Last weekend, the long-talked about Conan the Barbarian remake hit theaters. Directed by Marcus Nispel, a director whose prior work consists wholly of half-assed remakes, and made in a little more than three months, despite having been out less than a weekend, has already been the source of some scathing reviews from both critics and filmgoers, and is fully expected to flop.
I will not be reviewing that film today. You see, I learned a valuable lesson after watching the cringe-worthy Karate Kid remake, and did not need to pay good money to and waste two hours to know that this is going to be another one of those cringe-worthy remakes. Instead, I will be taking a look back one of my favorite films, the movie that this remake dared to try and imitate. That’s right dear readers, I will be taking a look back at the classic 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian.
Loosely based off the works of writer Robert E. Howard, the movie a sword-and-sorcery epic directed John Milius and with a screenplay written by Oliver Stone written by Oliver Stone. Surprisingly, the film did not cast any major stars for roles in the films, though the film would feature future stars like Mako, Max von Sydow, James Earl Jones, and of course, providing a breakout role for then bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. Notable in it’s time for it’s ultra-violent tone and content, it remains a cult classic and favorite in certain circles to this day, and has been a favorite of mine since my teenage years.
So it’s a fan favorite and cult classic. Question is, has the film started to show it’s age, or does it remain as powerful today as ever?
Our story begins with Mako, who serves as the story teller, informing the viewer that we are about to be witness to an age undreamed of, back in the days of high adventure. In this world, a young Conan witnesses the murder of his parents and genocide of his people at the hands of warlord and cult leader Thulsa Doom, and his himself sold into slavery. As years pass, he becomes a bit fighter of great renown, and in time gains his freedom, and seeks to forge for himself a place in this world. At his side, his companion Subotai the Archer and his lover Valeria, as well as the wizard Akiro. At his back, the forces of the Snake Cult of Set, led by Thulsa Doom. After a lifetime of hardship, Conan at long last will have his chance to take his revenge, and in the process, become a legend.
While it may sound cheesy, the story really does feel like an epic as you watch it unfold before your eyes, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the screenplay was written by John Milius and Oliver Stone. However, a large part of the story is dependent on the characters, whom all fit well within the fabric of this saga. Schwarzenegger’s role as the titular Conan is easily one of the best of his career, with his typical stoicism, accent and mannerisms complementing the character very well. Gerry Lopez and Sandhal Bergman both give sufficient turns as Subotai and Valeria respectively, adding some humor and vigor to Conan’s merry band that Arnold cannot provide. Mako is as entertaining and charismatic as ever, both as the eccentric wizard Akiro and the narrator. Max von Sydow makes a brief, yet important turn as King Osric. Yet none really supersede James Earl Jones, whose performance as the villain Thulsa Doom always struck me as one of the most under-rated cinematic villains. In every scene Jones appears, he dominates the screen, and adds a deep complexity to Thulsa Doom’s motives and actions that makes him more than a cut above your average villain. While the acting didn’t win the movie any Oscars, and it certainly doesn’t deserve one, the performances are all deeply enjoyable, and compliment the story and setting very well.
Milius does a master’s work with the cinematography of the film, ranging from the sweeping panorama’s of the landscape to the film’s gory and brutal and well choreographed fight scenes. All of this is done to a booming orchestra score by Basil Poledouris, which is often considered by critics to be one of the finest classical scores in Hollywood’s history. If there is any problem with the movie’s behind the scenes work, it would be some of the campier bits and uses of special effects, ranging from Conan punching a camel, to Thulsa Doom shooting people with snake arrows from his bow, and in one scene, turning into a snake himself. While the effects are a tad dated, they at least aged into becoming camp value, which is more than most films can claim these days.
So does the mettle of Conan the Barbarian still hold up after almost thirty years? Was there very any doubt it would?
What Hollywood seems to have forgotten about film making, certainly with their remakes at least, is that hundred million dollar budgets don’t mean a thing if your movie has no heart. While the dozens of remakes of beloved classics we’ve seen recently are all but stillborn, the older films keep going strong, Conan being no exception. Despite feeling cheesy at times, the film at every point is enjoyable. With very dedicated production value, an enjoyable story, and top-notch performances from Schwarzenegger, Mako and James Earl Jones, Conan the Barbarian proves to be an entertaining gem full of magic and mystery, delivering the perfect blend of cheesy escapism, boorish brawn, and plenty of high-fantasy action.
Conan the Barbarian is not a film that will likely please everyone equally, but for fans of fantasy-adventure epics, this 1982 film from John Milius is a classic of the genre, one that has a devoted following for good reason. With brutal battles and a legendary adventure, an epic score and a fantastic feel to the film that makes it a joy to watch every single time, Conan the Barbarian deserves it’s reputation as one of the finest fantasy films ever made, and deserves to be called a classic in every since of the word. If you haven’t seen this tale of high adventure, so so at once. If you have, now is a good time to see it again.