Arnold Schwarzenegger was the defining action hero of Hollywood from the mid-1980s through the 1990s, yet before he made his breakthrough, he seem the most unlikely American screen icon to lumber his way up the Hollywood ladder. The former Austrian bodybuilder turned Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia (he retired his crown undefeated) seemed destined to be a big screen joke after a debut in the inept Hercules in New York and jokey supporting roles in films like The Villain. Then John Milius cast him as the hulking mercenary lead in Conan the Barbarian (1982), which showed the world the potential of muscleman Schwarzenegger but also showcased his screen presence.
The original Conan the Barbarian is both grandiose and macho, with a sprawling scale (Milius shot largely in the deserts and mountains of Spain) and a committed seriousness (this is, after all, a sword and sandal film that opens with a quote from Nietzsche: “That which does not kill you makes you stronger”). Ah-nold’s rippling physique captures the impossible physical perfection of Robert E. Howard’s primitive mercenary hero and his glowering expression provides a fierce drive for all that brawn.
In many ways silly and strident (Conan’s philosophy: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women”), it’s still marvelous barbarian pulp, a beefcake fantasy of myth and magic built from grandiose sets, a magnificent score (one of the best from composer Basil Poledouris) and endless he-man matches of blood and brawn. Dancer Sandahl Bergman is quite the barbarian queen and James Earl Jones is suitably intimidating as the despotic Thulsa Doom, a cult leader with a thing for snakes.
Two years later, The Terminator (1984) transformed Schwarzenegger from a brawny curiosity to an action movie icon. It’s reviewed on Stream on Demand here and is also available on Netflix.
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