In the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s fair to say he’s had two great roles: The Terminator – the unstoppable killing machine that eventually turns kind of good – and Conan the Barbarian. The Austrian born bodybuilder wanted to become a Hollywood star, and was very smart about building his career, but those early films were where he shined brightest. The two Conan films have now hit Blu-ray, and it’s fun to go back and watch him do what he did best. Our reviews of the Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer Blu-rays follow after the jump.
In the first Conan film, it’s somewhat an origin story, but it never feels like one (perhaps because that only takes up the first reel). Conan’s parents are killed off by Thusla Doom (James Earl Jones), and Conan is raised to be a gladiator, but eventually settles into a life of thieving with Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), who becomes Conan’s true love. Eventually Conan is asked by King Osric (Max Von Sydow) to save his daughter, and offers Conan riches, but Conan is sold on rescuing the princess when he gets to go up against Thulsa Doom again for revenge.
John Milius is the perfect director for the material; he’s a madman himself and gets off on this sort of thing. But that means he stages the film brilliantly, and I love the look and feel of this world. It doesn’t come across as stage-bound or cheap – the money’s on the screen, and it’s better than all of the imitators that followed (though – like anyone who grew up with cable – I have a soft spot for The Beastmaster).
You also get the impression that Milius directed Schwarzenegger within an inch of his life, and it’s probably not enough, but it works for the film. From his other work, I don’t know if Schwarzenegger ever gave as nuanced a performance – which isn’t saying much – but I love the subtle quirks of the material. There’s a great scene where Subotai and Conan have a discussion about their belief systems, and what’s great is that Conan considers them. But it’s also a great scene about belief, period. And the script by Oliver Stone and Milius is just jam-packed with memorable quotes and a great sense of the scale. It’s hard to make a film that is campy but not expressly gay in that camp, but this film walks the fine line of absurdity that is required of the genre. You can laugh with it, but the film takes itself just seriously enough that you can dig in and enjoy the film on the level intended.
Conan the Destroyer is a much cheaper and sillier film. Richard Fleischer (who helmed The Vikings) gives it a lighter touch, and the film is less serious and much shorter (the original is over two hours, this one is 103 minutes). Conan is asked by Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas) to escort princess Jehnna (Olivia d’Abo) to get a treasure. Conan’s joined by his sidekick Malak (Tracey Walter) and carryover from the last film Akiro, the wizard (Mako). Protecting the princess is Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain), and he’s told to kill Conan when the mission is finished, while Conan saves the life of Zula (Grace Jones) who joins their motley crew.
This film doesn’t have the scale of the last film, but it does have more money than the Italian knock-offs that came around this time, and though Schwarzenegger isn’t as well used, he’s still perfect for the role. This one is more in line with Krull – it’s on the level of distracted (possibly hungover) Sunday afternoon fodder. Watching it again, I realized that whenever I think of an open wound, or missing tooth, I think of the image of the final monster’s removed horn. Some images seen in childhood have a staying power that is transcendent of one’s initial viewing. Watching it again, that moment still gripped me. Even if I was reacting to its place in my subconscious.
Conan the Barbarian comes in a perfect looking widescreen (2.35:1) transfer with the film in DTS-HD 5.1 surround, a soundtrack that highlights Basil Poledoris’s exemplary score work, though The Digital Bits has noted that there are some discrepancies in the soundtrack transfer. There are also new extras for this edition, which is nice, and all of the old favorites. The commentary track with John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger is included, and it starts with a gay joke, so you can tell it’s classy. The supplements start with six deleted scenes (6 min.), and then there’s the making of (53 min.) with comments from Arnold, Oliver Stone, Dino De Laurentis, John Milius, Sandal Bergman, James Earl Jones, Max Von Sydow and others involved with the production. It’s a great piece on the movie. New is “Art of Steel: Sword Makers and Masters” (15 min.) which is self-explanatory and modestly film related, and it’s followed by “Conan: From the Vault” (10 min.) which features period interviews with Arnold and the cast and Milius. “Special Effects” (2min.) shows a side by side version of the sequence where Conan is nearly taken by spirits, while “The Conan Archives” (12 min.) offers a still gallery. Two trailers are also included.
Conan the Destroyer only comes with a trailer. Sad Panda. But the film is presented in a gorgeous widescreen (2.35:1) transfer in 5.1 DTS-HD surround.