Friday, January 11, 2008

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

The phenomenal soundtrack to 'Conan the Barbarian' by Basil Poledouris is indelibly lodged in my memory. It's simply iconic, and so too is the film, a fantasy epic directed by John Milius (co-creator of the brilliant HBO series Rome, which I am in the process of watching), co-written by Oliver Stone and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in his career launching role.

Young Conan the Cimmerian (adult form played by Schwarzenegger) watches his family and village wiped out by crazed serpentine cult leader Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his private army. He is raised in servitude and grows into a muscular warrior who is co-opted into fighting as a gladiator, a career change that leads to training at the hands of the world's greatest warriors as well as acclaim and adoration. He eventually becomes free and goes forth in search of Doom. During his journey he befriends thief Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and warrior woman / thief Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), the latter quickly becoming Conan's lover. Together they form a thieving team, but Conan's thirst for vengeance remains and when King Osric (Max von Sydow) offers them a fortune to get his daughter (Valérie Quennessen) back from the clutches of Doom's cult, Conan leaps at the opportunity for payback.

The story is fairly basic but is quite well told. The first thing that struck me about this film is the economy of dialogue, probably because of the brutish and taciturn nature of the characters. It works out especially well given the unwieldy manner in which many of the actors speak their lines. Much of the storytelling is visual, and as a visual experience 'Conan' has aged fairly well. The cinematography is quite spectacular and the production vales that go with it are top notch - great locations, sets, and costumes - resulting in a very atmospheric and believable (if occasionally a little small scale) world that only betrays its fantasy trappings on a handful of occasions. The few effects sequences that crop up are also adequate. There's scant character development but the story builds up in a satisfyingly epic way, with the only let down being that the action scenes, which while suitably bloody and visceral are minimal and not as exciting as I had hoped. In general though I have to applaud Milius embracing of adult elements - there's plenty of violence, sex and nudity in this - that feel true to the nature of the story. Also true to the story is Poledouris' superb score that really elevates the film at every turn with bombastic and heroic flair, perfectly complementing the visuals.

The script and Milius' direction shy away from playing up emotion and drama, which is fortunate given how wooden most of the actors are. The emphasis on the characters physicality and movement is much greater, a stylistic choice that plays to the strengths of the cast. Physically, Schwarzenegger is perfect as the muscular and surprisingly lithe barbarian, though his oafishness is apparently at odds with the character from the Robert E. Howard books the film is loosely based on. Sandahl Bergman bears the brunt of the lines of the main trio, and she's not that great with the talking part either, but again physically she fits the bill, looking athletic and supple and far from fragile. Gerry Lopez is suitable weaselly as the thief Subotai. Kudos to James Earl Jones though, who really delivers with his sinister portrayal of Thulsa Doom - between this character and Darth Vader, the guy definitely had portraying evil down pat back in the day. Mako plays a wily wizard and also narrates the film, and his presence adds a bit of levity.

'Conan the Barbarian' is not a brilliantly made film, but it is, I think, quite good, and certainly one of the best of the crop of eighties 'sword and sorcery' offerings. There's no depth to it and not much resonates thematically, but as an epic fantasy adventure it delivers in spades and is a classic of the genre. One little caveat - it's probably not to a lot of people's taste; though, the same could be said for a lot of fantasy films, I suppose. It's certainly to my taste, and I enjoyed it immensely.

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