Conan the Barbarian is a 1982 American epic fantasy film co-written and directed by John Milius. Based on stories by Robert E. Howard, a pulp fiction writer of the early twentieth century, about the adventures of the eponymous character in a fictional prehistoric world of dark magic and savagery. The film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Earl Jones and tells the story of a young barbarian (Schwarzenegger) who seeks vengeance for the death of his parents at the hands of Thulsa Doom (Jones), the leader of a snake cult. Buzz Feitshans and Raffaella De Laurentiis produced the film for her father, Dino De Laurentiis. Basil Poledouris composed the music.
The film features the character that needs no introduction to most fans of fantasy fiction. The character, Conan, and the world of Hyboria were the creations of pulp-fiction writer Robert E. Howard from the 1930s. Published in Weird Tales, his series about the barbarian was popular with the readership; the barbarian’s adventures in a savage and mystical world, replete with gore and brutal slayings, satisfied the reader’s fantasies of being a “mighty giant who lives by no rules but his own.”
The film plays fast and loose with archetypes, such as Conan crucified on a tree and symbolic images and characters that serve to give it some literary validity, but mostly it’s just meant to be a fun mostly lighthearted adventure with supernatural themes.
Reflecting the approach towards film making at the time, The sets, designed by Ron Cobb, were based on Dark Age cultures and Frank Frazetta’s paintings of Conan. Milius eschewed optical effects, preferring to realize his ideas with mechanical constructs and optical illusions. Schwarzenegger performed most of his stunts, and two types of swords, costing $10,000 each, were forged for his character. The editing process took over a year, and several violent scenes never made it into the final release. There was even an attempt to hire Frazetta as a visual consultant, but the deal failed to gel.
The film was poorly received by critics but has since gained cult status. It’s an interesting blend of humor, the supernatural, and adventure with lots of laughs, mostly intentional, but some also partially due to Schwarzenegger’s novice acting skills and strong accent. The film is chock full of humor and jokes that somehow blend in well with the adventure story plot about rescuing a princess from a snake cult who has fallen under the spell of the cult’s leader. It is a sensual film, full of physical conflict and sweat, taking full advantage of Schwarzenegger’s physicality. The film is also notable for its trademark Italian -melodramatic style; influences that give it the feel of the classic Italian Hercules movies featuring Steve Reeves from the 50’s and 60’s.
Conan The barbarian had a great cast that included James Real Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, and featured an appearance by Mako (Mako Iwamatsu) who also lent his unmistakable voice as narrator. The film’s plot is simple but fun and loosely based on the stories and characters created by Robert E Howard whose fantasy tales had gained widespread popularity in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
The resulting film remains a gem of film making for the time and is still a lot of fun to watch. It stands out still as one of Schwarzenegger’s best, and a modern classic that continues to provide enjoyment and remains fun to watch again and again.