Many (many, many…) years ago I ventured to the Clackamas Town Center with a gorgeous redhead whom I happened to be married to at the time. The marriage didn’t last, as so few do, especially when you get married right out of the gate in the same year that you’re allowed to drink legally. I still feel huge regrets over the whole mess that my first marriage became, even now so many years later, and kind of wish I hadn’t been such an insufferable little twerp. Then again, I guess it takes two people to have an argument, but I’m the only person whose behavior I can change, and with the perspective of three decades, I kind of want to go back in time and beat the living crap out of myself.
That said, it was a day that would change my life in many ways. We were at the mall to see the new movie, Conan the Barbarian, starring the Terminator himself, former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role. When we showed up, a guy walking out of the movie said to his friend, “I didn’t like it — they cut off too many heads.” Well, my friends — that was just one man’s opinion, as the proper number of decapitations in a single motion picture has yet to be determined.
Well, the day ended up being a pretty awesome one, as we had chosen a particularly auspicious showing — Conan had been cancelled, and a sneak preview of another new movie was being shown in its place. Since there was no advertising and we originally wanted to see Conan, management kindly allowed us to see both movies for the price of one. And so it was, on that day in late May of 1982, that we got to see John Carpenter’s The Thing, as well as Conan the Barbarian. Such a deal!
As you probably know, I’m a huge fan of Robert E. Howard and his most famous creation. Mind you, over the years I’ve become something of a purist, and I definitely prefer the original Conan tales written by REH, complete and in their original form, not “modified,” “improved,” “edited’ or otherwise butchered by the host of revisionists who have been nibbling at the canon for decades. While I remain a big fan of both L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter, I do take serious issue at how they’ve monkeyed with Conan — adding, subtracting, revising, putting stories in “chronological order,” writing entirely original stories, and expanding on fragments of other stories, turning them into Conan yarns.
Comics, especially The Savage Sword of Conan (said to be Barack Obama’s favorite comic, by the way), have done similar things, taking stories such as The Fire of Asshurbanipal and The Hawks of Outremar and changing the setting and characters to make them Conan stories. Given that Howard’s heroes were mostly interchangeable and the settings could be anywhere from prehistory to the 1930s, this was a relatively easy task, and one that Howard himself often engaged in, changing an unsold western into a swords and sorcery story with a few minor tweaks. In the days of manual typewriters of course, this was harder than it is today, so even that endeavor involved a fair amount of work. Howard’s second most famous character — Red Sonja, whom I’ve written about here before — was born in this fashion, as a supporting character in a story about the historical siege of Vienna. Now of course, she’s a fully fleshed-out member of the Conan milieu, transformed from a Renaissance mercenary soldier into a chainmai-bikini wearing amazon who won’t sleep with a man until he’s defeated her in battle.
As much as I like Red Sonja, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the various pastiches that were created to honor Conan and his multifaceted creator, I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy the originals, and they’re the only ones I consider to be the “real” Conan. Conan’s film career followed as meandering a path as its titular star. Its screenplay is credited to both man’s man director John Milius and the controversial Oliver Stone, who went on to give us Platoon, The Doors, JFK and of course the timeless epic Alexander the Fabulous… Oops, I mean Alexander the Great.
It was produced by the equally controversial Dino DeLaurentis, famous for backing some of the most celebrated flops in screen history. The first and only choice for Conan was always Arnold Schwarzenegger, though the Austrian bodybuilder knew nothing about the character and prepared for the role by reading comics (probably the aforementioned Savage Sword among others).
The screenwriter seems equally oblivious, as Oliver Stone’s original concept was for the movie to be set in a post-apocalyptic future instead of the past (maybe he was getting Conan confused with this guy.) Fortunately for all of us, this idea was scotched very quickly and Conan the Barbarian was set in what at least approximated Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria.
For a fan of Conan, the movie is something of a mixed bag. While the spirit of Conan is certainly present, the story is a mish-mash of sources, from an origin story that would have outraged REH (Conan as ex-slave) to scenes and incidents from a half-dozen other stories, some of them not even about Conan (imagery from The Thing in the Crypt, a deCamp/Carter pastiche, scenes from the Howard Conan story A Witch Shall Be Born and Worms of the Earth, another Howard story, this one about the Celtic warrior Bran Mak Morn, other Conan stories like The Tower of the Elephant, Red Nails, etc.), welded to an unwieldy story of vengeance and very modern-seeming religious cults.
The villain, Thulsa Doom, is drawn from Howard’s King Kull stories, the iconic tale of Conan being born on the battlefield is entirely absent, etc. Still, one has to take what one can get. When I recently saw Desolation of Smaug, for example, I simply pretended that The Hobbit didn’t exist and that the movie was an entirely original fantasy-action tale penned by Peter Jackson. This at least dulled the pain I felt while watching Legolas shooting arrows while standing on the dwarves’ heads in the barrel scene. As such, if you consider Conan the Barbarian to be a largely original film inspired by Robert E. Howard, the whole thing goes down a lot smoother, and you can actually sit and enjoy yourself.
I will also note that the last time I watched CtB was with my girlfriend and she cautioned me not to make too much fun of it, as it was one of her favorites. And now, after all of that, and keeping my endless babbling caveats in mind, I think I can say that Conan the Barbarian is a pretty damned fun ride. Mind you, that doesn’t mean I won’t make jokes the whole way. On with the show!
Our tale opens with a famous quote from Nietzshe, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” suggesting that if you survive watching this flick, you’ll be a stronger person for it. We open on on a black screen as our narrator (awesome Mako, who also plays the Wizard) raspily intones: Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And onto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
Okay, in addition to being somewhat ungrammatical, the prolog is also an abridgment of Howard’s original quote, a prolog to the story “The Phoenix on the Sword” (and interestingly enough the first published Conan tale). That quote is admittedly a bit wordy for the motion picture milieu, but I do kind of miss it. What follows, however, is a whole movie just like that. And now begins what I consider to be the best part of Conan the Barbarian. No, not the credits — the music. While the film itself is far from flawless, the score by the late Basil Poledouris (Robocop, Hunt for Red October, Starship Troopers among many others) is one of the finest and most evocative that I have ever heard. In many ways the music alone elevates the movie from routine swords-n-muscles fare into the realm of memorable cinema, which is exactly what movie music should do.
Some sample Youtube comments about this score:
“Chuck Norris cries to this song.”
“I was going to play airsoft to this music, but the guns turned real.”
“My toy poodle listened to this music, and now it’s a wolf!”
“I just shaved and this music made my beard grow out again!”
“Anvil of Crom is a snow-shoveling song and everyone knows it!” …And so on.
Anyway, while Poledouris’ thunderous main theme — the Anvil of Crom — plays on, we watch the forging of a sword. According to stories published at the time, director Milius took a keen interest in swords and sword-making, and used this as his central theme in the movie. In my humble opinion, he took the whole thing just a tad too far, as we shall soon see.
So, while Conan’s hot B-MILF (Barbarian Mom I’d Like to… Well, you get the idea…) mom looks on, his dad forges a mighty sword and cools it in a convenient snowdrift, then takes his young son up to the mountains to bore him to tears telling him about gods and steel and related barbarian stuff. Here we have the first mention of a recurring theme in the movie — the Riddle (or as dad puts it “enigma”) of Steel. The frost giants, he says, stole the secret from the Cimmerian’s god Crom, which of course pissed him off royally. In their rage however, the gods forgot about steel and left its secret on the battlefield for men to use. Young Master Conan, he says, must learn steel’s secret, and its discipline, since you can’t trust men, women or beasts, but you can trust your sword, goddamn it!
Okay, this aspect of the movie has always puzzled me. It appears nowhere in Howard’s works, and in the movie itself, no one really explains what is meant by “The Riddle of Steel.” Do Milius and Oliver mean the riddle of making steel? Of using steel? Of being like steel? I assume that it’s a practical matter — the crafting of steel from iron, which was a valuable thing to know in those days. However, there seems to be a huge amount of philosophical baggage attached to the concept, to the point (as we’re about to find out) that evil warlords are willing to exterminate entire peoples to learn it.
I think it all goes back to Milius’ obsessions, as he was known to be quite the manly man (screenwriter for Conan, Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Clear and Present Danger, Apocalypse Now, Rome, Red Dawn, director of The Wind and the Lion, Conan, Red Dawn, Farewell to the King, Flight of the Intruder, and more), and the whole “man-as-sword” motif. And so it is, the Cimmerians — whom the movie portrays as a fairly peaceful, provincial race of villagers, rather than the bloody barbarian warriors of Howard’s vision — have the secret of steel, and lots of people want it. Particularly the next batch of guys who ride over the hill — savage, black-armored horsemen beneath a serpent banner who appear while Conan is out ice-fishing (though if you look closely there is no actual hole in the ice as the poor kid isn’t anywhere near a lake — I guess young Conan was a little slower than the other kids) and a dramatic choral piece plays.
Conan spots the baddies’ scout, a tattooed Celtic-type with limed hair and a dog-like expression, then rushes home as the raiders reach his defenseless village. Now only the truly petty observer would note that the rampaging barbarian horde numbers perhaps 15 and appear to be badly outnumbered by the peace-loving Cimmerians. No matter, they run through the little settlement like Jabba the Hutt at the buffet table.
A few villagers — notably Conan’s father — fight back and take some of the raiders down, but it’s all to no avail. The raid’s commander, a thug in an elaborate helm (the production design was by talented Britisher Ron Cobb, who also did the non-HR Giger design for the original Alien), points at Conan’s father and shouts “Kill that one!” They don’t succeed — at least not immediately, even though our commander (whom we later learn is named Rexor and is played by ex-Oakland Raider defensive end Ben Davidson) sends in his best men, including Thorgrim, who is portrayed by muscle-man Sven-Ole Thorson and is armed with the biggest motherfucking hammer you ever fucking saw. The battle (well, massacre actually) goes on for long minutes, with women screaming, people getting axed and hammered, huts burning, blood splashing, until at last Conan’s father is taken down by a pair of wardogs. It’s pretty unpleasant, especially since Conan and his mom watch.
Now at last the fight’s over and the victorious raiders are carrying away their booty. And speaking of booty, Conan’s hot mom refuses to surrender, even as a still-more ominous figure in black armor rides up. Rexor holds Conan’s father’s sword and hands it to the newcomer, who removes his helmet to reveal… Yes, it’s the villainous wizard-warlord Thulsa Doom, portrayed by the mellifluous-voiced James Earl Jones, and before you can say I… am your father or This… is CNN, he takes the sword and lops Conan’s mom’s head off with it.
As much as it pains me to say it, James Earl Jones simply does not fit the role of an ancient snake-controlling wizard. He’s kind of puffy-faced and the production hairdressers have saddled him with an ugly black wig with prominent power bangs that put me in mind of a male, black and middle-aged Katie Perry. There is simply no sense of menace or majesty to him, and his favorite expression seems to be one of melancholy befuddlement.
None of this makes any difference to young Conan, who has just watched his mother’s head fall bleeding into the snow. In an event that would probably have enraged Conan’s creator, he is led off in chains. And, at least according to the narrator, the Cimmerians themselves have been utterly exterminated.
The ashes were trampled into the earth, and the blood became as snow. Who knows what they came for — weapons of steel or murder? — it was never known for the leader rode to the south while children went north with the Vanir. No one would ever know that my lord’s people had lived at all. His was a tale of sorrow.
Also a tale never once mentioned in the works of Robert E. Howard, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that Conan gets carted off as a slave and sold to a guy who uses children to push a big wheel out in the middle of the desert. Why? Presumably they’re grinding grain, though no grain is ever actually seen, but as for me I prefer to think that some crazy coot has built this wheel and just enjoys watching people push it.
And push it Conan does, growing up strong and muscly, until he ends up looking kind of like an Austrian bodybuilder. Eventually Conan is pushing the whole farkin’ wheel all by himself, attracting the attention of a red-haired bearded guy who trains gladiators. He buys Conan and leads him off to the fleshpots of Hyboria. Conan retains a medallion in the shape of the wheel he was chained to, presumably symbolic of his servitude, but again this is something that seems totally out of character and not consistent with the literary character that Conan is supposedly based on.
Okay, so Conan — who has never fought, never been unchained from the wheel and as far as I can tell, never spoken — is tossed into the blood-pit and expected to fight. Well, he does fight. And he grunts. He grunts a lot. He makes lots of those funny Austrian-accented grunts and screams that we have become so fond of over the years. And eventually he wins, by pulping his foe’s head against a wall.
So begins Conan’s glorious career as a slave pit-fighter. Wait… Wait… What’s that spinning sound? My God — it’s coming from Robert E. Howard’s grave! The guy must be spinning — Jesus — at least 15,000 rpm! Well, ignore the sound. He’ll spontaneously combust any minute now. We are now treated to a montage of blood and action, with Conan (in a wide variety of strange and exotic Ron Cobb-designed armor) dispatches foe after foe, making his owner rich and himself famous.
Our narrator tells us that by killing so many people and making so much gold for others, he decides that he matters. Well, it was a savage and barbaric age — if messily killing dozens of foes in the blood-drenched slavepits is what you need to improve your self-esteem, so be it. Personally I prefer daily affirmations or something similar.
Next, in yet another radical departure from the original works, Conan is taken east “where the war-masters would teach him the deepest secrets.” Apparently this involves repeatedly slapping Conan while grunting “Ung! Yr-Ng! Ngrr!” until he does what you want him to do. Conan also learns to read, given poetry and philosophy, and he’s also thrown the occasional hot slave girl (or as the narrator charmingly puts it, “bred to the finest stock”) for his entertainment. To his credit, Conan remains chivalrous, wrapping the naked human brood-mare in a blanket before having sex with her. The swordplay in the film has a very authentic feel to it, once more due to the director’s interest in weapons and martial arts, and many of the sword katas that Conan practices are quite real, though I suspect that they are not normally performed with Atlantean broadswords.
Well, Conan is soon the toast of Hyboria and his master is eager to show him off at parties. At one such gathering, Conan is serving as a decorative centerpiece while a bunch of guys argue about what is best in life. “The open steppe!” declares a bearded Mongol-type. “A fleet horse! Falcons at your wrists, and the wind in your hair!” Well, that’s all well and good, but the feasters’ living table decoration sets him straight. When asked what he thinks is best in life, Conan replies, “To crush your enemies, to see dem driven before you, and to hear da lamentations of der vimmen!” which of course gets his owner lots of slaps on the back and free drinks.
And those, dear friends, are the first words to pass Conan’s lips for the entire first 25 or so minutes of the movie. And he won’t speak again for a while. In fact, Conan the Barbarian is actually quite remarkable in how little dialog it really has, especially from its two stars, Conan and the yet-to-be-seen Valeria. For the record btw, this quote is not original — the entire exchange is taken from the book Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men by Harold Lamb:
One day in the pavilion at Karakorum he [Genghis Kahn] asked an officer of the Mongol guard what, in all the world, could bring the greatest happiness. “The open steppe, a clear day, and a swift horse under you,” responded the officer after a little thought, “and a falcon on your wrist to start up hares.” “Nay,” responded the Kahn, “to crush your enemies, to see them fall at your feet — to take their horses and goods and hear the lamentation of their women. That is best.”
Which is a variation on the original reputed quote: “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters.” Now that’s pretty hard-core, but I’m also a little disappointed that, rather than actually use a quote from Robert E. Howard, Milius chose to strip-mine history for dialog.
Mind you, the movie that we’re watching is a bit of a mish-mash itself, drawing scenes from many different stories and events, of which we will discuss more presently. At length, Conan’s master grows weary of his muscle-bound cash cow and drives the poor guy out into a stormy night, drunkenly declaring that he’s now free. “It has been surmised,” says our narrator, “that perhaps my lord was like a wild animal that had been kept too long. Perhaps. But whatever — freedom, so long an unremembered dream — was his.”
Well, this is an unexpected development, especially for poor simple-minded Conan who just doesn’t seem to understand why his generous master kicks him out like that. The next scene is of him fleeing through the wilderness, only a few steps ahead of a pack of wild dogs. According to legend, the actual dogs used in the movie were extremely vicious — Arnold really is fleeing from them, fearful of losing a limb or two. Heh. And you thought he was just acting scared.
Conan makes it to a big stone monolith just ahead of his pursuers, then immediately falls down a hole, with a series of classic Schwarzenegger grunts along the lines of, “Ahrrr… owww… ngyang… anggggg…” before finally hitting bottom in the middle of and ancient Atlantean tomb. The tomb set is cool, especially the big skeleton clad in Ron Cobb-designed armor and clutching an ancient, encrusted sword. Conan spends some time looking at the old corpse and finally takes the sword, knocking off all the crud.
At this point every single person in the theater expected the mummy to come to life and fight Conan, but damn were we disappointed when the damned thing just collapses into a heap and lies there, dusty and useless. The disappointment is even greater when one realizes that this is the first scene cribbed directly from a Conan story, though not from Robert E. Howard, and there lies a bit of controversy. Back in the 60s and 70s, SF writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague deCamp took it upon themselves to essentially rewrite and reorganize the entire Conan saga, putting the stories in what they took to be “chronological order,” and also filling perceived gaps in the tales with stories of their own, some original and some adapted from other Howard stories, finished and unfinished. The result was a series of paperbacks with titles like Conan the Buccaneer, Conan the Wanderer, Conan the Rotarian and Conan the Librarian, eventually culminating in the little-read and unloved Conan the Octagenarian, about the barbarian’s sad last days in a nursing home. Among the stories that deCamp and Carter foisted off as Conan tales was “The Thing in the Crypt” which is basically this portion of the Milius movie.
In the story however, the Atlantean corpse does exactly what we want it to do — it comes to life and fights young Conan, but apparently this was too elaborate a scene for the SFX budget or something, as there’s no fight with a reanimated corpse anywhere near this movie. Again, a disappointment, but at least Conan is away from his life as a slave, has his sword and is finally on track to start acting like fucking Conan instead of a guy from a totally different series.
The next sequence should be familiar to Howard fans, since it was lifted from one of REH’s stories. Not from a Conan tale, however… Conan’s next mini-adventure is a scene from the Bran Mak Morn story “The Worms of the Earth,” a very effective historical fantasy/horror piece published in 1932, and available for your reading pleasure here. Conan, now equipped with his Atlantean sword and some warm-looking wild dog hides (hm… I wonder where he got those) wanders through some very disturbing rock formations, listening to loons cry out in the distance, and encounters a small hut, with a hot-but-kinda-creepy woman alluringly clad in furs standing outside.
“It is warm by the fire,” she whispers sultrily, giving Conan the once-over. “Do you not wish to warm yourself? By my fire?” Oh, what the fuck, Conan thinks. I’ll give it a shot. What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot, really. As soon as Conan sits down and starts to unwind, the hot witch-lady starts crawling around on all fours, throws flash powder into the fire and says weird shit like, “They said you would come. From the north. A man of great strength. A conqueror. A man who would someday be king by his own hand. One who would crush the snakes of the earth…”
“Snakes?” Conan interrupts, demanding that she explain the whole “snake” thing and tell him the name of the asshole who rides around with the serpent standard, burning down villages and chopping off hot mom’s heads. Hey, I know that guy, she declares, crawling closer and almost speaking into Conan’s nostrils. I’ll tell you all about him, but “there is a price.” Well, gee whiz Ma’am, what kinda price were you askin? Two bits? A whole dollar? Well, shucks, I ain’t got that kind of…
Nope. It’s the other price she’s asking for. Instantly we cut to Conan and the creepy-sexy witch woman doing the horizontal mambo. Instead of moaning “Oh god, yes. Don’t stop,” the witch instead tells Conan to go to Zamora, then starts howling and shrieking as we slap a blue filter on the scene, which can’t be good. And it is not good for Conan. She continues to scream, sprouts fangs and cat’s eyes, alarming Conan so much that he throws her into the fireplace.
She then reacts like most women would under such circumstances — she turns into a shrieking sentient fireball and shoots right out of the hut and into the night. Oh well, Conan thinks. At least I have the place to myself for the night. The next morning Conan straps on his sword, wraps himself in furs and steps out into the fresh morning air, then instantly encounters his boon companion, the Hyrkanian warrior-thief Subotai, chained to a rock just outside the witch’s hut.
Okay, wait a minute — if Subotai was chained up there, how come Conan didn’t notice him last night? He’s maybe 10 feet away from the witch’s door. And why didn’t Subotai ask the witch for help? I mean, she’ll help you, but there’s a price.And all things considered, the price really ain’t that bad… Just remember to throw her into the fireplace if things get too wild.
After some banter, Conan frees Subotai and the two of them set off across the plains to the exotic city of Zamora. On the way, they discuss religion and philosophy, giving Conan a chance to tell Subotai that his god Crom is strong and admirable, but never answers prayers, never listens and is always too busy at the office to play ball with him. Apparently absent fathers were a problem back during the Hyborian age too.
Okay, I’m going to stop the narrative for a moment here to dwell once more on my favorite aspect of Conan the Barbarian — Basil Poledouris’ amazing score. And the piece that plays during this and the subsequent scene, simply called Theology/Civilization, is easily one of the most beautiful and moving instrumental pieces I have ever heard. If you haven’t, please check it out here. Of all the fine themes in this film, Theology/Civilization captures the exotic allure of Robert E. Howard’s world and evokes images of staggering beauty. Now, back to the movie. As this lush and gorgeous music plays, Conan and Subotai run across the Hyborean plains toward the fleshpots of Zamora and their date with destiny.
“Civilization,” Subotai says. “Ancient and wicked. Have you ever seen this before?” “No,” Conan replies. “Let us waste no time!” And with this slightly cryptic utterance, Conan and Subotai go on a quick tour of the cities of Zamora and wander for a bit, marveling at the elephants, buying swords, noting how bad pigs smell and snacking on some lizard-on-a-stick (a favorite delicacy of Zamoran food-carts I’m told).
In each city they pass, we see a great snake-tower, which our heroes ignore at first, but we know that they’ll be important soon enough. The snake towers also show the fine hand of the great Ron Cobb, and are quite beautiful to behold, despite being — like all towers — slightly phallic. They quiz the locals about that two snake standard that the raiders carried when they destroyed Conan’s home and killed his oh-so-hot-mom. They have no luck on the standard, but one native tells them, “The only snakes I know are those of Set in those accursed towers. They have spread to every city. Two or three years ago it was just another snake-cult. Now… Everywhere.” Which of course begs the question of exactly how many fucking snake cults there are in Zamora, if the locals can dismiss them so casually. Oh, Jeez! Not another snake cult! Christ on pogo stick, where the fuck do they come from, anyway?
“It is said they are deceivers,” our expository peasant continues, “that they murder people in the night. I know nothing.” Our Hyborean equivalent of Sergeant Schultz now tries to sell the boys some Stygian black lotus, which we are assured is the best you can get. Later as our bold pair strides through the temple district, another local tries to sell them an amulet to protect them against evil, to which Subotai laughs, “I am evil!” which frankly is a pretty damned good comeback.
At this point Conan blunders into a camel, leaps in surprise, and decks the poor beast, which bears some resemblance to a similar scene in Blazing Saddles, but is pretty funny nonetheless. This attracts the hostile attention of the worshipers, and a priest who looks to be wearing a funny horn-covered hat that he bought from Archie McPhee’s or ThinkGeek.
Well they don’t much like hanging out with sanctimonious religious types, so Conan and Subotai head for a less snooty part of town, consuming their stash of black lotus as they go. The wisdom of this course of action proves slightly questionable, for while they’re busy getting stoned, Subotai suggests that they rob one of the snake towers, which he claims contains the fabulous “Eye of the Serpent.” How he knows this is never explained, but as far as Conan is concerned, if his ol’ buddy Subotai says there’s a big fat priceless gemstone in the ominous snake tower, then by golly we should go check it out right away! Just say no to drugs, kids. If you don’t you’ll end up robbing the local snake cult, and that can’t end well.
As our heroes creep into the tower they encounter a fellow thief — it’s none other than Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, heroine of the classic REH story “Red Nails.” Here, however, she’s a bit different, though Sandahl Bergman plays her with dash and very little dialog. I think that the choice of Bergman was great, as she is a tough, athletic-looking woman and far from your average sword and sorcery bimbo. She wears sensible fighter-thief armor, and is every bit Conan and Subotai’s equal.
Her connection with Conan appears to be largely instinctive, for despite their passionate affair (oh, come on, you knew it was going to happen the minute you saw her), they exchange only a handful of lines throughout the whole movie. In the first, Conan spits “You’re no guard!” as he and Valeria face each other warily, swords drawn. She replies, “Neither are you,” Subotai notes that she’s a thief like them, come to rob the tower, she says, “You don’t even have a rope. Ha! Two fools who laugh at death — do you know what horrors lie beyond that wall?” Conan replies, “No,” and Valeria replies “Then you go first” (another great line, really).
And that, dear reader, is the last line that Conan utters to Valeria for the entire movie. Mind you, she talks to him quite a bit, but for the rest of the damned flick he just sits in stony silence and never actually talks to the love of his life. Great boyfriend you are, Conan. Communication is supposed to be the most important thing in a relationship. So the dynamic trio now ascends in a scene reminiscent of another classic Conan tale, REH’s “Tower of the Elephant.” The snipping of small scenes and images from Howard’s works continues.
Once at the top they see that there’s a well that goes down into the temple proper. Subotai complains about the smell and Valeria says “Do you want to live forever?” before venturing down ahead of the boys. Once inside they observe some white-clad snake acolytes (snake-o-lytes?), plus the high priest, whom Valeria tells them is second only to Thulsa Doom himself. “They say Thulsa Doom’s a thousand years old!” she continues, providing us with still more questionable exposition. This is, however, the first time that villain Doom has actually been named, so I guess it’s important.
Valeria sends the boys down to the stench-ridden lower level while she sneaks up on the high priest, proving that she’s got them both wrapped around her little finger. Upstairs she knocks out a priestess and takes her place, while below Conan and Subotai encounter the infamous Eye of the Serpent, with a real giant serpent slumbering an curled up around the altar.
The giant snake is quite a work of art, and in those days before we could animate anything with CGI, practical effects were the rule of the day. Unfortunately, since everything had to be mechanical — a network of cables and hydraulics, wires and pulleys — they didn’t always move realistically. And sometimes, as Bela Lugosi discovered in Bride of the Monster, they didn’t move at all. In this case, the snake certainly looks good, but the big question is, can it act? Initially the answer seems to be “no,” as Conan and Subotai scramble over its scaly hide, seize the Eye of the Serpent, and are about to make a clean getaway, just as the naked sacrificial maiden is about to be…
Hold on a second! There’s a naked sacrificial maiden? Hey, we forgot about Valeria, now disguised as an acolyte and watching the ceremony above the snake pit. Here, the chosen sacrifice to Set is led forward and of course she’s a cute young woman who is immediately disrobed. Why she has to be disrobed is anyone’s guess — maybe linen robes give snakes indigestion. In any event, our naked (or, as this is the 80s, semi-naked, for she keeps her slightly diaper-like lower garment on) victim kneels and is doing the snake-hypnosis hoochee-koochee up above as Conan and Subotai scramble away from the chamber, gem in hand.
Conan however is distracted. Hanging conveniently on the wall is a big jade medallion that depicts the exact same icon as the raiders bore when they destroyed his village! Holy Crom! He may have finally found a real clue (as if the snake motifs everywhere in the temple weren’t sufficient). As he stares in fascination at the medallion the serpent wakes up and realizes he’s been robbed and slithers toward the distracted barbarian.
Uh-oh. It looks as if we’re gonna have a real fight on our hands — a Frazetta painting come to terrifying life! The serpent rises up, only a little bit clunky and somewhat smoother than the animatronic shark from Jaws, horrific and bloody battle is about to be joined… And then Conan shoves a sword through it and Subotai shoots it with an arrow and the fight is basically over.
Oh sure the snake flops around a little, but it looks as if 1980s SFX weren’t quite up to the task of a thrilling extended hand-to-hand struggle with a giant constrictor. Conan then chops the head off the now-lifeless practical effect and they flee just as the naked sacrificial maiden reaches the height of her hoochee-koochee ecstasy and, as high priest Ben Davidson looks on approvingly (probably thinking, “Hey, if the guys from the Raiders back in ’67 could see me now… Heh, heh… I’m no some crappy all-pro defensive end anymore… Fuck that… I’m Rexor — high priest of Set, bitches!“)
And so of her own accord, the hypnotized sacrifice plunges to her supposed doom in the snake pit, only to find that everyone’s favorite constrictor has been cruelly decapitated and the Eye of the Serpent stolen by a couple of barbarian mooks. She screams, the temple erupts in chaos, Conan and Subotai climb up the central well back toward the top of the tower, and Rexor looks really, really pissed off. Just as Rexor directs his temple guards to loose arrows at the fleeing barbarians, Valeria casts aside her disguise and starts stabbing, casts one of them into the pit with the rope wrapped around him, and rides the line up to join Conan and Subotai.
Once they’re at the top, she casts a quick glance at her companions, shouts, “Do you want to live forever?’ and leaps from the tower. Wheeeeeeeeee! After a moment of Butch-and-Sundance style hesitation, Conan and Subotai join her and we’re away, scott free with the Eye of the Serpent! Now quick, before the cult finds out what we did and sends hordes of shape-changing snake assassins after us, let’s get the hell out of Zamora and go spend our ill-gotten loot on ale and whores in Shem or Hyrkania or someplace…
Well, no. It seems that this course doesn’t occur to our heroes, who stay right there in Zamora where they stole the gem, and then blow all their loot on ale and whores. Conan and Valeria continue their largely-wordless courtship, with Conan giving the Eye of the Serpent to her, giving her the burning Austrian bodybuilder eye (much like the way Arnold regarded his frumpy housekeeper before knocking her up while he was still married to newscaster Maria Schriver, well before his celebrated term as governor of California… but that’s a tale for another time). They of course fall into each other’s arms and commence boinking like bunnies, but still don’t actually talk to each other.
It’s all very sexy and romantic, we get to see soft-focused details of Sandahl and Arnold’s striking physiques, and it pretty much ignores the fact that in the single Conan story that Valeria appeared in, she and Conan never did the mattress mambo. Oh well, it’s the magic of movies… All manner of pleasures and diversions were indulged, says our narrator over a montage of Conan and Valeria blowing every last copper of their stolen riches. Wealth can be wonderful. Heh, heh, heh. But you know — success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary!
At this point we cut to Conan and his new girlfriend nursing the great grandfather of all hangovers until Conan falls, face first into his bowl of porridge. Seeing the big guy helpless, a bunch of soldiers show up and arrest our two lovebirds, taking them to see the brooding King Osric, played by none other than the great Max Von Sydow — one of both Sweden and the world’s most distinguished thespians. Fortunately for us, his performances in classic cinema such as Shame, the Night Visitor, The New Land, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Exorcist and Voyage of the Damned didn’t stop him from taking roles like this, and also appearing in gems like Dune, Flash Gordon and Needful Things, as well as doing voicework for the awesome video game Oblivion: Skyrim and appearing in the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII. Keep at it, Max. You are a god of the cinema.
And so Von Sydow brings his usual gravitas to this role, congratulating our heroes on their success against those damned snake-fuckers, the Set cult. “What daring! What outrageousness! What insolence! What arrogance!” he bellows, as Conan and Subotai look ashamed and Valeria looks defiant (I’m beginning to think she’s the real hero of this movie, but that’s just me). “I salute you!”
Now that we’re all friends, Osric sits down to a nice cup of wine with our heroes and complains about this wacky snake cult that’s taking over everywhere and drawing in all the naive young people with promises of free love, drugs and non-stop partying. Even Osric’s own daughter has joined up, and gone out to live in Thulsa Doom’s desert commune with all the other filthy hippies. “She follows him like a slave, seeking for the truth of her soul,” Osric complains. “As if I could not give it to her!”
He offers Conan and his buddies all the riches they can carry to get his daughter out of the clutches of them danged longhairs and their danged rock-n-roll. Osric says, “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.” The line is delivered with absolute sincerity and emotion, and in the middle of our silly movie about barbarians and giant snakes, Max Von Sydow manages to utter a few words of truth that still resonate decades later. And it’s indeed the truth, take it from me.
Anyway, how can our heroes resist such an offer? Go rescue (or at least kidnap) a hot princess, get all the treasure you can carry, and get revenge for the destruction of Conan’s village and the death of his sexy mom? Sounds good to me. Once more proving her position as the brains of the operation, Valeria thinks this is a bad idea. Despite all the cool gems and gold, she really doesn’t think they should be taking on a thousand-year-old sorcerer in an impregnable fortress with an army of fanatics determined to die in his service. After all, there’s much easier targets elsewhere, right?
Well, Conan’s having none of that. They killed his family and sold him into slavery, and Thulsa Doom chopped off his mother’s head right in front of him. You just don’t get over something like that. Even after an impassioned plea from Valeria, Conan sits in stony silence and the next morning his place beside her is empty. Yup, he’s going up against Thulsa Doom alone.
And so we’re back to Conan, riding through deserts and mountains, toward the fortress of Thulsa Doom, and probably not really sure what he’s going to do when he gets there. Finally he encounters what he’s been looking for — a procession of whacked-out hippies wandering in the desert with flowers, beating on tambourines, bound for Thulsa Doom’s groovy pad, where they can lie around smoking pot, listening to the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and never bathing.
“The Children of Doom… Doom’s Children,” intones the narrator. “They told my lord the way to the Mountain of Power. They told him to throw down his sword and return to the earth… Ha! Time enough for the earth in the grave.” Are you beginning to see a theme here? Do you get the impression that John Milius doesn’t like hippies very much? The juxtaposition of modern Moonie/Scientology style cultism with Howard’s Hyborian mythology feels very clunky to me, and just isn’t a very good fit.
Again, the look and feel of the story are very much classic Conan, but the subtext is uncomfortably contemporary and more than a little off-key. (I also wonder how much of this “Set-worshippers-are-just-like-those-stupid-hippies” themes were in Oliver Stone’s screenplay, given that he himself is kind of a counterculture type, creating the great anti-war movie Platoon and the controversial and semi-fictional but still-entertaining Jim Morrison biopic, The Doors.)
Near the Mountain of Power, Conan rides through ancient ruins, mummified armored warriors and stone monoliths, where he is confronted by a crazed-looking old man who talks just like the narrator… Hey, wait a sec… It is the narrator, listed in the credits only as “The Wizard,” played by the late Mako, a distinguished character actor with roles stretching back to 1959 that included classic TV shows like McHale’s Navy, Gidget, I Spy and F-Troop. Mako was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles in 1966, and passed away in 2006 soon after providing the voice of Splinter in the (really bad) 2007 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
Conan and the wizard hit it off immediately. Conan is amused by the Wizard’s threats of demon-summoning and vengeful spirits, and the Wizard just plain likes the cut of Conan’s jib. They hang out by the fire and the next day Conan hides his sword and armor and uneasily mounts up on a camel, armed with beautiful flowers so he can fit in with the cultists. ‘Cuz they’re, like, groovy, man. You know? (Arnold must have really hated camels by the time he finished this flick, because the one he’s riding is being very uncooperative.)
In the camp of the Moonies… Oops, I mean Doomies… I mean Set-worshippers… Conan rides past the beautiful people, most of whom are just sitting and grooving, until a bunch of priests arrive and start distributing acolyte’s robes. As Conan tries to puzzle out what to do, a walking, talking homosexual stereotype… I mean a priest of Set approaches him. Conan confides that he is afraid. “Afraid?” lisps the priest, pulling open Conan’s tunic to reveal his barrel chest. “Afraid to bare yourself? Why? You’re so big and so well-grown. You should be proud of your body. How do you expect to reach emptiness without knowing your own body?”
It turns out of course that the priest is only too willing to help Conan know his own body, so Conan leads him away from the crowd, where our unfortunate Set worshipper clearly expects to get a little barbarian-lovin’. Unfortunately for him, Conan only clobbers him and steals his robes, then returns, doing a very unconvincing impersonation of a priest. No one notices or says, “Hey! That’s not Charlie! He’s thin and slightly effeminate and likes to skip and dance about! This guy is big, burly and kind of clumsy! Imposter!” and he fits in with all the other acolytes on their way to Thulsa Doom’s big temple of grooviness, where the squares never harsh your mellow.
On the way, he presents the jade medallion that he stole from the temple as ID, which proves to be a big mistake, for who should come out of the temple as the acolytes are gathering but good old Rexor and his buddie Thorgrim, neither of whom have aged a day since exterminating the Cimmerians all those years ago. But Conan isn’t aware of this. He’s seated beside a reflecting pool and when a priestess asks him what he sees, he replies, “Infinity,” which seems to satisfy her, the dumb hippie chick. All seems to be going swimmingly until a guard points him out to Rexor and Thorgrim as the guy who’s carrying that unique, specific medallion that was stolen from our temple in Zamora. Honestly, Conan has a lot to learn about covert ops.
Now Thulsa Doom appears on a balcony above the multitude in a really wacky outfit with a long, scaled cloak. “I see you!” he shouts. “I have watched you! For a thousand years, I have watched you! Who among you will not face death? Who will not face emptiness?” Conan’s pretty intrigued by now, but suddenly someone shouts “Infidel!“, he is grabbed by Rexor and Thorgrim, and whoop-whoop-whoop, out go the lights. The proceedings are observed by Thulsa’s snake-priestess, whom we later learn is King Osric’s wayward daughter. So now Conan is subjected to a little freeform torture before Thulsa shows up for the big interrogation.
“I wish to speak to you now,” Thulsa says, looking about as threatening as your grandfather, but still sounding like Darth Vader. “Where is the Eye of the Serpent? Rexor says you gave it to a girl. Probably for a mere night’s pleasure. What a loss. People have no grasp of what they do. You broke into my house, stole my property, murdered my servants. And my pets, and that is what grieves me the most! You killed my snake. Thorgrim is beside himself with grief. He raised that snake from the time it was born!” Thorgrim then looks sorrowful as the movie gets about 20% wackier.
“You killed my mother!” Conan shoots back. “You killed my father! You killed my people! You took my father’s sword!”
(Well, at this point in his career, before he got his current politician’s grasp of the English language, the line comes out more like “Yu kilt my mudda! Yu kilt my fadda! You kilt my pepul! Yu tuk my fadda’s sort!” which to me suggests that Conan is at least part LOLcat.)
Anyway, I guess that makes them even, huh? Maybe Thulsa should just call it good and let him go. No such luck, I fear. Confronted with this horrific accusation, Thulsa Doom only sighs nostalgically. “Ah, it must have been when I was younger. There was a time, boy when I searched for steel. When steel meant more to me than gold and jewels.”
“The riddle of steel?” Conan asks.
“Hm. Yes. You know what it is, don’t you boy? Shall I tell you? It’s the least I can do.” Thulsa smiles. “Steel isn’t strong, boy. Flesh is stronger!” To prove this, Thulsa has one of his female acolytes throw herself off a cliff (the fall, by stuntwoman Corrie Jansen, was at the time a women’s freefall record, 182 feet, and unlike the stuntman in The Sword and the Sorcerer, she didn’t die in the process). Presto. Game, set and match. This battle of wits is over, sir!
Thulsa throws out a few bon mots about the strength of flesh versus that of steel, sighs and tells Conan to contemplate his words on the Tree of Woe. And so Conan is crucified on a gnarled tree in the middle of the desert. This, and the entire sequence that follows, is another scene lifted from a Howard Conan story, A Witch Shall Be Born. While it isn’t one of the greatest Conan stories, it does contain what is probably the most famous scene from a Conan tale, and it is duplicated here in loving, somewhat nauseating, detail.
Conan hangs on the tree for quite a while, his barbaric constitution keeping him alive where lesser men would have perished. And while he isn’t a manly man like Talon in The Sword and the Sorcerer, who manages to decrucify himself, Conan does prove that he’s the badass’ badass when a vulture flaps down and tries to take a bite. Still alive, and in no mood to be eaten just then, Conan turns the tables, seizing the luckless creature in his mouth and biting it to death, letting its corpse fall to the foot of the tree.
This really is a harrowing scene, made worse by the knowledge that the bird Schwarzenegger was expected to bite was a real, dead vulture, and that he washed his mouth out immediately after biting it to make sure he hadn’t caught some awful disease. Though Doom’s strategy here is quite horrific — leaving your enemy to die of thirst and starvation, nailed to a tree — it really reeks of Bond villain/evil dark lord stupidity, doesn’t it? Conan — Doom’s sworn enemy and clearly a capable foe — was in his grasp, and instead of having him beheaded immediately, Doom has him put into a deathtrap that, as always doesn’t work. After a blunder of this magnitude, Thulsa Doom has lost what little sympathy he may once have had. Everything that happens from this point forward is his own fault.
And so Conan hangs for hours or days, until at last just as all seems lost, a lone figure appears in the distance and we hear a familiar theme playing faintly. It’s Subotai, and the theme is once more the familiar Theology/Civilization. And by the gods, this sequence is genuinely moving, dammit.
Of course, Subotai and Valeria couldn’t leave Conan to face the lord of evil alone, and so followed along. They showed up late, and Conan is near death as they bring him to the Wizard. Will he make it? Will he recover and return to seek vengeance against Thulsa Doom and his savage cult? My guess is that he will, but let’s find out, shall we? The Wizard can save him, he says, but there’s a price. Valeria is, naturally, willing to pay the price, and so the Wizard paints Conan’s body with mystic runes, casts his spells, and as night falls our heroes prepare to fight for Conan’s soul.
The sequence that follows is very exciting, with the spirits of the dead trying to carry Conan away, and his three companions fighting them. The spirits are hand-animated, resembling the Creature from the Id in Forbidden Planet, and the struggle is long and fierce, but as we all expected, by morning Conan is still with us and the spirits of the dead are defeated.
“All the gods, they cannot sever us,” Valeria declares. “If I were dead and you still fighting for life, I swear I would come back from the darkness, back from the pit of hell, to fight at your side!” Remember that. It will be important later. Conan recovers quickly, gaining strength and doing his awesome sword kata, and prepping for the big fight that we all know is coming. At the fireside our heroes plan their next move. Subotai and Valeria insist that Conan agree to only kidnap the princess and deal with Thulsa Doom some other time. He doesn’t answer, which suggests that things might not go well, but the next morning they’re off and the Doomies need to start worrying.
Pausing near a convenient back door that the Wizard told them about, our heroes don warpaint, then sneak in to yet another rousing Basil Poledouris theme, this one a thundering Wagnerian chorus whose lyrics appear to be a choir singing “Deewa nooga wawa naga, needa wawa nooga deewa!” though if there is a real language in there somewhere I sure as hell can’t decipher it. They sneak through a red-filtered cavern way too easily, passing where fetish leather-clad guards are loading up a cauldron with a stew of human flesh. Yup, I knew it! Them hippies wuz just a buncha dirty-ass cannibals!
They follow the cauldron-bearers, who are delicately swaying back and forth as if they’re doing the bunny-hop, into what can only be described as the orgy chamber, where the music now changes to a lilting ethereal theme as naked and semi-naked cultists roll around on silken cushions, snacking on their human flesh hors d’oeuvres. In the middle of it all is another snake priestess, mostly naked and chained to a column, but clearly getting into the whole groovy orgy scene herself. A gimp-masked guy with a big ladle serves up more fleshy snacks from the needlessly large and heavy cauldron, while Thulsa Doom and the lost princess watch the proceedings from a throne above it all.
Now I have to say something — when I saw this back in the 80s, the whole orgy seemed incredibly decadent and sexy, but on rewatching I realize that not very much actually happens. None of the orgy participants besides the chained priestess are actually naked, and all they really do is lie around and writhe a little bit. In the end, it’s probably one of the most disappointing screen orgies ever. Of course, it could be worse — it could be Caligula, which featured a very explicit orgy scene that made me not want to have sex ever again.
Thulsa Doom seems strangely unmoved by all of this, and while he watches, he slowly (and not terribly convincingly) turns into a giant snake, then slithers away. Well, I guess that takes care of him, huh? Another big disappointment.
While everyone is all orgy-pated and not paying attention, our three heroes move into position, ready to begin the slaughter. Moments later, Valeria sets the gauzy curtains afire, Subotai slashes the gimp-mask guy’s throat, and we are off to the fuckin’ races.
There are a couple of problems with what has come to be called the “orgy battle” however. As the thematic center of the movie, it is nonetheless kind of mechanical and predictable. No one — and I mean no one — even causes our heroes to break a sweat. Sword-wielding mooks rush up, there’s a clang-clang, and then our hero slashes the bad guy across the gut or throat, he falls and the next one runs up… clang-clang, stab… clang-clang, stab… Though the choreography and swordplay are fun, they are also kind of rote and mechanical. Still, with its piles of dead bodies, booming Poledouris score and exciting setting, it’s still impressive.
The guards are also apparently members of the Hong Kong villains union, forced to attack one at a time while their hordes of fellows mill around in the background, wondering what the hell to do. No wonder so many cultist corpses stack up… Their group battle tactics just plain suck. Things pick up when Thorgrim and Rexor appear. As Valeria incapacitates and hog-ties the princess (ooh, girl-on-girl bondage action), Conan upends the cauldron of human stew on the bad guys, demonstrating that the only reason it was so big and heavy was so that the heroes could use it as a weapon. Rexor sees Conan, alive and hardy, with the blood of a dozen or so mooks dripping from his sword, mutters “You!” and battle is joined.
It’s disappointingly short, and it ends after only a few exchanges between the combatants. Trying to smack Conan, Thorgrim accidentally hits the big central column with his big-ass hammer, causing a big chunk to land of Rexor’s head, felling the entire column and allowing Conan to follow his companions back into the cave with the princess. Valeria engages in some more clang-clang, stab… clang-clang, stab as they escape, but eventually they get back to the gorge, mount up with the princess in tow and ride for freedom. None of this is to Thulsa Doom’s liking. Back in human form, and in a completely different set of clothes, he helps Rexor to his feet.
“Infidel defilers!” he says, showing a serious overabundance of sour grapes. “They shall all drown in lakes of blood. Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they will learn why they fear the night.”
Honestly, his Doomship is overstating the case just a little bit, because apparently “drown in lakes of blood” means “I’m going to turn a snake into an arrow and shoot Valeria,” which he does, and our bold, blonde pirate-lass doesn’t make it out of the gorge alive. Cradled in Conan’s loving arms, she whispers “The Wizard! I told him I would pay the cost! Hold me! Kiss me. Let me breathe my last breath into your mouth.”
Well, honestly, that’s kind of icky, but Conan as always says nothing and she’s gone. Looks like Thulsa Doom has yet another strike against him. That night they rest Valeria on a funeral pyre (dressed in a really awesome suit of black leather armor that we haven’t seen before), and our surviving heroes watch, pretty much agreeing that Thulsa Doom is dead meat, snakes or no snakes. Subotai brushes away tears and the Wizard asks why he’s crying.
“He is Conan, the Cimmerian,” Subotai replies. “He won’t cry. So I cry for him.” As he watches the flames, Conan pulls off his slave-wheel necklace and throws it away, then hangs the Eye of the Serpent from his neck. Yeah, Thulsa Doom is totally fucked. The next day Conan chains the princess to one of the monoliths and begins to fortify the ancient ruins. “He will kill you!” the princess declares, ever clueless. “He has seen your fires, and when he comes for me he will kill you!” Conan, true to his performance so far, does not dignify this with an reply.
As they prepare, Conan reminisces about picking blueberries with his father, and for all his thick accent, he does a pretty good job with it. They gather up weapons from the old warriors, dig pit traps, set stakes, build traps and generally get the place ready for slaughter. And well they do, for soon Thulsa Doom and his minions are on their way.
Once more, Thulsa Doom shows himself to be the most inept evil dark lord since Lord Voltan in Hawk the Slayer, for his words again don’t really match his actions. They’d drown in lakes of blood, he promised. They would learn why they feared the night, he declared. Given such assertions, I’d expect armies of black-clad assassins, summoned demons and creatures of the night to assail our heroes and pursue them to the ends of the earth, creeping in shadows and attacking when they least expect it.
Nope. It’s just Thulsa Doom and a dozen or so of his already-beaten mooks (apparently all that’s left of his once-mighty horde), with Rexor and Thorgrim along for comic relief. Does anyone expect them to do any better than the last batch? In the words of Mystery Science Theater in response to the evil Lord Phantom of Krankor: “The fool! He has defeated us many times! What makes him think he can do it again?”
Now, as Thulsa’s less-than-impressive multitude draws near (why didn’t he call up his thousands of acolytes to go kill the infidels, anyway? No, never mind… that would have been logical), Conan turns his eyes skyward and utters the best line of the entire movie.
Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad, why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many — that’s what’s important. Valor pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!
Well said, big guy. When I first saw this movie at the Clackamas Town Center Cinema so very, very long ago, that line got a round of applause. Despite this movie’s flaws (and there are many), occasionally we hear the voice of Robert E. Howard, speaking to us across the gulf of years with the voice of Conan.
The enemy’s cavalry tactics in rough, restricted terrain prove disastrous from the get-go. Men are cut from saddles. Horses go tumbling (and unfortunately, several horses were killed in this scene and when asked about it, director Milius just laughed it off, saying they hurt more people than horses). Conan and Subotai spring out, stab or hack at their foes, then vanish. By my count, Thulsa Doom loses 18 warriors in just under three minutes of screen time. I don’t think the English at Agincourt did that well. By this time, with a few minor exceptions, the bad guys are down to Thulsa Doom (lurking nearby and watching like the coward that he is), Rexor and Thorgrim.
Conan and Rexor (clad in another Ron Cobb armor set, this with a rather Celtic-looking helmet crest) duke it out — Rexor knocks Conan for a loop, then Conan cuts Rexor’s horse out from under him (and I’m sorry to say the shot looks like the poor beast broke its neck in the fall — it certainly couldn’t have done it any good), then scrambles into the ruins. Meanwhile, Subotai is busy mopping up, killing off the last few of Doom’s mooks. He almost gets stabbed, but the Wizard shows up with a spear and saves him. “I did it!” the Wizard shouts, unsteadily. “With my spear!”
Back in the ruins, Thorgrim is creeping along with his bigass hammer, and sees Conan’s helmet sticking up behind a rock and just as we’re asking “Oh, god — is he going to fall for that old trick?”, he falls for it (maybe it wasn’t such an old trick during the Hyborian Age). He clobbers the helmet, triggering one of the traps and ending up impaled on a big wooden stake. Good night, Sweet Thorgrim. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Unfortunately while Conan is gazing in triumph at his foe, the not-yet-dead Rexor rushes him and sends him tumbling. Conan falls, Rexor has the advantage, draws back for the killing blow, but suddenly, from out of nowhere…
Clang! A sword blocks Rexor’s blow, then slashes him across the eyes, blinding him and sending him staggering back. Conan stares in amazement at the image of Valeria, standing there in kind of silly-looking mirrored Valkyrie armor (wings on her helmet and everything), as she coolly asks him, “Do you want to live forever?” and vanishes, allowing Conan to finish off Rexor with huge splashes of blood, shattering his father’s sword (which Rexor still carries) in the process. Symbolism, anyone?
(And yes, this scene is from Howard as well — it comes at the end of Queen of the Black Coast when Conan’s lover the pirate queen Belit returns from the dead to save him. The grand REH remix continues.)
Seeing which way the wind is blowing, Thulsa Doom gallops away, despite the princess’ pleas that he not leave her. He pauses briefly to draw one of his snake arrows and aim it at her, however. God, what a dick this guy is.
Luckily for the princess, the noble Subotai leaps into the path of the arrow, deflecting it with his shield and proving to that dumb princess that you shouldn’t hang out with those stupid hippy gurus — they’ll just turn you into a mindless, drug-addled sex slave and then try to kill you with a snake turned into an arrow.
Conan now holds the broken remnants of his father’s sword along with his own Atlantean blade and lifts them up to the sky in a grudging tribute to his grim god. If the movie had ended there, I think it would have been fine. Conan has triumphed, banished the ghosts of his past, and his arch-enemy has escaped. But no, we’ve still got a little ways to go.
That night Thulsa Doom — who is now almost entirely bereft of minions, both competent and incompetent — apparently snaps and calls his acolytes to a big love-in, where he addresses them from his balcony, as Conan sneaks into the temple with the help of his now-ally princess, who distracts Doom’s remaining handful of guards, letting Conan stab them. (I want to note that my version of the movie is the director’s cut, in which the ending is a little longer, and actually makes much more sense than the theatrical version, which just has Conan show up on the balcony behind Thulsa Doom with no explanation and no help from the princess.)
Outside Doom is genuinely losing it, raving to his followers. “The purging is at last at hand. Day of Doom is here. All that is evil, all their allies; your parents, your leaders, those who would call themselves your judges; those who have lied and corrupted the Earth, they shall all be cleansed. You, my children, are the water that will wash away all that has gone before. In your hands you hold my life. The gleam in the eye of Set. This flame will burn away the darkness. Burn you the way to PARADISE!!!”
Okay, he’s no Jeremy Irons, but the cheese has definitely slid off of Thulsa Doom’s cracker. Exactly what he means by all this is unclear. Is he sending them out to conquer? To go murder their parents? To set themselves on fire? It’s not certain, but hey… Doom is clearly fucking batshit insane. Whatever Doom’s plan is, it’s interrupted by the appearance of Conan, loaded for bear and carrying the still-dangerous remnants of his father’s sword.
Doom doesn’t seem surprised. “My child. You have come to me, my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? Who gave you the will to live? I am the wellspring from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What will your world be without me? My son?”
In short — “Conan, I am your father. Search your feelings. You know it to be true!” Hey, good thing James Earl Jones didn’t get typecast back in the 70s and 80s, huh? Conan considers this, and actually looks as if he might be buying it. The princess and all the acolytes stare, wondering which way our barbarian will go. I think we all know the answer to that one. Deciding that he’s not taking any more of this mystical mumbo-jumbo hippy shit, Conan then slashes Thulsa’s neck with the stump of his father’s sword, then hacks his head off completely, holding it up to the crowd like a prize turkey before throwing it down the steps.
He’s slain their messiah! He’s an evil infidel! He has destroyed everything they believe in and hold sacred! The angry mob of acolytes rises up as one, storming the temple with blood in their eyes, forcing Conan into a night of desperate, bloody struggle against impossible odds…
Well, no. They don’t actually do that. After watching Conan murder the man that they have all been brainwashed to worship as god and father, the cultists all throw their torches into the reflecting pond and walk away. Yup. They just walk away. Within 30 seconds, the temple is empty save for Conan, the princess and a pond full of dead torches. Where did they go? It’s a mystery that will probably never be solved.
Conan then walks down the steps and throws a big brazier back up on the balcony, thus setting a stone temple on fire. Crom has granted another miracle. And that, pretty much, is the end of Conan the Barbarian. He rides away with the hot princess (one wonders exactly what happens on the trip home) and the narrator reads from the closing crawl, superimposed over the image of Conan upon the throne of Aquilonia, “So did Conan return the wayward daughter of King Osric to her home. And having no further concern, he and his companions sought adventure in the west. Many wars and feuds did Conan fight. Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand… And this story shall also be told!”
Well no, not really. Although Arnold signed to play up to four Conan movies, only this and its weak sequel Conan the Destroyer were ever released, and Conan remained absent from the silver screen until 2011’s disastrous outing Conan the Barbarian starring Jason Momoa drove the last nail in the coffin of hopes for a definitive film version of Robert E. Howard’s barbarian. We’ll be inspecting that particular gem in my next column, which hopefully will be done much sooner than this one.
What are we to make of this, the first of two movie Conans? I think that this version is a mixed bag. If seen as a generic swords-and-sorcery movie about a guy who just happens to be named Conan but has no other real connection to Howard’s Conan, it’s a pretty decent piece of work. It’s got all the right elements in just about the right measure and I’d hazard to say it’s one of the finest of its genre (see my ratings below).
As the definitive screen version of Conan the Barbarian, I say no fucking way. Only passing lip service was paid to the actual Howard stories, consisting of some scenes taken from a half-dozen or so different works, some of (Worms of the Earth, for example) not Conan stories at all.
Conan’s entire cinematic origin story is dreadful — Conan was never a slave or a pit fighter, his village was not destroyed by raiders, his father wasn’t killed, he never went adventuring in search of revenge, and Thulsa Doom never appeared in a single Conan story — he was a villain from the King Kull tales, set thousands of years earlier. Valeria was a pirate and they adventured together in one story, Red Nails. And so on. I know a lot of this is nitpicking, but I’m a purist, and all the monkeying with a perfectly good set of stories and characters really bothers me.
There are other areas where the character doesn’t jibe with his literary antecedent. For example, I think that REH’s Conan would have strenuously objected to the wizard saving his life through sorcery, especially since it cost Valeria her’s. I can envision him snarling at the wizard “You should have let me die, sorcerer! Not begone, and be grateful that I let you live!” or something. I don’t really see Conan hanging out with a wizard anyway, since sorcery in the original tales is almost always portrayed as a dark and corrupting force, and its practitioners are at best amoral and at worst utterly evil and sadistic.
Despite this, Conan the Barbarian does a great job of capturing the look and feel, the spirit and heart of Howard’s writings, and coupled with that lush, unbelievable score, is a more than decent film. I just don’t think it truly portrays Howard’s hero as he was written and as he exists in our imaginations.
With the exception of the printed word and comics, the media hasn’t been all that kind to Conan. As noted, the next two cinematic versions of the barbarian were pretty awful, and an attempted live action TV series, Conan the Adventurer, was a pale imitation of the Hercules/Xena style of low-budgeted television fantasy. Having watched a couple of episodes one wonders whether the creators actually bothered to flip through a Conan story or two before writing it, and the show died a well-deserved death after one season. It is missed by no one.
And then there was Conan the Adventurer, the animated series. Holy shit.
Conan! The mightiest warrior ever! His quest — to undo the spell of living stone cast upon his family by driving the evil serpent-men back to another dimension! And vanquishing their leader, the cruel wizard Wrath-Amon!
Fortunately, the animated Conan fared no better than his TV counterpart and today we’re mercifully free of its influence. I might review that one some day, assuming I’m equipped with enough Whippits and Jack Daniels to get through an entire episode.
And so John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian, for better or worse, remains the best portrayal of Robert E. Howard’s hero to date, and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
And with that, I bid you farewell. I shall return — much sooner than last time, I hope, with more fun and eventually a review of the 2011 Conan the Barbarian, which was both better and worse than this particular outing. Fight on! And now, the ratings:
Sword and Sorcery Rating:
Yup, this one’s the gold standard for S&S movies. Conan the Barbarian has it all — violence, sex, swords, wizardry, heroes, heroines, pecs, breasts, armor, giant snakes… It receives the coveted 4 sword rating, and well-deserved.
There are a few funny moments — Conan slugging the camel, Conan falling into his porridge, Thorgrim accidentally knocking down the pillar, etc. But for the most part, the flick is pretty grim and serious, lacking comedy both intentional and non-intentional (which is not really that bad a thing).
My, my is does this movie have a body count. For the most part our heroes don’t have any problem battling Thulsa Doom’s inept legions, and fake stage blood galore is shed. You have to wonder how violent this movie was going to be before the studio demanded cuts.
Lots of nakedness and a pretty decent amount of sex, even if the orgy scene is a lot tamer on reviewing than it once was. Conan and Valeria don’t exactly set the screen on fire, but they have a decent enough love scene, and there’s lots of naked breasts and male pectorals for most discerning viewers.
Yeah, this may be the very first movie I’ve reviewed to get the full four sword rating. For all its flaws, its lack of faithfulness to the original stories, its goofy elements and its jarringly modern portrayal of Doom’s cult as a bunch of drugged-out hippies, this remains one of the finest and most awesome fantasy movies ever. And much of the credit goes to the amazing, epic, haunting and moving score by the late great Basil Poledouris. One listen to his amazing compositions for this movie will rouse your spirits and make you want to wade, sword in hand, into hopeless battle so that the gods themselves will see and approve.