EDITOR’S NOTE: This was originally on the site way back in January 28, 2019. It’s one of my favorite movies and the reason why so many other great sword and sorcery movies got made.
When Robert E. Howard created Conan, it was popular for its time as a pulp character. By the time of his creator’s suicide in 1936, Conan had appeared in 21 complete stories, 17 of which had been published, as well as a number of unfinished tales. After years of the copyright to the character passing around, Lancer released a series of paperbacks with dynamic Frank Frazetta covers that introduced the Cimmerian barbarian to an entirely new audience.
In 1970, Marvel Comics began adapting the Howard tales, arguably increasing the reach of the character even further than the original books. Then, in 1975, Edward R. Pressman (who also produced Christmas Evil) and Edward Summer started working on getting the books onto the silver screen. They had Oliver Stone writing it and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the lead, but couldn’t get major studios interested.
However, in 1979, they sold the project to Dino De Laurentiis and John Milius was picked as the director. Combining several Howard stories, the filming took place in Spain and the entire film was based on Frazetta’s artwork. After a year of editing — and plenty of gore being cut out — the film was released to $100 million dollars of box office, which increased thanks to home video and cable. Some don’t consider it a blockbuster, but how else would there so many ripoffs released in its wake?
The film begins with a sword being forged by a blacksmith who shows it to his son, the young Conan, and tells him the Riddle of Steel. To sum it up, “Flesh grows weak. Steel becomes brittle. But the will is indomitable”. He tells his son that everyone will fail him, but he can always count on steel.
The Cimmerians are soon murdered by a band of warriors led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). This villain is a combination of several Howard characters. While his name comes from one of Kull of Atlantis’ villains, he is similar to Thoth-Amon, leading an army of suicidal warriors devoted to their king.
Conan’s father is killed by dogs and his sword is given to Doom, who hypnotizes and then beheads Conan’s mom (Nadiuska, who was also in Guyana: Cult of the Damned) in front of him. Our hero is then sold into slavery, chained to a mill stone known as the Wheel of Pain. While other children die, Conan lives to become a monster of a man, consigned to the gladiator pits and used as a stud to create more soldiers. Yet Conan becomes a favorite of the men he has been sold to and is educated in the East before being freed.
Conan wanders the world as a free man, finding an ancient sword and meeting a witch who gives him a prophecy of his future. This scene kinda blows my mind, because Conan is so good at having sex that he turns the witch into a demon and then throws her into the fire. That’s how good Conan is in the sack.
Conan befriends Subotai (surfing legend Gerry Lopez), a Hyrkanian thief, and Valeria, a female mercenary. Her name comes from Conan’s companion in the story “Red Nails”, while her personality and fate are based on Bêlit, the pirate queen of “Queen of the Black Coast.” She’s played by Sandahl Bergman, who is also in She, a totally ridiculous movie that I want more people to love as much as me.
In the city of Zamora, the trio steal from the Tower of Serpents and Valeria and Conan seal their union by making love. Soon, they’re captured by the soldiers of King Osrić (Max von Sydow), who only ask that three bring back his daughter. Subotai and Valeria refuse, but Conan’s hatred of Doom sends him to the Temple of Set.
There, he’s captured and tortured, as Doom insults his family and crucifies him on the Tree of Woe. Before our hero dies, Subotai rescues him and brings him to Akiro, the Wizard of the Mounds. He’s played by Mako, who was also the voice of Master Splinter in 2007’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The wizard summons demons that heal our hero but extract a heavy toll that Valeria agrees to pay.
Finally, our heroes go back to Doom’s temple and unleash their full vengeance. However, Doom himself becomes a giant snake and slithers away, because this movie is both insane and awesome. As the trio rides away, Doom shoots Valeria with a snake arrow and she dies in Conan’s arms, paying the toll that the wizard warned her about.
She is burned at the Mounds. As Conan stares at the fire, having lost the love of his life, Subotai cries for his friend, explaining that “A Cimmerian won’t cry, so I cry for him.” How is a film so testosterone and gore filled so poetic at times?
Our hero lays waste to Doom’s troops and when Rexor (former Oakland Raider Ben Davidson, who also played the bouncer in Behind the Green Door), one of the largest of them, almost kills him Valeria reappears as a valkyrie to save him for the briefest of seconds. Subotai saves the princess and Conan finds his father’s sword and breaks it in combat. Look for Sven Ole Thorsen in this too as Thorgrim. Sven has dated Grace Jones since 1990, but has been in an open relationship with her since 2007. He’s also in Conan the Destroyer and The Running Man.
That night, Conan comes back to the Temple and is greeted with open arms by Doom, who tries to mentally stop him. Conan resists and beheads his enemy with his father’s broken sword. He has solved the Riddle of Steel: you must become the steel and only rely upon yourself.
Conan burns down the Temple of Set and returns the princess to her father. The movie then shows us Conan on the throne of an empire, letting us know that one day he will rule the entire land.
No one could play Conan but Arnold, who started growing his hair in 1979 for this part. He trained for this movie like he did for his bodybuilding competitions: weapons training, martial arts training, horse riding lessons, even sword fighting with an 11-pound broadsword two hours a day for three months, as well as how to fall and roll from 15-foot drops. He also got 5% of the movie’s profits, a pretty hefty sum.
I love this movie. I adore the fact that Conan doesn’t speak until 20 minutes into the film and doesn’t speak for the last 20 minutes either. It’s awesome that Valeria is just as strong of a fighter — and maybe even stronger in spirit — as Conan. Every 80’s sword and sorcery movie is in debt to this, as much as Arnold claims that his performance is owed to peplum star Steve Reeves.