Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
Made at the height of the ’80s fantasy boom, Conan the Barbarian remains pretty much the best film the genre has to offer that isn’t The Lord of the Rings. While Arnold Schwarzenegger had been in films prior to Conan, it was this film which put him on the map as a major star; his acting is rubbish, but he was still pretty much the perfect choice to play Conan, since he more than looks the part and knows how to handle a sword. Even if whole thing is a bit cheesy these days, Conan holds up remarkably well all the same, especially the action scenes and the music.
Thousands of years ago in the unrecorded past, Conan’s family and village are slaughtered by the warlord Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), and Conan himself is enslaved. Years later he is bought and forced to fight as a gladiator, learning the fighting skills he will need to survive. After winning many fights, his master frees him, and Conan soon befriends the archer Subotai (Gerry Lopez). Teaming up with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), they set out to find Doom and avenge Conan’s family.
Since the three main characters are played by a dancer, a surfer, and Arnold, it should come as no great surprise that their acting is not particularly good. Fortunately, the roles are deliberately written to be fairly simple and archetypal, which means the actors’ lack of range isn’t really a problem. Besides, the presence of James Earl Jones as the villain more than makes up for it; he plays a sort of mind controlling, really hammy version of Darth Vader, except now you can see his face, and he is great fun in the role. And it has to be said, while Arnold is no great actor, he is perfect as Conan, and every inch the Nietzschean superman invoked by the opening quotation: what does not kill me makes me stronger. He is exactly what Conan should be: not a talented speaker, but ridiculously muscled and very capable of looking after himself in a fight.
Some of the effects have dated badly, in particular a thoroughly unconvincing giant snake in the first tower the three main characters infiltrate, and Doom’s transformation into a snake is just odd, but the action scenes are still very entertaining. They’re not especially complicated, but the basic brutality of the fighting fits the low fantasy tone of the film very well. The final battle between our heroes and Doom’s minions is especially good, with nice use of traps by the heroes to add variety to the hacking and slashing, and a great pre-battle speech by Conan.
And the music. The score by Basil Poledouris is absolutely outstanding, rivalling pretty much all epic film scores made to this day, and bettering most of them. It perfectly encapsulates the feeling of epic fantasy, of setting out on a heroic quest to defeat the evil villain. Masses of brass and percussion dominate the main theme, which gives the entire film a great feeling of power and energy: the perfect score for a hero like Conan. There is quietness here as well as bombast, though, and Conan and Valeria’s love theme gives a genuine depth of emotion to their scenes together which the somewhat limited acting doesn’t really express.
Until Peter Jackson came along and rewrote the rules in 2001, Conan the Barbarian was the standard by which heroic fantasy film-making was judged, and is still one of the genre’s high water marks. It takes itself very seriously, and that may put some people off because of the cheesy acting and dated effects, but if you’re willing to watch it on its own terms, it’s a great film which has aged remarkably well. It may have almost nothing to do with Robert E. Howard’s original stories, but it’s still a fantastic adventure, and marked the beginning of Arnold’s career as the definitive action hero.