The breakthrough of Arnold
Conan the Barbarian is directed and co-written by John Milius and is based on the stories of pulp fiction writer, Robert E. Howard. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as the titular Conan, with James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Ben Davidson, and Max von Sydow also starring.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has come to be known through a countless number of action-based films over the years, but let us not forget that it was his role as Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian that first brought him worldwide recognition. While I am not one to agree that Conan the Barbarian ought to be ranked among the very best of Schwarzenegger's films, I must give credit where credit is due, and that is in how the film was one of the few 1980 comic book and pulp fiction adaptations to score a profit at the box office, as well as go on to serve as sort of a measuring stick for other sword and sorcery fantasy films. As for the people involved with the production, well, let's just say that almost no one of note outside of Schwarzenegger went on to acquire the kind of long-term success that he enjoyed.
If you're a fan of Schwarzenegger, then a film in which he portrays a sword and sorcery hero that slaughters hordes of villains, gets busy with beautiful women left and right, and is just oozing testosterone would seem like it's right up your alley. Thing is, this is not the film to come to if you're a fan of the guns 'ablazin, one-liner spewing Arnold, because that Arnold had yet to be established. The kind of Arnold we get in this film is a largely silent and blank-faced Arnold that might have been telling the world through his performance that Academy Awards for Best Actor were most likely not in his near future.
Everything is there for Conan the Barbarian to be a highly enjoyable viewing experience, but, alas, it ends up being a bit of a chore to sit all the way through. It's a fantasy film that flirts with boredom far too many times, with its 129 minute run time feeling like 229 minutes, and then some. Boredom, however, is not the best word to describe Conan the Barbarian, because there are stretches where it is engaging, mostly through its gritty violence. The best word to call Conan the Barbarian is tedious. Tedious in the sense that the film likes to take it's sweet old time with going from plot point to plot point, all the while relying on a musical score by Basil Poledouris that sounds as if it's trying to convince you that the film is a legendary epic that transcends the art of film-making as we know it. I assure you, Conan the Barbarian does no such thing.
The film begins with Conan as a young boy (Jorge Sanz). Conan lives in a village of barbarians known as the Cimmerians, and his father (William Smith) tells him, "No one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts..." Conan's father then presents to him a sword, saying the sword is the only thing that Conan can trust. One day, the Cimmerian village is attacked by a group of raiders, led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). Conan's father is killed by the raiders' dogs, and his mother is decapitated by Doom. The surviving children, including Conan, are taken into slavery and forced to work at a large mill. Conan survives into adulthood, turning into a man with hulking muscles. He is then trained to fight as a gladiator, and after many wins, Conan is granted his freedom. Conan then sets out into the world, in hopes of finding Doom and getting revenge for the death of his parents.
- A surprising thing that I found myself appreciating about Conan the Barbarian is its rather realistic and completely un-exaggerated violence. When people are getting cut with swords or knives or whatever in this movie, you actually see the resulting wounds and see how someone might actually spill blood from said wounds. No one spills a fountain of blood in the way someone might when they get cut up in a torture-porn horror movie, and there's absolutely nothing that's over-the-top in any imaginable way.
- Now back to that whole Conan the Barbarian being tedious business. As the film progresses through the plot, it just keeps dragging and dragging and dragging and freaking dragging to the point that I swear some of the editing was done in slow motion. The early indication of this is when Doom kills Conan's mother. Conan's mother tries to shield her son behind her, and we get an unbelievably lengthy sequence in which Doom is giving us his "entrancing gaze", just before he swings his sword and decapitates Conan's mother. Then shortly afterwards is the snail-paced montage of Conan going in circles, pushing what is called the Wheel of Pain, as we watch him grow up. All of this boils down to being a simple pacing issue. When Conan or anyone else aren't swinging a sword, characters are just walking and staring and taking their sweet old time with getting from location to location, resulting in a bloated up running time and a movie that is about 15-20 minutes longer than it really needs to be.
One other thing about Conan the Barbarian that seems to really bother people is how the movie seems to be taking itself way too seriously. Was I bothered by the film taking itself overly seriously? Not really. There's a couple of memorable Arnold lines, though he goes long stretches without any dialogue, an interesting decision by John Milius and fellow screenwriter Oliver Stone. I think it's because they wanted to have Conan's striking physical exterior do most of the talking, with Schwarzenegger's muscular frame making him a perfect fit to play Conan.
In the end, Conan the Barbarian holds up as a so-so fantasy adventure that, despite the best efforts of Schwarzenegger, suffers largely from an excessively sluggish pace. The movie is at its best when Conan is slicing up Doom's henchmen, which unfortunately comes in between dull stretches of people just walking, talking, and not really doing anything too interesting. Good thing for Schwarzenegger, though: he would soon go on to bigger and better things.
Recommend? Only if you're a big fan of Schwarzenegger's movies.
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