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Written by / 12/23/2015 / No comments / , , ,

ORIGINAL CONAN THE BARBARIAN

year: 1982 starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones creator: Robert E. Howard director: John Milius 
At one point, when Arnold Schwarzenegger's CONAN THE BARBARIAN is doing what creator Robert E. Howard intended all along, a laid-back sidekick, Subotai, played by real life surfing legend Gerry Lopez, says "You're too big to be a thief," which is more than a throwaway quip.

The one and only
In the Robert E. Howard Conan short stories, which include over a hundred total and one novel, HOUR OF THE DRAGON (as well as an abundance of boxing and western fiction), Conan was in fact a sneaky, resilient and even clue-solving thief within Noir-like tales, darting around surreptitiously from town to town and/or region to region instead of, like director John Milius and co-writer Oliver Stone's muscular giant, traipsing throughout mostly barren landscapes with one thing on his narrow mind: revenge!

Surf's Down
For as a child, and during the film's ultra-violent, mesmerizing prologue, James Earl Jones as the nefarious Thulsa Doom kills young Conan's parents and then, being sold into slavery, the child grows from teen to adult turning a "wheel of pain" over and over, and over... Talk about a dizzy upbringing!

The best scenes occur after Conan's freedom from captivity, including reluctantly learning how to fight adversaries for money (that he doesn't keep) and bedding-down women in cages... And then being chased by wolves into a hidden cavern where he finds a powerful sword clung to a skeleton king's hand before eventually joining up with an underwhelming Lopez and manly ingenue Sandahl Bergman as Valeria. Thus the trio of thieves rob a tower where a snake-devouring virgin sacrifice is underway... this is borrowed from either a Howard story or perhaps an addition by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, who, for the record, wrote a series of Conan books (with some completed unfinished tales thrown in) years after the legendary Howard tragically ended his life...

Highly Recommend this book
For example, within the first of many CONAN softcovers combining Howard's work with De Camp and Carter, the Barbarian not only enters the underground cave like in the movie, but he's attacked by an ape-like beast, protecting the sword, which provides a sequence so chilling it's a wonder why Milius didn't go this route... In the movie, like many scenes, it's much too easy for Arnold's Conan to venture from location to location...

Thus in the sprawling CONAN THE BARBARIAN there's more a sense of awestruck epic wandering-about than a collection of action-sequences with a blanketed revenge peripheral connecting everything together. Instead, the tail wags the dog, and Conan seems so distracted by his vendetta he hardly gets down-and-dirty as a thief for very long.

Oliver Stone, an Oscar Winning scriptwriter for MIDNIGHT EXPRESS before becoming an Oscar Winning Director for PLATOON, was a hired co-writer (including Brian DePalma's famous SCARFACE), and the macho Milius was born to bring the Conan story to the big screen: only he goes more David Lean CONAN OF ARABIA than maybe he should have...

Would make a great film
Even Milius's 1975 sand-swept, semi-historic THE WIND AND THE LION had more thrills occurring between gorgeous exterior shots. Instead of an Oliver Stone collaboration, or needing help from any Hollywood scribbler, all John had to do was select from the vast number of stories mercilessly typed by Robert E. Howard himself, having to meet deadlines for the abundance of pulp magazines he worked for, including WEIRD TALES.

Not that there isn't a fair share of great cinematic moments with creative camera angles and engaging battles. And as we all know, Arnold was the only man who could have played Conan, speaking volumes with his expressions alone, built perfectly for the part and returning in the more mainstream, comedic and audience-friendly CONAN THE DESTROYER, which, directed by Richard Fleischer, unlike BARBARIAN, fails to take the character seriously enough.

Robert E. Howard
Mind you, this is not intended to be a writeup preaching what the original CONAN THE BARBARIAN could/should have been as opposed to the established cult classic beloved by fans worldwide, and that still hasn't been surpassed, especially with that terrible recent remake... but with such an endless bag of Robert E. Howard magic, mystery and adventure, it's a wonder why his own tales haven't been transitioned into celluloid. Hell, even De Camp and Carter's solo novels, like CONAN OF THE ISLES, would make for terrific adaptations... But it's creator Robert E. Howard that truly deserves to be honored by Hollywood following his wonderfully eclectic avenues that don't get lost within a melodramatic wide road, like the overlong second half of Milius's saga, which would have made a better third act finale. And while Howard's suicide note, typed minutes before his death at 30-years-old after doing all his writing in his twenties, is one of the most beautifully tragic poems ever written... "All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre; the feast is over and the lamps expire." His legacy deserves more than a CHARACTER CREATED BY credit, and while Milius had a dream come true with his financially successful, sword-wielding epic following his most personal but money-losing (yet now cult favorite) BIG WEDNESDAY, he drags the ending far too long for a character created to be an astute thief that winds up a brooding melancholy grouch.

RATING: ***
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