basil Poledouris scored this film and it is MAGNIFICENT! I just got this on CD from my awesome wife for Christmas and I think I have listened to it at least 30 times since then!
“Conan the Barbarian” paved the way for such drivel as the forgettable “Deathstalker” series and “The Barbarians”. However, it also opened the door for things like the wondrous “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “Harry Potter” franchise. You cannot imagine the absolute crap that was labeled “fantasy” in movies that came out in the ‘80s, which those of us who are fantasy fans will remember all too well. I think I cried when “Fellowship of the Ring” finally came out. It was a LONG wait I had to endure before the fantasy genre was finally taken seriously.
“Conan the Barbarian” gave me my 1st taste of the genre and I loved it. I still do after all these years, and I find that there is still depth within this “hack-and-slash” flick! It isn’t for the faint-hearted with gratuitous violence and gore, and I don’t think anyone under the age of 14 should watch it due to nudity and some thematic elements. Otherwise, if you are a fan of fantasy and haven’t seen this movie, I recommend that you give it a shot.
…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE
- Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Conan the Barbarian’: Was his first big movie also his best? PopWatch Rewind consults Crom for his opinion. (popwatch.ew.com)