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Conan the Barbarian is a 1982 film by director John Milius and is recognized as the acting breakthrough of Arnold Schwarzenegger who had previously been a famous bodybuilder.

The film is loosely based on the Conan the Barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard and was written by Oliver Stone and John Milius, set in the mythical Hyborian Age. It was followed in 1984 by a lighter, more child-friendly, but less successful sequel, Conan the Destroyer. Both it and its sequel are sword and sorcery epic tales that include magic, monsters, and fantastical events.

Plot

A yet-unseen Wizard (Mako) narrates the story. As a young Cimmerian boy, Conan witnesses the destruction of his village at the hand of three Vanir warlords: Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and Doom's lieutenants, Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven-Ole Thorsen). Conan's father (William Smith) valiantly fights the bandits, but Thorgrim and Rexor mortally wound him, finally killing him with their pack of trained dogs. Doom himself hypnotizes and then decapitates Conan's mother (Nadiuska). The battle standard carried by the invading Vanir - two snakes facing each other over a moon and a rising sun - is burned into the memory of young Conan.

Sold into slavery along with the other children from his village, Conan is forced with others to push a human-powered mill, The Wheel of Pain. Reaching adulthood as the sole survivor, he has become broad and strong, (at this point the viewer is introduced to an adult Conan via the massive back and stoic stare of a 33-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger). After a period of enduring the elements, a lone horseman appears. Conan, it appears, is purchased on the premise that size alone is good enough to qualify him to fight as a gladiator. After success competing in the gladiator arena, as Akiro describes, Conan discovers his own worth. His owner sees such potential in Conan that he is later taken to the Far East. There Conan is trained as a swordsman by "War Masters." While still a slave, Conan studies language and writing including poetry and philosophy. After many successful fights, his owner spontaneously sets him free. After discovering a sword from an ancient Atlantean king in a tomb, Conan dedicates his life to vengeance.

During his travels, Conan meets two thieves: Subotai (Gerry Lopez), a Hyrkanian archer; and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). The trio learn that a doomsday cult has arisen, one which makes extensive use of snake symbolism. While breaking into one of the cult's fortified temples in Shadizar, Conan discovers Rexor overseeing a human sacrifice, a confirmation of the cult's connection to Thulsa Doom. The thieves succeed in making off with (among other things) a large jewel famously dubbed "The Eye of the Serpent," and a jade amulet in the shape of Thulsa Doom's Vanir battle standard; the emblem of the Snake-god Set. In the process, Conan and his fellow thieves are forced to kill Thorgrim's pet, a giant snake guarding the treasure.

As the three enjoy their stolen wealth, Valeria becomes Conan's lover. The wealth is their undoing; drunk with excess, Conan and his companions are captured by soldiers of King Osric of Ophir (Max von Sydow). Initially appearing enraged, he then reveals his respect for their exploit in challenging the snake cult, and offers them a fortune to return his daughter (Valérie Quennessen), who has been seduced into joining the cult. He shows them a dagger, the "Fangs of the Serpent", with which a father was killed by his cultist son by plunging it into his heart, and fears a similar fate awaits him.

Valeria's expressed desire is to settle down, so Conan makes off on his own in the night, without Valeria knowing, pursuing his family's killer to Set's Mountain of Power. He happens upon the Wizard Akiro (the story's narrator). Akiro is a recluse who watches over the Mounds: a haunted Stonehengemarker-like cemetery. Conan is respectful of the Wizard's status, and the two become friends almost immediately.

Arriving at the Mountain of Power, Conan mugs a priest for his robes and uses the snake-amulet he stole from Rexor's tower in Shadizar as a pass to reach the head of the worshippers. However, a guard becomes suspicious and shows it to Thorgrim and Rexor. Conan is captured, beaten and brought before Thulsa Doom. He explains that in his youth he was searching for steel. Doom tells Conan the "Riddle of Steel": "Steel isn't strong: flesh is stronger." To prove his point, Thulsa Doom bids one of his followers - a beautiful young girl - to jump from a high ledge to her death, which she promptly does. Doom charges that his flesh, as a weapon, is much more potent than any sword. Doom orders that Conan be crucified in the desert, on the Tree of Woe.

Conan is found by Valeria and Subotai, near death. They bring him to Akiro, whom Valeria orders to revive Conan. In response to his technique, Akiro tells Valeria that the Gods of the Mounds will exact a terrible price on whoever asks for such. Valeria tells him that she "will pay them!" Akiro's spells ward away spirits to ensure Conan's survival. As Conan's broken body heals, Valeria tells him that - if need be - she will rise against death itself to fight by his side.

Conan and his fellow adventurers enter the Mountain of Power to rescue King Osric's daughter where they witness the cults' orgy: a bizarre feast, at which the cult members dine upon a green stew consisting of human body parts. Thulsa Doom at this point transforms into a giant snake. The thieves battle Thulsa Doom's guards, who are led by Rexor and Thorgrim. They sweep into Doom's orgy room, scatter the snake-lord's harem and grab the princess. Valeria is mortally wounded during the escape when Thulsa Doom shoots her with an arrow created from a venomous snake. She dies in Conan's arms. Conan brings Valeria back to the Mounds. Despite Akiro's claims that no fire will burn here, Conan cremates his lover on a funeral pyre.

Before the approaching battle, Conan prays to Crom, a fictional deity of the Hyborean Age, to help him gain revenge against Doom's warriors. Thulsa Doom, Rexor and Thorgrim lead their small army of "Vanir" riders to recover Osric's daughter. The Vanir are killed one by one and Thorgrim is killed by a clever trap. Rexor, angered at his friend's death, charges at Conan, almost catching him by surprise. The two engage in a fierce battle with Conan on the defensive. Rexor gains the upper hand and just as his sword is about to slay Conan, it is then blocked by the heavenly sword of Valeria, who quickly strikes him in the face. Making good on her vow to return should Conan ever need her she says to him "Do you want to live forever?" and vanishes.

As Rexor recovers from the blow, he resumes his attack on Conan. Conan parries his blows easily, cleaving through the sword that Rexor stole from Conan's father and kills him. Thulsa Doom, the battle lost, attempts to kill the princess with another enchanted snake-arrow, but it is deflected by Subotai's leaping shield. The princess calls out for her father and Doom's spell over Osric's daughter is broken at last. Conan, staring at his fathers broken sword, realizes the meaning of the Riddle of Steel.

Later at night, a torch-bearing Thulsa Doom preaches to his cult members, who also bear torches: the gleam in the eye of Set, as it were. Conan, led by Osric's daughter, kills a cult sentry, then emerges from the shadows behind Doom. The snake-lord attempts to hypnotize the barbarian, as he hypnotized Conan's mother years ago. But Conan is too strong-willed for him; he beheads Doom with his father's broken sword. The barbarian casts Doom's head from the temple balcony, down the steps leading up the Mountain of Power. The severed head of their leader comes to rest at the feet of Set's followers... along with the broken sword of Conan's father. The awakened "Orphans of Doom" drop their torches into a ceremonial fountain at the base of the Mountain, then vanish into the darkness for home. Conan takes a hanging fire and throws it at the Mountain of Power igniting it. By dawn the fire has engulfed it as Conan carries the princess home.

The film's epilogue shows an aged Conan sitting upon a throne, crowned as King. A narration by Akiro tells the epilogue of the tale. In an alternate DVD release of the film, the final line, both written on screen and spoken by Akiro is "... in time, he became a king by his own hand... [and] this story shall also be told."

Alternate versions

Universal has released the film in several different versions. The original theatrical cut ran at 129 minutes. For its video release the studio offered the theatrical version as well as two shortened prints; one at 115 minutes, the other at 123 minutes. The theatrical cut was utilized for the film's first DVD release in 1998. In 2000 Universal released a collector's edition DVD. In addition to numerous special features, the version contained on this disc features an additional two minutes of footage, for a slightly extended 131-minute running time. This new cut is the only version currently available; all others are out of print.

The original UK video release featured a shortened ending which did not show the Princess in the final scenes as Conan re-entered the Mountain Of Power to slay Thulsa Doom. Only on its first DVD release did it feature the 'restored' ending seen in today's releases.

Cuts

For nearly all the releases in the UK, the film has been cut, mainly to remove some of the horse 'falls' from the battle sequences, especially in the climactic Battle Of The Mounds, a typical example being when Conan is charged by Rexor and Conan cuts at the horses legs - the scene where Rexor and the horse crash to the ground is omitted. Also, the sex scene with the witch was trimmed in some initial releases, but has been restored in later DVD versions. The last UK DVD release in 2007, the "Definitive" edition, still has the horse falls scenes cut, but other versions, such at the French and US releases, do not, and are uncut.

Cast

For a large budget film, the cast of Conan the Barbarian includes an unusual number of then-inexperienced actors. Dancer Sandahl Bergman and surfer Gerry Lopez were cast in major supporting roles as Conan's closest companions. In addition to Schwarzenegger, the cast also included several famous bodybuilders including William Smith, Sven-Ole Thorsen and Franco Columbu, as well as former Oakland Raiders star Ben Davidson. Schwarzenegger was paid a salary of $250,000 for his role in the film.

Actor Role
Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan
James Earl Jones Thulsa Doom
Max von Sydow King Osric
Sandahl Bergman Valeria
Ben Davidson Rexor
Gerry Lopez Subotai
Cassandra Gava The Fire Elemental
Mako The Wizard Akiro / Narrator
Valérie Quennessen The Princess
William Smith Conan's Father
Franco Columbu Pictish Scout
Jack Taylor Priest
Sven-Ole Thorsen Thorgrim
Erik Holmey Turanian War Officer
Jorge Sanz Young Conan
Nadiuska Conan's Mother


Relation to Robert E. Howard's stories

The movie is regarded as a giant departure from Robert E. Howard's Conan series with only several scenes taken from Howard's stories. The tone of the film was loosely taken from Howard's original Conan stories, although the original Conan was rarely ever drunk and was more of a tactician.

Scenes influenced by Howard's stories were slightly altered. Examples: While a character named Valeria appears in Red Nails, the film character's attachment to Conan and her return from the dead to save his life are more akin to Bêlit of Queen of the Black Coast. Conan's killing of a vulture, using only his teeth, while he was nailed to a tree is a borrowing from a scene in A Witch Shall Be Born. Other elements have been borrowed from non-Conan sources, including the face-changing Snake Folk and the Thulsa Doom character which originated in Howard's Kull stories. Conan's encounter with the witch in the film bears some similarity to Worms of the Earth from yet another of Howard's series, Bran Mak Morn. Thulsa Doom's monologue about fearing the dark are also drawn from that work.

Other elements of the film have no relation whatsoever to Howard's stories, including the "Riddle of Steel", the Black Sun Cult of Set, Conan's adolescence in slavery, and his service as a gladiator in the East. Howard's Conan was still with his tribe in Cimmeria around the time he was 15 or 16, taking part in the destruction of the Aquilonian outpost of Venarium.

The Riddle of Steel

"He is strong! If I die, I have to go before him, and he will ask me, 'What is the riddle of steel?' If I don't know it, he will cast me out of Valhalla and laugh at me." ... "That's Crom, strong on his mountain." ~Conan the Barbarian


The theme of the movie Conan the Barbarian is centered around the Riddle of Steel. In the beginning, Conan's father explains the Cimmerian lore concerning the ancient Giant Kings of Earth stealing the secrets of forging from the god Crom. He warns Conan not to trust things of the flesh, but rather the steel in his hand. Even though Conan's father had produced a superior sword, he and the other adults of Conan's village were slaughtered while the children were enslaved by Thulsa Doom and his followers.

Years later, when the adult Conan seeks out the group that murdered and enslaved his people, Doom explains an opposite interpretation of the riddle to him: "Steel isn't strong, boy. Flesh is stronger. Look around you." Thulsa motions to some of the thousands of followers surrounding his mountain who worship him as the mouthpiece of Set. He points up to the top of a cliff, "There, on the rocks, that beautiful girl." He motions to the girl, "Come to me, my child." The girl steps off the cliff and falls to her death. "That is strength, boy. That is power: the strength and power of flesh. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength of your body, the desire in your heart. I gave you these...."

Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe in the desert and left to die. Subotai finds him just after he dies and takes him to the old wizard's home. After Conan is resurrected, he reflects upon the Riddle of Steel. No longer does the barbarian limit himself to direct brute assault. Using covert methods and battlefield tactics, Conan and his friends draw the enemy to them and inflict great damage. However, the cumulative result of all Conan's vengeance does not harm the overall power of Thulsa's cult. Only after his father's sword is broken does Conan realize the true answer to the riddle: the true thing that is forged and unbreakable is the will. Steel breaks, Flesh grows weak, but will is unbreakable. After using the "Eye of the Serpent" to get past the guards, Conan then attempts to slay Thulsa Doom in front of his followers. At which time Thulsa Doom tries to hypnotize Conan with his stare so he can slay him in the same way as his mother. However, it is Conan's will that was forged in the fire of his life that allows him to break the hypnotic stare and slay Thulsa Doom.

Soundtrack

Originally, producer Dino De Laurentiis had planned a soundtrack of pop music for the movie, but was eventually persuaded by Milius to use a full orchestral score. For this purpose, Milius hired the Greek-American composer Basil Poledouris, a former classmate of his from the film department at the University of Southern Californiamarker, and assigned him to make "a continuous musical drama." The result was a choral and orchestral soundtrack that fills nearly every moment of the film, with pronounced use of leitmotifs to portray mood and character.

The violent early portions of the movie are filled with intense pieces including "Anvil of Crom", played by 24 french horns, strings and timpani, and "Riders of Doom", inspired by Prokofiev's "The Battle on Ice" from the score of the "Alexander Nevsky" movie by Sergei Eisenstein and the derived cantata. Thulsa Doom's theme, which recurs throughout the film, is based on the Gregorian chant "Dies Irae". A number of quieter pieces fill the middle of the movie, including "Civilization", "The Leaving", "The Search", and the sensuous "The Orgy" (co-written with his then 9-year old daughter Zoë Poledouris resembles Gustav Holst's The Planets Op.32 Jupiter) before the music again intensifies for a series of battle sequences at the end of the film. Other string sections resemble Ralph Vaughan William's "Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis", namely "Atlantean Sword".Several of the pieces, including the "Anvil of Crom" are frequently used in the movie trailers of other films by Universal Pictures, like Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Much of the film's music was also reused in Conan the Destroyer.

"Riders of Doom" is usually used for the first trailers for several games in the Legend of Zelda series. It was also used in the 2004 video game Conan, which otherwise used its own original soundtrack.

The soundtrack has become a classic amongst movie-music collectors. The score for Conan the Barbarian is considered by some people to be one of the finest examples of motion picture scoring ever written.

Track listing from original Milan soundtrack album

  1. "Prologue/Anvil of Crom" - 3:39
  2. "Riddle of Steel" / "Riders of Doom" - 5:38
  3. "Gift of Fury" - 3:50
  4. "Column of Sadness / Wheel of Pain" - 4:09
  5. "Atlantean Sword" 3:51
  6. "Theology" / "Civilization" - 3:14
  7. "Wifeing (Love Theme)" - 2:10
  8. "The Search" - 3:09
  9. "The Orgy" - 4:14
  10. "Funeral Pyre" - 4:29
  11. "Battle of the Mounds (Part 1)" - 4:53
  12. "Orphans of Doom" / "The Awakening" -5:32


In 1992, this soundtrack was re-released on CD on the Varese Sarabande label (VSD-5390) and featured an expanded score with extra/extended tracks, although the prologue narration on the opening track was removed:

Track listing from expanded Varèse Sarabande soundtrack album

  1. "Anvil of Crom" - 2:34
  2. "Riddle of Steel" / "Riders of Doom" - 5:36
  3. "Gift of Fury" - 3:50
  4. "Wheel of Pain" - 4:09
  5. "Atlantean Sword" - 3:50
  6. "Theology" / "Civilization" - 3:13
  7. "Wifeing (Love Theme)" - 2:10
  8. "The Leaving" / "The Search" - 5:59
  9. "Mountain of Power Procession" - 3:21
  10. "Tree of Woe" - 3:31
  11. "Recovery" - 2:11
  12. "The Kitchen" / "The Orgy" - 6:30
  13. "Funeral Pyre" - 4:29
  14. "Battle of the Mounds" - 4:52
  15. "Death of Rexor" - 5:34
  16. "Orphans of Doom" / "The Awakening" - 5:31


References

  1. Conan the Barbarian Original Motion Picture Soundtrack liner notes by Kevin Mulhall.
  2. http://www.soundtrack.net/trailers/?cid=G&mid=9810
  3. Conan the Barbarian : Soundtrack Central
  4. Poledouris: Conan the Barbarian
  5. Conan the Barbarian
  6. Amazon.com: Conan the Barbarian: Basil Poledouris, Basil Poledouris, The Orchestra of Santa Cecilia [Members of]: Music


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