Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Admin note: I’m filing this under “book review” because it’s part of my review of Conan as a series, which is mostly books. We are, however, reviewing the 1982 movie and not its novelization, which I was unable to find in digital format.

The 1982 Conan the Barbarian doesn’t fit into any timeline at all unless you completely excise every other attempt to depict Conan’s early years. That said, it is quite possibly the best depiction of Conan’s early years of all. Michael A. Stackpole’s depiction of Conan up to Venarium is the only one that’s even giving Conan ’82 any competition, and even then it’s not exactly a close race.

Conan ’82 is not flawless. Several of its flaws can be filed under the header of “fuck the 80s.” The two most prominent examples:

-Early on, Conan very probably rapes someone for basically no reason. I mean, in-universe the reason is that he’s been enslaved since childhood and is now an obedient dog doing pretty much whatever he’s told, and he was told to breed with another slave. Out-of-universe, though, you can excise the entire scene and nothing is lost. If you really need some tits at that point in the runtime, you could’ve just had the woman be less clearly scared of Conan.

-One of the priests of Thulsa Doom’s evil cult is a predatory gay guy, whom Conan lures away from the rest of the cult by pretending to be shy about his body, then kills him and takes his clothes. Killing people and taking their clothes is something Arnold Schwarzenegger does surprisingly often in his movies.

The second one is actually significantly less bad in a modern context than in the era it came out in, at least. Back in the 80s, this was part of an overall trend in which all gay people were depicted as predatory and evil. These days, there’s a growing library of films, tv shows, books, video games, etc. etc. with gay people who aren’t necessarily evil, which means that this movie having a bit part where one specific gay guy is a predatory priest part of a predatory cult is less of a commentary on all gay people and more a way of depicting the predatory nature of Thulsa Doom’s cult. That isn’t really to the filmmakers credit, because it’s not when filming the scene they were thinking “okay, sure, this scene is harmful now, but with our clairvoyant superpowers we can predict that forty years from now cultural context will change and make it better,” but cultural context has changed, will probably continue to change, and eventually this scene won’t even be a problem.

A more enduring problem (and one that can’t simply be completely excised with no harm to the rest of the film) is the shoddy pacing of the first hour. The movie actually begins with really good pacing, and is easily my favorite depiction of the violent destruction of Conan’s Cimmerian roots. Rather than trying to build up our attachment to Cimmeria first, the movie just cuts to the chase and burns the village to the ground. Conan’s parents’ futile defiance of the invaders made me like them more than Harry Turtledove managed with an entire book (or John Maddox Roberts managed with one chapter, but at least it was just one chapter).

After that, however, the movie loses itself in vignettes for a full hour. This isn’t nearly as bad as it could be because all of the vignettes are individually good (except the one where he meets the witch who tries to eat him, that one was terrible, but it at least serves the purpose of establishing Conan’s vengeance quest). From the death of Conan’s parents in the first ten minutes to the one hour mark, Conan wanders from one vignette to another, finally getting a lead on Thulsa Doom and bringing the first act to a close. In between he meets two valuable allies and punches a camel, but you could’ve completely rearranged the order of the scenes in the script and changed nothing. With some clever editing, you might even be able to rearrange the order of the scenes in the existing movie without affecting the flow of the plot at all. Scenes don’t build on each other, they just happen in sequence.

Side note: One of those vignettes is basically a page-for-page recreation of The Thing in the Crypt, with only the fight with the mummy excised, probably because special effects didn’t allow for the mummy to be convincingly threatening. Another one of those vignettes is pretty clearly based on the Tower of the Elephant, albeit with much more significant differences. Part of the reason the movie is so incompatible with the rest of Conan lore is because it’s a reintepretation of several stories set early in Conan’s career.

Once Conan sets out to track down Thulsa Doom on his own, the movie’s pacing is much better. Conan has an act two down beat where he abandons his friends to live rich off their winnings while he seeks revenge alone, infiltrating Thulsa Doom’s cult. The cult is a vague sketch, much like every other setting element in the film, but much like every other setting element in the film, the bits we see are done competently enough to suggest that there really is a proper brainwashing, suicidal zeal-inspiring cult there. Conan is captured by Thulsa Doom, they have a conversation that serves as a dark mirror of the “riddle of steel” conversation Conan had with his father right before his home village got burned down, and is crucified and left to die on the Tree of Woe, only for his friends to bail out. I have no idea how they found him, but Conan is revived and is subsequently much more successful in his battle with Thulsa Doom.

The raid on his mountain lair to kidnap the princess he culted and the subsequent battle where they use her as bait to lure Thulsa Doom into a fight on their own terms are both fantastic. Thulsa Doom’s cult is the perfect Conan villain, using indoctrination and brainwashing to command absolute loyalty from his followers in a way that epitomizes the tyrannical dark side of civilization for which Conan the barbarian is the ultimate foil. The lighting and music in the slave workshop within Thulsa Doom’s mountain lair really helps sell it, too.

The final final battle with Thulsa Doom is really perfunctory, like the filmmakers wanted the scene where he abandons his follower to Conan, but then realized that it’s the 80s and we don’t really have film franchises so much as just sequel hooks, so they have to make sure Conan kills the villain in the first one. Thulsa does get a really good couple of lines where he tries to establish himself as Conan’s surrogate father and highlights the problem with revenge better than most films do: Conan’s entire goal is to get revenge, so if he actually gets it, what’s left? Without Thulsa Doom, what’s left of Conan? I feel like Conan could’ve used a line here where he asserts some other thing he has to live for once Thulsa is gone, rather than just looking conflicted for a second before killing Thulsa anyway, but at least Thulsa’s lines were good.

The movie also has really good supporting characters. I had to look up Valeria’s name on Wikipedia, but for all that the film dropped the ball on properly identifying her, this mainly just makes her hard to talk about (still something movies should avoid doing – you want people to be able to discuss your characters easily). Conan stories frequently dress up a female character as a capable combatant and then fail to deliver (Legion of the Dead was particularly egregious with this), but Valeria gets a higher body count than Conan in every battle she appears in except the last, wherein she doesn’t actually kill anyone but does save Conan’s life, which is a bigger accomplishment than it sounds like given she had to come back from the dead to do it. Her valkyrie costume was dorky as Hell, but it was still an awesome moment. Subotai is Conan’s faithful best friend, and has that Samwise Gamgee quality of being the guy Conan can always rely on to have his back.

Conan scholarship generally agrees that film Conan is more of a brute and both less cunning and less incessantly committed to his barbarian freedom than book Conan. I don’t find film Conan to be less cunning. His infiltration of Thulsa Doom’s cult is only revealed because Thulsa is a literal wizard who sees through him instantly even from a hundred yards away, and his subsequent subterfuge when raiding Thulsa’s mountain lair and defending the ruins against Thulsa’s attacks both demonstrate a lot of intelligence. Conan definitely resists slavery much less in the film than in the book, but this makes sense to me: Film Conan was raised in slavery, and doesn’t really become Conan the barbarian until the moment when he strikes off the shackle at the end of the Thing in the Crypt scene.

You could do worse than swapping out Conan ’82 in place of Conan’s early years, even though you’re losing not just a single story, but several by doing so. Clearly you lose Conan of Venarium and Conan the Bold, and you also lose the Thing in the Crypt and, by extension, the Legion of the Dead. Conan emerges from the ’82 movie as an extremely accomplished thief, possibly accomplished enough that many other Conan as thief stories no longer make sense (I haven’t read the Tower of the Elephant in a while, but my recollection is that there are enough differences that you could probably have it stand alongside the Tower of the Serpent scene without feeling like a rerun). The main thing you’d lose in such a scheme is that Conan is saved by a lover returning from beyond the grave twice, as that specific character beat originally belonged to the pirate queen Belit, one of the best characters in Robert E. Howard’s original stories. Details of how to arrange the timeline can wait for the wrap-up post on Conan origin stories, though (which is coming soon), because the real takeaway here is that Conan ’82 is very probably the best Conan origin story we’ve ever gotten, despite at least three and possibly five attempts, depending on how you count them.

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