Conan the Barbarian: The Days of Working Out

The narrator, played by Mako (you may know him as the world-swallowing villain Aku from Samurai Jack) begins Conan the Barbarian by calling it a tale “from the days of high adventure.” For certain kinds of children, this is as heart-warming as “Once upon a time.” Conan concerns rape and beheading and the occult; it deals its lessons through drunkenness and greed, lust and vengeance and lamentation. But its high spirit transforms these bad things into odd exploits and sweaty play-pretend. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tooth-gap and surprised, even innocent eyes lend silly blatancy to the whole thing. He’s a big kid who grew up but never stopped playing. He crowned himself king of the backyard by virtue of having more puberty than anyone else.

Arnold has been in enough interviews to prove how highly he thinks of himself. Even when the questions have a tone of condemnation, he has the demeanor of someone explaining a casual truth. That confidence is the secret to the appeal of Conan. Arnold never talks down to this material (neither does director John Milius). Its joyous self-belief does not come from Arnold thinking little enough of himself to play a bad character (which he's incapable of doing), but from thinking highly enough of Conan to become him. This movie is a workout for him, even more than most empowering roles for most celebrities. Yet it doesn't cheapen his work in it because for Arnold, there's nothing he takes more seriously in the whole world than working out (“Pumping is like cumming," as he put it once).

The opening credits are a sweaty montage of tempered metal and soot and flame, flashing on the stones of cave walls. Basil Poledouris’ score may not be as hummable as the Star Wars score, but it should not have been forgotten – it is one of the great movie themes of the 80s. It’s full of vibrant pounding and knife scrapes and drive. It's heroic destiny broken into drums and bone charms and crying horns. Conan, like Star Wars, would be a lost cause equipped with music that sounded like its era. Poledouris brings it up to the level of high adventure (consider Lady Hawke as a comparison, a film with a score set in the audience's reality rather than the film's).

The way the music unironically shoots the feeling of the world of Conan the Barbarian into your bones is mirrored by the story’s setup. Conan’s family dies before his eyes; on the “Wheel of Pain” he becomes Arnold Schwarzenegger through decades of torment. It's played with hyper-seriousness that the audience almost takes straight (he has the strength we imagined we'd get lugging around scoliosis-inducing backpacks in the days of textbooks and binders). I’ve read that Arnold actually had to tone down for this movie, something worth putting into full context. A role drawn into graphic fiction as anatomical perfection, a portrait of primeval power, required him to get flabbier or it wouldn’t be believable that he exists. He was made for this role as no one is made for roles – the role is playing up to him.

Arnold arms the film with a living drawing by Frank Frazetta, the guy who grunged up the fantasy of the medieval world with brutal chins and proud feminine ribs and fully extended downswings and lots of snakes (he liked them almost as much as the De Laurentiises do). The feel of this movie is a magnificent high, a marriage of glossy Burroughs-esque fantasy maleness, powerful, barbaric femininity, and just a hint of cultural blindness, as you might expect from a medieval tale produced by mythologically eccentric Italians who never seem to work in the style of Italy, played out by a smiley Austrian who thinks that lifting weights is as good as sex.

This is the role that created Arnold Schwarzenegger, the icon, and that threatens to take over the modern impression of the film. In the way that descriptions of Captain Kirk are inseparable from descriptions of Star Trek, Arnold lives out the tone of Conan within himself. Everything he is and seems to aspire to be, translates to this world. He makes it potentially brutal but also forcefully warm, subtly perverse but childishly unrepentant. There are few ways to praise this movie without also praising him (criticism of it does not work the same way). This is not only because he exists as the living myth of growing up, that he somehow manages to behead people for fun and possess not one crumb of cynicism, but also because the movie cannot live up to such a man.

Conan seems afraid to let the character dominate its universe, as he dominates its reception. Once the storyline activates, it becomes a simple revenge movie – the top of a dreaded snake cult, the boomy Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) has to answer for the death of Conan’s parents. Our hero has a silly archer friend (Gerry Lopez, a surfer dude in King Conan’s court) and an iron-thighed Queen of Thieves (Sandahl Bergman) as sidekicks; Mako shows up in canon as a witch doctor. It leads to many predictably meaty shenanigans but not a lot of heart. This movie needed to be jagged and oratory: it needed to challenge structure and defy action movie clichés, in order to become truly ancient and epic. It’s full of adventure but never feels too adventurous.

To prevent it from slinking embarrassingly into a foregone third act, I'd have allowed Conan to defeat Thulsa Doom at the mid-point, when he beheads the De Laurentiis family snake (King Kong fought one as well in their 1976 retelling). What would be left if the plot was done early? I believe it would be adventure, drunkenness, ennui, conquests, disparity, flaccidity, brooding, kingliness, death. I wanted to see a series of tales built around a man’s self-image; this film could have been high-kitsch Beowulf. It needed to be wilder and more blood-lusty. Despite some severings and beheadings and lots of shots of Arnold's side-moob when assuming romantic caveman positions, Conan comes across a little tame, of all things, owing almost completely to its plot conventions. Tame is the last thing it should have been.

It doesn't lack thrills, but the thrills it has are chained to uninteresting goals – infiltrate enemy stronghold, endure Lopez’s quipping, crush the enemies. The archer should have been developed with heart and fire, to stay around so long. The movie uses him as a literary trope, a friend in name and absolute in being named. But he's not a memorable character. The film knows that the adventure should seem epic yet it dwells on character beats that deflate it. The plot tells Conan he will pay for his vengeance, but the bad things that happen don’t come as a result of it. The writers seemed to fear that letting Conan loose would thwart him but that control is what thwarts him.

Production designer Ron Cobb incants this universe into existence; if he was a Goth pulpist on Alien, here he’s all pulp. The actors are singularly stellar resources for him. Arnold is always a living version of an artist’s rendition of Arnold. Conan’s easy arrogance pours out of him by nature rather than by action, and that’s what makes it honorable. Bergman’s Valeria is the kind of girl that likes hanging out with the boys; Conan looks at her with the look with which Dennis the Menace used to say, “You’re not bad … fer a girl.” She doesn’t arm-wrestle Conan but says everything to him with the tone of doing so (she talks of romance occasionally, but it comes off as flippant, ending in sexual foreplay that has the tone that kids use to “Double-dog-dare” each other). Mako is a mercurial little guy. Max Von Sydow briefly plays an aging Nordic king with the kind of sadness always reserved for characters in Arnold’s movies who don’t get to be him. Jones is a tremendous presence, Stalin crossed with Baron Samedi (they may have cut his screen-time to prevent audiences from joining his ranks). But churned up into this plot, he’s more like the MacGuffin than the villain. Conan trying to defeat him is a challenge in the same way that a marathon would be: you know he’ll get there eventually. Even if it takes him a while, he’s always coming.

Conan the Barbarian is built up by childhood anguish and dream-making, tarnished by convention but not made less watchable by it. The film's three acts of bouncy hero-worship and conversation attempts (the closest it gets is more like taunting than talking) can be relived despite the conclusion that they are never greater than the sum of a pride-inducing theme song played over the sight of Arnold flexing on a beach. The film is a serious simmer. It makes everyone involved seem like the version of themselves best equipped to enjoy it. But I wanted it to explode, carelessly, and be as daring with its structure as it thinks of its character. I watch it again and again, still wanting that – there's no worse movie I want to rewatch as much. It makes the playground come alive. But it forgets to take down the fences.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, June 30, 2019.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Dino De Laurentiis Corporation/Universal Pictures

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