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What is best in life? To see 'Conan' crush his enemies as the Summer of 82 begins an incredible run — Ultimate Movie Year

Arnold Schwarzenegger begins to muscle his way into becoming a box office warrior in “Conan the Barbarian.” (Universal Studios/MovieStillsDB.com)
Arnold Schwarzenegger begins to muscle his way into becoming a box office warrior in "Conan the Barbarian." (Universal Studios/MovieStillsDB.com)

"Conan the Barbarian"
Released May 14, 1982
Directed by John Milius
Where to Watch

Minutes into "Conan the Barbarian," we are introduced to a time "when the oceans drank Atlantis," a sword is forged, and the title character's old man is telling the child Conan that the only thing he can trust in this world is the steel of a blade.

After two weeks of the worst, most derivative shit I've ever seen filmed and released to broad audiences, business was ready to pick up in the Summer of 1982.

Created by Robert E. Howard in the early 1930s, Conan the Barbarian debuted in pulp magazines that explored the adventures of this dark-haired Cimmerian warrior, descended from the dwellers of Atlantis. Howard drew upon many magical influences when he developed the world of Conan and often dealt with wizards, witches, and other characters who employed supernatural powers. These stories helped popularize the sword and sorcery genre.

After Howard died in 1936, his estate maintained the rights to the character, but there were long stretches where the character didn't appear at all. Marvel Comics agreed to publish new Conan material in 1970, and the series became one of the most popular series of that decade. Readers eagerly anticipated the further adventures of this muscled barbarian clad in only a loincloth and boots while wielding a broadsword.

The idea behind a Conan movie originated in the mid-70s when Ed Pressman secured the adaptation rights. Several failed attempts to get a project off the ground with secured funding. Oliver Stone, who would earn notable acclaim as a filmmaker, wrote the first Conan script early in his career. Pressman re-connected with producer Buzz Feitshans and director John Milius, who had been long interested in filming Conan. Influential Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, who had experience with big-budget fantasy films like 1976's "King Kong" and 1981's "Flash Gordon," adapted his picture deal with Milius to finally green light Conan, and Milius revised Stone's script for filming.

Perhaps the fates made the production wait until the right star emerged. Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger had struggled to break into Hollywood for about a decade. He had a few small parts here and there and more prominent roles in unmemorable movies, but nothing seemed to click. The 1977 bodybuilding documentary "Pumping Iron" was one of the first films he stood out in, providing him the opportunity to showcase his charisma and personality. Schwarzenegger's part in "Pumping Iron" also caught the attention of the Conan team, who quickly targeted the actor for consideration to star as the hero because of his look and physique. Still, there was no track record that he had the star power and experience to carry a film independently.

"Only a guy like John (Milius) would have the guts to go for (this) cast," Schwarzenegger told Cinefantastique magazine in 1982. "The majority of directors would have only looked at those actors who were bankable. Someone else, for instance, might have picked Charles Bronson and then just rewritten the script, picking up Conan from the time he was 40. I think picking us took an enormous amount of courage on John's part."

Knowing that Schwarzenegger would become one of the biggest Hollywood stars ever, and would later become governor of California, makes watching "Conan the Barbarian" a fascinating experience 40 years later. The movie begins with Conan as a young boy, cared for by his family. Very quickly, however, a violent cult led by Thusla Doom (James Earl Jones) slaughters the village, kills Conan's parents, and enslaves him by forcing him to push a gadget called the Wheel of Pain. Conan spends more than a decade making the wheel, growing into the hulking form Schwarzenegger is known for.

Eventually, Conan is trained to be a gladiator fighter and is quite successful. He is ultimately given his freedom, but through this 20-minute origin sequence, I can't help but notice we're not hearing Schwarzenegger deliver any dialogue outside of his trademark action grunts. Did Milius start filming and lose faith Schwarzenegger could develop a memorable performance?

And then, 23 minutes in, Schwarzenegger delivers his first line, one of the more iconic quotes from his legendary career:

Immediately, any hesitation, I had vanished. I caught the magical wavelength to be fully invested in a movie, and it RULES.

Conan begins to enjoy his freedom in a variety of ways. He encounters witches, and he begins to earn wealth as a thief. He meets two individuals on his travels, the female warrior Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) and the clever archer Subotai (Gerry Lopez). Still, while Conan enjoys their company and adventures, the specter of vengeance against Thusla Doom consumes him into following a new quest.

Despite the difficulties in finalizing a deal, producing a Conan movie was an attractive proposition at the time. sword-and-sorcery films were a reliable genre for adventure films, particularly in the late 50s and early 60s with Sinbad movies. "Conan the Barbarian" leaned into all of the tropes, basing its visual aesthetic on the fantasy adventure paintings of Frank Frazetta. Italian artist Renato Casero brought the Frazetta influence to the "Conan" movie poster. Production Designer Ron Cobb, who worked as a designer and artist on "Star Wars," "Alien," and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," was inspired by those paintings to bring the Hyborian Age to life. Conan's world may be ancient, but there are enough touches of the mystical in costume and locations that enhance the fantasy aspect.

“Conan the Barbarian” leaned into all of the tropes. Italian artist Renato Casero brought the Frank Frazetta influence to the “Conan” movie poster.
"Conan the Barbarian" leaned into all of the tropes. Italian artist Renato Casero brought the Frank Frazetta influence to the "Conan" movie poster. (IMDB.com)

"At the time, I didn't know much about Conan," Cobb said. "I did know Frazetta's paintings of him, and I had read some of the comics. So I guess I was reasonably familiar with the character without reading any of the Howell novels. But I certainly saw design possibilities in what I read."

The look of "Conan the Barbarian" is carried by a few key locations that sell the world's reality: the Wheel of Pain, Tree of Woe, and interior and exterior of the Temple of Set are fantastical and memorable presentations for the movie. But for all of the significant decisions made to bring the pulp hero to life, there's one glaring weakness in the film: the portrayal of women. Conan's mother is immediately beheaded when she's introduced, and most other female characters are considered evil witches or zealots. Valeria's status in the story offers some balance, but her death during one of Conan's adventures is a textbook case of fridging.

But when it's all said and done, "Conan the Barbarian" is mainly known for their star-making performance of Schwarzenegger. He is perfectly cast as the confident, man-of-few-words warrior here. Two years later, Schwarzenegger would return for the sequel, "Conan the Destroyer," but the story of 1984 would be the debut of an even more iconic character, the Terminator. Like in "Conan," Schwarzenegger doesn't have much dialogue, but I suspect working on these projects gave him comfort as a leading star by playing to his strengths. From here, he would continuously hone his skill and persona, expanding his range as a charismatic megastar who could skillfully move between action and comedy roles while putting butts in seats.

"Conan the Barbarian" opened at number one at the box office, grossing a fantastic $9.6 million in its first weekend, the best debut anybody had until that point. It held onto its audience reasonably well over the next weeks until "Conan" met an enemy he could not defeat and see driven before him: "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." Still, the barbarian would earn $39.6 million domestically, good enough to become the 15th highest-grossing film of 1982.

Critics were more mixed in their reactions to "Conan the Barbarian," but the movie still had some high-profile fans.

"The movie is a triumph of production design, set decoration, special effects, and makeup," wrote Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times. "At a time when most of the big box-office winners display state-of-the-art technology, 'Conan' ranks right up there with the best. Ron Cobb, the sometimes underground cartoonist who did the production design on this film, supervises an effort in which the individual frames do look like blow-ups of panels from the Marvel Comics' Conan books. Since this Conan could have looked ridiculous easily, that's an accomplishment."

The Cimmerian warrior's only sequel was "Conan the Destroyer" in 1984, which wasn't as successful as the original film. Schwarzenegger appeared as a Conan-type character in 1985's "Red Sonja," but that was the last time the character was seen on the big screen until the 2011 reboot "Conan the Barbarian," with Jason Momoa in the starring role. Conan's journey in other media is fragmented because of licensing rights. As of late, Conan returned to Marvel Comics (and even became a member of the Avengers) in 2019, but it was announced this month the character is wrapping up its latest stay with the publisher.

For movie fans in 1982, "Conan the Barbarian" marked the real start of an iconic movie summer, with various high-quality films arriving week after week from several genres. With such an impressive top-tier list of films coming up, it's not an insult that "Conan" would likely land in the middle of a ranked list. But there's no doubt Schwarzenegger was only beginning to live his best life by crushing his cinematic enemies and rivals for the next decade.

At the Box Office: One example of the power of "Conan the Barbarian" is its success in slaying the box office domination of the adult comedy "Porky's," which had an eight-week run as the top movie of the spring immediately upon its debut. "Porky's" dropped to second place with a $2.9 million gross against "Conan's" $9.6 million first-place finish.

"Porky's" long run atop the box office can be attributed to the competition's weakness. "The Sword and the Sorcerer," placing third with $2.1 million, had a steady performance in the four weeks since it debuted, but perhaps the target audience decided to wait for "Conan." "Paradise," which we reviewed last week, falls to fourth place with $1.4 million in its second week and will drop out of the top 10 the following week. "Partners," our week one movie in the Summer of 1982, has already dropped off the charts by its third week.

The final movie in the top five with $1.4 million is the other new release, "Wrong is Right," a thriller starring Sean Connery, wholly memory-holed out of our nostalgia-fueled society. Even the writers at Box Office Mojo got bored halfway through the plot summary: "A TV reporter finds himself in the middle of an Arab leader buying two portable nukes, terrorists, arms dealer, a reporter/CIA spy killed, a US president ordering a K-I-L-L, etc." "Wrong is Right" would gross only $3.5 million and drop out of theaters after the third week, never to be heard of again.

Next Week: "The Road Warrior"

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on May 13, 2022.

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