Saturday, September 12, 2009

“Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

Fire and Ice was a fun barbarian movie, but how about the gold standard of barbarian movies, based on the iconic Robert E. Howard character? Its time for John Milius’s 1982 Conan the Barbarian, with a breakout role by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Besides, there has been a marked lack of snake cults here, and I aim to change that, by Crom!

Long ago in a time of violence and high ADVENTURE! (it even says so in the title card) a small village of Cimmerians is slaughtered by raiders and the children are sold into slavery. One boy survives to adulthood, growing up strong and eventually becoming a success in gladiatorial pit fighting before being freed. On his travels, he acquires an ancient sword, several allies and discovers that the man responsible for his family’s death is the leader of a powerful snake cult. A local king hires our hero to get his princess back from the clutches of the snake cult, and shucks howdy is there revenge to be had. Also, there’s a lot of breasts in this movie, just so you know.

CharactersConan: Our Hero is the Austrian-born governor, and you know what? He does a really great job of a grim-faced, stoic, brooding, glory-seeking badass. Sure there are some parts that don’t really make a lot of sense (like his whole brush with death in the middle of the film), but you know what? Conan’s the biggest badass of the film. He punches a camel out. He doesn’t really say all that much, but it’s the kind of character that when he does open his mouth to speak, its worth paying attention to. Conan also gets a lot of tail in this movie (at least thrice).

Subotai: Gerry Lopez plays a roguish thief who meets Conan pretty randomly. The become bros pretty quickly though, being in the same “shit out of luck” boat when they meet, and they take to thieving. Subotai’s a pretty good archer too.

Valeria: Sandahl Bergman is an independent thief and warrior woman that meets up with Conan on his first major heist. She’s a very valkyrie kind of woman, and a perfect love interest for Conan. She’s very fond of saying “do you want to live forever?” before heading into some reckless situation.

King Osric the Usurper: Veteran actor Max von Sydow plays an aged barbarian king who hires Conan to rescue his daughter. He also admires Conan’s moxie.

The Wizard: Mako (who’s done a LOT of voice work) plays the narrator and the crazy old hermit that Conan comes across on his travels. He’s a huge ham on screen and also provides useful information to our hero.

Thulsa Doom: James Earl Fargin Jones is the villain, except this time its not just his epic voice. Thulsa Doom is an ancient evil, a powerful sorcerer who, in the beginning hypnotizes Conan’s hot mom before beheading her in front of the kid. When we catch up with Thulsa later, he’s in charge of a snake cult that’s mind controlling people and doing other hidden naughty things. He’s even able to turn into a snake at one point, which just comes out of nowhere. He’s a badass villain with badass speeches and a mysterious origin and has some great lines about making Conan the way he is.

Rexor: Former NFL player Ben Davidson plays the hulking, right-hand-man of Thulsa Doom, a big, mean, bad dude.

Thorgrim: Sven Ole Thorsen plays Rexor’s buddy who swings around a giant mallet. Interesting thing is that Thorsen has been in a lot of movies seen here at RMWC, like The 13th Warrior, Predator, and notably as Tigris of Gaul in Gladiator. Fun fact.

John Milius has a very good cinematic eye. The landscapes are bleak, foreboding and desolate, looking suitably barbaric and ancient. I never would’ve guessed it was filmed mostly in Spain. Costumes are dramatic, often over-the-top, but there is a grounding in reality. Things look like they make at least some sense, they’re just exaggerated. The special effects are generally practical, with not a whole lot in terms of flashy magic, although there is one scene where creatures from the spirit world try to take a body away that’s actually done quite nicely for the time.

Action scenes are where the movie really shines. Fights are brutal, well shot and individual moments are over quickly, since Conan is VERY GOOD at killing people. The climactic battle at the end of the movie is fantastic.

Robert E. Howard wrote the original pulp stories, John Milius and Oliver Stone (yes, THAT Oliver Stone) worked on the script adaptation. The story itself, while centered on one man’s thirst for revenge, has an epic feel that has a lot to do with the narrator’s dialog. Indeed, the whole movie takes itself rather seriously, playing all of the craziness completely straight. Of course Conan finds a wizard in the middle of nowhere. Why shouldn’t he? Of course Thulsa Doom can turn into a snake. Everyone in the Hyborian Age expects those kinds of things. It works in the movie’s favor to create that kind of atmosphere. As far as dialog in general, its fairly clipped (aside from Thulsa Doom’s eloquence) and is entirely appropriate for the movie.

Basil Poledouris delivers one of the most appropriate and epic scores for the movie. There are long stretches of not talking, and the score brings forward a moody, violent, but ADVENTURE! filled sound that is solid at all times. Its an outstanding soundtrack.

Conan the Barbarian is far better than any sword and sandals movie is really expected to be. Yes there are plenty of cheesy moments, but they’re also combined with a lot of badassitude and a willingness to look ridiculous in the name of giving the audience ADVENTURE! Conan’s journey from slave to revenge-seeking thief to legitimate hero is really well done. The movie is really well made and legitimately entertaining.

Bonus: Conan's the kind of guy who's got his priorities settled.

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