There Comes a Time When Jewels Cease to Sparkle, When Gold Loses Its Luster
Though I already have a pretty decently sized list of requests to get to, I decided to push today’s forward because it seemed like more fun. Not necessarily more fun as a movie, but certainly with more to make fun of. Action movies from the 80’s tend to have that going for them. They’re usually fairly ridiculous and contain lots of problems with story and graphics that can keep a film reviewer such as myself mocking for days. But this movie has also been considered a classic, so much so that the idea-starved film culture of today has already attempted a remake. And I’ve already punished them for that in review form. But I have not reviewed the original, nor have I reviewed its sequel. So, as requested by Chris, I start today with my review of Conan the Barbarian, based on the stories of Robert E. Howard, written and directed by John Milius, and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Mako, Max von Sydow, Valérie Quennessen, and Cassandra Gaviola.
A tribe of the Barbarian clan called the Cimmerians are massacred by the warriors of a wizard named Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). A young boy amongst them named Conan (later Arnold Schwarzenegger) is taken as a slave and chained to a huge grindstone and made to push it around in circles for no discernible purpose. What it does accomplish is having Conan start getting buffed out and turn into Arnie. Then it’s face punch time as someone takes Conan from the wheel and has him start fighting to the death in pits against other slaves. After many successes at this, they start liking him. They give him women, train him in how to fight better, and have him sit on a table and talk about what is best. Eventually, he is freed and finds his father’s sword, inexplicably left in an ancient ruin. He also comes across a witch that tells him how to find Thulsa Doom, but only if he bangs the bejesus out of her. Pretty sweet deal. But then she tries to eat him, so he throws her in a fire. You usually have to wait until the morning after when the booze wears off for the hot woman to turn into a hideous creature. He also meets a thief named Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the two start travelling together. Later, they team up with another thief named Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), who also becomes Conan’s lover. They rob the Tower of Serpents and steal some jewels, making them rich but putting them on Thulsa Doom’s wrong side. It also gets the attention of King Osric (Max von Sydow), who gives the trio whatever they desire, so long as they return his daughter (Valérie Quennessen) to him from the clutches of Thulsa Doom.
If someone were to ask me, “Robert, what is best in life?” there are many things I might say. I might say, “Boobs.” I may also say, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” But I most definitely wouldn’t say, “The original Conan the Barbarian.” I don’t say that to bag on the movie, because I think it holds up fairly well for what it is. I mainly say it because I thought it was funny. But the movie’s okay. It’s aged quite a bit, and there are plenty of things that would be subpar by today’s standards, but it’s some good sword and sorcery stuff. Though I liked the overall story of the movie, it seemed a little confused and mixed up. There was the one driving goal for Conan to get revenge on Thulsa Doom, but he was not so focused on it that he couldn’t be driven off on a few tangents. A few of them were not by his choice, like being forced into slavery, pushing around a wheel, and killing people for sport. But then he starts getting distracted by jewels and women and basically keeps Thulsa Doom in the background of his goals. Even when you think he’s getting on track, he starts dressing like a hippy first. Sure, it was to infiltrate Thulsa’s temple, but he gets caught almost immediately so he shouldn’t have bothered in the first place. And when he gets a crack at Thulsa, he gets captured and killed … ish. I did like the whole magic thing with painting symbols all over his body to bring him back to life and fighting evil spirits to keep his soul around, but it was still pretty tangential.
Basically, it wasn’t their intention to have a fantastically scripted plot; it was to make an action movie. It was kind of hit and miss on that, though. There was plenty enough action peppered throughout the movie in case the audience started getting bored, but most of it was kind of goofy looking. They made a noble enough attempt to make the swordplay interesting, but people that were supposed to be great warriors were basically just swinging their weapons wildly, sometimes not coming anywhere near their target, but getting some obvious blood packets set off anyway. I remember one part where the guy just had a fairly obvious handful of fake blood that he just slapped onto his chest just after someone swung a sword in his direction. There were some other hit and miss things for the look of the movie. The giant snake, I liked. It was as good as they could do. Thulsa Doom turning into a snake for no reason I could discern, not so good. The really obvious green screen stuff in the beginning when Conan’s dad was talking about the miracle of steel was also bad. When Conan was strapped to the Tree of Woe and left for dead, I thought it was a total badass move for him to bite one of the vultures that was starting to pick at him in the head. The vulture looked really goofy though. Even the movie poster comes off as a little goofy to me, but mainly because (as a sword and sorcery movie) the poster looks like something that someone would have painted on the side of their van in the 80’s to get the girls ready before they saw the awesome shag carpet going on inside. I also had a problem with the music in the movie. They had a pretty epic, sweeping score going throughout the movie. It would be nicely done but for the fact that the music didn’t change from the calm mood of the choir and fiddle they were using during the ceremony in the Tower of Snakes when the action started going down.
I think the best performance in this movie (by far) is that of boobs. I got the feeling that women were not allowed into this movie unless they understood that their boobs would be exposed at some point in the movie. Most of them were fairly mediocre though, belonging mostly to girls you wouldn’t look twice at in real life, whether those boobs were exposed or not. Even the main character woman got her boobs out in the movie, but Sandahl Bergman was hindered by her obvious Jewness. And by that I mean her nose. None of the performances in the movie really won me over. James Earl Jones seemed fairly disinterested in being in the movie. Max von Sydow brought it, but he was only in for one scene. They did the right thing by having Arnie speak fairly rarely, and practically not at all for the first third of the movie. Once he was trying to act, he was pretty much only able to convey the feelings of anger and pain with any kind of consistency.
Conan the Barbarian still stands up as a good time, especially since you don’t see that many good swords and sorcery movies. The story is good but a little distracted at times, the action tries but doesn’t always land, and the performances are some people with their breasts exposed and Arnold Schwarzenegger when he spoke English even worse than he does today. But still, I like the movie. I already owned this movie, and I also own the sequel, but we’ll talk about that tomorrow. For today, Conan the Barbarian gets “Valor pleases you, Crom” out of “And if you do not listen, then to Hell with you!”
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