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Wednesday, August 17,2011

The Screening Room

Clearing up fuzzy memories of ‘Conan the Barbarian’

by James Sanford

Hollywood apparently will not rest until it remakes every movie ever cranked out in the 1980s, as evidenced by the revamp of “Conan the Barbarian” that’s swaggering into theaters this weekend.


My memories of the 1982 “Conan” were fuzzy, so I took a look at it last weekend. When I say “fuzzy,” I mean literally fuzzy: The only times I had ever tried to watch the movie came when I was living with a roommate who was stealing HBO from our more affluent neighbors. At regular intervals, the image would shimmy, turn into black-and-white or be sliced up by those semi-hypnotic squiggly lines.


So while I could technically say I had watched “Conan the Barbarian,” I couldn’t honestly claim I had seen it. But that gaping hole in my otherwise encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture has now been filled (thank you, Amazon Video on Demand).


The success of “Conan” launched Arnold Schwarzenegger as an international star, and it’s easy to see why. It seems like he is shirtless for at least the first 90 minutes, and beefcake — like cheesecake — has the same appeal in any language. That’s a major plus, since Schwarzenegger’s grasp of English in the early 1980s was kind of ABBA-esque: The words sound reasonably accurate, although you wonder exactly how many of them were learned phonetically.


“Conan” was directed by the ultra-macho John Milius (who would go on to create the mad paranoia fantasy “Red Dawn” a couple of years later), and let’s just say it’s not one of those movies that spends an inordinate amount of time on character development. As a kid, Conan sees his parents slain by a well-dressed maniac who enslaves Conan and his fellow baby barbarians. If this was the 1970s, Helen Reddy would have turned his lousy life into a chart-topping tune, but alas, Conan’s song remains unsung.


Years of hard labor give Conan major muscles, which he puts to excellent use when he finally shakes off his shackles and starts looking for vengeance.


One of his first stops is to see a witch (Cassandra Gava) who trades him information in exchange for some really hot sex. Then, when the passion becomes too intense, Conan hurls her into a raging hearth and she turns into a frisky little fireball that flies off to Heathen Heaven. “He’s just not that into you” had dire consequences in Days of Olde.


Then Conan meets Valeria, played the statuesque Sandahl Bergman. She’s no novice at sword-swinging herself and quickly becomes Conan’s partner in brawls and in the bedroom. Although Valeria dreams of a sweeter life (“Let us take the world by the throat and make it give us what we desire!” she purrs), that will have to wait until after she and Conan rescue a princess who has fallen under the spell of one of those damned snake cults that all the kids seem to be into these days.


As fate would have it, the charismatic cult leader is Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones, wearing extensions that Diana Ross would have killed for), the same guy who destroyed Conan’s happy home years ago. Remember, parents: If you name your son Thulsa Doom, it’s not a guarantee that he will one day lead a sect that worships giant serpents — but he probably won’t end up as a Rhodes Scholar or the city’s top real estate agent, either.


It doesn’t take much imagination to envision how this gory story ends, which is great, since Milius (who co-wrote the screenplay with Oliver Stone) doesn’t have much imagination to spare. “Conan” has four speeds: Bash, Slash, Cut and Gut, with an occasional pit stop for carnal pleasures.


By today’s action movie standards, “Conan” seems almost stately (an adjective that will probably not apply to the new version), as if Milius and company thought they were making the “Lawrence of Arabia” of giant snake cult films. In contrast to the jokey tone of many of Schwarzenegger’s later vehicles, “Conan” takes itself fairly seriously. “Let me breathe my last breath into your mouth,” a character groans shortly before expiring in Conan’s enormous arms; nobody writes dialogue quite like that anymore — and maybe that’s all for the best.

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