Movie of the Week: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Maybe its the bleakness November sometimes attains, with its rains, coldness, and, where I live, threat of snow flurries, that puts me in mind of the stark scenes peppered throughout a lot of fantasy genre films:  shadowy forests, fog-shrouded mountains, foreboding ruins.  Of course I’m going to end the penultimate month of the year with the best Conan movie of them all (so far). 

As a tot, Conan, of Cimmeria, lives happily with his mom and dad, a blacksmith.  Happily, that is, until Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), leader of a snake cult, raids Conan’s village.  He kills the boy’s parents and enslaves him.

Conan grows to be a massive, muscle-bound adult, thanks to his years of helping to push a primitive mill.  Seeing opportunity in the Goliath that is Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger), he is made to fight as a gladiator.  Conan is punishing and unrelenting, killing his opponents with stone-cold precision.  Soon he is praised as a superstar and educated by the keenest minds of the Hyborian Age.  When asked what is best in life, Conan gives the classic reply, “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women!”

One night, possibly due to drunkenness, Conan’s owner frees him.  His ensuing journey leads him to a witch who directs him to the city of Zamora.  The barbarian then meets a thief named Subotai and the warrior/thief Valeria and the trio break into the Tower of Serpents.  They loot it and kill a giant snake.

The next morning, after a night of riotous celebration, Conan and his friends are arrested by King Osric.  The king is willing to overlook Conan’s criminal activities, and pay him an honest reward, if the barbarian will rescue his daughter who has joined Thulsa Doom’s cult.  Conan readily agrees.

Conan the Barbarian holds the same magic for me now as it did when I was a kid.  This was my Lord of the Rings back in the day, and I love it more than any Tolkien creation or property.  This movie introduced me into the world of Conan.  If for no other reason, I love it for that alone.

As a kid in the eighties, I was, more or less, obsessed with Conan the Barbarian.  I read Conan comic books, I read the original Robert E. Howard stories when I could find them, I read the books other authors wrote of the Cimmerian’s adventures.  I played the video games, the board games, and when I was still in my action figure years, I turned He-Man into Conan (after having been Thundarr for a while).

Conan the Barbarian is the Citizen Kane of sword-and-sorcery films.  Yeah, it’s extremely violent and sporadically sexist, if not downright misogynistic at times.  I won’t defend any of its bad qualities other than to say a lot of movies haven’t aged well; the same goes for the pulps that inspired it.  Some of the ideas present in a lot of movies from yesteryear, including this one, may be behind the times, but not every character like Conan is a hero for all times.