Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
I’m going to be real with y’all: I finally saw the original Conan the Barbarian for the first time a couple of days ago, when I watched it with my boyfriend. Somehow I had caught Red Sonja but missed the original recipe, and I assumed they would be two peas in a pod. Boy, was I wrong. Conan the Barbarian is truly awesome. Not that you can’t have a certain amount of fun with Red Sonja, particularly if you’re watching it with a big group of friends and a lot of booze. But you don’t need a drinking game to get through Conan the Barbarian. To my surprise and delight, it’s a legitimately good action flick that requires no irony to enjoy.
You all know the story. Conan’s family gets murdered when he’s just a little guy. He gets enslaved with a bunch of other orphans, and together they have to push the spokes of a giant wheel for all eternity. One day, after all the other slaves have graduated and it’s only grown-up Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) pushing the wheel all by himself, he gets thrown into a pit and forced to fight another slave to the death. Conan lives to fight another day and becomes the champion slave-gladiator, until one day his slave driver frees him in the middle of the night. Now that he’s free, he can go seek revenge.
Conan immediately acquires a sidekick, Subotai (Gerry Lopez), and a badass lady friend, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), and together they find the lair of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), the snake-priest who killed Conan’s family. They bust in, steal the temple loot, and kill the giant snake (a puppet that nonetheless looks way better than the CGI snake in Anaconda). Now they’re victorious and they can party all the time.
But the life of leisure doesn’t agree with them, so they volunteer to rescue King Osric’s (Max von Sydow’s) daughter, who has fallen under Thulsa Doom’s spell. Several battles ensue, one in Thulsa Doom’s palace on an acropolis, and another out on the plains where Conan lies in wait for Thulsa Doom and his hair-metal-band bodyguards. Conan’s girlfriend dies from a snake-arrow to the chest, but Conan avenges her death and the deaths of his family and rescues the king’s wayward daughter.
The main thing that impressed me about this movie is how great it looks. Based on the subject matter and the time period in which it was made, I was expecting something cheesy. But the producers really invested a lot in building the world of this film. The sets are absolutely gorgeous, especially Thulsa Doom’s palace. We get many cool shots of it from both the top and the bottom of its magnificent staircase that goes up the side of the mountain. The costumes and props look real and weighty. There’s a huge stone bowl in the palace full of what looks like split pea soup with people parts instead of ham, and when Conan tips it over, it genuinely looks like it weighs a ton as it bounces down the steps and crashes at the bottom. Conan’s costumes look both utilitarian and badass; he has to fight a bunch of wild dogs near the beginning, and in the next shot you see him draped in dog furs. His big sword and horned helmet are also pretty fresh. And the fight scenes, of which there are many, are lovingly choreographed and surprisingly convincing. My favorite is the aforementioned scene in the palace—Conan, Subotai, and Valeria are covered in streaky black camouflage paint, which makes them look extremely menacing and badass.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how socially progressive this film is. I had been complaining to my boyfriend earlier in the evening about the book I’m reading and its unfortunate portrayal of the lone female character. When Valeria was about to be introduced, he said, “Speaking of female characters, I think you’ll like this one.” This is obviously Conan’s story, but Valeria is his true partner. She’s a fighter just like he is, and except for the one battle Conan insists on fighting himself, both she and Subotai ride into battle with him as equals. When she dies, she gets a warrior’s funeral. Along the same lines, there are lots of characters of various non-white ethnicities, and that’s never treated as something that requires an explanation. Fantasy worlds that just happen to conform to the same gender and ethnic roles as ours always strike me as a failure of imagination, so I was heartened to see a film make some attempt to ignore those roles, especially this early on in action-movie history.
Until now I’d never seen Arnold do anything more physically strenuous than carry and shoot a gun. As impressive as he’s always looked, I have preferred action stars who can do cool stuff. But the Arnold of Conan is the total package. He wields a sword convincingly, he rides around the mountains on a horse, and his performance is totally appropriate for the role. I was surprised at how much Conan worked for me. If you’ve never seen it, give it a try. It goes down easy with or without a drinking game (though I will always choose “with”).
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.