Saturday, July 25, 2009


Well, lately I have had a craving for some fantasy films. My wife wanted to see the new Harry Potter (which was OK I guess... not really a huge Potter fan myself), which at times had me wanting to see the Lord of the Rings trilogy again.

But what fun is that for blog writing, eh? Surely those have been talked about to death.

So let's look into a few more "classic" films in the genre. We'll start with one we all probably know fairly well...

(I know this isn't the poster most of us know with Arnold raising his sword above his head, but this Frank Frazetta piece was just too awesome not to show)

Original Title: Conan the Barbarian
Year: 1982
Director: John Milius
Writer: John Milius, Oliver Stone (screenplay), Edward Summer (story) (uncredited), based on original stories by Robert E. Howard
Genre: Fantasy Adventure

imdb synopsis: The epic tale of child sold into slavery who grows into a man who seeks revenge against the warlord who massacred his tribe.

Conan the Barbarian is a character created by Robert Howard in the 1930s for a pulp science fiction magazine called Weird Tales. Since that time, Conan stories have been written by many others and have appeared in not only the magazines, but comics and eventually novelization.

This first Conan film came in 1982, and it came with a bloody fury I must say. I had not seen this film since I was younger Some things I remembered well (giant snake and James Earl Jones) and some I completely had forgotten it seems... namely the blood and boobs! Perhaps this is due to only seeing it on television as a kid so most if not all of the gore and nudity would have been edited out. It takes awhile for the gore to show up, but if you stick around you'll get tastes of it, then the blood starts to flow a little more than halfway through. For a major release, I was pretty impressed by this.

The story follows Conan from childhood, to his release, briefly with his life as a thief, until we get to the main chunk of it with his quest to find King Osric's daughter and ultimately the man who killed his parents and enslaved him 20 years prior, the megamullet-sporting Thulsa Doom.

I've not read Robert Howard's stories, but I have read some recent Dark Horse comic adaptations of the stories which are pretty entertaining and from what I understand true to the original. I'd definitely recommend checking those out if you are into the genre and into comics.

There is also the Conan the Barbarian comics by Marvel in the 1970s (illustrated by one of my favorites Barry Widsor Smith), but I've not read those so I cannot comment on how faithful to the original they are.

OK, now I am getting completely sidetracked!

Where I was going with this whole thing is that the story in the film was changed from the original, and Conan purists may have issue with some of it. Conan was not actually a slave in the original stories, but was born on a battlefield and trained to be a warrior until he was 15 when he decided to wander the land. Also in the film, his training by fighting in gladiator-style battles (initially against his will) and is taught to read/write and eventually fight by his owners. While I do not really have issue with this, it is a change of character for Conan as he is presented as much less vicious and self-reliant than he is in the original stories. Another difference I believe is the intelligence of the Conan character, but perhaps this can be attributed more to the actor than the writer.

This was Arnold Schwarzenegger's real opportunity at being a leading man, having really only played bit parts in films from the 70s. (I guess Hercules in New York in 1970 counts as a leading role, but he was hilariously dubbed over in that one.)

He did an admirable job, and it must have worked because he absolutely blew up after this, with Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, and the fantastic Terminator to follow soon after. But what he does here mainly is look good as the beefy barbarian. He really does not speak all that much even though it is pointed out in the film that he was taught to read and write, and that in the original stories Conan relied on his intelligence as well as his brawn to get through life. At times in the film, Arnold just doesn't even sound all that bright when speaking. The lines he does deliver can sometimes feel very flat and out of character.

I am not going to say though that he was a bad choice for the role. There may have been others at the time who could have acted a more well-rounded Conan, but Arnold IS Conan now (and the Terminator), and I wouldn'd want that to change.

Most of the other characters with Conan here are pretty forgettable I thought. Subotai, a thief played by Gerry Lopez (who has acted in about 5 movies total), and Valeria, the love interest and also a thief, played by the agile Sandahl Bergman.

Subotai was throw-away I thought; nothing really memorable from him overall. His mustache/goatee combination was quite impressive, but it was probably just glued on. Here's a photo of him smelling something stinky... maybe his acting?

Valeria was a bit more interesting, but the romantic scenes with her were pretty corny. At least she looked quite impressive weilding a sword. There is one cool move where she runs a bit up a wall to dispose of two guards. At times she was okay-looking I thought, but sometimes she could look really hot as well. Here is Sandahl looking windblown and forlorn.

James Earl Jones turns in a strong performance I thought, but he really seemed like an odd casting choice. Sure he brought the cool voice and can look and sound intimidating, but he was kinda fat at this point and looked kind of strange with his very long, flowing near-mullet. I just had a hard time buying him 100% as a roving warlord turned snake-cult-wizardy guy. His cool special move with a snake and a bow was pretty awesome. "Sssseeek...."

I don't want to come across here as being all negative on this film. I'm far from it honestly. It definitely has a nostalgia factor for me, but I thought it was an interesting (if a big long) story, the music was outstanding, and the costumes and sets were really, really great.

John Milius is better known for his writing than his directing definitely (he did the screenplay for Apocalypse Now, one of my favorites!), but I thought the film was handled well. The fight coreography was brutal and fun, there were loads of extras, and overall it just looked very nice. There wasn't anything super outstanding and artistic in the direction choices, but his style worked for what this was I think. Like I said, the story did seem to go on a bit. The film clocks in at a little over two hours, and I did find myself looking at the clock a couple times to see what was left. I'm not sure though what could be trimmed to make it tighter.

I was surprised to see that Oliver Stone worked on the screenplay as well (it was just something I never noticed in the credits), so perhaps that has something to do with it being long-winded!

I would have like to have seen more sweeping shots of the environment as we move from snowy mountains to windy, barren plains, but often we are kept only seeing a little at a time. But the towers and torches and loads of extras make up for this and then some.

The costumes were really nice as well. The Doom culters sported some fantastic helmets and armor for instance. Some of the armor looked barbarian like with fur and studs and such, and there was even some Mongol-era looking armor pieces in there when Conan and company were preparing to defend themselves at the wizard's hideout.

There was a nice variety of weaponry, one ally of Doom sporting a giant maul even. The detailing on some of the swords shown, including the one neing carved and forged in the film's opening (some sweet skull carving on the hilt) and the sword Conan finds in a tomb after being set free and chased by dogs. I would have liked this sword to be much, much larger however as that is how I have seen Conan portrayed.

There were some great almost S&M style masks on guards at Doom's palace, light brown and crudely stitched.

At one point Arnold sports some body paint that is probably pointless to the story (contrasty black camoflage in a well-lit orgy room?) but makes him look really damn cool!

The Dungeons & Dragons nerd in me loves all this sort of thing!

My memories of this film were better than my opinion of it after watching it today. I think it is plagued by some odd choices (the casting primarily) and just feels a little long for what story is actually there, but it still remains fun for me and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

I'd recommend anyone interested in the genre.
Or anyone wanting to see Arnold punch a camel.

7 out of 10

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