Friday, December 4, 2015

An Appreciation of Conan The Barbarian (1982)

In this post I am going to argue that a low-budget firm from the 1982 which has been dismissed as some sort of comical misfire is in fact a well-intentioned, and surprisingly well-executed film that captures the spirit of the genre it was derived from.  In other words, because the genre itself is somewhat goofy in a certain way, then it is perfectly acceptable for the film to be goofy as well, as long as it fits the material.  Its a difficult road to take and can be misunderstood by people outside the genre who don't know what they are looking at.

Living as we do in a very insincere time, with hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement the new integrity, and motion pictures being as false as they have ever been, with huge budgets for anti-masterpieces like Avengers: Age of Ultron, the ultimate empty movie, it was a shock to more-or-less accidentally see a low-budget film from 1982 that I had often heard dismissed and criticized, and discover an integrity that no one had ever mentioned to me in the context of this film.

This film, of course, is Conan the Barbarian (1982) directed by John Milius and written by Milius and Oliver Stone.

Conan studies acting with great diligence and you can see his acting improve as the movie proceeds.

Before I go any further, let us return briefly to the time in the 1970s and 1980s when there were ghettoized forms of what the publishing industry dismissed as "children's literature" before these subgenres were recognized as being vastly important sources of revenue for infinitely cynical media corporations.  And in those more innocent days, authors of these subgenres eked out a living, barely, and were unknown except to their publisher, their literary agent, and a few thousand readers and hardcore fans, many of whom would attend science fiction or fantasy conferences.   And those fans and authors, mostly ignored by the mainstream, would occasionally see a terrible movie adaptation of their beloved subgenre or occasionally, very rarely, an excellent effort that really delivered, especially when seen in light of the filmmakers limited resources.

Two examples of low-budget films that were excellent efforts even with very low budgets include Highlander (1986) and The Wicker Man (1973) both of which were well-received by the community of readers of their respective genre..  

Of course now that we live in a time when Hollywood desperately pillages these subgenres as a way of making money, having failed completely to create any creative areas of their own, we must wonder if it was not better to be left in our ghetto rather than be ruthlessly exploited by these scum both on the screen and at the circus that has become Comic Con.

One of these dismissed literary ghettos was the subgenre of “sword and sorcery” and, within that subgenre, was a series of stories by Robert E Howard first published in Weird Tales in 1932 about a barbarian named Conan who worshiped a god named Crom. Conan evolved in many ways over the decades, sometimes going by the name Conan the Barbarian, sometimes by the name Conan the Cimmerarian, and sometimes jokingly called Gonad the Barbarian. There were a billion books and comic books written about this character and somehow I managed to read none of them. But certainly they were a valid property of the sf and fantasy subgenres and a beloved child of the community.

So when I heard that Dino and Raffaela de Laurentis were planning a production of Conan I had no particular expectation that they had anything very authentic in mind.  And when it came out, I heard a lot of criticism from reviewers.  But that was a mistake on my part, because how could mainstream reviewers hope to understand a movie based on Robert Howard's work?

And there are many superficial corny elements in this movie.  But this is Conan, he beats people over the head with a sword and defeats exotic and beautiful witches after sleeping with them, and when appropriate he burns down temples and yet he never forgets where he came from and that he swore vengeance.

But there were clues all through this movie that something more than average was going on. Perhaps the biggest single clue was that the film was written by John Milius and Oliver Stone.  Both of these gentlemen are actually pretty good writers.  

At various times during the film I felt the pure vision of Howard's oeuvre and laughed almost in astonishment.  Yes a little goofy when you look at it as a jaded adult but it is necessary to find the child in you, the child that read Howard's work, and there it was, miraculously, somehow on the screen.

Arnold looks great as Conan

The film was shot in Spain with mostly unknown actors with the exception of James Earl Jones as the major bad guy, and Max von Sydow in a cameo as a distressed King and father.  Arnold is in his first movie here, and he starts out a little stiff but he gets better as the film goes along.  You can see him improve.   And it works.

One might even wonder if, in another life, or parallel universe, if James Earl Jones would not have received a best supporting actor nomination for his role as Doom.

Doom smiles at Conan as he is being tortured.

I felt that the film had integrity, delivered on its promises and deserves to be on the list of notable films Hollywood has made in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  Maybe not great art, but better than expected.

Good job, guys and gals.   I hope the film helped your careers back then and led to the artistic destinies you deserved and desired.

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