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Conan the Barbarian 4K

by Glenn Erickson Feb 03, 2024

We kids ogled the ’60s pocketbook covers that promised forbidden adult content, but a full-blown sword & sorcery Conan film adaptation wouldn’t come along for twenty years. Dino De Laurentiis’ second stab at a Star Wars– style franchise hit paydirt: body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger became a bona fide star as the Cimmerian swordsman, ‘fleshing out’ John Milius & Oliver Stone’s adolescent fantasies of sex and violence. Designs by Ron Cobb and music by Basil Poledouris are a major asset. Arrow goes to town on this 4K special edition.


Conan the Barbarian 4K
4K Ultra HD
Arrow Video
1982 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 127, 129, 130 min. / Street Date January 30, 2024 / Available from / 49.95
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, Ben Davidson, Cassandra Gaviola, Gerry Lopez, Mako, Valérie Quennessen, William Smith, Luis Barboo, Leslie Foldvary, Akio Mitamura, Nadiuska, Jorge Sanz, Jack Taylor, Sven Ole Thorsen, Kiyoshi Yamazaki.
Cinematography: Mike Callaghan
Production Designer: Ron Cobb
Art Directors: Pierluigi Basile, Veljko Despotovic, Benjam&iacute’n Fernández
Costume Design: John Bloomfield
Film Editor: C. Timothy O’Meara
Visual Effects: Frank Van Der Veer, Peter Kuran, Katherine Kean, Emilio Ruiz del Río, Susan Turner, Jim Danforth
Stunt coordinators: Juan Maján, Terry Leonard
Original Music: Basil Poledouris
Written by John Milius, Oliver Stone based on characters created by Robert E. Howard
Executive Producers: Dino De Laurentiis, Edward R. Pressman
Produced by Buzz Feitshans, Raffaella De Laurentiis
Directed by
John Milius

Beginning in the Victorian Age, visionary writers created wild adventures that pulled in readers looking for fantastic thrills: H. Rider Haggard, Pierre Benoit, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs led the pack, soon to be followed by Sax Rohmer and Kenneth Robeson. Relative latecomer Robert E. Howard is credited with kick-starting the sword & sorcery genre, in which powerful, savage heroes hack their way through lands ruled by brutal kings and dark magic. Howard’s character Conan is a perverse go-getter borne of Depression-era desperation, who must constantly fight to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. Conan believes only in himself and his sword. He’s a power fantasy writ large, that soothes the needs of ‘powerless’ males.

Forty years before George Lucas, the Conan cult knew that their hero is a ‘Cimmerian’ that lives in the ‘Hyborian Age.’ Conan pays respects to a god called ‘Crom.’

The 1982 film Conan the Barbarian was already coming together in 1979, at John Milius and Buzz Feitshans’ A-Team productions. Executive producer Dino De Laurentiis had a reputation for thinking big. He must have decided that success lay in colossal Star Wars– type fantasies, for he spent a big chunk of the 1980s launching lavish epics based on a comic book spaceman and  a literary Sci-fi classic.  Made between those two, De Laurentiis took a gamble with bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Flash Gordon had been weighed down by its uninspiring star, but Schwarzenegger was ideal casting — no other actor could make a better Conan.

 

Forget PG-Rated Kiddie Stuff.

John Milius’s film is a prime example of an R-rated ’80s movie with a huge appeal for children. Nude witches and undraped damsels in distress are everywhere, and the testosterone-charged Conan has sex with several of them. Conan filled theaters with underaged patrons uninterested in anything labeled for kids; the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ craze was already underway, and the Conan mythos offered martial arts and graphic gore mutilation by the bushel.

But parents have nothing to worry about: rape & slaughter may be Conan’s bread & butter, but the Hyborian Age predates the invention of obscene language. The villains bellow like Shakesperian hams, and the hero and his pals gab like surfers who have read too much Tolkien. Add gender politics that divide womanhood into cringing victims and supernatural femmes fatale, and Conan the Barbarian is a good introduction to responsible adult conduct.

The formulaic storyline is said to sidestep the actual Conan books in favor of narrative elements from Robert K. Howard’s earlier Kull stories.  *  Our hero follows a Joseph Campbell mythos-arc, without the positive life lessons; an opening line of text is the familiar Nietszche semi-misquote about things that don’t kill making one stronger. Times are brutal, yet Conan has a loving father (grindhouse favorite William Smith) and mother (Nadiuska). Naturally, when the entire village is slaughtered Conan is the only survivor, motivating a lifelong vendetta against the nasty sorcerer & cult leader responsible, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). Conan grows up as an abused slave-laborer, which by the time he’s of age, gives him the look of a bodybuilder (Arnold!). His salad days are spent learning to be a nasty pit fighter; after being trained in other martial arts, he’s set free.

Now a wandering thief, Conan’s episodic wandering leads to encounters with a sexy shape-shifting witch (Cassandra Gaviola) and an eccentric wizard (Mako). He then he teams up with fellow thieves Subotai (surfer Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (dancer Sandahl Bergman) to rob a temple of a fabulous jewel. They’re captured by the lusty, bombastic King Osric (Max von Sydow, in fine form), who compliments their audacity and sends them on a mission to rescue his daughter, Princess Yasmina (Valérie Quenessen) — who has been seduced by the terrible snake cult at the Temple of Set.

 

Wouldn’t you know it, the cult at the evil Temple of Set is led by the unapproachable, all-powerful Thulsa Doom. His mountainside palace is a place of orgies, ritual suicides and cannibalism (and Bingo on Thursday nights). Doom’s main goons Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven Ole Thorsen) have it in for Conan. Thulsa Doom is no fraud, but a bona fide shape-shifting demon, who can turn himself into a giant snake. Instead of employing his full Darth Vader bellow, James Earl Jones uses a more restrained vocal characterization. His pronouncements drip with menace, even dialogue leans toward drivel: “That is strength, boy!  That is power!  What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”

Undeterred, Conan and his confederates don war paint to penetrate Thulsa Doom’s forbidden Temple. We aren’t worried — Conan swings a mighty sword as if it were a knitting needle, and the gory action is choreographed by stunt experts like Terry Leonard.

John Milius really became excited when telling stories in person, and Conan provided him with a good outlet in which to flex his gnarly adolescent imagination. His Dillinger sketched some good characters between its action shootouts. The epic scope of The Wind and the Lion thrilled us, but it’s hard to account for some of its trivial, throwaway dialogue. Milius’s contribution to 1941 was more military hardware and more explosions. He would later partly disassociate himself from the onerous politics of Red Dawn. The misfire Farewell to the King tries to graft elements of Conan and Apocalypse Now into a bogus WW2 setting. One way or another, Milius’s personal thematics repeatedly boiled down to tough guys strutting their stuff, or a god-like white man lording it over a multitude.

 

It’s all there in the classic German silent Die Nibelungen, which wasn’t necessarily white supremacist lore, even if it presents much of the iconography. But the first thing we hear in Conan is a speech lauding “the sons of Aryas.”  Conan’s father teaches him to basically ‘stay humble but trust in a steel sword.’ Conan later announces that his manly ambition is to ‘crush his enemies and make their women and children weep’ (para.). Reviewer Roger Ebert knew better than to alienate readers by slamming the movie’s politics, but he did express his misgivings about imagery that leans … well… on the white-supremacist side.

I suppose John Milius just wants to get back to the basics of barbarity . . . his movie is not Conan the Civil Libertarian.  The director’s ideal hero was definitely not Howard Fast & Dalton Trumbo’s Spartacus, a naturally noble Everyman revolutionary, half action superhero and half Abraham Lincoln.

As a movie Conan is He-Man Master of the Universe produced on the level of Lawrence of Arabia. Every exterior is a beautiful Spanish landscape under a blazing sky or embellished by a handsome Jim Danforth matte painting. Following designs by everyone’s favorite futurist illustrator Ron Cobb, Spanish artisans trained on the epics of Sam Bronston fabricated hundreds of incredible costumes, armor pieces, etc., many of them in leather. The women are decked out in costumes that remind us of Frank Frazetta paintings. Hunting dogs are outfitted with designer leather gear.

A scene with combat action or violence is never more than a couple of minutes away. The fight choreography is professional and dynamic, even if the only suspense is wondering what grisly maiming or decapitation will come next. As this is Spain, Milius is able to stage some questionable horse-fall action… or are we seeing horses specially trained to fall safely?  The low point — which is arguably true to the spirit of the source books — shows Thulsa Doom’s butchers prepping human carcasses for a stew. Yes, the movies we ’50s tots were shown may have kept us too sheltered, and this is technically an adult movie.

 

Handsome pre-CGI effects work suggests Thulsa Doom’s snake transformation with simple cutaways, and one stretch-face angle on a rubber mask of James Earl Jones. Peter Kuran’s optical effects unit creates a nice scene in which demon wraiths try to claim Conan’s battered body. The animated phantoms may have reminded 1982 audiences of the ILM illusions in the previous year’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.

No doubt about it, Arnold Schwarzenegger has major star appeal. His physique needs no comment except to say that he ‘inhabits’ his sculpted muscleworks even more naturally than did our childhood hero Steve Reeves. Schwarzenegger is athletic, graceful and somewhat blank-minded. His Conan is a sober and focused athlete, but not a ‘natural gentleman’ like Tarzan. Given a break with a slave woman, Conan takes her in hand like a chicken he’s going to gut and pull apart for roasting. The film’s personal relationships are sketchy at best, but Conan does commit his heart to his good gal pal Valeria. Valhalla must have a soft spot for unprincipled thieves, for Valeria possesses The Right Stuff to graduate to posthumous Valkyrie status. And hey, our Conan doesn’t abide sissies — when he needs an appropriate robe to sneak into the Temple of Set, he baits and slays a gay priest, as a humorous throwaway.

 


 

I can’t see a dedicated Conan fan having a single complaint about Arrow Video’s 4K Ultra HD of Conan the Barbarian. The 4K remaster is a beauty — those of us that only saw the show on cable TV or VHS will be impressed by the visuals. It may not be as visually dazzling as the De Laurentiis / Lynch Dune, but Conan the Barbarian puts a new polish on its escapist exploitation.

As is Arrow policy, there is no backup Blu-ray encoding of the feature. The second Blu-ray contains an enormous volume of extras. The list below is impressive; the disc producer James Flower has rounded up all the key-source earlier featurettes, docus and talk tracks, and added a new commentary with Paul M. Sammon. A major contributor of making-of articles and pub coverage for films at this time, Sammon made himself the focus of visits to the sets of Conan, Blade Runner, RoboCop, etc.. We have to admit that, after collecting every issue of the magazine Cinefantastique, we stopped subscribing when the ‘zine morphed into a publicity outlet for Hollywood blockbusters.

Although viewers can peruse the publicity materials for Conan going back to 1982, Arrow has also conducted a stack of new interviews. The most impressive extra is an entire Basil Poledouris music concert (47 minutes) from 2009. The Isolated music score is appreciated as well.

This 4K release is one of several packages, in various formats. The Barbarian can also be found paired up with the sequel Conan the Destroyer. It was filmed by director Richard Fleischer and shot by cameraman Jack Cardiff, so it’s bound to look good in 4K.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Conan the Barbarian 4K
4K Ultra HD rates:
Movie: Good; Excellent for sword & sorcery fans
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Commentary with John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger (2000)
New commentary with Paul M. Sammon
Isolated score track
Longform featurette: Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan (2000) by Laurent Bouzereau, with Schwarzenegger, Milius and various others.
New interviews:
William Stout on Designing Conan
John Bloomfilm about Costuming Conan
Colin Arthur & Ron Hone on Barbaric Effects both mechanical and makeup
George Sanz talks about playing Young Conan
Jack Taylor remembers Conan & The Priest
Assistant Editor Peck Prior rememeers Cutting the Barbarian
Peter Kuran & Katherine Kean, visual effects artists, on Crafting Conan’s Magic
Robert Eggers gives a comparison to his own show in Barbarians & Northmen
Historian John Walsh on Behind the Barbarian
John Milius biographer Alfio Leotta speaks in A Line in the Sand
Archive piece Conan: The Rise of a Fantasy Legend about the Conan franchise starting with the books.
Self explanatory Art of Steel: Sword Makers & Masters
2011 interview compilation Conan: From the Vault
Poledouris extras:
A Tribute to Basil Poledouris
Conan the Symphony longform music concert, Poledouris conducts
Remembering Basil (HD; 35:37) is a touching documentary by Dan Goldwasser.
Poledouris interview
The Tale of Conan (HD; 15:01) is an interview with Poledouris done at the 2006 Ubeda Film Music Festival.
Basil at Ubeda (HD; 4:08) is a photo gallery.
Original Promotional Featurettes from 1982
Deleted Scenes: John Milius Cameo, The Death of King Osric, Wolves Outtake
Special Effects Comparison
Image Galleries, Trailer Galleries
Six collector cards
78 page illustrated book with writing by Walter Chow, John Walsh, Paul M. Sammon.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
January 29, 2024
(7071cona)

*  Howard’s character Kull came first, and his better-known hero Conan seems a refinement/adjustment for practical commercial purposes.

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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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cadavra

It’s not really correct to call Bergman a body-builder. At 6′, she was naturally athletic, but she was in fact a dancer, and worked frequently with Bob Fosse both on Broadway and in film (notably the “Take Off With Us” number in ALL THAT JAZZ).

And the line in question ends with “…and to hear the lamentations of their women.”

John Mastrocco

Robert E Howard, not Robert K Howard
🙂

Katherine Turney

Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard!

Darth Egregious

I, too, lament that Cinefantastique’s once fine journalism – often quite long form – devolved into Starlog-level puff pieces.

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