Just in time for the new 3D reboot of Conan the Barbarian (which stars Khal Drogo and hits theaters August 19), this week Universal released Blu-ray discs of 1982's Conan the Barbarian and 1984's Conan the Destroyer. Based on the pulp hero created in 1932 by Robert E. Howard, and bearing little connection to the Marvel comic (which is how many, myself included, first encountered Conan), the films differ wildly from each other in tone and style—Conan the Barbarian is a dark, fucked-up, incredibly violent epic, while Conan the Destroyer is a light and relatively family-friendly fantasy. These were the movies that effectively launched Arnold Schwarzenegger's international film career, and barring The Terminator, I'd say Conan is the best role he's ever had. The Universal discs are unexceptional barebones releases without much in the way of new content, but the films look impressive and hold up surprisingly well. (Universal had the good sense not to grace 1985's lousy Red Sonja with a Blu-ray release.)
The gloomy, bloodthirsty tone of 1982's Conan the Barbarian is likely due to director John Milius, the gun-toting conservative who co-wrote Apocalypse Now and the first two Dirty Harry movies. Milius reportedly inspired the Walter Sobchak character in The Big Lebowski; he's often said he wanted to be a war general, but instead became the next best thing—a movie director. Milius is a little daffy, yes. He's also the kind of visionary that doesn't really seem to exist any longer in Hollywood, and despite a career downturn in the '80s, Conan the Barbarian proves that, at the very least, Milius knew what kind of movies he wanted to make. His clarity of vision in the first Conan is undeniable.
When I first saw Conan the Barbarian as a kid, I found it offputting. It's shockingly violent and completely preoccupied with anarchic forms of behavior. Conan is not a redeemable figure, but rather a character driven by rage and hatred. The film is intently fascinated by not only his revenge, but also the truly creepy dealings of Thulsa Doom's evil snake cult; there are ritual sacrifices, pagan chanting, and bizarre witchcraft rites not seen anywhere on film outside of the schlockiest of grindhouse horror. Conan the Barbarian, when you really look at it closely, is really nothing like the mindless adventure that other fantasy adventure movies strive to be. A few laughable anachronisms aside, it scarcely holds entertainment value—and I sincerely mean that as a form of compliment. Milius and Schwarzenegger are obviously taking the pulpy story of Conan incredibly seriously, and the onscreen result is not your typical swords-and-sorcery fantasy, but rather a fully realized depiction of the blood-soaked, paganistic early epics that predate the English language. It creates an invented world of blood and death more convincingly than any other movie I can think of except for perhaps Roman Polanski's Macbeth. And it makes more sense now than it ever did, looking at times like a mysterious relic and bearing only occasional resemblance to an early-'80s pseudo-exploitation movie.
The first Conan was a success, so when the time came to make a sequel, they toned down the violence so that the kids could see it. The result is the much-maligned Conan the Destroyer. I have strong memories of this movie being awful, and I suppose it kind of is. But it's also a lot of fun, and incredibly goofy in the way of early-'80s fantasies. It's better than Krull, let me put it like that. (I enjoy Krull, too, for whatever that's worth.)
This time, Conan leads a motley group of adventurers that resembles a D&D campaign. There's Grace Jones, who apart from her first couple scenes, has nothing interesting to do in the movie whatsoever except twirl a stick around and shake the little tail that's stapled to her costume. There's Mako as the wizard from the first Conan (he's great). There's veteran character actor Tracey Walter as Conan's thief buddy (he's super annoying). There's 15-year-old Olivia d'Abo as a princess who's meant to fulfill a prophecy. And there's prolific lothario Wilt Chamberlain (Wilt Chamberlain!) as the princess's huge bodyguard, who's along for the ride in order to preserve her virginity. (Wilt Chamberlain! Preserving a 15-year-old's virginity! Ha ha ha ha! Ha! This is the meaning of hilarity.)
There's something about a castle, and a key, or a gem, or a magical horn, or something. The plot's pretty stupid, and almost entirely ignorable. What is fun about Conan the Destroyer is its quick-moving, economical pace and cheerfully mild-mannered violence. (You can tell they toned down the violence from what was filmed; it's pretty tame, although a lot of blood is implied.) The whole plot revolves around a virgin sacrifice, though, so it's kinda fucked up in its own way.
Conan the Destroyer is so entirely different in tone from its predecessor, and so guilelessly vacant in terms of content, that it's no wonder it has been deemed a terrible failure. But hopefully enough time has passed for it to be regarded as the light, goofy-sweet entertainment that it is, surely the equal of other PG-rated fantasy films of the era (particularly the "L" triumvirate: Legend, Ladyhawke, and Labyrinth, all of which are worse than this, to be perfectly frank.)
Both films look pretty good here; the Blu-ray transfer is probably just below average (grain is very noticeable in dark scenes) but the movies look more vibrant and bright than you've likely ever seen them. Basil Poledouris' excellent soundtrack for Conan the Barbarian—rightly regarded as one of the finest soundtracks ever among film score aficionados—sounds terrific. (His score for Destroyer is also good, but too reliant on repetitive themes.) There are zero extras on the Destroyer disc, except a feature that's compatible with something called D-Box. After a long and confusing search on the internet, I learned that D-Box is some sort of rumble pack or something that you put under your chair; it shakes and lurches during action in the movie. Since my TV is awesome but does not include D-Box, this feature remains untested.
The special features on Conan the Barbarian are largely left over from the DVD release, barring a new (and really poorly encoded) video about real-life sword-making nerds that you should not watch unless you are looking for some new people to make fun of, plus some contemporary interviews from the set of the movie that are worth watching. There are also some deleted scenes from the movie (the cut of the film on this disc is the 129-minute version, and not the slightly longer international cut), and the otherwise decent making-of documentary doesn't talk enough about Robert E. Howard nor the context of the original character of Conan, who has a lengthy history that deserves further examination.
However, this is all forgiven because of Conan the Barbarian's ridiculous commentary, courtesy of Milius and Schwarzenegger. It is tremendous. Here is a sample:
The commentary is a little more insightful than this clip would have you believe, but not much. It's a lot of fun to listen to.
In closing, both films are worth re-watching via rental. Really! I think you might have fun with Conan the Destroyer, particularly if you watch with a group of snarky friends. The discs probably aren't worth investing in, but that's what Netflix is (or, used to be) for. Did I mention that Schwarzenegger punches a camel in both movies? Because he does. And he punches a horse in Destroyer, too. Sold yet?