Conan the Barbarian

4/54/54/54/5

Thief Warrior Gladiator King

Conan the Barbarian is the film that launched both Arnold Swarzenegger’s career and a whole slew of sword and sorcery films in the 80s.

The question is, of course, “is it any good?” Surprisingly, if you are familiar with this much-maligned genre, the answer is yes.

On the other hand, given the way that one successful film can spawn endless incompetent imitations, maybe it isn’t so surprising.

While later films were made with tongues panted firmly in cheeks and the violence toned down to levels acceptable to the Disney crowd, Conan is not only gloriously violent but is also played absolutely straight, giving it a dark and intense feel. Not really surprising given that it was co-written by notorious humorist Oliver Stone.

As plots go, Conan the Barbarian is guilty of both amazing linearity and shameless contrivances.

The young Conan’s village is raided and razed by an army of raiders, led by James Earl Jones, proudly displaying the two-headed snake symbol that they have adopted as a badge.

The children are enslaved and strapped to a large wheel. The purpose of this wheel is never explained and is one of the several blatant plot devices required to keep the film moving. In this case, being strapped to the wheel gives Conan something to do while he grows up. It also allows us to admire his sheer bullheadedness as he single-handedly keeps the wheel turning one all his peers have dropped dead.

Of course, having spent “many years” strapped to this wheel also provides a convenient justification for how the enslaved boy managed to grow up into Arnold Swarzenegger.

Eventually Conan is sold as a pit fighter and the wheel, having served its usefulness to the plot, is decommissioned.

Not surprisingly, Conan quickly excels in the pits and starts to develop a sense of self-worth based on his new found popularity. As his success and consequent popularity grows, he is taken east in order to receive martial arts training and to be bred from. He is also taught to read and write for some reason best known to the scriptwriters.

Once his training is completed, Conan is released.

Well that made a lot of sense – his owner buys Conan as a slave, invests (presumably) a large amount of money on said slave, and then releases him.

At least this means we can get into the meat of the film at last.

Once freed, it doesn’t take long for Conan to get himself armed and dressed and to fall in with Subotai (Gerry Lopez) – an archer and a thief. The pair of them embark on a life of running from town to town, making a living through robbing from those who deserve it (we have to assume – it isn’t explicitly stated but is generally the stereotype of heroic thieves) and seeking the raiders who destroyed Conan’s village.

They eventually decide to rob a snake cult (for the Eye of the Serpent, a jewel) where they bump into Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief who also fills in for the film’s love interest. The three of them manage to steal the jewel but awaken the mother of all serpents in the process. Conan kills the serpent and conveniently discovers that the cult they are robbing is the same one that raided his village.

Conan and his cohorts are then hired by King Osric (Max von Sydow) to rescue his daughter from the fiendish clutches of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) – the leader of the very same snake cult, thus setting up the rest of the film as a revenge-driven heroic fantasy with a typically inevitable conclusion.

Reading back over my notes I was struck, not just by the number and size of the holes in the plot, but also by how much of it is dependent entirely on scripting convenience. Had it not been for the consistency of tone and physical charisma of Swarzenegger this film could easily have been the sort of career limiting disaster that only gets shown on a bad movie night.

Conan the Barbarian, like The Terminator, is a film very well suited to Swarzenegger. It takes full advantage of the screen presence he exudes through his sheer physical size while not requiring him to actually act.

Conan’s attitude to religion is also worth mentioning.

The world of Conan is one in which gods and magic exist and are accepted as a part of reality. This, of course, is a given for this genre of film.

What is interesting is the attitude of the characters to the supernatural. The heroes, Conan, Subotai and Valeria treat it as something to be distrusted and confronted where it becomes unavoidable – no amount of subtle spellcasting (not that anything in Conan can really be described as subtle) or divine intervention is ever credited with being more useful than a heavy sword with a properly sharpened blade.

Even when Conan does ask his god for a favour, it’s expressed as a challenge rather than a supplication.

Those that do adhere to a religious philosophy are presented as either corrupt, decadent borderline lunatics as in the case of Thulsa Doom and his henchmen, or as mindless followers of whatever happens to be the latest fad.

This subtext – that gods might exist, but when it comes down to it, you’re on your own – may or may not be deliberate. It is certainly fitting with the rest of the film.

In spite of its many flaws – or perhaps because of them – Conan The Barbarian remains a wonderfully dark and gloriously violent example of the Sword and Sorcery genre and one of the few films of this genre that is actually worth watching.

3 Responses to Conan the Barbarian

  1. on 22 Sep 2005 at 10:12 am Red

    Your review is highly ambiguous.. however I do feel that your treatment of the screenplay was for want of a more subtle word, wrong:

    The purpose of this wheel is never explained: It looks like a mill to me, and I have never heard anyone not know this before

    He is also taught to read and write for some reason best known to the scriptwriters: the best warriors are always taught to read and write as well as philosophy. surely this was known to you?


  2. on 22 Sep 2005 at 6:27 pm Paul

    Im not sure how you think a review that ends with Conan The Barbarian remains a wonderfully dark and gloriously violent example of the Sword and Sorcery genre and one of the few films of this genre that is actually worth watching is in any way ambiguous. Please elaborate.

    As for the wheel, I think you should head over to Jabootu and chec out Ken and Andrew’s Rule of Plot Holes. The same advice also applies to Conans education.


  3. on 19 Jul 2008 at 3:19 am rikblein

    What is really amazing is the lack of knowledge or even information about the character of Conan himself. Maybe a little bit of that would help to understand the role of Gods and the supernatural, for instance. As for Conan education and later releasemore than a plot hole, looks like an actually watching the film holethe moment Conan proves (both through his actions and words) he is too dangerous to be kept close, he is let loose. For his owner, it is not the loss of an investment, it is keeping the benefits he (Conan) created and everything else he (his owner) possesses. The following scene shows Conan being chased by a pack of wolveshardly a prize, as Paul Pritchard had presented this liberation:Conan may be invincible in the pit, let the elements and animals take care of him


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