Jesse Bullington and I have (perhaps foolishly) decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” fantasy movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. We’ll be posting one every Friday. . . at least, that’s the goal.
The Film: Conan the Barbarian (1982)
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS???: Robert E. Howard source material, script by Oliver Stone and John Milius, directed by John Milius (Red Dawn), score by Basil Poledouris, acting by James Earl Jones and Mako, hackting by Arnold and Sandahl Bergman
First viewing by Jesse: ?
First viewing by Molly: A couple of weeks ago
Most recent viewing by both: A couple of weeks ago
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. Released the year of my birth, which has to mean something.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Negligible. Aware it existed, not much else. I’d read some of Howard’s short stories, never saw the film.
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: The majority of movies watched in one’s youth cannot live up to the false memories of awesomeness we imbue them with, especially films made in the 80s. Not so with Conan. The prospect of re-watching this quintessential barbarian epic filled me with equal parts joy and horror—joy to again watch such an amazing film, and horror because I knew exposing Molly to the movie would result in her joining the cult of Cimmeria. . . and insisting we watch those other Howard adaptations of the 80s, Red Sonja and Conan the Destroyer. No matter. A strong man does not fear such things as pain, even when said pain is pretty goddamn severe.
I actually came to Conan the Barbarian a little later in my development than some of the movies we’ll be covering here, but I made up for lost time by going on a huge Conan kick in high school thanks to my friend Jimmy. In true snob fashion I eschewed the L. Sprague de Camp stuff and went for pure Howard with most favorable results. I wrote an article for the school paper titled “Why Conan is Better Than You” and in my senior year created and successfully snuck into the final product a yearbook page for Conan—I’ll see if I can’t dig it out and scan it at some point in the future.
Being older and presumably a little wiser, I went into the re-watch both anticipating good action movie times expecting to possibly cringe a bit, both at the movie and my own youthful fondness for such a testosterone-dripping, beefcake picture.
Molly’s thoughts prior to initial viewing: I had heard the soundtrack a few times during various role playing games (hell yeah, I’m awesome), and I had seen the first 45 minutes or so of the film, I think up until the scene where Conan and Valeria start doing it and being all rich and stuff after their heist. I remember being impressed with the opening sequence with James Earl Jones rolling up on the village and just being a total piece of shit with the best weave in the ancient world, but not much else. I don’t think I was in the right state of mind. For years I said I’d finish it, especially when Jesse and I watched some Russian movie called, I think, Grey Wolf of the Clan of the Greyhound Wolves, which just doesn’t even pretend to do anything other than plagiarize the Conan-as-a-kid-watching-his-parents-die verbatim, but it was never the right time. Then the other night, it was The Time. I asked Jesse if we could just real quick re-watch Conan’s mom get iced, he obliged. . . then beauty began. We watched it the whole way through, occasionally whooping with admiration and high-fiving one another like two nerds who’ve lost their old role-playing group. . . wait.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: HOLY SHIT THAT MOVIE IS EVEN BETTER THAN I REMEMBERED. By Crom’s mullet, I was a fool to ever doubt this movie in any way. Wildly offensive, dumb as a sack of warhammers, and beautiful, beautiful beyond words. This holds up perhaps better than any other childhood fantasy movie, with elements from disparate Howard stories and mythoi all jumbled together into the quintessential barbarian movie.
Highlights: Mako’s voiceover at the beginning. The soundtrack. Any time James Earl Jones opens his mouth—any time. The fierce look on Arnold’s face as/immediately after he kills some random goon. The Wheel of Pain! The Tree of Woe! James Earl Jones’ Spinal Tap refugee sidekicks! Conan reminiscing about picking berries as a child with his father!!! FUCK YES!!!!! Hell, this even got me excited to watch Red Sonja and Destroyer again.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: God damn! God damn! What the fuck was wrong with me that I didn’t immediately love this film? I am, at this point, completely convinced that if Jesus truly reigns in Heaven, He is pissed as hell that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t play Him as a sword-wielding savior in The Passion of the Christ, laying waste to the Pharisees and shit. Barring that, I’m certain He is mad that they didn’t at least get Basil Poledouris to do the score, because there is nothing better than the Conan score.
So here is the long and short of it: this movie is awesome. Mako’s voice-overs are fucking spectacular (“HE WAS BRED TO THE FINEST STOCK.” Who wrote that line and thought it was OK? SOMEONE AWESOME), and just the overall scriptwriting is amazing. I actually got a little emotional when they’re burning Valeria’s funeral pyre and Subotai says the line about weeping for Conan because Conan will not weep. I also loved the non-Western aesthetic of everything, even if it is questionably racist at times. The sheer size of the swords alone was fantastic, especially after that twee bullshit that was Narsil/Anduril in The Lord of the Rings movies. FUCK YES. Eat it, elves.
Also, just to class up this review, holy fuck, gender in this movie! Is actually pretty awesome! Mostly. The sex-witch. . .whatever, and I know one could chalk up Conan’s mom’s sword-wielding as maternal devotion, but it’s still bad as fuck. Additionally, Valeria. Though Sandahl Bergman’s acting leaves something to be desired (that “something” is quality) it doesn’t matter, because she is so awesome! She doesn’t do anything but kick ass and have sex with hot dudes and steal shit and call bullshit on hare-brained Conan schemes. Then when she comes back to help out and stuff, during the orgy scene. . . okay. When she fell behind Conan and Subotai I fully expected some bullshit where she’s captured and they have to come back and save her, but NO OMG SHE TOTALLY FUCKING SAVES HERSELF and then is taken down by the ultimate cheap shot that is James Earl Jones magicking a snake into an arrow and shooting her. And then comes back as a valkyrie, grinning cuz she just saved Conan’s sorry ass. I mean, “sorry ass” in the sense that he and two other dudes just took down an army of goons, but still.
Well, at any rate, I loved it. I’m going to re-watch it again soon, probably. The gloriousness cannot rest after a single viewing. I’ve been quoting it at people in the most tiresome manner for days now, especially the scene Jesse already commented on where Conan goes all Robert Bly on Subotai and talks about his dad and stuff, and also I am half-considering getting the runes from Conan’s sword tattooed down my arm, for shits and giggles. We’ll see.
Final verdict: a big old FUCK YES from the both of us.