"I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!" is a series of posts that appear sporadically here on the AFOS blog rather than weekly. In each post, I reveal that I never watched a certain popular movie until very recently, and that's largely because I'm Filipino, we're always late to the party and that's how we do.
The 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian--made by John Milius, the director of the TCM staple The Wind and the Lion--is one of several popular '80s movies I just kept missing out on for the oddest reasons. I avoided watching it even when I had the chance to catch it back when my older brother--who was obsessed with D&D and the sword-and-sorcery genre during the years when Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed the Robert E. Howard character--taped both Conan the Barbarian and its way more family-friendly 1984 sequel off the TV and owned a copy of the first issue of artist John Buscema's two-part 1982 Marvel Comics adaptation of the first movie. His copy of that issue was where I first glimpsed the Milius movie's Wheel of Pain montage and then wondered to myself, "So Conan doesn't get to take any bathroom breaks at all during this shit?"
|(Photo source: Marvel Masterworks Resource Page)|
Conan the Barbarian, the tale of a former gladiator on a mission to kill the sorcerer who slaughtered his tribe and sent him into child slavery, was R-rated, and my parents rarely allowed me to watch R movies for the first few years of grade school. (Yes, I know Conan the Destroyer was a PG movie, so I could have been able to watch it, but I always skipped it. I still haven't watched it.) So I had to settle for the G-rated Conan, a.k.a. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, that 30-minute commercial for the '80s Mattel toy line that was rumored to have originally been a Conan toy line before Mattel changed it to Masters of the Universe because the company didn't want to be associated with an ultraviolent and brazenly sexual R movie.
Although He-Man gave acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini his start in writing for animation, it has not aged well at all as an animated show. But when I was in first grade, He-Man was a decent weekday-afternoon time-waster--it was never a Saturday morning show, by the way, so get your facts straight, HitFix--even though I noticed it would always recycle the same nine or 10 bits of animation like all other cartoons from the Filmation factory used to clumsily do in order to save money.
I lost interest in He-Man after its first two seasons in afternoon syndication and never again formed another attachment to a sword-and-sorcery franchise--until Legend of the Seeker (the hotness of both Bridget Regan and Tabrett Bethell was the main reason why I became interested in that show) and, of course, Game of Thrones came along. So my lack of interest in the sword-and-sorcery genre in the years between He-Man and Legend of the Seeker is mainly to blame for never watching Conan the Barbarian all these years, even though I got myself a copy of the movie's excellent Basil Poledouris score so that I could use "Anvil of Crom" and "Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom" for radio airplay.
Also, the Milius movie just always came off to me as ponderous and self-important like Man of Steel and--if my skepticism due to the largely dour footage I've seen in its trailers ends up being right--Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Despite those misgivings I had about the Milius movie, I added Conan the Barbarian to my DVD rental queue when I first got a Netflix account because I wanted to see if the movie lived up to its beloved Poledouris score (a score that, by the way, This Is How You Lose Her author Junot Díaz interestingly played repeatedly to keep his creative juices flowing while he worked on his first book). However, the movie was always slipping into "Very long wait" status on Netflix and was always getting pushed aside by other rentals I was much more interested in until one day, it became available to stream. And then like a Cimmerian thief in the night, it was suddenly gone from Netflix streaming. Fortunately, I stopped dilly-dallying and finally made myself watch Conan the Barbarian right before it expired.
You know what? Conan the Barbarian isn't as ponderous as I thought, but it has a certain grandiose style that would be described by younger, fidgetier film critics today as "slow." That "slow" style--contemplative and "devoid of clunky-sounding exposition" would be much better words for it--is actually what elevates Conan the Barbarian and makes it stand out as a sword-and-sorcery flick. It takes its medieval world seriously, but it's never an overly dour slog like Man of Steel. If anybody in the Conan the Barbarian cast is on the dour side, it's often Schwarzenegger, who did Conan the Barbarian way before Hollywood discovered you can work around the limited range of the champion bodybuilder and future California governor by feeding him distinctive and weird-sounding one-liners in movies like the original Terminator, Commando, Predator and Kindergarten Cop.
Schwarzenegger doesn't utter a single wisecrack during Conan the Barbarian, and the only times we get a hint of his future light-comedy skills are a scene where a stoned-out-of-his-mind Conan punches out a camel, a hangover scene where he collapses face-first into a bowl of soup and a moment where he pretends to flirt with a gay priest before knocking him out and stealing his identity to infiltrate an evil cult. But he looks convincingly like the '70s and '80s Marvel version of Conan while he broods and appears as if he's going to skullfuck Crom if he doesn't holler back at his prayers. Like Jim Kelly would have said, man, he comes right out of a comic book. The role of Conan doesn't call for you to do much. You just have to look convincing waving around a heavy sword. Barbarians aren't exactly known for being complicated men.
Conan the Barbarian may have made Schwarzenegger a movie star, but he's overshadowed by his co-stars in that movie (whereas he steals The Terminator from Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn and Paul Winfield, and he does so with even less lines). In a villainous turn way before he became America's favorite granddad/narrator outside of Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones makes quite an impression chopping the head off Conan's mom and later transforming into a snake. As cult leader Thulsa Doom, the perpetually scowling murderer of Conan's parents, the rather underused Jones sports the same exact hairdo as Janeane Garofalo's in Reality Bites. He looks kind of like Terry Crews when he strapped on one of his co-star Maya Rudolph's weaves to play President Camacho in Idiocracy. But the goofy-looking Jones relishes his lines like wine made from the blood of his character's virginal sacrifices. I cosign Roderick Heath's observation over at Ferdy on Films about how everything Jones says in the movie sounds like an admonition welling up from the depths of Hades.
There are two fascinating '80s movies that star Sab Shimono (who most recently had a guest shot as a Japanese internment camp survivor on Netflix's Longmire) and the late Mako, two Japanese American actors who are just incapable of giving an abysmal performance, even as animation voice actors, like when they both had roles on the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender. One of the two '80s movies is The Wash, a 1988 indie in which Shimono and Mako play a pair of old Japantown men who are both in love with Nobu McCarthy. Nobody outside of Asian American college professors remembers The Wash, which was based on a play by Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, but it was unique for its time because of its all-Asian American cast, the bold decision to have these Asian American actors portray ordinary (and unlike the more affluent Joy Luck Club, lower-middle-class) Americans instead of the stereotypes that were popular at the time and, best of all, the focus on an Asian American man dating an Asian American woman instead of the cliché of yet another white man hooking up with an Asian woman. Fuck all those things out-of-touch film critics like former Washington Post critic Hal Hinson wrote at the time about The Wash being a bland indie. The Wash features a stronger Mako performance than even the standout (and Oscar-nominated) one Mako gave as a coolie-turned-boxer in 1966's The Sand Pebbles.
The other fascinating '80s showcase for the character acting skills of Shimono and Mako is Conan the Barbarian. Shimono never appears on screen, but he did uncredited work on redubbing the voice of Subotai, Conan's Mongolian archer pal, played by Hawaiian surfer Gerry Lopez. The actual voice of Lopez can be heard in a deleted scene where Conan's stoic demeanor briefly disappears.
The YouTube clip summary for Conan and Subotai's deleted scene says one of the movie's producers hated Lopez and demanded that he be redubbed, which makes little sense because out of all the performers in the movie, you'd expect Schwarzenegger to be the one who would have gotten completely redubbed (in fact, Universal studio execs were worried about Schwarzenegger's thick Austrian accent, and that's probably why Universal's teaser trailer and main trailer for the movie didn't contain a single line of dialogue from Schwarzenegger). I have no idea what Schwarzenegger's saying when he briefly grumbles over his 20 years in bondage, whereas I can completely understand Lopez.
But Shimono's dubbing work for Subotai is so terrific that I didn't know Lopez was redubbed until after watching the movie and reading a bunch of articles about the physically demanding shoot. And this movie just adores the weather-beaten voice of Mako--who plays a storyteller and Conan crony known as the Wizard--so much that his voice is all over Conan the Barbarian. The gravitas of the voices of Jones, Shimono and Mako, especially during his narration--which Milius wisely uses to establish the movie's setting instead of awkwardly wedging exposition into the dialogue of these laconic warrior characters--is a huge part of why Conan the Barbarian stands up to repeat viewings.
If Jones sounds like he's straight out of Hades, then Mako sounds like the Hyborian Age equivalent of the world's goriest and most batshit audiobook. Potentially cheesy-sounding passages like "Language and writing were made available--the poetry of Khitai, the philosophy of Sung--and he also came to know the pleasures of women, when he was bred to the finest stock. But always, there remained the discipline of steel" become music in Mako's hands (during the bit about "Language and writing," is that the Oliver Stone rough draft talking or is it the Milius rewrite talking?). I wouldn't be surprised if Genndy Tartakovsky cast Mako as the evil Aku on Samurai Jack specifically because of his distinctive narration during Conan the Barbarian.
Though her character of Valeria, a precursor to Xena, Michelle Yeoh's Yu Shu Lien from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movies and Lady Sif from the Thor movies, is yet another clichéd example of a leading lady/love interest in an action flick who winds up getting fridged before the climax, the amount of fighting Sandahl Bergman--a professional dancer Bob Fosse recommended to Milius after directing her in All That Jazz--gets to do in Conan the Barbarian is the most surprising part of the material. It's surprising because at around the time of Conan the Barbarian's release, women rarely got to be warriors like Valeria in sword-and-sorcery flicks. They were either damsels-in-distress like Judi Bowker in the original Clash of the Titans or the bedroom conquests and evil sorceresses of Excalibur. TV was way ahead of sword-and-sorcery movies when it came to warrior women, thanks to Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman.
I found myself more taken with Bergman in the action sequences than with Schwarzenegger in action, not just because she's attractive in Conan the Barbarian but because I love heist movies, probably way more than any other genre, and the physicality she brought to both Conan the Barbarian's jewel heist sequence and the swordplay due to her dancing background constantly made me think, "Damn, she missed the heist movie renaissance by 17 years." Just like Schwarzenegger and Lopez, Bergman remarkably did most of her own stunts in Conan the Barbarian. In fact, she ended up accidentally slicing open her forefinger when a weapon she used for the rehearsal of a sword fight came without a handle guard, a good example of how physically rough it was to make Conan the Barbarian.