A Review by Noah Antwiler
For me, Conan is the man who defines epic fantasy. It ranks right up there with Tolkien as a major artistic influence on everything swords-and-sorcery from illustrations to fiction to movies. He's the man who epitomizes the Hackmaster lifestyle, the walking definition of hack-and-slash and the gold standard for badassery. And there's even a little something for d20 System fans to love in Conan. After all, he's the original multiclasser. I can't even begin to list all the different class levels Conan took in his decades of adventure: barbarian, thief, assassin, fighter, gladiator, pirate... was there anything Conan couldn't do?
He's what I think of when I think of role-playing games, and in every character from the Knights of the Dinner Table to your gaming table there's a bit of Conan there: a desire to rise up from nothing, to cleave your name into the pages of history with a big honkin' sword, written in the blood of your enemies. To attain wealth, romance, and a name known and feared by all. To be king by your own hand. That's Conan: a man who defied armies, kings, and gods. Truly a vision for the mind's eye.
Now let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
You can forget Hawk, Frodo, or Inigo Montoya. Conan the Barbarian is the fantasy flick for me! A masterpiece of cinema that looked torn from the imagination of Boris Vallejo himself, Conan was a surprising success despite its unconventional formula that seemed set up for failure. It took a 'roided up bodybuilder, a surfer, and a dancer and made them the leads. None of them could really act, but it helped that director John Milius set them against established master thespians as James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow to carry most of the meaningful dialogue. Besides, the casting made sense: when you think Conan you don't think of a compelling orator, you think of a massive, brutal chunkhead killing dudes with a gigantic sword.
What really drew me into the film was the bombastic, thrilling orchestral score composed by the late, great Basil Poledouris who brought a heavy, pounding intensity to the Hyperborean Age and a sense of pageantry and power to religion and ceremony. More than Arnold, more than James Earl Jones, the score steals the show as the most evocative character in the movie, and I think it holds up today as the best orchestral score in movie history.
Anyone with an INT score of 3 could sum up this plot in a series of grunts and whistles, but it boils down to our young barbarian hero being orphaned by the evil warlord Thulsa Doom who steals all their steel and sells the Cimmerian sap into slavery to shove a structure in a circle for seventeen years. After a brief stint as a pit fighter, he becomes a free man and sets out on a quest to find the snake-charming bastard who took his father's sword and wear his lungs as a hat. Along the way he picks up some fellow rogues and a manic wizard (played by the fabulous actor Mako, rest his soul) and together they seek booty and fortune.
I personally love how it plays out like an RPG in my head as I watch it. You can tell that Conan is rockin' the 18/00 STR, and the danger of trusting any female NPC who shows a sexual interest in your character is demonstrated when the spooky hermit lady that Conan nails turns into a shrieking succubus! And when Conan dies, his friends helpfully chip into the extensive party fund and get him raised. Then there's the serious DM miscalculation when Thulsa Doom tries to use a low-level Fascinate spell on a barbarian when he's winding up for a full-fledged berserker rage. Conan may not be that bright, but you'll have to do better than that to beat his Will save. And who hasn't belted out the "crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women" line in a gaming session on more than one occasion?
I've heard complaints that the movie doesn't match the books well at all, and in fact dumbs down Conan's story a great deal. And I agree. The plot is thin, the main characters nearly mute, the special effects are cheesy, the violence and nudity are largely exploitative, and the acting is so wooden you could build a house out of it. Nobody ever accused Conan of being too complex. I still loved it, and anyone who thinks that this movie was dumbed down had better not check out the sequels.
Here's a hard reality: producers and major motion picture studios don't care about making quality sequels. They care about making movies people will watch. That's why when a movie becomes a hit, the sequel is a slapdash, hastily-assembled clone with worse actors, more cartoonish violence, and far less money. The rationale behind this is with a sequel, you already have a built-in audience who are going to see it no matter what. The tickets are already sold. So all you need to do is to make it as cheaply as humanly possible and try to slash the rating down to a more family-friendly one so folks can take their kids.
Therefore I give you Conan the Destroyer, diminished in every way from the original and one of the worst fantasy films ever made. John Milius was out as director, replaced by Richard Fleischer, a man with a surprisingly diverse filmography ranging from Doctor Doolittle, to Soylent Green, to... Mandingo? Basil Poledouris stuck around to pen another great score, but it was performed by an orchestra about a quarter the size of the first, and for a score as heavy and intense as Conan it comes off sounding like it was done by a high school pep band.
In this movie, Conan has ditched Subotai the Archer and replaced him with the blisteringly unfunny comic relief character Malak, the man who was Jar Jar before Jar Jar was uncool. Malak spends most of his time hiding and swallowing his pilfered loot, so when accepting anything from him it's vitally important to wash your hands afterward. Conan is contacted by Queen Evilpants, who tells him that she'll resurrect his girlfriend Valeria if he'll escort the virgin princess Jehnna (and her hulking bodyguard played by... Wilt Chamberlain?!) to retrieve the Horn of Dagoth, a magical artifact that will return the Cthulhoid god to Earth to wreak destruction. Conan, of course, stops listening after the part where he gets his girlfriend back and agrees to go after collecting his old wizard buddy and a shrieking Amazon played by Grace Jones.
The huge gemstone that he kept in Valeria's memory, the Eye of the Serpent, is conspicuously absent. I assume he hocked it for cash, but clearly didn't spend a copper on pants. Folks in the Hyperborean Age don't believe much in clothes. No mention is made of Subotai, either, which is weird because Malak seems to possess all his memories. The strong core of actors present in the first movie are gone, and without it the dialogue is as rigid and as phony as Arnold's biceps. You're in trouble when you give Arnold, Wilt, and Grace most of your lines.
Conan himself is made into a much more buffoonish caricature of himself, stumbling around drunkenly and acting like a total idiot. Here's a tip: no director should ever tell Arnold "act dumber."
But I won't say the movie doesn't have moments. Despite my complaints, the movie does still have some pretty good action and has a certain b-movie appeal. Arnold shows a lot of impressive physicality and some remarkable swordsmanship, and many of the major battles are memorable, if unintentionally funny at times. Watching Conan wrestle a guy in a green rubber lizard suit wearing a Little Red Riding Hood cape screaming his trademark Austrian "nyaaauuuughh aaarrrrgh!" is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.
My favorite part of the movie is when Conan & Company are escaping from the crypt that holds the Horn of Dagoth and they run into its guardians. Their leader starts to drone on about their bravery, and how their adventure must come to an end here, and how even the mighty Conan blah blah blah... then Conan just steps forward, growls "enough talk!!" and hurls a dagger into his chest. It doesn't get any more Hackmaster than that.
Oh yes, there was a third Conan movie. Red Sonja is a spin-off character from the original Conan stories. Sort of. Not really. But sort of. Everyone who ever saw Red Sonja noticed Arnold still hanging out and scratched their heads in puzzlement when he introduced himself as Kalidor, when he's still basically playing Conan. The issue is further confused when we notice that Kalidor wears pants throughout the entire movie, something Conan is rarely known to do, but trust me, it's Conan. I have no idea why they felt the need not to call him Conan, seeing as how they're all Howard characters anyway, but there it is. It's probably because Arnold was under contract to do a third Conan movie and this was the fastest way he could get out of it.
This abomination stars Brigitte Nielsen (at this time maintaining a death-grip on Sylvester Stallone's coattails and riding them all the way to the bank) as the She-Devil With a Sword herself, a master warrior seeking to avenge her murdered sister and to retrieve a magical artifact from another Queen Evilpants before she can use it to destroy the world. Nielsen is an impressive, statuesque figure in that she looks good, and like a statue never manages to change expressions or emote anything beyond passive scorn. All I'm saying is that Arnold is the best actor in this movie. The very thought makes my mind hurt.
Contrary to her comic book persona, Red Sonja does not prance around wearing only a scale mail bikini, but she's still every bit the unattainable sex object. Sonja refuses to boink any man unless he can beat her in single combat. I'm not really sure what that's supposed to prove, and actually seems like a rather traumatic way to go about dating other men, but I never claimed to understand women. It may explain why my love life is so difficult, because every woman I approach instinctively reaches for something sharp and drops into a battle stance. But needless to say, whenever you see a thong-wearing enchantress or an Amazon with unlikely proportions wearing a chain mail bra on a poster, you've got Red Sonja to thank.
Sonja seems to subscribe to the cinematic law of inverse protection, which states the less clothing you wear, the more invulnerable you are. I'm not sure how much protection a thin layer of chain mail barely covering her boobs affords, but I'm fairly sure that and a leather thong don't do much for your AC. It must be working for her, though, because if you look at the comics she never has a scratch on her. Must be colder than the inside of a 7-11 chimichanga though.
Anyway, the movie sets a new standard for annoying sidekicks by including two: the self-important boy-prince Tarn and his long-suffering manservant Falkon, further proving why you should never work with animals or children. Nobody here escaped massive embarrassment, not even Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone who must have needed a gig to make rent that year.
Red Sonja is scheduled for a remake in 2008, and I have to wonder how much farther down this series can go. The very thought that a movie could hit theaters worse than Kull the Conqueror wakes me up at nights screaming.