It began five years ago when Ain’t It Cool News published a series of articles on summer films released in 1982. Though exceedingly self-indulgent, the articles made a potent case, and many fans now regard the year as the greatest in genre movie history. Personally, I’d argue that the previous year was even stronger – 1981 saw the release of Superman II, The Howling, Scanners, Time Bandits, Escape from New York, Excalibur, Dragonslayer, Heavy Metal, Blowout, An American Werewolf in London, Clash of the Titans and a little number called Raiders of the Lost Ark – but there’s no denying that the summer of ’82 was unspeakably cool.
With the famous Alamo Drafthouse providing a 30th anniversary screening series, we thought we’d provide a look back at the best and the brightest from that year… along with the not-so-best-and-brightest that accompanied them. We’re starting with a release from May 14th of that year: a swords and sorcery flick that put a certain Teutonic ubermensch on the road to global domination…
Is there any film in existence more fantastically ludicrous than Conan the Barbarian? In any kind of rational universe, we’d burn the perpetrators at the stake. Racist, homophobic, willfully unaware of its own laughable shortcomings, it should rank among cinemas biggest turkeys: a film spoken of in the same hushed whisper as Howard the Duck. But somehow, against all odds, it not only defies that fate but actively uses its awful qualities to become a thundering engine of unstoppable cool. I love this movie. I’ve spent entire evenings watching it over and over in rapt fascination, grateful to have been alive at the exact moment in history when it appeared. It. Is. Magnificent. And its magnificence stems from the very properties we should be condemning with all our might.
Consider, for instance, the three leads: a bodybuilder, a professional surfer and a dancer from Bob Fosse’s company. None of them displayed any discernible thespian talents and indeed poor Gerry Lopez (who played Conan’s best buddy Subotai) suffered the indignity of having another actor dub his lines. Schwarzenegger’s Conan remains silent for much of the film (save for the occasional incoherent bellow), while Sandahl Bergman fights her way ferociously through line after risible line. It gets even worse with the likes of James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow looming over them: a constant reminder of the skills they can’t hope to match.
But this particular project didn’t require good acting so much as indelible physical presence. Artists like Frank Frazetta informed the public’s perception of Conan: still paintings on book covers that drew the eye amid a glut of similar paperbacks. The figures onscreen needed to personify that insistence, to pull us in with a look or a stance rather than a spoken word. And in that light, the trio could not be more perfect. They display a skilled precision of movement, acutely aware of the impression lent by their own bodies. In so doing, they conjure a package of reality that defies the cheesy lines. Why is Valeria the Queen of the Thieves? One look at Bergman scaling a rope and we understand instantly. How does Conan survive his tumultuous upbringing? Schwarzenegger’s glare tells us all we need to know. Any actor can take a combat class for six weeks and look acceptable. Our three heroes here go beyond that into something natural and instinctive… something that only those Frazetta paintings conveyed with equal grace.
Nor does director John Milius leave his stars to carry that load alone. Every element of Conan the Barbarian reflects the same attitude. The prehistoric vistas (conjured from modern Spain) speak to distant lands and ancient peoples with a single shot, aided by shifts in the scenery that convey an epic scope despite a comparatively modest budget. The action scenes convey a savagery and callousness unseen at the time – starting with an opening piece in which Thulsa Doom (Jones) beheads Conan’s mother before the young boy’s eyes. Contemporary critics were appalled, but again it gave us a sense of this world without any ponderous exposition (as well as lending heft to the film’s heavy-handed Nietzschian philosophy). Above it all floated Basil Poledouris’s score, still one of the greatest ever and final evidence that this film needs to be felt far more than understood.
With his loincloth-girded pantomime in place, Milius adds an ingenious touch: giving the film’s best speeches to his real actors. Beyond mere expediency, it grants the conflict an unconscious urgency and puts the characters at odds with each other in truly unique ways. Von Sydow’s speech – berating Conan and his friends like truant schoolchildren – draws a sharp distinction between their survival-at-all-costs ethos and his ultimate abandonment of the same. Mako’s ponderous voice-over narrative gives voice to what Conan cannot, viewed from the perspective of history and allowing the hero to remain blissfully unaware of his own importance.
But the real lynchpin is Jones, who invests every word with the hypnotic seduction upon which his character depends. We’ve seen tons of cult leaders in the movies before, but rarely one whose power is so self-apparent. Listening to Jones thrum out his lines, you readily believe that people would throw themselves to their death at his command. His eloquence stands in perfect relief to Schwarzenegger’s mute savagery and pays surprising dividends in the finale. Most films of this ilk would settle for a simple swordfight, and indeed Thulsa Doom possesses the skills to make the notion fly. But why should such a smart guy do that if it doesn’t play to his strengths? When Conan comes for him – at the apex of his temple and with the entire cult looking on – he actually tries to talk the man down. More importantly, he comes within a hair’s breadth of succeeding, a battle of wills far more potent than any empty fencing match could conjure.
The list of those strengths goes on and on. We could talk about the gorgeous little myth related by Conan’s father or the way it relates to the film’s Riddle of Steel. We could talk about Valeria’s ferocious feminism – asking for nothing, taking what she wants, and saving Conan multiple times without the big lug once returning the favor – or Schwarzenegger’s first steps into genuine superstardom. We could talk about the camel. We could talk about the giant snake. We could talk about any and all of those things, every one of them attainable only through the combination of elements on display here. (Take a look at the wretched 2011 version if you don’t believe me.) In the face of that, Conan’s ridiculous elements gain a strength all their own. We cackle with glee every time Arnold whispers “Crom!” or tells us what is best in life, acknowledging how silly it is while embracing its essential status in this one-of-a-kind universe. Its pomposity, its stony-faced earnestness, even its flashes of political extremism… all of it becomes uniquely, indispensably Conan-esque. Robert E. Howard never envisioned such a platform when he first brought the character to life. Luckily for the rest of us, Milius did and in the process gave us a strange and abiding masterpiece.