The film that established Arnold Schwarzenegger as a box office star stands up surprisingly well on Blu-ray.
It is one of the great mysteries of modern cinema: how on earth did an Austrian body builder become one of the biggest movie stars on the planet?
The answer lies in Conan the Barbarian, a sword and sorcery epic which came about at just the right time for the former Mr Universe.
After an illustrious career in bodybuilding Schwarzenegger gradually made the movie into movies by appearing in The Long Goodbye (1973), Stay Hungry (1976), the docudrama Pumping Iron (1977) and The Villain (1979).
Meanwhile, a screenwriter named Oliver Stone was struggling to get people interested in a movie of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and when he and producer Edward R. Pressman eventually sold the idea to Dino De Laurentis, the famed producer subsequently hired John Milius to re-write and direct.
Milius was, and remains, an interesting figure: although he was coming off the commercial failure of his personal surfer movie Big Wednesday (1978), his writing contributions to classic 1970s cinema were considerable.
Not only did he come up with some of the most memorable ideas in Apocalypse Now (1979), including the classic helicopter attack set to Wagner, but he also made telling contributions to Dirty Harry (1971) and Jaws (1975).
A self-described ‘Zen anarchist’, he also went on to join the board of the National Rifle Association and inspire the character of Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski (1998).
Conan the Barbarian represented an opportunity for Milius to indulge his passion for medieval fantasy and Nietzschean ideas about the will to power, and for Schwarzenegger was a perfect role for someone of his physique.
Set during a fictional prehistoric age, the story is about a young boy named Conan who witnesses the death of his parents at the hands of sinister warrior Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).
Later as a grown man he embarks on revenge, along with two fellow warriors Subotai (Gerry Lopez), Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) and the wizard Akiro (Mako), when a King (Max von Sydow) recruits him to rescue his daughter from the clutches of Doom.
I hadn’t seen Conan in many years and was surprised at how well it holds up as a fantasy romp, even though closer inspection of its underlying ideas might lead one to suspect that Milius identifies with the politics of Genghis Khan (the Mongol leader is even loosely quoted by the lead character at one point) .
Opening with an introductory quote by Nietzsche (“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”) we are quickly thrust into a world of beheadings, slavery, killer dogs, gladiatorial combat, orgies, cannibalism and people who worship large snakes.
By modern standards, it is refreshingly dark for a mainstream film and would probably struggle to get financed today in an era where major studios favour PG-13 entertainment.
Schwarzenegger fits the title role like a glove and his relative inexperience as an actor actually works in his favour, as the character of Conan feels more authentic due to his striking physicality and one-note acting.
Apparently on set Arnold told Milius that he would take directions like a trained dog and this actually makes perfect sense – not only did allay his worries about being a lead actor but it allowed him to focus on becoming a convincing medieval warrior.
The actors who play his cohorts (Lopez and Bergman) also suit their roles well and the presence of Earl Jones and Von Sydow in more intimidating roles lends a certain gravitas to proceedings.
Perhaps most memorable of all is the stunning use of various locations in Spain, using locations in Andalusia favoured by spaghetti westerns, which are augmented by some splendid production design, the centrepiece being a giant staircase built on a mountainside.
Then there is the enduring score by Basil Poledouris, which provides a rousing and wonderfully rich audio backdrop to the film – it proved so influential that it was subsequently used in many trailers for other movies.
It looks surprisingly sharp on Blu-ray (despite traces of grain) and although I don’t think the film has been fully restored, this is almost certainly the best it has ever looked.
There has been some controversy over how the BBFC have cut the film in the past.
The UK censor has a low tolerance policy for scenes showing animals getting hurt and Conan is an example of a film shot before more stringent production standards were adopted regarding the welfare of animals on set.
Some sequences where horses fell for real were cut by the BBFC for the home video release but fans of the film feel this screws up the continuity of some scenes, especially during one of the climactic fights.
However, UK viewers can access the uncut French version of the film by simply selecting that version on the root menu of the disc.
The commentary track featuring Milius and Schwarzenegger (originally recorded for the DVD release) is hilarious and filled with wonderful rambling anecdotes about the production and the ideas behind the film.
The extras are as follows:
- UK Theatrical Version (triggered from English Menu’s only)
- Commentary by Director John Milius & Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Deleted Scenes Sequence
- Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan
- Conan – Rise of the Fantasy Legend
- Special Effects Split Screen Video
- The Conan Archives
- Theatrical Trailers
- New Extra: Art of Steel: The Blacksmith & Swordsman: Examines the making of and significance of Conan’s Sword. (10mins)
- New Extra: Conan; From the Vault: Newly discovered interviews shot in 1982 with Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Milius, James Earl Jones and Sandhal Bergman. (10mins)
> Buy Conan the Barbarian on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Conan the Barbarian at the IMDb
> Find out more about the Conan character at Wikipedia