Conan the Barbarian from 1982 is the film that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s international career, even regarded by many as his finest hour. It tells the story of a young muscular barbarian warrior named Conan (Schwarzenegger), who seeks vengeance for the death of his parents at the hands of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), the leader of a snake cult. Conan sets off with his companions, Subotai the Mongol (Gerry Lopez) and Queen of Thieves (Sandahl Bergman), to kill Thulsa Doom.
Conan is limited to a mere handful of lines and Arnold is competently directed by John Milius to play up the Nietzschean strength of the character, the Austrian Oak has never looked more suited to a role, his muscle-flexing and sword twirling seemingly effortless.
The movie was directed and co-written by John Milius and Oliver Stone but based on stories by Robert E. Howard, a pulp-fiction writer of the 1930s, about the adventures of the eponymous character in a fictional world of dark magic and savagery.
“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”
Schwarzenegger played the titular role in the films Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984). The role was then reincarnated by Game of Thrones/Aquaman star Jason Momoa in 2011, but that film flopped big-time.
Schwarzenegger was the only one who had already been cast before Milius was hired. Subotai was played by Gerry Lopez, a champion surfer who had worked with Milius previously. Sandahl Bergman, a dancer who had bit parts in several theater productions and films, played Valeria. James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow were, according to Milius, hired with the hope that they would inspire Schwarzenegger, Bergman, and Lopez. The Japanese-American actor Mako Iwamatsu, known professionally as “Mako”, was brought onto the project as Wizard of the Mounds. Doom’s two lieutenants, Thorgrim and Rexor, respectively, were played by Sven-Ole Thorsen, Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding colleague, and Ben Davidson, a former American-football player with the Oakland Raiders. Sven Ole Thorsen was Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding colleague. Milius hired more than 1,500 extras in Spain, where The Temple of Set was built in the mountains.
“Fire and wind come from the sky, from the gods of the sky. But Crom is your god, Crom and he lives in the earth. Once, giants lived in the Earth, Conan. And in the darkness of chaos, they fooled Crom, and they took from him the enigma of steel. Crom was angered. And the Earth shook. Fire and wind struck down these giants, and they threw their bodies into the waters, but in their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. We who found it are just men. Not gods. Not giants. Just men. The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts… [points to sword] This you can trust.”
– Conan’s Father
The opening credits are a montage of tempered metal and soot and cave walls with Basil Poledouris’ unforgettable score in the background. And so the movie begins with the narrator Wizard of the Mounds (Mako Iwamatsu) saying “from the days of high adventure.”, we see Conan’s family dying before his eyes and then the “Wheel of Pain,” and Conan becomes Arnold Schwarzenegger through decades of torment.
Milius retained many scenes from the first half of Stone’s draft – the Tree of Woe, the Tower of Set sequence – but discarded the mutant-heavy second half. His personal ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy informed much of what he brought to the new screenplay, including the extended prologue depicting Conan’s evolution from weedy kid to grain-grinder to muscled warrior.
The script is highly regarded for its dazzling set-pieces and quotable dialogue. Production designer Ron Cobb, who worked on Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), said that he didn’t want to be too explicit in showing historical influences:
“I’ve tried to dream up numerous stylizations, drawing on everything from Quetzalcoatl to Egyptian symbology and many other designs. I’ve then combined, refined and repeated those designs all throughout the picture, applying them when necessary. This has resulted in a fair amount of that design history being obscured to the viewer, and to me too, for that matter. That’s interesting, that much of the symbology I’m applying has become a mystery even to me. I think it’s much more important, in the sense of design, to be as original and consistent as possible in this picture and to evoke a sense of mystery and purpose, rather than spell everything out. I don’t think that kind of underlining is really necessary.”
While working on the script, Milius had one group of researchers digging up material on ancient cults and another compiling information on early weapons and their usage. Milius and Ron Cobb wanted a consistent and relatively believable world and, to this end, studied Celtic and Nordic design and history in order to picture the cultural forces that had shaped them.
Basil Poledouris was hired to produce the score for Conan, renowned for his powerfully epic style of orchestral composition and his intricate thematic designs. The final score is still one of the most celebrated compositions written for film, praised even by the movie’s detractors. It catapulted Poledouris’ career to great heights and he continued to produce many famous scores; Red Dawn (1984), Iron Eagle (1986), RoboCop (1987), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Free Willy (1993), and Starship Troopers (1997).
Conan the Barbarian is now widely recognized as the gold standard for the sword and sorcery subgenre. The film is arguably a major factor behind Robert Howard’s creation being as visible and well known as it is today, expanding the fanbase beyond readers of the original works. Rumors have swirled for years that Schwarzenegger will return for a new sequel titled The Legend of Conan. After all, “this story shall also be told.”
Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan The Barbarian documentary:
Conan the Phenomenon: The Legacy of Robert E. Howard’s Fantasy Icon By Paul Sammon
Cinefantastique Vol 11, #3 Nine Days in Cimmeria by Paul Sammon
The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History by Laurence E. MacDonald
Hutchison, David. “Music for a Barbarian.” Starlog, September 1982.
Thomas, Tony (1997). “More Recently—Basil Poledouris”. Music for the Movies