That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.
- Frederich Nietzsche
Unleashed upon an unsuspecting world way back in 1982, Conan the Barbarian achieved two extraordinary feats that would change Hollywood forever. Firstly, it launched the career of a young Austrian actor and former body-builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Secondly, it brought the phenomenon of the big budget fantasy epic to the attention of the worldwide movie-going public, on a scale never before seen on the silver screen.
The creation of writer Robert E Howard, Conan strode a world ruled by the sword, as a slave, a mercenary warrior, and finally a king, in the course of the many tales written by Howard and subsequent authors. In those first stories of his adventures, Conan bore many titles, but strangely the term 'Barbarian' was never one of them, being attached to the character by later writers. Nevertheless the label is apt, as Conan's story begins in a remote and relatively primitive land, before he is removed to an alien world of vibrant cultures and ancient wisdom.
Directed by John Milius, with Oliver Stone credited as a co-writer, and based on a version of the story by L Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, Conan the Barbarian stands to this day as one of the most influential and often imitated fantasy films ever made in the West.
Filmed solely in Spain, Conan the Barbarian makes brilliant use of the extremes in terrain and climate that the country boasts, to transport the audience from the snow-covered mountain lands of Conan's home to the arid deserts of Summeria, as the story follows his quest to avenge the death of his parents.
As a child Conan is stolen away as a slave after his village is put to the torch and its people to the sword by merciless raiders, identified only by the fact that they carry the symbol of two intertwined snakes rearing to face each other. Bound and carried far with the other children of his village, Conan is sold into a life of hard labour. Toiling away his childhood in this manner, he matures into an impressive physical specimen, whom his master decides is too valuable to be wasted on a life of back-breaking monotony.
Instead, Conan's master takes him to a fighting pit, and throws him into combat with a vicious opponent. At first Conan is taken by surprise by this savage assault and offers no resistance save for cowering away from the raining blows. Finally realising that there will be no relenting of the pain, Conan grapples his opponent and pins both his arms behind his back. After disabling his foe, he finishes the man off and basks in the adulation of the crowd. For the first time in his adult life, Conan finds that he has the approval - and even love - of others, even though this stems from his ability to kill. From there on he embarks upon a spree of victories, making himself infamous and his master a very rich man.
With his new-found riches Conan's master takes him to the Far East where he is trained in the martial arts, as well as being given an education in philosophy and literature. But eventually his master grows disillusioned with his lot and releases his charge into the wilds. Abandoned, alone and unarmed, Conan flees from wolves taking refuge in an ancient tomb. Here he finds the skeletal remains of the occupant sitting upon a throne and takes from his hand a sword, which though old is perfectly sound. Upon taking the sword from its hand, the skeleton crumbles and collapses, a potent statement of the strength derived from the wielding of a weapon in these times.
After rescuing the roguish Subotai from the clutches of an overly amorous sorceress, he and Conan head for civilisation where they decide to infiltrate a temple of snake-worshippers, which they learn, operates under a symbol identical to the one that the Cimmerian has been seeking. Here they encounter Valeria for the first time and together manage to plunder a gem known as 'The Eye of the Serpent' with which they embark upon a debauched journey through the vices of the city.
But they are stirred from their revelry by the summons of the powerful King Osric who has heard of their exploits in the temple. Osric, we learn, was once a mighty warrior from the north much like Conan. But the years of his reign as king have sapped his soul and left him disenchanted with the opulence that surrounds him. His one solace was in his daughter, but now even she has been taken away from him by the leader of the cult Thulsa Doom, against whom Conan and his companions have trespassed. He praises their boldness and implores them to return to him his daughter.
Sensing that he is nearing the object of his obsession, Conan leaves under cover of darkness without Valeria and Subotai. Riding towards his goal he happens upon a series of standing stones littered with the remains of long-departed warriors, here he meets a bizarre man claiming to be a powerful wizard. From this point Conan disguises himself as a pilgrim and joins the droves of devotees headed for the mountain stronghold of the cult. As a part of his disguise, Conan wears a jade pendant in the shape of the cult's symbol which he stole from the temple he and his companions raided. Recognising this, Thulsa Doom's followers seize him and crucify him upon a tree, leaving him to the vulture and the desert sun.
But luckily for Conan, Valeria and Subotai have followed him and find his half-dead body just before his life is finally extinguished. With the aid of the wizard's magic they manage to prevent his soul from being dragged away to the spirit world. When he has recovered from his wounds they plan an assault on the cult's stronghold and the rescue of the princess from the clutches of Thulsa Doom.
Sneaking into the stronghold they are treated to an intimate glimpse into the decadent and deeply depraved activities of the cult members as they writhe in an orgy of the flesh and consume a revolting stew of human body-parts. Locating the princess sitting at the feet of Thulsa Doom himself, Conan and his companions await the moment to strike. Aware that he is in danger, Thulsa Doom transforms himself into a snake, slips out of his robes and away through a hole in the wall of the chamber. In the ensuing fracas the trio manage to escape with the reluctant princess, but in the flight from the stronghold Valeria is struck by a snake fired like an arrow by Thulsa Doom. Unfortunately for Conan, the wizard is unable to counter the poison from the snake's bite and Valeria dies soon after.
After mourning Valeria and burning her body in accordance with the customs of her people, Conan and Subotai prepare for retribution from Thulsa Doom and his acolytes with the aid of the wizard. Together they set traps among the standing stones near the dwelling of the wizard and wait for their foe's arrival. When Thulsa Doom's riders thunder into the alleyways between the stones many are felled by the traps while others are picked off by Subotai's arrows and Conan's lightning fast strikes from the shadows. Thulsa Doom meanwhile, watches from a nearby rise as his men are picked off one by one and finally retreats as Conan slays Rexor, his right-hand man and reclaims his father's sword.
Conan pursues the fleeing cult leader to his stronghold and confronts him before a valley filled with his followers bearing torches in the darkness. Before this impressive backdrop, Thulsa Doom insists to Conan that he is in actual fact more his father than the man whom his men killed those many years ago as he has devoted his life to hunting him down and the man he is today is a result of the high priest's actions. Conan ponders this for a long moment and then beheads Thulsa Doom with the same blade that he used to inflict that fate upon his mother. One by one the pilgrims cast their torches into the pool at the base of the temple steps and Conan sits alone atop the steps in deep contemplation.
Cast of Characters
Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger)
The film opens with the young Conan's father recounting to him the myths of his people - the Cimmerians. In particular the grandeur of 'Crom', their principal deity and the legend of mankind discovering the secret of steel after it was discarded by the gods upon the battlefield. But the relative peace of their home in the frozen north is shattered when their village is destroyed by raiders. Conan's parents are slaughtered and he is taken into slavery. The only clue he has to the identity of his parent's killers is the banner of two serpents under which they ride. From this point on the pursuit of this symbol dominates his life. Trained as a pit-fighter, Conan shows a true flare for the art of the warrior and once he is released by his master he is left with only his skill with the blade and a burning desire for vengeance.
Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones)
Leader of the sinister and powerful snake cult slowly spreading its influence throughout the known world, Thulsa Doom commands the absolute loyalty of his followers in mind and body. In his younger days Thulsa Doom sought to increase his power through the pursuit of steel, raiding far and wide seeking the finest examples of the weaponsmith's art and bringing death and destruction in his wake. One day this brought him to the lands of the Cimmerians and to the village of the young Conan and the rest is, as they say, history. The older and wiser Thulsa Doom, whom Conan pursues as an adult, somewhat regrets the time spent in this way, as he has now come to reject the strength of steel for that of the flesh and believes that true power lies in the hands of he who dominates the will of humanity.
Valeria (Sandahl Bergman)
A statuesque Valkyrie1 of a woman, Valeria bumps into Conan and Subotai as they attempt to raid a temple of Thulsa Doom's snake cult. After insulting their efforts, she virtually dares them to follow her over the perimeter wall. Once inside the trio succeed in stealing valuables, killing a very large snake, and earning the ire of the cult. The feisty and formidable Valeria makes the perfect partner to Conan's stolid warrior demeanour and the two develop a close relationship. As with Subotai, Valaeria follows Conan to the end, in pursuit of Thulsa Doom and his minions.
Rexor (Ben Davidson)
Clad in black armour, wielding the blade that he stole from Conan's dying father, this formidable warrior is the right-hand man of Thulsa Doom and the main enforcer of his will. Popping up at various intervals in the film, Rexor participates in both the raid upon Conan's village, the final showdown between the Cimmerian, and the forces of his mortal foe. Needless to say, his death at Conan's hands brings closure ever nearer to the eponymous hero.
Subotai (Gerry Lewis)
A rogue by nature and a skilled warrior in his own right, Conan happens across Subotai chained up and left to the wolves. Luckily for him Conan decides to set him free and the two travel on together towards civilisation, becoming close friends in each other's company. Subotai follows Conan to the bitter end in his quest to hunt down his parents' killers.
The Wizard (Mako)
Dwelling among the skeletons of long-departed warriors, singing at night to ease the spirits, this odd character nevertheless eventually takes a certain shine to Conan and his companions after they happen upon him on the way to the stronghold of Thulsa Doom. Aiding in their quest, he uses his skills to bring Conan back from the brink of death and lends what help he can to defeat the minions of the snake-cult of Thulsa Doom.
King Osric (Max Von Sydow)
Hearing of the daring raid upon the temple, Osric has Conan and his companions brought before him, and praises their actions against the cult that has ensnared his own daughter, and driven her to attempt to kill him then flee to the cult's stronghold, beyond his reach. Promising them any thing they desire as reward he begs them to find and return her.