Wednesday 12 January 2011

Movie Review: Conan The Barbarian (1982)

How does an Austrian bodybuilding champion with limited command of English embark on the path of movie superstardom? A movie that requires him to (a) say very little; (b) appear mostly shirtless; and (c) demonstrate strength by chopping people's head off, should do the trick.

And so Arnold Schwarzenegger takes the first few steps of a journey that would lead him to the absolute peak of the screen action hero mountain. In Conan The Barbarian he says perhaps ten words over the course of two hours. The medieval setting gives him the excuse to wear wild-man clothes, and to lose his shirt frequently. A couple of  enthusiastic sex scenes even allow him to go pantless as well. And the generally barbaric behaviour of everyone involved in the mythical story gives him license to slaughter with a sword en-mass, proving that when it comes to brute strength, Schwarzenegger has no competitors.

Conan The Barbarian is a simple story of revenge.  A peaceful village is sacked by a horse-riding, snake-worshiping tribe, under the leadership of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). A young boy witnesses both his parents killed, but survives the massacre. He is taken into slavery, gains enormous strength and swordsman skills, is given his freedom, becomes Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and sets off to avenge his parents. He teams up with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), also a skilled warrior, and they run across King Osric (Max Von Sydow). His daughter has been abducted by Thulsa Doom, now a leader of a large cult. Conan, Valeria and a couple of friends invade Doom's compound, free the King's daughter, and have a final confrontation to the death with the snake-charming Doom and his guards.

Conan The Barbarian aims for a grand, mythical, mystical, fog-shrouded mood. It achieves it in patches, and when it strikes the target, the film is engrossing. But just as often the film comes across as barely a notch above unintentional parody.

Schwarzenegger establishes unmistakable presence and commands the screen to the point that his lack of lines almost goes unnoticed.  James Earl Jones and the brief appearance of Max Von Sydow add weight to the film, making up for the largely inexperienced and unknown other cast members.

Director John Milius does well to surround his star with carnage.  The continuous gory blood-letting, body-part hacking, head-lopping and skull-crushing action works to immediately elevate Schwarzenegger into a larger than life character. He is one of the very few star-destined actors who could have possibly benefited from his kind of screen introduction, and he made the most of it.

Produced by the master of opportunity Dino De Laurentiis, Conan The Barbarian features a rich orchestral music score by Basil Poledouris. With the limited dialogue throughout the film, the soundtrack plays a prominent role in augmenting the on-screen action. Similar to the movie itself, the music walks a fine-line between serious grandness and self-bloated cheese. In this case, an appropriate description for the star, as well.

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