- The film's soundtrack, by the late Basil Poledouris, is pretty much perfect in every way.
- The film's 1984 sequel, Conan the Destroyer, was abominable.
I was 13 when this film was released, but, due to its R rating, I didn't see the film until it was released on video sometime afterwards. At that point, my exposure to the character of Conan was limited primarily to a handful of Lancer paperbacks I'd picked up here and there, almost none of which contained any actual stories by REH. Consequently, I wasn't much bothered by most of the divergences from the Howardian canon, because, quite frankly, I was utterly unaware of them. Having only read (I think) parts of Conan the Avenger and Conan of Aquilonia, my sense of the both the character of the Cimmerian and of the Hyborian Age was lacking. I'd also seen the covers of many a Marvel comic featuring Conan, though I'd never read one.
Given this background, the story and character we got in the film matched my own expectations reasonably well. Indeed, if one takes Conan the Barbarian simply on its own terms, as a swords-and-sorcery tale vaguely inspired by some names found in Robert E. Howard stories, I think it still holds up quite well. Certainly it reaks of pastiche. Untutored though I was in the mysteries of pure Howard back then, I could still sense that it was a strange, cobbled together Frankenstein of a movie, unapologetically borrowing elements from a wide variety of sources. I don't consider "pastiche" a term of opprobrium. Dungeons & Dragons wouldn't exist if not for the gleeful pastiche-making of Gygax and Arneson and, as readers of this blog know, I actually believe D&D is at its best when referees and players alike adopt a similar approach in their own games.
Yet, there's little question in my mind that Conan the Barbarian can't really be called "Howardian" except in a tenuous analogical sense. Yes, there are characters, themes, and even scenes that appear in the film that are broadly consonant with Howard's own work. However, I can't recall a single line of dialog in the film that comes from a REH story (someone can correct me if I'm wrong) and there are a few places where I feel the film actually undermines Howardian themes, replacing them with its own. Again, I don't mean this in a negative sense. Much like D&D, I think there's virtue to be found in creating one's own story by looting the parts of other stories one likes. So long as one doesn't mistake this for "being true to the spirit" of authors and stories one loots, you won't hear a peep of criticism from me.
As I got older, though, I read more genuine Howard and came to appreciate his work considerably more than I ever had as a youth. It's hard now, with the knowledge of and love for those stories that I now possess, to view Conan the Barbarian as much more than a typical example of Hollywood grave robbing, albeit a riotously fun example of it. As I said before, if this movie had been about some other northern barbarian seeking revenge against the slayer of his parents and people, I could continue to extol its virtues without qualification, because I think Conan the Barbarian may well be the best swords-and-sorcery movie ever made. Admittedly, that's as much an indictment of Hollywood's woeful treatment of the genre as it is praise for the film, but I mean it positively.
Conan the Barbarian is a fun, occasionally insightful, feast for the eyes and I enjoy it on that level. I think, though, that it's also an exercise in brandification, playing off the fame of the name "Conan" to tell a very different story than any Robert E. Howard would have told. For many people, Schwarzenegger's portrayal of Conan in this film is the only exposure to the character they will ever have and that's a shame -- not because I think Schwarzenegger's portrayal is bad (I don't) but because his portrayal has very little to do with Howard's Cimmerian. Now, for many, this isn't an issue, in much the same way that they can shrug off the brandification of D&D over the years. If one has no particular knowledge of or liking for the real Conan, this criticism likely rings hollow. And of course many people who possess both still don't see it as a fatal flaw to what I cannot deny is a well-made fantasy action film.
So where does that leave me? I still don't know. Part of me just wants to sit back and revel in the spectacle of it all, for the film has many terrific moments that I absolutely adore. Another part of me recoils, though, at the hash made of Conan, the Hyborian Age, and the auctorial voice of Robert E. Howard. Even more than the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings films, Conan the Barbarian misrepresents its ostensible inspiration to audiences who might otherwise not be familiar with them. Traditionalist that I am, I can't help but be bugged by that. Is that enough to make me stop watching the film every now and again? No, it's not, which makes me wonder if why. Do I continue to enjoy it in spite of the things I dislike about it or do I perhaps sense some hidden depth to the film that I'm not yet consciously aware of? Or is it that I just hope that there's something of substance beneath the spectacle? I wish I knew.