It’s a miracle, really, that Conan the Barbarian works at all, let alone that it works as long as it does.
Conan puffs with the pomp and circumstance of an important film right from its opening frame, a Nietzsche quote. Director John Milius, who wrote the script with Oliver Stone, is going for a stirring treatise on masculinity, violence and power. It aims for the sort of mystical awe achieved by Excalibur just a few years earlier (and perfected in the more recent Valhalla Rising). This is beefcake brutality as grand opera, and for awhile it’s successful. When Conan, as a child, witnesses his mother being beheaded by the warmonger Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), the moment unfolds with a terrifying grandeur.
Of course, going this route – stolidly serious, standing tall – only means you have further to fall. And so, when Conan the Barbarian begins to engage in soft-core shenanigans and other sorts of silliness, it makes a mighty crash. You might say the movie turns when Conan is “bred,” as a slave, to create more warriors. Or when he’s seduced by a ravenous witch. Or when he hauls off and punches a camel. But I think it happens earlier, precisely at the moment Arnold Schwarzenegger makes his entrance by raising his Neanderthal brow.
Schwarznegger has always had a freak-show appeal; Conan was the first time this quality matched the material. It’s the granite jaw and the sinewy muscles, yes, but also that voice – garbled and guttural, as if we’re witnessing the birth of language itself. It’s not that Schwarzenegger was born to play a barbarian; it’s that Schwarzenegger makes it seem as if Conan the Barbarian, the Weird Tales character created by Robert E. Howard, was born to be played by him in all his grinning, hair-tossing glory.
And so, despite its oddly engaging start, Conan succumbs to earnest nonsense – as good a definition of camp as any. Hailed as Schwarzenegger’s breakthrough, Conan the Barbarian is ironically undone by its star, a preening peacock eager to sow the seeds of self-parody with a well-placed camel punch.