Crom.

Ah Netflix, what auspicious timing you have. On the heels of the release of the abortive attempt to bring this classic character to new audiences, Netflix has put up the original 1982 film in glorious HD. There was a time where it wouldn’t occur to me to do a Friday Night Netflix for this one but I’ve learned recently that it’s under-watched and consequently underrated for that sub-generation of 20-somethings whose parents didn’t raise them on a steady diet of 80’s movies. Conan the Barbarian has been extremely influential for me and remains not only one of my favorites but in my consideration one of the best movies ever made. It’s also the jewel of this genre, unrivaled not only by the string of similar movies made at the time but also any subsequent attempts to revitalize it for new audiences. Attempts like the Conan the Barbarian that just flopped horribly in a theater near you. That movie cannot hold the jockstrap of this earlier version and no, I don’t say that because I’m biased against remakes (I am a bit sometimes) or because of nostalgia. I watch Conan the Barbarian 1982 fairly often, multiple times a year, and it holds up like a motherfucker.

Now I’ll tell you why and why you should, if you haven’t, watch this fucking movie. Especially if you’re a dude. Or if you need a good reason to like Arnold Schwarzenegger as this is the definitive Arnie movie, whatever they say about Terminator. Actually, you should probably just see this movie as soon as possible. Now onto the why.

In his brief scenes with little kid Conan, his dad impresses on him the philosophy that will shape his life.

Right from the beginning you know this movie is going big. We are introduced to this world via the pounding, sublime score of Basil Paledouris (more on it later) and an impressionistic-though-visceral forging scene as Conan’s father makes a characteristically sophisticated sword. Steel, we are made to understand, is at the center of this world.

For the first 20+ minutes of the film, there is no dialogue but that opening speech about the riddle of steel. No time is wasted launching Conan into a manifestation of that Nietzschean quote shown before the opening of the film. Conan’s entire life is about “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

Conan’s mother never speaks but makes one of the biggest impressions in the film anyway. The treatment of her in the script and shooting is indicative of the overall approach of the film, an approach sorely lacking in contemporary movies.

What we learn about this film from just that first stretch is how confident it is. No exposition is given, just sound and music and images of a universally understandable nature. To seal it, the transition to adulthood for Conan is presented in one of the best such transitions ever done. The only one I can think of that comes close is the train jump from Slumdog Millionaire. This is a movie where every single shot is a bulwark of ideas, none of which expressed explicitly but rather implied and delivered by a stripped down attention to detail and the way images translate to thoughts and feelings for an audience. We don’t need special effects or dialogue to tell us that Thulsa Doom is hypnotizing Conan’s fierce, unyielding mother. We need only the music and the big, operatic work of the actors in their gestures and expressions. In fact, operatic is a great word for this movie. Throughout, it falls back on this sort of acting and the score to tell its story, presenting contemporary audiences with a filmic language that is wholly unfamiliar and anti-formula. Not that Conan the Barbarian doesn’t have its formula, just that it’s one you don’t see anymore.

This is provided for by the commanding script by Oliver Stone and John Milius. Both of these men are legends now, if they weren’t then, and very capable of telling a story as grand and exotic as Conan the Barbarian with suitably operatic sensibilities. Their version is not as close to Howard’s as some would like, but the spirit of the film is the same. Howard’s books were about the nobility and pure morality of the uncivilized, standing alone uncorrupted against the contrary flow of civilization. The movie is also about this. Conan grows up largely ignorant but is step-by-step introduced to the nature of civilization. It is not a becoming nature, the film (and Howard) would tell us. First it is the violence and blood-lust of the arena, then the corruption and decay of old kingdoms and dark religions. Finally it is the nature of power and domination which are in turn self-corrupting.

Conan is the ultimate outsider.

The only time Conan seems truly happy about the attempts to civilize him are when he’s fucking, reading, or engaging in the discipline of sophisticated martial arts. These scenes are formative for him, provide a high level of world-building, and justify those times where Conan becomes philosophical. His savagery, if it can be called that, is not about baseness or stupidity but about purity of will. He is a barbarian in the eyes of the world because he goes his own way, first for personal gain and then for revenge and even heroism. He is no great leader but his laconic and tacit willpower do inspire. He is also a great one for the bromance, and his friendship wit Subotai (Gerry Lopez) is one of the great friendships in cinema.

It would surprise a lot of people to know just how little dialogue is in this film. The longest conversations are had between Conan and Subotai and Conan and Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones in his most iconic role). The love interest, Valeria, hears Conan speak only five words. It’s likely that they communicate more in the spaces between scenes, but it’s telling that Conan the Barbarian features a fully-fledged love story with its own sweetness and tragedy, built more out of silent acting from Sandahl Bergman and Arnold Schwarzenegger than out of actors telling the audience “hey, we’re in love”. Because two of the biggest Hollywood movies of 2011 (Thor and Green Lantern) featured completely thin love stories that used short-cuts like that, this part of Conan 1982 is especially resonant.

Sandahl Bergman infuses Valeria’s love for Conan with earnest desperation and acknowledgement of who he is and his obsession for revenge.

Mako does the narrating duties for the film, referring to Conan as “my master”. He doesn’t show up until about halfway through but brings a spike of manic energy that is welcome in the grim and gritty tonal landscape. Mako is a fucking treasure, really, and his unique voice adds itself to Jones’s to punctuate what little dialogue there is. He’s not the most complex character in the film but he is provided as many reasons to be there as anyone. They are not explicitly stated, though. For one thing, Conan himself is probably simply a welcome sight in so secluded a place and they share a laugh and that’s enough to justify a bit of their friendship and the Wizard’s eventual loyalty. Beyond that, his safety and the sanctity of his home, a holy place he says, is threatened first by Valeria for Conan’s sake and then by Doom and his riders. That he becomes so prominent might confuse some people but it, like everything else required by the plot, is all there for the looking. There is no character like The Wizard in the 2011 reboot, not that there should be.

I have to resist the urge to compare these characters and relationships to the 2011 version. Hopefully, from my review of that piece of shit, you can figure out the difference. Oh the hell with it. Just look at Conan’s best buddies in either version. Subotai and Conan are friends, brothers, and comrades. We don’t need much to establish that, Conan 1982 pulls it off with a couple of brief conversations, one even about religion, and then a great sequence of the two walking through cities in lockstep. This gives us all we need to accept that Subotai has made Conan’s mission his own. It does not rely on unexplored backstory, wafer-thin plot mechanics, etc. In fact, Conan 1982 is so little concerned with its plot that it may feel slow to some who are unused to watching dialogue-sparse films.

Nothing like campfire and theological debate to get them friendship fires burnin’.

Now let’s talk Valeria vs. Tamara. The latter did not need to be some warrior woman to rival her predecessor. She did, however, need to have some depth. The relationship between Momoa’s Conan and Rachel Nichols’ Tamara is as false as any ever spat upon audiences by an indifferent Hollywood screenwriter more concerned with checking the boxes than making anyone believe in the reality of their writing.

And of course there’s the villains. Conan 2011 could barely muster one halfway-decent villain let alone the three eminent badasses of Conan 1982. Led by snake-sorcerer Thulsa Doom, the brothers Rexor and Thorgrim have like 2 lines between them and yet convey depth that no one in the 2011 movie can match (mostly because Rose McGowan and Stephen Lang were betrayed by the script which jettisoned everything potentially interesting about them). In some ways, Rexor and Thorgrim seem like stock lieutenants, a couple of big bruisers just around to give Conan more of a straight-up fight than portly, papal Thulsa Doom. However, they both get scenes which add something more. Rexor weeps over a giant snake killed by Conan and Subotai and Thorgrim carries Conan’s father’s sword, an element borrowed for the 2011 mess but without the level of nuance given the duel between Conan and Thorgrim late in the 1982 film.

Thulsa Doom’s power is his charm and the power behind that is the incredible performance of James Earl Jones who uses his famous voice to full effect. Doom’s silky tones and affected humility are very convincing, giving us a villain with shades of nuance that Lang’s boring murderer Kalar Zym utterly lacked. The truth of the matter is, Conan 1982 would be worth seeing for Jones alone.

I also have to give some love to Max von Sydow who plays King Osric. In one scene, this guy crystallizes the end of Conan’s hedonistic phase, returning him to purposefulness. Osric almost steals the movie thanks to Sydow, who sells a movie’s worth of pathos in just a few lines about the burden of rule and fatherhood. Sydow’s quiver-lipped rage is more honest emotion than is present in all of the 2011 reboot. It is a defining bit and crosses the threshold from the kind of stunt-casting which pervades movies that have a role like this.

The costume design is regal and functional, getting across the antiquity of the Hyborean Age without straying too far into the realm of fantasy.

Those people who do remember Conan the Barbarian often strongly associate those memories with the film’s penchant for tits, blood, and gore. The nudity here is not gratuitous, however. Every time you see some tits, it’s completely meaningful. The first time it’s because Conan, a slave, is being bred with rich mens’ daughters to produce robust sons. Though Conan enjoys his ladies, it’s still slavery and the first note of what will eventually be countermanded by his relationship to Valeria. It’s an example of how Conan is used by people around him, his will and power attracting even as it is poorly understood. The witch trades sex for prophecy and directions, the orgy in the Mountain of Power (Thulsa Doom’s base) is about the hedonism and decadence that once-tempted Conan but now indicate the domination of flesh that obsesses Doom’s cult.

The violence is something else altogether. For years, Conan was the most realistically bloody movie I’d ever seen. Unlike contemporary movies that feature melee combat, Conan 1982 has very little discernible fight choreography. The combat is quick, harsh, and brutal. Much the way you’d expect it to be in real life. Some contemporary movies and shows (Centurion, Ironclad, Game of Thrones, and Valhalla Rising which is similar in other ways too) especially favor this style and it’s off-putting to me when people complain about it. The fidelity to realism and brutality in the fighting style sets it apart from the silly-ass fights of similar movies of the time such as The Beastmaster or The Sword and the Sorcerer. And just because it doesn’t feature cool fight choreography does not mean that Conan 1982 is not without impressive set-pieces. The assault on the Mountain of Power has been just as influential in dozens of stories, movies, and videogames as the last stand near the Valley of the Gods where three men fight off dozens and Conan delivers one of his two great speeches. These are battle sequences for the ages, both infused with more than just “and now fight scene”. They are symbolic of Conan’s tragic quest for revenge, colored by everything that happens to him from a brutal crucifixion to the deaths of close loved ones.

Also the most badass warpaint fucking ever.

The point, at the end of the day, is that this is not just some silly fantasy movie. It’s a real movie with an epic story, tragic consequences, and philosophical themes that reverberate in spite of (indeed, served by) the minimalism. It may require a bit of patience due to its now-unconventional techniques but it belongs on your list of things to watch on Netflix for these reasons, all the ones I’ve given, and for the truest demonstration for why Conan 2011 is the gimmicky, misdirected bullshit that it is.

Conan 1982 does not rely on gimmicks, obviousness, or the overused Joseph Campbell shit to tell its story. It is an opaque movie, one that completely rejects the explanation basis in favor of pure storytelling. You should know what I mean. How many stories completely rely on this or that explanation, usually delivered in dutiful dialogues. The reboot has tons of scenes like that. Conan 1982 is a masterclass in the “show don’t tell” philosophy. If you miss the symbolism, the nuanced acting, or the steady beat of the movie’s existential heart then it’s fully on you and your failure to interact with it as a film. You would not expect a 1980’s Arnold vehicle to be an intellectually challenging piece but, to the right audience, it is. And that makes it more than the blood-soaked adventure it also, superficially, is.

Added to this, Conan 1982 will make a man of you. It is just a manly movie. It’s not misogynistic by necessity like so many movies in its genre are, but it probably still has more to offer to male audiences than female dealing as it does with the masculine side of rites of passage and the dichotomy of self-reliance and social contracts. The Hobbesian world is one I think most men implicitly understand and it is the world of Conan’s Hyborean Age. I think it’s also significant where this is a movie where emotions are locked up inside for the most part, delivered more through symbolic gestures and brief, fierce expression than through soul-searching dialogue or expansive, melodramatic characterization. This also feels more in line with stereotypical maleness.

Also manly? Clothes made out of the skins of wolves you killed with an Atlantean sword.

And now for an example:

I watched in expectant approval as it transformed my friend Justin Daenckart into a ruddy proto-barbarian before my very eyes. This review is for people like Justin. Young men who never watched Conan the Barbarian as they grew up. As much as it’s a movie about rites of passage, it is in itself a rite of passage and one sorely overlooked by too many in this, our sad filmic age where people actually try to tell me Conan the Barbarian 2011 was a good movie.

Being a “manly movie” isn’t what makes Conan 1982 a masterpiece, though. It is just part of the character of the film itself. It’s a film that actually has a character. And that really is something.

Beeeennnnyyyy! Screewwwwww yoooouuuu!

Advertisements