Summer of Conan: The Conan Movies

Conan has been given the silver screen treatment three times.  There was also a TV adaptation that I missed, as much as you can miss that sort of thing from what I hear.  Two of the movies starred Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian birthed a boom in sword and sorcery movies.  Conan the Destroyer killed the hopes for a movie featuring Conan as king.  Something they hadn’t given up hope on, last I heard.  The attempted reboot starring Jason Momoa was a flop, but isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests.


Conan the Barbarian (1982)

The original Conan the Barbarian isn’t just an excellent movie; it was good enough to serve as the catalyst for a minor boom in sword and sorcery movies in the 80s.  Given that live-action traditional fantasy would all but disappear from the cinema in the 90s, I am particularly grateful for that.  It is also the best of the three Conan movies by a wide margin.

The music is epic and one of the all-time great scores.  The cinematography is frequently stunning.  Milius doesn’t treat his subject matter flippantly just because it is masculine; hence great scenes like Conan and Subotai quietly discussing religion over their campfire and Subotai saying that he cries for Conan because, as a Cimmerian, Conan will not cry.  The movie is so primal, and has so many beautiful little artistic touches, that I love it as much as an adult as I did seeing it the first time as a kid.

5 of 5 Stars.


Conan the Destroyer (1984)

Conan the Destroyer is kind of delightfully weird.  It has Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain!  The story isn’t bad.  There is some good dialogue (“But we didn’t steal everything he had.”  “We didn’t have time.”).  But after the 1982 movie’s off-kilter, auteur brilliance, Conan the Destroyer seems very dull.  It is as influenced by Conan the Barbarian’s lesser fantasy imitators as by the original.  Malak is a very poor man’s Subotai.  The F/X have aged very poorly.  Its great sin is that—unlike the 1982 movie—it doesn’t take its subject matter seriously.  It’s just “tits and dragons,” as Ian McShane would denigrate Game of Thrones (without actually giving us either).  Which probably played some role in the final act of seppuku—making a PG-rated movie instead of an R-rated movie.

3 of 5 Stars.


Conan the Barbarian (2011)

The shadow of the 1982 Conan the Barbarian hangs heavy over the 2011 version.  As it must be.  Conan the Destroyer is best forgotten, and the 1982 version of Conan IS Conan for a generation.  Surely far more people have seen it than have read Robert E. Howard’s original stories.

This movie tries and does get a lot right.  There are nice bits like the reference to Acheron in the opening narrative.  We get to see Conan literally born on the battlefield.  The young Conan here is the sort who according to Howard’s Conan was already the talk of the campfires at fifteen.  The Picts who attack Conan in the opening are a nice mix of historical Picts and the Comanche who so obviously influenced Howard’s depiction of the Picts.  Momoa credibly looks not just physically imposing but pantherish and shows a bit more of Conan’s personality.

But then you have weird stuff like Ron Perleman, caveman.  His death scene is needlessly drawn out.  For a guy who kills four Picts with an egg in his mouth as not quite a man, Conan’s rough edges have been sanded off.  The villain here is as banal as James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom was compelling.

More to the point, it doesn’t have the craft of the 1982 version.  I loved that movie from the first time I saw it as a kid.  But rewatching it now with a more practiced eye, I only appreciate Milius’ craft more.  The 2011 movie commits the ultimate sin for a Conan story.  It’s conventional, and Howard’s original stories were never conventional.

3.5 of 5 Stars.


You can find all of my Summer of Conan posts here.

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
This entry was posted in Fantasy, Sundry, Throwback SF and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Summer of Conan: The Conan Movies

  1. pcbushi says:

    Very keen remarks, HP. I haven’t seen the latest incarnation and don’t know if I ever will, but yes, the 1982 version is awesome. I’ve got its OST on a YouTube playlist I listen to somewhat regularly…

    Liked by 2 people

    • H.P. says:

      It’s not great, but there simply aren’t very many decent sword and sorcery movies, or even traditional fantasy movies. I’m not sure which sword and sorcery movies I would put ahead of the 2011 Conan other than the 1982 Conan, the Beastmaster, Legend of the Sword, and Krull.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Announcing a Summer of Conan – Index | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  3. Great post yet again! Love the Summer of Conan!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: THROWBACK SF THURSDAY: The Next Conan Movie Should Look More Like Mad Max –

  5. John E. Boyle says:

    I think you give Conan the Destroyer too much credit; I would rate it 2.5 or less.
    Conan (2011) – agreed.
    Conan (1982) – a great movie, a magnificent sound track, but Scwarzenegger isn’t playing Conan, he’s playing Kull, Howard’s brooding Atlantean. In no Howard story does or would Conan roll around on the ground in front of his enemy and moan: “You keel my mudda, you keel my fadda!”
    This movie suffers from the same “Image over story” problem that afflicts so many shows today, including Game of Thrones. Milius and Stone mined multiple Howard stories for striking images and then mashed them together in what should have been a bomb. That soundtrack and Milius’s sheer genius somehow turned it into a classic.

    One last note: That Conan TV show? It actually works as a comedy, but binge watching it while running a fever may have influenced my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      That is a fair assessment of Destroyer. It really is bad. Although I feel like it kind of deserves three stars just for Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones.

      There is nothing wrong with the basic story from the 1982 movie, but it is also an entirely conventional plot. In most directors hands the movie would have been mediocre.

      I’m advantaged by having seen the 1982 long before reading the Howard stories. It works much better standing alone that it does in comparison.


      • John E. Boyle says:

        I think your comment about appreciating Conan 1982 as a stand alone work is very true and a problem for me with other films as well. Had I not read any REH before watching that film, I would have enjoyed it much more. This is true of new films as well; the recent Legend of Tarzan movie is an entertaining film, it’s just that Tarzan as I know him from ERB’s works isn’t in it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • H.P. says:

          I’ve never read any of the Tarzan books (I need to get to John Carter first), but I was surprised to hear at a Con Tarzan panel that the Burroughs family walked out of their screening of Legend of Tarzan saying, “this is the first time a movie really GOT Tarzan.”


          • Andy says:

            I happened to catch a few minutes of the new Tarzan movie on TV a few days ago and got to see Tarzan get his ass kicked by an ape. I’m not saying the movie is bad – I’ve heard some nice things about it – but it still ain’t Tarzan 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          • H.P. says:

            As I understand it, Tarzan got his ass kicked by an ape multiple times in the books.


          • John E. Boyle says:

            I hesitate to get into this now because a: this is a Conan post and b: you haven’t read the books yet. But if after reading some of the Tarzan books, you would like to revisit this topic, it would be my pleasure. Also, I recommend you read ALL of the Barsoom and Tarzan novels (not necessarily in one go, so to speak) eventually. They are not all of the same quality, but they are all entertaining.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. danielshumphreys says:

    The Conan the Destroyer soundtrack is dynamite writing music. Nice write up!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Summer of Conan: The Next Conan Movie Should Look More Like Mad Max | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

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