Recently in an interview, Chris Morgan and Fredrik Malmberg, producers of the upcoming Legend of Conan, gave us all hints and promises of what to expect with the long-awaited sequel. Like with many fantasy fans, the original 1982 film Conan the Barbarian is a treasured classic. And with the exception of the recent Fury Road movie, Hollywood has been more than a little disappointing with sequels and remakes.
I grew up with cheap sword and sandal movies always playing on TV, and I never really differentiated between them. Beastmaster, Red Sonja, Deathstalker, Steve Reeves’ Hercules movies, and Conan the Destroyer seemed to play every single Saturday on one channel or another. I never really thought of Conan the Barbarian as different than the others, I’d seen the last half of it a handful of times. Then one day I saw it from the very beginning and the movie instantly elevated from the rank of cheesy muscled barbarian flick to a well-made film. I love the 1982 Conan. So I want to take a little time to explain what separates Conan from the rest of the movies, including the extremely awful sequel.
1: It’s Not About a Hulking Hero
Conan the Barbarian launched Schwarzenegger’s movie career. He looked wonderful in the role of Conan. He was huge. But a super-muscled hero is not what made Conan so good. If that were the case, then Red Sonja, Kull the Conqueror, and the Jason Mamoa remake wouldn’t have been so bad. Hell, Mamoa looked even more like the Robert Howard Conan than Schwarzenegger and that couldn’t even save that movie. Having a massive hero was essential in Conan the Barbarian’s success, but it was only one part of it. Many of the knock-offs only saw a bodybuilder lead and incorrectly assumed that’s all it was.
2: Using Fan Art as Storyboards
One of the many things that I loved about the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies was that when he was deciding on the look of Middle Earth he immediately turned to Alan Lee and John Howe, two artists that have spent decades drawing and painting the look of Tolkien’s world. Not only does that mean the movie has a look that came from decades of thought and effort, but it also captures the image that many movie-goers wanted because we’d grown up with the art.
The John Milius Conan used the art of Frank Frazetta to capture their looks. The sets were designed around Frazetta’s paintings, even the actors (most notable in the witch scene) were told to move in ways that emulated the captured movements in Frazetta’s work.
This man was a badass
We’ve now had 30 more years since the first Conan and an entire generation of very skilled fantasy artists have emerged. They, as well as Frazetta, should be used to capture the look.
3: Real Sets, Real Stunts, Real Extras
CGI has made massive scene very easy. But back in the 80’s there were only a few ways to capture the scope Milius wanted for Conan. There were matte paintings, models, and going out and building that shit for real. Milius chose the third.
Conan used real sets. That snake tower…real. Thulsa Doom’s fortress….real. 1,000 extras dressed in white robes and chanting Thulsa Doom’s praises…real.
In case you’re wondering why real sets work better than CGI, I’ll give 2 reasons:
- They look real. CGI, unless spectacular, looks CGI. The colors are too perfect, and there’s a cartoonish quality because of it.
- The actors can interact with their surroundings and get into a different frame of mind than dancing in front of a green screen can give. Just compare The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson used real sets and forced perspective to make Lord of the Rings and it looked spectacular. Yeah, CGI was used, but not as much as one might think. Then in The Hobbit they used way more CGI and the entire movie looks like a cut-scene in a video game.
And stunts. Recently, superhero movies have made impossible stunts and action sequences look just too damned easy. It has passed the realm of realism and into a netherworld of cartoons. Then you have Fury Road where the stunts are real and it’s so noticeable and so drastic that you can’t even ignore it. Conan deserves that. Don’t CGI that shit. Make it really happen. Conan The Barbarian set the Women’s Free-Fall Record when a stunt woman fell 182 feet. Legend of Conan should see this as a personal goal to set that record again.
4: Realistic Violence
Unlike the slew of PG-13 rated knockoffs, Conan was violent and bloody. We have a massive audience that loves Game of Thrones, Spartacus, and other violent shows. Making it PG-13 to get a wider demographic will ruin the movie. Making it a stylized, slow-mo, 300 knock-off will make it look like a 300 knock-off. Make it R. Give us blood.
5: The Supporting Cast is Essential
Conan followed three heroes, Conan, Valeria, and the highly underrated Subotai. And while it’s hard to remember now, all of them, even Schwarzenegger were unknown actors. However the supporting cast was spectacular and respected actors.
James Earl Jones plays the villain. Max Von Sydow plays the king that send them on their quest, and Mako plays Conan’s chronicler. Those three men probably deliver 75% of all the dialogue in the entire movie. Sydow’s performance where he talks about how one day all the gold losses its luster and all that remains in a father’s love for his daughter was so good that I hope they have Conan deliver it in the new movie. I also want Jones’ monologue about how steel is weak and flesh is stronger and how THAT is the Riddle of Steel.
Jones and Sydow are so straight-faced and perfect in their performances that they lend absolute credibility to the rest of the story. These days, it feels that when a major and credible actor is given a small role that they are either held up high like, “Hey look we have a badass actor here. Look at them!” or there’s a cheesiness to the role, “Hey look, we have Judi Dench and she’s being weird. Isn’t that cool because she’s letting loose?”
The new Conan needs serious actors playing serious roles. No tongue in cheek. They need to be the kind of actors that when they walk into a scene you instantly pity all the other actors because they OWN the camera. Just throwing out some suggestions here: Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe, Meryl Streep.
6: Music is the Most Important Character
In the interview with Chris Morgan and Fredrik Malmberg the biggest thing that they didn’t mention is the most important. Music.
Basil Poledouris’s score for Conan is probably one of the best damned scores made. There, I said it.
Remember when I said that my entire opinion of Conan the Barbarian changed when I saw it from the beginning? Here’s why.
The film opens with an entire song as the scene of the sword forging and the introduction to Conan and his family is shown to us with zero dialogue. We learn to love this sword. Then we have a couple minutes of Conan’s father telling him about Crom, then BAM, another full-length song where we watch a grand battle and the death of Conan’s family. His mother, who never once speaks, comes through as fiercely brave and we genuinely mourn her death and the reason for that hinges on the music.
Music touches us emotionally. It moves us, and Director John Milius knew that. He harnessed that and the opening of his movie plays more like some fantastical opera than any of the well-muscled sword and sandal flicks that copied it. Without the help of a full score, perfectly timed and edited with the movie, Conan would be nothing but a fantasy action movie, not much different than those that came before or after it. The masterful score is what propels it into being a great film.
I want Morgan and Malmberg to be correct that Legend of Conan will be the sequel that the first film deserves. We’ve been waiting for this movie for 33 years, ever since we saw a glimpse of old-man Conan sitting on a throne. I want them to succeed. But Hollywood has burned me. Too many producers/directors don’t seem to understand what makes an original film great when they’re making a sequel or remake and they latch on to the most obvious thing and crank that shit up to 11. Conan the Barbarian was a wonderful film and what made it wonderful was a perfect combination of many things. It should be treated like a gourmet dish. Mix the flavors and don’t just focus on one specific spice.
That’s what Conan deserves.