40 years later: Conan the Barbarian

Director: John Milius
Featuring: Anorld Schwarzenegger, Sandal Berghman, James Earl Jones
Operating timeand: 129 minutes

This one is going to be quick. Conan the Barbarian is a masterpiece, and if you’ve seen it before, watch it again while drinking ambrosia from your enemy’s skull to celebrate its 40th anniversary – and if you’ve never seen it, eh well first, shame on you, and then… watch him drinking ambrosia from your enemy’s skull. That’s it. That’s my opinion. Thanks for the reading.

Alright…maybe I can put a little more effort. I remember the first picture I ever saw of Conan – it was in a French magazine in the early 80s, and I must have been five or six years old when I saw a screenshot of Conan, crucified on a tree, biting a vulture to death. However, I don’t remember when I first saw the movie. It was probably way too young on TV.

At the time, French television often broadcast Conan the Barbarian and its sequel, Conan the Destroyerand also Sonja Red – in France known as Kalidor, from the male character played by Arnie, because you know… sexism – especially in the afternoon around New Year’s Eve. It was another time. It was also the time when the derivative He-Man and the Masters of the Universe looped on the children’s channels. So while I can’t remember exactly when I started growing my hair out, living in my underpants, and only communicating by growling in an Austrian accent, growing up with a TV in 80s France, it was basically growing up in the Hyborian era.

Yet among all these barbarians, it’s easy to forget how different Robert E. Howard’s first adaptation of the character was from most sword and sorcery movies – a genre that’s now almost totally extinct, surely. killed by the attempted 2011 franchise reboot.

Almost once a year I throw out my copy of John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian thinking I’ll just watch the majestic intro beginning with the voice of the wizard Mako uttering perhaps the only lines I know by heart: “Between the moment the oceans drank up Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an unsuspected age of. And to this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia on a troubled brow. It is I, its chronicler, who alone can tell you of its epic. Let- I tell you about the days of great adventure!

For a film about a barbarian, Conan is strangely poetic and subtly choreographed

Then the music starts, with its unforgettable percussion accompanying the sword forging scene, before Conan’s father tells us about Crom and… two hours later, I’ve watched the whole film and I’m starting to speak with an Austrian accent. Isn’t it the hallmark of a truly great film not to make you want to live in your underpants, but to be so easily re-watchable?

After that perfect intro, the film begins with the massacre of Conan’s village and family by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) while still a child. Having grown up as a slave, then as a gladiator, Conan only seeks revenge once freed by his owner. Traveling the world, he soon encounters Subotai (Gerry Lopez) a thief and archer and a little later, Valeria (Sandal Berghman), a bandit. Together they become a prolific band of thieves. Soon the small group is captured by King Osric (Max Van Sydow) who asks them to save his daughter from Thulsa Doom. Conan finds his desire for revenge rekindled.

Some gossips will say that John Milius’ Conan is not an exact incarnation of Robert E. Howard’s original character. In the novels, Conan is indeed a little more talkative and educated, but at the same time he would probably refuse, even as a child, to be enslaved and fight for his freedom. This is indeed the direction taken by the 2011 remake, for a result I won’t comment on here – I’ll just say that the main difference between the 1982 version and the 2011 version is that the former isn’t a mess impossible to watch. So here we have a good example of what a good adaptation for the screen can be. Yes, the characters differ from the books, but the mythological dimension, the strange world, full of dangers and mysteries that can be found in the books are well transcribed without ever falling into a kind of caricatural circus ─ sometimes pleasant, do not Don’t worry I’m wrong ─ like many other sword and sorcery movies do. There is a delicate balance to be found in depicting these worlds and Conan the Barbarian find her.

The epic music of Basil Pouledouris plays a major role in the very particular personality of the film. The music is indeed so prominent and evocative that Conan the Barbarian it almost looks like a ballet – I would have said “musical”, if it weren’t for the excellent musical comedy that can be found on YouTube – and the images and the actors seem to be dancing to Pouledouris’ compositions. For a movie about a barbarian, Conan is oddly poetic and subtly choreographed. The direction, editing and music come together to make a film that could have been a bland B-movie into a masterpiece. A strange melancholy shines through throughout the film. Even the final, near-silent clash between Conan and Thulsa Doom – a far cry from the big, savage duel one might have expected – carries that dreamlike, almost dreamlike feeling not easily found elsewhere. The closest to this mood I can think of is, oddly enough, the very recent The green knight.

And then there’s that famous last shot of Conan sitting on a king’s throne while the narrator/wizard says this story should be told too. But the promise of such a sequel was never kept, and certainly not by Richard Fleisher. Conan the Destroyer – even though I love it shamelessly – which clearly never reaches the same heights. In 2005, John Milius was finally to direct King Conan: Iron Crown, but that never happened. So while I doubt, given the current state of the film industry, that we can still have a proper sequel that can perform on the same emotional level as the original. Conan the Barbarian did – and still does – all we can do is pray to Crom that maybe one day it will happen. And if he doesn’t listen, then to hell!

Did you know? Marvel has released licensed Conan comics on and off since 1970. In 2019, the character was inducted into the main Marvel Universe and joined the “Savage Avengers” alongside characters such as Venom and Wolverine.