Saturday 29 December 2007

Conan the Barbarian (1982) John Milius

It's been far too long since I last saw this little gem of the early 80s, especially as I'm a big fan of the original stories by Robert E Howard and others. To make it even more special, this time round I got to see it on the big screen in glorious 35mm courtesy of the Midnite Movie Mamacita, and preceded by an intriguing set of trailers of Arnie's entire filmography, including fascinating examples of dubbing into German and what sounded like Dutch.

The story is a simple one of revenge. Conan is a young boy whose parents and entire village are massacred by Thulsa Doom and his henchmen, who unfortunately look more than a little like members of Spinal Tap. In a long introductory segment, he's taken north into slavery, where he grows into the powerhouse of a barbarian we would expect. He learns to fight in a pit, travels east to learn language and the philosophy of the ancients, then comes back home complete, ready to live life as a free man.

The story proper begins when he teams up with a couple of thieves to get rich off the local serpent cult, then is hired by King Osric to rescue his daughter who the cult has corrupted. Of course the cult is run by the very same Thulsa Doom who massacred Conan's village so a well paid mission also becomes a personal vendetta. His cohorts want to get in, get the girl and get out but Conan wants vengeance and the head of Thulsa Doom.

Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly looked the part and his success in this film began a long string of successes in the eighties that saw him rapidly become less of an actor and more of an icon. Thulsa Doom is James Earl Jones, still best known for providing the voice of Darth Vader, but a powerful presence on screen too. He's very believable here as a thousand year old hypnotic snake god though he's saddled with a horrendous haircut that is seriously painful to watch.

The other main part for me is Sandahl Bergman as Valeria, Conan's lover and fellow thief. Bergman had her own career playing barbarians and she always always awesomely believable for me: more so than Arnie or Brigitte Nielsen who played Red Sonja opposite her. She's gorgeous but far from conventionally beautiful; she's athletic and powerful yet no bodybuilder; and she carries off the costumes like she grew up in them.

Beyond the leads there's Max von Sydow in a wonderful yet short part as King Osric; Mako as a wizard who also provides the narration and many others all the way down to a young lady called Nadiuska who has a memorable but silent role as Conan's mother. Apparently she was a softcore star in Italy during the seventies but whatever naked pics I found when googling her don't hold a candle to her entirely clothed look here while brandishing a sword and losing her head. The final real star is the Almerian countryside so admirably shot by director John Milius and cinematographer Duke Callaghan.

The film stands up today as a barbarian classic, one of the best of the American barbarian films. As much as it doesn't quite match the tone of the original stories, technical advisor and Howard follower L Sprague de Camp made sure that it comes as close as anything else that's been put to film. Certainly it's far less Hollywood than its sequel, Conan the Destroyer and other successors like Red Sonja. It was a pleasure to see on the big screen.

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