I have slightly modified the way I write these reviews. I'll
only do in-depth detail of the film if there isn't a guide entry already. After all – it's a DVD review not a film review.
'Fear not, he who wields this in the name of Crom'
(taken from Conan's sword)
A DVD review of Conan the Barbarian 1 Disc Special Edition DVD
As a young, easily influenced child growing up, I remember very little. A long day in front of the TV interspersed with sleeping and school was basically my life (still is when I come to think about it). As a child, I watched many films few of which I can remember clearly. That is of course, bar one.
My clearest memory of a film from my early childhood goes like this. There's a big turning wheel, with lots of kids pushing it. The weather changes several times until all the children are gone, apart from one hulking form. Then the music starts up and for the first time in the film, a set of deep blue eyes that hold a feral brutality too them stare back at you.
Those eyes belonged to the young Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first film role after pumping iron. I, of course, knew nothing of this. To me he was just this immense human that looked like he could punch his way through brick walls. I also, of course, knew nothing of Robert E Howard. All will be revealed shortly.
So it was that I went to my local DVD shop before Christmas and went hunting for a good film to watch. This resulted in nothing. However, something had caught my eye. A gold tint on a sword. A closer inspection revealed the hulking barbarian starring back at me. I smiled sadly, realising I would never be able to afford the great Conan. I checked the price casually and was over joyed to see a five pound sale label slapped on it. That'll do me nicely!
The origins of Conan
To understand the origins of Conan you first have to understand Robert E Howard. Robert was a brilliant writer, although he unfortunately was slightly nuts (depending on which source you look at). Living in Texas, America during the 1930's, the director tells us tales about Roberts antics – such as boarding up his house so that no one could get in, and also arming himself with various weapons because he thought people in the village where he lived were after him.
But what really captured my imagination when it comes to this writer is the story of how Conan came about, which I will attempt to recount here.
Robert was sat at his desk late one night with writers block. Try as he might he just couldn't write anything. He then felt a sudden chill go up his spine. He didn't turn around at all, but he knew someone was behind him. He knew instantly that this figure was the towering Conan of the Cimmeria wielding a gigantic axe. Robert then set to work, recounting Conan's tale in full and writing until morning, not once turning around because he knew that if he did, Conan would surely
slice his head off. As the sun rose, Robert realised that Conan had gone, and so prepared a bed by his desk, because he knew that when night came again, so would Conan.
Although this seems rather fanciful, I hope that it's true.
Robert wrote most of Conan's tales over the course of a few weeks. Combined with the fact that Robert hadn't written a story in months and you get a combination that, like Conan, may not be true - but is certainly believable1.
The DVD case
When I first looked at the DVD case itself I was a little disappointed. There's no flashy graphics, funky free photos or even a nice booklet. But then again when I think about it that's a bit like Conan. No fancy gimmicks – what you see is what you get. The cover is a picture of Arnold holding the sword he finds in the film in front of his face so that only half is visible. On the back there's a brief synopsis of the film. On the inside there's another picture of Arnie with a sword, alongside chapter numbers.
Nothing to write home about. Ill give it a five out of ten mainly because I see this kind of case as average, neither adding nor detracting from the film inside.
I know I said I wasn't going too, but I'm going to have to go through some of my favourite bits from the film.
The film opens in suitably epic fashion. A black screen with a few titles, and a deep booming voice speaks out, setting the scene for the story. The voice finishes perfectly with the line:
'Let me tell you a tale of high adventure.'
From there the viewer is thrown, head first, into a maelstrom of violence. The first scene is the sacking of Conan's village. The young boy Conan has to watch as his father is killed defending the village, and his mother dies after being hypnotised by the mesmerising Thulsa Doom (played by the wonderful James Earl Jones). The story carries on, and the kids are all taken away to a big turning thing in the desert (More details can be found above, but after all these years I still have no idea what its for). The huge Conan is then take away to the fighting pits, where he quickly learns how to kill, becoming rather good at it too. As a prize for all this, he is taken to Khitai (Japan basically), where he is taught the art of warfare and the martial arts.
It is at this point where Arnold speaks his first line. There are several men in a tent, all dressed in armour and the like. Conan is sat raised up in the centre of the tent. Then one of the men asks:
'What is best in life?'
One of the men steps forward confidently, and recounts what he believes is best in life. Some of the men nod in agreement. The man who asked the question shouts wrong at him, then asks Conan the question:
'To crush your enemies, to drive them before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.'
The speed and fluidity that he delivers the line leaves you in no doubt as to how Conan thinks. He is a barbarian. Don't spill his pint.
From there the story takes you across several beautiful and fantastical locations, such as a tomb where Conan finds the skeleton of a long dead king and a beautiful sword, to the full sized temple of doom on the side of a mountain. This film truly was the beginning of a genre.
Through his quest Conan comes across various ne'er-do-wells who aid and hinder his quest. The first is Subotai, played by Garry Lopez in his first screen roll. Subotai is basically the sidekick, offering the viewer a more thinking and less motivated character. He is Conan's archer and missile support, and the role is played brilliantly. Subotai is clearly the thinker, but gives way to Conan's confident knowledge.
Our second Hero is Valeria, played by Sandahl Bergman. Her brilliance in the film, and in turn her popularity, lead to a spin off called Red Sonja. Please don't bother finding Red Sonja; it's a bit of a let down. Anyway back to the task at hand. Conan and Subotai meet her at the base of the tower of snakes, said to contain a legendary jewel. So the trio go off and steal it, with Conan taking the spoils. He then gives it to Valeria, and the romance blossoms from there. She is described as a Valkerye on the DVD extras, and this is a perfect description - a commanding and sensual woman on screen, a rarity in action films.
James Earl Jones plays a fantastic Thulsa Doom. Thulsa Doom is literally a demi-god of sorts, able to transform into a snake at will. The actors voice is perfectly suited to the character, his commanding voice dominates all around him and, when combined with a soft swaying motion, Thulsa Doom really does become godlike and mesmerising. The sheer presence of James Earl Jones on screen is amazing, and I simply can't imagine anyone else playing the role.
There are several other supporting actors such as Mako2 who plays a wonderfully amusing wizard. Then there's the two 'great Danes' - Sven Ole Thorsen and Ben Davidson play Thorgrim and Rexor, Thulsa Doom's answer to the heavily muscled Barbarian. They play Thulsa's henchmen who run around and try and thwart Conan. The only line they have (besides charging roars) is 'you' by Rexor when he sees Conan.
It's at this point where we come to the man himself. Now many people may doubt his acting abilities. Fair enough I say to them. But it is in Conan where we see Arnolds' true on-screen potential. Its still amazing that now, after what must be over a decade of Conan, I still get a tingle from watching him in action. Having read some of the stories about Conan, its clear that our hero simply isn't the idiot barbarian.
Whether it's talking to someone he passes or slicing a guard up with his sword, there's an aura of power – both physical ad mental – that leaps from the screen. My most memorable Arnie moment has to be the raid on Thulsa's temple. Conan and his two partners have broke into the
temple. Valeria and Subodai leg it when they have what they came for (a girl enchanted by Thulsa Doom). However, Conan stays behind and faces Rexor and Thorgrim. The small section where Arnold side steps and raises his sword and arms so that they are parallel to the ground is just breathtaking every time. Whether it's the black and white camouflage pattern on his body, or sheer amount of muscle this guy has, I don't think I'll ever know. But watching it, the audience knows what's going to happen next – and that makes it all the more enjoyable.
The films itself has little dialogue, a point which in many case would let the film down. In this case, however, a detailed and encapsulating score changes this magnificently, and due credit must go to Basil Poledouris for making Conan the film it is.
Overall – well I'm not ashamed to admit my bias. I've always thought that this was one of the greatest action films of all time, and it's a beautiful contrast to the modern gun romp that can at times be tedious. I'll give it a 9 out of 10.
Deleted scenes – There's only one deleted scene, and I'm so glad it was cut. It shows King Osric (the guy who sends Conan and friends on a mission to save his daughter from Thulsa doom) being stabbed. This fails completely but is quite amusing to watch the same guy get stabbed repeatedly as they try to get the blood bags to burst correctly only to fail each time.
Documentaries – 'Conan Unchained' is your basic 'Making Of...' documentary. It's a lot better then the usual in that it uses
images and footage you wouldn't normally see instead of relying on just film clips and stills. It's great to watch a film where each member of the cast and crew talks honestly and openly about their pride in the film. The reams of facts are generously interspersed with comic stories. Like the wheel in the beginning sequence being so well balance that, when it was first pushed by Arnie (who was told to push it as
hard as he could), it swung round and smacked him. Or even the story about Sandahl Bergman having her finger sliced off in a swordplay sequence. Probably one of the best and most entertaining documentaries on a DVD for a while now, and I'd be quite happy to watch that if I didn't have time to watch the movie.
The rest – These include some little bits like production notes, cast details and the trailers all of which add little glimpses into the characters and the actors. Although of course these aren't fabulous and won't be that interesting to many people, fans of Conan and indeed anyone who likes the film will be suitably satisfied with these few extras. I have to admit I didn't watch the entire commentary. The first half hour I listened too were interesting, and it's good to hear a director talk about his own work with his leading actor – but it's harder to be drawn into what's being said due to what's happening on screen.
Overall – the main bulk of the extras are the documentary and, for its age, it's a credit to the film. I'll give it a 6 mainly because the extras are limited to the documentary and the commentary, which isn't all that fantastic.
Conan will always hold a high place on my shelf of DVD's. Bullet time shootouts and hordes of CGI elves and goblins are all lovely and nice. But there's times when you really want to watch a film that's basic. A film where a guy getting his head chopped off isn't all in one take, and where blood is bright red. John Milius has captured Conan brilliantly, and the casting is nothing less then spot on.
9 out of 10 overall.
Well next weeks review will be for Conan the Destroyer, the sequel to Conan the Barbarian, and I'm happily looking forward to it.
Well I sit here feeling like the great Robert E Howard himself. It is dark and late and I'm exhausted. So now I sign off, as I know that when night comes again – Conan will be waiting for me also. My only hope is that I have done Howard, the film and Conan justice.