Directed by John Milius, "Conan the Barbarian" is an exaltation of all things barbaric.
Some context: Milius is mostly known today for being the basis of Walter Sobchak, the gun-loving right-winger of the Coen Brothers' "Big Lebowski". There he's hilariously paired with his antithesis, a left-wing stoner called The Dude. In real life Milius himself proudly claims to been have blacklisted from Hollywood due to his "hard-right politics", which he lovingly equates with "rugged individualism, personal mastery, survivalism, a Nietzschean warrior's code, self-actualisation, outlaw glory, free-markets and a Darwinian credo". Milius' films ("Big Wednesday", "Magnum Force", "Dilinger", "Conan", "Red Dawn" etc) themselves typically involve macho warriors slaying villains in the name of property rights and individual freedoms, shotgun or broadsword in hand. For writing "Dirty Harry", Milius even requested as payment, in addition to his agreed-upon fee, a James Purdy shotgun, apparently because "guns are more honourable than money". "Conan" was also written by Oliver Stone, who like Francis Coppola (Milius co-wrote "Apocalypse Now") salivates over megalomania, power and authority whilst pretending to do otherwise. At least Milius is upfront about his stance.
Milius' ideals are attractive, but breakdown in the real world. In the West Indies, for example, the seemingly simple issue of property rights (or private property) to this day confers dominance to East Indians (who were granted land rights as Indentured labourers) and Anglo Saxons over Africans. "Conan" doesn't take place in the real world, though. Set thousands of years before recorded history, when the continents of Africa, Europe and Asia were a single land mass, the film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan, a camel punching Ubermensch who fights for vengeance and freedom. His target? Thulsa Doom, a black guy who (ironic) takes kids into slavery. It's another of Milius' "everyman warriors" vs "the evil Other who steals our Freedom" tale (Spielberg would consult Milius for the cryptofascist "Private Ryan").
Opening with a quote by Nietzsche - "That which does not kill us makes us stronger" - the film eventually grows to becomes a literal translation of your typical mistranslation of Nietzsche (Nietzsche's writings, with their fascist associations, would have negative effects on everyone from Hitler to Rand). So Arnie, a superman whose paternity draws a straight line from Beowulf to Enkidu, Atilla, Alexander and Genseric, is a warrior who embodies Nietzsche's personification of "the will to power", the expression of human existence superior to that of the "conventional, sentimental, bourgeois moral majority". Nietzsche "attacks man's moral principles" such that "the new superman is a law unto himself". He is autonomous, destined to fulfil his highest dreams, a man who "builds himself up into a being beyond the mob". "His secret nobility," Nietzsche then says, "will be of an aristocratic elevation for which no pattern exists". The film itself ends with Arnie becoming a king, sitting triumphantly on a throne.
So Conan may be a barbarian, but he is manliness at its pinnacle, the survival of the fittest, a keen mind with 20-pack abs. And while Conan's "mind and flesh are greater than steel", Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones) by contrast is the lowest, the animal, the reptile, that which we have left behind in our rise toward humanness. He is of the gutter, a cannibal, a shape-shifting black man who mocks all with his pretence of being human. Unlike Conan, Thulsa relies on skills not won by hardship, self-discipline and a triumphant will but that are simply emanations of his own reptilian baseness.
Beyond all this stuff, the film features some of Milius' best direction. Milius' crew find some superb locations, his crowd scenes are well shot, his set designers cook up a convincing pre Bronze/Iron Age world, and his injection of blood, gore, sex and nudity – gratuitous in another picture – only seem to add to the realism. The film's action sequences are also at times unconventionally structured, wordless, stretched and prolonged, with lots of creeping and slashing set to catchy music. The film's memorable Wagner inspired score was by Basil Poledouris. It, along with Milius' aesthetic, would prove a big influence on Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies. One of Poledouris' themes here, titled "Theology/Civilization", has itself become well known in concert circuits.
Like "Star Wars" (also with James Earl Jones as a bad guy), the pg rated fantasy/mythological film which preceded it, "Conan" is heavily influenced by Kurosawa and Ford. Milius' R rated blockbuster, however, at times feels like an art film, with huge portions devoid of dialogue, and a monosyllabic hero who can barely speak. Unsurprisingly Milius cast non actors for his three lead roles, Gerry Lopez a champion surfer, Sandahl Bergman – who plays a kind of Nordic, goddess-warrior – a dancer and Arnie a body builder. Their dialogue has a similar physicality about it. When a Mongol General yells "Conan, what is best in life?", Arnie responds like a caveman: "To crush your enemies and hear the lamentations of their women!" Elsewhere characters spout WW1 battle cries - "Do you want to live forever?!" - or opine about hacking, slashing and besting their enemies.
The film was followed by a worthless sequel. "Conan" itself has a terrible reputation, but there are no better R-rated sword-and-sorcery movies out there, it's one of the better superhero origin movies, its depictions of religious blood-cults remains creepy, and it's the only good film to contain a shape-shifting mutant snake villain.
Upon release the film was attacked for being fascist. Today such films are the norm. Indeed, most cinematic form echoes a totalitarian aesthetic (most humans are unconsciously fascist), designed to lull the viewer into a state of docility, awe and wonder. As cinema and fascism are about actualising fantasy and wilfully surrendering reality, cinema more naturally lends itself to fascist theatre then other art-forms. Milius' next film was "Red Dawn", essentially Conan with kids.
8/10 - Worth one viewing.
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