Saturday, 7 April 2012

Conan the Barbarian

The trailer for the 1982 Conan the Barbarian entirely emphasises the violent action sequences, missing out its many character-driven and reflective scenes.
Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
- introductory voiceover, Conan the Barbarian
Since the previous post on Total Recall not unnaturally mentioned Arnold Schwarzegger, I thought I'd follow up with a post on the film with probably his most iconic role outside the Terminator series, the 1982 Conan the Barbarian.

The movie has its roots in the "sword and sorcery" stories of Robert E Howard, an American pulp writer of the 1920s-1930s, but its plot is an original story - scripted by John Milius, adapting a draft by Oliver Stone - drawing loosely on episodes and characters, including Conan himself, from Howard's mythos of the fictional Hyborian Age (with more than a few homages to other movies). It's an epic and violent adventure - filmed in Spain around Madrid and Almería - that tells first of Conan's early life, starting with his enslavement as a child and training as a captive warrior, then moves on to his quest to kill Thulsa Doom, the magician-warlord who killed his parents.

The casting was unusual but effective. Arnold Schwarzenegger was perfect by physical type, and James Earl Jones charismatic as Thulsa Doom, and there were smaller roles for seasoned character actors: Mako (Mako Iwamatsu) as Akiro, Conan's magician mentor, and a cameo from Max von Sydow as King Osric. But the remaining characters were played by actors whose specialisations had hitherto not been in acting: Sandahl Bergman (Valeria, Conan's lover) was foremost a dancer; Gerry Lopez (the archer Subotai) was a champion surfer; and Ben Davidson and Sven-Ole Thorsen (as Thulsa Doom's sidekicks Rexor and Thorgrim) were an American Football player and a bodybuilder. This brought a confident and vigorous physicality to the roles.

Even with the relative lack of dialogue, there's never any doubt about what anyone, including Conan, is thinking and feeling. The film's emotional power is further driven by the acclaimed score by Basil Poledouris. The soundtrack is Wagnerian in its use of leitmotifs, the Conan theme - "The Anvil of Crom" - starting in epic form, then being requoted in calmer scenes and as the Love Theme. Thulsa Doom gets a choral leitmotif reminiscent of O Fortuna from Orff's Carmina Burana, but in fact based on the Dies Irae, and the film ends with a more explicit statement of the Dies Irae. It's good orchestral music by any standard, and I've appended YouTube links to Poledouris conducting Conan: The Symphony, an orchestral workup of the soundtrack.

Despite its generally macho storyline, I find Conan the Barbarian a strangely reflective film. Underneath all the action, there's a subtext of a personal journey. Conan begins as a traumatised dehumanised individual who knows nothing except fighting. Yet as the film proceeds, he acquires friends, learns of love and loss, and ultimately chooses full self-determination and freedom from the quest that has dominated his life. At this level, its story is about becoming human, and it's one of my favourite films.

I haven't seen the 2011 remake, but the reviews haven't been good, and in any case it shares little with the 1982 film except the character name.

- Ray

Wikipedia: Conan the Barbarian (1982 film)
The Filmgoer's Guide to Conan the Barbarian - analysis at The Blog That Time Forgot
Conan the Barbarian - Music Soundtrack Suite

Conan The Symphony, Basil Poledouris:
Part 1 (Anvil of Crom - Riddle of Steel / Riders of Doom)
Part 2 (Gift of Fury / Atlantean Sword / Love Theme)
Part 3 (Funeral Pyre/ Battle of the Mounds)
Part 4 (Orphans of Doom / The Awakening)
Part 5 (Anvil of Crom - Encore)

Addendum: Julie Heyward - thanks! - just drew my attention to The Whole Wide World (1996), a film exploring the relationship between Robert E Howard and  Novalyne Price (Ellis) based on the latter's memoir of her friendship with Howard, One Who Walked Alone, during the final years of his life before his suicide (see book review). Both the book and film look interesting.


  1. Have you seen The Whole Wide World -- the movie about Howard? It's not that good (not terrible, but not worth making any effort to see), but it's interesting/weird to watch with Conan in mind.

  2. No, but it looks good (trailer). We tend not to catch a lot of films until they make it on to terrestrial TV here, and I don't think this one has.