‘In a time when the oceans drank Atlantis there was an age undreamed of … and born unto this was Conan! Destined to bear the jewel crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow.’
Conan The Barbarian one of the iconic fantasy characters of the 20th Century, was created by American author Robert E. Howard. A writer of short pulp fiction stories whose works were published from the late 1920’s through to his suicide in 1936, and who due to the success of his Conan tales, is widely regarded as the father of the sword and sorcery sub genre. Howard was a contemporary and friend of renowned Horror writer H.P Lovecraft, and both authors had many stories printed in Weird Tales Magazine, which is where Conan was first introduced to the world in 1932.
Howard wrote 21 Conan stories, 19 of which were published whilst he was alive, but the character lived on after his death with many other writers taking on the mantle as the copy-write passed from hand to hand. In the 1970’s the stories was licensed by Marvel Comics which saw a surge in popularity for the character, who was then adapted for cinema with the first film Conan The Barbarian landing in 1982, and its sequel Conan The Destroyer following soon after in 1984.
Directed by John Milius (Red Dawn) and featuring the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator) in his first starring role, after a successful body building career had seen him crowned Mr Universe, Conan The Barbarian (1982) opens with the feel of a classic Hollywood historical period drama, from the golden age of cinema. We meet Conan as a child recieving words of wisdom by his father, before their village is attacked by a hoarde of barbarians with snakes on their shields, led by evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones – Star Wars).
His mother and father are both horrifically slaughtered in front of his eyes and the village is burned to the ground. But his life is spared and he is taken into slavery where hard labour turns him into a strong and muscular adult. He is chosen by his masters to fight for his life in a pit, and becomes a champion gladiator receiving adulation and glory in the process. Here we see some gruesome scenes of violence that Arnie’s films in the 80’s would become renowned for! Conan remains a slave but is kept like a prized animal, provided with females for breeding and continuously trained to enhance his deadly fighting skills. Then one night his restraints are unshackled and he is let free. He runs and finds shelter in a tomb that once belonged to a king, and arms himself with a powerful broad sword.
The following day he sets off and comes across a beautiful and seductive witch who invites him to find warmth by her fire. He is told of a prophecy in which she has been waiting to be visited by a powerful man, a conquerer who will become king by his own hand and one who will crush the snakes of the earth. He begins to make love to her and in the throes of passion they are surrounded by a blue light and icy wind, before she turns into a cackling demon of fire and disappears into the night, providing the movie with the type of magic and mysticism that had proved popular with the likes of Clash Of The Titans (1981) released a year earlier.
Conan shrugs this encounter off and carries on his journey, now armed with the knowledge he will one day become a king, but first he must hunt down the snakes who murdered his parents. On his quest he is joined by a number of followers including the warrior shield-maiden Valeria (Sandahl Bergman – She) who Conan falls in love with. Their journey takes them to a showdown with Thulsa Doom, where they are also quested to rescue the daughter of King Osric (Max Von Sydow – Flash Gordon), although Valeria is reluctant to join Conan as she has heard of Doom’s ability to summon demons, so Conan sneaks off in the night to fulfil his destiny alone.
Initially however Conan is defeated and banished to be crucified on the ‘Tree Of Woe’, where he is circled by vultures who begin to pick at his flesh while he faints in and out of consciousness in the burning heat of the desert. But saviours come in the form of his friends who bring him back from the brink of death, warding off evil spirits who come for his soul in the dead of night. When back to full strength, Conan now with his brethren by his side embarks on another showdown with the sorceror, returning to his palace on Mount Doom where before their eyes Thulsa shape shifts into the form of a giant serpent.
A fight ensues with Thulsa’s goons in which Valeria dies, leading a heartbroken Conan to one final battle before he defeats and beheads his nemesis, and naturally ends the film as the hero. This 1982 movie is a classic fantasy film of its time, where we see old school choreographed fight scenes where riders on horseback are being speared and sword fighting results in gory kills with bursts of bright red blood. It looks very dated now, but epitomises pre CGI fantasy and for anyone interested in a time of practical effects and stunt men putting themselves in danger, it remains a joy to watch. Arnie plays Conan as a strong warrior, but who also has vulnerabilities. He’s not invincible, he gets hurt, wounded and captured at points throughout the story, but he’s ultimately brave, fearless and ends up triumphant.
Conan The Destroyer (1984) was the perfect follow up and companion piece, filmed in exactly the same style where cheap looking B-Movie monster effects, and carefully plotted stunt fight scenes mix in with a story of Conan completing a magical quest. This time winning the heart of Princess Jenna (Olivia d’Abo) and introducing further interesting characters such as Zula (Grace Jones – A View To A Kill) and Bombaata (played by 7ft Basketball star Wilt Chamberlain). And then as his career sky rocketed with the success of his next film The Terminator (1984), Schwarzenegger went on to concentrate on new projects while Conan’s run on the silver screen came to end.
However 25 years later we saw a return of the hero, jumping on the back of the movies industry’s fascination with revisiting and remaking gems from the 1980’s. The great thing about Conan is that there are dozens of separate adventures written over the years, so there was no need for a straight remake of the same story, although as well as plucking the meat and bones from another tale, the ‘reboot’ does take it upon itself to retell his origin story. Crucially and disappointingly missing the gladiatorial aspect of his past, which really helped form the basis for the character as a warrior, and would have been interesting to watch in this glossier modern style.
Conan The Barbarian (2011) opens with a monologue from Morgan Freeman (Seven), setting the scene for the story of the new movie by explaining that during the dark empire of Asheron, cruel necromancers who sought the secrets of resurrection crafted a mask from the bones of kings, awaking its wrath with the pure blood of their daughters. The mask summoned spirits of unspeakable evil, giving them power no mortal men should possess. Asheron enslaved the civilised world, leaving only the barbarian tribes to rise up against them. The mask was shattered and Asheron fell. Each tribe kept a single shard so that no man might attempt to join them together and drive the world back into chaos and ruin. The pieces were scattered across the land and remained hidden for ages. But prophecy spoke of a man who would one day try to reassemble the mask and rule the world …
We then join a ferocious battlefield setting where a shield maiden goes into labour and her baby Conan is born amongst the throes of war. But his mother dies shortly after the birth, before the baby is raised high into the air by his warrior father Corbin (Ron Perlman – Helboy). We jump to Conan as a boy embarking on a challenge against his peers to earn the right to join his tribes warriors on the battlefield. As they are playing in the woods they are ambushed by savages, where we see his prowess as a fighter, as he takes out half a dozen invaders single handed, returning to his village with his kills heads, and receiving the adulation of his father.
He and his father then forge a steel sword together made from ice and fire to celebrate his triumph and we see his father train him and teach him a number of life lessons. As with the original movie, his village soon comes under attack, this time led by the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang – Avatar) who is searching for the pieces of the shattered mask, proclaiming he will one day be a god. Believing the final piece to be hidden in this village, Corbin is captured and tortured. Conan jumps in to try and rescue his father slicing off a goons nose in the process, but is eventually overpowered. Khalar’s daughter Marique (Rose McGowan – Planet Terror) a mysterious descendent of a sorceress mother who was burned at the stake, finds the missing piece hidden under a floorboard and they burn the village to the ground, leaving Conan’s father in a situation where he must choose between his own life and that of Conan. Ultimately sacrificing himself so his son can live, in a grizzly scene where molten steel is poured over his head.
Conan spends the following years journeying the world and searching for the man who destroyed his village and killed his father. We jump forward to when Conan is a fully grown man, played by Jason Momoa (Game Of Thrones / Aquaman), who we see overrunning a gang of slave masters before partying into the night with his companions and the freed slaves, taking the spoils of the finest women amongst them. Their party is gatecrashed by soldiers and Conan recognises the captain as the man who’s nose he sliced off as a child. He gives himself up to slavery in order to get close, then easily overruns his captors and tortures the captain in a memorable gruesome scene where he pushes his fingers into the hole where his nose used to be.
He coldly dispenses with the man after he has extracted info on how he might find the powerful shadow warlord and his now adult sorceress daughter, who themselves are trying to capture a girl, Tamara (Rachel Nichols) a descendent with a true blood line from the necromancers of Valeria, who they believe they need to complete the spell of the mask, in order to reserect Marique’s evil mother. Conan saves Tamara and then entices the warlord and his daughter to meet him, in a quite ridiculous looking scene where the girls captor is catapulted miles through the air with a message stuffed in his mouth.
Later there is a nice choreographed CGI fight scene where Conan fights an army of sand ghosts conjured by Marique, before Conan and Khalal have a pretty tasty sword fight, which Conan is losing before orchestrating his escape. He and Tamara take refuge on a ship, although not for long as this soon comes under attack and we are treated to another gory fight scene to keep the blood hounds happy, with Conan this time victorious. Conan celebrates by taking Tamara to bed and they fall in love. Then while Conan is sleeping Tamara is kidnapped by Marique and taken to her father so they can complete their sacrificial blood ceremony, leading Conan to his final showdown mission of rescue and revenge.
The cinematography of the 2011 film is tonally quite dark and certainly lacks a lot of the colour and 80’s charm of the original. It has CGI effects that look great in places and not so good in others. But overall it was a decent attempt at modernising the character and should have led to further sequels, although poor box office returns seem to have dictated otherwise, for the time being at least. Jason Momoa is no doubt a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and came into the role hot off of playing the role of Khal Drogo in the excellent first season of Game of Thrones. But Arnie will always epitomise the character, and without doubt had the perfect look that was needed at the time, suiting the B-Movie-Esq aesthetic and quintessential 80’s vibe down to a tee. KZ
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