Conan The Destroyer: Collector's Edition Review

Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Arius, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world. Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, sword in hand. It is I, his chronicler, who knows well his sage. Now, let me tell you of the days of high adventure

If you find the above spiel simultaneously ludicrous and guiltily enjoyable, especially when the last sentence launches into a blast of Basil Poledouris at his most bombastic, then Conan The Destroyer will probably be right up your street. Whatever its faults, it is an energetic pulp movie which is completely devoid of pretensions. It’s important to point this out immediately because anyone expecting more of the thoughtful, ideologically-riven bleakness of Conan The Barbarian is bound to be disappointed. John Milius’ original film was dark, moody and surprisingly downbeat in many respects, dominated by feelings of pain and going for an ‘Education of a Warrior’ approach rather than the energetic comic-strip which might have been expected. Heavily influenced by a rich combination of Riefenstahl, Kurosawa and Nietzsche, John Milius produced that rare beast; a deeply personal blockbuster. Richard Fleischer, tackling the sequel, throws out all this and concentrates on Conan as a comic-book superhero. This approach pays dividends and, as pointed out in the commentary track, it’s fair to say that while Conan The Barbarian was influenced by Robert E. Howard, Conan The Destroyer is far more the product of Marvel Comics.

The plot, which was developed by two of the comic book authors, is a very straightforward ‘Quest’ narrative. Conan is persuaded by wicked Queen Taramis (Douglas) to take her niece, the virginal Jehnna (D’Abo), to an ancient castle, guarded by a wizard, where she will find a key which only she can touch. The key will allow her to access a great big horn. If this immediately reminds you of Derek and Clive then you’re not alone. In reward for this treasure, the Queen offers Conan the thing he wants most – the return of his greatest love, the swordswoman Valeria who died in the first film. But, needless to say, the wicked Queen has a dangerous agenda of her own. To help him, Conan is accompanied by Bombata, the head of the Queen’s guard (Chamberlain), a tough female warrior (Jones), the Wizard of the Mounds (Mako) and his longtime sidekick (and comedy relief) the thief Malak (Walter)Along the way there’s a lot of fighting, slapstick and the kind of exquisitely bad special effects which remind you why films produced by Dino De Laurentis are like a full English breakfast – you know they’re bad for you but you simply can’t resist.

Richard Fleischer was never a particularly great director but he was certainly a highly competent journeyman who occasionally found inspiration with the right material. Looking at his filmography, you can easily spot the weaker areas - Doctor Dolittle, Ashanti, Red Sonja, The Incredible Sarah - but there’s a lot of good stuff there too. He proved his worth on big budget projects such as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Mandingo while still managing to pursue his particular talent for recreating true crime stories in riveting detail through movies such as Compulsion, The Boston Strangler and the superb 10 Rillington Place. More to the point, he also directed one of the all-time great period action movies, The Vikings and many of the strengths displayed in that film can be found here – excellent cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff, tautly executed second unit work, a sure sense of pace and strong, iconic casting. Although, by this point in his career, Fleischer was clearly working on auto-pilot for a producer (De Laurentis) who considered him a safe pair of hands, he rouses himself sufficiently to make Conan The Destroyer a reasonably entertaining sword and sorcery romp.

Of all the plus points mentioned above, the most significant is the cinematography. Jack Cardiff lit some of the greatest films of the 20th Century and, while Conan isn’t likely to be confused with Black Narcissus or A Matter Of Life And Death, he manages to make it look considerably more lavish than it presumably was. His speciality – lighting actresses to their best advantages – works wonders for Olivia D’Abo and Sarah Douglas and he brings a slightly heady lushness to the Mexican location work which is very easy on the eye. The quite beautiful fight in a room of mirrors also deserves mention. Cardiff can make a second-hand set look like a million dollars, which is fortunate since most of the interiors were just that – redressed sets from the simultaneous production of Dune.

The downside of this visual richness is that the hackneyed plot and dialogue tend to have a spotlight thrown upon them which might not have been such an issue in a cheaper-looking movie. The dialogue in Conan The Barbarian was often banal but you could sense a guiding vision behind it – the sense that Milius and Oliver Stone actually believed all this mystical rubbish. In Conan The Destroyer it simply comes across as bad writing. Sarah Douglas is landed with most of the exposition and she does her best with it but what could any actress achieve with lines such as “We will drink to Dagoth, the dreaming God” and “It is written in the Scrolls of Skellis that a woman-child born with a certain mark must make a perilous journey. It is her destiny” ? It’s greatly to Douglas’ credit that she manages to make a mark despite the lines she’s required to deliver. Arnold Schwarzenegger, here still waiting for the mega-stardom which The Terminator would confer upon him, is as wooden as usual but he’s certainly got presence and his, shall we say, simplistic acting style suits the elementary level of the writing. The rest of the cast are functional at best, although Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones do pretty well considering that they were untrained as actors and it’s always nice to see familiar faces such as Pat Roach, Ferdy Mayne and the great Jeff Corey.

The action sequences are generally well staged, presumably thanks to stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong, and the lack of CGI really does have an advantage, adding a physicality which isn’t present in digitally enhanced fight scenes. They’re paced with a childish enthusiasm that works very well for this material and on a strictly kinetic level, this is a much more exciting film. It’s also surprisingly violent and I would not be surprised if this PG film, along with the oft-quoted Temple of Doom, strengthened the case for a PG-13 rating. But there’s no ideology behind the violence as there was in the original and, consequently, it seems rather less brutal. There’s also a corresponding increase in the amount of comic relief courtesy of the always diverting Tracey Walter, one of the most delectably sleazy actors ever to work in Hollywood. As in the original, the quality of the special effects is generally poor, although there’s nothing to compete with that dreadful rubber snake that makes Conan The Barbarian look like a particularly cheap episode of “Doctor Who”. The scene where the wizard – one of three roles played by wrestler Pat Roach – turns into a bird is risible and the make-up for one of his other roles, as a monster, isn’t much better. The finale, when a Lovecraftian beast named Dagoth makes his appearance (courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi), benefits from careful lighting and good editing which ensure that we don’t get too many chances to notice how cheap it looks.

Conan The Destroyer is a load of nonsense but it’s enjoyable, exhilarating nonsense which is likely to delight anyone over the age of 10 who is capable of not so much suspending their disbelief as placing a noose around it. I had a blast watching it and found myself turning up the volume every time one of Basil Poledouris’ increasingly grandiloquent music cues made an appearance. Although I have great respect for John Milius and Conan The Barbarian as a piece of filmmaking, this is a hell of a lot more sheer fun and almost manages to equal the all-time great genre romp The Sword and the Sorceror in my affections.

The Disc

Since it’s now 20 years since Conan The Destroyer was released – a depressing reminder of age for those of us who remember going to see it in the cinema – it seems appropriate for it to be re-released. Sanctuary’s new disc contains a highly variable transfer combined with an excellent commentary track and one of the most tedious ‘interactive’ games I’ve ever seen on a DVD.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and it has been anamorphically enhanced. The good news is that there is loads of detail, some stunningly rich colours and a generally good transferral of Jack Cardiff’s decidedly luxuriant cinematography. The bad news, however, is that the transfer suffers from a serious problem with video artifacting causing pixellisation scenes with a great deal of movement. This is unsightly and sometimes renders the film difficult to watch. It’s not a constant problem but it recurs too often to ignore.

Two soundtracks are offered; Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1. Of these, the 5.1 remix has a more spacious feel and works wonders for the music score. However, the original 2.0 track is also impressive with effective separations between the two channels. Whichever you prefer, you are unlikely to be disappointed.

The extras are somewhat limited but the commentary is a pleasure to listen to. As with many Sanctuary discs, Stephen Jones and Kim Newman are on hand with countless bits of trivia to guide us through the film but this time they’re accompanied by the utterly charming Sarah Douglas. She has a lot of intelligent observations to make about the film and is refreshingly honest about her career in horror sequels and television. Douglas comes across as a woman without affectations and she is obviously fond of the film and the memories it evokes. On occasions, the two men tend to slobber over her a little but, thankfully, this isn’t a frequent occurrence.

The other extras are rather less impressive. The American theatrical trailer is present along with some brief but quite well written biographies of selected cast and crew members and a pleasant but unremarkable photo gallery. “Conan’s Quest”, however, is a waste of time; a series of ‘randomly generated’ quiz questions which are as much about the careers of cast and crew as the career of the central character. The navigation of this is slow and tedious and the reward for getting 10/10 is, er, nothing. It’s also worth noting that the allegedly random questions were identical on the two occasions I played the game.

The animated menus are elegant and easy to navigate. There are 15 chapter stops and subtitles are provided for the film but not the commentary.

Conan The Destroyer is great fun and well worth a look for anyone who likes a somewhat old-fashioned kind of fantasy. Sanctuary’s disc is disappointingly flawed in visual terms but the commentary track remains worth a listen, especially for fans of the film.

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