Conan the Barbarian: Special Edition Review
Conan the Barbarian begins as it means to go on; as incredibly cheesy spectacle. The opening narration (that promises a tale of “high adventure”) perfectly establishes its pulpy tone - from frame one, it doesn’t attempt to be anything more than schlocky, B-grade entertainment - a melding of the action and fantasy genres, with a surprisingly dark core. It’s typical cut-throat fare, but that’s largely its charm. Like the best adventure yarns, it transports us to a world of myth...a world of legend. As we meet Conan (Jorge Sanz), he’s a boy learning the "Riddle of Steel" from his father. The credits fire into action, as a blacksmith toils away on a gleaming sword. Clearly, the weapon is a symbol of his violent heritage, but we don’t have time to dwell on such details; his village is being attacked. The evil Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his henchman, proceed to burn down his homestead, and brutally murder his parents.
Conan is captured, and sold into slavery (growing into a brutish Schwarzenegger). Yet, his skill in battle transforms him into a feared gladiator, and his owner sets him free. He doesn’t waste any time; stealing a sword from a crypt and claiming a companion in Subotai (Gerry Lopez). He heads toward civilisation, intent on growing rich and powerful. In the city of Zamora, he meets Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a gifted, and admittedly sexy thief. They become lovers, but Conan’s true desire lies elsewhere. Naturally, he has revenge in mind, and Thulsa Doom is his target. King Osrik (Max von Sydow), the ruler of Zamora, summons him to the palace, sparking a dangerous proposition. The task will lead him to the dreaded Doom, and his destiny...
As a child, I was inexplicably drawn to Conan the Barbarian. It’s a fun romp through popular SF culture, with lashings of hardened violence, and plenty of improbable action scenes. In other words, it was just the ticket. With these well-worn ingredients, I wasn’t shocked to discover the character’s deep ties to pulp literature. Conan first appeared in the 30’s magazine Weird Tales, a nerdy compendium of far-fetched yarns. Created by Robert E. Howard, the character would appear in 18 published stories, and later, a popular comic book. Therefore, Conan the Barbarian was eagerly-awaited back in 1982. It was a good time for fantasy aficionados, and the “sword and sorcery” genre was booming. Writers were penning dozens of similar-themed stories, while kids everywhere were spending far too much time playing Dungeons and Dragons. It was the era of “the geek”, and I’m sorry I missed it.
Conan: The Film didn’t sit well with long-time followers of Howard’s work. In the hands of director John Milius, the story diverted from the source material, opting for a very serious tone amid the frequently cartoonish violence. Unlike its sequel Conan the Destroyer, the film takes its time to establish tone and mood - which is relentlessly bleak - and Oliver Stone’s screenplay delivers plenty of self-important dialogue. In this respect, the picture is a little pretentious (unlike the outrageous Destroyer), yet there’s always something to remind you of its gleeful roots. After all, the film is set some 12,000 years ago, at a time when wizards walked the earth, and mythical monsters lurked in the shadows. It’s a fully-realised history (well, maybe not as well-realised as Tolkien), with different layers being revealed throughout. It’s essentially an origin story for the titular behemoth, but Milius has immense fun toying with this fantastical mythology.
First and foremost, the film looks spectacular. The sets (courtesy of Alien’s Ron Cobb) are finely detailed, carrying with them a sense of authenticity. The production design often matches the bleakness of the cinematography, yet there are some colourful vistas to be found here - especially the golden yellows of the snake chamber, or the dusty, washed-out deserts where Conan slaves away, early in the film. Milius has a strong hand over the material, since the picture is strangely operatic. This is largely due to the swirling orchestral score by the renowned Basil Poledouris (one of the 80’s best), which helps to give the picture a unique atmosphere. Yet, it’s largely a visual movie, and it moves pretty quickly. Milius’ work here isn’t as impressive as say, Big Wednesday, but his style is well-suited to these over-the-top theatrics. He also has a knack for conveying a large amount of information with little screen time, or exposition. A perfect example, would be the montage sequence, in which Conan grows from a boy to a hulking, muscle-bound adult. It’s a memorable moment, with the years passing by before us, and the music signalling a major change in pace. Cue the bloodshed...and ropy acting!
The film is, of course, fondly remembered for having Ahh-nuld in the lead role. Following his meteoric rise-to-fame in Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger was renowned for his impossibly large physique, and his buns of steel play a pretty major role here. In most respects, he was the perfect candidate for the part, despite his limited range. He strolls through the scenes with ease; grunting occasionally, before dispatching the latest villain with brute force. There’s nothing in Stone’s script that allows Schwarzenegger to emote - that just isn’t the character he’s playing. In fact, he would have been an ideal fit for He-Man in Masters of the Universe (though, to be fair, the roles are practically identical). Still, it’s by far one of his greatest roles, and it’s amusing to think that two years after this cult relic, he’d be smashing skulls all over again in The Terminator.
Acting may not be the films strongest element, but the supporting cast is more than adequate. James Earl Jones is a commanding presence as Thulsa Doom - all booming voice and mesmerising eyes. His performance comes close to exaggeration (especially during the effects-heavy climax), but he’s an interesting villain. You might also notice von Sydow’s name in the cast list. A veteran of arthouse cinema, he adds some class to the proceedings, and appears to be having a great deal of fun as the King. But what male viewers really want to see, are top-heavy women, and Conan the Barbarian delivers. In this respect, the film belongs to Sandahl Bergman; a beautiful woman, who unfortunately, isn’t a great actress. Yet, she gets into her scenes with energy, and blends seamlessly with the rest of the universe...
To its credit, Conan... sticks to the dogged formula of fantasy cinema, with a long list of ingredients that make it entirely likeable. There’s the voluptuous women, iron-clad scoundrels, an insane wizard, monsters, and some bloody battles; achieved with classic make-up techniques. What’s not to like? Of course, the film is an acquired taste, and the genre has rarely achieved widespread success. To date, there has been too few “sword and sorcery” films that made a dent at the box office, with only The Lord of the Rings keeping such tales alive. Once upon a time, there was rumours of another Conan sequel. Chances of that are pretty slim, but with Hollywood’s current remake trend, perhaps we’ll see the Barbarian return in the future...
This is the second, so-called “Special Edition” of Conan the Barbarian, and Fox promises that this is the best release to date. This time, they provide two discs, with new audio, and some decent bonus material. But should fans plonk down the cash, when the previous release was more than adequate?
The Look and Sound
Unfortunately, it seems that little work has been done to improve the video transfer; once again presenting the film in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1). It looks pretty good for its age, with decent colours and detail, providing a very film-like transfer. Of course, the budgetary restraints and age of the materials are always apparent. There’s plenty of grain on the image, and the print reveals some dirt. Yet, there’s no serious damage. The picture also seems a little washed-out on occasion, but such problems never spoil the viewing experience. Overall, this is a strong transfer for an old release, reproducing the lavish cinematography well. It could have been sharper, but Fox deserve credit for releasing the film in acceptable fashion (and not non-anamorphic, like some releases).
The audio doesn’t fare as well. We get both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, both of which are a joke, considering the original materials at hand. The first mix is probably the one to go for, and forces the mono materials through the surround system with care. It does sound pretty good actually, with the Poledouris music coming across with some intensity. The dialogue and incidental sound effects are pretty basic, and full-on surround action is low, making the optional DTS mix fairly redundant. Yet, this is an above-average presentation, that should please any new Conan-converts. The only reason I’ve graded the audio score at 5, is for one major omission - the original mono recording. Therefore, the release is far from “Ultimate”, since it should have been included. I won’t be too harsh and give the audio zero, but it’s annoying to note its absence. Ultimately, this is a disappointing transfer.
I liked these. The designs are simple, but effective, with short bursts of animation, and the customary anamorphic-encoding. They fit the style of the movie well too, with some bold colours and cheesy sound effects. Neat.
Audio Commentary by director John Milius and Arnold
Those who bought the previous edition will already have this commentary, but it’s a classic, and well worth sitting through. The camaraderie between Milius and Schwarzenegger is infectious, and the pair are clearly having a blast as they re-live Conan the Barbarian. The director is vocal about the style he wanted to adopt for the film, especially when discussing the descriptive nature of his, and Oliver Stone’s screenplay. Schwarzenegger largely talks about the motivations of his character, and the preparation needed for the role. It’s a breezy chat, with plenty of joking between director and star. A great commentary.
Most of the extras here are video-based supplements, beginning with:
“Conan: The Rise of a Fantasy Legend”
This is a decent featurette, running for just over 18-minutes. Naturally, it deals with the impact that the “sword and sorcery” genre had on Conan, and documents the character’s origins affectionately. Robert E. Howard is mentioned a lot by the contributors, with a pleasing amount of background material. The talking heads range from artists to writers (among them, Michael Moorcock), and even those that worked on the comic books. It’s a fun piece, with a genuine sense of nostalgia. It could have gone on much longer, but this relatively-small documentary manages to present a lot of information.
“Conan Unchained: The Making Of”
This is the old documentary, clocking in at 53-minutes. It’s a leisurely, and well-made retrospective, that is well worth seeing for any fans of the picture. It compiles vintage footage with modern-day interviews, with Milius, Schwarzenegger and James Earl Jones contributing. There’s also feedback from famed-producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helps to document the tangled path Conan took to the screen. It’s very detailed, and pretty fascinating.
The rest of the disc is pretty bog-standard fare. The “Deleted Scenes Sequence” (5:27) is just that, with snippets that didn’t make the finished film. There’s nothing terribly exciting here, but it’s worth sitting through. “The Conan Archives” (11:47) is a video montage of stills, set to Basil Poledouris’ music. There’s some great images here - with some neat insights into the films production. “Special Effects” (01:37) is a split-screen piece, that takes one scene and shows the original footage and finished film simultaneously. Finally, we have the original theatrical trailer, and some production notes.
The Bottom Line
A staple of 1980’s culture, Conan the Barbarian is back in a pretty big way. It’s a solid entry in the fantasy genre, and a film that continues to entertain all these years later. Fox’s two-disc “Special Edition” is somewhat disappointing - it barely improves on the previous one-disc incarnation - but for new fans, it’s well-worth a look.