Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Movie Review: "Conan the Barbarian" (1982) by David Pretty

As a Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed kid, the only movies I ever needed for instant DM-inspiration were Clash of the Titans, Excalibur and Conan the Barbarian.  Listen to me now and believe me later: if you watch the John Milius / Arnold Schwarzenegger film right after viewing the 2011 "re-imagining", then you will know the difference a script makes.

In fact, there's more effective film-making in the opening credit sequence here then there is in the entire run time of the recent Marcus Nispel version.  Mako's brief but flavorful narration provides plenty of set-up for Conan's world of Hyboria and the story we're about to see.  Set to the pounding strains of Basil Poledouris's "Anvil of Crom", the primal clips of sword-forgery that follow are quick to inspire chills.  Were off to a great start, folks.

John Milius continues to establish his milieux with several evocative shots of snow-covered, wind-swept mountain peaks.  Although the accompanying matte composition is hideous, William Smith's lecture about the nature of steel to young Conan in sincerely delivered and oddly heartfelt.  Again, screenwriters Milius and Oliver Stone manage to cram more character development into this one five-minute dialogue sequence then the newer version could conjure up in fifteen.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the musical accompaniment provided by Basil Poledouris turns the assault on Conan's village into a tragically Wagnerian scene of slaughter and loss.  The fact that the film's producers built a real working village populated by impeccably-costumed extras shows an unparalleled dedication to detail.  Also notable is the level of craftsmanship displayed in the helmets, costumes, shields, armor and weapons.  Hell, even the war horses and mastiffs are appropriately barded.  Although there's a certain consistency in the appearance of Thulsa Doom's flunkies, his lieutenants have been granted the privilege of customizing their own weapons and armor.  It's a nice touch.      

James Earl Jones is completely hypnotic here as Thulsa Doom.  I can't think of very many actors who posses the same in-born screen presence.  With his dark skin, straight hair and piercing blue eyes, the character of Doom seems wildly exotic and his warped Nietzschean philosophies make him one of the most interesting and multi-dimensional villains in cinema history.  I love antagonists who are clearly oblivious to the fact that everyone else in the film considers them to be a monster.

After everyone in his village is callously slaughtered, L'il Conan (played to mute perfection by young Spanish actor Jorge Sanz) is spirited away to do some hard time on the Wheel of Pain.  I suspect that production designer Ron Cobb's name will also pop up in this review quite a bit.  The Wheel is a genuine construct with a practical function, even though this isn't expressly communicated to the audience.  It's most astute purpose, of course, is to provide Milius with the opportunity to deliver one of the most memorable "Coming of Age" montages ever filmed.  The reveal of Arnold Schwarzenegger as everyone's favorite barbarian must have caused hoots of approval in theaters back in 1982.

Milius best described his hulking star on set back in 1982 when he said "if we didn't have a Schwarzenegger, we would have to have built him!"  People who want to take the piss out of Arnold for his performance would do well to watch him carefully here and with an open mind.  Physically he's perfect for the role and his thick Austrian accent actually gives the character a logically exotic quality.  Although he does spend a considerable amount of screen time either mute or shouting incomprehensibly, he does provide a lot of great moments which I'll try to point out as they occur.      

The first of which comes during the notorious Pit Fight sequence.  Years before Andy Whitfield ventured into the "Pits of the Underworld" in Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Schwarzenegger fought for his life with brutal instinct in this vicious set-piece.  There's no highly-choreographed and fraudulent-looking swordplay at work here, just two dudes trying to murderfy one another in the most vicious manner possible.  It's very brutal, very real and the persistent sound of bones breaking and sharp things being jabbed into flesh is borderline stomach-turning.  As Conan continues to rack up one victory after another, Schwarzenegger's natural confidence and charisma begins to shine through.  This foreshadows his stellar confrontation with Rexor  (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven Ole Thorsen) later on in the film.  

Despite its surfeit of mock-classical dialogue, the script for Conan the Barbarian actually acquits itself quite well.  Instead of doing this half-assed, Milius and Stone give us lines that sounds as if they were culled directly from an R.H. Howard story.  Mercifully, the actors deliver this antiquated speech with equal parts conviction and aplomb.  Witness the classic "What is best in life?" exchange between Conan and the Mongol General.  Scenes like this make me feel as if I'm watching Schwarzenegger's authority blossom along with the character.  

After Conan narrowly avoids a pack of wolves and then plummets into the Atlantean cave, Milius and Stone really betray their love for the character's pulp roots.  This entire sequence is pretty much a direct adaptation of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter's early Conan tale "The Thing In The Crypt".  Once again, Ron Cobb's convincing set design is just as good as anything I've seen on film before or after.  If I didn't know any better I'd say that Milius pulled a fast one, broke into some ancient tomb somewhere, dropped Arnold down into it and then started shooting guerilla-style.

Lensing the film in Spain also afforded the production some amazing exteriors.  Witness the visually interesting environs traversed by Conan en route to his encounter at the hut.  Above and beyond the film's varied locales, Milius and his casting director Rosa Garcia also managed to assemble some of the  most exotic-looking women imaginable.  From Conan's mom played by German-born soft-core porn actress Nadiuska to the late Valérie Quennessen as the Princess to Filipino-American model/actress Cassandra Gava as the Witch, every women in the movie looks like she emerged from a Frank Frazetta painting or wandered out of a John Buscema comic book panel.

The encounter with the witch also serves to illustrate the film's analog approach to special effects.  Shot w-a-a-a-a-a-y before the advent of CGI, the witch's mid-coital transformation was easily achieved with some dramatic lighting, a basic make-up application, some horrific sound effects, a few explosive squibs and a brief optical effect.  The end result is a sequence that's weirder, grittier and somehow more authentic then anything computer animation could have conjured up.

Now I'm not sure how Subotai (Gary Lopez) suddenly came to be chained up behind the witch's cabin but I'm certainly glad that it happened.  Although it's kinda odd that Milius didn't cast an Asian actor for the part (the voice of the Hawaiian-born Lopez was even overdubbed by Japanese-American stage actor Sab Shimono) everything worked out for the best.  As Subotai, Lopez turns in a performance that's wily, nuanced and highly acute.  Sadly there's no equivalent for the "My God can beat up your God" fireside chat with Schwarzenegger in the 2011 film, and that explains a lot.  Critics of Arnold would also do well to watch this scene carefully, since he also displays considerable nuance.

As the duo attempt to track down Thulsa Doom, the plot meanders around like a classic D&D hex-crawl.  By the time Conan and Subotai arrive at the city of Shadizar (a full-scale set, not a crappy model or a matte painting) we're completely sold on the reality established by Milius and his production team.  The sights, sounds and (EEP!) smells of these locations seem almost palpable.  In fact, there aren't very many movies that succeed in immersing their characters in a real environment quite like Conan the Barbarian does.      

After Arnold plows an offending camel while whacked out on Black Lotus you begin to suspect this was prior to the whole "no animals were harmed during the making of this movie" blurb which is now de rigueur in the credits of every film.  Now, don't get me wrong, I think animal abuse is unforgivable, but the olde skool sensibilities that brought Conan the Barbarian to the screen makes the movie feel edgy, dangerous and kinda grind-housey.  It like the movie was produced by a drugged-out cabal of carnival folk and WWF wrestlers.    

Next up we have the good fortune of meeting Sandahl Bergman as Valaria.  Unfortunately, because some key dialogue with Schwarzenegger and Lopez was excised, you can only learn her character's name by sticking around to the final credits, researching it on the interwebs or if you were lucky enough to be reading Starlog magazine back in 1982.  Not only is she possessed of that elusive "Frazettan" quality and clearly knows he way around a scimitar, she also has the acting chops to navigate her way through the film's more florid dialogue.  It's interesting to compare Valaria to Rachel Nichols's unconvincing and forgettable turn as Tamara in the woefully underwritten 2011 film.

I love that Milius requisitioned an actual tower and forced his actors to climb up it.  Indeed, both the interior and the exterior of the Serpent Tower is another tremendous Ron Cobb creation.  By populating the bowels of the Tower with a gloriously authentic-looking giant snake (designed by Nick Allder) it all adds up to an wonderfully iconic sequence.  When Schwarzenegger crams his dagger into the lower jaw of the giant reptile and releases that torrent of stage blood, you know that he's really attacking something.  When he gets snared in the serpent's coils, you can see that he's really being thrown around by a powerful foe.  When Subotai buries a couple of arrows into the snake's cranium, it looks totally nasty.  And finally, when Conan delivers that deathblow which cleaves the thing right in two, the effect is gleefully nauseating. 

Clearly my boy rolled a "20" to hit.

After this we get an amusing scene in which our besotted heroes enjoy the spoils of thievery.  Again,  Schwarzenegger exhibits a modicum of range via some astute comedic timing and convincing, if not genuine, levels of intoxication.  This scene segues nicely into a Shakespearean tongue-lashing courtesy of King Osric (Max Von Sydow).  It's regrettable that Von Sydow never gets a chance to play hot-blooded characters, since he really seems to relish the opportunity provided by Osric.  After beginning the scene with a posture of hostility and ridicule, Von Sydow effortlessly conjures up heartbreak and disbelief over thoughts of his estranged daughter.  His reaction to Subotai's sudden appearance alone is fantastic.  "Lions ate him" he parrots, sounding genuinely bemused.  

As Conan begins his solo quest to find Thulsa Doom's Mountain of Power, Milius takes the opportunity to expand on Hyboria's geography and environments.  Along the way, he meets the Wizard of the Mounds, played by Academy Award nominee Mako.  After one of the best entrances in cinema history, Mako's Wizard is called upon to exhibit a genuine range of emotions from child-like glee, sarcastic bitchery, craven babbling, and rank intimidation.  In fact, Mako comes perilously close to stealing every scene that he's in.

Although most critics are quick to write off a film like Conan the Barbarian as a cheesy early-80's sword and sorcery flick, there are many moments that rival the grandeur of classic Hollywood epics such as Ben Hur and Cleopatra.  If you want spectacle, look no further then Doom's Mountain of Power: a spectacular set built right onto the face of a breathtaking hill in Spain and populated by fifteen hundred fully-costumed extras.  Even though most contemporary directors would justify shooting all of this with CGI because it's "easier to do that way", I fear that inflation now makes incredible practical sets like this cost prohibitive nowadays.

During this sequence, Schwarzenegger betrays some of his shortcomings as a neophyte actor.  His awkward (and marginally homophobic) run-in with a male priest is downright wince-inducing.  This is followed by a inadvertently funny scene in which he merrily struts around Doom's camp in "disguise", looking about as inconspicuous as Sheldon Cooper at a Nas concert.  At the very least his discovery and capture certainly doesn't strain believability.

True to the film's "that which does not kill you makes you stronger" ethos, the torture scene and Tree of Woe sequence that follow are both pretty harrowing.  I love the Cult of Personality thing that Doom is constantly rocking.  When one of his drones blissfully jumps to her death with the slightest coaxing, he's certainly within his right to proclaim: "That is strength, boy!  That is power!"  Before ordering his crucifixion, Doom take a moment out his busy schedule to answer the Riddle of Steel.  In doing so, not only does he destroy Conan physically, he also calls into question his very existence.  "Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart...I gave you this!  Such a waste," he laments.

Conan is pulled back from the brink of death via a bizarre ritual with all the trappings of a real pagan ceremony.  Once again, Milius applies the same basic techniques that made the witch cabin sequence so effective.  Next up, the film-makers deliver a good, old-fashioned dungeon bash.  I love that Milius puts his triumvirate of heroes in camouflaged body paint.  We see it work right up there on the screen, clearly improving our heroes "Hide in Shadow" chances as they attempt to infiltrate Doom's underground fortress.

As Conan, Valeria and Subotai delve deeper into the maze, the lighting team, prop department and set decorators all help to evoke a genuine mood of perverse secrecy and degenerate evil.  And let me tell ya, folks, nothing sets the mood for a good orgy quicker then a little spot o' cannibalism.  Beyond all the stripped human carcasses and the extremity consommé, the sight of Doom resplendent on his ornate throne with a beautiful princess splayed out at his feet is ten times more metal then anything staged for the more recent Conan film.      

Their rampage through the Orgy Chamber is gleefully Chaotic Neutral.  Once again, the Basil Poledouris score takes the skirmish between Conan, Thorgrim and Rexor from thrilling to spine-tingling.  I love how everything in the fight occurs for a reason: the tumbling soup cauldron weakens the central pillar, a hammer blow causes it to crack, and a second strike brings it tumbling down on top of Rexor and effectively ending the battle.  This is also where Schwarzenegger is at his best: single-minded, larger-then-life and more then a little scary.

When James Earl Jones delivers the line "Infidel Defilers. They shall all drown in lakes of blood" you just know that shit's about to get real.  Like his slithery transmutation moments ago, the snake arrow effect really embodies the script's take on sorcery.  Magic isn't showy or pyrotechnic here, it's just a matter of fact.  Peter Jackson would take a similar approach in Fellowship of the Ring years later when Gandalf uses his powers to scare a paranoid Bilbo straight.    

Not long after we get a fantastic restored sequence in which Conan ponders, Ahab-style, a lifetime driven by hate and revenge.  Again, Schwarzenegger's critics really need to study this soliloquy as well as his "Hail Mary" prayer to Crom.  I'm convinced that, with the right director, Arnold is capable of a surprising amount of depth.  Or, at the very least, enough depth to successfully portray a rampaging barbarian.    

We then see another fantastic montage in which Conan, Subotai and the Wizard prepare for the final confrontation.  It doesn't disappoint.  Clearly, Milius and his stunt coordinator Terry Leonard mapped out this fracas in military-level detail.  How can you not love a sequence in which someone is horribly impaled by the equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine?  In direct opposition to the gimmicky denouement of the 2011 film, the narrative told during this action sequence is just as compelling as anything scripted.

After the dust settles, we get another logically-restored scene which finally explains how Conan managed to waltz right back into Doom's Mountain of Power.  Even at the very end, Doom almost charms Conan with the power of ACTING but then he goes and drops that same old tired "I AM YOUR FATHER" crap that he was peddling two short years earlier.  As a result, Conan snaps out of it  and treats Doom to a complementary single-blade Gillette close shave demo.  With the head of the serpent crushed and the body dead, Doom's children cast their candles into the reflecting pool and drift away under a cloud of forlorn resignation.  Kinda makes you wish that someone had perforated Jim Jones in similar fashion before he had a chance to buy that skid of Kool-Aid.

Notwithstanding Conan's Groo-like ability to burn down a stone temple with a single well-placed fire pot, the final reel of the film is very bittersweet to me.  Although Oliver Stone wanted Arnold to come back and play Conan in a new movie once every few years like James Bond (and John Milius certainly had a trilogy in mind at the very least), the last few shots of King Conan wearing the jeweled crown Aquilonia upon a troubled brow makes me alternately sad and angry.  Without the winning combination of Stone, Milius, Cobb, Poledouris and Schwarzenegger everything that followed ended up defiling the spirit of this original classic.

But, alas, that is a tale for another time...          

    Tilt: up.  

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