Max Von Sydow

Through a Glass Darkly (1961, Ingmar Bergman)

At eighty-nine minutes, Through a Glass Darkly never has a chance to get tedious, which is part of the problem. Writer-director Bergman has just introduced the characters, just established the ground situation, when he tries a graceful segue into the characters and their relationships being familiar in the second act. They’re not. They’re still being established, which makes the purely expository relationship between Gunnar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow something of a time suck. A beautifully acted, beautifully directed time suck.

Glass takes place over twenty-four hours. Popular but intellectually bereft author Björnstrand has returned home to his family after finalizing the draft of his latest novel. There’s twenty-something daughter Harriet Andersson and seventeen year-old son, Lars Passgård. von Sydow is Andersson’s husband. Presumably von Sydow and Andersson have had to take care of Passgård, as Björnstrand seems a rare presence in Passgård’s life.

Andersson is recently out of a mental hospital. It’s unclear, initially, what’s going on, only it’s incurable (or likely incurable). That discussion is von Sydow and Björnstrand’s first scene together alone. Bergman plays it more for character development than exposition, which is far different from the second half of the film, when he eschews character development for exposition. He doesn’t need much character development second half because it turns out to be action packed.

Before Bergman identifies it as schizophrenia–which is made somehow less terrifying by the tranquil isolated island setting (there’s not running water, electricity maybe)–he’s got the rest of the character setup to get done. So a half hour at least because Andersson gets a scene to herself, experiencing her symptoms.

While the film never looks stagy–quite the opposite–Bergman’s script feels not just stagy, but a little too pragmatic. Like he was adjusting around actors schedules. Andersson and Passgård get paired off for scenes whenever von Sydow is busy with Björnstrand. Otherwise it’s von Sydow and Andersson. Björnstrand gets like a scene and a half alone with his kids, the full scenes coming right at the end for the emphasis. He’s a bad dad, who isn’t a particularly good writer. There’s more exposition later, but never time for Björnstrand to do anything with it as far as character development. It’s filler. It’s that time suck.

Because Bergman’s actually got some big time drama in store for the family and he’s got to pace it right.

The problem with the big time drama is it turns out to be a MacGuffin. All the action in the second and third acts turn out to be MacGuffins, since the point of Glass is Andersson and how Bergman presents her character. The film drags a little in the second act, before it’s clear just how well Bergman’s made Andersson seem reliable. The more unreliable Andersson gets–always precisely essayed, in performance and presentation–the more effective Bergman’s initial pacing becomes.

Bergman makes the boring bits essential.

Until he gets to Björnstrand’s big confession scene to von Sydow; it proves as narratively inert as it does for character development. Because then it’s action time, because Andersson’s not just shattering her reliability, she’s going to stomp it into dust.

And it works, no doubt. Bergman sells it. He’s got a great cast. Andersson, Björnstrand, von Sydow, Passgård until the third act. There’s some phenomenal acting in Glass.

Bergman’s not really interested in the characters, he’s interested in the reveals. It’s all kind of melodramatic, actually. As melodramatic as Bergman can get, actually.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Ulla Ryghe; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, P.A. Lundgren; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Harriet Andersson (Karin), Gunnar Björnstrand (David), Max von Sydow (Martin), and Lars Passgård (Minus).

The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)

Despite the title, The Exorcist is about pretty much everything except the actual exorcist. When he does appear, kicking off the third act, it’s kind of a stunt. There’s a lot of implied mythology in the film, without much connective tissue–but nothing ruling out connective tissue. Director Friedkin does a balancing act. The reveal moment of the exorcist, complete with foggy streets, is where Friedkin just gives in to the sensationalism.

It’s 1973, there’s a possession so real skeptical priest Jason Miller fights for it to be exorcized, things are about to get intense. There’s fog, isn’t there? And music. Friedkin’s sparing with music. He uses it to great effective earlier, less on the exorcist’s introduction.

The actual exorcism has excellent special effects and good acting. Friedkin’s direction is far more pragmatic than usual; unlike the rest of the film, he and editors Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman don’t make any imaginative, affecting cuts. Cinematographer Owen Roizman is given the mundane task of insuring the frosty breath comes out. Previously, he’d been creating this warm, welcoming, terrifying Georgetown. It’s a step down.

Despite being entirely well-acted, none of The Exorcist’s actors particularly standout. Max von Sydow’s archeologist priest starts the film, digging up demonic relics. von Sydow just has to look scared or sick. It’s not much of a part. But Friedkin and the editors work their magic and make it through.

Then the film moves to Georgetown, where movie star Ellen Burstyn is filming an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel, The Exorcist–just kidding, she’s in some mainstream hippie movie. She and daughter Linda Blair are living in a rental house, complete with servants and a full-time assistant (Kitty Winn). Everything’s going fine until something starts happening to Blair… and the doctors can’t figure out what.

At the same time, priest Jason Miller is confronting a crisis of faith while trying to care for his aging mother. Miller’s crisis doesn’t get much time, it’s just part of his ground situation.

The film cuts between Burstyn and Miller. They’re in the same neighborhood, their orbits moving closer and closer. Though not in any inevitable way, rather coincidental. Burstyn and Blair’s story, despite a deadbeat dad subplot, is a lot less intense than Miller’s. They have all the fun supporting cast members, including drunk movie director Jack MacGowran.

Friedkin and the editors seem to cut a little faster each time. Actors’ lines don’t finish in their scenes, but carried over to the next shot, the next scene. Simultaneously, Roizman’s photography is completely laid back. It’d be calming if the movie weren’t called The Exorcist and there weren’t occasional scary music and what are those weird noises in the attic?

After getting done with von Sydow and moving on to Blair, Burstyn, and Miller, the film keeps its character focus pretty well balanced. Until Blair gets less and less to do. She has to go to the doctor and we don’t find out until after it’s happened. That absence succeeds in hurrying things along, but not making Burstyn or Blair much more sympathetic. They’re sympathetic because they’re mother and daughter and Blair’s a cute kid, not because they’re particularly likable. Blatty’s script doesn’t do them any favors. He writes scenes for maximum effect, not character development.

Then Burstyn ends up losing time to Lee J. Cobb–as a police inspector–and Miller. Miller’s got a new church subplot, which eventually meets up with Cobb’s murder investigation one. It leads to an excellent scene, beautifully shot, edited, acted, but nothing for the story. During the second act, the film loses its sense of momentum. Cobb and Miller are too stone-faced; the film needs Burstyn’s growing dread, which it mostly skips, even going so far as to switch over to Miller to avoid showing Burstyn and Blair’s side.

Blair’s fine. She handles the part, which is considerable. She’s the film’s de facto subject. Everything revolves around her and she knows it. Mercedes McCambridge does even better, doing some of Blair’s character’s voice work.

Great acting from Cobb, Miller, and Burstyn when she’s got the material. Nice support from everyone else.

The Exorcist is often expertly and sublimely executed. But that strong execution mostly pauses for the third act. The epilogue is better though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman; production designer, Bill Malley; produced by Blatty; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Jason Miller (Father Karras), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant Kinderman), Jack MacGowran (Dennings), William O’Malley (Father Dyer), Peter Masterson (Dr. Barringer), Robert Symonds (Dr. Taney), and Mercedes McCambridge (The Demon).


Dreamscape (1984, Joseph Ruben)

Dreamscape has a lot of subplots. The main plot barely gets any more time during the second act than the subplots. But I’m getting ahead of myself because I wanted to talk about the first act, which has Dennis Quaid getting reacquainted with mentor Max von Sydow. The film opens with this fast, fun action sequence with psychic Quaid winning big at the track and having to outsmart some goons. It perfectly utilizes Quaid’s charm and director Ruben has a fantastic pace. Richard Halsey’s editing on Dreamscape is strong, he just doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to excel after the open.

Then von Sydow gets Quaid to do the dream experiments–going into other people’s dreams, which he needs to train to do and it does give the film a natural structure for a while but there’s all those subplots. Time to talk about the subplots. There’s Christopher Plummer’s government guy who wants them to dream fix the President (an exhausted Eddie Albert). There’s Quaid’s rivalry with David Patrick Kelly’s fellow dream psychic. There’s Quaid’s romance of Kate Capshaw. There’s Quaid’s friendship with young nightmare sufferer, Cory ‘Bumper’ Yothers (yes, he’s Tina’s big brother). Finally, there’s Quaid and George Wendt, who’s investigating the whole project. von Sydow and Quaid actually do have something approaching character development in their scenes, which I’ll lump into the main plot.

The script–from original story writer David Loughery, Chuck Russell, and director Ruben–lacks any connective tissue between the subplots. It’s like they each took a few, wrote them, then lined up the scenes. Even though it’s an exceptionally limited setting–a college campus where shadowy government stuff goes on and there are barely any students–these characters have no relationships with anyone outside the person they’re opposite. Capshaw and von Sydow, for example, have absolutely no relationship outside of exposition and direction, even though they’ve been working together for years. Same goes for Kelly and Capshaw. And Kelly and von Sydow. And Capshaw and Plummer. And everyone and Wendt. It’s very strange and very poorly done. The writing is often fine–Plummer’s got a lot of scenery to chew, Kelly’s part is awesome, von Sydow’s fantastic–but it doesn’t have a narrative flow. It’s almost like Dreamscape was made to be watched with commercial breaks.

Quaid’s solid in the lead. He doesn’t get much to do–his romance with Capshaw, while ostensibly steamy, isn’t enough–and he’s just a passenger in the rest of his subplots. He and von Sydow are great together, however. As well as Quaid and Kelly. They’re great nemeses. Capshaw’s not terrible. She’s not good, but she’s not terrible. She gets a weak part and can’t do anything with it; Dreamscape is a movie where the actors need to be able to do something with their weak parts. As scripted, Plummer’s barely two dimensional, yet Plummer is able to at least make the part into something. Capshaw can’t. Partially her fault, mostly the script’s fault, partially Ruben’s fault.

And Maurice Jarre doesn’t help anyone with his music. He makes Dreamscape weirder in a way completely contrary to what Ruben’s doing.

There are some great special effects and some solid sequences, but the third act’s a mess and the denouement is somewhat worse.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joseph Ruben; screenplay by David Loughery, Chuck Russell, and Joseph Ruben, based on a story by Loughery; director of photography, Brian Tufano; edited by Richard Halsey; music by Maurice Jarre; produced by Bruce Cohn Curtis; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Alex Gardner), Max von Sydow (Doctor Paul Novotny), Christopher Plummer (Bob Blair), Eddie Albert (The President), Kate Capshaw (Jane DeVries), David Patrick Kelly (Tommy Ray Glatman), George Wendt (Charlie Prince) and Cory ‘Bumper’ Yothers (Buddy).


The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

The Seventh Seal has a lot of striking imagery. Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography is peerless, but it’s more–it’s how the photography works with the shot composition, how the shots work with one another (Lennart Wallén’s editing is simultaneously amiable and stunning). And then there’s how it all works with Erik Nordgren’s music. Bergman’s going for theatrics in The Seventh Seal, which I wasn’t expecting. He goes from them right away though–the film’s opening titles are silent and then very noisy; I’m surprised now, after seeing it, learning he adapted it from a play (his own play, but still a play). It makes sense, but since the film’s never stagy and so visual, I hadn’t thought about it.

The film has a lot of characters–something else I wasn’t expecting–but the main ones are Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand and Nils Poppe. von Sydow is a knight back from the Crusades, Björnstrand is his squire, Poppe is a juggler in a touring company. Even though Bergman opens with von Sydow (meeting Bengt Ekerot’s Death, no less), the film quickly moves to toggling between Björnstrand and Poppe. They’re regular guys, after all. von Sydow is in the middle of a spiritual crisis, pestering Death to confirm or deny the existence of God; he’s not exactly relatable. And von Sydow’s so beautiful, with his golden locks (Seal’s black and white, but they made sure to make his hair look good–for the film, obviously), he’s a bit apart from everything else. Whole scenes will pass between the rest of the cast while von Sydow stays in the background. Sure, he’s the knight on a quest and Bergman’s interested in this specific narrative and the literary trope, but Bergman’s a lot more interested in the people. But he never shortchanges the trope–and Seal’s just under 100 minutes, Bergman’s got a nimble pace–just shows there’s a lot more going on.

Oh, right–Seal’s set against an outbreak of plague, which has everyone gathered worried and looking for signs. Can’t talk too much about that detail without spoiling something. Even though The Seventh Seal is straightforward in its plot, Bergman does so much with the symbolism–which he bakes into the narrative, both visually and in scene–it’s just as dramatically compelling an arc as everything else. Bergman’s really serious about the film. So it’s kind of strange–and endearing–when the film’s fun and funny and gentle. It’s fairly upbeat overall; it’s also without Bergman doing it as a reward, like something the audience gets after sitting through numerous horrific scenes.

All the performances are great. Björnstrand is the best. He has the most to do, but he’s the best. Bibi Andersson’s great as Poppe’s wife. von Sydow’s fantastic. And Ekerot’s good as Death, of course. Oh, and Åke Fridell, Erik Strandmark and Inga Gill are all good. Like I said, it’s a lot of characters. Gunnel Lindblom’s got maybe three lines and she’s great too. Bergman’s direction of the actors is just as breathtaking as everything else in The Seventh Seal.

It’s a wondrous film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ingmar Bergman; screenplay by Bergman, based on his play; director of photography, Gunnar Fischer; edited by Lennart Wallén; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, P.A. Lundgren; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns), Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Nils Poppe (Jof), Bibi Andersson (Mia), Gunnel Lindblom (Girl), Maud Hansson (Witch), Åke Fridell (Blacksmith Plog), Inga Gill (Lisa), Inga Landgré (Karin), Bertil Anderberg (Raval), Anders Ek (The Monk), Gunnar Olsson (Church Painter) and Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat).


Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, John Boorman)

Oh, no, Ennio Morricone did the music for Exorcist II: The Heretic. I feel kind of bad now because the music is not good and I like Ennio Morricone. I’m sure I’ve liked something cinematographer William A. Fraker photographed too, but his photography in Heretic is atrocious. Because it’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, everything about it is atrocious. It doesn’t even look like anyone had any fun; it’s not like director Boorman goofed off and then slapped together some awful sequel involving hypnosis and super-beings among us. Maybe some stuff got changed, but all the stupid was always there.

In addition to the stupid there’s the bad. Bad acting. Lots of bad acting. Richard Burton is bad. I like Richard Burton but he is very bad in this film. Louise Fletcher isn’t great either. She might be better than Burton but has a worse part so it’s iffy. But then Burton does perv out on Linda Blair, who’s probably seventeen in a bunch of this movie, and she’s supposed to be playing a sixteen year-old. It’s strange because Boorman clearly tries not to get creepy with Blair when she’s doing a dance act, but then he’ll get creepy whenever she’s in a nightgown or something. It’s weird. It’s another weird, awful thing about this movie.

Awful cameo from Ned Beatty. Embarrassingly to both Beatty and the film. Kitty Winn’s bad. Belinda Beatty’s fine. She sort of disappears once it’s established priest Burton can understand the mental telepathy machine doctor Fletcher has cooked up to cure children of mental illness. Burton sees its potential in demon-hunting.

And then it just gets stupider. And stupider. And stupider. And the sets are crap and Fraker can’t shoot them and it’s long and why does Burton take Blair to a creepy hotel and how is it possible there isn’t a single line of good dialogue in the whole thing. It’s awful. But in a way you do want to watch it, you do want to see where it goes, because it goes all over the place.

The Heretic. Yuck. But kind of amusingly yuck.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Boorman; screenplay by William Goodhart, based on characters created by William Peter Blatty; director of photography, William A. Fraker; edited by Tom Priestley; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Boorman and Richard Lederer; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Richard Burton (Father Philip Lamont), Louise Fletcher (Dr. Gene Tuskin), Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer), Belinda Beatty (Liz), Paul Henreid (The Cardinal), James Earl Jones (Kokumo) and Ned Beatty (Obnoxious man).


Shame (1968, Ingmar Bergman)

Shame has three or four sections. Director Bergman doesn’t draw a lot of attention to the transition between the first parts, he hides it in the narrative. Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow are a married couple living on an island following a war. Not much information about the war, but they’re concert violinists turned farmers. Their problems are relatively trivial–von Sydow’s unsuited for their new life–and their bickering, while not exactly cute, reveals their tenderness and partnership.

Bergman moves Shame from this domestic drama territory into what should feel more familiar–von Sydow and Ullmann are suspected of being collaborators. Bergman is precise with everything related to the context of the war. He moves the war–its machines, its soldiers–through the existing setting. Through fantastic photography from Sven Nykvist and editing from Ulla Ryghe, great sound design, the war, which can’t surprise von Sydow and Ullmann, can’t surprise the viewer either. Except to recognize the lack of reaction. Bergman doesn’t desensitize, he encompasses the viewer in the despair.

And then Shame changes again. Because the viewer’s already submerged, the change isn’t jarring. It’s almost tranquil, even as the film’s action becomes more and more perilous, the relationship between von Sydow and Ullmann becoming poisonous just to observe. Everyone is trapped, viewer included.

The film hinges on the performances, of course. von Sydow and Ullmann are both extraordinary. He gets better material second half, she first.

Shame’s exceptional. Bergman’s conciseness, Ullmann and von Sydow; so great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Ulla Ryghe; production designer, R.A. Lundgren; produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg; released by AB Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Liv Ullmann (Eva Rosenberg), Max von Sydow (Jan Rosenberg), Sigge Fürst (Filip), Gunnar Björnstrand (Jacobi), Birgitta Valberg (Mrs. Jacobi), Gösta Prüzelius (the vicar) and Hans Alfredson (Fredrik).


Solomon Kane (2009, Michael J. Bassett)

I started Solomon Kane with a decidedly negative opinion of James Purefoy. The first twelve to fifteen minutes did nothing to change my mind. Then something happened. The script stopped being so expositive in its dialogue and all of a sudden Purefoy got really good. He kept it up until the end of the film and so did the script (for the most part–when it had problems again, they were of the predictable plotting variety).

I didn’t know where I was going to start with Kane. I thought I might start saying I spent the first eleven minutes ready to turn it off. It looks like, for those eleven minutes, a television movie from the 1990s, only with better CG backdrops. It’s an absurdly bad introduction to a character.

I question a lot of Bassett’s period dialogue but it ceases to matter once he makes it clear he’s making a Western set in 1600s England. It takes about fifteen minutes, maybe ten, because otherwise it could be about Purefoy defending Pete Postlethwaite’s family. But then it becomes a traditional Western.

It’s a problematic traditional Western, of course (Winchester ‘73, say no more), but it’s in a defined genre and it plays a little with setting and adds some zombies and mind-controlled bad guys (being faithful to the spirit of Howard and his ADHD plotting).

I loved Solomon Kane. I hope it rents well enough and Purefoy doesn’t have a real hit they make another (with Bassett back too).

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Michael J. Bassett; screenplay by Bassett, based on a character created by Robert E. Howard; director of photography, Dan Laustsen; edited by Andrew MacRitchie; music by Klaus Badelt; production designer, Ricky Eyres; produced by Paul Berrow, Samual Hadida and Kevan Van Thompson; released by Metropolitan Filmexport.

Starring James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), Max Von Sydow (Josiah Kane), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Meredith), Patrick Hurd-Wood (Samuel), Pete Postlethwaite (William Crowthorn), Alice Krige (Katherine), Jason Flemyng (Malachi), Mackenzie Crook (Father Michael) and Philip Winchester (Telford).


Judge Dredd (1995, Danny Cannon)

I saw Judge Dredd at a sneak preview. It was the first time I ever saw anyone walk on a movie.

It fits into a rather interesting category of disastrous would-be blockbusters–joining Flash Gordon, The Black Hole and Dune–where there’s this largely international cast–why are Jürgen Prochnow and Max von Sydow playing, basically, New Yorkers–and an overblown production and a dismal return for the studio.

Dredd‘s problem isn’t so much a lack of money–even the bad effects sequences, like the chase scene, suspend disbelief well enough–but a lousy production frame of reference. I remember when it came out, they tried for a PG-13 and didn’t get one. So instead of an R-rated action movie, you have this R-rated, pseudo-PG-13 action movie… made by Disney of all people.

Stallone’s awful in the kind of personality-free role Schwarzenegger got famous on–Cannon shoots Dredd like he’s either Robocop or the Terminator–and with the blue contact lenses, it somehow doesn’t even look like him.

When the best performance in a film is von Sydow, it’s not a surprise. When the second best performance is Rob Schneider… that situation’s different.

Diane Lane’s bad. Armand Assante doesn’t chew scenery well. Joan Chen is bad. Prochnow’s awful. It’s a ninety-some minute disaster, only tolerable because it is only ninety-some minutes and it does have really high production values.

It’s wrong-headed. I rarely use that term, but Dredd‘s wrong-headed.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Cannon; screenplay by William Wisher Jr. and Steven E. de Souza, based on a story by Michael De Luca and Wisher and on the Fleetway character created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra; director of photography, Adrian Biddle; edited by Alex Mackie and Harry Keramidas; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Charles Lippincott and Beau Marks; released by Hollywood Pictures.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Judge Dredd), Armand Assante (Rico), Rob Schneider (Fergie), Jürgen Prochnow (Justice Griffin), Max von Sydow (Judge Fargo), Diane Lane (Judge Hershey), Joanna Miles (Judge McGruder), Joan Chen (Ilsa), Balthazar Getty (Olmeyer) and Mitch Ryan (Hammond).


Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sydney Pollack)

The espionage genre has gotten so stupid over the last couple decades, it’s hard to even imagine how a mediocre entry could be good. Now, it’s watching the least worst. Three Days of the Condor is such a peculiar film, even though it’s wholly commercial–I mean, Dino De Laurentiis produced it.

It’s not just a spy thriller (it’s also an urban, domestic spy thriller and one of the best New York films in Panavision), there’s the entire thing with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. It’s not a romance, it’s not a friendship, it’s not a companionship… it’s a thing. In the vernacular of twenty-first century American filmmaking, it’s probably unintelligible, because their chemistry has so much to do with it being the two of them, the two icons. There aren’t film icons in the same way, certainly not ones like Redford and Dunaway were in 1975.

So there are these wonderful scenes with the two of them talking. Not getting to know each other, but talking to each other.

Then there are the spy thriller scenes. It’s amazing how well Redford plays a smart guy. It’s sort of against type.

Cliff Robertson, Max von Sydow (especially von Sydow) and John Houseman are all excellent in supporting roles. Houseman, of course, just has to talk.

Pollack’s Panavision direction is great. There’s some lovely editing from Don Guidice.

The end is problematic, if “realistic.” We spend the film waiting to find out what happens and, instead, we found out why.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sydney Pollack; screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, based on a novel by James Grady; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Don Guidice; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Stephen B. Grimes; produced by Stanley Schneider; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Robert Redford (Joseph Turner), Faye Dunaway (Kathy Hale), Cliff Robertson (Higgins), Max von Sydow (Joubert), John Houseman (Mr. Wabash), Addison Powell (Leonard Atwood), Walter McGinn (Sam Barber), Tina Chen (Janice) and Michael Kane (S.W. Wicks).


Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius)

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.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

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).


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