Conan the Barbarian (1982)

2013 #31
John Milius | 125 mins* | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Conan the BarbarianMost 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. Conan and FriendsThe 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.

Darth Vader and Spinal Tap

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.

3 out of 5

* There are goodness-knows-how-many different versions of Conan. I watched one of them. (I think it was fairly uncut though). ^

3 thoughts on “Conan the Barbarian (1982)

  1. Hey, now hold on, you’re 3-starring a genuine bonafide classic fave of mine here.

    Admittedly, when I first saw it (on a VHS pirate copy, for shame!) I didn’t care for it at all. But damn I fell in love with it over the years. I love the ‘pure cinema’ approach, with the glorious score dominating the film and keeping the dialogue to a minimum. Did you know that Dino annoyed the composer by only releasing the film with a mono soundtrack, ‘killing’ all that work on the score? The sets are real (!) and rather huge in places despite the fairly low budget, the fx and sorcery kept wisely to a minimum. It looks very down to Earth and ‘real’, predating the approach of LOTR and Game of Thrones by decades. And Sandahl Bergman is just utterly gorgeous in a 70s/80s way that contemporary actresses aren’t.

    But don’t watch the sequel, its truly appalling.

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    • You know, I do think there’s a lot to commend the film (as you summarised. I didn’t know that about the score though).

      I can well imagine having a similar change of feeling if I watched it again. I found a chunk of the first half a chore (roughly, everything between Arnie appearing and the giant snake), and that dragged my score down. When the story proper picked back up, I began to enjoy it more again. I think that’s very much a “first viewing” problem, when such things have more dominance; second time, they flit by while you await the good stuff.

      Like

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