WHAM! This is the heaviest of heavyweight Smackdowns. In this bout, we pit two behemoths against each other, 2011’s Conan the Barbarian remake and its lower-tech but equally brawny 1982 predecessor of the same name. Both are based on the enduringly popular book series by young pulp writer Robert E. Howard, and are set in a quasi-medieval world full of sword-swinging marauders and evil sorcerers. Conan is very much in the first camp, raised and trained from birth to be a tough, brutally effective warrior. As a result, he grows into a muscular mass of human being, personified by bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-king of California Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first film, and the brooding, immense Jason Momoa in the remake.
Both of these movies, then, bring hundreds of pounds of lethal fury to this Smackdown. The ring will thunder, the arena will shake. True to their natures, both films will shed gallons of blood. Which Conan will stagger away with the victory?
This Conan, like his earlier incarnation, starts out with a few severe disadvantages. Literally born on the battlefield – he interrupts his mother while she’s in mid-battle, insisting on being born – the ambitious young brute clamors to join the ranks of the Cimmerian military, but he’s about a decade too young. This point is rendered moot, when a warlord’s raid decimates said fighting force. Conan and his wise, brave father Corin (the leader of the Cimmerians) are taken prisoner, with dad (Ron Perlman) tortured in front of the young boy’s eyes.
The raiding warlord is the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, doing another psycho bad guy turn similar to his role in Avatar). Besides chasing the usual fun of raiding and killing, Zym is after the shards of an ancient mask. The mask is a magical artifact that confers great power on the person wearing it; realizing the risk that entailed, the ancient kings broke it into pieces, with each king hiding one piece somewhere in his own kingdom. Corin and the Cimmerians possess the last shard, hence the attack. Conan, unable to save his father, escapes his imprisonment and lives up to the movie’s title, becoming a marauding barbarian. He thirsts for revenge against the evil warlord of his youth, and once he catches the bad guy’s trail, it’s quest time. Conan will be avenged!
Although sweet, revenge can be fraught with challenge. On his way to defeat Zym, Conan must contend with monsters on land and sea and the warlord’s equally evil necromancer daughter Marique (played by Rose McGowan, nearly unrecognizable from TV’s Charmed and Nip/Tuck), who does inconvenient things like animate sand warriors from the floor of the desert to attack our hero. Conan does have allies on his side, though – the most intriguing being pretty but contentious young monk Tamara (Rachel Nichols), whose royal blood is required by Zym to restore full power to his magic mask.
Nothing is ever easy for Conan, but the big man can hack, slash and stab his way through any challenge. This is true of both the Schwarzenegger character and the one played by Momoa, who has impeccable Barbarian credibility following his turn as the brutal Khal Drogo in the HBO Conan-ish series Game of Thrones.
The 1982 iteration was one of the films helping propel future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom. This is funny, because his Conan only has about 20 speaking lines in the entire movie. This could be blamed on the usual traumatic childhood stemming from a warlord’s raid; in this case the raiding is done by the nasty Thulsa Doom (how’s that for a great bad guy name?), played by the glowering, intimidating James Earl Jones. In the attack Conan loses his father, and just for good measure Doom hacks the head off his mother as the young boy stands next to her. As if that weren’t bad enough, after the raiders depart, Conan is taken as a slave. As he grows into adulthood the now-brawny young man is sold and forced to work as a gladiator for the amusement of local crowds.
Like most entertainers, however, Conan stops being the “it” boy, and is released from slavery, presumably because of diminished earning power. Newly free, he wanders and makes the acquaintance of archer and thief Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and Sandahl Bergman’s nimble Amazonian, Valeria. (This makes the original Conan a true Sword-and Sandahl epic.) One night the three break into the temple of a local snake-worshipping cult. Conan recognizes that the insignia used by the cult matches the necklace worn by the man who raided his village and murdered his mother. The connection with Thulsa Doom is made; the hunt is on.
The three set off for Doom’s stronghold, the Mountain of Power. On the way there, they battle the usual assortment of magical monsters and burly guards. Finally, Conan stands face to face with his hated adversary. Can you guess which character gets a justice-is-served beheading? Hint: it’s probably not Conan.
Both Conans are well made films, unspooling their plots clearly while delivering a reassuring amount of blood-gushing violence and gratuitous nudity. They are full of exciting combat sequences and tell good tales of epic conquest and revenge, even though their respective stories differ significantly. 2011’s Conan tends to be more typical of modern action movies, with fast battles taking place in close quarters; as a result, these sequences can be a little confusing to watch and absorb (like real combat, presumably). What doesn’t help is the cinematography, which for the most part is dark and muted. Conan 1982’s fighting sequences are longer, clearer and occur at more of a distance. In addition to being easier to follow, these scenes are more appropriate for the epic material.
The more recent of the two films has one big technological advantage, 3-D, and uses it well. Hacked limbs, thrust swords and attacking giant snakes come straight at the audience, providing a nice added visceral thrill, although in the end it doesn’t make a huge difference when comparing the quality of the movies. Another element to enjoy in the remake is the imaginative computer effects, which are both sparingly used and quite effective (those magic sand warriors are very cool). At its heart, though, the movie’s director Marcus Nispel stays true to the material, focusing on the quest and the mythical good vs. evil thread of its main story. Admirably, Nispel, who has, ahem, carved out an interesting niche for himself, remaking bloody classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th and now Conan, also takes the time to develop Conan’s character, making his three-dimensionality more than just visual. This pays off in our sympathy for him – we want to see him hack and stomp, and we’re happy when he’s successful in doing so.
The earlier Conan works a different way. Due to its more constricted budget and technology it’s very much a meat-and-potatoes, quest movie with plot and story playing the key role. Despite that, Arnold and director/writer John Milius manage to give Conan an engaging personality. There are moments of goofiness and naiveté in the character among all the moments of questing and blood. This wins us over to our hero because it makes him relatable; sometimes, he’s as much of a clumsy screwup as any of us.
Despite their disparity in appearance and, well, acting ability, both Momoa and Schwarzenegger are well cast as Conan. The earlier incarnation essentially only needs its hero to be fast, lethal and strong, while the 21st century version mixes in a gritty intelligence and wit for its main character.
Both films tell their respective stories well. The 2011 version is a slick, professional and engaging piece of filmmaking featuring a cool main character, not to mention the irresistible gimmick of 3D. Although it’s a good movie, its appeal and technological advantages are mitigated somewhat by dark cinematography and those chaotic action sequences. By contrast, the original film has a scruffy, lower-budget appeal with cleaner action set pieces and a more human and winning Conan. As a result, this contest is surprisingly not decided on pure muscle; instead, it’s clarity and charm that carry the day, and the winner is Conan the Barbarian (1982).