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Conan the Barbarian (2011) -vs- Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian -vs- Conan the Barbarian

Eric Volkman - Contributing WriterThe Smackdown

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?

[singlepic id=1191 w=320 h=240 float=right]The Challenger

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.

[singlepic id=1192 w=320 h=240 float=right]The Defending Champion

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.

The Scorecard

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.

The Decision

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).

16 Comments on Conan the Barbarian (2011) -vs- Conan the Barbarian (1982)

  1. Puny haters do your research momoas adaptation was very close to a young slayer I know and love and as hard as the fight scenes were to follow he moved like a panther when he fought and it was as though the sword was an extension of him his sword fighting easily rivaled arnolds and I wanted to hate him as he delivered line after line of solid conan vocabulary. Momoas fear not you did a good job however true conan fans love all the original is and isn’t it is a classic and near impossible to beat thanks though for bringing my hero to me one more time even if it is you’re impetuous juvenile are awesome with the sword

  2. If really want to make a Conan movie and I mean a real no BS Conan the Barbarian movie, you are going to have to use an honest to god R E Howard story, period! While Conan 82 was decent and 2011 wasn’t bad, Conan the destroyer sucked! But none of them where the real Conan the Cimmerian. Start with a real Howard story or stop trying to make Conan, Hollywood is just screwing it up!

  3. Crom laughs at your new Conan

  4. 2011 didn’t have Basil Poledouris.
    RIP Basil Poledouris

  5. All you are snake holders …to hell with each and everyone of you…R.E Howard is rolling in his grave with this butchered Conan …both are Clonans …let’s get this fact in the open Conan is not out for revenge his family was never murdered Conan left his village tp see the world to live the tales that his grandfather told him …2011 raped Howards writing with its mentions of his great adventures…the 1982 made Conan seem.dumb and only wanted sex Conan is what you call a noble savage .._Conan was not a dumb barbarian…to hell with you all read the books… Watch the movie the whole world wide It’s about R. E Howard and it shows how crazy he was about Conan …here is the true score .winner None of them …Kull felt more like a Conan movie hell it was suppose to be the third movie but was changed to Kull because Arnold couldn’t do the movie …but if i had to watch either or its the 1982 because of the muiscal score well done Basil Poledouris…

    • Tom, great response! Have you seen our Facebook page ( Check it out and come take part in some of the passionate commentary over there too!

  6. 2011 Conan is projecting on screen like Zoolander, 1982 Conan was a real barbarian.

  7. In 1982 conan Everything was epic!
    Arnold was Conan and Conan was arnold.
    He really looks like barbarian that likes to kill and fuck With vengeance in his hands.
    Momoa looks like lost link in darwin’s theory he looks like an neanderthal men.
    Arnold looks though Momoa looks Baywatch

  8. I don’t even feel the necessity to see this new Conan, as the trailers makes it look lame in comparison to John Millius movie. Poledouris themes are simply awesome and timeless. Momoa (!) looks idiot and has no charisma. Arnold wasn’t playing in Conan the Barbarian, he WAS Conan.

  9. The new version of Conan didn’t do the job, i was bored. I missed the old storyline due to the fact that is was more “realistic” come on a boy who slay 4 men. At this point I was already lost, and there was no chance to get back in the saddle.

  10. The problem with the new Conan movie I couldn’t really give a toss for any of the characters, for all the money spent on it, it didn’t even come close.

    1982 Conan wins by a mile.

  11. The old conan makes the new one look weak.

  12. You forgot the musical score. It was almost a character in the 1982 release.
    What is best in life?
    To Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and the lamendation of the women!

    The 2011 version never had a chance versus that.

  13. Just a heads up … Conan lived in the mythical Hyborian Age, which Howard conceived of as pre-historical (14,000 to 10,000 BC), not medieval.

    Though I have a great affection for the early Conan movies, 2011 is true to the character and feel of the Howard storylines. The campy originals, while amusing, don’t hold a candle to the solid new movie.

    And Kevin – next time skip the 3D – I was much happier for it.

  14. Brutal, blood-soaked, and full of death and destruction. For my money, Conan (2011) is the type of swords and sorcery movie I like to see. With one exception, I thought the ending was a bit… meh. If they could have punched up the ending, it would have been a clear winner. The one thing that I believe hurts Conan (2011) is the 3-D. It’s an unnecessary add-on that detracts from the film without really utilizing it as a wow-factor. Even so, I still think it’s a better film than the Arnold Schwarzenegger version — which gets big nostalgia points but not much else.

  15. OF COURSE the winner is Conan the Barbarian (1982) BY FAR

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