Conan, what is best in life?
To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.
Conan the Barbarian is perhaps best known as the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator II: Judgment Day, True Lies, Total Recall) famous. It transformed him from being known primarily as a body builder into a movie star. This film is much more than a mere vehicle for the star though; I believe this film stands well on its own. Epic in scope, it has a grandeur and intensity that belies its humble roots in pulp fiction and comic books. Universal had released a barebones version of this film in '98 that was a rehash of the laserdisc transfer and was widely regarded as one of the worst looking discs on the market. They have redeemed themselves with all the quality we've come to expect from this studio which has risen to the top tier of DVD quality. A wonderful anamorphic transfer and a great collection of extras mark this as a true Collector's Edition and a must buy.
1982 was a time when the fantasy genre was taking off due to the rising popularity of the game Dungeons and Dragons. Coincidentally it was also the end of a five year attempt to get this movie made. Conan went through several incarnations before it would see the screen, including a much more fantasy based screenplay written by Oliver Stone. Ultimately it was the involvement of director John Milius (Flight of the Intruder, The Wind and the Lion, Red Dawn), who rewrote the script, that made it what you see today-more of a prehistory look at a pagan world that might have been. Milius has an impressive record of screenwriting, including an Oscar nomination for Apocalypse Now. There remains some elements of the fantastic, and several scenes are based on some of the original Robert E. Howard stories. Fans will particularly notice similarities to "The Thing in the Crypt," "The Elephant Tower," "Queen of the Black Coast," and "A Witch Shall Be Born."
Certainly Milius did a great job with the direction, and the cinematography was spectacular. Costumes and set production were first rate as well. Still none of this would have worked so well without Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was the perfect man for the role, and he became Conan. His performance is both likable and shows real talent, that would be improved on later to make him one of today's top box office draws. At this early point in his career it was enough that he had the seed of that talent and the tremendous physical presence needed for the role.
One of the reasons the film works is that Milius does not take us into the realm of camp that plagues most fantasy genre films. There is some humor, especially from the supporting cast, and the film doesn't avoid it, but it maintains a serious tone. The addition of camp humor is what made the sequel a shadow of the quality of this original in the Conan oeuvre.
A good supporting cast helped the film as well. Finding some of the co-stars in the most unlikely places make the cast even more interesting. Gerry Lopez plays thief and archer Subotai; and is convincing in his role that emulates the Mongol warriors of the middle ages. Lopez was not really an actor; he was a world champion surfer whose only roles had been in surfing movies. Sandahl Bergman plays the Valkrie Valeria, in a role that brought much to the picture. She was predominantly known as a dancer before this film. Both these unlikely heroes would become a great team to give the picture a much more human aspect than it might have had.
Better known were veteran actors James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow. Jones' portrayal of Thulsa Doom inspires many things including a bit of unintended humor with his appearance. Despite this he makes a great foil for the story as the killer of Conan's family, and shows the menace and charisma he provided earlier as Darth Vader. He, along with Von Sydow's cameo appearance as King Osrik lend credibility to the cast. Veteran Japanese actor Mako narrates and co-stars, in a role that is part comic relief and part representative of magic.
The greatest success with Conan the Barbarian was in creating a new and believable world. The outdoor settings (varied and panoramic locations in Spain) are spectacular, and the costumes and set design have the proper pagan world feel. Even the special effects do not suffer too badly from dating, as the visual effects were low key and the rest were mechanical but lifelike. The resulting world is a lavishly detailed, long-ago place, and feels like a real world. It's the kind of world where magic is real, high adventure calls, and heroic battles can take place without ever threatening our suspension of disbelief.
The tale begins with quite a bang. Conan is a young boy who is told of his god Crom and the riddle of steel. His childhood is stolen from him, however when a band of raiders kill his parents and destroy his village. The leader of the murderous band is a strangely quiet and hypnotic man who raises a standard of a two headed serpent. Conan and other children are taken into slavery and put to work on the Wheel of Pain; a giant mill to grind flour. His whole life to young adulthood is spent at this wheel, resulting in the powerfully built man that Arnold portrays. The next phase of his life is being sold to a man who trains him as a gladiatorial pit fighter, where he learns the ways and glory of combat and gains his sense of self. He learns to read and think, and is subjected to being used as breeding stock. Finally he is freed and set off on his own without any true frame of reference for independence.
He soon begins to meet others on his travels, and becomes friends with first Subotai, then Valeria, and finally the wizard Akiro (Mako). Still revenge is first and foremost in his mind, as he knows his destiny is to meet and kill Thulsa Doom. Some hair raising adventures bring the heroes along the path to this final confrontation.
These adventures show more great strengths in the film; the great stunts, choreographed fight scenes, and the fluid athleticism of the cast. Nearly all the stunts in the film were performed by the stars themselves, and this allowed a great sense of realism in the shooting. The several months of training in horseback riding and swordplay paid off in giving the characters a look and feel of people who had lived a life doing such things. Certainly the film is more than just an action movie, but all the action elements were very well done.
I nearly forgot to mention one of the best parts of the film; the musical score by Basil Poledouris, which is still one of my favorite musical scores of any film. The movie depends on visuals and the score for a lot of the emotion; this is not a dialogue heavy film. The score accomplishes its job and more.
As you can tell, I'm quite a fan of this film. I've seen it several times and it still holds up well.
Let's talk about the disc. The rehashed laserdisc transfer on the original disc suffered from plenty of artifacts and an overly soft image. No such problems here, though there are a few scenes that are a trifle softer than the norm. Gone too is the extensive grain in the original release, leaving only a tiny bit of grain here and there that is no longer distracting. Those are virtually the only flaws left in the picture I'm glad to say. Colors are a bit muted but intentionally so, and do not bleed or bloom. Fleshtones and blacks are great. The source print was very clean and there are virtually no nicks, blips, or pieces of dirt marring the picture. Overall the picture is terrific.
On the audio side, purists will be happy that there is the original mono soundtrack, with great clarity and a low noise floor. Frequency range is attenuated as mono tracks are but not nearly as badly as most. There is even some bass response. Speaking for myself I would have loved a new remix into Dolby Digital surround. This is more than adequate however.
It is in the extras department the disc really shines. First and foremost is a 53 minute documentary "Conan Unchained, The Making of Conan." Laurent Bouzereau, who is responsible for some of the best documentaries gracing DVDs today, including the one for Silverado, wrote, directed, and produced this one. Nearly all the cast and crew are on hand to give stories and memories about the making of the film. Plenty of detail on every aspect of the film from pre-production to opening night is covered. This is one of the best of its kind I've ever seen and is worth the price of admission alone. Moving on we have a feature length commentary track with director John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger himself; a first time for the star. I have to admit this isn't one of the best commentary tracks, because it suffers greatly from "tell 'em what's on the screen" disease. It was apparent both really enjoyed making the film and seeing it again, which makes up for a lot. They even agreed to make a 3rd Conan together at the end! I hope that happens as the sequel was not nearly up to the quality of the original, and a third would have the chance to redeem the series. I should mention this cut of the film contains footage only released overseas in the original theatrical run, about 8 minutes worth. These do actually add to the film.
Next up are several minutes of deleted scenes, none of which belong in the film, but do contain a humorous outtake or two. A one minute reel showing a split screen view of the actual scene vs. the scene with the added visual effects is included. Following this is "The Conan Archives" which is an 11 minute run of still images with the great Poledouris' score in the background. Two theatrical trailers for the film, production notes, cast and crew information (nice and thorough), and Universal Web Links finish out the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have no complaints with what is here, other than wishing the commentary track had been a little more informative. I do wish also that a stereo of multi channel soundtrack had been created in addition to the original mono if for no other reason to better hear the great score.
The film itself isn't for everyone. There is quite a bit of violence and blood in the movie, but it is not gratuitous. You should be aware of it however. There is also a fair amount of nudity. So this isn't really a movie for the kiddies. Both the sexuality and violence in the film is part and parcel of the world that is being created, so this is no complaint. The spectacle of the film and the great production values should make up for a lot even among those normally put off by violence and nudity.
I have little else to say. I highly recommend the film, especially for fans of fantasy adventure, and firmly recommend purchase of the disc to add to your DVD library.
Universal is so acquitted for this fine disc. I've forgotten about the unfortunate first release already. I truly hope John Milius and Arnold get together again to make a third Conan picture and do it right. They can go to the later stages of Conan's life when he becomes a king and complete the trilogy the way it should have been. We'll just pretend the second one didn't happen or something.
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