The Riddle of Steel
“What is best in life?” This may well be the seminal line from 1982’s Conan The Barbarian, from perhaps its most well-known scene. A shame, really, because while it is indeed an entertaining scene, it does little to capture the truth about the film. And the truth is this: Conan the Barbarian is deadly serious. Not just the character (though he is) or the story (though it is), but rather the movie as a whole. One of the greatest misconceptions about Conan the Barbarian by those who either haven’t seen it in a while, or haven’t seen it at all, is that it’s a Beastmaster-esque exercise in camp. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Because despite its occasionally-painful and stilted dialogue, the film wants very much to be taken seriously. I can’t say that its not without its so-bad-it’s-good moments, but I also don’t think it deserves the campy reputation that it has.
Based on the classic 1930’s pulp stories by Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian is, at its surface, a seemingly simple tale. Conan is a young boy born in the fictional land of Cimmeria, whose village is attacked and destroyed by the Vanir warlords, an army of snake-worshipping zealots who kill all the adults, including Conan’s parents, and enslave him. He is forced into hard labor, and is made to work for 20+ years in a human powered mill, which is how we come upon the grown and massively strong Conan (played by, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger in his breakthrough role). Conan the slave is sold to a trainer of gladiators, and he is trained in the arts of fighting, as well as in language, writing and reading. Eventually, he is set free to find his fortune, shortly after which he meets up with new companions, Subotai (Gerry Lopez) the thief and master archer, and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief and warrior. While on a quest to steal a valuable jewel from the local snake cult, Conan realizes that it is the same cult that killed his family as a boy. He swears vengeance, and dedicates the rest of the film to finding and killing the leader of the Vanir, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones. Yes, I said James Earl Jones). He is eventually reluctantly aided by his two companions, as well as by the sorcerer Akiro (Mako), who is also the story’s narrator, as they seek to bring down Doom as well as rescue the daughter of King Osric (Max Von Sydow).
That’s the short version. In reality, Conan the Barbarian is a sprawling, occasionally bizarre, wildly enjoyable sword-and-sandals yarn. Spanning much of Conan’s life, it deals not just with his quest for vengeance, but also on the adventures and encounters that made him who he is. Directed by John Milius (Red Dawn, Farewell to the King), with a screenplay by Milius and Oliver Stone, there’s some serious pedigree involved with the film. Yes, James Earl Jones looks ridiculous with his ample gut and awful wig as Thulsa Doom. Yet he gives an effectively creepy performance as the charismatic cult leader/warlord. Thulsa Doom is not interested so much in blood and conquest, as much as he is in owning people, mind and body, and thus he is followed by and of brainwashed faithful, as he seeks more converts. In a particularly effective scene, he talks a young woman into jumping to her death, and then, calmly and with keen focus, gazes at Conan and softly proclaims, “Contemplate this, on the Tree of Woe…. crucify him.” Von Sydow, in a brief role, is excellent as the grieving king who would give up anything for his missing child.
But of course, the film lives and dies by Schwarzenegger, a mountain of greased up muscle who hamfists his way through the film. His accent is near-impenetrable, but there is already a hint of that strange yet undeniable allure that made him a megastar. Schwarzenegger has never been a good actor, but he still managed to draw millions to the theater based on presence alone, and that’s on full display here. Milius was very wise in his sparing dialogue for Schwarzenegger. Conan, meant to be a stoic, impassive character, was the perfect first role for Schwarzenegger, who was still learning English and had zero acting experience. As such, he barely speaks throughout the movie — in fact, despite the fact that Bergman’s Valeria is his love interest, he speaks exactly five words to her through the entire film, and doesn’t speak his first lines until probably 45 minutes in. The tactic worked in Milius’s favor, and as such, Schwarzenegger is probably more perfectly cast here than he’s ever been. When he’s asked to stretch out his dialogue for more extended periods, it can sometimes be more wince-worthy, but never too bad. His interactions with Subotai work particularly well, especially in the bit added into the Director’s Cut, where Conan laments, “Almost 20 years of pitiless cumber! No rest, no sleep like other men.” It’s a well-done little moment, as Conan prepares for one of his major battles against the forces of Thulsa Doom.
What always surprises me whenever I re-watch Conan the Barbarian is that it’s not a half-assed fantasy rip-off like many of its contemporaries (including its incredibly unfortunate sequel, Conan the Destroyer). It’s a large scale, rip-roaring epic, spanning decades and multiple lands, with a world that has its own peoples and Gods and kings. The religion is an amalgam of Howard’s own world (Conan worships the dour warrior deity Crom, as he seeks out “the riddle of steel), with bits of Greek and Norse religion tossed in here and there for good measure. The costume design is well done given the times, and one of the film’s best parts is its soaring, bracing soundtrack, written and conducted by Basil Poledouris. The music is a sweeping, blaring character of its own — watch the film again and you’ll notice that there are probably only a few minutes where the music isn’t playing. It all adds to the sense of grandeur and epicness of the film. The action is mostly well choreographed, full of streaming blood and giant, impractical weapons (my favorite is the six-foot hammer that one of Doom’s lieutenants wields. That thing makes me tired just writing about it).
There’s no denying that Conan the Barbarian gets me giggling every time with it’s goofy-assed dialogue and its completely uneven performances — Yet while the dialogue’s delivery is sometimes cringeworthy, the dialogue itself is quite good, for a fantasy saga. It can be a little befuddling, what with all the gods and demons and references to people and places, however. The Vanir are particularly bizarre, part Heaven’s Gate, part snake worshipers, their religion seems to revolve around topless women (oh yeah, there is also abundant nudity in Conan), snakes and orgies. James Earl Jones manages to carry his part out with perfect sincerity, despite some of the mind-bogglingly weird stuff — talking women into killing themselves, turning snakes into arrows, and smoothly delivering lines like “Infidel Defilers. They shall all drown in lakes of blood.” Not to mention that he apparently borrowed his hair from a crazed transvestite. So yes, it is admittedly incredibly uneven in some parts. Bergman, in addition to being a pretty weak actress — I honestly think that she gives a much worse performance than Schwarzenegger. Her cause isn’t helped by the fact that she has a creepily mannish look to her, although it works in the movie’s favor — warrior women shouldn’t be built like Playboy models, they should look like they can kick your ass in and out of the bed — and that’s definitely the vibe we get from her. And, OK, fine, the scene where a crucified Conan bites a vulture to death is pretty hilarious, as is Schwarzenegger’s impression of a mental breakdown seconds later — which almost gave me a seizure as a child. But dammit, besides all of that, it’s a great film.
In the end, Conan the Barbarian is easily one of the best entries in its genre, and I truly don’t mean that in an ironic sense. It’s well directed, well written, with a riveting musical score. Any poor performances get balanced out by the good ones, and thus you’re left with a expansive, fully-rendered fantasy world with unusual characters and mythologies. It’s fun as hell, more than a little silly, but also just a solid action adventure epic.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.