Arnold Schwarzenegger takes on Darth Vader, in this 1982 fantasy adventure.
Even by Arnie’s standards, this is one bizarre movie. It opens with the quote “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, not Kanye West – before stupefying us with two hours of swords, sorcery and silliness, as Conan (Schwarzenegger) seeks revenge on the evil wizard/snake-cult leader who killed his parents: Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) – the best name for a bad guy this side of the Rocky franchise, and too great a villain for such a schlocky movie.
But it’s grade A schlock; a dumb, fun fantasy romp packed with sex and violence – though the fight scenes are largely unconvincing; this fictional prehistoric universe seems to be governed by bizarre physical laws whereby swords can kill without actually coming into contact with the body. As for the story, even if we ignore the plotholes the size of Arnie’s biceps, why does everything have to take such a stupidlyyyy loooong tiiiime? I watched Ben-Hur the following day, and Conan the Barbarian honestly felt longer.
The bizarre screenplay is written by director John Milius and, bizarrely, Oliver Stone. But the writing is literally worlds away Apocalypse Now and Scarface, both in terms of content and quality. The dialogue is overripe and cheesy like an overripe cheese, full of laughably earnest narration and bafflingly stupid lines; “Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult!” Snake cults were all the rage in Barbarian times.
Most bizarre of all, though, is the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the great warrior. He has very little dialogue, presumably because he can’t, you know, speak. As a result, everything he says is inaudible and hilarious in equal measure; every line is included in either the 160 Greatest Arnold Schwarzenegger Quotes or Every Arnold Scream From Every Arnold Movie. “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women!” Physically, however, he’s the perfect choice, considering he’s built like a Viking god – and I don’t mean one of the rubbish ones like Sif; I’m talking about Thor. Actually, he’s closer to the Hulk.
At one point, the Austrian barbarian is crucified on the Tree of Woe, as in “Woah, this movie is bizarre.” The scene took three days to shoot, with Schwarzenegger strapped to a tree that rotated to constantly keep him in the sweltering heat of the sun – not to mention getting pecked by vultures. But unlike Arnie, the vultures got a break every hour; they must have had a good union. Another fine moment sees Arnie punch a camel in the face, and the camel fall to the ground. It’s not clear if the camel is killed or simply knocked out, but one thing is certain: this bizarre film would not be the same without Arnold.