John Milius | 125 mins* | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
Most films have a reputation of one kind or another, even if it’s only in certain circles and you have to go searching to find it. I suppose Conan’s is best summed up by its status on iCheckMovies: it appears on one official list, the 500 Essential Cult Movies; a list of films so cult-y, I’ve only seen 98 of them. So it’s not a film of great critical acclaim, or box office success; heck, it’s not even on the Empire 500, which surprised me because I’d always thought it was fairly popular — I mean, they bothered to remake it!
You may recall I didn’t care for the remake. Nothing new in that. Unfortunately, I didn’t much care for the original either.
Actually, that’s a mite unfair. I watched the film in two halves, and while the first almost bored me (to be blunt, I fell asleep halfway through; though it wasn’t wholly the film’s fault), the second was more entertaining. The first is episodic, a series of near-disconnected sequences telling Conan’s life story. Towards the middle, the last few of these coalesce into a series of events that drive the film into a proper narrative, which takes us through to the end.
John Milius, directing and co-writing (with, of all people, Oliver Stone), chooses to play much of the film with very little dialogue. It’s a striking effect that often pays off, both creating a sense of an epic story passed down the ages (how often, if someone tells you a tale from myth or legend, is there dialogue?), and minimising the potentially negative effects of his cast. For all his skill as an action man, Arnie is hardly a great actor. The guy doing the voiceover narration is godawful though, and there’s far too much of him. It’s never made clear why he’s the one telling the story either, unless I missed it.
Telling the story visually allows Milius to conjure up some fantastic visuals on occasion. The murder of Conan’s mother is a particularly striking moment, as is the way Conan is aged from preteen moppet to muscly Arnie mere minutes later. A giant temple teeming with disciples offers multiple instances for impressive shots, the huge set and numerous extras creating a sense of scale that CGI will never match. Then there are the action sequences, again somehow heightened without people yelling meaningless nothings at each other. Conan and friends raiding the temple to rescue the princess, and the subsequent graveyard battle, are two particular standouts.
In places the film has aged badly. It looks more ’70s than ’80s, which considering it’s from the start of the decade shouldn’t be a surprise. Not that that’s a problem, just an observation, albeit one that perhaps emphasises age. Much of it looks good, but for every expertly-realised giant snake there’s the two villainous henchman who look like Spinal Tap rejects.
Most of the film is actually a well-realised fantasy landscape (shot in Spain, which I think helps — America always somehow looks like America on screen, whether it’s doubling for a fantasy world or an alien planet or even just another country), but those two kicked me out of it every time they showed up.
My initial assessment of Conan was possibly a bit harsh, born of finding the first half of the film a struggle. The second half, while not perfect, has much more to commend it. The film ends with a “there’s much more story to be told” epilogue (even though the film tells a complete tale in itself — take note, present franchise filmmakers!), which does lead me to want to see the sequel, even if those who love even this hate it. We’ll (and by that obviously I mean “I’ll”) see.