Sword and Sorcery

Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane

2009

Davis Films

Directed and Written by Michael J. Bassett

Produced by Samuel Hadida

Based on the character “Solomon Kane” created by Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard is known mainly as the creator of Conan but as all us fans of his work well know he created many other heroes of equal power. They’re not as well known or as popular as Conan with the general public but in terms of characterization they’re more developed and more psychologically complex than Conan who pretty much was happy as long as he spent his days thieving and slaying and his nights wenching and drinking. Howard’s Pictish king Bran Mak Morn is obsessed with bringing the warring Pict clans together into a mighty empire against Rome and leaving a legacy to live on after his death. King Kull of Atlantis may be a barbarian but he spends just as much time in philosophical introspection as he does hacking his enemies into hamburger. And SOLOMON KANE is not only a swordsman of demonic skill and ferocity in battle, he is also a devout Puritan who has dedicated his life to God and to the vanquishing of evil.

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It’s his religious fanaticism that gives Solomon Kane his distinction in the pantheon of Robert E. Howard heroes and for me it’s what gives the movie an added kick of characterization. Solomon Kane’s quest is an unusual one, concerned with spiritual salvation and redemption as much as it is with lopping off as many heads of as many men as he can who stand in his way to kill the evil sorcerer Malachi.

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After barely escaping The Devil’s Reaper (Ian White) who attempts to take his soul, Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) retreats to a monastery in his native England. He covers his body with protective tattoos and Bible scriptures to keep The Devil’s Reaper at bay while he repents of his sins and embraces a life of peace. Even though he has renounced violence Solomon is destined for Hell for his past sins. Cast out from the monastery, he begins a pilgrimage to return to his family estates. As a boy Solomon was exiled by his father (Max Von Sydow) but now Solomon wishes to make amends.

He finds friendship with a Puritan family, William and Katherine Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite and Alice Krige) and their three children and travels with them. They are ambushed by the demonic soldiers of the sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng) led by his brutal lieutenant, The Masked Rider (Samuel Roukin) In the ambush, all of the Crowthorns are killed except for Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) Solomon promises the dying William that he will rescue his daughter. And so, now believing that God’s plan is for him to once again become a killer, Solomon takes up arms and sets out to rescue Meredith. In the course of that quest, Solomon Kane will confront not only foes armed with swords and magic but wrestle with his own inner turmoil and crisis of faith.

Now, don’t get scared. This may sound like heady stuff for what is essentially a Sword and Sorcery yarn but trust me, it doesn’t get in the way of the killing, maiming, slaying of demons and zombies and buckets of blood any good Robert E. Howard story has. The movie is essentially an origin story for Solomon Kane and it’s been a while since I’ve read those original story I honestly don’t believe that anything in the movie violates what has been set down in those stories.  Although I do seem to recall that Kane was born a Puritan and he didn’t come from a noble wealthy family.

But it’s hard to argue with a couple of things that SOLOMON KANE may have gotten wrong when there’s so much that it gets right. The production values are amazing. They didn’t film this one on the cheap. And I liked how the landscape and location work are used to really good effect here to heighten the mood, tension and atmosphere in the various scenes. This is a Dark Ages that really is dark. It’s cold, it’s muddy, it’s rainy, it’s snowy. In short, it’s a rotten time and place to be living in. And there’s no punches pulled when it comes to the violence which is raw and brutal. There’s some really impressive stuntwork being done during the swordfights.

I had long heard that James Purefoy was excellent in this movie and I’m happy to confirm that. I’m pretty confident that he read the original Robert E. Howard stories as he scarily and convincingly conveys the righteous anger that consumes Solomon Kane in combat. And in the quieter scenes where he’s given up his violent ways and is searching for God, he sells those just as well. The quest of Solomon Kane is not just a violent one but a spiritual one as well and James Purefoy does a wonderful job of giving us both sides of the character.

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Who else? There’s Pete Postlethwaite, who has always looked to me like Patrick Stewart’s meaner older brother doing his usual professional work. And it’s always a joy to see Alice Krige on screen doing anything and still looking beautiful and sexy even in Puritan clothing. Max Von Sydow makes the most of his brief but pivotal role as Josiah Kane, Solomon’s father.

The story of this movie’s production is a convoluted one as it was made in 2009 and only got to the United States last year. The only thing I can think of is that there must have been somebody getting paid under the table to keep the movie out of the U.S.  I have a long list of movies that should have been major box office hits and SOLOMON KANE joins that list. As a Robert E. Howard fan I was delighted and thrilled with this movie. It’s a genuine Sword-and-Sorcery epic starring one of the most intriguing heroes ever created for the genre. By all means, watch and enjoy.

104 minutes

Rated R


Excalibur

1981

Orion Pictures/Warner Bros.

Produced and Directed by John Boorman

Screenplay by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg

Based on “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Thomas Malory

The 1980’s was a rich and fertile time for heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery films. The original “Clash of The Titans” “Dragonslayer” “Conan The Barbarian” “Conan The Destroyer” “The Sword and The Sorcerer” “Ladyhawke” “The Beastmaster” and “Legend” just to name a few. There were also the more whimsical fantasy movies such as “The Dark Crystal” “Labyrinth” “Krull” and “The Neverending Story.” All of these movies still have loyal followings and deservedly so. For various reasons they’re great examples of how heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery movies were done back in the day without CGI. But whenever somebody asks me to recommend an heroic fantasy/sword-and-sorcery movie of that period I always point them in the direction of a movie I think has been undeservedly forgotten; John Boorman’s magnificently lush and extraordinary retelling of the legend of King Arthur and The Knights of The Round Table…EXCALIBUR.

Merlin The Magician (Nicol Williamson) has worked for many years to unite a land beset by constant warfare. To this end he has manipulated events so that Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) will receive Excalibur, The Sword of Power and become king. Uther undermines Merlin’s plans through his lust for Igraine (Katrine Boorman) the wife of his most powerful ally, Duke Cornwall (Corin Redgrave.) To this end, Merlin uses his magic to transform Uther to resemble Cornwall and Uther impregnates her. Merlin shows up nine months later to take Uther’s son, telling Uther that he is “not the one who will unite the land.” But perhaps his son will be. His son who will day be known in song and story as King Arthur. Shortly after, Uther is ambushed and killed, but not before thrusting Excalibur into a stone, proclaiming that none but a true king shall ever have Excalibur.

From there we follow Arthur (Nigel Terry) as he indeed draws Excalibur from the stone and becomes king. With the help of his foster father Sir Ector (Clive Swift) foster brother Sir Kay (Niall O’Brien) along with other knights such as Sir Leondegrance (Sir Patrick Stewart) Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) and Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and with the wisdom of Merlin to guide him, Arthur does unite the land and creates The Round Table, the greatest assemblage of knights in the world. But even the paradise that is Camelot cannot stand when Arthur is betrayed by his wife Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and his best friend Lancelot who have fallen in love. Arthur’s half-sister Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren) uses the same sorcery Merlin used to help Uther conceive Arthur to seduce Arthur and give birth to their son Mordred (Robert Addie) whom she then raises to destroy Arthur, The Round Table, Camelot and everything they stand for. Beset by foes from without and the sickness of King Arthur from within, The Knights of The Round Table embark on the mission which will make them immortal legends: the quest for The Holy Grail.

EXCALIBUR intriguingly had its roots in a proposed production of “Lord of The Rings” John Boorman had signed on to do for United Artists. But Boorman and his co-writer Rospo Pallenberg could never figure out how to do it in anything less than a three hour movie and United Artists didn’t want to put up the money to do it. Boorman went back to the EXCALIBUR project and secured a deal to film it. Most of the set design and costuming in EXCALIBUR were originally designed for the proposed “Lord of The Rings” project.

Me, I’m happy we got EXCALIBUR instead. I’ve got friends of mine who worship at the altar of J.R.R. Tolkien and lament that Boorman never got to do his version of “Lord of The Rings” but I would have felt the same way they do if he had never got to do EXCALIBUR. I love how the movie isn’t interested in telling the historical story of King Arthur but his legend. As a result, Britain or England is never mentioned. The story takes place in “The Land.” The story doesn’t stay strictly with the traditional King Arthur legend but again, that’s okay with me. Legends are supposed to change with each retelling. And that’s why I love EXCALIBUR. It feels like a story that’s being told to me, a myth from a time out of legend.

If I have any problem with the film is that it should have been longer. There’s a lot that is skipped over and at times EXCALIBUR plays like just the highlights of the King Arthur legend. But thanks to the performance of Nicol Williamson as Merlin, the movie slows down at just the right parts to give us philosophical insights into the characters.

In fact, Nicol Williamson easily walks away with the acting honors in this movie. His Merlin is fierce, whimsical, thoughtful, wise, silly, menacing, sly and comical. Often all in the same scene. It’s a dazzling performance that has to be seen to be believed and wouldn’t be matched until Sam Neill played the role with equal skill and deftness in the 1998 TV miniseries “Merlin” And since we’re on the subject of casting, EXCALIBUR is your chance to see Sir Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Helen Mirren all in the same movie long before they hit it big in American TV and movies. I also am extremely tickled by the performance of Clive Swift who is now probably best known for playing the henpecked Richard Bucket in the BBC sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances.” Here he gets to play a badass knight and I adore what he does with the role.

That’s not to say that John Terry, Nicholas Clay and Cherie Lunghi should be overlooked. I loved how John Terry plays an Arthur that isn’t anywhere near what we think a legend should be. He’s a man who doesn’t quite grasp his own sense of destiny. But he doesn’t run away from it. If anything, he’s a man doomed by his own desire to do the right thing. Cherie Lunghi is absolutely gorgeous and Nicholas Clay plays a man who’s the exact opposite of Arthur: he knows what his destiny is and his overwhelming desire to fulfill it is what makes him tragic.

What else can I say about EXCALIBUR? The wonderful suits of armor that none of the knights take off, not even when having sex. The conversations between Arthur and Merlin. Helen Mirren being bad. Great swordfights. The fianl conversation between Arthur and Guenevere. The extraordinary images of The Lady In The Lake holding Excalibur out of the water. The final apocalyptic battle between The Knights of The Round Table and Mordred’s army. The magnificent use of classical music by Carl Orff and Richard Wagner.

So should you see EXCALIBUR? Quite simply: Yes. The story of King Arthur, Merlin and The Knights of The Round Table has never before been told like this and this, along with the “Merlin” miniseries I mentioned earlier is without a doubt my favorite version of the legend and one of my all time favorite movies.

140 minutes

Rated R

Wrath of The Titans

2012

Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

Produced by Basil Iwanyk and Polly Cohen Johnsen

Screenplay by Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson

Story by Greg Berlanti

Most of my friends disowned me after my coming out in favor of the 2010 “Clash of The Titans” and my saying that I liked it a lot.  They saw my liking of the film as a betrayal of the original version that was the last movie done by stop motion visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen.  I never understand why nowadays people feel it necessary to have to like one version of a movie over another.  Can’t you like two versions of a movie for different reasons?  And one of the reasons why I liked 2010’s “Clash of The Titans” is that it wasn’t a slavish remake of the original. It took the basic story and put its own spin on it.  Much like how those ancient Greeks took the original myths and legends and every time they retold the story, they added stuff on or left stuff out they didn’t think was important.

It’s the same reason why I like WRATH OF THE TITANS.  It has many of the same characters as the previous movies and adds some new ones to change up the character interaction dynamics.  It gives Perseus a new motivation to go on an heroic quest.  It gets in what I think are some knowing, loving winks to the Harryhausen movie.  Bubo the mechanical owl makes another cameo appearance that I didn’t expect, didn’t see coming and made me laugh as the scene he appears in played out.  And like the previous movie, I was surprised that I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.

Perseus (Sam Worthington) has been living peacefully for ten years, earning his daily bread as a fisherman.  He’s been raising his son Helius (John Bell) alone as his wife Io died giving birth.  Perseus is happy with his life and says so to his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) who comes to Perseus for help.  Since men no longer pray to the gods their power is fading away and so they cannot keep imprisoned the demons kept in the underworld prison of Tartarus.  Perseus has no wish to become involved again in the business of the gods.

It’s up to Zeus, Poseidon (Danny Huston) Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Zeus’ other son Ares (Edgar Ramirez) to go down into Tartarus and fix things.  But it turns out to be a trap.  Hades and Ares have cut a deal with the imprisoned Kronos, the most powerful of The Titans: they drain Zeus’ power to free Kronos and they will be part of the new pantheon of gods once Kronos is back on top.

Poseidon gets away and gives his trident to Perseus, charging him with passing the weapon on to Poseidon’s demigod son Agenor (Toby Kebbell) Perseus goes one better. After rounding up Agenor and Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) he sets out to descend into Tartarus and rescue Zeus.  To do this he’ll need the help of Hephaestus (Bill Nighy) who constructed Tartarus and the insanely impossible labyrinth the intrepid band have to navigate and survive to reach Zeus.  And even after that, Perseus must recover two more powerful weapons to join with the Trident of Poseidon to form The Spear of Triam, the only weapon that can stop Kronos.

I really enjoyed WRATH OF THE TITANS because it’s so unpretentious.  This isn’t a movie that’s out to reinvent the genre.  Its sole purpose is to tell an entertaining adventure fantasy story for 100 minutes and I felt entertained once it was over. Rosamund Pike takes over as Andromeda from Alexa Davalos who played the role in “Clash of The Titans” and she brings a whole new energy to the role.  Which is welcome as Andromeda has much more to do in this movie, strapping on a sword and fighting right alongside Perseus.  Toby Kebbell brings some welcome humor to the adventure as the son of Poseidon who is much more of a trickster than the heir to the throne of the God of the Sea.  Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes have a lot of screen time together in this one in a really nicely performed character arc revolving around their characters that is brought to a resoundingly satisfying conclusion.  Sam Worthington appears more relaxed in this movie and allows Perseus some moments of warmth and humor and he even gets to smile.  I’ve liked Edgar Ramirez ever since seeing him in “Carlos” and he brings a good intensity to his role as Ares as if he’s been doing this kind of movie all his life.

So should you see WRATH OF THE TITANS?  If you saw the 2010 “Clash of The Titans” and didn’t like it then there’s no reason why you should want to see this one. But if like me you did enjoy it then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to see this one.

100 minutes

PG-13

Clash of The Titans (2010)

2010

Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures

Directed by Louis Letettier

Produced by Richard D. Zanuck

Screenplay by Travis Beacham and Phil Hay

Based on the 1981 motion picture “Clash of The Titans” Directed by Desmond Davis and Written by Beverley Cross

When it was confirmed that a remake of the classic 1981 “Clash of The Titans” would be happening, fans of that movie sent up offerings to the Gods of Film that the movie would not suck.  The overwhelming consensus seemed to be that the movie would try to copy the magic of Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion visual effects through CGI. I admit myself I had misgivings.  I’ll be the first to admit that 1981’s “Clash of The Titans” isn’t Mr. Harryhausen’s best work.  It was his last film and he knew that his time was over due to a small film called “Star Wars” that had ushered in a new style of special effects techniques that could be done faster and cheaper.  He went out in style, though and while his “Clash of The Titans” isn’t his best movie, it is a helluva lot of fun to watch and one of my all-time favorite movies.

The strength of this version of CLASH OF THE TITANS doesn’t come from it trying to be exactly like the previous movie.  We get three signature scenes of the 1981 version: The Medusa stalking Perseus and his men in the ruins of an ancient temple.  Perseus stealing the magic eye of The Stygian Witches and forcing them to tell him how to kill The Kraken.  And Perseus facing off against The Kraken.  We even get to hear Liam Neeson intone those immortal words; “Release The Kraken!”  But this CLASH OF THE TITANS goes into a different direction due to the tweaking of the motivations of the main characters.  And there are a couple of nice nods to Mr. Harryhausen’s work.  Hades commands a squadron of harpies that look a lot like the harpies from “Jason and The Argonauts.”  Bubo the mechanical owl has a cameo.  The giant scorpions reminded me of the giant scorpions in the original, naturally.  But they also reminded me of the giant animals from “The Mysterious Island”

In this one, Perseus (Sam Worthington) doesn’t find out he’s the son of Zeus (Liam Neeson) until he’s up to his eyeballs in his quest to find a way to destroy The Kraken.  He’s told of his immortal origins by Io (Gemma Arterton) while he’s being held prisoner in the city of Argos.  Perseus has just seen his adopted family killed by Hades (Ralph Fiennes) Brought to the city of Argos, he is witness to another bloody rampage by Hades who informs King Cepheus (Vincent Regan) that he will unleash The Kraken in ten days unless Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is given up as a sacrifice.  All of this is part of a long game by Hades to influence humans so that they will stop worshipping the gods and start to fear them.  Zeus and the other gods grow weaker as a result while Hades grows stronger as his power is nourished by fear and hatred.  Hades has been resentful of Zeus for eons ever since Zeus tricked him into becoming Lord of The Underworld and he figures it’s time he got the chance to live among the clouds and walk around in sparkly armor like the rest of the gods.

Upon learning that Perseus is a demigod, King Cepheus asks him to lead his personal guard to find a way to save his daughter.  Perseus agrees.  Not because he’s in love with Andromeda as in the original.  He’s hellbent on revenging his murdered family and spitting in the collective eye of the gods while he does it.

Unlike the original, we get to know the soldiers that accompany Perseus on his quest, especially their leader, Draco (Mads Mikkelsen) who trains Perseus to fight and challenges him to embrace his dual heritage as man and god for the betterment of all and not reject it out of childish spite.  It’s a good relationship between the two.  And the characterization of the soldiers makes them a mythological version of “The Dirty Dozen” and not just a nameless bunch of red shirts.

And I like how in this version, Perseus actually has to work for his victories.  He’s given an enchanted sword and the use of the winged horse Pegasus but he prefers not to use either one until he realizes that unless he makes peace with himself he will never save Andromeda.

It sounds like there’s a little more psychological and philosophical depth here than in the original and there is.  But it doesn’t get in the way of the action and there is enough to satisfy.  This is another movie that people love to bash because of the CGI but I’m not one of them.  The stalking scene with The Medusa here doesn’t live up to the original, I’ll admit.  It’s nowhere near as creepy as the original which still gives me goose bumps when I watch it.  But it’s effective in doing its job in bringing a mythological world and it’s creatures to life.

So should you see 2010’s CLASH OF THE TITANS?  If you didn’t see it in theaters because you listened to those who told you how lousy the CGI effects were and how wooden the acting is and that the story stunk, I’m here to tell you that it’s nowhere near that bad.  I’m not going to lie and tell you it’s a masterpiece.  But I am going to tell you that’s it’s a movie worth your time if you’re looking for solid entertainment.  It’s not the Ray Harryhausen version and it’s not supposed to be.  It’s its own movie and it earns that on its own strengths.  Enjoy.

106 minutes

PG-13

Conan The Barbarian (2011)

2011

Nu Image Films/ Millenium Films/Paradox Entertainment

Directed by Marcus Nispel

Produced by Avi Lerner and Boaz Davidson

Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood

Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard

I had high hopes for this reboot/re-imagining of Robert E. Howard’s magnificent creation in the first five minutes of the movie because we see for ourselves what Howard wrote in his stories: that Conan was born on a battlefield.  It’s a horrifically gory birth as Conan’s father Corin (Ron Perlman) performs a rude C-section in order to fulfill his wife’s last wish: that she see her son before she dies.  And as men fight, slay and die around him, Corin holds up his bloody son for the Cimmerian god Crom to see.

That’s the only bit of REH we get in the entire movie as the longer it goes on after that, the more disappointing and generic it gets.  Young Conan (Leo Howard) grows up with a wild, hot temper that his father tries to discipline and direct to no avail.  There’s a nice scene in here that echoes a similar scene in 1982’s “Conan The Barbarian” where Conan’s father forges a sword and Ron Perlman is easily as good here as William Smith was back then when he played Conan’s father.  Unfortunately, Mr. Perlman is never given any dialog anywhere near as good as the marvelous speech about The Riddle of Steel Mr. Smith gets to deliver.  Conan’s village is wiped out and his father tortured by Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) a powerful warlord hunting for the scattered pieces of The Mask of Acheron, a mystical artifact made from the skulls of long dead kings and consecrated in blood.  Whoever possesses The Mask of Acheron will have the power to conquer the world.  Khalar Zym wants The Mask in order to resurrect his dead wife, herself a sorceress of immense power.  Corin has a piece of The Mask which Khalar Zym finds with the help of his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan).

Twenty years later, now grown up to be Jason Momoa, Conan is a pirate who learns that Khalar Zym and his daughter plan to sacrifice a pureblood descendant of the wizards of Acheron to unlock The Mask’s power as he now possesses all the pieces.  Conan rescues Tamara (Rachel Nichols) who is the last of the purebloods but in a series of events that are horribly contrived and convoluted to give some sort of depth and meaning to the tired plot, she is captured by Zym and Marique and naturally Conan has to rescue her with the help of the master thief Ela-Shan (Said Taghmaoui).

Now, I’m sure this sounds to you like a thrilling movie but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Except for the scene of Conan’s birth, there is nothing of Robert E. Howard in this movie at all.  Despite the $90 million budget, this movie actually looks cheaper than the 1982 “Conan The Barbarian” and has none of the lush sets and exotic costume designs of that movie.  The big fight scene with sand creatures conjured up by Marique falls flat.  In fact, for a sword-and-sorcery movie there’s not much sorcery in it.

None of the problems with the movie I lay at the feet of Jason Momoa.  In fact, I liked him a helluva lot here and I only pray to Crom that he gets another shot at playing Conan as he did his absolute best and it’s not his fault he had to work with such a dull story.  And unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, he does a good job of showing Conan’s humorous side.  REH himself made mention in his stories that unlike most Cimmerians, Conan likes to laugh, have a good time and has a wicked sense of humor.  Jason Momoa gets that across.  Especially in a scene where he uses a bad guy to deliver a message via catapult.   And yet he’s totally serious when showing Conan doing what he does best: slaughtering by day, drinking and wenching by night.

Stephen Lang is an immensely talented actor and knows how to play a bad guy but the screenplay just doesn’t give him one to play.  And don’t ask me what my girl Rose McGowan is doing in this mess.  If you’ve been following my reviews you know I love Rose McGowan to death.  She’s enormously talented and due to her co-hosting stint on TCM’s ‘The Essentials’ where she displayed an extraordinary knowledge of classic movies I know she’s brainy as hell.  But this role is so brain-dead and devoid of anything meaningful I can only surmise she had hefty bills to pay and did this one for the money.

So should you see the 2011 incarnation of CONAN THE BARBARIAN?  I’m mixed on this.  On one hand, I say no because this is nothing but a generic barbarian movie that is Conan only in name.  Robert E. Howard’s character and his Hyborian Age do not come to life on the screen here. Stick with 1982’s “Conan The Barbarian” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John Milius as that is the superior film even after all this time.  Hell, even Albert Pyun’s 1982 “The Sword and The Sorcerer” is closer to REH than this movie.  Even the score is disappointing but then again, the only way this movie could equal the magnificent music of the original would be to have Basil Poledouris do the music and he is regrettably no longer with us.

But on the opposing appendage, Jason Momoa is terrific to watch and he nails the character.  It’s not his fault the director and screenwriters let him down.  And his performance in the movie deserves to be seen.  Otherwise 2011’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN is a major letdown for fans of Robert E. Howard.

113 minutes

Rated R

http://youtu.be/o1iJZIMddpM

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

1982

Universal Pictures

Directed by John Milius

Produced by Buzz Feitshans and Raffaella De Laurentiis

Written by John Milius and Oliver Stone

Based on the character/stories created and written by Robert E. Howard

I knew that director John Milius and his screenplay co-writer Oliver Stone got the character of Conan five minutes into the movie.  During the opening credits we see Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a mighty sword.  He then takes the young Conan (Jorge Sanz) to the top of a mountain.  He explains how The Riddle of Steel was stolen from Crom, the god of Cimmeria and that Conan must learn The Riddle of Steel for himself because as his dad succinctly sums up: “For no one in the world can you trust.  Not men, not women, not beasts.  But this-“ and he holds up the gleaming sword.  “-this you can trust.”

It’s not long after this that Conan’s parents, along with all the other adults in his village are slaughtered by the servants of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) a powerful sorcerer who is also the leader of a cult that worships the snake god Set.  Conan, along with other children are taken as slaves and chained to The Wheel of Pain, a gigantic mill which they push night and day, through weather fair and foul.  It’s torturous work but it has its benefits.  The young Conan grows up into Arnold Schwarzenegger as pushing that damn thing has built up muscles of Herculean proportions.  He’s bought by The Hyborian Age’s version of a fight promoter and wins fame as a gladiator.  He’s freed by his master and after meeting up with the master thief and archer Subotai (Gerry Lopez) takes up a career as a thief himself.

It’s during their attempt to infiltrate The Tower of The Serpent and steal The Eye of The Serpent that Conan meets swordswoman and thief Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) who will become the great love of his life.  It’s their successful and daring theft that brings them to the attention of King Osric (Max von Sydow) who hires the trio to rescue his daughter from The Cult of Set.  While Valeria and Subotai see this as a chance for a really big payday, Conan has his sights on taking the head of Thulsa Doom.

Now, you can say whatever you want about CONAN THE BARBARIAN but it won’t faze me because if nothing else, John Milius and Oliver Stone respected Robert E. Howard’s enough that they obviously not only read his stories but incorporated elements of some of those stories into the movie including what is probably the most famous scene in any Conan story; his crucifixion and his killing of a vulture pecking at his flesh with nothing but his bare teeth.

This movie, along with “The Terminator” launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and it’s easy to see why.  Schwarzenegger at that time looked like he was designed by Frank Frazetta and he inhabits the role as well as Sean Connery did with James Bond or Michael Keaton did with Batman.  For those who claim that Schwarzenegger can’t act, I point out a terrific scene where Conan, Valeria and Subotai plan their assault on Doom’s stronghold.  While Bergman and Lopez have all the dialog, Schwarzenegger says far more than they do in the way he’s sharpening his sword.  And even though Schwarzenegger gets a lot of mocking for his dialog and accent in this movie, I like it.  I mean, the guy does sound like a barbarian from pre-history.   In fact, I like it that 90% of the characters have accents in this movie as they do sound as if they come from another age rather than modern day Californians playing dress up.

The supporting cast is outstanding.  James Earl Jones infuses Thulsa Doom with enormous presence and a true sense of not being entirely human.  His henchmen, played by Sven-Ole Thorson and Ben Davison are suitably impressive.  Bergman and Lopez back up Schwarzenegger well and create their own characters in some really wonderful intimate moments such as the one where Subotai tells the wizard Akiro (Mako) that since Conan, as a Cimmerian will not cry to show grief, Subotai must do it for him.  Mako contributes comedy relief without being buffoonish or degrading his own character.  But that’s to be expected because Mako is epic in everything he does.

And speaking of epic, the musical score by Basil Poledouris has become respected as one of the finest musical scores ever and rightly so.  A large part of the enjoyment of watching CONAN THE BARBARIAN comes from the sheer power of the score.  Poledouris also has done the scores for “Quigley Down Under” and “Lonesome Dove” that are easily as epic as the one for this movie.

So should you see CONAN THE BARBARIAN? No doubt you already have.  It’s one of those movies that everybody and their mother has seen, it seems.  Even chicks who normally shun this type of movie like it was the Ebola virus have seen CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  It’s violent, it’s raw, it’s sexy, and it’s fun.   There’s an excellent reason why CONAN THE BARBARIAN is rightly regarded as a classic.  It truly is inspired by the spirit of Robert E. Howard in a way that the recent remake never even comes close to.  If you’ve seen it, what the hell…watch it again.  And if you haven’t, I envy you discovering it for the first time.  Enjoy.

129 minutes

Rated R

http://youtu.be/RkYoIU-uRy0