Created by Robert E. Howard, the character of Conan the Barbarian first appeared in a series of sword and sorcery stories published in pulp magazines, like Weird Tales in 1932. The success of these early stories inspired Howard to complete 21 stories before he committed suicide in 1936. These tales were set during the fictional “Hyborian Age,” which occurred after the fall of Atlantis. Conan was often described as a muscular yet agile man known for his tactical abilities as much as his brawn. Throughout the stories, he wandered the world, getting into adventures under a variety of guises: thief, outlaw, mercenary, and pirate.
It wasn’t until 1970s that plans for a cinematic adaptation began with a young Oliver Stone hired to write the screenplay. The film’s development hit a rocky period until the late ‘70s when John Milius was hired as director and Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as the titular character. The result was Conan the Barbarian (1982), a violent action/adventure film that was embodied the spirit of Howard’s stories as much at its director’s own thematic preoccupations. It was a box office success and helped launch Schwarzenegger’s international career.
“Let me tell you of the days of high adventure,” intones the grizzled voiceover of the film’s narrator (Mako) before Basil Poledouris’ rousing, muscular score kicks in, playing over the opening credits, which sees Conan’s father (William Smith) crafting a mighty impressive sword. Conan and his family are Cimmerians who believe in the god Crom. In a nice scene, Conan’s father tells his son of Crom and instills in the boy the belief that you can trust no one in this life, only the steel of your sword.
A band of warriors known as the Vanir attack Conan’s village and slaughter its inhabitants. Conan’s father fights bravely, but is felled by overwhelming numbers. Conan’s mother (Nadiuska) is killed defending her son by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), leader of the Vanir and head of the snake-worshipping cult Set. Conan is taken and chained to something called the Wheel of Pain (which basically involves pushing a large object around in a circle) for fifteen long years with other children until only he remains having grown into a very strong man. Conan is then taken from there and forced to become a pit fighter where he becomes adept at hand-to-hand combat and proficient in all kinds of weapons.
Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is educated in philosophy so that when asked, “What is best in life?” he responds with the immortal line, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of their women.” For Conan these are words to live by and when he is eventually and inexplicably set free, the Cimmerian does just that. With the first half hour of the film, Milius does an excellent job of introducing Conan and his world – a harsh and unforgiving place where only the strong survive. It is a world wrought with danger and populated with colorful characters most of whom are not to be trusted, like the witch that seduces Conan only to transform into a wild creature during sex. I like that Milius takes the time to show how Conan becomes a skilled fighter and builds himself up from nothing. In doing so, we get to know the character and empathize with him.
Conan sets out to find Thulsa Doom and kill him, thereby avenging his parents’ deaths. Along the way, he meets and befriends Subotai, the Mongol (Gerry Lopez) and an archer, and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a beautiful master thief. Like any good quest story, the journey is not an easy one and Conan is plagued by both external and internal dangers. He is pushed to the very limits of his physical endurance. Only when he can conquer his own fears can he complete his goal.
Unlike a lot of contemporary fantasy films that are augmented significantly by CGI, the world in Conan the Barbarian is tangible and real. As a result, it is more believable and Milius makes sure to immerse us in it with all kinds of sights and sounds, like the noisy marketplace that Conan, Subotai and Valeria wander through, that creates a world that you feel actually existed. This extends to the supernatural elements as well, which are done with practical effects and this gives them a texture that still holds up. This is evident in the sequence where Conan and his allies infiltrate a Set temple to steal a valuable gem, which awakens a giant snake that the barbarian must fight. Milius intercuts this with a Set ritual, which gives us some insight into their practices. More importantly, this sequence demonstrates what adept thieves Subotai and Valeria are and the unique skills they bring to the table. The snake is an impressive sight and one really gets a sense that Conan is in peril and I like how he doesn’t mess around with the creature, killing it outright when he gets the chance.
Milius wisely limits then-relative newcomer Arnold Schwarzenegger to the amount of dialogue he has to say and utilizes his considerable physical abilities to tremendous effect. The actor uses his body language to convey Conan’s feelings, which, admittedly, are pretty limited. That being said, Schwarzenegger certainly looks the part, which is obviously a crucial component of the role, but it is also how the actor carries himself throughout the film, in the way he walks or fights. He is committed fully to the part and takes it seriously. As a result, we believe that he is the character. This is why no one has inhabited the role as well since this film (including Schwarzenegger in the watered-down sequel). He also provides the occasional moment of levity (some of intentional, some not) in an otherwise serious film. For example, there’s a bit where Conan tries to infiltrate the Set cult as one of its priests and this is pretty amusing because he looks so out of place with his hulking frame. This seems a bit out of character from how Conan is portrayed in Howard’s stories, but Milius does try to justify this by showing that the barbarian has gotten foolishly over-confident with success and blinded by his desire to kill Doom. These moments of comedy would be a brief taste of what Schwarzenegger would be capable of in later films, from cheesy one-liners in action films, like Commando (1985) and Predator (1987), to flat out comedies like Twins (1988).
Sandahl Bergman is Schwarzenegger’s ideal foil, playing a fierce warrior woman that ends up falling in love with Conan. He does so because of her impressive fighting skills and cunning thieving abilities. And yet, the actress doesn’t play Valeria as an uncaring killing machine. Her relationship with Conan humanizes the character and Bergman conveys just the right mix of toughness and vulnerability – something that was sorely missing from the sequel and the remake. It doesn’t hurt that Bergman is a stunning beauty as well, which only adds to the appeal of Valeria.
Despite being outfitted with ridiculous-looking long hair, James Earl Jones is a suitably imposing Thulsa Doom. His famous deep, booming voice also enhances the actor’s performance, which is very theatrical in nature. This is evident in the monologue Doom gives when lecturing Conan on the nature of strength and power.
In the mid-1970s, film producer Ed Pressman was shown some of Frank Frazetta's paintings of Conan the Barbarian – the illustrator that helped revitalize interest in the character during the 1960s. Pressman thought that Conan might be right for a film adaptation. After meeting and being impressed by bodybuilder turned actor Arnold Schwarzenegger at a rough screening of Pumping Iron (1977), he envisioned the Austrian as Conan. However, it took from 1975 to 1977 for the legal issues to be untangled so that the film rights could be secured.
In 1977, Marvel Comics editor Roy Thomas was hired to write the screenplay and artist John Buscema worked on pre-production drawings. Both men had worked on hundreds of Conan comic books during the ‘70s. Pressman finally convinced Schwarzenegger to star in the film and a tentative budget was set at $2.5 million. At this point, Paramount Pictures offered to provide the money, but wanted a new script written by Oliver Stone, fresh from winning an Academy Award for writing Midnight Express (1978). He based his script on Conan stories, “Black Colossus,” and “A Witch Shall Be Born,” but deviated significantly from Howard’s mythos by setting the story in a post-apocalyptic future world. However, this approach escalated the estimated budget to $40 million. In addition, the search for a director was taking longer than expected with John Frankenheimer, Alan Parker and Ralph Bakshi considered. At one point, Ridley Scott was set to direct and then was dropped when John Milius agreed to direct.
At some point, Paramount was no longer involved and Milius was hired. He rewrote Stone’s script, secured financing from Dino De Laurentiis, and began pre-production work. Milius read Stone’s script and did not like it, but loved the character and the concept. According to Milius, he felt kinship with Howard’s worldview: “Howard and I have the same view of civilization. A skeptical one.” He felt that what Stone wrote had a lot of spirit and liked the freedom of its images. While working on the script, Milius drew inspiration from several Conan stories, including “The Thing in the Crypt”, “Tower of the Elephant”, and “Queen of the Black Coast.” He incorporated a few elements from them into the script and “tried constantly to work little pieces of the stories in whenever possible.” For example, he based the character of Valeria on Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast,” but the name came from the “Red Nails” story. He was also determined to deliver an R-rated sword and sorcery epic with plenty of bloody violence, including beheadings, dismemberments, and stabbings. Milius began writing the script in 1978 and spent nine months working on it.
To prepare for the film, Milius commissioned research papers on medieval snake and assassination cults, studied Mongol history and checked out ancient warfare and weaponry. He recruited collaborators that brought unique talents to the table. Chief among them was cartoonist and commercial illustrator Ron Cobb who had cut his teeth doing design work on genre films like John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
For Conan the Barbarian, he was made production designer and ended up creating over 57 interior and exterior sets, and converted two warehouses and an aircraft hangar into soundstages. During filming, he also supervised special effects and second unit direction. His main task was to create the fictional Hyborian Age on film, which included designing all of the architecture, most notably the Tower of Set. He designed the giant serpent and its tunnel lair in proportion to Schwarzenegger. The snake itself was an impressive 34 feet in length and approximately a foot-and-a-half across. Special effects supervisor Nick Allder constructed a cantilevered skeleton with a control platform that operated through the snake body to avoid visible outside wires. The result was a big and strong enough contraption that could actually push Schwarzenegger around while also paying tribute to Frank Frazetta’s iconic Conan paintings, which were used as inspiration for this sequence.
When it came to casting, early on Raquel Welch and Sean Connery were considered for the roles of Valeria and Thulsa Doom, respectively. In addition to Schwarzenegger, Milius cast Sandahl Bergman (recommended by none other than Bob Fosse!) and Gerry Lopez because they were physically adept with backgrounds in dance, and surfing, respectively. According to the director, “ordinarily actors wouldn’t have done those things because of their preconceived ideas going in.” Furthermore, the three lead actors “seemed better in the roles than anyone else, but there was always that doubt. I cast people who seemed to be the characters in the script.” Milius wanted the swordplay to look authentic and for the actors to do most of their own stunt work. To his end, he had the cast train for six months in broadsword fighting, kendo, horseback riding, and stunt work.
Principal photography was originally scheduled to begin in Yugoslavia in 1980, but the production had to pull out due to political and practical reasons. Eventually, Spain was chosen because of its excellent production facilities, diverse landscapes, and very experienced film crews. In addition, Milius had previously shot The Wind and the Lion (1975) there and was familiar with the country. Filming began in Spain on January 7, 1981 and lasted 19 weeks. To cut costs, the filmmakers staged all of the sorcery live and on location, which meant utilizing very few blue screens and no animation with many elaborate sets actually built, sometimes in conjunction with models and miniatures.
According to Cobb, Milius often directed from a motorcycle and worked fast, averaging two or three takes per shot and pushing for 15-20 camera set-ups a day. By many accounts, the shoot was an eventful one with several dicey moments, For example, in the scene where Conan emerges from a cave brandishing a newly found sword, he was to be confronted by a pack of hungry wolves. They were actually dogs and one of the larger ones jumped his cue and broke from the pack, hitting Schwarzenegger in the chest, which sent them both tumbling over a ten-foot cliff! The actor escaped seriously injury, but this incident, early on in filming, set the tone for the rest of principal photography. Never one to hold back, the director had a sometimes contentious relationship with De Laurentiis, comparing working for the mogul to “the foreign legion … His methods are … unsound. Dino’s just like bad weather, he’ll pass, but meanwhile you contend with it.” This may explain why Milius did not direct the sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984).
Predictably, Conan the Barbarian was trashed by most mainstream critics with the notable exception of Roger Ebert who gave the film three out of four stars and felt that it was “a very nearly perfect visualization of the Conan legend,” and “a triumph of production design, set decoration, special effects and makeup.” However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “As Conan, Mr. Schwarzenegger looks overdressed even when he is undressed, but then there is no way he can unzip that overdeveloped physique and slip into something more comfortable.” Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll wrote, “The sad thing is that there’s so little fun to Conan, its violence is so cheerless and styleless. Its action sequences seem edited defensively, to make sure there’s not too much blood, not too many decapitations, rather than for physical exhilaration and electric energy.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Anything that can be said against it can be said for it: the picture is an excessively brutal adventure comic book. An excessively brutal adventure comic book is exactly what is has set out to be – a medieval Heavy Metal.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “The image of awesome, hyperbolic muscularity imposed by Frazetta is also meant to dominate the movie version, where it’s transformed into unintentional nonsense, thanks to the unfailing cloddishness of director John Milius.”
Milius’ direction is refreshingly straight-forward and doesn’t distract with unnecessary stylistic flourishes. Everything he does is in service of the story and the characters. That being said, the action sequences are well-staged – exciting and visceral with attention paid to what is going on and where everyone is so that we are never confused unlike a lot of action films today, which are edited within an inch of their lives. The action depicted on-screen is further enhanced by Basil Poledouris’ score, which is epic when it needs to be and intimate during the more reflective moments. It is a crucial component as to why Conan the Barbarian works as a rousing action/adventure film.
With Conan the Barbarian, Milius has created a film that doesn’t water down the violence or any of the other unabashedly pulpy elements that make it one of the best fantasy films ever made. Despite its success, Milius did not return for the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, which diluted the violence for a younger audience, but it was also missing that special something that Milius brought to his film. He managed to capture the spirit of Conan in a way that no one has done since, including the rather bland remake. A crucial ingredient that makes Conan the Barbarian superior to other films is that we care about what happens to Conan as well as Valeria, which makes his quest that much more personal. He is going after the bad guys to avenge loved ones and it is this personal element that resonates. Credit must go to Milius for getting us involved in these characters’ lives. He takes the time to have them reflect on what they’ve done and what they’ve lost. It’s not all wall-to-wall action, but also features moments that give us important insight into the characters, like Conan who is depicted as more than just a brutal killing machine.
Further reading: Check out Roderick Heath's fantastic take over at the Ferdy on Films blog.
Bruzenak, Ken. “The Making of an Adventure Epic – Conan the Barbarian.” Prevue #46.
Honeycutt, Kirk. “Milius the Barbarian.” American Film. May 1982.
Sammon, Paul M. “Conan the Barbarian – Filming Robert E. Howard’s Sword and Sorcery Epic.” Cinefantastique. April 1982.
Sammon, Paul M. “Milius the Director.” Cinefantastique. April 1982.
Steranko, Jim. “Milius.” Prevue #48.