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1982, Best Summer Ever: “Conan the Barbarian”

August 6, 2012

Here’s my idea for a scathing satire that will take on Hollywood and American culture. Ready? Okay, so you have a crappy, pulp-fiction property receive a big-budget (in 1982 bucks) treatment. Rather than star a big-name actor, though, the lead is played by an amateur–a nigh-unintelligible foreign bodybuilder of ludicrous proportions. And the director is a right-wing gun-nut who sneaks his anti-Hollywood, anti-leftie messages into the film.  And despite critical revulsion, the damn thing becomes a respectable hit, remembered and liked thirty years later, when the musclebound leading man has married into the most powerful families in the US and served as governor of California. Wouldn’t that be an hilarious idea for a novel? Yeah, except it all really happened, and the movie was Conan the Barbarian.

How do you explain this movie, except that everyone was totally railed on blow during the early ‘80s? I mean, read my description above. Would you throw money at that? And yet, throw money they did. What’s really remarkable, though, is what a really good movie Hollywood horked up after alchemizing all those ingredients.

“This afternoon the governor said he would veto any budget that did not offset alternative-energy costs. And then he infiltrated Thulsa Doom’s stronghold and decapitated him. Sports and weather coming up on the hour…”

Okay, so before we get to Arnie, we have to talk about writer/director John Milius, because this is his movie as much as it is Schwarzenegger’s. Milius is a respected screenwriter, who has written or punched-up many a screenplay. He’s also slightly to the right Genghis Khan in his political viewpoints.  Oliver Stone wrote the initial draft of the screenplay, but by all accounts Milius eschewed much of that screenplay in favor of his own. There’s no evidence he actually blasted Stone’s treatment into confetti with Remington 12-guage shotgun, but I think we can be pretty certain he did.

Make that very certain…

The resulting film has a strong narrative philosophy to it. It is a movie about brute strength and the champion of the warrior. Sure, this seems like the kind of thing that any action movie is about, but Conan’s ethos is wound up in everything that is on screen—from the titular character’s enslavement and drudgery (the better to build that chiseled physique) to the miracle of steel (steel=assault rifles in Milius-speak) to the climatic struggle between brute strength and philosophical fervor (guess which one wins). Even Conan’s god, Crom, is a god of earth and steel and war. And you know what? He kicks everyone’s ass.

What we get is a fairly substantive Nietzschen manifesto, setting a outlier against a cult, run by a warlord whose supreme cynicism has led him to the ultimate conclusion that religion is a far better way to subjugate people than brute force. It’s hard not to see this as Milius’s broadside against the increasingly fuzzy-headed, touchy-feely Hollywood of the late 1970s and ‘80s.

I think we can be fairly certain he hung on to the loincloth for role-play night with Maria…

But enough with the heady stuff, let’s talk about what makes this movie work.

*The Hero: I cannot emphasize this enough: casting Schwarzenegger was a stroke of genius. Yeah, he was far from polishing his craft when this movie came out (that yodeling laugh…yikes), but someone recognized his screen presence. Aside from the brute physicality (which, let’s face it, any bodybuilder could have brought to the role), Schwarzenegger shows genuine chops. He’s fully aware of the ridiculousness of his character and this movie, and plays the perfect amount of levity in scenes in which he has a theological discussion that basically amounts to “my god can beat up your god,” or eats a lizard-on-a-stick he bought from a local vendor. Likewise, he’s in on the joke that Conan’s a simp, and modulates his performance accordingly to fit in just the right amount of befuddlement. Pretty impressive stuff, and you can see the makings of the star in his work here.

*The Villain: When you have a slab of beefsteak like Schwarzenegger as your hero you’re gonna need a damn intimidating bad guy to make your movie work. James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom easily fits the bill—and not just because his name is “Doom” or because I find large, black men threatening—but because he is genuinely evil, not merely brutal. He seeks to control and enslave, and he’s good at it. When he and Conan clash, it’s an actual clash between giants—not just a couple pumped-up dudes banging swords together. Also, he can turn into a giant snake, and, let’s face it: that’s scary as fuck.

“This is CNN.”

* Humor:  As I mentioned above, the movie never takes itself too seriously to have a snockered Conan do a faceplant into his soup. Or punch a camel in the face, for that matter. I mean, that earns it a lifetime supply of goodwill right there. The movie even works in some sly, anti-clerical sentiment as Conan exploits a priest’s sleazy come-ons to infiltrate Doom’s stronghold.

* The Supporting Cast: As Conan’s love-interest, Sandahl Bergman’s Valera is just awesome. Okay, she has a bit of a mannish face in some shots, but she’s realistically tough, and in the end even comes back from the dead to fight alongside her beloved.  That’s girlfriend material right there. As Conan’s sidekick, Hawaiian surfer Gerry Lopez is, well, okay. He looks only slightly more Asian than I do, and they had to dub his lines…seems like an okay guy, though. But, hey, we also get a cranky Mako (the best kind of Mako) and a game Max von Sydow. So, um, I guess Max will just show up in anything, huh?

Girlfriend material.

* Action: Man, remember when the stunts in movies were done by lots and lots of real people, as opposed to pixels? And they were actually dangerous, and dudes got maimed and stuff performing them? Yeah, I miss that.

* The Tree of Woe: Wow, it looks like that Tree of Woe sucks. Like it’d be really boring, just hanging there. No iPod or anything… Plus the cuisine looks really unappetizing…

Still better than eating at Chick-fil-a.

* The Line: “To destroy your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Is there any better introductory line for a character? Well, probably, but this is a good one too. Ten bucks says Jon Milius had it on a motivation poster in his office. Now it’s probably his ringtone.

Yeah, Conan the Barbarian…product of a time when millions would be thrown at a movie that wasn’t a sequel or a superhero movie or a sequel to a superhero movie. When a B-grade entertainment would not only get major talent behind the camera, but give rise to a remarkable political career. It was a magical time, indeed.

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