Summer of Schwarzenegger - "Conan the Barbarian" (1982)

Oh, look, it's the movie that still defines Arnold's career today and was his breakthrough into Hollywood stardom. Also, it's a pretty okay movie by today's standards, and we're going to talk about that. Because that's kind of the point of these things, right? Yep.

So, Conan is a barbarian. The title pretty much gives that one away right off the bat. He was a little kid when his whole clan got killed off by the evil wizard with an awful haircut, Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones.) Catchy name, I know. Anyway, Conan was pretty much the only survivor and was forced to work as a slave until his adulthood, then forced to work as a pit fighter, then gets freedom and goes on an epic quest to kill Darth Vad-... Thulsa Doom. Doom Vader. Darth Thulsa? Anyway. That's what he's doing, and he gets the help of a thief named Subotai who's played by a famous surfer, and another thief named Valeria who's a bodybuilder and is also a woman, which means she and Arnold bang, because this is a movie made in the early 80's about a white guy with muscles. What were you expecting, innovation? Pff.

In all seriousness, this is a pretty legit movie by today's standards. Yeah, Conan essentially rapes a girl at some point, punches animals, and throws a prostitute through the middle of the air in the middle of a fight, none of which is really cool. If you were a repressed, misanthropic, conservative white boy in the Reagan era, this would be your ultimate wet dream. All of the women exist to serve Conan or further his character development, there's a heavy theme of rugged individualism, everybody who isn't white (or Subotai) is either a magical person or a villain... y'know, come to think of it, this is a pretty problematic movie by today's standards. Especially when Conan puts on tribal paint for no particular reason.

All of that being said, though, I would still defend this movie. Maybe that's because I'm biased, since I have good memories of watching it with my dad on VHS back when I was seven or eight. Or maybe that's because I find a lot of unintentional comedy value here. Orr it could be because, despite the pretty shit female characterization and the strong white dude overtones, Conan is an okay movie with strong set design and an impressive scope, not to mention some genuinely cool plot threads and an undeniably strong lead in Arnold. Yeah, he essentially speaks in monosyllabic phrases, but that's part of the charm (see aforementioned "unintentional comedy" quip.)

But no, this is actually a very compelling film that boasts an impressive scale and interesting ideas for a swords-and-sandals movie made in the 80's (I mean, it was co-written by Oliver Stone, who generally doesn't fuck around,) and it's all tied together by a fantastic soundtrack. No, really, go listen to that shit right now. It will make anything you're doing right now seem ten times more interesting. Petting your cat? Buttering toast? Taking a shit? The Conan soundtrack pumping into your earholes will make all of those things seem like a Herculean task worthy of a grand, sweeping score.

Funny, in my last post, I said that I'd argue that this is one of the greatest films of the 80's. Weird. I guess watching Big Trouble in Little China and The Breakfast Club in the same weekend has changed my whole perspective on that. I mean, yeah, this is a pretty good movie, but... one of the best of the 80's? I would actually say "nah" to that one. There were so many other movies that were more interesting, both plot-wise and design-wise that this movie kind of falls to the wayside. It's still a pretty entertaining popcorn flick, for all intents and purposes, but its attempts at trying to evoke Nietzschian themes and philosophical overtones fall flat on their face. What we're left with is a movie that is fun to look at, great to listen to, but pretty brainless overall. I mean, maybe it's because I know the director and partial writer, John Milius, is a staunch far-right kind of guy and I don't agree with his world view at all, which I feel seeps into this movie when critical theory is applied to it. Which is why I try not to think too hard when watching it, as I feel it would make my brain hurt. Sue me. 

Conan the Republican? Maybe.
Ultimately, though, if you can get past how dunder-headed some aspects of this movie feel, I think it's very much worth watching for a few reasons. Aside from the impressive production and killer music, this is a time in Arnold's career before people thought he was worthy of... well, y'know, actually speaking. Pre-True Lies, pre-Kindergarten Cop, pre-... Junior (ugh,) this was what people expected from Ah-nuld. Short quips, big muscles, massive carnage. But here, those things are tied to an actually decent movie, and one that I still enjoy watching despite some issues I have with it. 

Conan the Barbarian may be brainless and extol some patently shitty values, but it's still a pretty good movie, and honestly, one of the best-looking and best-sounding films of the 80's. And that's worth something, I think. It's also more than I can say for the sequel, which is... well, we'll talk about it, m'kay?


  1. This movie is pretty far from brainless. In fact, I would say that it's an underrated and smart film by today's standards. It's certainly the most introspective revenge story I've ever seen in a movie. Furthermore, this movie is actually about something. Not too many films ask whether a terrible injustice is worth the price of strength gained from triumphing over dire adversity. Your attempts to paint this movie as brainless are not only without justification, but seem to amount to mere differences in values. Who gives a shit?

    I can acknowledge the intellectual and artistic merit of works that represent and argue for ideas that I don't agree with, and it doesn't detract from their value in my eyes.

    Everyone who isn't white is either a magical person or a villain? Please. Rexor and Thorgirm, Thulsa Doom's two right-hand men, were played by Danish white dudes, and so was just about everyone in Thulsa Doom's cult. And Thulsa Doom himself isn't even supposed to be a black man per se, but some near-extinct pre-Atlantean race (which is why James Earl Jones is wearing blue contact lenses).

    For an in-depth critical appreciation of this film, I would recommend David C. Smith's essay:


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