Conan the Barbarian (1982) / Adventure-Fantasy
MPAA rated R for strong violence, sex, nudity, and gore
Running time: 129 min.
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Ben Davidson, Mako, Max von Sydow, Valerie Quennessen
Director: John Milius
Screenplay: John Milius, Oliver Stone
Review published May 6, 2003
Yes, it's Arnie's (The Terminator, Commando) first breakthrough role, and one of his more memorable ones, as Robert E. Howard's literary creation comes to life in Conan the Barbarian. It's the early 80s, and a wildly popular role playing game called "Dungeons and Dragons" was the rage among teenagers, making it one of the more logical releases of the time. The heavy R rating is a quandary considering the potential audience, but director John Milius (Big Wednesday, The Wind and the Lion) was content to try to make a film every bit as adult as Excalibur. To that end, he failed, as this is a comic book adventure all of the way...and why not? Most viewers only exposure to the mythic hero was in the Marvel comic itself . In retrospect, Conan has lived up over the years well, especially when you consider the sword-n-sorcery craze of the era, and how terrible most of those films were.
The film starts off with Conan as a young lad (Sanz), orphaned at the hands of an evil sorcerer (James Earl Jones, The Empire Strikes Back), and is taken into slavery. As he grows, he soon fights in an arena for sport, and is very good at what he does. Soon, he escapes, and uses his freedom to seek revenge on the man responsible for the murder of his parents, with some help along the way.
Sword and sorcery films generally have an inherent silliness, and Conan the Barbarian is no different. However, that doesn't make this a bad film, as there's quite a bit to like amid the hammy acting and pomposity of the situations. First and foremost, it's Arnold at his finest. He doesn't deliver many lines, but he has undeniable presence, and breathes life and humanity into what might otherwise be just window dressing. There's also a terrific score by Basil Poledouris (RoboCop, The Hunt for Red October) that generates the right excitement during the more critical moments of the film. Lastly, nice locale work and good cinematography from Duke Callaghan (The Yakuza), along with some quality special effects for its day. Oliver Stone (Scarface, Platoon) co-writes the screenplay, although definitely not his best stuff, there are some memorable lines throughout. John Milius' Conan is a blood-n-guts adventure all the way, with lots of red stuff flying across the screen liberally with every battle.
There are only a handful of these sword and sorcery films worth watching, as they are generally quite bad, but Conan the Barbarian is among the rare exceptions. If you love muscle men and mad magicians battling it out for guts and glory, or just love Ah-nold, this is about as good as it gets in that department.
-- Followed by Conan the Destroyer (1984)
©2003 Vince Leo