James Earl Jones
Max von Sydow
2 Hrs., 10 Mins.
Conan the Barbarian April 1, 2020
onan the Barbarian (1982), the feature that turned bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger into a full-fledged movie star, is unusually conceptually ambitious for a mainstream blockbuster. It’s a project manifestly as interested in thrill-giving as it is in milieu-building. (A raid-oriented sequence might be naturally coded as suspenseful, but the film’s director, John Milius, seems to also be nudging us to gawk
at the palace being broken into as well as the garb, and attitudes, of the people populating it.) It’s also sluggish and overlong — a period revenge Homeric exclusively moving in slow motion.
In the movie, which is set in an unspecified period that could effectively enough be described as “centuries ago,” Schwarzenegger is the title character. He’s developed as tragic in the classical sense from the get-go. In the film’s prologue, Conan, still a little boy, sees his parents brutally slaughtered — his father is mauled by a pack of viciously trained Rottweilers, his mother unceremoniously decapitated — by a raid-brained cabal under the command of the tyrannical Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). Conan is subsequently kidnapped, along with other children, by Doom’s enclave, and raised a slave. (Until adulthood, Conan and his fellow captives are made to work at a mill christened the “Wheel of Pain,” whose ultimate purpose, besides torturing, I didn’t catch.) By adulthood, Conan has traded scrawniness for brawn, hardly suffering the effects of muscle depletion. For a little while, he gladiates, still under the aegis of his captors, then escapes.
The premise of Conan the Barbarian, post-liberation, is simple: Conan wanders through a series of escapades — mini-missions, really — until he can again meet up with the big bad Doom, whom he is intent on killing as callously as Doom did his parents. A reliable structure, certainly, for a fantasy epic. This is how it so often goes for other forays into the genre, from the era’s Dragonslayer (1981) to Ladyhawke (1985) to Labyrinth (1986). In Conan the Barbarian, our hero, oiled and bowling-ball muscled and primitively long-haired, will run into a seductive witch, be tasked with rescuing a princess, be saved at the last minute by a kindly wizard, and more. But in Conan the Barbarian these episodes are protracted and often languid-feeling. After a while they start to feel like interruptions rather than all-important narrative baby steps to get us to the long-anticipated conclusion. (The feature ends as we think it will, though it isn’t very satisfying — it’s overrun with uninteresting inevitability.)
You can see why, though, Schwarzenegger grabbed a hold of the popular imagination soon after the film’s release. His range is limited, but there’s a wink accompanying his stoic heroism — like he knows, as we do, that he’s an action hero who looks and comes across like a Mattel toy come to life. Conan the Barbarian got a sequel, 1984’s Conan the Destroyer, co-starring the ferocious Grace Jones. I haven’t seen it, but the fact that it’s a fleet 101 minutes in comparison to its predecessor’s 130 does seem like a step in the right direction. C+