John Milius takes Conan the Barbarian very seriously. The occasional use of slow motion and the endlessness of Basil Poledouris’s cheesy score signal Milius’s dedication. So do the long and frequent sequences of shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger playing with big swords. At the beginning of the film, when it’s the prologue and Milius strange approach actually feels like the 1970s maverick (or friend of the mavericks) making a movie with James Earl Jones in a wig, it’s okay. Milius’s commitment there, it’s misguided and silly, but it isn’t idiotic.
Shortly after Schwarzenegger shows up, it gets idiotic. There are probably ten reasonable minutes (or seven) with Schwarzenegger. Then it gets to be too much. Schwarzenegger, obviously, cannot deliver dialogue (so when Milius gives him a couple monologues at the end, when the film’s already causing bleeding from the eye and mass suicide among brain cells, it’s astounding), but he can’t even emote properly. Had any of Schwarzenegger’s opponents for governor just run clips from this film… I can’t believe he would have won. It’s almost cruel how Milius uses him.
Then the rest of the cast shows up–near as I can tell, Jones was solely cast for his name recognition and to deliver a “my son” line straight out of Empire–and it just gets worse. Sandahl Bergman gets most of the lines–her frequent cooing at Schwarzenegger is icky as opposed to romantic–and she’s awful. She’s probably better than Schwarzenegger, who really doesn’t have much dialogue (it probably all fit on a page… half a page if the repeated lines are removed), but it isn’t saying much. In some ways, she doesn’t embarrass herself because she’s not a real actor, like Jones. However, Mako does embarrass himself. Max von Sydow, on the other hand, does not. He’s only got one scene–most of his dialogue is in one shot–and he’s in a big goofy costume. I didn’t even recognize him.
Ben Davidson and Sven-Ole Thorsen, as the two secondary bad guys, are worse, acting-wise, than even Schwarzenegger.
The production’s all very ornate (even if the special effects are out of a TV movie) and somewhat impressive. But Milius’s script is just dumb. Bergman’s character’s never even named in dialogue. Milius didn’t stick much to the Robert E. Howard library except for some details–Jones’s villain is nothing more than a cult leader, something Milius created–but then, the stuff he does keep doesn’t work because his Conan is so limply written. Sure, Schwarzenegger can’t deliver real dialogue, but the character doesn’t make any sense. Most of the time, when people talk and Schwarzenegger is supposed to be listening, it really looks like he’s trying to understand a foreign language.
I actually didn’t realize Schwarzenegger made Conan before The Terminator. For some reason, I thought it was one of his subsequent vehicles. I can’t wrap my head around it being a hit–did 1982 audiences like being bored?–but it seems to have kicked off the idiocy of 1980s Hollywood action epics quite successfully.
And I suppose there is some amusement in the constant state of bewilderment… it’s just so dumb.
Directed by John Milius; screenplay by Milius and Oliver Stone, based on stories by Robert E. Howard; director of photography, Duke Callaghan; edited by Carroll Timothy O’Meara; music by Basil Poledouris; production designer, Ron Cobb; produced by Raffaella De Laurentiis and Buzz Feitshans; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan), James Earl Jones (Thulsa Doom), Max von Sydow (King Osric), Sandahl Bergman (Valeria), Ben Davidson (Rexor), Cassandra Gava (The Witch), Gerry Lopez (Subotai), Mako (The Wizard), Valérie Quennessen (The Princess) and William Smith (Conan’s Father).