The Arnold factor cannot be ignored. At a press conference during his first term Arnold was asked what he enjoyed about being governor and he quoted his famous first line from Conan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!” then he paused and said “Oh, sorry, I was having a flashback to Conan for a second.” I think part of the Conan the Barbarian, revival has a lot to do with a fascination with Arnold the Governor, but that is probably an issue for my Mediagrouch blog (link to the right).
But the good factor is different. Now, good is a relative term. The audience when I saw it was mostly into the campiness of the film (and they cheered when Arnold delivered that famous first line above, which is actually a quote from Genghis Kahn). Camp, as Susan Sontag pointed out, is the celebration of the bad, the cheesy, the simply awful as being fun and enjoyable. And there is a lot of bad in this movie. The acting, for instance, is just plain bad. The script is somewhat stilted, but then it had to be because the people delivering the lines were so terrible. It would be going too far to say the acting creates an alienating effect, but it does actually work. The three leads in this movie were not cast for their abilities as thespians. They were cast entirely for their physicality, and in that they were perfect: Arnold, a bodybuilder, as Conan, Shandel Bergman, a dancer as Valeria the thief, and Gerry Lopez, a surfer, as Subotai the archer. Because they aren’t really actors they aren’t given much to say, but that’s ok, because they mostly talk with their bodies, and all three of them are fantastic in this aspect—especially in the fight scenes, which are some of the best every shot in a non-Japanese movie (they had a Japanese sword-master, Kiyoshi Yamazaki, who has a cameo as, well, a Japanese sword-master). Supported by the three pillars of Max Von Sydow, James Earl Jones and Mako, these three non-actors are perfectly convincing in their roles.
But it’s more than just good typecasting. This movie is awesome. Like Stalone’s First Blood, Conan the Barbarian is an interesting, complex, and very good movie which is unfortunately weighed down by the baggage created by its two sequels, which were overproduced, formulaic, and completely different types of movies. Conan has some heavyweight firepower behind it—most notably Oliver Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Milius, a very good adventure director. Conan the Barbarian is a gritty, dark, savage movie that accurately captures R.E. Howard’s brand of fantasy, so different from the more popular and more pastoral world created by his contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien. It has a lot of neat little indie-film style flourishes that would be hard to put in a mainstream movie, even today. It is worth noting the major difference between Tolkien and Howard, which I think is on display in this movie, that while Tolkien grieves for a lost world of magic and elves, Conan is always fearful of magic and distrustful of it. Conan is about man’s triumph over superstition, about strength and self-reliance. It may even be said that Conan is a very conservative film, with its wry depiction of flower-children seduced by a charismatic cult leader, which recalls Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. The Jonestown mass-suicide was only four years before the movie came out, and was still fresh in the public consciousness (even more so at the time the screenplay was being written). There is also a bit of Christian imagery in the movie, as Conan is literally crucified and resurrected in the third act of the film. The princess he is supposed to rescue, who has rejected her parents to follow a flower-child cult and in the end calls out for her father to rescue her, completes the conservative, anti-counterculture theme. Conan is indeed a bootstraps Republican (which, let’s face it, I am not, but this may also be part of its current appeal).
But the greatest thing about this film comes from Milius’ direction. Like his previous movie The Wind and the Lion (another of my favorite manly movies), this film combines Saturday Afternoon serial style adventure with David Lean influenced cinematography and a love of bleak, desert places. Add to that the fact that the art direction was lifted directly from Frank Frazetta’s famous Conan paintings, and you get an incredibly rich and beautiful tapestry for Arnold and company to move through and interact with. It is just so cool to look at. And it is exciting. It is manly. When Conan tips over the pot of boiling human soup at the orgy, when he re-trains himself on the wind-swept beach after his crucifixion (complete with wristbands, a-la One Eyed Jacks), when he falls face-first into a bowl of soup after a long night of debauchery, and, especially, when he fights, the boy in every man can look at it and say “That is cool!”
A classic. Who’d have thought it back in 1982?