On January 18th of this year, we celebrated 40 years of the documentary “Pumping Iron”, which showcased the 1975 Olympia contest. While it wasn’t considered to be a significant movie to those outside of the bodybuilding world, fans of the sport knew they were witnessing greatness in the form of then six-time Mr. Olympia, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went head to head against the likes of Franco Columbo and The Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno.
What most didn’t realize was that five years later, on May 14th, 1982, the man affectionately called “The Oak” would slash and maim onscreen as Conan, the fictional warrior created 50 years prior, a role which would thrust him into the spotlight as a bonafide action star and enshrine him in both Hollywood and pop culture history.
Conan was created by Robert E. Howard in 1932, making his first appearance in the publication “Weird Tales.” Influenced by Greek mythology, Celt history, the Mongolian empire and other empires throughout history, Howard was able to bring the Cimmerian warrior to life when he re-wrote a rejected story “By This Axe I Rule” and replaced it’s main character, Kull of Atlantis, with Conan and then re-titled the story “The Phoenix on the Sword.” It was eventually published in December of 1932, an irony which becomes evident fifty years later.
Over the next four years, before he committed suicide in 1936, Howard wrote 21 Conan stories and had 17 of them published in “Weird Tales.” Even after his death, stories of Conan continued to be published over the next four decades, finally making it to the silver screen after years of negotiations, rewrites and production changes. But after John Milius signed on as the director, things started to move in the right direction and they could finally create the story for Mr. Olympia himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Coming off of seven Olympia titles, his last in 1980, Schwarzenegger wasn’t well known outside of bodybuilding circles. But through “Conan the Barbarian”, his first major on-screen role, Arnold forced fans and Hollywood to pay attention to not only his physique but to his unique on screen presence. From begrudgingly pushing the wheel of pain as he transitioned from boy to man, reciting the philosophy on what is best in life and uttering a prayer to the god Crom, Arnold displayed a penchant for timely and memorable lines delivered through his Austrian accent.
Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no time for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought and why we died. No, all that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what’s important. So grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!
“Conan the Barbarian” also featured James Earl Jones as the evil Thulsa Doom, the man who killed Conan’s parents, destroyed his village and enslaved the young Cimmerian. Five years after exciting audiences as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars, Jones returned to the silver screen as another villain, this time as the leader of the Cult of Set and possessing the ability to transform into a snake.
Like other cult leaders with followers whose devotion is absolute, Doom could snap his fingers and people would jump off of a cliff, literally. Visions of Doom destroying his village and beheading his mother in front of him would fuel Conan’s thirst for revenge during his days of slavery and as a gladiator. He would join up with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the crazy Wizard (Mako) during his quest for riches and fame, eventually finding and failing to kill Doom, leading to his crucifixion. Then he was saved by Subotai, lost Valeria to a snake arrow from Doom, took on Doom’s elite squad with some help from the ghost of Valeria and ultimately placated his thirst for revenge by killing Doom.
The movie held true to Howard’s vision, reaching back in history to fulfill the roster of characters. Subotai was the greatest general under Genghis Khan, Valeria could be based upon the Valkyries and Doom looks to be based upon Egyptian mythology.
Conan wore the leather neck collar of a slave and fought as a gladiator, invoking thoughts of the Roman empire and during Conan’s aforementioned infamous “What is best in life” speech the surrounding warriors resembled Mongolian warriors and discussed the open steppe.
The movie was actually intended to be developed into a series, with the less successful “Conan the Destroyer” and a third movie to follow the original to complete the trilogy. But Arnold’s star took off in 1984 with “Terminator” and he followed it up with lead roles in six additional, highly successful movies in the ’80s including “Commando”, “Raw Deal”, “Predator”, “The Running Man”, “Red Heat” and “Twins.” None of them would win an Oscar, but they all performed well at the box office and provided audiences with “Arnoldisms” that are still repeated today.
In 1987, after Arnold signed on to play Dutch in “Predator”, the third installment of Conan stalled and in its stead came “Kull the Conqueror” ten years later, played by Kevin Sorbo. Fifty years after Kull took a backseat for Conan, Arnold and Conan returned the favor to Sorbo and Kull. Years later, studios tried to revive the franchise with “Conan: Crown of Iron” but Arnold had moved on to become governor of California, so the project fizzled out once again.
Despite its one movie success and two movie failures (“Conan the Destroyer” and Jason Momoa’s “Conan the Barbarian” were both extremely forgettable, ever if the former featured Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain), the Conan character lived on successfully through books, TV, video games, comic strips and comic books, the latter of which housed its greatest success.
Marvel published Conan the Barbarian from 1970 – 1993 and Savage Sword of Conan from 1974 – 1995. Dark Horse Comics launched their own series in 2003 with titles such as Phoenix in the Sword, King Conan and the current series, Conan the Slayer.
Through the 1982 film, we got to see the unique ability of Arnold to captivate audiences through his muscles, charisma and speech. We weren’t used to hearing an Austrian accent on the silver screen, and its uniqueness instantly drew fans to Schwarzenegger. That’s one of his strongest qualities, his ability to capture a character and deter its duplication. Momoa couldn’t do it and 35 years later talk of a new movie, “Legend of Conan”, has surfaced and Arnold is the name the studios are hoping to enlist.
Conan the Barbarian was not meant to win awards nor would it win much critical acclaim. But it was a financial success, generating over $100 million worldwide while also launching Schwarzenegger’s career as a Hollywood icon.
35 years later, we still remember the movie as a pop culture success, the first of many for Arnold in the ’80s and ’90s, and we still appreciate Conan the Cimmerian for the warrior, thief, conqueror, leader and king that he has become over the last 70 years. And if Conan is good enough for President Obama, then it’s damn good for all of us.
Schwarzenegger will always be known for bodybuilding, the roles he played and memorable lines such as “Get to the chopper” and “Let off some steam, Bennett.” But without the 1982 film “Conan the Barbarian”, his journey to the Hollywood Walk of Fame might have been as fictional as the country of Cimmeria.