Saturday, May 14, 2022

What Is Best In Life? Conan at 40

When director Richard Donner was making Superman: The Movie, "verisimilitude," meaning the appearance of being true or real, was the watchword that he issued to every department, intending to ground his adaptation of the Man of Steel in reality as much as possible. As far as we know, writer/director John Milius never uttered that particular word in connection with his adaptation of Robert E. Howard's sword slinging pulp hero Conan the Barbarian but his goals were very much in sync with Donner's as his sword and sorcery epic feels rooted firmly in reality. Abetted by the production design of Ron Cobb (Alien), which imbues the walls and pillars of every tower and temple with the stamp of authenticity, Milius' depiction of Howard's fabled Hyborian Age feels taken from the pages of history more than it does pure myth making.

Released on May 14th, 1982, Conan the Barbarian was not officially considered to be a comic book adaptation but yet Conan had been a long running hit in the pages of Marvel Comics since 1970, headlining the main ongoing title of Conan the Barbarian as well as appearing in black and white magazines Savage Tales and The Savage Sword of Conan. Fans who had never read the original Conan tales from Howard, discovered a love of the Cimmerian through the popular adventures published by Marvel, which had been penned primarily by writer Roy Thomas and illustrated by the esteemed likes of Barry Smith and John Buscema. 

That Milius took his adaptation seriously wasn't just a validation of the pulp fiction it was sourced from but it also helped make the case that comic book material did not need to be a send up in order to appeal to a wider audience. In 1980, Flash Gordon had been an exercise in pure camp (an excellent one that came to be appreciated in time but was widely disparaged by fans then for its arch silliness) and with that film's producer, Dino DeLaurentiis, overseeing Conan, fans had some worries that the same fate might befall their favorite Barbarian so the earnest approach that Milius insisted on was a relief. The fact that Milius opened Conan with a Nietzsche quote confirmed within the first frames that he wasn't going to be playing this material for laughs. And there's no mistaking Basil Poledouris' stirring score as befitting anything other than an authentically epic adventure.

Today, it's hard to imagine that it was initially considered to be something of a gamble to pin this movie's success on whether former body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger could act because all the classic Conan lines here only sound right coming out of Schwarzenegger's mouth. When anyone quotes this movie, they are obliged to deliver those lines with their best Ah-nold impression. It's the only way to say them. For such a big movie, with so much riding on its success, the cast of Conan the Barbarian is an interesting mix of skilled vets like James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow and largely untrained novices like Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman and champion surfer Gerry Lopez, a buddy of Milius' whose lines were ultimately re-dubbed in post-production by stage actor Sab Shimono. But the mix works. All the components feel linked by Milius' vision. Everybody looks so right and seems completely irreplaceable in their role, even when their role is largely silent, like Valerie Quennessen as King Osric's daughter.

Critical response to Conan the Barbarian at the time was not overly enthusiastic, with much disdain expressed for Milius' violent epic. The most famous criticism being from Time Magazine critic Richard Schickel who described it as "a psychopathic Star Wars." As much as that wasn't meant as a compliment, any '80s teen at the time could have told you it only made Conan sound more metal. Universal should have used that quote in the TV spots. 


Heading into the summer of '82, Universal Studios boldly trumpeted their upcoming slate of films, courtesy of a classy two page ad in the spring issues of genre magazines like Cinefantastique and Twilight Zone that spotlighted everything from Cat People to John Carpenter's The Thing to Conan to The Dark Crystal, dubbing them "the future classics." As each of these films came out, though, only to - for the most part - crash and burn on top of being critically trashed, Universal's confidence looked a little premature. Eventually, the summer of '82 would come to be recognized as the Greatest Nerd Summer Ever but the perception at the time was that these films and many other would-be hits had fallen on their faces. Out of the six movies that Universal hyped, only E.T. had been an immediate critical and commercial success. The others would have to wait years for their reputations to improve.

 Unlike some of the others, though, Conan could at least claim to have been a box office success. It actually did perform well enough to make a profit for Universal, if not nearly on the level that, say, E.T. did. The fact is, as fondly recalled as the sword and sorcery fad of the early '80s is by Gen-X nerds who were there for it, it was a trend that never actually caught on, despite how hard studios kept trying to make it happen. The Sword and the Sorcerer, Beastmaster, Excalibur, Dragonslayer, Krull, you name it, it tanked. Conan was by far the biggest success of the bunch and even that was more muted than Universal had hoped for. But Crom cares not for these things. 

Even though Conan the Barbarian ended with the tantalizing promise of more tales to be told, things didn't quite pan out that way, with only one more sequel, 1984's Conan the Destroyer, being made, sans Milius' involvement, before Schwarzenegger moved on to other things. Milius has said that Conan was meant to be the start of a trilogy, which I'm sure would have been great, but I think Oliver Stone, who had penned the initial screenplay that Milius rewrote, really had the correct idea for the series when he said years later that "...The draft I wrote, Conan, the first one, I always undertook it as one of twelve. You know, I was thinking of like twelve movies. But unfortunately, I feel the producers of the movie misunderstood the real goal and that they sold it short. You know, Arnold should have come back every year or two years like James Bond, and done one."

But that, as they say, is another story.

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