Thursday, 18 August 2011


(John Milius, 1982)

Robert E Howard's "Conan" stories are pulp at it's most fevered and breathless. Howard loved his creation and the world he put him in, and that passion is obvious in his writing; vivid and excited, his descriptions of violence and sex are adolescent and stirring, the intensity undeniable and addictive. John Milius takes himself a lot more seriously than anybody making a movie of such material ought to, and so the tone of his Conan the Barbarian is odd, dissonances obvious throughout.
Milius has something serious in mind, and as such his film begins with a Nietzsche quote (no matter that its the most bumper sticker Nietzsche line possible), takes much of its worldview from Nietzsche, and features some portentious exchanges about pagan gods, philosophy (prompting Conan's famous line about what is "best in life", which Milius cribbed from Genghis Khan) and even a good dose of satirical intent. The "snake cult" who represent the villains here are an amusing shot at hippies and new age living, and Conan's violent destruction of their organisation very much a right-wing fantasy.
But for all that, the script (co-written by Oliver Stone) takes many scenes and ideas straight from the pages of Howard, and so there are sorceresses, giant snakes, charming thieves and usurper kings here, bound together by a series of often semi-incompetently staged action scenes. Milius isn't interested in action, but that is the heart of Conan; he is a Warrior, a fearsome, almost unbeatable one, something that Howard underlines with plenty of fight and battle sequences, and something that is rarely communicated by this film. Still, it works. Schwarzenegger cannot even project emotion, but his presence is inarguable, his charisma obvious even in this early lead. He may lack the ferocity and cunning of Howard's Conan, but he is a movie star, even here. Milius casts around him with some class - James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow show up - and Sandahl Bergman is good value as Conan's Valkyrie lover, Valeria, while a series of smoking hot Euro-babes, some of them soft core stars like Nadiuska, who appears fleetingly but memorably as Conan's mother, appear in small parts.
The production design is handsome and the lovely Spanish locations give the whole enterprise a surprising whiff of the spaghetti Western, gritty and battered, suggesting an ancient World and old gods.
It is beautifully shot with a genuinely epic sweep, and Basil Poledouris' fantastic score is perhaps the films true star: rousing, romantic, melodic and thunderous, it is one of the best soundtracks of the 1980s, and contributes immeasurably to the films majesty.
By the end, Milius has made Conan a sort of Nietzschean übermensch, killing his "father" in order to replace him (a similar ending to Milius' script for Apocalypse Now and his friend George Lucas' Star Wars saga) and taken elements from lots of cultural sources; samurai cinema, the European Epics of the '50s and '60s and John Ford. The influence of Ford is telling; Milius is an old-fashioned director, and his scenes play out solidly, often a little stiffly, without the spark or imagination some filmmakers might have brought to the material.
But Conan does at least punch out a camel.......

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