I’ve seen the 1982 classic Conan the Barbarian at least 20 times and can recite most of the movie word for word, something I do with very little prompting after a few drinks. I know that Conan isn’t a great work of art, but it is artful, and it’s shot through with instances of greatness—yes, greatness, in the old-fashioned, Harold-Bloom sense of the word.
Conan was invented by the pulp writer Robert E. Howard during the 1930s. The movie Conan the Barbarian, inspired partly by Howard’s Conan stories and partly by the comic books that they spawned, was conceived during the late ‘70s as a career vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Oliver Stone drafted an early version of the screenplay, and there was talk that Stone might direct Conan the Barbarian, or co-direct it, possibly in partnership with Ridley Scott, but year after year, Conan didn’t get made. The rights eventually changed hands, and the new director, John Milius, who had penned the screenplay for Apocalypse Now at the age of 25, rewrote Stone’s script almost entirely.
Conan the Barbarian was hugely successful at establishing Schwarzenegger in Hollywood—so much so that the movie has been eclipsed by Schwarzenegger himself and has become an “Arnold movie,” maybe even the ultimate Arnold movie. People tend to confuse Conan the Barbarian with its follow-ups, Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja, both of them directed by Richard Fleischer, and both solidly generic.
Conan the Barbarian, however, is too peculiar to be called “generic.” For one thing, Milius opens with an epigraph: that reliable old quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Milius intends for us to see Conan as an embodiment of those words; Conan is a prehistoric barbarian whose parents and people are slaughtered, who is sold into childhood slavery, and who, after a decade of turning an immense, literal gristmill, develops into a mass of rage and muscle, motivated entirely by the desire for revenge.
Before Conan’s father is killed—horribly, but I won’t say how—he tells the young Conan a story about giants deceiving the gods and taking for themselves the knowledge of steelmaking. The vengeful gods destroy the giants, but “… In their rage,” Conan’s father says, “the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. And we who have found it are just men. Not gods, not giants: just men.” Conan’s journey is an epic search to understand “the riddle of steel” and the meaning of strength.
If all this analysis seems misplaced and pretentious, well, the movie is a little pretentious. It’s difficult to make a truly bad piece of art unless you’re trying to make an extraordinary one, and Conan the Barbarian is both bad and extraordinary. Milius’s mistakes are so large that at times the movie’s aspirations seem absurd. Conan the Barbarian takes clichés at face value and is terribly acted. It also brought into the world such infamous lines of dialogue as, “Two or three years ago, they were just another snake cult.”
And yet, the movie is beautifully shot, and when none of the actors are speaking, Conan the Barbarian finds its eloquence. Conan himself has only two lines of dialogue during the movie’s first half-hour and frequently communicates simply by whetting his sword, furrowing his brow, or glaring. The movie is an ode to human physicality, and it’s Schwarzenegger’s body, not Schwarzenegger, that fills the lead role. Milius has compared the movie to a ballet, and most of the cast are athletes, rather than professional actors. Two exceptions are James Earl Jones, who brings nuance and authority to a few thematically important speeches, and Max von Sydow.
Part of what I find so arresting—so overwhelming, actually—about Conan the Barbarian is Basil Poledouris’s orchestral score. Poledouris’s music dramatically fills the silence created by the lack of dialogue, defines the movie’s emotional currents in a way that the actors cannot, and creates battle scenes that seem to belong to a brutal, Wagnerian Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The score even supplies leitmotifs to the movie’s major characters.
“Movies,” the arch-critic Pauline Kael once wrote, “are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them,” and Conan has always lived on the borderland between art and Kael’s “trash.” Robert Howard’s Conan stories take place after the sinking of Atlantis and before known history, in a universe where all empires decline and all civilizations fail. For both Howard and Milius, Conan is a romantic vision of what human beings once were, and what they remain, under the mask of civilization.
Robert Howard wrote the Conan stories while living at home with his parents. He suffered from depression all his life, and he shot himself at the age of 30. I can’t help but feel that Howard was thinking of himself when he described Conan as a man of “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth.” Howard’s Conan towers above other men, remains an outsider even after becoming a king, and makes pronouncements like “Someday, when all your civilization and science are … swept away, your kind will pray for a man with a sword.”
Here is my favorite piece of Conan lore: during the first day of filming, Schwarzenegger fell from a mound of rocks and was cut badly enough to need stitches. Milius told Schwarzenegger not to clean the blood off his face, because the injury looked so realistic. The pain won’t last, Milius said. But, he added, “this movie will be forever.”