Originally created by Robert E. Howard, the character of Conan first appeared in a short story in 1932. Eventually, Conan would come to be written by others, and then he would find himself in a comic book. Now, with Conan the Cimmerian returning to the big screen in 2011, Universal Studios is also releasing the first two Conan movies to Blu-ray.
As described in one of the bonus features on Conan the Barbarian (1982), the character’s journey to the big screen the first time around was something of a tortuous one. A number of drafts and concepts were gone through before the final script, written by Oliver Stone and then rewritten by John Milius (who also directs the film) went into production. As for Conan in these first two films—the other being 1984’s Conan the Destroyer—he is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, at a time when the actor turned politician turned actor was still muscle-bound and not particularly good delivering dialogue. The only other actor to appear in both films is Mako, who is Conan’s wizard companion and tells the tale.
Milius’ take on Conan may not make for the best of films, but it is at the very least good at what it does. Virtually all the heavy-lifting in the film is done by the excellent score of Basil Poledouris, with dialogue kept to an utter minimum at all times. The film is by no means a silent movie, but it is almost shocking to witness the complete dearth of lines Schwarzenegger is able to utter as the titular character. Odd though it may be, Milius’ tactic works, and every time Conan does say something those in the audience will shudder at just how wooden Schwarzenegger sounds when he delivers them.
The film is not about Conan talking, it is about Conan fighting and Conan maiming. Conan the Barbarian is a bloody, brutal film which features the Cimmerian’s upbringing, learning the ways of battle, and looking to revenge the destruction of his village and death of his parents. The movie explains its plot not by having Conan do a lot of talking and thinking out of his problems, but by giving Schwarzenegger a really good supporting cast and having them talk when dialogue is required.
Conan is sent on a quest by King Osric (Conan wants to go because it fits with his need for revenge), played by Max von Sydow, and the villainous tribe of snake-worshipping bad guys are led by Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones. Our hero is helped on his way by his friend Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the woman he falls in love with, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), as well as his wizard friend.
It is a classic ban of heroes coming together in order to beat a great enemy. In fact, the entirety of the movies is really a very classic swords and sorcery-type adventure, but a well done one.
Conan the Barbarian succeeds because it knows what it is and it doesn’t try to be anything different than that. Conan the Destroyer, directed by Richard Fleischer, fails almost completely, and does so because it jettisons that which makes the original work. In Destroyer, Schwarzenegger gets a larger percentage of the dialogue, but delivers it in just as wooden a fashion as in Barbarian. Rather than going out and surrounding Conan with great actors like James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow, here Wilt Chamberlain is given a prominent part. Gone is the relatively subdued Subotai (Gerry Lopez) as Conan’s sidekick, with Tracey Walter in his place as the solely written for laughs Malak. Walter is a great character actor, but with Stanley Mann’s screenplay, Malak’s buffoonery is old and annoying before the first scene draws to a close and one wonders why Conan hasn’t throttled his companion before the movie begins.
While Barbarian may not have the tightest of plots, the plot holes in Destroyer threaten to swallow the entire picture. It is one of those movies where, every time a character takes an action—or fails to—you’ll find yourself saying “Wait, why didn’t they just…”
The plot, such as it is, involves Conan escorting a teen princess (Olivia d’Abo) to get a magical key so that she can get a magical horn so that her Aunt can bring a magical god back to life. From even before the entire journey starts it is clear than Conan is being deceived (thankfully the film doesn’t take long to admit to that) and that everything will still work out in the end.
One knows going into Barbarian that Conan will win eventually, but he at least still has to struggle for that victory. In Destroyer there is only a minimal amount of struggle necessary, the film is much more concerned with the variety of foe—magical and otherwise—which Conan can defeat, and not with making the battles terribly personal or difficult. It is hard to suggest that Barbarian is not about spectacle, but Destroyer has nothing else and in making it solely about that, it loses something important.
As if to acknowledge just how less good Conan the Destroyer is versus Conan the Barbarian, Universal’s brand new Blu-ray releases provide a number of special features for Barbarian and distinct lack of them for Destroyer. Barbarian comes with never before seen archival interviews, deleted scenes, a roughly 60 minute making-of documentary, artwork, a look at a special effect, a feature commentary track with Milius & Schwarzenegger, and a piece on what goes into making a sword. Destroyer comes with the theatrical trailer. Now, not every bonus feature on Barbarian is good – there seems to be a slight video issue in the piece on sword making which causes objects in the picture to looked jagged from time to time, and the look at a special effect is merely a split screen showing the raw footage and the footage after it was altered. However, the making-of piece is exceptionally interesting and provides great background on how the film came to in being. It is completely engaging and well worth the time it takes to watch.
The technical aspects of the features are far more similar than the quality of the film itself. Both are English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks and the Poledouris score (he worked on both films) comes across beautifully in each. The dialogue too is clear and the surrounds really help situate the viewer. There are definitely moments when a sword hit or a punch or some other effect doesn’t feel to carry the weight that it should, but those sounds seem more attributable to their conception rather than their presentation. It is clear that work has been done with the visuals on each as these are nearly 30 year old movies and they are virtually scratch and blemish free. Darkly lit scenes in Destroyer have a tendency to have more noise than they do in Barbarian and are at times distracting, but the sweat on Arnold’s muscles glistens and beads beautifully. As seems to be the case with so many films, more work has been done on close-ups, to make sure that the detail on the actors are good, rather than in long shots which does lead to something akin to a grainy flicker at times. There is, in short, little to not like about the transfers.
While I certainly feel it possible to recommend Conan the Barbarian to fans of the genre (or the works of the Governator), Destroyer is one of those movies I see being purchased for completion’s sake rather than because people want it for its own merits. Conan the Barbarian is bloody good fun, Conan the Destroyer is a semi-bloody bore.