On All The Conan Movies

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So over the week that my boys were at camp and at the National Youth Gathering for non-perch-handling Lutherans, I took a moment to review the major Conan movies, including:

  • Conan the Barbarian (1982)
  • Conan the Destroyer (1984)
  • Red Sonja (1985)
  • Conan the Barbarian (2011)

All right, Red Sonja is not a Conan movie, but it could have been. It is a De Laurentis sword and sorcery flick with Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s name above the titles and above Brigitte Nielsen’s name.

To be honest, I have seen Red Sonja most of the films, as it was on Showtime in that era where I was young, bored, and not supposed to leave the trailer during the day when my mother was at work. So if it was on Showtime in those mid-1980s summers, I saw it a bunch, and Red Sonja qualifies. Secondarily, I have seen the first Conan the Barbarian several times, and Conan the Destroyer. It was the first time I’d seen the Jason Mimosa Conan the Barbarian–I remember when it came out that it was presented as being pretty brutal and not being too interested in seeing it.


In Conan the Barbarian, young Conan sees his father and mother killed before him when a raiding party strikes their undefended village, and he is taken as a slave. He grows up, becomes strong from his labor, and then ends up as a gladiator traveling with Mongol-types, still a slave, until he is released. He flees to a dead area where he finds Mako playing a sorcerer of questionable ability and seeks his revenge on the leader of the band who killed his family and razed his village, Thulsa Doom played by James Earl Jones. Of course, the man is now the leader of a spreading cult of snake-handlers. Oh, and Sandahl Bergman plays Valeria, a fighter-thief that Conan loves.

So it’s a pretty good bit of sword-and-sorcery low fantasy, with magic and whatnot, and it’s the most memorable of the films because, c’mon, man, James Earl Jones turns into a giant snake, and the film has the “What is best in life?” line. It opens and closes with Mako saying it’s but one of Conan’s many adventures.

In Conan the Destroyer, Conan is given a quest to escort the virgin niece, played by Olivia d’Abo, of a queen who is destined to restore the horn of a sleeping god. So Conan and a thief start off with the girl and her bodyguard, played by Wilt Chamberlain. They rescue Mako and a female warrior, played by Grace Jones, from a hostile tribe and they go do some sidequests and then the main quest and discover they’ve been played, and the queen is going to sacrifice the virgin to resurrect the god. So Conan has to slay the tall bodyguard and then the resurrected god.

You know, I might have only seen this twice: Once when I recorded the films onto a DVR and this time. It certainly did not stick with me.

In Red Sonja, a young woman watches her family killed before her for rejecting an evil queen (played by Sandahl Bergman). Left for dead, she prays for vengeance and a magickal figure offers her assistance. And Sonja goes to a monastery to learn to fight with sorta-Buddhists. The same evil queen and her henchmen attack another cult who are about to destroy a talisman called the Talisman that is too powerful for humans. They succeed, leaving only Sonja’s sister to escape and tell Sonja she must plunge it into darkness. So Sonja does some sidequests, dodges and declines Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s offers of help (but he shows up time and again to save the day). Then they storm the castle and save the day.

You know, for having watched the film over and over again thirty-five years ago, I remembered very little about the plot and the action in it. Maybe it will stay with me, but maybe not. Although I own the DVD now and can watch it again before three decades pass.

In Conan the Barbarian, the leader of a raiding band is looking for the parts of a magic mask that grant the wearer great powers. The Cimmerian tribes broke the mask when resisting the last guy to wear it, and they’ve hidden the pieces across Hyboria. Conan’s father is a blacksmith and war leader for their tribe, and this particular film develops the relationship between the father (played by Ron Perlman) and the young Conan. So he lives longer than a parent in the other films or your typical Disney film. But when the bad guy comes to town with his creepy (probably supposed to be Goth hot) daughter, they slaughter his family and take the last piece. But they need a woman of pure blood to sacrifice, which leads them to a monastery. The pureblood woman, played by Rachel Nichols escapes, and Conan captures her/defends her from an ambush and uses her as bait to draw the warlord to him for revenge.

You know, the other three movies are brightly colored and maybe just a touch orange in hue, but the latter film is very darkly colored, with the modern deep blue palette and with a lot of scenes taking place in the darkness or dimly lit areas. It was a little less pleasant to look at.

And as far as the brutishness goes, I guess the Jason Mimosa was supposed to play the character a little more coldly than the Schwarzeneggar version, but to be honest, it’s not that much different. And as for the blood and gore, it’s probably about as shocking as Conan the Barbarian would have been in the early 1980s. The earlier film had decapitations and whatnot, and this film has gouts of blood. I have previously discussed the 80s R and how different R-rated movies from that halcyon era were from R-rated movies today. I think that the brutality and special effects on display in the latter Conan the Barbarian reflect more what our era expects–after all, my kids play video games with gouts of blood erupting now, and that’s something we didn’t have because an Atari 2600 could not capture it.

Oh, yes, and I know, it’s not Jason Mimosa, but I’m going to call him that until he beats me at solo unarmed combat. Of course, I have been practicing saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. Mamoa,” without moving my teeth so I can do it with my jaws wired shut. But then I will probably call him Jason Meowmeow because I never learn.

So, to sum up: It was an interesting review of the material, and it made me wish they made 80s sword and sorcery films today. But they made them then, and I have DVD and videocassette players and spares of each, so I should be able to accumulate and watch the old movies.

It reminded me that it had been eight years(!) since I read the Conan stories (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, The Bloody Crown of Conan, and The Conquering Sword of Conan). I used to read a lot of this kind of pulp sword-and-sorcery stuff, but I have not in a while. I don’t know if they make much of it any more, or if it’s just not sold widely enough to end up at used book sales–or if it’s that I have not haunted the paperback fiction sections of said used book sales.

But I did get to thinking, how would the Conan saga played out if Robert E. Howard had not killed himself at 30. He could have feasibly lived until the 1970s or 1980s, writing the whole time and maintaining a tight degree of control on his work and characters. Would that have altered the arc of the availability of the characters’ rights for comic books and films? One cannot know.

Oh, and did someone say “Sandahl Bergman?”

I mentioned that I’d seen a film with Sandahl Bergman in it recently–that would be Conan the Barbarian. I think of her first and foremost from Hell Comes To Frogtown, as I mentioned, because I saw that film over and over again when I was younger. But, in addition to playing good and evil, blonde and black-haired, in Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, she was in Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu which we just watched two years ago.

She definitely has the lithe 80s blonde look down.

She mostly starred in B-kind of movies and did some television work, but the most surprising thing I found was that she was a Golddigger in Dean Martin’s television program. Which is kind of interesting because I’ve just watched a bunch of The Dean Martin Show (details forthcoming).

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