I came late to the Conan films. I knew it was where a young Arnold Schwarzenegger got his first big movie role, and I remember seeing parts of Conan The Destroyer as a kid, which makes sense as the sequel is far lighter and more kid-friendly than its predecessor, Conan The Barbarian. In fact, I wasn’t really aware of the first movie until adulthood and didn’t see it until only two years ago. I was vaguely aware of it, but always assumed when people mentioned Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan they were talking about the one I had seen.
I saw the 2011 Conan the Barbarian starring Jason Momoa before I saw the 1982 Arnold film as it was on Netflix streaming. I remember it got mediocre reviews, but I found it to be a fun action-adventure-fantasy film. I thought it must outshine the original, I had seen The Destroyer, and despite a fun feeling and a really cute Olivia D’Abo (as a kid that was a big selling point) it was clear the modern take was superior…until I finally saw the 1982 version weeks after I saw the 2011 version.
Many agree the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian is a terrific, grown-up, action-adventure film. I agree, it is a great, great film; but during my viewing of it, I realized there are some big differences in storytelling circa 1982 and storytelling circa 2010. This progression isn’t just strange, but also a little confusing as, in many cases, it feels almost like we’re taking steps forward in technology but steps backward in narrative. It’s something that has been showing up in a lot of films/shows/stories recently, but as these two films are relatively fresh on my mind and display these differences in such bright clarity, I thought I would use the Conan the Barbarian films, 1982 and 2011, as case studies in how film making and storytelling have changed…not necessarily for the better. I’ll steer clear of the Robert E. Howard source material, as not only is that digging into a different concept (printed stories versus movie adaptations), this mini-post-series is about narratives and trends in film making more than the Conan character. I’ll start this week with quick mini-reviews of the two Conan films in question, I actually enjoy them both, but in case anyone hasn’t seen them, I thought a brief intro would be nice:
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
This film was conceived as a possible vehicle for the then up-and-coming star Arnold Schwarzenegger. After being impressed by the body builder’s persona in Pumping Iron, he was cast as the eponymous barbarian as the potential start of a franchise. The film, directed by John Milius, also starred Sandahl Bergman and Gerry Lopez as Conan’s thieving allies, Valeria (who, along with Sorsha in Willow and Selene in the Underworld films is one of my favorite female characters ever) and Subotai (named for the most ferocious of Genghis Khan’s generals). The story is mostly grounded in reality, as we follow Conan’s journey to find the man who slaughtered his village and sent him into slavery. We see Conan the boy, the slave, the pit fighter, the thief, the warrior, and finally the hero. The narrative takes Conan into conflict with Atlantean sorcerer Thulsa Doom (sorcerers were always the most dangerous to Howard’s Conan, as displayed by his arch nemesis Thoth Amon) played terrifically by James Earl Jones with a calm gravitas most villains lack nowadays. Also appearing are legendary Japanese actor, Mako as a wizard and one of the best narrators in film history, and a cameo by Max von Sydow as King Osric who sets Conan’s band on the mission that finally puts him on collision course with Doom. Directed with grandeur, acted with full-force, filled with amazing sets, and loaded with action, 1982’s Conan is what you want out of a “grown up” fantasy film and if you haven’t seen it go check it out now!
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
This version stars Jason Momoa, fresh off his Game of Thrones part, as Conan in a story that shares some similarity with the 1982 film but diverges to become its own, distinct movie. We see much more of Conan’s youth, see his father (played with power by Ron Perleman), and more of Cimmeria. The film’s villain, Khalar Zym, destroys Conan’s village in search of a powerful magical relic that will bring back his necromancer wife. We are then transported to adult-Conan’s life as a reaver and pirate, and we meet his allies Artus and later the thief Ela-Shan. Conan’s “fate” brings him in contact with Princess Tamara and he has to protect her from Zym who needs her to complete his ritual. The most interesting character is actually Zym’s witch daughter, Marique, portrayed with creepy perfection by Rose McGowan. It too is filled with fun action, interesting venues, high-energy action. While not as “complete” a film as the 1982 version, it is still a fun movie, Momoa certainly has the look of Conan, and the story is inventive. Well worth a watch if you like modern fantasy action movies.
With one film made 30 years before the other, and since the latter is neither a direct sequel, nor a true reboot of the original franchise, it stands to reason a lot of differences in narrative, style, and characters would appear. The next in this series will be a look at how the character traits of the Conans in their respective films differ, and how they may represent the prevailing trends of “heroism” during the time they were made.