Twenty years ago, young Conan was taught by his father (William Smith) that the only thing he could truly rely on in life was nothing except his sword, advice that he took into his adulthood, haunted by the memories of how his parents had been killed in a raid on their village by a deadly snake cult. This cult was led by one Thalmus Doom (James Earl Jones), and Conan felt strongly that their paths would cross again so he could exact his revenge. After years of slavery which built up his body to tremendous strength, Conan knew it was time to set out on his own...
Remember those old Italian sword and sandal epics with the likes of Steve Reeves essaying the role of Hercules? Well producer Dino De Laurentiis surely did, hence when the opportunity arose to create a new version of what had been solid moneymakers for the film industry of his home country, he agreed to put up the money and so Robert E. Howard's most famous hero Conan the Barbarian was brought to the big screen after some years of trying. There had been no doubt since the project was started who should play the warrior, and he had been attached from the start.
So Arnold Schwarzenegger undoubtedly looked the part, and ushered in the eighties movie fetish for its action heroes to look as if they had studied hard under Charles Atlas; you couldn't go to a cinema or visit a video rentals during that decade without some musclebound star strutting their stuff for the delight of millions, even more so that those bodybuilder movies of the sixties had done. The man directing all this was John Milius, the talented and infamously right-wing filmmaker, and he had adapted a script by another chap who knew his own mind and was not afraid to speak it, Oliver Stone.
It was Stone's original script which had captured the imagination of these movie people, so with the violence toned down and more pretentious references added courtesy of Milius (the film begins with a variation on that quote from Nietzsche that says whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger), Conan was unleashed on the movie world. The critics might not have liked it, but with Star Wars showing that fantasy cinema could take itself seriously and have its audience hold it in equal regard, the film gained a fair few fans who warmed to its solemn way with a rather over the top storyline that some called fascistic.
Yet was it really? Or was it more tapping into the wish fulfilment of a certain type of appreciator of this kind of material where they were able to stalk the lands of wonder sword in hand, with attractive women throwing themselves at them and their cunning and, of course, brute force allowing them to escape from any sticky situation? This Conan, as arguably the source was, is a self-empowerment fiction for which Milius took on the decidedly un-Howard-like target of fashionable fads or religious cults, so whether it was the Californian leanings towards yoga or Scientology that the snake worshippers was intended to represent, Milius saw that it was taken down a peg or two courtesy of his Barbarian's blade. Trouble is, Conan's methods don't seem much preferable to Thalmus Doom, and with the overbearing and bombastic tone it's tough going. They were right to leave out the humour, but there's a vacuum remaining which is not filled with its thudding self-importance. Appropriately grand music by Basil Poledouris.