1982 was a great year to be alive if you had a thing for burly men, scantily clad women, massive edge weapons and fantastical shenanigans galore. It may not have been the year responsible for starting the Sword & Sorcery craze of the 1980s – 1981 had EXCALIBUR and CLASH OF THE TITANS going for it – but it is certainly the banner year for the genre with films like THE BEASTMASTER, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER and CONAN THE BARBARIAN all seeing release. It was a rather strange genre, targeted at a very specific (i.e. male) audience that wasn’t all that discerning about age. For every family friendly fantasy romp like CLASH OF THE TITANS, there were at least a half dozen hard R rated films like EXCALIBUR or CONAN THE BARBARIAN. And none were quite as iconic as Conan.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN was based off of stories published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, dating back to the 1930s. Like John Milius’s film, the stories were excessive in content – for their time – and targeted a demographic with vested interest in fantasy stories. But the similarities would really end there. Milius and Oliver Stone – who wrote the script for the film – created a boldly aggressive work that made the character more in line with overtly masculine, violent cinema contemporaries like the Milius scripted DIRTY HARRY or DEATH WISH. Conan in cinema was a brute in the basest of ways. Portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger – who was then far from a household name – the character was mean, sexist and overbearing. Hardly the type of character that most audiences would empathize with, let alone champion. But they did.
Milius’s film is a revenge tale, which is a rather universal concept. And was a big trend in cinema at the time, especially genre cinema. The theme of revenge transgressed genre in the 1970s, with vengeance rearing its head in horror (CARRIE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT), crime (DEATH WISH, GET CARTER), western (THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, HANNIE CAULDER) and even non-genre-cinema offerings like THE GODFATHER or ANIMAL HOUSE sharing in the chaos. CONAN THE BARBARIAN primarily functions on this level – with the titular character seeking vengeance for the murder of his parents – and works more so via the conventions of revenge/genre cinema than it does so within the typical paradigm of a Sword & Sorcery film. Rather than amplifying the more cartoonish or fantastical elements of their story, Milius and Stone revel in its real world ideals and grit – which should be no surprise considering their previous work – making CONAN THE BARBARIAN not only a strange star vehicle for the then newcomer Schwarzenegger but an odd film for a studio like Universal to sink tens of millions of dollars into.
What really sets the film apart from its Sword & Sorcery brethren isn’t just its genre leanings, but its overall candor. CONAN THE BARBARIAN is an ugly film – refreshingly ugly, I may say – calling to mind the decrepit wasteland of something like MAD MAX as seen through the eyes of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s far from the sparkly sets and vistas of work like WILLOW or LEGEND, which would appear towards the end of the decade when things seemed to tame a bit, and it’s not quite as streamlined as something with more of a focus on period like EXCALIBUR. Milius’s film seems to portray and belong to a time that doesn’t exist all while not conforming to the genre in which it most – and most wants – to belong to. It’s sort of a bastard child of convention and abandon, with all of its piss and vinegar front and center for the world to see (and see again and again and again). Few films this mean spirited and seemingly ignorant of any audience have found commercial success, let alone enough of it to justify sequels, a remake, video games, comics and countless other interpretations or addenda. When all was said and done, Conan crushed his enemies and heard the lamentations of everyone, not just the women.