Conan the Barbarian and the Rise of Beefcake Cinema
He conquered an empire with his sword. She conquered HIM with her bare hands.
Slave. Barbarian. Warrior. Thief… Conan.
John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian is nothing if not title appropriate because barbarous is the only potent way of describing it. Based on a pulp fiction magazine of the same name, the movie version feels like it only adapted every other page, focusing on the violent and naughty bits instead of story, resulting in a movie with as many breasts as dead bodies.
A Game of Thrones episode (an overlong one) minus any semblance of a plot or political intrigue, Conan the Barbarian is a gigantic misadventure that, as the British might say, is a bloody waste of time.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as the eponymous Conan, and the film’s first major problem lies herein. Schwarzenegger surely looks the part with his hulking physique, but his screen presence doesn’t match up to the gravitas that’s needed of him, and that’s not due to the film’s lack of trying.
The film’s first 30 minutes are essentially a back-story for his character, documenting his parents’ death at the hands of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his introduction and escape from slavery, but at the end of it all, Conan is still a person without personality.
Schwarzenegger’s line delivery is often stilted and incomprehensible, and even the film’s use of voiceover narration is insufficient in making us fully understand him. We are left with a big brute of a man, and we have to literally project some characterization into him.
After he flees from slavery, Conan will meander around looking for a purpose, and the movie will feel exactly the same way. There’s even a ten-minute stretch in the movie where Conan will channel his inner Anthony Bourdain, going on a travel and food show where all he does is eat and take in the sights. It’s all very uneventful.
He eventually comes across like-minded individuals in Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), but their escapades feel arbitrary and entirely impromptu as well.
On a whim, they decide to scale a building in order to steal some treasure guarded within it for no other reason than because the script demanded it of them. Afterward, they are taken in by King Osric (Max von Sydow) and are given a mission to rescue his daughter. The movie goes on from there, but it doesn’t get any more coherent.
This kind of random storytelling was a calculated sacrifice on the part of the creators, choosing instead to indulge in epic violence and debauchery.
For example, the heist scene mentioned above was simply a thinly disguised excuse for Conan to battle a giant snake, à la Harry Potter, and to have a topless woman wearing a dangerously revealing diaper.
Some may argue that it was to lead up to narrative developments, but it can’t be argued that the movie, and this scene, wouldn’t have been far more taut and better paced if it didn’t take up such an excessive amount of time indulging in blood and breasts.
The over-two-hour running time and the uninspired plot are reason enough for Conan’s downfall, but what makes the movie so unbearable is the fact that it takes itself so damn seriously.
A piece of pulp fiction knows it is ridiculous and usually employs a bit of tongue in cheek, but Conan the Barbarian never does. Or does it (camel punch)?
Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Nothing much about the movie does.
- Justin Li
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.