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Posts Tagged ‘Sandahl Bergman’

One of the things I am occasionally taken to task for by those who know me is the fact that I don’t watch Musical Chairs (or, as they prefer to refer to it, Game of Thrones). Partly this is because I don’t have access to an ethically-sourced copy of the series, not least because I try to avoid giving money to Rupert Murdoch on moral grounds, but also because of all the fuss about it being ‘Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy’. Well, I do like fantasy, generally speaking, so it’s probably not aimed at me.

The success of Musical Chairs means that now, whenever someone is trying to big-up anything else vaguely fantastical, the two get compared in more-or-less the same way that The Lord of the Rings was the genre yardstick ten years ago. When it comes to vintage fantasy films I am certain this is stretching a point, because – whatever else you might think about it – Musical Chairs is critically-acclaimed, while the overwhelming majority of heroic/epic/high/whatever-you-want-to-call-it fantasy films, even to this day, have been fairly naff.

Nevertheless, they’re still at it: introducing John Milius’s 1982 film Conan the Barbarian the other night, in the announcer weighed in with ‘Long before Game of Thrones…’ or something like that. Now, obviously I’m not in a position to judge just how justified this association is, but I am inclined to be a little more generous than usual as Conan the Barbarian is that rare beast, a 20th century heroic fantasy film which is not completely and embarrassingly awful.

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Proceedings kick off with a quote from Nietzsche and Basil Poledoris’ thundering score, which together sum up pretty well the tenor of what is to follow. Hum: young Conan is the son of a smith in a Cimmerian village, many thousands of years ago. His father is wont to take him up a mountain and deliver somewhat baffling homilies about gods and giants and steel and the untrustworthiness of other people, but he is still quite upset when their village is raided by marauders under the banner of evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones, taking it all impressively seriously). Conan’s dad having been hacked down and his mum having had her head chopped off by Doom himself, our hero finds himself strapped to a giant capstan of indeterminate purpose for the duration of a he-grows-up-into-a-strapping-young-man montage sequence.

‘Strapping young man’ probably doesn’t quite do justice to the physique of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, for it is of course he who plays Conan for most of the movie. Conan is freed from the capstan to become a star gladiator amongst the steppe nomads of the region, thus allowing Arnie to sweat and flex and grunt without the need for any dialogue. In the end, however, his sympathetic master releases him back into the wild (even with the benefit of an expository voice-over, it’s not entirely clear why this happens) and Conan sets out on a career as an improbably big and homicidal burglar.

As you might expect, he soon acquires a sidekick (ex-surfer Gerry Lopez) and a love-interest (the very-nearly-as-statuesque ex-dancer Sandahl Bergman) and three of them have a high old time breaking into temples in search of treasure, fighting slightly dodgy monsters, and generally behaving like a stereotypical D&D party. However the trio find themselves caught and dragged before the local king (a baffled-looking Max von Sydow) who offers them a deal: all charges will be dropped if they liberate his daughter from the insidious snake-cult run by, you guessed it, Thulsa Doom…

‘Good’ is obviously a relative term if we’re discussing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography, but this is still a pretty good movie, for all that it’s attempting to realise a vast fantasy world on a clearly inadequate budget, with a trio of protagonists played by a bodybuilder, a dancer, and a surfer. You look at it now and just imagine how much a decent digital grade, some subtle CGI, or even just better cinematography would give the film more of the scale and vibrancy it really needs to capture the energetic spirit of Robert E Howard’s original stories. Practically the only thing which genuinely feels epic about it is Basil Poledoris’s thumpingly good music – for many years, if you wanted to make a hugely violent and ideologically slightly-suspect blockbuster and needed some bombastic-yet-somehow-romantic music, Poledoris was the guy to go to (as Paul Verhoeven demonstrated with Robocop and Starship Troopers).

Stripped of the music this is much more clearly a close cousin to the dinosaur movies that Hammer were making back in the sixties, targeting the same kind of audience hungry for violence, bare flesh, a touch of fantasy, and the kind of haircuts not normally seen on men outside of British New Wave Heavy Metal bands. Milius is clearly not attempting to make a camp film and so Conan the Barbarian takes itself very seriously indeed – there are virtually no jokes in it, though this obviously doesn’t stop parts of it looking unintentionally hilarious today (the scene in which Arnie is playing Whose leg is that? with a woman, who thoughtlessly starts turning into a demon in flagrante, is uproariously funny).

Milius goes further and drains most of the fantasy silliness from the film – modern films in this genre tend to revolve around the collection of plot coupons and Lost Artefacts of Convenient Doom, with no real sense of an emotional core to the story. Well, there are touches of the supernatural throughout this film, but it’s primarily about Conan’s quest for revenge on the man who killed his parents, and this is at least more accessible. There’s still the problem that Schwarzenegger, as a performer, is all surface, unable to suggest any kind of interior life in his character: the script may call for a scene in which a barbarian sits on a rock, brooding intensely, but what reaches the screen is a scene in which a bodybuilder just sits on a rock. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Arnie having the same kind of sheer physical presence that Conan requires.

Schwarzenegger may not capture all the subtleties of Howard’s Conan, and his transformation in the film from barely-articulate brutalised gladiator to (relatively) eloquent moral agent is rather implausible, but the film does pay its dues to the original stories, even if it isn’t a strict adaptation of any of them. What Milius adds to the mix is a ferocious ideological element Howard himself might well have approved of: it all opens with Nietzsche’s ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, and further words of wisdom pepper the film, all in a similar vein: ‘Grab the world by the throat and take what is yours by right’, ‘Time enough for peace in your grave’, and so on. If this film was a person it would probably take you off into the woods and make you live up a tree, eating only things you had killed yourself. Equally tellingly, the contemptible followers of Thulsa Doom’s cult all carry bunches of flowers, and one of them, it is suggested, is a young man with inappropriate designs on Conan’s person. Subtext isn’t always necessarily subtle.

Perhaps it’s the sheer right-wing bravado of Conan the Barbarian which stops me from liking it a bit more than I do. I always find Arnie to be an agreeable screen presence, James Earl Jones is good, and so – perhaps surprisingly – is Sandahl Bergman. But despite all this, and of course, the score, the film is just so stolidly po-faced and stoic. The original stories had a bit more energy and life to them. That said, of course, this is still the best Robert E Howard film which has yet been made, and one of the best heroic fantasies of the 20th century: though that says more about the state of the genre than anything else.

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