There’s a moment, early in Conan the Barbarian, when Arnold Schwarzenegger is wandering around some ancient city, high on some mysterious substance, giggling with his Mongol archer sidekick. He takes a few steps backwards and then stumbles into a camel. Without really looking at what he’s doing, he wheels around and punches the camel in the face. The camel reels, goes down on its front knees, and then keels all the way over. The camel didn’t even do anything. Conan just knocked it out for no reason. With one punch. A camel. If you’ve never seen this movie, I hope I’ve sold you on it by now.
Honestly, the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian could use a few more moments like that camel punch. The movie has the same problem a lot of ‘80s swords-and-sandals movies have: There are long stretches where nothing happens and it’s just Conan wandering the desert while heroic music blares or whatever. This is not exactly a fast-paced movie, and if you watch it slightly groggy from a long work day, you will fall asleep. A little more comedy would’ve gone a long way.
But Conan is actually a deeply funny movie, in ways that aren’t always intentional. There are the obvious bits of goofiness, sure, like the noises Schwarzenegger makes when he’s being wounded or the fact that his Mongol buddy is played by an American surfer with no previous acting experience who really seems like an American surfer with no previous acting experience. But the best comedy in the movie is of the “wait, what happened?” variety. Consider, if you will, the scene where Conan meets a witch. He’s looking for a clue to find the warlord who killed his family and his village, and she says she’ll tell him only if he gives her what she needs. So they fuck, and she gives him that information mid-sex. Immediately afterward, she turns into a demon, and he casually throws her into a pit of fire, where she then becomes a cackling fireball and flies away. And we don’t see her again! But her information is good! It’s like they finished writing the movie and someone said, “Shit, we forgot to throw a witch in there. Can we make one of these characters a witch? Like the lady who really wants to fuck Conan?”
It’s entirely possible that this is what happened. Oliver Stone, of all people, co-wrote the movie, and he was reportedly deep in a drug haze when he wrote it. His initial idea —Conan fighting an army of mutants in a post-apocalyptic future— could’ve honestly been awesome, even if it would’ve made no sense at all for it to be a Conan movie. Instead, super-intense macho right-wing director John Milius —the man who later made Red Dawn and who served as the model for the John Goodman character in The Big Lebowski— directed it, making it a gnarly superman tale that opens with a Nietzsche quote. When Conan came out, plenty of critics panned it for being fascistic, and SPOILER, it does end with the Germanic-accented white muscleman throwing James Earl Jones’s head down some temple stairs. But Conan the character doesn’t really seem like someone you’d want to be. Instead, he’s a big, dumb lug who’s great at killing people and who cares less about ridding the world of an evil giant-snake cult than of just avenging his village and then moving the fuck on. (I do, however, like the idea of co-writers Milius and Stone hacking away at this script and trying not to bring up politics with each other.)
Robert E. Howard, the troubled pulp-fiction genius who invented the Conan character, was a friend and contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, and he wrote some truly great brain-wriggling incomprehensible-terror stories of his own. With Conan, he came up with the sort of character —impossibly strong and brutish but also cunning and resourceful— who could survive in a world populated by old, dark gods. The Conan of Milius and Schwarzenegger was something else, mostly because Schwarzenegger was headlining his first real big movie and because he hadn’t yet figured out how to convey things like “cunning and resourceful.” It took everything he had just to pronounce English words in ways that Americans could understand. Schwarzenegger is fun to watch in the role, mostly because he’s quiet and determined and because he looks even more absurdly muscular than the pulp-novel covers he embodied. But every time he has to do something like laugh or yell or get upset, it’s basically goes like: “Yee.” In fact, all the acting in the movie is pretty egregious, including Max von Sydow, showing up totally unmotivated for one of those “wait, why are you here?” one-scene cameos. Only James Earl Jones does what you could even charitably call “good acting,” and Jones is really just being Darth Vader, so it’s not that hard.
But the movie gets something from Milius that its various imitators, your Beastmasters and your Kull the Conquerors, never quite managed. From Howard, it gets its sense of awe and ferocity, letting you know that this world you’re seeing is a more savage place than you could comprehend. The movie’s opening raid, with Conan’s mom being beheaded right in front of him, is some deeply upsetting filmmaking. And soon enough, when baby Conan becomes Schwarzenegger the fighting-pit-dominating gladiator, you totally buy him as an unstoppable brute who doesn’t even care about the difference between life and death. When Conan escapes and gains a modicum of self-awareness, the movie keeps its grandeur and its brutality in place. Water balloons of fake blood seem to explode out of every extra who Schwarzenegger grazes with his sword, and he can’t even sneak into a snake-temple without booming, heroic music screaming from the soundtrack.
Of the two Conan movies that Schwarzenegger made, I honestly prefer the less-loved Conan the Destroyer, from 1984, if only because it’s sillier and stupider. (It features Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones and Andre the Giant in a rubber monster costume and Conan punching that same camel again.) But the Milius original is more true to the dark, heavy mythos of the character, and it’s a more singular action movie. It changed things, giving Schwarzenegger the springboard he needed to stardom and creating a market for movies about musclebound dudes who swing swords over their heads in deserts. And it takes itself seriously in ways that movies this dumb rarely do. That alone is enough to make it a classic.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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