While not the first sword and sorcery film, this is the first based upon the character for whom the term was coined (by fantasy master Fritz Leiber). The movie that inspired several other films and television series, it is here that the sword and sorcery genre hit its peak, never to be surpassed. What followed this film was twenty years of copycats and pretenders to the throne.
Telling the story of Conan in a single film was a monumental undertaking. Beginning with Conan as a child and subsequently showing him as a slave, a gladiator, and (finally) a free adventurer the movie cherry picks moments from a number of the writings of Robert E Howard so as to maintain its appropriate, authentic, feel. This tale, while not a perfect fit for the true Conan of Robert E Howard, blends Howard's works into its script so well so as to feel a worthy torchbearer of the name, Conan.
The story opens up with the forging of a sword, and of Conan's father telling him of the riddle of steel. Raiders come and slay everyone in Conan's village, taking him away as spoils of war. He slaves away on a capstan in the middle of nowhere (for no real discernible purpose) as time passes and he matures from child to muscle-bound adult.
Taken from his slavery, Conan is then trained as a gladiator. We are treated to a montage of his gladiatorial combats, seeing him progress in prowess and fame. His masters allow him to learn to read and expose him to philosophy and a number of trains of thought that don't really play any part in the film. This section seems to attempt to serve up that Conan in the film, as described in the original stories, is an intelligent and exceptional man as opposed to an unthinking brute. This section is brief, however, and certainly did not deflect criticisms of the movie Conan being just that. One review went so far as to declare him "a dull clod with a sharp sword, a human collage of pectorals and latissimi who's got less style and wit than Lassie."
Finally released and cast out, Conan is next seen on the run from a pack of wild dogs (one of which actually attacked the actor). Fleeing from them he finds his way into a long forgotten tomb and emerges with the blade he uses for the majority of the film, the so-called Atlantean sword. Now armed and ready to seek out his fortune (as well as get off-screen payback on a certain pack of wild dogs), Conan continues his journey until he finds himself called into the hut of a comely woman.
Of course, the woman is really a witch. Conan doesn't know this (or simply doesn't care) and begins questioning her as to the identity of the men who attacked his childhood village...while bedding her. He's Conan, he can multitask and, oddly, the scene works. She tells him to seek out the realm of Zamora and to seek out Thulsa Doom. Eventually the witch reveals her true nature and attempts to destroy Conan but he pitches her into the fire and she flees as a spectral ball of light. Conan truly isn't doing well on his own.
Fortunately he comes across Subotai, a convicted thief left chained as food for the wolves. The two banter back and forth before Conan frees Subotai and the two become fast friends and traveling companions. Following the words of the witch, the two travel to Shadizar, in the land of Zamora. In seeking information on the serpents, they are directed to the "Tower of the Serpents", home to the Temple of Set. While breaking into the tower, the two encounter Valeria. Herself an able thief and swordswoman, the three join forces in their robbery of the temple. They succeed in interupting a human sacrifice and in killing the temples guardian (a monstrous-sized snake, before escaping with their loot.
Their success leads to excesses in drinking an revelry. It also leads to them coming to the attention of King Osric. Confronted by the king, he offers them a fortune in gems and other wealth if they will rescue his daughter from the Temple of Set, and the villainous Thulsa Doom. Conan accepts, to the dismay of Valeria and Subotai (who wish nothing to do with Thulsa Doom, instead wanting to live a life of leisure with what they have). Undaunted, Conan proceeds alone.
Posing as a priest, Conan infiltrates the ranks of Thulsa Doom's followers but is quickly discovered. Beaten, tortured, and then crucified on the "Tree of Woe", Conan is left to die. His body is found by Subotai and Subotai and Valeria take him to Akiro the Wizard and demand healing. Despite being warned that the gods will collect a heavy price for such a deed, Valeria pushes Akira to restore Conan. Akiro paints Conan's body with mystic sigils and scripts, to aid in the warding off of demon, and performs the ritual.
With Conan restored, the three companions set off to rescue the princess and wreck bloody vengeance against Thulsa Doom. After sneaking through the caves under the mountain and into Doom's temple fortress, the trio come upon a horrifying orgy of flesh (both sensual and cannibalistic). In what is probably the greatest battle scene in the movie, the three bring ruination down on the forces of Doom, and escape with the princess. As they ride into the distance, Thulsa Doom enchants a venomous snake into an arrow and fires, striking Valeria and sealing her fate. The gods indeed demanded a hefty price for Conan's resurrection, a life for a life.
Knowing that they cannot outrun their pursuers, Conan, Subotai, and Akiro begin preparations to fortify Akiro's home amongst the mounds. Carefully laying a number of traps using the weapons of long dead warriors, the three make ready. When the forces come, Conan and Subotai battle them off using a combination of skill and cunning, while Akiro pitches in where he can. In the end, Thulsa Doom retreats and, while doing so, attempts to slay the princess with another of his serpentine arrows. Subotai blocks the arrow with his shield and Thulsa Doom's hold over the princess is broken. His forces scattered and dead, the evil priest retreats to his stronghold.
Finally, Conan confronts Thulsa Doom atop the temple, in full view of the followers of the Temple of Set. Using the broken blade of his father's sword, Conan behead Thusa Doom and sends his head bouncing down the steps of the temple's pyramid and into Doom's followers. In a final act of revenge for the murder of his family, his torture, and the death of his love Valeria Conan sets the temple ablaze.
Thus ends the story. We then see an aged Conan, sitting on a throne as Akiro (his chronicler) tells us that Conan eventually would become a king by his own hand...but that story too will be told. In an interesting twist, that story was sent to screen but, because Schwarzenegger turned it down, it became the movie Kull the Conqueror instead.
The casting of the then virtually unknown Arnold Schwarzenneger brought a solid look to the titular character. Mr. Olympia from 1970-1975, Schwarenegger was the pinnacle of global bodybuilding. Training for the role meant losing a little bulk and developing a more athletic build. Cited in Cinefantastique as the "living incarnation of one of Frazetta's paperback illustrations", Schwarzenneger certainly had the look. Dropping 30 pounds during his training for the film, Schwarzenegger took the time to enter and win the title of Mr. Olympia one last time in 1980.
Of course, among Schwarzenegger's previous roles were a deaf/mute and a vocally re-dubbed Hercules (Hercules in New York - 1969). His thick Austrian accent presented a bit of a problem for producers. Schwarzenegger underwent weeks of speech therapy and rehearsed each of his long speeches a minimum of forty times. Oddly enough, it was no Schwarzenegger but his American co-star, Gerry Lopez, was re-dubbed by actor Sab Shimono for not having retained a "certain quality".
Still, it was Schwarzenegger's accent that caused consternation. We do not even hear his voice for the first ten minutes of the movie (whereupon he grunts) and his first line, the famous quote often attributed to Gengis Khan, is nearly fourteen minutes into the movie. His second line isn't for another ten minutes. It is that very sparsity of Conan's initial dialogue that sets the tone for the movie. With little to no real dialogue for the first twenty minutes of the film, the viewer instead focuses on the breathtaking vistas and set pieces, giving the movie the feel of an old school epic.
Sandahl Bergman was still more a dancer than an actress. Still, with the recommendation of dance legend Bob Fosse Sandahl was cast. He background as a dancer shows through, her movements as the warrior Valeria are fluid and believable. Her dialog comes off as a bit wooden, but there does seem to be some level of real chemistry between her and Schwarzenegger. In an attempt to capitalize on her role as the Valeria, Sandahl went on to play another warrior woman as the lead in She.
Svel-Ole Thorsen, who appeared as the giant-hammer weilding Thorgrim, also appeared in a number of other films with Schwarzenegger including: Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Raw Deal, Predator, The Running Man, Twins, Terminator 2, The Last Action Hero, and eraser (additionally he appeared in Kull the Conqueror - originally written as a Schwarzenegger film).
The music of the film, written by Basil Poledouris (winner of one Emmy and five BMI awards for his soundtracks), was created as the script was being developed. This allowed for Poledouris' musical tones to blend seamlessly with the scenes. In this way the music almost becomes the star of the movie. There are times when the action on screen enhances the soundtrack, and not the other way around. The entire soundtrack was boiled down to a single-channel, mono, track. This was the last major film to be released without a stereo soundtrack and was done because producers balked at the #30k price tag of including a stereo soundtrack (despite the movie's estimated $20M budget). Poledouris would go on to also score the sequel, Conan the Destroyer.
Part of what makes the movie so successful is that it was approached as a serious film, as opposed to some light piece of fluff churned out to exploit the Sword & Sorcery craze. Instead, this film was the product of years of litigation and had a number of big names attached to it all through development (including a 4+ hour script treatment by a reputedly cocaine-fueled Oliver Stone).
While scriptwriting began in 1976, the final litigation and licensing wasn't even cleared until 1977, which is most likely a fortunate thing for the film. 1977 was the year that Star Wars hit the screen, and it too movie-goers by storm. Its runaway success convinced studios that they needed to loosen the purse strings and invest more heavily in fantastic action films. While Star Wars has gone on to bring in close to a billion dollars in revenue over 37 years and numerous re-releases, it brought in $122,576,055 during its original ninety one days of release (prior to its subsequent second round of showings beginning in September of 1977). By comparison, Conan the Barbarian was nearly as successful, bringing in close to $100,000,000 in global ticket sales.
This success fueled a huge wave of sword and sorcery films (more than 6 others released in 1982 alone) and set the bar high for everything to come. No film since has lived up to Conan the Barbarian, and it is unlikely (with the current Hollywood climate) that any ever will. The highest rated and best received of all Conan feature films (77% on Rotten Tomatoes vs 27% for Conan the Destroyer and 24% for the 2011 Conan the Barbarian), it stands at a testament of what can be accomplished with a cast of relative unknowns and a true love for the subject matter.
Seriously, if you have never seen this movie, you need to. This is the pinnacle, the unfair standard by which all other sword and sorcery films are judged. This is the five-star movie.
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