I can’t review Conan the Barbarian. That’s the first thing I told Andy when he suggested I write this, and it’s still true. I’ve seen Conan the Barbarian (1981) 80 million times clutching plastic or wooden facsimiles of medieval weaponry, and so has everyone I know. If you were a rural mountaintop dwelling, 20-sided die rolling, comic book reading, fantasy fiction obsessed boy in the 80’s who knew lots of things about plate mail before he knew even one thing about unhooking a bra strap, you can’t review Conan the Barbarian. I’ve seen the movie so often that it has congealed in my brain into a bunch of quotes about steel, Arnold punching a camel in the face that one time, and endless heaving oil soaked bosoms (some of which belong to Conan). I can’t review Conan the Barbarian or believe there could be someone who hasn’t seen it who is willing to sit through a 35-year-old fantasy movie starring the former Governor of California. However, like Crom (strong on his mountain), I am going to try (mainly out of fear of Andy and his wife. THEY HAVE TATTOOS). Watching Conan as a 35- year-old with a notebook instead of a wooden sword, Conan’s lack of dialogue is startling. I had forgotten that he doesn’t have a line in the movie until like 20 minutes in, and that line is actually the most iconic (and I know, super sexist) line in the flick, about crushing your enemies and making their women sad being best in life :(. Conan’s silence is by now widely known to stem from Arnold not really knowing English at the time, so his lack of lines was sort of forced on Director John Milius. However, I would argue that it still counts a bold directorial choice, and had a HUGE influence on the flick. Conan’s romance with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) is almost entirely illustrated in the movie with soulful looks and silent gift exchanges at a bar room table, followed by a montage of equally wordless tan muscle sex. Arnold has never been lauded as an actor, but his then-young puppy dog face and silent smile are gosh-darn compelling, and I think it’s because they get extra oomph from the lack of dialogue. There are many little moments in the flick that benefit from this extra silence, such as the montage in which young freshly-enslaved Conan grows from a young child into a fully formed Schwarzenegger. The lad is chained to a wheel that he must push. There’s some dramatic music, a few shots to show seasons passing and the wheel constantly turning, and then fully grown Arnold steps away from the wheel, wearing a lot of fur. Compelling!
Those scenes aren’t the only thing super charged by the lack of words, either. Conan says very little in this movie, but virtually all of his lines are burned into the mind of every swords and sorcery nerd in the English speaking world. If you just gathered all his lines into a little leather-bound book and threw in the script from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, you would have a transcript of everything my friends and I ever said before our pubes came in. Sure, quotes about Crom and steel and stuff will always tug at the genitals of awkward boys who fantasize about swords, but when they’re a movie hero’s only lines, they take on extra power and resonate in your brain. And then you repeat them 300 billion times. Another thing that everyone knows about Conan The Barbarian is that the movie has a harsh, right wing message about the strongest being the best,and the lack of subtlety about the film’s political leanings is startling. The movie begins with a Nietzsche quote about strength, and its hero is like a giant bicep with legs who follows the patron god of school yard bullies. Conan gathers a bunch of flowers as a disguise to infiltrate a cult of long-hairs, and actually beats up a gay hippy as part of this mission. Snake cult leader and big bad James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom at one point also tells his cultists that their parents are lying to them, and Conan is hired by a grieving father to reprogram his cultist daughter. Maybe Conan’s costume should have been a crew cut and a neck tie? The film’s lack of subtlety doesn’t stop with its tough guy message—when Conan the Barbarian wants to reference Jesus Christ with its main character, it doesn’t mess around with suggestive poses or the initials “J.C.” It straight up crucifies the guy (on a “Tree of Woe”) and then resurrects him. Crom likes his metaphors like he likes his steel, I guess, Even though this is a fascist movie about muscles and people rupturing like sacks of raspberry jello after they are hit with giant swords, you should see it. The special effects mostly hold up even in our post-CGI world and Basil Poledouris’s orchestral score is amazing. Though it is obviously an action extravaganza, it is full of little moments of humor, from the iconic camel-punch to Arnold passing out in a bowl of oatmeal, and it has a surprising amount of heart in it. When Valeria tells Conan that she has always been alone, and their relationship is the best thing she has ever had, her desperation to keep him from leaving might even be downright touching, if you have ever been or known a crushingly lonely person. If you are the kind of person who is into people laughing maniacally at death, stealing swords from skeletons, and using live snakes as arrows, you should see this flick. But you know that because you already have, 80 million times, wooden sword in hand.