Written by Kristoffer Tronerud

USA, 1982. 129 min. UA/ Dino De Laurentiis Pictures. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, Mako; Music: Basil Poledouris; Cinematography: Duke Callaghan; Production Design: Ron Cobb; Based on Stories by: Robert Howard; Screenplay: Oliver Stone, John Milius; Directed by: Milius

“I’m a Zen Fascist” John Milius once famously remarked, and, while his tongue was firmly planted in cheek, that description goes a long way in explaining the unique appeal of this very talented and likable rogue artist. While it may take courage to be left of center in the country at large, in Hollywood, the conservative is the true maverick, and, as a director and screenwriter, Milius has paid a price for his cheerful unwillingness to toe a politically correct line for Tinseltown convenience. Still, it is a big mistake to paint Milius with the broad brush of the political simplemindedness of, say, a John Wayne or a Jack Webb. From the start of his career, Milius’s projects have evidenced a complexity and thoughtfulness that make such easy classification impossible. His work embraces the reality that men and women are different and that courage and violence are sometimes unavoidable and necessary, in a way that makes knee-jerk liberals uncomfortable, but his work also betrays a tenderness and respect for women and a keen sense of the limits of the macho ideal that give lie to the stereotype that generally accompanies any discussion of his oeuvre.

Milius’s epic screenplay for Apocalypse Now both celebrates (albeit in a very dark and unglamourous way) the macho themes of wartime bonding and the tribal nature of the male spirit and unabashedly criticizes the absurd, wasteful chaos and futility of the Vietnam War, and he paints a vivid and harrowing picture of the horror and madness that result from macho ad absurdium in the character of the brilliant but demented Colonel Kurtz. In Magnum Force (script by Milius) a right wing Police death squad is stunned to discover that rule-bending “Dirty Harry” Callahan, whom they expect to enthusiastically join them, is repulsed by their vigilante vendetta against the “scum” who have escaped “liberal” justice. Even at his most chauvinistic, in 1984’s Red Dawn, in which a brave group of American teenagers spearhead a guerilla revolt against a Commie invasion of the American Homeland, Milius leavens the flagwaving with a bitter and unsettling portrait of the devastating and corrosive effects of war and violence on his band of young patriots. It is, however, in his best and most successful film, Conan the Barbarian, that the depth, flexibility and unexpected warmth of Milius’ approach is most fully realized.

In a stroke of perfect symmetry, producer Rafaella Di Laurentiis chose Milius’ left wing counterpart Oliver Stone to co-write Conan with Milius, a choice which perfectly mirrors and expresses the tension between pragmatism and idealism in Milius’ complex world view. Based on pulp fantasist Robert E. Howard’s epic 30’s adventure series Conan the Cimmerian, Conan is richly imagined and beautifully realized; directed by Milius with a sensual physicality and a deft and energetic touch perfectly suited for telling the story of Conan, the noble warrior savage, played by a pre-Terminator Arnold Swarzenegger with a surprising combination of brooding virility and a lovable, almost goofy vulnerability. Freed by the imaginary time period and setting, Milius and production designer Ron Cobb (Alien) create a Hyborian age that is detailed, stunning and completely believable, and with cinematographer Duke Callaghan they deliver a number of lasting and haunting images: the work wheel in the middle of the desert to which Conan the child is chained for the first 10 years of his life; the “Tree of Woe” on which Conan is crucified by Thulsa Doom, and Valeria’s funeral pyre flickering in the darkness.

From its stunning opening sequence, as Doom’s entwined snake standard appears over the rise of a hill, followed by his merciless advancing horde (accompanied by Basil Poulidouris’s rich, throbbing tapestry of a score), Milius’s Conan strikes just the right balance; with enough violence, gore, and sex to be true to Howard’s Weird Tales original, while maintaining a good-natured fairy-tale quality, Conan achieves a genuinely mythical quality and gives genuine meaning to Conan’s brutal coming-of-age saga. The murder of Conan’s mother, for example, which could have been played for grossout shock, is, instead, a subtle and emotionally affecting moment, as the camera lingers on the young boy’s stunned face, giving Conan’s revenge quest plot a real resonance and power not found in the average sword and sorcery potboiler.

Nowhere is Milius’ exceptional A-movie approach to B-movie material more evident than in the central love story between Conan and his beloved, the master thief Valeria, which occupies the central third of the film. From their first meeting in Doom’s “Tower of Evil,” Milius’ attentive direction of his actors and the simple but eloquent dialogue convey an affecting and believable love story quite removed from the plot-servicing, heaving bosom propelled ‘love story’ common to the genre. As played by first-time actress Sandahl Bergman (the Broadway dancer had made an impressive debut two years before in the sizzling Airotica number in All That Jazz), Valeria is another one of Milius’ very feminine, but equally strong, female heroines, and Bergman’s unaffected, heartfelt performance (do you want to live forever?) gives weight and substance to the tragic outcome that awaits them in the film’s operatic climax.

It is hard not to wonder if Milius was inspired by George Lucas’ use of the great James Earl Jones as the Freudian/Oedipal villain of Star Wars, as Jones’ beautifully underplayed, hissing Thulsa Doom, trying to escape death, tells Conan in an oily whisper: “I am the wellspring from which you flow… What will you be when I am gone… my son?” His performance is, in any case, perfection. With the tiniest of expressions and the subtlest of body movements, Jones creates one of the most truly evil villains in screen history; his casual dispensing of death (check out his expression as he decides whether of not to kill Conan’s mother) and the almost fatherly way he sends his followers to their doom, make his villainy all the more sinister.

The other great performance in Conan is that of Max Von Sydow, another of those Euro actors who will appear in anything when the condo payment is due, but who never gives less than a great performance in the process. As King Osric, the aging and weary monarch who sends Conan and Valeria on their fateful mission to rescue his brainwashed daughter, von Sydow conveys, in a single memorable scene, an important shared thread in the work of both Milius and Robert Howard: while honor, valor and great deeds are all worthwhile, they all ultimately fade away. “There comes a time” sighs Osric, “when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child…” Both Howard and Milius share an open admiration for the courage and professionalism of military men, while remaining deeply skeptical of the lasting results of conflict and war; and this doubt brings a melancholy undercurrent to what might have otherwise remained an essentially lighthearted fantasy.

John Milius has never made a project that did not incorporate some of his contrarian world view, and Conan is no exception. In Thulsa Doom’s Snake Cult, Milius is clearly sending up all cults and ‘movements with easy answers in general, and the hippie culture of the sixties in particular’. As Conan playfully comes on to an effeminate high priest of the cult (played with relish in a delicious cameo by EuroTrash/Jess Franco icon Jack Taylor) in order to steal his robes as a disguise, he drapes flowers around his neck and pretends to be seeking to “reach emptiness.” Mocking as this sequence is, when Conan triumphantly hurls Thulsa Doom’s head down the stairs of his temple, Milius has his followers, one by one, sadly throw their candles into the water and file away to Poulidouris’s mournful choral chant. In what might as well be an elegy for the dead counterculture, Milius betrays a soft spot for those who seek, however foolishly, a higher meaning.

It is hard to overstate how much better Conan the Barbarian is than any of its immediate competitors in the genre. One only has to watch Richard Fleischer’s pallid and silly follow-up Conan The Destroyer, to see the difference between the labour of love of a visionary director and the hack work of a slumming bigshot looking down his nose at his material. Conan the Barbarian is a robust and exhilarating epic that manages to imbue its melodrama and high adventure with some real ideas and philosophy, while never for a moment slowing down or distracting from the storytelling. Milius created in Conan the Barbarian, a colourful, riveting and often surprisingly thoughtful fantasy for wide-eyed young men (and women) of all ages and a lasting contribution to fantasy cinema, which, 25 years later, continues to enthrall us.

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