Saturday, October 2, 2010
Saturday Movie Madness! #2: John Milius' CONAN THE BARBARIAN
Is it safe to concede that Conan the Barbarian is one of the most "Manly-Men" Super-hero mythic figures in movies? Arnold Schwarzenegger only appeared in this 1982 film, and its sequel (which, though unseen by me, is derided almost everywhere by critics and fans of Conan as an inferior follow-up). But there is something about his appeal here that I can see. Do I go for this kind of beefed-up kill-and-fuck-whatever's-in-my-way action hero? Not always. If the movie's directed by someone who knows what level of killing and fucking they want to go after, and the lead is dynamic enough, I'll be willing to go for the ride. And let all ye who enter this early 80's bonanza of (near) senseless kills and (near) erotic-less sex know: this is John Milius as director, with a fiery young Oliver Stone as co-writer. So as someone who wrote the Ride of the Valkyries attack in Apocalypse Now and made Red Dawn (a previous Saturday Movie Madness entry last month), you can imagine how he'd take to material about a man made of barbarism.
Plot? Do you care really? At the least it sounds better on paper than that of Conan the Destroyer. Conan as a boy watches as his village is teared to shit by bandit-killers, led by James Earl Jones in a haircut similar to Uma Thurman's in Pulp Fiction. He personally kills his mother, Conan is put in enslavement pushing a big goddamn wheel for twenty years, is freed, and seeks revenge in the process of rescuing the daughter of a King (Max von Sydow) who has been kidnapped by the now "Emptiness" cult-leader Jones. Simple as that, you can see the blueprint for a lot of the action in your head if you've seen at least one or two of these fantasy epics where a character is faced with extraordinary challenges... That is, extraordinary for any of us out there. For Conan finding out that the hot piece of ass he's getting it on with is really a snake-cum-succubus isn't pleasant but pretty easy to put down. Or, for that matter, being faced with a 40-foot snake that is like the 80's Muppet version of Anaconda.
Oh so much of this is campy. That is, actually, when characters speak. It's easy to tell that Milius and Stone, to their credit, are actually fans of the series of books and comics that had Conan and heroes like them, specifically those with the covers by the late Frank Frazetta. You know the kind, like this one below:
It's juicy and big and brawny and you might want to blast Iron Maiden just for the duration of the two minutes to midnight staring at the cover. To be sure Robert E. Howard created the character in a slightly less HOLY SHIT HE'LL KILL US ALL pose, such as the one to your left.
The filmmakers, far from being hacks and coming out of being serious screenwriters for hire, take the material so seriously in the style comparable to George Lucas with Star Wars. That is to note that the actors mean to say the dialog like it's not over-the-top. I imagine that's what they went for for some of the time, and then other times one has to realize it's Arnold Schwarzenegger before his eloquent days given dialog (to respond to "What is best in life?"): "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation pf their women." Jones and Sydow especially go into such ham that there's barely any pig left by the end of it. Ho-Ho.
And yet I can't even begrudge them the scenery chewing. Milius does get one thing right above all else, which is to let the images speak for themselves and to not let too much dialog in the way of the cinematography (not great but far from shoddy), and for the rousing, wanting-to-be-timeless musical score by Basil Poledouris, which ramps up most scenes with the kind of heightened emotion that makes up for some scenes being dead-air. The scenery is extravagant in a fun way and the special effects, dated to be sure, are fun to take in just by how much the actors know they're silly and part of the heightened mythical feel.
Now for other good things here: Arnold himself, never letting anyone in the audience think Conan can't do the shit he does, which includes such things as when crucified taking a bite out of a vulture trying to peck at his pectorals. And Mako, the fiery little Asian man who would later voice Uncle Iro in Avatar the Last Airbender, who gives the kind of narration that young boys will never for a moment not buy as being God from on high. And the women... oh the women. One may lose a peek or two at Conan smothering them over with his 19293829 pound muscles, but it still works to the intended effect.
So get out your swords and sorcery, get rid of that emptiness and find some worth to your life in kicking ass and becoming king, and enjoy some Conan the Barbarian. It's a sublime mix of low-brow action and tits and high-brow aspirations for lust and glory by two guy-guys writing and directing the hell out of a movie that is very much of its time.
All this said, I still prefer this Conan: