Conan the Barbarian is one of my favorite movies, and definitely in my top 3 for fantasy films. John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger took Robert E. Howard’s dark hero and created a much-copied genre in film- the grubby, barbarian-style fantasy. And a mere 2 years later, Richard Fleischer and Arnold destroyed it, in the aptly named Conan the Destroyer. What happened? Milky and I watched it to see how fantasy moves were destroyed until Peter Jackson brought them back.
Hollywood hated the fact that Conan was for adults. Kenner even made Conan action figures in prep for the movie, and when they saw the bloody violence, sweaty sex and cannibal soup of the snake people, they quickly renamed him He-Man, and we got the Masters of the Universe (full review). Dildo DeLaurentiis then figured he could make even more money with a more child-friendly version, so he brought Richard Fleischer on board for Destroyer. The guys who wrote Ralph Bakshi’s ode to Frazetta, Fire and Ice wrote a script that got trashed by Stanley Mann, whose best movie was The Silent Flute (aka Circle of Iron) with David Carradine. Conan’s character is thrown out the window, and he’s written as a musclebound oaf.
I mean, Conan wasn’t that smart in the first one, but he wasn’t a drunken, easily led dope like he is in this one. We meet him with his new buddy Malak (Tracey Walter, Repo Man), a fellow thief. They’re running from a bunch of heavily armored horsemen with nets, who want to capture them. After Conan hacks them to pieces, we see two others watching from horseback- Queen Taramis and her guard Bombataa (Wilt Chamberlain, never in a feature film before or after this mess). They want to hire Conan to steal a mystic horn, with the help of Princess Jehnna (hottie Olivia d’Abo, Bolero). She is a virgin marked with a sign, and is the only one who can safely touch the key that will release the horn.
Milky remarked, “Good idea having Wilt Chamberlain guard a princess’s virginity.” And yes, I imagine Olivia d’Abo was probably #10,001 on Wilt’s list. Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas, Ursa from Superman II) hypmotizes Conan (see this post for an explanation) with her mesmerizing eyes and makes him think she can ressurect Valeria, and give him his own kingdom for his troubles, so he joins right up. Conan is now a sucker. A few seconds later, Taramis tells Bombataa to kill Conan as soon as they are done needing him.
On their journey, they return to the city where Conan punched the camel in the first movie- and this time it spits on him! So he punches it out again. It’s there that they pick up Grace Jones, that iconic singer and horrible actress who’s also responsible for appearing in one of the worst Bond movies, A View to a Kill. But like Arnold, she’s got presence. She kind of sticks out here, but Zula fits the Conan universe from the books well. She’d be a Kushite she-warrior. She’s chained up in the center of town, being harrassed by the townsfolk who have branded her a brigand. Conan being wise and fair, cuts her chains and lets her have a fair fight. She swings a stick around like a pro, and wears one of the least goofy helmets in the movie. A worthy comrade.
It’s unfortunate that the only characters who return from the first movie are Arnold, Mako, and the camel. And Mako doesn’t even remember Conan. They rescue him from some cannibals, with Fleischer’s trademark swordfights- the zing! of a blade and a head flying up is mostly what you get- and “Akiro” pledges his sorcerous skills to the barbarian. By the mid-80s, movies began having plots like video games. Go from city to city, collecting your party. Find the spooky wizard’s secret island. Hack hack hack. heal heal heal.
It was a real bad idea watching this right after Conan the Barbarian, which has some of the best set design ever. The cities look real, even when they are models; the castles and markets look like they fit in, and the Towers of Set stick out like ancient Churches of Scientology. Ron Cobb did a fantastic job with the production design. The demons that Valeria must save Conan from don’t look that bad, but boy does the animated “bird of smoke” look silly in this one. It looks like it has cartoon stink lines radiating from it, as it carries sleeping Jehnna off to the wizard’s castle. Bad idea mixing animation and models in the same scene without knowing what you’re doing.
It’s even worse once they get inside. The inside of the castle consists of nothing but a huge pillar with a spiral staircase, and you can see the change in color of what’s a matte and what isn’t. But who cares? Conan is about the fights, right? WRONG! The sorcerer has Jehnna locked in his bedchamber, which is past a hall of mirrors. When they approach, he sees them in his crystal and whispers, “too late.” I assumed this meant he broke her mystic cherry, but no such luck. Evil Wizard reminder- if you capture a virgin who has to stay a virgin to complete her quest, why not? You’re an evil wizard, dammit. Are you gonna wait and ply her with champagne Polanski-style? (Olivia d’Abo was only 14 when this was filmed. Oh, I went there).
Conan gets trapped in the circular room of mirrors, and soon 12 red-robed figures appear, then meld into one Giant Lizardman with Man-Boobs. For some reason, he doesn’t have scales on his chest, and we’re subjected to flabby wizard tits. It is my conjecture that they are the true source of his power, not the mirrors. Conan and the Man-Boob Lizard have a lame pro-wrestling style fight, where Arnold gets to scream AGGHGHAAAAH!!! a lot, which is always my favorite one-liner of his. HastAGHGHGAAAAA la Vista, baby. I won’t tell you how he defeats the Wizard, but let’s just say Conan never appeared in a sequel due to 84 years of bad luck. There’s actually a nice effect when Toth-Amon (a real wizard name from the Conan books, woo) decides to touch the Key he’s been guarding, and light spills out of his eyes and wounds until he goes pop like the weasel. Pat Roach plays Toth-Amon- he was Brytag in Red Sonja, the big bald mechanic in Raiders, and many more memorable big galoots.
Now they have the Key, on to the next level! Bombataa- probably named after Afrika, the guy who sang “World Destruction” with Johnny Rotten- isn’t very good at hiding Queen Taramis’s real plans for Conan. They get attacked by the Queen’s Elite guard, including Sven-ole Thorsen, who played Thorgrim, the guy with the big fuck-off hammer from the previous movie. They have a protracted and anticlimactic battle, which ends with Bombataa taking a few swipes at Conan, too. What the fuck, dude? His only response is, “I thought you were going to hurt the girl.” But why did the queen’s guards attack us? “Um, not on her orders!” Okay, it’s all good, brah!
While the previous movie gave us memorable lines like “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of the women!” and Thulsa Doom’s endlessly quotable psychotic cult leader babble, here we have to settle for seeing Conan drunk and stupid, saying things like “give me the promise I was kingdomed!” He sounds a lot like pot-head Arnold from the Conan the Barbarian DVD commentary. It’s really embarassing to watch Conan graduate from the pit fighter born of the Wheel of Pain, who survived the Tree of Woe (sort of) and nearly single-handedly took down the Cult of Set, into frat boy Conan, who’s only good for comic relief. Most movies have a comic relief character, but here we have Malak, Grace Jones and Mako all mugging it up, plus our hero. It almost feels more like Olivia d’Abo’s movie, because she’s about the only character we can take seriously. Or maybe we’re just staring at her boobs (Dude, she’s 15! So what, she’s like 40 now).
They steal the horn from its incompetent ancient guardians, and Mako gets to have a Wizard Battle. Wizard battles involve lots of groaning, and from behind closed doors might sound like Old Man Wizard needs more fiber. But as always, Mako can do anything and we’ll forgive him. Hell, they should have made a spin-off TV series with him. But all his groaning is all for naught, as Bombataa traps them with a rockslide and spirits Jehnna away for her virgin sacrifice. In the director’s cut I like to imagine that Jehnna wasn’t a virgin when he brought her back to Taramis. I just can’t see Wilt playing such a kiss-ass to the Queen. But that’s what he is.
He’s really only in the movie so we have someone huge to fight Conan, and the barbarian is finally pissed when he realizes he’s been swindled. So he heads to Taramis’s castle with his friends to fuck her shit up. He kicks Wilt’s ass so handily that you wonder why we thought he was so bad-ass with his spiked and beaked mace, but we finally get some bloody fighting, with Bombataa chomping Conan’s ear off, as they wrestle and stab each other. Zula and the rest are left to save the girl, and unfortunately, saving the girl in this case means Releasing the Rampaging God Dagoth, Who Is Pissed Off That There’s No Virgin in His Cheerios.
The end is really the best part of the movie- Dagoth is a huge slavering web-footed reptile with a rhino horn for a nose. It was Andre the Giant under the make-up, so Dagoth is a massive lumbering beast. Can Conan defeat a god? You’re damn right. Bare-handed, too. Now that’s the Conan we remember, the guy who succeeds because he doesn’t think he can fail. It’s too bad that after he tears Dagoth’s horn out, he didn’t stick it up the dead god’s ass and kick it out his brain. That would have been something.
While Conan the Destroyer is an order of magnitude greater than Red Sonja, it was still an enormous disappointment. Conan went from being a vengeful warrior who was a little wet behind the ears, to a legendary swordsman who’s mostly a drunken idiot when he’s not killing people. Couple that with comic relief like Malak- who’s useless in a fight unless he can jump behind you on your horse and stab you in the kidneys- and not one but two non-acting celebrities, and even if the script wasn’t toilet paper you’d be in trouble. The original story was published as a graphic novel called The Horn of Azoth, and I remember reading it when it came out. Now, THAT story would have been awesome on-screen. But Dino DeLaurentiis didn’t like leeches, so it got scrapped. I’ll give him credit though, he’s produced a lot of stinkers, but many great adventure movies. And he’s still doing it at 100 years old.
The film looks decent- Fleischer directed epics like The Vikings and his DP was Jack Cardiff, who’s made beautiful films like and even Black Narcissus, The African Queen and even Rambo: First Blood Part II. The DVD doesn’t show it off real well, being nonanamorphic and dull. Was 1982 the last of the golden years of the ’70s? I think so. And will be posting about it soon. Seeing how Conan changed from awesome to awful in 2 years just proves my point.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? Sadly, yes.
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: Fromunda from Crom’s loincloth
High Points: Great end battle.
Low Point: Fat, drunk & stupid is no way to go through life, Conan.
Gratuitous Boobies: Nope! Olivia d’Abo nearly pops out of her dresses a lot though.