Conan: The Complete Quest
U.S.A. / 1982, 1984
John Milius / Richard Fleischer
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mako

Sandahl Bergman, Grace Jones
Wilt Chamberlain, Sarah Douglas
Color / R, PG

Format: DVD
Double Feature Disc / R1 - NTSC
Universal Home Video
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August 2011
Review by
Brian Lindsey
The "Blood 'n' Guts" & "Bare Flesh" icons apply to BARBARIAN only
Even before donning the dark shades and leather jacket of the Terminator, it was his role as Conan the iron-thewed warrior of pulp writer Robert E. Howard's ripping fantasy yarns that made Arnold Schwarzenegger an international movie star. The film, 1982's big budget Conan the Barbarian, surprised a few people not so much for the casting of an English-challenged bodybuilder with limited acting experience in the title role, but for taking the subject matter so damned seriously. At the time, Conan was thought of by most as just a Marvel Comics hero. Unaware that the character first slashed and hacked his way across the pages of magazines such as Weird Tales in the 1930s, your average studio suit probably groaned at the thought of doing a "comic book" movie. (Remember, this was seven years before Tim Burton's Batman; the successful Superman franchise was about to be doused with Kryptonite after hitting a second home run with Superman II. X-Men and Spider-Man are still two decades away.) The fact that director writer/director John Milius (Dillinger, 1973) envisioned it as an R-rated feature replete with nudity and blood-soaked violence must've caused additional trepidation.
    Milius' rewritten script for Conan the Barbarian departs from the Howard mythos in some ways while embracing it in others. (Oliver Stone's original draft called for more monsters and full-scale battles a la Lord of the Rings, which would have required a much larger budget.) Whether to more keenly focus on his cherished "Combat Zen" aesthetic or merely as a cost-saving measure (or both), Milius downplays the supernatural elements that are an integral part of the original short stories even though Conan's nemesis in the film is an evil sorcerer, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). An origin for Conan is created that was not in the Howard stories. Orphaned as a child when Doom's soldiers raid his home village in Cimmeria, slaughtering all the adults, he and the other children are sold into slavery. Boy Conan grows to muscle-bound manhood (i.e., Schwarzenegger) while chained for years to a huge grain-grinding wheel. Later he is again sold, this time to be trained as a gladiator for bloody death-matches staged in fighting pits. Eventually winning his freedom, Conan ventures forth into the Hyborian kingdoms to seek vengeance against Thulsa Doom. Along the way he gains companions in archer Subotai (Gerry Lopez), wizard Akiro (Mako), and proto-Xena warrior woman Valeria (Sandhal Bergman), who becomes his mate.
    These characters are as important to the film as Conan himself is, granted that Schwarzengger is a barbarian of very few words. (The Cimmerian is much more verbal in Howard's stories.) Until Conan hooks up with his Hyborian homies it is occasional narration by Mako, in character as Akiro, which briefly sets the stage for various sequences in lieu of people talking. Aside from a few lines uttered by William Smith playing Conan's father, who tells us about the "Riddle Of Steel" and the Cimmerian god Crom there is hardly any dialog at all for the first 30 minutes. So it's fortunate for the film (and us) that composer Basil Poledouris' magnificent music is on hand to provide the sonic sturm und drang of Conan's barbarian world. From the very first stanzas of the thunderous opening piece ("The Anvil of Crom"), one is aurally transported into that mythical time between the sinking of Atlantis and the Dawn of History, when the Ultimate Power was cold, sharp steel gripped tightly in a sweaty fist. It's one of my all-time favorite scores, and not only because it's absolutely perfect for the film. More than anything else in Conan the Barbarian it viscerally summons the spirit of Robert E. Howard's original tales.
    To the disapproval of many fans of the Conan books and comics, Milius uses the film as a means of indulging his affinity for Nietzschean philosophy. (Howard's savage fictional universe is a milieux in which such a worldview is triumphant.) This comes at the expense of action, adventure and the Lovecraftian gods and monsters that permeate the stories we get more brooding than battles. The production design and cinematography are more keenly attuned to Howard and the comic books than the director is. This isn't to say that Milius doesn't 'get' the Conan/Howard vibe, for there's some well-choreographed (and bloody) combat. The ponderous, drawn-out ending, in which Conan's ultimate revenge is rendered anticlimactic (and is even longer with the addition of extra footage on the DVD), is a misstep fortunately negated by most of what has passed before. Among the highlights is Sandhal Bergman, perfectly cast as Valeria. Not a conventional film beauty nor particularly skilled actress, she nevertheless has what Milius describes as "that great Viking face" which, combined with her graceful athleticism and obvious relish for the part, makes her totally believable in the role. Jones, the voice of Darth Vader, gets to show his face for once in a thoroughly villainous role. As for Ah-nuld himself, if one has to rely chiefly on brawn rather than talent to essay a character then he's more than up to the task.
1984's Conan the Destroyer, directed by action/fantasy veteran Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings), jettisons the bloody, brooding ambiance of the Milius film, tacking instead in the opposite direction: a bright 'n' shiny, kiddie-friendly Dungeons & Dragons-type adventure. Needless to say a third Conan film was never made...
    Teamed this time with a mostly new set of pals, Conan accepts a mission to escort the virginal Princess Jehnna (Olivia D'Abo) on a quest to recover a magical jeweled horn, which when placed in the forehead of a statue will bring the god Dagoth back to life. To procure the horn, a gem must first be stolen from the castle of a wizard. Queen Taramis (The People That Time Forgot's Sarah Douglas) wants the horn because she
like her god Dagoth is evil, but Conan doesn't know this. He and his companions are to be killed once the horn is secured. Pro basketball legend Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain plays the giant warrior Bombaata, captain of Taramis' soldiers and personal bodyguard to the princess, who is to insure their timely demise. But as we know, Conan and his friends comical thief Malak (Tracey Walter), fierce warrior-woman Zula (A View to a Kill's Grace Jones), and Akiro, returning from the first film will win through in the end.
    It's all oh so very corny.
    But that's the least of Destroyer's sins. While there are some well-mounted action scenes here and there and it's good to see the "Governator" wielding a broadsword again, the movie fails at most of the things it attempts to do. Worst of all, this is the Happy Meal version of Conan, stripped of blood, sex and savagery for the 10 year-old crowd. Fleischer, a solid director of the old school, does what he can with the juvenile script but is sorely let down by some chintzy special effects and overly-lit sets. One particular sequence (inspired by Howard's story Rogues in the House and coming roughly midway through the film) sees Conan battling a cape-wearing, ape-like man-beast. This set-piece is a total disaster. The goofy expressions on Arnold's face during the struggle are almost as laughable as the cheesy rubber Halloween mask of the monster. (I can easily imagine Schwarzenegger cringing in his seat with embarrassment during the premiere.) Walter, on hand for comic relief, seems out of place and quickly becomes annoying; Chamberlain looks fearsome enough (well, except maybe for the nappy wig) but makes Schwarzenegger come off like Laurence Olivier in the acting department.
    Truly the best way to actually enjoy this misfire of a film is to play the Bombaata Drinking Game while watching... Every time a character calls out "Bombaata!," hoist a tankard of the stoutest grog and drain with gusto.

Conan: The Complete Quest is a double feature DVD pairing the two films on a single disc. Essentially you get the slightly longer "Collector's Edition" of Conan the Barbarian (first released in 2002) with Destroyer thrown in for good measure, all at a bargain price. Barbarian looks terrific, with few blemishes. It's a given that the film plays much, much better in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 2:35.1. My only real beef is that the audio track is mono. Poledouris' score deserved better.
    Extras abound on Side A. There's a commentary track with Schwarzenegger and director Milius, which I must admit I didn't get all the way through. Diehard fans of the film may dig it but I found myself skipping around to key scenes; for the most part Arnold is content to merely describe the onscreen action in a boring, lazy fashion. ("Here's vere I pick up da sword.") More goodies include an archive of production and publicity art, an effects demo, production photos, deleted scenes (mostly multiple takes of King Osric [Max Von Sydow] being assassinated) and two trailers. (The one narrated by Orson Welles does a terrific job selling the film.) Last but not least is a 53-minute documentary, Conan Unchained, which provides a good overview of the film's production. Schwarzenegger, Milius, Jones, Bergman, Von Sydow, P
oledouris and Oliver Stone are among the many participants.
    Conan the Destroyer is found on Side B of the disc. Audio/visual quality is generally first-rate, with the Mono audio track of Destroyer coming off marginally cleaner than Barbarian's. Owners of widescreen TVs should know that unlike Barbarian, Destroyer's 2.35:1 transfer is not anamorphic. (But so what? You wouldn't be buying this for Conan the Destroyer anyway, now would you?) There are no extras except the theatrical trailer. 2/28/04