MONGOL GENERAL: “Yes! That is good!”
Such is the philosophy of Conan the Barbarian, the 1982 adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s pulp tales of swords & sorcery, which is sweaty, primal, violent and mean. Memorable images include Arnold Schwarzenegger impaled on the “Tree of Woe” and defending himself against a prowling vulture with his bare teeth; Arnold screwing a she-witch in her tent before hurling her into a fireplace; Arnold decapitating a gigantic snake-beastie as well as an arch-nemesis (and, as a punctuation mark, throwing the villain’s head down a flight of stairs into the gaping crowd below); Arnold punching out a homosexual priest who is foolish enough to attempt seducing him; Arnold saying a pagan prayer to the Earth God, Crom, which he wraps up with, “If you don’t answer, then to hell with you!”
It’s a film painted in the colors of steaming blood and desert sand, with Schwarzenegger as an inarticulate, Nietzsche-inspired superman—and just so you don’t miss the point, the film opens with a quote from the 19th Century German philosopher: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger!” before launching into its Sturm und Drang drums and horns soundtrack and images of a sword being forged over fiery embers. Then for two hours plus, we’re in the realm of male-dominated machismo that makes no concessions to its “might makes right” philosophy. Unlike, say, John Rambo, a killing machine created by the American government trying to navigate his way through the mess of politics and post-Vietnam culture wars, Conan has no such confusion. He exists to avenge himself on his enemies and have a little sex and mayhem along the way; once that task is accomplished, there’s little else in the way of character development.
Eventually, we learn in Barbarian’s denouement, this brute marauder earns a kingdom of his own, but that is another story. Since Conan lacks all ambition other than “crush enemies, see them driven before you, etc,” you have to imagine the heads that must have rolled and the skulls piling up in his wake. While some audiences might not enjoy Barbarian for its single-minded savagery, at least one can acknowledge it stays true to its perversely threatening code of ethics. It’s entertaining in the same way an illegal dogfight is, though its epic magnitude keeps it from feeling like a sick little cult film. As a product of the Reagan years, there’s no sanitized dilution here—the invasion of Grenada was done in the spirit of Conan the Barbarian.
Conan the Barbarian must have done well at the box office, because two years later in the bright and fuzzy summer of 1984, a sequel emerged. The PG-rated storybook fantasy Conan the Destroyer bore little resemblance to its predecessor. Conan’s mission this time is, on behalf of an ice queen (Sarah Douglas), to obtain a magical gem from a shimmering crystal palace and to recapture a sacred horn from a big furry guy in a Halloween mask. The horn can only be touched by a virginal brat princess, and even though she is assigned a bodyguard (Wilt Chamberlain), we assume our once-lusty barbarian will be able to control his desires such that her virgin knot remains “unsullied” (yes, they use that very word) until the task is completed. It’s telling that Schwarzenegger has zero chemistry with 15-year old Olivia d’Abo—when she asks him to be with her, his flippant response is, “I will have my own kingdom; my own queen.”
Though our superman remains stoic and taciturn, he has comic-relief sidekicks in the form of a bumbling thief (Tracey Walter) and a sulky wizard (Mako, returning from Barbarian, only now instead of being the weird guy living in a desert shack who intones creepily under his breath, he’s a stumbling, sputtering exposition flunky). The colors of the film are bright and pastel, and even as the adventurers cross the desert, most of the costumes look like the Renaissance faire foppery of Krull mixed with the big hairdos of Footloose. There’s some ridiculous stunt casting in the form of basketball legend Chamberlain as “Bombatta, Captain of the Guard” and singer-model-icon Grace Jones as an Amazon who seems tough and vicious but deep down has a heart of gold—because in the PG-universe of Destroyer, the good guys have to be clearly delineated as wholesome, as opposed to the hunt ’n’ slash maniacs populating the hard-R rated Barbarian.
Let’s face it, there’s plenty wrong with the so-called wholesome entertainment of the mid-1980s, particularly sequels that seemed generated towards creating silly jokes and purposefully watered down blockbuster movies as a means of ignoring deep-rooted problems in the culture, and even negating the movies that came before. For example, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (released in 1982, the same year as Conan the Barbarian) showed half the young crew blasted to smithereens and Spock slowly rotting away to his death from radiation poisoning. It tapped into our then-current fears of nuclear annihilation, whereas Star Trek III: The Search for Spock denied us the legitimate sadness we felt for a TV icon sacrificing himself for the needs of the many by saying, “Don’t worry—be happy! He’s not really dead!” The sequel was corny, safe and saccharine. Even if the Klingon bastard killed Kirk’s son, it felt like a concession because people didn’t like the whiny actor inhabiting the role.
To have a happy-go-lucky, frolicking adventuresome vibe in Conan the Destroyer feels antithetical to a story where the main character is identified as a “destroyer.” Since former director John Milius was off helming his loony “the Russians are coming” paranoid action-melodrama Red Dawn, the Conan series was passed along to conventional, toe-the-line studio hack Richard Fleischer and screenwriters included Stanley Mann (who wrote the equally mediocre and unmemorable Meteor and Firestarter) and Gerry Conway (who went on to write for the Saturday morning cartoon versions of G.I.Joe, Transformers and My Little Pony). In other words, we aren’t getting the cigar-chomping, right-wing fever-dream mania of a Milius. We aren’t even receiving the soft version, but a revised and generalized template that is devoid of anything that made Conan the Barbarian interesting in the first place. What it leaves us with are a few routine James Bond-style adventures set in a world of castles and princesses. The only thing missing are unicorns drinking from a bucolic lake. You’d never recognize this as the work of Robert E. Howard, the originator of the Conan character, who was a chronic depressive who looked at his eventual suicide as an escape from hell on earth.
Not that doom and gloom is the only way to portray Conan, but if you’re to say this is the story about a “barbarian” or a “destroyer” and then make him a wry, self-effacing chucklehead, it seems like a step in the wrong direction. Schwarzenegger had not yet honed his public image as a smart-ass Johnny Carson of action films, but Conan the Destroyer does show his first parlay in that direction. The jokes aren’t particularly inspired beyond the sitcom level, but Schwarzenegger seems game—when the bratty princess notices six swordsmen are attacking the lone Grace Jones, Conan wrinkles his brow and says, “One…two…three…I think you’re right!” Insert studio audience laugh track here. Let’s not say anything about the scene where Jones, the ultimate warrior, is terrified by the sight of a mouse.
Ah, yes, 1984—the summer when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom begat the PG-13 rating, when we were still allowed to see the bad guy tear out the beating heart of his victim, causing many a nightmare. This was also the summer of Gremlins, where a Norman Rockwell small town is transformed into a battleground by cackling green puppets. Where the heroine of Purple Rain, at Prince’s encouragement, strips and purifies herself in what she thinks is Lake Minnetonka. But even though there was a smattering of sex and violence, most of the entertainment felt milder. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai was weird, but not anarchic like Repo Man. The Karate Kid was delightfully optimistic for a movie that resolves itself by having the hero toughen up enough to punch out the bad guy (ditto that for Rocky III). Revenge of the Nerds was one of the last gasps of quality sex comedies in the age of AIDS.
There must have been some kind of sea change between 1982 and 1984, because the movies felt softer, less aggressive. Sergio Leone had Once Upon a Time in America, which is as operatically violent as his Spaghetti westerns, but you had to search far and wide to find his cut of the picture instead of the bowdlerized studio version. I was 10-years-old that summer, and was still excited by the stuff I’d seen in the early 1980s—John Boorman’s Excalibur, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, George Miller’s The Road Warrior, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Most of them I saw through having a friend tape them off of HBO, or catching them on broadcast television with all the swear words taken out. These movies felt like kid fantasies in a way, but ones that existed in a dark and grown-up world. If you read classic fairy tales, often they’re uncompromising and dark, and even as they resolve themselves with a moral, you feel like you’ve been through some kind of great wilderness.
Conan the Barbarian is tied in with those memories, but that was one I was able to catch in an actual movie theater, on a big screen, mainly because my grandfather had strange ideas about what qualified as children’s entertainment (I don’t think I was four years old when he showed me Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man and King Kong, mostly because those were the movies he loved when he was a child.) But Barbarian made an impression on me, because like those other dark fantasy films I rambled off earlier, it placed you in another world, a wildly imaginative place of id, where anything was possible. Even if I didn’t understand it, I felt it in my guts. But even seeing the previews for Conan the Destroyer, you knew it was going to be like the sitcoms on television that I flat out avoided.
As a kid, you know when something is being dumbed-down in order to be palatable, and usually it’s something children resent, not because they want to be exposed to the terrors of the world, but because they’re remarkably intuitive. While I wouldn’t advise setting any version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in front of a child, since it’s too viscerally shocking, there’s something in Conan the Barbarian that feels larger than life, larger than the confines of a small town or a rural school. Most children have read storybooks and know which ones feel right and which ones feel like they’re selling you something puny and insubstantial.
I didn’t even bother seeing Conan the Destroyer in theaters because I knew in my heart that they got it wrong. Instead, I caught Ghostbusters and Gremlins, and sadly didn’t catch up with Top Secret! until a decade later. When I did see Destroyer, it was on VHS—again, taped off of cable by a friend—and I was pretty underwhelmed. I don’t know if I fully understood the word “compromised,” but I sure felt the stink of it emanating from the small screen. Guess learning that chestnut of wisdom is all part of growing up, suckers.