Never one for subtlety, writer-director John Milius opens his 1982 action adventure film Conan The Barbarian with a quote from Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” The two hours and change that follow are an object lesson in killing, strength, and the effect-and-cause relationship between them. Conan The Barbarian has warriors, sacrificial virgins, growling kings, giant snakes, a little magic, and a lot of blood; it also has Arnold Schwarzenegger for a lead, in a role that would prove pivotal in the performer’s transition from charismatic body-building prop to full-fledged star. The script, written by Oliver Stone and rewritten by Milius, follows a revenge plot that uses names and some plot details from the original Conan stories by pulp writer Robert E. Howard. Milius’ stamp on the material is clear from the Nietzsche quote onward, though, and in case the words of a long-dead German philosopher weren’t convincing enough, the pounding brass of Basil Poledouris’ music should drive the message home: This is fantasy, but the shit is real.
That seriousness is Barbarian’s biggest saving grace. Milius’ central theme, the power of the self-made man and the rejection of the spiritual in favor of the concrete, doesn’t have much depth (onscreen, it translates to, “When in doubt, stab something”), but his commitment to that theme means a movie that never dabbles in camp, the genre’s usual Achilles’ heel. Barbarian has a ponderous grace in its best moments, by turns thrilling and contemplative, and Poledouris’ tremendous score adds power and majesty to shots of musclebound performers running across open fields. The cast, largely made up of athletes chosen for their physical presence, is game enough, providing visual proof of Milius’ might-makes-right ethos, and as Thulsa Doom, James Earl Jones is a mesmerizing, memorable villain, at times more compelling than the movie’s nominal lead.
That’s a problem. Barbarian’s big flaw is also the main reason it’s remembered today. In the title role, Schwarzenegger looks the part, but isn’t entirely convincing as the man who becomes king by his own hand. He only has a handful of lines, which is for the best, but while his screen presence and general goofiness works fine in the film’s early sections, his transition to vengeance-driven warrior never comes off, and the character never seems like much more than a thug with better friends than he deserves. This undercuts Milius’ thematic intentions significantly, but on the whole, Barbarian is strong enough that it can survive a less-than-compelling hero.
The same can’t be said of the movie’s sequel, Conan The Destroyer. Made two years later without Milius, Destroyer makes all the mistakes Barbarian avoided. Dropping the first movie’s grim approach to achieve an audience-friendly rating, the sequel goes for a lighter, more overtly humorous tone, with multiple characters serving as increasingly unnecessary comic relief. The jokes are broad and obvious, and the story, which has Conan serving as bodyguard for a precocious princess (Olivia D’Abo) with the aid of Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain, moves predictably from one flat setpiece to the next. Destroyer isn’t significantly worse than most sword-and-sorcery pictures unleashed on theaters in the ’80s, but it isn’t better, either, and Schwarzenegger, in the process of perfecting the smugness that defined his ’80s ascension to superstardom, fits in all too well. Barbarian lays it on thick in spots, but at least it manages to tell its story without smirking.
Key features: Both films look great on Blu-ray. Barbarian ports over the collector-edition DVD material (including a hilarious Milius/Schwarzenegger commentary), and adds a pair of new behind-the-scenes features. Destroyer has a trailer.