Chances are, if you know of Conan of Cimmeria, you know through this movie in some way. For better or worse, it framed the public consciousness of Robert E Howard’s character. But was it a good movie?
Before I can answer that, I have to speak of the influence of this film. The fantasy genre, especially the “low fantasy”, “sword & sorcery”, “sword & sandal” and “heroic fantasy” subgenres, were greatly influenced by this film. Without Milius’ film, we would have had no He-Man. Granted, the rumour that the toys were supposed to be a movie tie-in are false, (more info here) but there’s a good reason to believe that if the first Masters of the Universe toys didn’t debut when this movie was in cinemas, that toyline would have flopped like so many other Mattel attempts to capture a male audience. Conan definitely shows through in some aspects, like Beast Man (an Ape Man) the various snake villains (Serpent Men) Teela (Belit, Valeria, or maybe Red Sonja), and He-Man himself (who, in fact, would have had black hair, blue eyes and tanned skin like Conan if lawyers didn’t advise against it. That change didn’t stop a lawsuit, but it did help differentiate the characters, which helped Mattel win that suit). Eerily, the first eleven minicomics to come with the toys (later called “Mineternia” by fans) bore a strong resemblance to Oliver Stone’s original, rejected script of the film, wherein a great war caused society to regress back to a barbaric state but left behind wonderful sci-fi era toys. Through He-Man, of course, we got Thundercats, which is having a successful revival as we speak.
This film, combined with the He-Man & The Masters of the Universe cartoon, started a trend that led to a whole spate of movies ranging from cult classics (the Beastmaster, Krull, Fire & Ice) to memorable-but-awful/so-bad-it’s-good stuff (Deathstalker, Ator, the Lou Ferrigno Hercules flicks) as well as a few irredeemable films (Barbarian Queen, anyone?). More importantly, I would assert that every Conan property that followed this film was made because of this film’s success. It may have been inspired by Robert E Howard’s work, or the Marvel Comics adaptation, but it was financed and made because of the mainstream bankability of the character, and that was earned by this movie.
What are some of the movie’s strengths? Well, just about everything, really. Even if the movie itself isn’t to your liking, and it should be, the score and soundtrack are legendary. I expanded more on the political themes of the movie here but it is one of the more intelligent action movies of its time, in fact, of all time. It’s a great examination of Nietzschean philosophy, and in many ways, it’s actually an experimental film, or at least the first act is. There’s little dialogue throughout the whole movie, and until that famous line about 20 minutes in, the only spoken words were a bit of narration from Mako and a single line from Conan’s father (unnamed in this movie, called Corin in the 2011 film). The entirety of the story aside from those sparse few words, to that point, was told through music and actions. What dialogue there is, however, is excessively memorable, not to mention excessively badass. Some lines have gained memetic status, especially Conan’s first line and his prayer to Crom.
The cast was exceptional. James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom is the evil sorcerer that all the little evil sorcerers want to grow up to be. Sandahl Bergman’s Valeria is one of a handful of well-written, rounded female characters in this genre. Gerry Lopez and his voice actor are also decent (I bet you didn’t know all of Subotai’s lines were dubbed, did you?) and, well, as I said before, Arnold Schwarzenegger brings a certain charm to his portrayal of Conan. However, the “dumb” part of his “dumb charm” is not very prevalent in this film. He’s a genuinely likeable protagonist who does retain some of Conan’s savage edge from the original stories.
If I could name any bad thing about the movie, I could bring up the few over-the-top cheesy points, specifically when Conan first confronts Thulsa Doom (“You killed my father! You killed my people! You took my father’s sword!”). And, uh, it’s not all that close to the source material. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I would like a Conan movie as well made as this one that’s actually close to the source material. However, I’m more than happy with what we have.
This is the king of Sword & Sorcery movies. Other than perhaps the Lord of the Rings movies, it’s the best fantasy movie ever-period. A well deserved 10 lamentations of the women out of 10.