You might think that no one ever had a career like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you’d be wrong. Movie history is littered with former athletes who made it big in pictures, Arnold* just happened to be in a sport which hadn’t been tapped for movie talent all that often. Being a former Mr. Universe might make you think he didn’t put in his dues, but that isn’t true either. Take a gander at Arnold’s IMDb page; after playing the lead in the colossally misguided Hercules in New York** he bounced around in bit parts and supporting roles for thirteen years, including an uncredited role in one of my all-time favorite films, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Only then did Dino De Laurentiis decide to cast him in his breakout role, 1982’s Conan the Barbarian.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the top: Conan the Barbarian is kind of ridiculous. In part this is because Conan is kind of a ridiculous character to start with, a power fantasy carried into almost-realism by Robert Howard’s intense prose. In part it’s because Arnold was as raw as they come as an actor, with no awareness of what the other actors were doing and not much awareness of himself, either. In part it’s because this was a De Laurentiis production; this is the guy who made Barbarella, the King Kong remake, and Flash Gordon, after all.
There are just some facts about this film that, once you hear them, it’s impossible not to laugh and make jokes about them during the movie. Such as the fact that its lead character doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes, aside from Arnold’s trademark “Argh! Gaagh! Aahhh!” Such as the fact that Conan speaks exactly five words to love interest Valeria (the striking Sandahl Bergman) in the entire movie. Such as the fact that director John Milius recorded a first-person narration for Conan and had to scrap it; there’s a really good reason no one has ever asked such a thing from Arnold in his entire career.
Given all those ridiculous things, it seems absurd to take a look at the movie’s politics, but there’s no question that Milius (who co-wrote the film with … wait for it … Oliver Stone!) was deadly serious about this picture. Milius is a staunch conservative and Reagan supporter, and Conan the Barbarian reflects a lot of that. It’s pretty easy to draw direct parallels between the cult of the evil demigod Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and the flower children of the anti-Vietnam War movement, which was less than a decade before. You can find any shrill conservative talking head attacking American cities as hotbeds of drugs and sexual deviancy and think of the scene where Conan, high on some primo black lotus, happens upon a guy having sex with a llama.
More than that, the movie takes a pretty solid position that strength and violence are the only way to any kind of power in the world. At the start of the movie, Conan’s father says the only thing he can trust is steel, and Thulsa Doom later tells him that steel is unimportant compared to the power he has over his followers’ minds. Either way, the point is that real power comes from dominating a weaker person from a position of strength. I didn’t like that argument when it was used in 24 to justify torture, and I didn’t like it in Milius’ next film, the conservative anthem Red Dawn.
Still I wouldn’t say that Conan the Barbarian bullies us with a political message in the way those movies do, because it is so completely dedicated to its fantasy setting. Locations are chosen with dazzling natural beauty, Arnold was well-taught in the sword choreography, and Basil Poledouris’ music is absolutely fantastic. I really liked Bergman’s performance as Valeria; as I joked during her death scene, she does all of the talking in the relationship, and she acquits herself pretty well in her one big monologue.
As for Arnold’s acting … well, he has a hell of a presence, one that his career ran with long before the acting caught up. Bodybuilding is performing, in a sense, and there are some smart script decisions that don’t require much more than that from him. If you’re going to make a movie whose message is that strength is the only real power, he’s the actor that you want to deliver that message, and give him credit for knowing that.
He’s helped by the fact that the movie doesn’t soften Conan at all, and I liked that. Conan the Barbarian is getting re-made this summer, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they tried to go with a nicer Conan who only pays lip service to hearing the lamentations of his enemies’ women. The 1982 version is a movie that understands, without question, that Conan is a freakin’ barbarian. He wants to find his enemy and hack his head off in a manner so crude and brutal that it takes him many swings to get the job done. This movie gets it, and in the end that makes all of the drawbacks, from the script’s bizarre politics to Arnold’s bizarre acting, tolerable.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Even after all these years, I bet film critics despise trying to spell that last name right.
**Where he used the amusing stage name “Arnold Strong.”