Tuesday 7 February 2012

Let me tell you of the days of high adventure

Thirty years on, 1982 self-evidently appears as a peak of genre cinema. What other year, after all, saw a slate that included the likes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, Blade Runner, First Blood and The Thing? As in any age, few of these masterpieces were recognised as such at the time: not every film could rake in the cash and critical accolades like E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

None of those films would affect the world quite the way a certain sword-and-sorcery picture would, though. Conan the Barbarian put an Austrian bodybuilder on the road to running the world's eighth largest economy and being the only voice of reason in the Republican Party, and it did so by putting him into a leather loincloth. It's not just Schwarzenegger that got a career boost out of Conan, though; for while it's an exaggeration to say the film put Oliver Stone on the map, there might well have been no Platoon without it.

In the interests of full disclosure I must admit that Conan the Barbarian is one of my favourite films in the world, its heady mix of great and bafflingly awful unmatched in cinema otherwise. What other film aspires to such lofty excellence in some aspects while plumbing the depths of incompetence in others? It was for this reason that I found the 2011 remake so dispiriting. It was just bad, but in none of the gonzo inspired ways of its hallowed predecessor.

Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger as an adult, Jorge Sanz as a boy) is raised by a tribe of Cimmerians who worship Crom, the god of steel. One day, his village is overrun by the forces of sinister warlord Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), who murder his parents (William Smith and Nadiuska, an Italian softcore actress). The tribe's children are put to slave labour pushing a giant wheel in the middle of nowhere. Over time the other children die from starvation and hard labour, and Conan alone grows into ridiculously muscular adulthood.

Eventually, he is trained to fight as a gladiator and becomes a champion in the arena. After being set free by his owner, Conan begins to search for Thulsa Doom. He's pointed in the right direction by a witch (Cassandra Gaviola) who subsequently transforms into a monster and attacks him during sex. Conan teams up with the thief Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the warrior woman Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), and they're hired by King Osric (Max von Sydow) to retrieve his daughter, who has fallen in with a doomsday cult led by Doom.

The first half of the script is littered with plot holes and baffling non-sequiturs. Why did Thulsa Doom attack Conan's village? What purpose does the massy wheel of toil serve? Why was Conan freed? What's up with the witch? In several instances the voiceover narrator openly confesses his ignorance ('Who knows what they came for?'). Before growing tauter in the second half - when Conan and his crew infiltrate Thulsa Doom's cult at his Mountain of Power -, the story consists of no more than a succession of bizarre and hilarious incidents (Conan finds a sword after stumbling and falling into a cave! Conan punches a camel! Conan exclaims 'Crom!' at random intervals for no discernible reason!)

There's just a lot of weirdness in Conan the Barbarian, things that are not so much bad as totally puzzling. It's compulsively watchable in a so-bad-it's-good way. Take the odd scene in which Conan and Subotai earnestly discuss fictional theology by a campfire, or the mere fact that our hero does not speak at all until twenty-four minutes into the film. Perhaps the intention is to avoid drawing undue attention to Schwarzenegger's thick Teutonic accent, but it doesn't work too well. This, for example, is how Conan and Valeria first meet, while breaking into one of Doom's temples:
CONAN: You are not a guard.
VALERIA: Neither are you. [...] Do you know what horrors lie beyond that wall?
This is how Conan meets his one true love (although, tellingly, Valeria isn't named until the credits). More or less all human interactions are howlingly incompetent. Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast in his total inability to act, giving us the sort of convincing performance as a barbarian Jason Momoa never could. He does get a couple of good lines: 'What do you see?', he is asked while peering into a fountain disguised as a priest, and he replies, 'Er... infinity'. Max von Sydow also makes the most of his cameo by chewing on the terrific line 'What daring! What outrageousness! What insolence! What arrogance!... I salute you.'

James Earl Jones seems to be in a different film altogether. His portrayal of a warlord turned charismatic cult leader is absolutely compelling, and the scene in which he demonstrates to Conan that 'flesh' (owning hearts and minds) is more powerful than steel is easily the film's best in an unironic way. Jones's amazing performance leads us straight into the plus column, and to the film's most important asset: it looks great.


Yes, Conan the Barbarian had one heck of a budget, and director John Milius splashes every last penny on the screen. The production design is lush, with pretty great costumes - even though Doom's Viking henchmen look oddly like early-eighties metal musicians, with Thorgrim in particular a dead ringer for Iron Maiden's Dave Murray. Duke Callaghan's landscape photography is terrific and atmospheric: heroic is the word I'm looking for, and the same goes for Basil Poledouris's rousing score.

That, then, is the enigma of Conan the Barbarian: it is one part so-bad-it's-good, a laughably acted random events plot; and a second part - the thrilling fight scenes, the production values, the music, James Earl Jones - genuinely great. These halves cannot be separated: they exist together in every scene of the film, and in John Milius's earnest vision they belong together. Conan's idea of a good time is 'to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women', and that is what Milius genuinely believed. If that ideology is wrongheaded, even contemptible, it nonetheless led to a maddening, baffling, and oddly endearing film.

In this series: Conan the Barbarian (1982) | Conan the Destroyer (1984) | Red Sonja (1985) | Conan the Barbarian (2011)

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