Conan the Barbarian (1982) Review

A film of few words, “Conan the Barbarian” strays from the path of most action films as far as storytelling goes. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would become notorious for delivering one- liners has only one or two opportunities in this film. But how can one possibly complain about an action/adventure film that doesn’t waste its time blabbering? “Conan” should be applauded for creating the epic feel of a war movie like “Spartacus,” but elaborate sets and costumes don’t count as points toward character development.

Writer and director John Milius, who penned “Apocalypse Now,” knows a thing or two about war films. Namely, he gets the power of telling a story without words. Except for a narrator, significant chunks of “Conan” are told with music and images that attempt to spin the story into a folk legend akin to Greek mythology. Aided with a healthy budget for creative and inspiring costumes and set pieces, “Conan” sells itself as a true epic.

The lack of dialogue, however, causes a fair share of problems. Events seem to lack a rhyme or reason with only the thread of a common revenge tale holding it all together. Conan sees his parents die, gets sold into slavery, grows up, becomes a gladiator, trains to be a warrior and then is suddenly free. The film doesn’t need dialogue for the sake of telling us what will happen next, but in developing some of the relationships between the characters that provides the motivation for the story to travel in one direction or another.

Schwarzenegger wastes no time becoming an action hero you can root for. The script throws men waiting to be crushed and naked women at his feet and for a barbarian, he shows that he’s not so much an animal as someone who refuses to act entirely human as a way of defying the system. When he’s given a woman to mate with, for example, he doesn’t simply take her and have her like a dog, and when he’s in the arena, he clearly kills not for his owners, but out of some emotional void.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones at the height of his “voice of Darth Vader” fame. An unforgettable villain from the name inward, Doom gives “Conan” the evil force it needs to make Conan’s motivation function successfully. His philosophy of seeking human followers rather than wealth and riches makes him rather unique as well and it allows for some intriguing philosophy for an otherwise shallow movie.

I suppose swords, sweat, snakes and sex have their place in adult action/fantasy; the trouble with “Conan the Barbarian” only lies within a conflict of objectives. The film cannot seem to settle on being more of a war epic or completely embracing its potential for cult fantasy. Its characters lack too much depth for the former and its story too long-winded and humorless for the latter. Either way, it presents a world and mythology that makes for an intriguing revenge tale.

3/5 Stars

Conan the Barbarian
Directed by John Milius
Written by John Milius and Oliver Stone, Robert E. Howard (stories)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman


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