Viking Night: Conan the Barbarian
By Bruce Hall
November 15, 2011
Between the time when Lucas drank his own Kool-Aid and the rise of gratuitous CGI, there was an age undreamed of. Every studio with seven digits to spend skinned their knees jumping on the fantasy/sci-fi bandwagon. And unto this - Conan, destined to wear the weighty crown of marital infidelity upon a troubled brow. It is I, chronicler of cinema both strange and fantastic, who alone can tell thee of this saga. Let me tell you of the Barbarian Times - the age of Conan - when swords, sandals, and fleshy headed aliens all but guaranteed your movie a green light.
But first things first. I say this all the time when I cover '80s fantasy flicks, but I’ll say it again, since it really can’t be overstated. The runaway success of Star Wars set the public’s imagination ablaze, and every narrow minded stuffed shirt in Hollywood clamoring for something - anything that was remotely steeped in fantasy. By 1980 it was so bad that Roger Corman could have filmed a crappy remake of Seven Samurai in space. With George Peppard and Robert Vaughn. And it would have gotten made. And it would have made a profit. Not that this actually happened, or anything.
For a time the Dino De Laurentiis movie machine was at the forefront of this movement, producing the poorly received Flash Gordon remake in 1979. In fact, well before this time, the prolific family had been behind an even more poorly received adaptation of King Kong in 1976, and the not-received-at-all debacle that was Barbarella, way back in 1968. By the 1980s, Universal was willing to bite on a new project involving a shirtless, hulking warrior who enjoyed hacking people to bits with a four foot broadsword. Dino’s daughter Rafaella was slated to produce, and hot shot writer/director John Milius would sit behind the camera. All that remained was to cast the thing.
Yes, the kids were gonna love it.
Or would they? The cast included an Austrian bodybuilder with a thick as marshmallow pie accent, a dancer, a beach bum, one former Ming the Merciless and the voice of Darth Vader. The script was a paint by numbers story of revenge, loyalty, friendship and multiple beheadings. The main character was inspired by a smattering of pulp fiction by a long dead writer from the 1930s. On paper, there was no reason to believe that any of this would work. Critics howled at the idea of casting a professional athlete in such a prominent starring role. Taken sight unseen, it was easy to believe that Conan the Barbarian would be half as much fun as Flash Gordon, and even less successful. Except that it wasn’t.
From the start, it’s obvious that Conan’s world is one of fire, steel and brutality. His father tells the young boy fantastic tales of vengeful gods, powerful giants and the Riddle of Steel - a code of honor to live by. “In Steel We Trust” seems to be the motto of their culture (as well as an alternate title for Judas Priest’s sixth studio album). Another good riddle to remember is that “those who live by the sword often die by it”. This is what happens when Conan’s pastoral life of blood and guts is shattered by invasion. The future barbarian witnesses the destruction of his entire village, as well as the incredibly heinous death of his parents. The marauders take the children away as slaves, consigning the best years of Conan’s young life to toil and misery. It’s a tough break, but that’s Barbarian Times for you.