It's no secret that I love fantasy films, but it's probably fair to say that before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy came along, the genre had a rather mixed reputation in Hollywood. Most of its best known entries like Hawk the Slayer, Beastmaster, and Willow were considered mediocre at best, and they usually fall into the "guilty pleasure" category for a lot of viewers today. By far the most infamous member of this lineup is the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Conan the Barbarian, a film that was destined for countless parodies (including a fake preview for a sequel called Conan the Librarian in Weird Al's movie UHF) and was panned for straying from its source material long before the name "Tauriel" ever hit IMDb.
I saw this film for the first time just a few years ago, and I didn't exactly think the world of it going in either. In fact, I really just rented it for a laugh. It's an Arnie flick from the '80's, right? How good could it be? Suffice to say, I completely fell in love with the film and became so immersed in its drama that I actually got choked up when one of the heroes died three-fourths of the way through the story. Yes, Conan the Barbarian tugged at my heartstrings. I can't believe I just admitted that on the internet.
Looking back on all the jabs that this film's taken over the years, I have to wonder now: Is Conan the Barbarian a good movie? Has it been judged unfairly all this time, or does it deserve the mockery? Did it only impress me because I went in with severely low expectations that were easy to exceed? I've done a good bit of research since my first viewing, so let's see if I find an answer today.
For starters, there are a lot of undeniably good elements in the movie. The soundtrack in particular is amazing, one of the best ones out there, and the cinematography does an excellent job in conveying the grand scope of the setting. The special effects are also competently done for the most part, despite the limitations before CGI.
I'll even go out on a limb and say that the acting is halfway decent. Arnold can turn out a suitable performance under the right circumstance, and honestly, playing a big, awkward tough guy who doesn't say much is the right circumstance for him. It also helps that the supporting cast is able to pick up the slack and carry the more emotional scenes.
The main deciding factor for me though is the film's story.
It should be noted that Conan the Barbarian came out in the early '80's, right before Arnold Schwarzenegger and Reagan-era action films really became popular. Because of that, I think it narrowly avoided that over-the-top cheesy vibe that most of Arnold's other movies have. The filmmakers took it seriously, so the film ended up having a sense of dignity and weight to it. It's sequel Conan the Destroyer, however, did fall victim to that over-the-top '80's cheese and was a complete mess. And really, I think that sequel is a huge part of the issue. A lot of people probably regard Barbarian as a silly movie because they either lump it together with Destroyer in their heads or just get the two films confused.
That doesn't mean Barbarian is without its silly moments, though. There are some slapstick jokes and shots with hammy mugging sprinkled here and there, plus Arnold drops a one-liner or two that feel rather out of place. One scene that I never found necessary is when Conan steals a cult priest's robes in order to infiltrate the villain's fortress. He starts a friendly conversation with the priest and then slyly asks if they can continue the discussion in private, to which the priest agrees. I always thought the scene should have ended there and then cut to Conan already marching to the fortress in the priest's robes, much like how the scenes of him killing wolves for their fur and another character stealing a priestess's robes are just implied. Instead, we get an extra clip where the characters go to that private spot, Conan makes more idle chit-chat, knocks out the priest, then says a snide remark about it. That bit just feels like it was thrown in for a cheap laugh and doesn't really add anything.
On the other hand, some of the silly scenes do add something to the story. There's a scene earlier where Conan and his friend Subotai are wandering through the streets drunk and the former punches out a camel that's in his way, drawing a ton of stares from nearby witnesses. This would be pretty stupid and pointless on its own, but Subotai's comment afterwards that Conan is "too big to be a thief," actually turns it into an establishing plot point. Up until this moment, both the film and Conan's peers totally glorify his senseless violent behavior. By suddenly putting him in a situation where violence is uncalled for and garners negative attention, the film demonstrates that its hero's greatest strength is actually a flaw. He's a brute who charges head-on into everything without thinking, and that gets him into trouble later in the story. The whole point of his character arc is that he learns to be stealthy and strategic and becomes something greater than a barbarian by the end, and without that camel scene, this arc wouldn't have been properly set up.
Also, for all the goofy moments, there are just as many serious ones. I mentioned before that the movie was very loosely adapted from another medium, namely a series of stories by Robert E. Howard. A few scenes and subplots in the movie are taken directly from Howard's works, most notably the storyline with Conan's love interest Valeria, and while they're fairly simple, they're done quite well. My only gripe with that storyline is that Conan says virtually nothing to Valeria in any of their scenes--her name isn't even said once in the whole film--so their moments together do tend to feel one-sided.
As for the serious material that was written strictly for the movie...the subtext is usually stronger than what's said onscreen. I was never exactly clear on how the "Riddle of Steel" storyline was resolved since the characters stop talking about it after Act 2, but their actions convey an idea that's close enough to what was intended. I strongly recommend watching the DVD commentary, as director John Milius gives a lot of insight into the symbolism and character motivations throughout the film, but since you shouldn't have to watch a movie with footnotes to fully understand it, I still have to fault it.
So what's my verdict on Conan the Barbarian? Well, it depends on what version of the movie you watch. The original theatrical cut is the version normally shown on TV, and many of the deeper scenes are missing because the studio felt they broke up the action too much and made the film boring. That's a rant for another time. The version on the DVD has those scenes restored, and while they still don't make the movie Oscar-worthy, I think they do make it far better. Bottom line, the original cut merits way more teasing than the restored one, but both versions deserve a higher respect for what they're trying to do. I say it's a good movie.
But the 2011 reboot should be crucified on the Tree of Woe.