THE SUBGENRE: Sword and sorcery adventure.
THE HERO: Conan the Barbarian, aka Conan the Cimmerian
THE VILLAIN: Thulsa Doom, leader of a snake cult (Conan the Barbarian); Queen Taramis, who plans to sacrifice her niece to raise a death god.
THE SETTING: The mystical “Hyborian Age,” after the fall of Atlantis but before known ancient civilizations appeared.
Conan the Barbarian hardly needs an introduction—the Robert E. Howard character has set the bar for almost every sword and sorcery adventure since his first pulp magazine appearance in 1932. We can thank Conan for the preponderance of giant, beefy strongmen that are such a staple of the genre. He's a rescuer of damsels in distress, an adventurer always ready for the next battle, and a king by his own hand.
In short: he's the ultimate testosterone-fueled male fantasy.
He's been immortalized in cartoons, comics, and video games. But for most, he'll always be Arnold Schwarzenegger thanks to a pair of classic '80s action films.
Conan the Barbarian re-introduced the world to the pulp character—whose original exploits had been somewhat forgotten and heavily re-written in the decades following Howard's early death—and made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name.
Our hero first sees his family wiped out by the evil Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), then endures years as a slave and gladiator—where he develops numerous fighting skills—before finally becoming a wandering thief and adventurer. He befriends the archer Subotai (Gerry Lopez), romances the courageous Valeria (Sandhal Bergman), and allies with the magician Akiro (Mako), who later becomes the chronicler of his adventures and serves as the narrator throughout the film.
In true sword and sorcery fashion, Conan fights giant snakes, monstrous henchmen, entire armies, and endures all manner of torture (including crucifixion, urgh!). While his motivations are largely selfish—and he's not above being a thief and a robber—Conan does act heroically to protect others.
When an aging king hires Conan, Subotai, and Valeria to rescue his daughter, he finally has his chance for revenge on Thulsa Doom, who has become the powerful head of a snake cult in the decades since destroying Conan's village.
Of course, revenge always comes at a cost…
In the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, the muscle-bound adventurer is tasked with guarding the teenaged Princess Jehnna (Olivia D'Abo) as she seeks a jeweled horn belonging to Dagoth, the “Dreaming God.”
With his band of fellow heroes—fierce warrior Zula (Grace Jones), sneaky thief Malak (Tracey Walter), and wily magician Akiro (Mako, reprising his role)—plus the Princess's personal bodyguard Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain) in tow, Conan sets off with the hope that Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas) will reward his efforts by bringing his lost love Valeria back to life. Along the way, they face off against mirror monsters, giant birds, booby-trapped treasure rooms that even Indy Jones would sweat over, and the usual assortment of bandits and religious nutjobs.
Things get really sticky when Akiro discovers the truth: Taramis plans to sacrifice Jehnna in a ceremony that will awaken the Dreaming God, who will then rain apocalyptic fire and destroy the world.
Definitely less than ideal.
The plucky band of underdogs then have to race back to the kingdom, interrupt the ceremony, save the princess, and kill a god. Which, to be fair, is pretty much all in a day's work for a Hyborian adventurer.
Conan's adventures have never been high literature, but they have always been highly entertaining. Sure, sometimes you get the itch to read the Next Great American Novel (or watch serious Oscar-bait films)—but when does a sword and sorcery adventure not sound like a rollicking good time?
Sometimes you just need to see James Earl Jones turn into a giant snake, or watch a buff, long-haired Schwarzenegger wrestle with Wilt Chamberlain, you know?
There's definitely something to be said for the campy quality of the '80s films, too. A more recent adaptation, starring former Dothraki warlord and current Aquaman Jason Momoa, was okay—but only okay. Sure, the special effects were more polished, and perhaps the fight scenes were better choreographed; plus, I certainly wouldn't say no to Momoa's Conan, if you know what I mean.
But the newer film lacks the charm of the '80s Conan. You truly can't beat the De Laurentiis-vibe of the '80s/'90s action adventure and horror. The rousing percussion-heavy soundtracks, the chunky weaponry, and grittier, lower-budget feel just fits the subject matter.
You don't care when you see the wires, or when it's clear that Conan is biting into a vulture puppet, because it only adds to the cheesy fun of the scenes.
Plus, the original films have some ridiculously amazing star power.
Obviously, you can't go wrong with James Earl Jones as your lead baddie. The fact that he plays Thulsa Doom as such a quiet, seemingly-benevolent dude—right up to the moment he slices your mom's head off or asks a brainwashed devotee to leap to her death—makes him all the more menacing despite the colored contacts, Prince Valiant-style haircut, and giant rubber snake transformation.
On the other side of the baddie coin, Sarah Douglas plays a seriously slaying queen as Taramis, whether it be with a dagger during an evil ceremony or just by delivering straight-up killer looks in her throne room. I blame my preoccupation on Evil Queen Fashion on formative films like Conan the Destroyer.
The much beloved and much missed Mako is utterly perfect as the slightly kooky Akiro, as is longtime character actor Tracey Walter as Malak: he may be a scrawny, cowardly dude, but even he gets his badass moments with his double daggers.
The Conan films also deliver the solid goods when it comes to warrior women: Bergman's Valeria is square-jawed and solid enough that you believe she could actually hold her own in a fight—much like Lucy Lawless's Xena—and her credo of “Do you want to live forever?” is pretty damn badass. While Grace Jones…
I just have to take a moment to get my full fangirl on. Grace Jones! Her Zula is on a whole other level of greatness. Yes, she's supermodel skinny and wears approximately three inches-worth of leather straps throughout the movie. That doesn't change the fact that she's wild, unhinged, fearless, and utterly terrifying in the best way.
Zula is the poster girl for Not Giving A Fuck, headbutts dudes into next Sunday, and is willing to take on prime cut Arnold Schwarzenegger with only bare feet and a quarterstaff. What a gal. Every time she's onscreen I just have to heave a little sigh of pure love and admiration.
Last, but not least, I would be remiss to ignore the fact that Conan the Destroyer features Wilt Chamberlain—yes, the infamous lothario and basketball star—as a leather-covered warrior protecting a pretty teenaged girl's virginity. I like to imagine the casting director bursting into peals of laughter when she made that suggestion.
Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer are nostalgic slices of fried gold: of a time before Arnold was a star, before slicker production values erased much of the fun, and before the PG-13 rating came along and—sadly—meant the end of beheadings in PG films.
They're goofy and over the top, yes. But when you're talking about pulp fiction, that is never, ever, a bad thing.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.