Eye For Film >> Movies >> Conan The Barbarian (1981) Film Review
In recent years so very few sword-and-sorcery movies have been made. One struggles to think of anything in between Conan The Destroyer and Gladiator. They are difficult to pull off and even harder to involve the audience with an obviously unidentifiable world. It may not be bestowed with Oscars, but Conan The Barbarian is just as classy as Ben Hur and more brutal than Gladiator.
In an almost wordless set-up, a young Conan is orphaned by the androgynous warlord Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and dragged off to some kind of weird labour camp where children are exploited and punished - no, this is not Euro Disney. Years go by and Conan grows up into a huge, bloated and bulging muscle-bound killing machine.
At this point, he is used as a money-making tool by his captors, who set up death matches with other killing machines. Soon, he becomes the most honoured fighter in the land, so his captors set him free as he can win no more tournaments.
He has a hard time surviving on his own until he finds his own special sword, makes a new best friend in Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and finds a girlfriend in Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). Together, they live the high life of barbarians - robbing, grunting, clubbing people. All goes well until Conan makes it his personal quest to go after Thulsa Doom for revenge. Can three simple thieves take on an entire army of brainwashed warriors? Of course! This is Conan.
James Earl Jones appears threatening, even though he doesn't even look like the kind of guy who would say boo to a goose. Imagine Oprah Winfrey in Hells Angels biker gear and you'll have an accurate description of Thulsa Doom. He's not a totally formidable foe for Conan in the larger-than-life sense, but psychologically he's a scary dude.
Schwarzenegger does a great job. There really is only one person in the world who could play Conan, as sympathetic and brutal as he is, and Arnie definitely pulls it off, in this, his first major starring role. Of course, there is not much acting going on - he says only five words to Valeria in the whole movie - but it's all about physical presence, rather than thespianism. Most of the dialogue is unspoken. Conan was brought up to be a killing machine, but he does learn humanity through feeling his own mortality.
Producer Dino De Laurentiis, a veteran movie-maker, brought a whole load of money to give Conan a massive scale. John Milius stages some h-u-g-e scenes, with excellent production values, and his cinematographer Duke Callaghan uses widescreen framing brilliantly. The gore and violence is on a par with Paul Verhoeven and is so frequent that after a while it becomes almost comical.
Despite its reputation of being nothing more than a cheap schlock movie, there are moments of true spectacle. Basil Poledouris, who wrote wonderful music for RoboCop and many others, creates a truly majestic score that is absolutely spellbinding. You may not think it, but there is a dimension of class to Conan that may have gone unnoticed in previous viewings.
As a tribute to Robert E. Howard's pulp hero, as a stand-alone movie, as an Arnie vehicle and cult picture, Conan is now almost a classic. Sure, there are faults, but you'll be too damn entertained to care.Reviewed on: 22 Jul 2002
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