The World According to Arnie – Conan The Barbarian (1982)
Goodbye sucky 70’s, hello awesome 80’s! I’m here! I made it! I’ve put on my comfy pants and I’m ready for some quintessential Arnie! Action! Violence! Mangled English! Far too many exclamation marks! And I haven’t been let down. Conan The Barbarian has all those things in abundance, but for my viewing pleasure boobs get thrown into the mix. Lots and lots of boobs! If ever there was a legitimate reason for exclamation marks it boobs! BOOBS!!!!!!!
Conan is a young lad learning the ways of the world from his father. One day his peaceful village is attacked, and he watches as poor ol’ dad gets an axe in the back and then gets his forearms mauled by ferocious dogs. Then to make matters worse Mum gets dazzled by the mystical phenomenon known as ‘a black guy with blue eyes’. Suitably hypnotized by the gaze of snake worshiping cult leader Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), she is then decapitated by ol’ blue eyes. Young Conan is then sold in to slavery and spends the next 15-20 years on the Wheel of Pain, walking around in a circle, which must be a damn good workout because through a few stealthy transitions he turns in to a massive Austrian bloke named Arnie. Seeing what a big bastard he’s become, some bloodnut bloke buys him and turns him into a Gladiator. After cracking the skulls of everyone within arms reach, they set off to the Far East to learn to read, get a little kung fu action and bang lots of unwilling chicks. One day bloodnut inexplicably frees Conan, and off he goes to seek revenge.
Along the way he bangs a witch, who he understandably tries to throw into a fire when she forgets his safe word, meets a sidekick with a funny bowl cut and an awesome moustache (Gerry Lopez), gets on the medieval equivalent of Bolivian Marching Powder, sucker punches a camel, bangs a sexy thief (Sandahl Bergman), fights a snake big enough to upchuck a winking Jon Voight, meets the worlds first lifeguard, eyeballs a lot of boobs, and hacks peoples heads off.
It really does make a huge difference when Arnie is in his element. Arnie’s 70’s stinkers were atrocious, but here he’s finally found the role he was meant for. A big, dumb killing machine. And he’s good at it. Although never exactly graceful wielding a sword, he looks more comfortable in a role that doesn’t require any acting except for looking constipated most of the time. You can see the beginnings of his appeal here. He’s not exactly the most complex of actors. When he’s happy he laughs that idiotic loud, abrasive laugh of his. When he’s really pissed his nostrils flare and he screams a lot. When he’s sad/thoughtful/concerned/concentrating/listening/interested/tired he furrows his brow. Quite simple really and that’s all we want from the big fella.
I would, at this point, like to bring up the ‘Wheel of Pain’. Honestly, fucked if I know what it’s purpose is! Basically Conan spends 15 odd years strapped to this wheel going round and round in circles. Is the wheel part of a greater machine? Maybe one that pumps water through a towns water or sewage system? If it’s not attached to something, why not have the slaves doing something useful like making knock off handbags or wrist bands to sell to tourists? It all seems fairly pointless and the logistics of utilising this wheel, monitoring it, staffing it and the general upkeep seems to me to be a total exercise in futility. One that’s an even greater punishment than manning the wheel, because the whole concept would drive you insane. An illiterate, musclebound sub-moron could be put to greater use I’m sure.
Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard, Conan The Barbarian is directed by John Milius and written by Milius and Oliver Stone. I will make note of this now, and won’t dwell on it. The screenplay sucks. The dialogue is stilted, overly theatrical and it never comes across as if actual people are talking. There’s a voiceover by a bloke who doesn’t appear until halfway through the movie, therefore wouldn’t know the details of what happened previously. I found the story to be a bit muddled. I never really understood who Thulsa Doom was, and what his intentions were. He didn’t come across as particularly dangerous, but merely a dodgy bastard who enjoyed brainwashing women in to having sex with his minions so he could sit on a throne and watch. In the days before the internet I suppose you needed to ascend to the status of cult leader to get your perv on. The only thing I found interesting about the character is wondering how and why he can transform in to a snake. And maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but Arnie repeatedly yelling “Crom!” confused the hell out of me. I don’t remember any explanation of who Crom was, but whenever Arnie got angry he would bellow it and I would be baffled. It took a line of dialogue 15 minutes from the end for me to understand that Crom was his god. That is probably my biggest issue with the storytelling of Conan The Barbarian. Things just happen, without explanation and we are supposed to work to try to follow. And I don’t want to have to think too much in an Arnie flick. Especially one where he sports such an impressive mullet.
The acting ranged from serviceable to okay. Arnie showed huge improvement in the three years since Cactus Jack, but benefited from a more physical character and a better story. Sandahl Bergman certainly looks like she could hold her own, but lacks presence and there is zero chemistry between her and Arnie. Gerry Lopez as the moustachioed sidekick is entertaining, but his character is one note. But most importantly, James Earl Jones looks a bit lost as Thulsa Doom. The character doesn’t make much sense, isn’t threatening, far from a worthy physical match for Arnie, and the nature of his supernatural powers is never fully explained. So when Arnie faces Doom on the Mountain of Power at the end, we never feel there is any danger. We just wait for the inevitable head lopping.
The score is a mixed bag. For the first 15 minutes or so it had a huge, epic feel to it and I was really enjoying it. But it slowly began to grate on me, because it never lets up. Every moment of screen time is dominated by a bombastic score and what started as a huge positive for the film becomes it’s biggest detriment. I learn that this was Milius’ intention, as he wanted “a continuous musical drama”. Fine in theory, but it becomes oppressive after a while and it takes away from the overall effectiveness of the film when your mind yells obscenities at the music. Another aspect of the film that takes away from it’s effectiveness is it’s length. At two hours plus it is about 20 minutes too long. With the right amount of editing this would be a cracking good time.
Those problems aside, this is undoubtedly a very enjoyable film, employing Arnie at what he does best. The action is well staged and the effects and sets are impressive. There are plenty of exposed breasts and Arnie sucker punches a camel. I cannot stress this enough. Arnie actually king hits a camel and knocks it out. It’s genius. And immediately made me consider giving this film a 4 Chang rating.
The 80’s is off to a flyer and there’s loads more to look forward to.
Next up, Conan is back and this time he’s Destroying everything in his path.