Part 3: The Cinematic Conan
The early ’80s was a good time to be a fantasy aficionado. The swords & sorcery genre, as it was known, was undergoing a bit of a renaissance, with movies both expensive (Krull) and modestly budgeted (The Sword And The Sorcerer) invading movie theaters across the country. Also, with the dawning of the 1980s came a wonderful little invention called “home video,” movie producers now had an eye toward making quickie flicks, with the intention of completely bypassing theaters and focusing on the newly burgeoning video store market instead. This was a boon to the genre, with many Italian moviemakers producing cheaply made, yet somehow endlessly entertaining, fantasy pictures, such as Lucio Fulci’s 1983 Conquest. It was time for the original fantasy icon to make his big-screen debut.
Considered by many to be the apex of the swords & sorcery boom of the early ’80s, John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian featured what would become a legendary score by composer Basil Poledouris (the main themes being recycled in dozens of movie trailers since), amazing cinematography and, most importantly, spot-on casting. Yes, the future governor of “kawleefohrnyah” was a bit too blond, but in terms of sheer physicality, it was the role he was born to play. As an added bonus, with only a little over 200 words spoken during the movie’s runtime, it’s not as if Arnold Schwarzenegger had much to do aside from looking the role.
Holding up remarkably well an astounding 28 years after its release, and serving as yet another reminder of my advanced age, Conan The Barbarian is a gritty, violent, nudity-filled, sweaty barbarian action movie. Some liberties were taken with Howard’s canon, chiefly the Cimmerian’s origin story. Some characters also had their personal histories changed a bit. The aforementioned Valeria took Bêlit’s place as Conan’s lover and the main villain, Thulsa Doom, is in reality the opponent of another Howard creation, namely Kull The Conqueror, who was played by Kevin Sorbo in the 1997 movie. Did you get all of that? Good. There’s a quiz at the end and cake for everybody that paid attention. (Yell! Magazine assistant editor GLADOS, here: The cake is a lie.)
Whatever magic pixie dust was sprinkled on 1982′s Conan The Barbarian to make it a movie classic must have been all used during the shoot because when 1984’s Conan The Destroyer came along, the differences in tone between the two projects were staggering. Gone was the nudity and the gore, replaced by a kid-friendly Conan, complete with annoying sidekick, badly written humor, and a story featuring your typical Fetch Quest™ instead of the revenge-driven plot of the first movie. Competitors didn’t need to make their own Conan rip-offs any longer, Destroyer was itself a pale imitation of the original. The budget was bigger, the effects more sophisticated, and the cast wider, but the lack of an R-rating destroyed (pun intended) its chances of reaching the same audience as its predecessor.
The sequel was penned by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, both veterans of Conan’s comic book adventures, perhaps explaining the movie’s overall “comic-booky” feel. Conan The Destroyer‘s devotion to Howard’s characters is dubious at best. The female warrior Zula, played with considerable gusto by Grace Jones, was actually a male in the original fiction. The wizard Thoth-Amon, a recurring antagonist to Conan, is considerably reduced in both power and stature. Even Conan himself is played for laughs and giving him more lines serves only to accentuate Arnold’s severely limited grasp of the English language. Here’s a man that should never consider a career in public speaking… Oh,wait… Making a bigger impression than our supposed hero is NBA great Wilt Chamberlain, as humongous warrior Bombaata. Seeing Arnold and Chamberlain tussle is worth the price of admission alone, but not by much.
Thus ended Conan’s first round of cinematic releases, not with a bang but with a whimper and no doubt with a string of paternity lawsuits emerging from the collaboration between noted ladies-man Arnold and Chamberlain, who claims to have bedded 20,000 women in his lifetime.
Come to think of it, it probably did end with a bang.
Conan gets demoted to the small screen and what the reboot will hopefully bring.