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Conan the Barbarian, Reviewed by Gash

Stop. Before you compare it to the book, hear me out. Sure, Robert E. Howard's books are great, but to rate a very good movie on how it compares to the book is simply wrong. The book works on its own level, so does the movie. Go figure.

Cimmerian Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is captured as a child after his parents' savage murder by raiding Vanir led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), head also of the malignant snake-cult of Set. Fifteen years' agony, first chained to the Wheel of Pain grinding grain and then enslaved as a Pit Fighter, forge a magnificent body and indomitable spirit. Freed miraculously one day by his owner, Conan, with his companions Subotai the Mongol (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria, Queen of Thieves (Sandahl Bergman), sets forth upon his quest to learn "the riddle of steel" which, his father has prophesied, will confer ultimate power; and to kill the arch-villain Thulsa Doom.

Conan has aged surprisingly well. Available now in brand new DVD enhanced quality, despite the crude special effects the sets really do look the business, especially the Thulsa Doom's temple towards the end of the film, which makes an excellent setting for a climax. Coupled with many other diverse and different locations, it really does create the feel that Conan's journey is a very long one.

It is this atmospheric setting that makes Conan really shine from other Sword and Sorcery affairs - rather than ye olde Englande, what the director has done is a damn good attempt at creating a whole new believable world for Conan to rampage around in.

This atmosphere is helped tremendously by the film's score. The fruits of Basil Poledouris' work is one of the best scores of the '80s. Poledouris' music, which includes both choral and instrumental compositions, is powerful and perfectly wedded to the world that Dino De Laurentiis has created. It's hard to imagine the film being as entertaining without this element of its production.

The plot is also a great piece of work. The humour, although in small amounts, limits camp to as little as possible, and the comic relief characters do an excellent job.
The film almost seamlessly moves from to scene to scene, and although there is a strong bias to action, the plot is both fluid and moves logically. Unlike other films of the genre, we only really know what Conan knows, and so we learn as he does. There is little of the plot scene from the nemesis' perspective.

While this strengthens the plot, it doesn't help the wooden acting. Arnie, seen here in one of his breakthrough roles, is extremely stiff; were it not for the fact that all he really needs to do for his part is flex his muscles and swing a sword, his career probably would have sunk. Sandahl Bergman is equally awful, but she matches her peers in the fight scenes and also carries Arnie through the poor 'romance' scenes (which basically involve Bergman and Arnie having sex). The other sidekick, played by Gerry Lopez, is primarily there for comic relief, and doesn't really say a lot. James Earl Jones, who plays the film's villain, an awfully titled Thulsa Doom, could've really added something to the film if he had had more to do - his character's true evil never really comes through, and the scene where Jones and Schwarzenegger could have had some good interaction, Arnie abruptly ends by cutting Jones' head off. Max Von Sydow, who has a brief but memorable spell as King Osric, handles himself well in a minor role that many people would see as unimportant, but Von Sydow portrays the character of the worried ruler well.

All in all, the film works, and shows some classic acting moments. I will hand on heart say that this is one of my favourite films... and I defy anyone who criticizes it simply because it is different to the original plot of the book. Give it a chance - just sit down and enjoy a classic hack and slash romp that even 19 years on, can be said to be the benchmark for many a fantasy film.

Sorcerer's Place rating: 4/5

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