The Test of Time: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they continue to be must see? So…the point of this here column is how a film stands against the Test of Time, if the thing holds up for a modern horror audience.

Director: John Milius
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, and James Earl Jones

The great thing about GAME OF THRONES comes from it being epic, and I mean giant-sized epic like a 64-ounce gas station drink or the new MAD MAX movie (I’m excited). Epic. Bigger than life. GAME OF THRONES, of course, has the advantage of 10-hour long seasons, where viewers get so much freakin’ information, characters, and settings that HBO has to create pie charts and graphs for easy viewing. Movies don’t have that advantage. At best, an epic has a three-plus hour run time, usually with some very fancy, very expensive effects. But not always. Sometimes a movie plays larger than it actually is.

Case in point the film that first truly introduced a guy named Schwarzenegger to the masses. No doubt it remains a classic, but does it still hold up today?

Under the examination: CONAN THE BARBARIAN.

Predator ain't got shit on this camo.

THE STORY: A very bad man named Thulsa Doom leads his Spinal Tap-looking barbaric friends into a village where they kill and burn everything save for a hot mom and a young boy. Well, just the boy after a quiet standoff and a beheading. That boy turns a giant wheel until he becomes Arnold overnight, where he is then turned into a gladiator, where he is then given books and women until set free. This gives him time to hunt down his mother’s killer (he only remembers a snake emblem). Lucky for him, he meets an honest thief for his BFF, a hot blonde for his woman, and a wizard who looks a lot like the actor Mako. Now free, he roams the countryside on various adventures all while searching for that Doom guy. Will he encounter Doom and become the legend that we expect from a barbarian named Conan? Or does the movie stop after the second act? (It doesn’t). 

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Recently I caught CONAN THE BARBARIAN on the big screen, something I never had the pleasure of doing. It came out before my time, but I’ve always loved Arnold. I know he looks old and no longer is the same action star, but who is when they're in their 60s? Back in the day, I remember watching CONAN on cable with horrendous quality (damn you, Pan and Scan!). Then, when DVDs were the shit, I thought I had finally seen it as intended – crisp and clear.

The headband completes the look. 

Anyway, to see CONAN THE BARBARIAN on the big screen with an audience is a different situation, producing different results than at home.  For one, it makes it easy to figure out how CONAN made Arnold a star. The guy just oozes personality and energy that few other actors have ever had, which is even more impressive considering he only mumbles a few lines throughout the picture. Arnold has big muscles, sure, everyone knows that, and he looks like a real man when he swings a sword and bashes brains in, but here he demonstrates much more. He shows pain, anger, and passion all with minimal acting ability and raw personality. Take those scenes when a solo Conan infiltrates Doom’s camp, especially the part when he finds a priest interested in some Arnold meat. It’s funny stuff. Dated, but still funny. 

A lot of credit goes to former Hollywood macho director/writer John Milius (check out that great documentary about him), who created a picture that looks and feels epic with a $20 million budget, an unknown lead, and not a cast of thousands. Ok, so they hired lots of extras for those scenes near Doom’s very long steps, but the film lacks that epic trope of massive armies or massive kingdoms. We have a lot of suggestion and illusion, and it works nicely. Thankfully, Milius rewrote Oliver Stone’s script (which put Conan in a post-apocalyptic future and all kinds of strange things) and delivers solid action. 

Doom is the best (no relation).

Even better, Milius hired to legit actors to balance out an unknown Arnold, a surfer (Gerry Lopez), and a dancer (Sandahl Bergman). Max von Sydow has a glorified cameo, but there couldn’t have been a better bad guy than James Earl Jones. Yes, he has bangs to die for, but even more so the man just delivers. He could have approached it as a payday (it had to have looked a bit goofy on paper), but he brings a Shakespearian style to his character, playing it as big as Doom should be…without going Al Pacino ala Devil. If not for his performance, CONAN would only be remembered for Arnold. But Jones gives his character another layer even though he barely speaks until he reveals to Conan his master plan in the third act like a Bond villain. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Another thing about the theater experience is that you’re stuck with nothing else to focus on minus that massive, glowing big screen (unless you’re an asshole). If I get bored watching something at home, that phone will slowly creep out or I’ll ponder how dirt actually gets under my fingernails. However, as stated before, watching CONAN THE BARBARIAN on the big screen brings different results than at home. So while CONAN is large and epic, it can be a bit of a bore. Overall, not much happens other than Arnold posing and running around a lot. Seriously, how many scenes are needed of Mr. Big Muscles swinging that sword around? It tends to get silly the fifth time around; practice on your own time. CONAN could have used about a 10 minute trim and 15 more minutes of action.

No, no one can see you.

Even worse, so much of it makes no sense. Example 1: What the hell are all those kids doing on that giant wheel? They keep turning it and turning it until they drop dead? When do they poop or eat? If it was about crushing stones or pumping water, show it. Example 2: Conan’s relationship with his woman is stupid (it is all too quick). Example 3: They are terrible thieves. I never bought that angle. Example 4: After at most 20 years, Doom goes from Viking-type thug to a God-like King shrouded in mystery as if people had only whispered his name. When Conan and Subotai go into a village looking for “snakes,” they have no luck until they find the giant tower/castle in the village where they throw virgins down into a pit where a giant snake eats them. Really…no one in town had heard of that? Not a single person has heard rumors of a 100 foot snake that eats the hot babes in town?

THE VERDICT: CONAN THE BARBARIAN is far from a perfect film, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is the perfect Conan. And he punches a camel. What’s not to dig? 





Arnold wants that jacket.



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