Conan The Barbarian [retro review]

“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

The Scoop: 1982, R, Directed by John Milius and starring Arnold Schwartzenegger, James Earl Jones and Max Sydow

Summary Capsule: Mighty Conan and his Sword That Goes Thud rush around a’slayin’ of the baddies and a bangin’ of the ladies. And James Earl Jones turns into a giant snake.


Shalen’s Rating: Three out of five snakes you can shoot through a longbow.

Shalen’s Review: Since I actually saw Conan the Destroyer before I saw this one, I was expecting something a bit different from what actually happens. That one apparently had some sequal nerfing going on as far as the content was concerned, at least in one area (more on that in the next paragraph). Also, it had comic relief. This one doesn’t. And it didn’t have voice-over narration by Mako. And this one does. If you’ve watched a few R-rated movies, you know what a good-sized continuum that rating actually covers. It could have non-graphic flashback sex plus a couple of F words. It could have one half-second of female nudity. It could have nonstop semen jokes and flying poop. Or it could have violence so graphic that the camera had to be cleaned of flying guts after every scene. This movie works a bit harder for that R than some do. You have Arnie inside his slave pen/cage having sex with a woman while spectators look on. You have Arnie having sex with a sorceress who turns into a werewolf in mid-whoopee. You have an orgy in the snake-temple of Thulsa Doom, followed by a hearty snack of People Soup including body parts. And that’s not even mentioning the ongoing violence, including the opening decapitation of young Conan’s mother in front of him.

Things don’t get much better for Conan for a while. Apparently he spends his entire childhood and young adulthood as a slave strapped to a mill grinding grain, which of course develops only two muscle groups and leaves him without the ability to walk backwards by the time he is 20.

I am just kidding, of course. It turns him into Mr. Universe and eliminates his ability to grow body hair. Then his master decides that the best use of someone you’ve had trapped in a horrible job for his entire life is to give him ready access to weapons. He also gets ready access to dames, “the best stock,”* although I’m not clear on why other than to breed a bunch more little Conans and provide some stone age porn. He does some pit fighting for a while, then one night his master gets drunk and Conan decides to turn his prime source of revenue loose on his own.

Conan goes haring off across the plains, falls down a monument, and finds himself a useful sword. Then he goes looking for the man who killed his mother, who, it turns out, is the head of a cult of snake-loving hippies, sort of the Age of Aquarius meets the Temple of Doom. Along the way he picks up a useful thief and a blond girlfriend, although since she wasn’t in the sequel I wouldn’t get too attached to her, if you get my drift.

Things go fairly predictably from there, except for all the snake-related wackiness. A youngish James Earl Jones isn’t really at his best here as Thulsa Doom, his divine voice made little of and his face frequently contorted. Apparently the women onscreen can hear him better than I can, though, because one or two words and they’re willing to throw themselves off cliffs and into pits with giant snakes for him. He spouts some silliness about protecting the planet from the ravages of man. I was unable to determine how that was connected to the snakes.

This is sporadically quite entertaining, with the frequent fight scenes and big fake snakes and stiff dialogue. Arnie isn’t required to say much beyond the odd grunt, which is all to the good. I found the content a little startling, expecting something more innocuous like the sequel, but if you go in prepared for that and/or looking to ogle some shiny bodies this is worth a look-see. It’s easy to forget, watching this, that an entire genre of books and movies was basically founded on this concept.*  In the era of MMORPGs we’re all so very used to swords and loincloths as part of our visual lexicon.

Or maybe that’s just me.

*No idea what that means in this context. The one he’s shown with seems a little leery of him at first and is neither blond nor large-chested nor anorexically skinny, so it can’t be that. Maybe she had good teeth and a nice personality.
**The Conan books (and possibly comics) predate this, but the movie was what really launched the Sword and Sorcery genre which was so stigmatized by churchgoers of my parents’ generation. Along with D&D, which as we all know causes demon possession, insanity, insomnia, and dry mouth.

Conan Chomps on Vulture: Scavenger tartare.

Intermission!

  • IMDB says that Conan doesn’t speak a line for the first 20 minutes of the movie, until his conversation with the Mongol General (listed below).
  • There is an enduring urban legend about the so-called “Conan toy line”. The story is that the Mattel Toy Company started to make some Conan action figures, but after viewing the film, the executives realized that they couldn’t afford to be associated with a film with such graphic sex and violence. They gave their doll blonde hair, called him “He-man”, and thus created “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”. The legend is most likely false though since the first He-man action figures were published in 1981.
  • During the scene when Thulsa Doom points to one of his priestesses and she jumps to her death, a women’s free fall record was set at 182 feet by stunt woman Corrie Jansen.
  • The runes on Conan’s father’s sword are translated as “Suffer no guilt, ye who wield this in the name of Crom.” (By whom, or from what language, the IMDB doesn’t say.)
  • There is a species of snake that, when fired from an ordinary longbow, becomes a heat-seeking arrow.
  • Having someone leap to their death is a good way to prove that flesh is stronger than steel.
  • People soup.
  • The purpose of a headband is to keep hair off your face, so clearly you should put it on over your bangs.
  • Conan can push a mill for twenty years without eating or stopping for a bathroom break.
  • So where is “Hibernia,” exactly? Isn’t that where He-man is from?
  • Thulsa Doom: Sexiest Man Alive.
  • The old take-them-aside-and-steal-their-uniform trick.
  • Sucks to be an Asian in a sword and sorcery flick. You’re either a slave girl or you have to wear those huge mustaches all the time.
  • IMDB says that Conan doesn’t speak a line for the first 20 minutes of the movie, until his conversation with the Mongol General (listed below).
  • Surprisingly uncontroversial for a movie with a white hero and a black villain. I didn’t think of this while I was watching it, since the race of Thulsa Doom isn’t an issue in the film.

Groovy Quotes:

The Wizard (opening voiceover): Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto 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!

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Thulsa Doom: I wish to speak to you now. Where is the Eye of the Serpent? Rexor says that you gave it to a girl, probably for a mere night’s pleasure, hmm? 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!

Thulsa Doom: That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste. Contemplate this on the tree of woe. Crucify him!

Conan: Valor pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to Hell with you!

Valeria: Kiss me. Let me breathe my last breath into your mouth.

The Wizard: The Children of Doom… Doom’s Children. 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.

Valeria: Do you want to live forever?

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

There is an enduring urban legend about the so-called “Conan toy line”. The story is that the Mattel Toy Company started to make some Conan action figures, but after viewing the film, the executives realized that they couldn’t afford to be associated with a film with such graphic sex and violence. They gave their doll blonde hair, called him “He-man”, and thus created “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”. The legend is most likely false though since the first He-man action figures were published in 1981.During the scene when Thulsa Doom points to one of his priestesses and she jumps to her death, a women’s free fall record was set at 182 feet by stunt woman Corrie Jansen.The runes on Conan’s father’s sword are translated as “Suffer no guilt, ye who wield this in the name of Crom.” (By whom, or from what language, the IMDB doesn’t say.)

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