Through the history of mankind, the times that are most recorded in mythology and song are those of great deeds and fantastic adventures. Such a time was the Hyborean Age. Such a tale is the story of “Conan the Barbarian.”
Cimmerian Conan is captured as a child after his parents’ savage murder by raiding Vanir led by Thulsa Doom, head also of the malignant snake-cult of Set. Fifteen years’ agony, first chained to the Wheel of Pain grinding grain and then enslaved as a Pit Fighter, forge a magnificent body and indomitable spirit. Freed miraculously one day by his owner, Conan, with his companions Subotai the Mongol and Valeria, Queen of Thieves, sets forth upon his quest to learn “the riddle of steel” which, his father has prophesied, will confer ultimate power, and to kill the arch-villain Thulsa Doom.
Runtime: 129 minutes
Director: John Milius
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman
MPAA Rating: R
Final Score: 7/10
Conan the Barbarian is a classic within the sword and sorcery subgenre and fantasy movies in general, and it’s easy to see why; it’s exciting, the action is amazing, and the characters are fun and engaging. It’s not perfect by any means but it avoids many of the pitfalls that later movies trying to emulate it fall into, things like terrible dialogue, exposition drops, skipping character setup, and unintentionally hilarious scenes. The plot is a simple revenge story with a few side adventures. Very reminiscent of the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Not having read them all, its hard to say which stories are borrowed from and what has been changed. But one thing that is missing is Conan’s knowledge and wisdom.
Conan is set up to be educated as well as powerful, but nothing is shown later except his power. Nothing in the plot requires him to be extremely smart, yet it would have been nice to see him using some brain instead of just brawn. He doesn’t have much dialogue to showcase his knowledge, and most of its plot oriented. There is one scene where he discusses religion with his friend Subotai and reveals that he does have a worldview, but the scene is short and it’s a shame that they never focused on that more. And that’s because the focus of the movie is on Conan, well, his body, and what he can do with it. Skimming over his religious views and never showing any internal struggle with his childhood enslavement demonstrates that. Of course, he has a motivation, but that only comes later in the movie, and it’s an external problem, not internal. Character development wasn’t a main goal for Conan, and it wasn’t a goal for any of the side characters either.
The only other main character to get development is Valeria, Conan’s love interest, which is more development than most love interests get in fantasy movies. She’s a greedy thief who loves adventure, and when she pairs up with Conan it’s great fun. She reveals that she wants to find someone to love and she chooses Conan. This affects some of her actions but ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. The romance between Conan and Valeria doesn’t work because Conan’s lack of dialogue and the choices he makes shows that he doesn’t really care for her, although the movie tries to say otherwise.
The third main character is Subotai. He is severely neglected in the movie with minimal screen time and next to no development, but he makes up for it with charisma and loyalty. Beyond that we get nothing. His little talk with Conan tells us his beliefs and we know he’s a thief. At no point is the focus on him and yet he stays by Conan’s side the entire movie. The weakest part of the film is the characters. Yet for all that, the energy they bring to the film fuels the adventure.
And that is what Conan is all about: adventure. Conan is the kind of character that will take on whatever is thrown in front of him without flinching. Giant snakes, seducing witches, man eating dogs, pit fighters, cultists, evil warriors, camels; you name it and Conan will fight it. If you focus your entire movie on action, then it must be exciting and believable. Conan succeeds on both accounts. There is so much action in the movie that you can understand why some character development had to be left behind. But it’s what makes Conan stay around long after the other movies have been laughed out of the room. Each action scene is different than the others. The fighting is fast and aggressive. The locations are both familiar and exotic. Each fight has a different focus; a giant monster, magic, whatever. No two fights are the same. And most of the fights are serious, with the stakes high and death close.
Some might say that Conan the Barbarian is a cheesy movie, and while there are some scenes that could fall under that definition, it’s not because they are bad scenes, just strange. Like the snake arrows. But it seems like most fantasy movies have at least one scene that is so bad that it’s funny. And not in a good way. Conan has funny scenes. Some are silly, sure, but most were meant to be. Except the wizard, it’s still up to debate whether he’s funny or not. The tone throughout is serious but kept from being too dark with these small moments. They’re naturally funny moments that come from the characters and story; they don’t feel forced or unintentional.
The sheer number of movies that came after and tried to imitate Conan the Barbarian’s success is testament to how good it is. It’s just a solid film. Not a masterpiece by any means, but a standard for sword and sorcery movies for years to come. You won’t get deep insight into the characters’ motivations, but you will get to see them vanquish their enemies.
Plot: 1.5/2 – Solid story with few problems.
Characters: 1/2 – Some development here and there, but not much.
Conflict: 1.5/2 – Great action pieces, no internal conflict.
Special Effects: 1.5/2 – Great effects for the time.
Sets/Costumes: 1.5/2 – Middle eastern/eastern European designs, looks great.