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Conan The Barbarian (1982,USA)

15/07/2011

Director: John Milius     Starring: Arnold Swarchenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Mako

Conan the Barbarian made his first appearance in print in 1932, in a series of stories written by Robert E. Howard for Weird Tales magazine. It would take fifty years for him to make it to the screen, after a second series of stories published almost twenty years after Howard’s death in 1936 and a Marvel comic book first published in 1970 served to keep the character alive and presumably it was the success of the comic book that spurred John Milius and Oliver Stone to pen this Arnie vehicle, arguably his first proper feature film after his laughable debut, Hercules In New York and a series of minor TV roles.

The film opens with Conan as a small boy in his home village, being taught the secrets of steel making by his father. His village is attacked by marauders led by the sinister Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones in a cross between Darth Vader and Charles Manson, his commanding voice and presence perfectly suited to the role of a mystical cult leader) and poor little Conan bears witness to the execution of his parents at Doom’s hands. He is enslaved and after years of manual toil the fully grown Conan (Arnie) is put through his paces in an arena, earning his masters a fortune. Eventually he earns his freedom and sets out on a mission to track down Thulsa Doom and exact his bloody revenge upon him.

The pre-governator Ahnuld cuts an impressive stride as the grudge-bearing barbarian. His dialogue-light role works in his favour (his delivery is not the greatest) as his physical performance is excellent. Despite his apparently unwieldly size, he convinces as an expert in different combat styles and puts in an enjoyably expressive turn in the lead role. It’s nicely complimented by the more verbose characters of his companions who he takes up with on his quest. The thief Subotai (Lopez), who Conan rescues from his chains early on and who serves as his guide to the wonders of civilization is a perfect foil to the taciturn warrior, Valeria (Bergman) is the feisty shieldmaiden who falls for Conan’s barbarous charms and the hermitic wizard (Mako) doesn’t just offer advice to Conan at a critical time but also serves as the tale’s narrator. It’s a complimentary little group who all feel as though they fit perfectly in Milius’ interperetation of Howard’s fantastical realm of Hyboria, a world that is fantastically realised on screen and what a world it is. Filmed in the main in Almeria, Spain, a region more used to providing the backdrop to Spaghetti Westerns, photographs beautifully and in this case proves a stunning, almost alien setting for this fantasy adventure.

One of the major keys to Conan’s success comes from the writing. A dramatic plot with that old stalwart hook of one man’s long gestating revenge makes for a gripping story and while it’s played straight there are sufficient flashes of humour to avoid the film becoming po faced and overblown. When there is a glut of dialogue it rather sensibly comes from secondary characters played by accomplished actors, like Max Von Sydow’s turn as King Osric, neatly sidestepping the limitations of the central cast in a really quite unobtrusive way. The sole exception to this is Thulsa Doom. James Earl Jones knows how to play the villain and his turn as the overlord of the snake cult is further proof of this. Not even a vaguely preposterous wig can interfere with his overwhelming charisma and he is arguably more memorable a character than Conan himself.

One of the other things that makes this film a little bit special is the lack of fear on the behalf of the filmmakers when it comes to depicting sex and violence on screen. Clearly Milius was not worried about cultivating the broadest possible audience when he made the film (although it is clearly considered tame enough for a 15 certificate from the BBFC) and I can’t help but get the feeling had he made it now or used a more mainstream subject matter he would have been in constant conflict with a studio pushing for a 12 or lower rating in order to maximise the revenue from audiences. That doesn’t mean it’s a bload soaked orgy fest mind, it’s far from gratuitous, it just doesn’t pull punches when heads need chopped off or throats get slashed. This adds a valuable sense of realism which is essential in a film so grounded in fantasy. Speaking of decapitations, the moment where Conan’s fate is sealed, with the death of his mother, is one of the most beautifully shot decapitation sequences I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, suffice to say it is a brilliant exercise in slow motion and the power of suggestion versus explicitly showing the action. It’s a great sequence that has stayed with me since the first time I saw it (which to be fair was probably about twenty years ago or more). Just as memorable is the fabulous score by Basil Poledouris (also resonsible for the equally memorable Robocop score), an epic blend of militant drumbeats and Holstian mischief and wonder. It’s definitely the icing on a very nice cake.

The blu ray version, released this week and the prompt for this revisiting of a childhood favourite, is simply gorgeous. The phenomenal landscapes have never looked better and even the special effects shots which I felt certain would be shown up as dated and a little embarassing (being hand drawn animation in some places) look far better than ever before. Ok so the giant rubber snake still looks like a giant rubber snake but that can’t really be helped and whenever anyone resists the urge to replace such things with a dodgy CGI overdub it should be applauded no matter how cheesy the original effect looked. The cheesiness is actually part of the films charm. The fact that nobody involved in the proceedings seems to realise the sillier elements are silly works to everyone’s advantage, including the audience.

It doesn’t matter if you are an Arnie fan or even a fantasy fan, Conan The Barbarian is worth checking out. It launched the Austrian bodybuilder’s career in the movies and made enough of an impact on the industry to spawn a sequel and several copycat films including the amusing if faintly ridiculous Red Sonja starring Brigitte Nielsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger (in a Conan-esque swordsman role) and let’s face it, everybody loves a good revenge story.

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