Conan The Barbarian

Conan The Barbarian (1982)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Mako
Extras: Audio Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailers,

As we all know, genre-cycles come and go in Hollywood. In the early ’80s, there was an insurgence of mythical fantasy films, which came to be known as "sword & sorcery" movies. This trend was no doubt influenced by the popularity of the Dungeons & Dragons game. While this cycle was relatively short-lived, it did yield some important things. "Conan the Barbarian" became the touchstone of the "sword & sorcery" film and Arnold Schwarzenegger became a worldwide star. Universal originally released "Conan the Barbarian" on DVD in early 1998, but that edition has now been eclipsed by the newly released "Conan the Barbarian: Collector’s Edition." This new release offers some exciting new special features and an awesome transfer of this now-classic film.

"Conan the Barbarian" is set in the Hyborean Age — a period before recorded history. The film opens in a snow-covered village inhabited by the Cimmerians. The village is invaded by the Vanir, a war-loving tribe led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). We watch as a young Conan witnesses the murder of his parents at the hand of Doom. Conan is then put into slavery, working at the "Wheel of Pain." Time passes and Conan grows to adulthood (and becomes Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Conan is then sold to a drifter who trains "pit-fighters". (This guy is like a pre-historic Don King. Note the giant hair.) Conan soon rises to the top of the pit-fighter ranks and is trained to use many weapons, including a sword. Seeing that Conan deserves a life outside of slavery, the drifter releases Conan from his enslavement. Conan is now free to track down Thulsa Doom to get his revenge and retrieve the sword which Doom took from Conan’s father.

Conan soon meets Subotai the Mongol (Gerry Lopez), an archer and thief, and Valeria, Queen of Thieves (Sandahl Bergman). With their help, Conan is able to infiltrate a temple and gain information about Thulsa Doom. He learns that Doom is not only a warlord, he is able the leader of the Cult of Set, a group which worships snakes. With the aid of Akiro the Wizard (Mako), Conan and his friends set out to stop Doom and regain Conan’s honor.

I must admit that I was very surprised by how much of "Conan the Barbarian" still works today (and how young Arnold looks!). The film is well-paced (although there is a little too much attention to detail at times), and the story never gets dull. The script by Oliver Stone (!) and director John Milius presents us with a hero which isn’t propelled by the need to save others, but by death and revenge. The death of his parents started him on this course, and he won’t rest until he sees Thulsa Doom dead. Throughout the film, we see Conan endure many trials (such as being crucified) and we watch his character grow. Conan may not be an intellectual, and he certainly doesn’t spend the film emoting, but nonetheless we watch Conan change and grow as he pursues his destiny.

Milius and art director Ron Cobb ("Alien", "Star Wars") have given the film a grand scope and everything in the film has an air of authenticity. The action in "Conan the Barbarian" takes place either on opulent sets or on location in Spain. The production makes great use of the various locales in Spain, showing both deserts and lush plains. The sets, especially the temple on the side of a mountain, are breathtaking. The costumes and weapons also show painstaking attention to detail. The viewer definitely gets the sense that a great deal of work went into the making of this film. Even the special effects don’t look too dated (except for some awkward optical work).

A major asset to the film is the cast. Of course, Conan is the part that Arnold was born to play. His muscular body and intense glare fill the character with a sense of true power. And despite Arnold’s attempts at "acting" in subsequent roles, he does a fine job here of getting across the feelings that Conan is having at any particular moment. Not to be outdone by Arnold, Milius cast other athletes into the supporting roles. Professional dancer Sandahl Bergman (who was great in "Hell Comes to Frogtown") is very good as Valeria, using her natural ability to give a fluidity to the swordplay. Gerry Lopez may seem at home on the screen, but he is more at home on the waves, as he is a pro surfer. And what can be said about the performance of James Earl Jones? (Besides the fact that his contact lenses weren’t blue enough to be really noticeable, even on DVD.) He brings a regal quality to the role of Doom, which makes the villain even more sinister.

Universal Home Video continues their fine tradition of "Collector’s Editions" with "Conan the Barbarian". The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. It should also be noted that this is an extended version of the film and contains some ten minutes of footage that weren’t available in the theatrical release. The film looks great as the picture is very crisp and clear. The digital transfer does reveal some minor defects on the source print and some slight grain, but these defects are negligible, and the overall quality of the transfer is substantially better than that of the previous DVD release. The letterboxing appears to be accurate, as the image doesn’t appear to be squeezed. The colors appear accurate for the most part, although things do seem a bit washed out at times.
The only drawback to the technical presentation of the film is the audio. "Conan the Barbarian" features a <$DD,Dolby Digital> Mono soundtrack, which just doesn’t live up to the clarity of the video presentation or the magnitude of the onscreen action. One can’t help but wonder why Universal didn’t attempt some sort of stereo remix for this edition. While the sound is adequate, the battle scenes and the film’s score by Basil Poledouris in particular, would’ve sounded great in Dolby Digital 5.1 or even as a <$DTS,DTS> presentation.

This "Collector’s Edition" of "Conan the Barbarian" contains a number of special features. There is an <$commentary,audio commentary> featuring writer/director John Milius and star Arnold Schwarzenegger. It becomes obvious very quickly that this duo is very comfortable together — especially with the rude joke that Arnold tells at the very beginning. Both Milius and Arnold obviously have fond memories about the making of the film. The problem with the commentary is that it’s very dry at times. While both men speak constantly, their anecdotes aren’t very detailed and one gets the feeling that they are remembering tidbits that aren’t being shared with the listener. Arnold’s comments usually don’t get much deeper than "I got laid a lot in this movie."

The best feature on the DVD is "Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan". This isn’t the usual five-to-ten minute featurette that we’ve become accustomed to. This newly-made feature is 53 minutes long and gives us a great deal of detailed information about the making of "Conan the Barbarian". It features interviews with producer Ed Pressman, Oliver Stone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Milius, Dino De Laurentis, Ron Cobb, James Earl Jones, Max Von Sydow, and others. It takes us from the pre-production phase (with the buying of the rights to Robert E. Howard’s character to finding a writer) to the publicity and eventual release of the film. Six deleted scenes are shown (which are also available on the DVD in a separate section), one of which shows Arnold being attacked by a wolf! "Conan Unchained" is the perfect example of the kind of "making of" segment that every DVD should contain.

The DVD also offers us "The Conan Archives", which is a slide-show of production art and a still gallery. There is also a special effects demo, which gives us a split-screen view of a shot with and without optical effects. There are two theatrical trailers, each <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1.

For many fans of the "sword & sorcery" genre, "Conan the Barbarian" remains the benchmark film. (Although I still prefer "The Beastmaster." Don Coscarelli and ferrets? You can’t go wrong with that!) "Conan the Barbarian: Collector’s Edition" proves that the film has staying power and deserves its reputation as a classic. Universal has brought us a DVD with good technical presentation and some fine bonus features. Fans of the film will definitely want to snag this edition and for those (like me) who haven’t seen the film in years, this is a nice way to re-discover it.