R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Swords of Doom – Conan the Barbarian

So it’s 300 week here at the Bad Ass Cinema, and while the Martin Scorsese love fest has been fun, its time to put the Oscars behind us for a while and get out our swords and helmets. I’m hoping the movie lives up to my expectations (It did!), as I’m a huge fan of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, as well as huge battle epics in general. Raised on a steady diet of films such as Spartacus and Ben-Hur, I grew accustomed to the spectacle and energy of these pictures, reinforced by modern epics such as Braveheart and Gladiator.

Unfortunately, the last few years have not been kind to the genre, as huge blockbusters such as Troy and Alexander turned out to be Trojan Horses, hiding terrible screenplays and woeful acting that were unleashed upon you when you got in the theater.Perhaps the boom in these pictures is going to die off for a few years; much like it did for some time in the 1980’s which produced very few sword epics, Kurosawa’s Ran being the best exception of the decade. Really the best swordplay films of the 1980’s were in the Fantasy genre, as Sword and Sorcery movies seemed to be everywhere. From big budget productions such as Willow and Legend to more exploitive affairs, such as The Sword and the Sorcerer and The Beast Master, the genre was seemingly in the midst of a renaissance.

With Conan the Barbarian, you get the best of both worlds. Based loosely on the Pulp novels of Conan creator Robert E. Howard, the movie manages to adhere to both schools of thought, ending up a large scale film that’s not afraid to appeal to a more adult Fantasy fan, favoring violence and nudity to large scale special effects and hokey wizards. Made by the most forgotten member of the American Zoetrope troupe started by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, John Milius, Conan would end up launching perhaps the biggest stars in the world, and today stands as one of the best Fantasy films and swordplay epics of the decade.

Conan the Barbarian Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Mako, and Max von Sydow. Directed by John Milius.
I’ve loved this movie since I was a kid, and really, what’s not to love? With tons of fights, a glorious hero and a terrific villain, Conan was a film that was crafted so well, that it was easy to completely understand, even as a child (though I was probably too young to watch it), and entertaining enough for my dad to thoroughly enjoy it as well. Seeing it now, the movie plays even better, as I can see how John Milius crafted this film for maximum effect, bound by the limits of the effects of the time.

Watching it now, the film has Milius’ stamp all over it, with its minimalist storytelling, emphasizing visuals over everything else, but the director was actually a late comer to this production. An early draft of the screenplay by Oliver Stone was so ambitious that producers considered letting the then unknown director have the reigns to the movies. Other considerations included Ridley Scott, his own Gladiator taking very similar story directions almost two decades later. Eventually the job landed in John Milius’ lap.

For me, Milius’ career has always been a little bit of an enigma. The man was just as hailed as his contemporaries Lucas and Coppola when they all graduated college, with his screenplay for Apocalypse Now considered one of the grandest ever created. Milius was supposedly also responsible for the haunting “Indianapolis monologue” that Robert Shaw’s Quint goes into in the middle of Jaws, perhaps the most memorable bits of dialogue from the picture. Milius apparently also worked uncredited on the Dirty Harry screenplay, as well being responsible the screenplays for Jeremiah Johnson and the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force. As a director though, Milius is a quandary, never really reaching true success on the level of his friends. His Wind and the Lion is a good film, and Red Dawn has a cult following, but the man’s one true career highlight is Conan the Barbarian.

Almost in Sergio Leone-type style, Conan the Barbarian is a film told through its visuals, its narrative unfolding through its battles and locations rather than with dialogue. Milius seemingly cast this film by using faces instead of acting ability, as each person seems to have jumped off a conceptual artists page to inhabit the characters. Really, with this film using heavy narration from Mako in the place of a lot of lines from the actors, this turns out to be a terrific way to mold this story.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may have just been a body builder when this movie started, but afterwards there was no doubt of his screen talent. Though his Terminator films and other blockbusters would give him astronomical fame, it was this film that made more than just that guy in Pumping Iron. His screen charisma showed through his limited use of language, letting his grace and physique do the talking for him. Amazingly, where most stars come off as little more than just window dressing, Schwarzenegger shows great strength and presence as the film’s hero.

This of course, goes back to Milius, who makes Conan’s journey a timeless adventure. On the Conan the Barbarian DVD, the director talks about how there’s no better way to start a movie “than wiping out an entire village”. This is indeed a striking start, beginning Conan on his quest for revenge, as well as introducing the film’s heavy, James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom. This sets Conan on his quest for revenge, driving the tales’ simple, yet striking story.

Again, Milius makes great use of Duke Callaghan’s marvelous Cinematography to get this story across. Images such as Thulsa Doom’s riders pillaging Conan’s village, the murder of Conan’s mother, our hero sold into slavery, his numerous gladiatorial victories and martial arts training sequences, and battling a giant snake all become memorable moments without many words at all. Narration fills in the gaps we need, and Schwarzenegger is shielded from how inexperienced he is.

Part of the reason this all works is because the director makes us identify with this world in which Conan lives. In Robert E. Howard’s adventures, the character’s stories took place in the author’s “Hyborian Age”, supposedly 14,000 BC to 10,000 BC, allowing his stories to feel as if they were a part of history without having to laboriously stick to historical facts. Milius takes this concept and runs with it, taking inspirations from several different cultures for the movie’s look, whether it be costumes, weapons, or art direction. Again, this also helps us because this isn’t some far off Star Wars like planet, this is our world, just in a time we don’t quite recognize.

For instance, Conan’s village looks to be that of Vikings, while Conan’s companion Subotai (Gerry Lopez), takes his look from the warriors that fought alongside Genghis Khan. Thulsa Doom and his men look as if there were the heralds of Alexander Nevsky, with a bit of a samurai touch. This multicultural approach simply gives the film a particular flavor that makes it unique and works on a level that most Fantasy pictures don’t even attempt.

Smartly, though the film is a fantasy picture, the movie is told quite seriously, with fantastical elements kept very conservative. Thulsa Doom only has small moments to get across his mystical powers, his followers devotion and rumor doing more to make the character imposing than feats of magic ever do. Conan’s battle with a giant serpent is very well done, keeping in tone with the film’s stark violence. Milius knew that people would come to see an Action picture first and foremost, and he packs the screen with swordfights, beheadings and other bloody encounters. The film’s violence was so intense that twice the film received at “X” rating before finally getting an “R”.

While the actor may be forever tied to Darth Vader, and rightly so considering he may be the greatest screen villain of all time, Jones makes an magnificent adversary for Conan. Being that he may be the best actor in the entire film; Milius smartly gives him some of the movie’s best lines. Saying things like “They shall all drown in lakes of blood,” may sound silly coming from other actors, but with Jones’ visage reading the lines they become downright chilling. It helps too that Milius has Jones looking like he never has before, with long black hair and beautiful blue eyes. The director stated he wanted to make Doom appear as if he were the last of a dying race, possibly Atlantean, and the results are amazing.

A small role by Max Von Sydow produces one of the movie’s best scenes, as he brings pathos and humor to the role of King Osric, a ruler whose kingdom is being suffocated by the evil Thulsa Doom. Sending Conan and his band of thieves to steal his daughter back from the villain, he gives an amazing speech, ending in “There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.” I think this is my favorite scene that I’ve had the pleasure to watch Von Sydow in.

It would be a disservice to the film to not mention the contributions of Ron Cobb and Basil Poledouris. Cobb created amazing sets and weapons for the movie, letting his imagination run wild and getting to make up his own runes and architecture. Thulsa Doom Mountain of Power is a triumph by Cobb, who also did much of the design work for Alien a few years before this.

Basil Poledouris created simply one of the great film scores of all time. Originally, Producer Dino De Laurentis wanted a pop music soundtrack similar to Flash Gordon. Thank goodness for John Milius, as he overruled this decision, and ended up even choosing Poledouris over Ennio Morricone. His theme for this picture has been used countless times for ads and other trailers, but nothing could match the visceral excitement of watching Conan do battle set against this operatic score.

Filled with violence and nudity, I wonder if this type of movie could even be made any more, especially with this level of quality (after seeing 300 this no longer applies). By making this more of a historical adventure as opposed to a Fantasy movie, the movie automatically is taken more seriously and is easier to identify with. Not the best film of the decade by any means, but definitely one of its best adventures, Conan the Barbarian was a tremendous step for the film’s director and its star and remain one of their greatest accomplishments.