MAY 13, 2013 SCREENING: CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)
At last, I’ve come to that classic 80’s cult movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger into an action star: Conan the Barbarian. Pre-Terminator, this is the movie where audiences really got to see Arnold’s movie persona as a glaring tough guy who easily dispatches foes while delivering one-liners in a dead pan manner. While it certainly doesn’t have the over-the-top scenarios or increasingly comedic scripts that would define Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, it did provide a good basic template for what was to come.
Oh course, merely analyzing this as an “Arnold Schwarzenegger movie” does a disservice to the source material. The Conan stories go back to the 1930s, and a Conan movie project was in the works long before anyone had heard of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold wasn’t the first choice for the role, either. The film actually deviates quite a bit from the source material (which had a tone more along the lines of Tarzan or The Jungle Book, albeit with a sword-and-scandal setting), and the movie version of Conan is deliberately done as more of a fantasy story.
Despite now being seen as a breezy and campy movie, the actual film experience is quite different. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Conan is actually a pretty bleak and dark, sinister movie. Although Arnold is the title character, he is surrounded by numerous actors that were known for their actual acting gravitas, particularly James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow. The film itself is very much a coming of age story that takes time to craft its characters and mysterious, dark-age looking setting, creating a very strong atmosphere. Conan sets off on a quest to avenge his parents deaths, and his journey eventually leads to him becoming king of his land, which leaves us on a cliffhanger as the narrator says his life on the throne is another tale.
The film was a huge hit at the time (ultimately grossing $130 million on a $16 million budget), but actually received mixed reviews in 1982. Ironically, most of the criticism had to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance, as many felt that casting an Austrian-born body builder as Conan had ruined the movie. While Arnold perfectly fits the character physically (and the posters advertising the character wouldn’t have been the same without him!), there is no doubt that much of his performance is wooden and his heavy Austrian accent sounds ridiculous coming out of the mouth of Conan – no matter how much we can’t separate the character from Arnold’s image today. However, the critics back in 1982 didn’t have something that we can realize in 30+ years of hindsight. Much of the nostalgic charm and staying power of the movie is precisely because of Arnold’s presence in the movie. An actor who delivered a stronger performance wouldn’t have had nearly the draw that Arnold had when it came to getting non-Conan fans to check out the movie, and Conan might have been forgotten today if it weren’t for Arnold’s “so-bad-its-good” line delivery in various scenes, giving them endless replay value on YouTube. His presence in the movie, though inappropriate at times, actually helps improve the movie by giving the audience some relief from the movie’s overly dreary and depressing mood.
Conan the Barbarian is certainly not Oscar-worthy material, but it is a strong and compelling action movie that deserves more credit that it is given as a mere “Arnold Schwarzenegger movie”. If you’ve never seen it before, consider giving it a look.
*** out of ****