Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian (1982), written and directed by John Milius.

I hadn't seen this for a long time and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It has famously cheesy aspects but can also -- if you revert to your adolescent male mind -- be involving and exciting.

The first half is episodic; in the second part we buckle down to Conan's vengeance quest, which becomes a sort of manly barbarian attack on hippiedom with a bit of gay-bashing. I don't remember the princess helping Conan in the final attack on the sorcerer; is this a different cut?

The good features:

Basil Poledouris's score is very fine; I still hum bits 30 years later.

It's a gritty fantasy with blood and grime. The combat physics are those of this world; today you'd need flying wire acts and impossible stunts. The landscape is real and pre-CGI, giving the adventure a certain earthy vitality.

This was the first time I remember seeing heavy sword combat techniques different from traditional Hollywood light fencing.

A favorite bit is a quietly elegant scene where Conan does sword exercises on the beach after his ordeal on the Tree.

The cheesiness:

Arnold Schwarzenegger was not a polished actor and his accent and enunciation are often a problem. His line delivery is sometimes unintentionally comic. He doesn't look like how I imagine Conan, not even the Frazetta illustrations. On the other hand this awkwardness is kind of endearing and his adventure situations are often moving. We wouldn't identify with him as much if he were perfectly deft.

The barbarian costumes and hair sometimes look a bit too dressed and styled. I wish I had the furrier concession for this film. The sorcerer's henchmen look like aging pouty rock stars. The cannibal stew obviously has dry ice to make it steam.

Other parts are matters of taste: lovely-legged Sandahl Bergman is a dancer and holds herself like one. Max von Sydow has only one scene and he's no Ming the Merciless. James Earl Jones doesn't hold back. Lots of comic dialogue and mugging avoids any risk of a more serious treatment.

Filmed in Spain. Brief passion and nudity. Much hacking and blood splatter.

Available on Blu-ray.

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