Old Friends

40 Years Ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger Made an Action Movie Classic that Changed Everything

Here's why 'Conan' holds up.

Moviegoers of a certain age speak passionately, even wistfully, of 1982, a year that gave us The Thing, E.T. – The Extraterrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Secret of NIMH, The Dark Crystal, The Last Unicorn, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Beastmaster, and Conan the Barbarian. It was geek heaven. Notice, however, that Conan the Barbarian — which opened 40 years ago as of May 14, 2022 — is at the bottom of the list.

For reasons that escape me, Conan the Barbarian often gets the short end of the stick, or, sword, and is treated as an afterthought. Critics hated it, dismissing the film as a cheesy B-movie. It was somehow considered a misfire when it earned nearly $70 million worldwide on a $20 million budget — more than most of its sword-and-sorcery brethren. Granted, that’s far from a blockbuster, but it’s also light-years removed from dud territory.Anyway, the movie’s poster tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Conan the Barbarian, which is based on a character created by pulp writer Robert E. Howard. It reads: “Thief. Warrior. Barbarian. King,” and features a barechested Arnold Schwarzenegger brandishing a glimmering sword, as a formidable Sandahl Bergman kneels in front of him, grasping a sword of her own. Conan (Schwarzenegger) is a slave whose parents were killed by the sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his minions. After surviving into adulthood, he comes to possess a powerful sword, befriend a beefy sidekick (Gerry Lopez as Subotai), steel some jewels, meet (and have sex with) a gorgeous brigand (Bergman as Valeria), battle a giant snake, narrowly avoid crucifixion, be healed by duplicitous spirits, and rescue a princess (Valerie Quennessen) at the behest of King Osric (Max von Sydow).Testosterone drips like a two-hour workout’s sweat from every frame of Conan the Barbarian. This is early Ah-nuld, where he poses and grunts and glistens and kicks ass, and that’s more than enough. He’d eventually learn to use his physicality and his thick accent to imbue characters with menace or humor or both, and later added charm to his bag of tricks. Bergman is top-notch, and her performance has always been underrated. Jones is fully invested, chewing the scenery with abandon from beginning to end, and Doom’s, well, doom still elicits cheers (even if, in this instance, it was just me sitting on my couch, yelling at the television). Dino De Laurentis produced Conan the Barbarian, and he provided director John Milius (who previously wrote Magnum Force and Apocalypse Now, and a couple of years on directed Red Dawn) the money he needed to go big on stunts, crowd scenes, locations, sets, practical effects (the Doom-transforms-into-a-snake sequence remains a visual marvel), costumes, big-name supporting actors (Mako! von Sydow!), etc. Oh, and as if the film needed more masculinity, Oliver Stone co-wrote Conan the Barbarian with Milius. Best of all is the score by Basil Poledouris, which drives home each and every scene.A few warnings for anyone considering watching or re-watching Conan the Barbarian, or doing so with their kids. It’s hyper-violent. Blood flows and heads roll, literally. And the sex scenes are intense, particularly one with a woman who turns out to be a witch and gets heaved into a fire. And, finally, the film runs two hours and nine minutes, which feels 10 to 15 minutes too long. Milius lets his camera linger too long on too many shots.That said, Conan the Barbarian deserves a far higher spot in the pantheon of entertaining sci-fi/fantasy films from 1982. Now it may be time to rewatch the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, in which Arnold is joined by Wilt Chamberlain, Sarah Douglas, and the incomparable Grace Jones.

Where to stream Conan the Barbarian

You can rent Conan the Barbarian on most streaming services or what it with a Starz add-on on Hulu and elsewhere.