Comfortable and Furious

Starring Debuts # 22: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Arnie actually made his starring debut in 1970’s Hercules in New York (in which he must have been about sixteen) but I’m going to ignore it because it’s a cheapie load of embarrassing rubbish. His acting career only started gaining traction with a supporting role in the weird, barely comprehensible Jeff Bridges clunker Stay Hungry. Its lone interesting aspect is its cast, unless you have a real need to see Arnie play the violin, dress up as Batman while lifting weights or fail to punch anyone. I’ll admit his acting isn’t too bad, but rewarding him with a Golden Globe for playing an Austrian bodybuilder (i.e. himself) was bloody generous. Better is the amusing, similarly gym-based doco Pumping Iron, although it wasn’t until five years later that Arnie exploded onto the mainstream with the massively influential box office hit, Conan.

Taking a leaf out of Bronson’s book, his character is none too chatty, although his first line is a pearl. Asked by his master what is ‘best in life’, he does his most intimidating glower and answers with a downturned mouth: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women.”

Ah, Arnie, welcome to our hearts.

Conan boasts excellent production values, good cinematography and a superb score that help create an immersive, camp-free world, but it’s let down by a meandering script, some ropey performances, over length and a sense of self-importance. This is a visually rich movie rather than a satisfying action pic. It still occasionally manages to be terrific, though, typified by the opening massacre of some unfortunate villagers. Everyone has been killed except six-year-old Conan and his mum, who end up standing before the evil, snake-obsessed Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). During a silent, snowbound scene, the initially defiant mum is decapitated while holding her child’s hand, leaving Conan to stare at his empty palm.

So far, so good, but the subsequent narrative isn’t tight or focused. Once he reaches manhood, the camel-punching, witch-fucking Conan wanders, picks up a dull sidekick and an even duller blonde girlfriend, and only appears to harbour the vaguest idea of hunting down the dude that killed his parents. Now I’m unfamiliar with Conan’s source material, but I suspect the film version is also a little sanitized. Conan never seems coarsened or brutalized by his terrible experiences, such as the childhood murder of everyone he knows, pitiless, back-breaking work as a slave, and a gory spell as a gladiator. He rips apart opponent after opponent in the fighting pit yet is chivalrous when a half-naked woman is handed over as a virginity-losing reward. We always get the impression there’s a nice, honorable guy lurking within his long-haired, fur-clad barbarian frame.

As for Arnie, the poorly paced Conan underlines that there was always something jerky and mechanical about his thespian ambitions, a limitation that became a strength two years later during his non-human turn in The Terminator. Christ, he’s a monolithic slab of a man, not too bad at doing his own stunts, but wince-inducing when attempting surprise or alarm, emotions that merely make his face freeze in a wide-eyed parody of acting. Saying that, such criticisms border on pointless. The man’s got it, all right, whatever ‘it’ may be.

Although not among my faves, Conan is a significant flick that spawned a sequel and a remake, as well as an army of imitators. Schwarzenegger was off and running, as was the sword and sorcery genre.



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One response to “Starring Debuts # 22: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian (1982)”

  1. Knifey-Spooney Avatar

    “the weird, barely comprehensible Jeff Bridges clunker Stay Hungry. Its lone interesting aspect is its cast”

    It also features the only nude scene by Sally Field. That’s gotta be worth something.

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