Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Arnold Project Part II: Arnold the Barbarian

The recent news have implied that Arnold may not be returning to our screens any time soon. As much of a downer this is, it at least may have spared us from a pensioner Terminator. Robots can't age, and at 64, Arnold really couldn't pretend to be the same killing machine from 1984. His real-life sex scandal that produced an illegitimate son also proves that he's more of a loving machine. And no other of Arnold's characters is such a stud as Conan the Cimmerian, a fortune-seeking barbarian in the Hyborian era.

Now, Arnold certainly brought a lot of his own image to the character and thus may not be the perfect incarnation of Robert E. Howard's legendary pulp fiction character. But at least he's the right size and charismatic and intimidating enough to convince us, which is a lot more than you can say about the first impression of Baywatch actor Jason Momoa. The more I see about the upcoming 2011 remake, the less interested I am, but at least we have this bunch of films from the good old '80s.

Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Director: John Milius

A pillaging gang of thugs led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) storm a Cimerrian village and brutally murder the parents of young Conan. He grows up in slavery, but as he starts developing huge muscles, he is sold into being a gladiator. When he eventually gets his freedom he sets off to various adventures to gain his revenge on Doom, who has since become the leader of a snake-worshipping occultist cult.

The film, produced by Dino DeLaurentiis himself, is a huge epic that might go amiss when being viewed from a home DVD. This is a film where the material really demands a cinematic athmosphere. Everything, starting from the score by Basil Poledouris, is meant to be as big as possible. My viewing experience of the film as one of last year's final screenings of the movie theater Bristol, was one of the most magnificent of my life. A theatre filled wth Arnold fans cheered and cherised every frame of the film with all their passion. It really raised the film's quality in my eyes too.

As the director John Milius is well-known for being one of the most right-wing directors in Hollywood, it is no surprise that the film is positively Nietzschean in its portrayal of an ├╝bermensch. Now, this may not be as racist as it can seem, but neverthelss Conan is shown to have a superior will-power and adaptility to anyone else to rise up to become the toughest there is. But he won't have it easy as even as an infant he's forced to push a gigantic wheel and later on he survives a crucifiction and kills a hungry vulture by biting its neck off. As in Howard's books, the times were tough, and to adapt a man should keep his pleasures positively Spartan:
"Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women"

This macho attitude, so common in the '80s, is well served by Milius's and Oliver Stone's script. The conciderably left-wing Stone probably keeps the film's supremacy-bullshit at a tolerable level. Conan is something of a freedom-fighter and a liberator from oppression from religious cults (that act a lot like Soviet communism), too. Unlike many other action-adventures, Barbarian is also economical with its special effects. Conan doesn't need to be attacked by a monster or a wizard's fireball every five minutes, as well-armed swordsmen are enough of a challenge to him, too. The special effect scenes that are used, feel all the more special. One of the main reasons the film still feels so fresh today is so few effects. If one seeks to find flaws in this performance, one really don't need the scene where Doom changes into a giant snake. It doesn't have a purpose in the story and only creates confusion on why he doesn't change into one in the climatic battle.

The ending would promise us a whole franchise, but really we only got one official sequel. I would've loved if Conan became a character like James Bond, with a new installment every couple of years, as the possibilities for his adventures are really grand. Sadly, the character is also easy to get wrong, which just adds to the kudos for Milius and Stone for nailing it.

In theatre: ★★★★★
From DVD: ★★★★

Conan the Destroyer (1984)
Director: Richard Fleischer

Fleischer's sequel feels to suffer from a budget-loss from its predecessor. It feels more of a product of its time, as is evident from the amounts of bad special-effect creatures here. It's also clear that the script isn't as good. Conan might have been a brutal and ruthless man driven by a will of revenge in the first, but he was no foll and had a certain philosophy of his own as well as a moral code. The second film maintains the moral code, and some nuggets of character-building from the first film (Conan still mourns for his lost love), but mostly he's just a big dumb oaf. The film suffers also from having too many sidekicks joining Conan's quest. As awesome as characters like Grace Jones's amazon woman or the more prominent Mako as the Wizard are, they eat screen time from each other and as a result, none of the supporting cast really gets time to shine.

Conan's quest this time is to obtain a magic crystal that can revive the dead. On the way, Conan and his team get tangled up to various wizards planning world domination by awakening an ancient god (that is not Cthulhu). Actually, the film's script uses more elements from Howard's stories than its predecessor. That might be because it was co-written by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway from Marvel's Conan comic book. The film does have a more loose, comic-booky tone with more humor. I would prefer to have these films completely serious, but I can't deny that the film isn't still a lot of fun.The stand-out scene is the completely ridiculous fight against an ape-man in a hall of mirrors where Conan is being spiralled round and round from his leg.


Red Sonja (1985)
Director: Richard Fleischer

Red Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) is the female equivalent of Conan, a treasure-hunter and a thief seeking revenge for the death of her family and the destruction of her home village. The person responsible is the evil queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman), who attempts to conquer the world using a notorious magic talisman (again). Sonja is joined by Prince Kalidor, the former keeper of the talisman, who attempts to find it before it is destroyed and all evil gets loose in the Hyborian world. Reportedly, Arnold himself has thought of this as being a quite bad one. Said Arnold:

“It’s the worst film I have ever made. Now, when my kids get out of line, they’re sent to their room and forced to watch Red Sonja 10 times. I never have too much trouble with them."

Personally, I wouldn't be that hard on the film. Fleischer is an OK director with a good eye for what works on screen. Thus the sets are huge and vivid, and remind me a little of this year's film Thor. The film also has another good score this time by Ennio Morricone himself.

But the film does have big problems and the biggest one is the casting. Brigitte Nielsen is no lead actress unless we are referring to the heavy metallic element. Her accent is probably even worse than Arnold's, and it's hard to understand anything she's saying. I don't consider her to be that good-looking, either, but at least she can swing a sword. Arnold himself doesn't play Conan anymore, he's King Kalidor, a thinly veiled stand-in for the real one. This is probably done to avoid copyright payments, although the tale of Red Sonja is based on the Conan comic books. Kalidor is a good-hearted pussy compared to the strength, power and few words of Conan. Crom!

But the worst offense is to break the #1 rule of adventure films: don't have an annoying kid sidekick who whines all the time. A lot of screentime that could be featuring Arnold kicking ass is spared for an annoying little moppet named Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.). He's contantly ordering people around, demanding stuff, bragging how great a fighter he is (he isn't) and generally being an annoying little asshole. I wish Arnold could've thrown him into boiling-hot mud when he had the chance.

One has to wonder why the producers thought they needed someone for the kids to relate to as the film is too violent for them anyway. Presumably they figured kids would watch the film anyway as He-Man and The Masters of the Universe was the hottest thing back then. And as everyone loving film- and toy-based trivia knows, that toy line was created when the original Conan was deemed too violent for the kids, only after ordering a huge batch of action figures based on it. The solution was to give Conan a fruity blonde Beatle-wig, and to switch Thulse Doom's head with a skull. Thus, He-man and Skeletor were born. But that's another story.

★★ 1/2

These were the films that first made Arnold a star. But that might have been a dead-end to his career by itself. As his wife Maria Shiver said after seeing Red Sonja:
"If that doesn't kill your career, nothing will"
Arnold as Conan is after all equally iconic as Christopher Reeve as Superman. He would need another iconic character in his stable to become a bona-fied superstar.

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