According to the weirdo, but shamefully funny Pauly Shore comedy Son-in-Law, “charisma” is “… a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires allegiance and devotion.” It’s a rare thing, even amongst the popular, talented, or famous. If Pop Idol and American Idol have proved anything beyond the desire for mass audiences to watch public humiliation, it’s that just being great at something isn’t often sufficient. But being good enough and having a lot of charisma can often be the difference between the singer who makes the records people buy and the singer who simply rings up the records people buy.
No one would ever claim Arnie is a great thespian. I don’t feel he’s given the credit he deserves for being a decent actor most of the time though. Arnold is good at playing Arnold, and these are often the roles he takes. Most people couldn’t name off the top of their heads the characters Arnold plays in Predator, Commando, and The Running Man (Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, John Matrix, and Ben Richards, by the way) as most people just say, “I like it when Arnold did this or that.” But he does emote sadness, humor, goofiness, and rage all effectively, even if it’s essentially the same in most of his movies.
His portrayal of Conan is no different. He very successfully expresses emotion and his Conan is vengeful, inquisitive, ferocious, and gloomy, all believably during the film. When he prays to Crom, you believe it. When he asks “does it always smell this bad? How does the wind ever get in here?” you find yourself asking it along with him. When he glares humorously and knowingly at Subotai for having a better god than him we glare with him.
And why is that? Arnold has charisma. His persona is even bigger than his Mr Olympia biceps. In fact, it’s what got him the part as Conan. Going by Boris Vallejo’s art and Robert E. Howards dark-fringed, sullen-eyed, bronze-skinned Cimmerian, the only aspect Arnie had was his massive physique and his larger-than-life personality, so readily on display in Pumping Iron where he was just being himself. A part he played effectively for the next 30 years. In fact, when you ask a lot of people what they know about Conan they more often than not say some lines, sometimes made up…in Arnold’s voice. He left his stamp on the character as indelibly as he left it on the Terminator. Yeah so-called “better” actors have been in other Terminator movies, but when asked “did you see The Terminator?” no one would respond, “Is that the Christian Bale movie?” despite many people out there jumping on the Bale wagon recently. Many mistakenly believe if Arnold wasn’t a world-class muscleman he wouldn’t ever have been a star. That’s certainly part of what he built his mountain of money on, but if you look at just this film it also stars Ben Davidson and Sven-Ole Thorsen who are arguably bigger and muscley-er than Arnold, but 9 out of 10 people wouldn’t know them. So there is definitely something he has that they don’t. And that something is “a special quality of leadership…yadda yadda yadda.”
The other characters in the 1982 film received their parts for similar reasons. Sandahl Bergman was cast as Valeria after director John Milius saw her in, believe it or not, All That Jazz, and exclaimed “she’s a valkyrie!” Gerry Lopez, Subotai, a surfing buddy of Milius’, received his part based largely on his disarming personality rather than his acting ability, and it is his demeanor more than his dialogue that brings the character out. Yet put together, they created some great characters, and despite my desire to propose marriage to Valeria at any given moment, Subotai comes close to stealing the show.
The guy who really might steal the show is no surprise. Despite a power-house cameo by Max von Sydow and some great over-work by Mako, James Earl Jones is without a doubt one of the most effective villains in fantasy films as Thulsa Doom. The first question I would pose is: how many evil things do you see Thulsa Doom do? Really the only thing you see him do personally is behead Conan’s mother in the beginning of the film; though given the world that’s established you’d think that kind of thing happens all the time. So what makes Doom effective as a villain? Sure he’s a 1,000-year-old sorcerer leader of a cannibal cult, but it’s what he doesn’t do that makes him powerfully scary; not because he can’t just because he couldn’t be bothered. Jones plays him with so much subtle power you’re only moments away from falling to your knees in the worship of Set yourself. Jones actually says he doesn’t want to play his villains in the typical, manic, Batman-villain type crazy evil. Think Darth Vader, and, I think more powerfully, Thulsa Doom. He never gratingly shouts orders or smashes skulls. You know he can but he has “guys” for that. He’s far too powerful to mix it up. So when he says, “Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they learn why they fear the night” you shake in your boots far more than if he drew an axe and roared.
As Doom James Earl Jones radiated silent, subtle power. He wasn’t needlessly cruel or wildly vicious. It made him seem all the more powerful because of his confidence and calm. In that scene it is his utter LACK of emotion that makes him seem so frightening. The scene itself is terrifically done, shot in silence with only the score and Jones to focus emotions.
The characters are all believable for their world and included in an organic, if sometimes convenient ways for the story. Again, this film isn’t perfect (what film is) but for the most part you overlook anything that isn’t 100% pristine because its intentions are so pure and its narrative so excellent. Next time, we’ll look and see how the 2011 characters and actors compare.