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.
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