Second Union

Second Union

FRANCHISE REWIND: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian, 1982 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) MCA/Universal

“Fire and wind come from the sky, from the gods of the sky. But Crom is your god, Crom and he lives in the earth. Once, giants lived in the Earth, Conan. And in the darkness of chaos, they fooled Crom, and they took from him the enigma of steel. Crom was angered. And the Earth shook. Fire and wind struck down these giants, and they threw their bodies into the waters, but in their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. We who found it are just men. Not gods. Not giants. Just men. The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger had appeared in several films before his breakout success in Conan the Barbarian. There were two I remembered because they played on cable television in practically endless rotation. He appeared as a fiddle-playing bodybuilder in the brilliant Bob Rafelson comedy, Stay Hungry, and as Mickey Hargitay in The Jayne Mansfield Story starring Loni Anderson.

Schwarzenegger’s advertised height is around 6’2″ (my wife scarcely believed that but I checked with three sources) with a “contest” weight, in his peak years, of 235 pounds, nearly all of it in muscle mass, which made him remarkably thin for a bodybuilder at a time when bodybuilders were enormous monsters. He looked incredibly lean for a guy who could bench-press 500 pounds. He retired from bodybuilding in 1980 and became one of the most popular movie stars of the ’80s.

Conan the Barbarian was created by Robert E. Howard as a series of pulp short stories and novels beginning in 1931. Howard was a troubled man who suffered from severe depression and killed himself in 1936 while his mother was in a coma. He left a suicide note that read, in part: “All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre; The feast is over and the lamps expire.” Vincent Donofrio played Howard in the film memoir, The Whole Wide World. Conan ran as a comic book for Marvel from 1970 to 1993.

John Milius, a fan of Conan and macho sword and sorcery films in general, put together the project with Edward Pressman, Raffaella De Laurentiis, and regular Milius collaborator Buzz Feitshans, but in order to secure the budget, he had to bring in a “name screenwriter.” In this case, Oliver Stone. These were different times, when a writer’s interest in a project could guarantee funding. It’s not like that anymore. Now, I’ll tell you why I enjoy Conan the Barbarian.

It’s an incredibly simple story, about a boy raised to become a warrior who fights Doom (James Earl Jones), the cult leader of the Temple of Set. This is really all you need to know to get into the movie. I wasn’t permitted to see the movie when it came out in 1982, because I was nine and the movie was rated R. This was a kid’s movie for adults with graphic violence and nudity, and I remember there being quite a stir about the movie’s content being aimed at children, but in 2021, it seems tame save for the macho male archetypes, which would never be permitted today.

More importantly, the movie is an amazing piece of production with beautiful photography. Milius and Stone wisely keep Conan’s dialogue to a minimum. I’m pretty sure Arnold only says a couple of words throughout the whole movie. He’s a much more frightening (and believable) force when he keeps his mouth closed. Conan the Barbarian was not the enormous blockbuster Universal Pictures was hoping for, but it did turn a profit for a big-budget R-rated fantasy epic, and, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, inspired a succession of knock-off sword and sorcery epics through the ’80s.

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