The story behind the film that paved the way for Hollywood’s most recognisable action star
𝕭𝖊𝖙𝖜𝖊𝖊𝖓 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖙𝖎𝖒𝖊 𝖜𝖍𝖊𝖓 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖔𝖈𝖊𝖆𝖓𝖘 𝖉𝖗𝖆𝖓𝖐 𝕬𝖙𝖑𝖆𝖓𝖙𝖎𝖘 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖗𝖎𝖘𝖊 𝖔𝖋 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖘𝖔𝖓𝖘 𝖔𝖋 𝕬𝖗𝖞𝖆𝖘, 𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖆𝖓 𝖆𝖌𝖊 𝖚𝖓𝖉𝖗𝖊𝖆𝖒𝖊𝖉 𝖔𝖋. 𝕬𝖓𝖉 𝖚𝖓𝖙𝖔 𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖘, 𝕮𝖔𝖓𝖆𝖓, 𝖉𝖊𝖘𝖙𝖎𝖓𝖊𝖉 𝖙𝖔 𝖜𝖊𝖆𝖗 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖏𝖊𝖜𝖊𝖑𝖊𝖉 𝖈𝖗𝖔𝖜𝖓 𝖔𝖋 𝕬𝖖𝖚𝖎𝖑𝖔𝖓𝖎𝖆 𝖚𝖕𝖔𝖓 𝖆 𝖙𝖗𝖔𝖚𝖇𝖑𝖊𝖉 𝖇𝖗𝖔𝖜. 𝕴𝖙 𝖎𝖘 𝕴, 𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖈𝖍𝖗𝖔𝖓𝖎𝖈𝖑𝖊𝖗, 𝖜𝖍𝖔 𝖆𝖑𝖔𝖓𝖊 𝖈𝖆𝖓 𝖙𝖊𝖑𝖑 𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖊 𝖔𝖋 𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖘𝖆𝖌𝖆. 𝕷𝖊𝖙 𝖒𝖊 𝖙𝖊𝖑𝖑 𝖞𝖔𝖚 𝖔𝖋 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖉𝖆𝖞𝖘 𝖔𝖋 𝖍𝖎𝖌𝖍 𝖆𝖉𝖛𝖊𝖓𝖙𝖚𝖗𝖊!
Robert E. Howard was a writer since he was a little kid. A voracious reader given to flights of fancy, he was drawn to historical fiction, scribbling stories of Vikings, Arabians, and far away and long-ago battles. In the early 1920s, he started selling short stories to pulp fiction magazines such as Weird Tales, Fight Stories, and Action Stories. His tales featured fantastic settings and heroes that were larger than life, such as the barbarian Kull the Conqueror and Solomon Kane, a Puritan who wandered the world combating evil. In 1932, Howard created Conan. Conan was an adventurer of exceptional cunning and strength. Unlike other strongbacks, Conan was quite intelligent, and although he could at times be brutal and ruthless, he lived by a moral code and was a faithful worshipper of the god Crom.
Conan lived during the Hyborian Age, a fictional era created by Howard that took place between the sinking of Atlantis and the rise of the civilizations of Mesopotamia. Using this fantastic setting allowed Howard to place his characters within a historical context without having to do any research to ground them in reality. He wrote and sold several Conan stories, and he maintained a prolific output until his death in 1936. It was widely believed that Howard suffered depression for much of his life, and when he learned that his mother had slipped into a coma from which she was not expected to awake, he shot himself. He was only 30 years old.
Howard’s Conan stories fell out of print, but the character continued to appear in magazines throughout the 1950s and 60s thanks to the work of other writers. In 1970, Marvel Comics began publishing a monthly comic, Conan the Barbarian and in 1974 launched a second title, Savage Sword of Conan. Both titles ran for over 20 years. In ’77, Howard’s original stories resurfaced, and new novels appeared with regularity from a variety of authors. Ideas for a Conan film circulated for much of the 1970s, but no one could seem to pull a project together.
Writer Edward Summer approached film producer Edward R. Pressman in 1975 about bringing Conan to the big screen. Pressman had a colorful track record as a producer of pictures by young directors, including early Brian de Palma outings Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise, Terrence Malick’s first film, Badlands, and Sylvester Stallone’s directorial debut, Paradise Alley. Pressman fell in love with the character and was intrigued by the artwork of Frank Frazetta, whose stylish Conan paintings dated back to the 1960s. Securing the rights turned out to be a chore in itself, and Pressman spent a fair chunk of money on court costs and leasing the film rights. He struck a deal with Paramount Pictures, which promised a couple million dollars to get the project off the ground provided Pressman could recruit a top-notch screenwriter.
Mongol General : What is best in life?
Conan : To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.
In came Oliver Stone. During this period, Stone was making a name for himself in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He won an Oscar in 1979 for adapting Midnight Express, the gripping true story of an American drug smuggler in a Turkish prison. Despite his success, Stone couldn’t generate any interest in his original screenplay Platoon, a story based on his Vietnam War experiences, and he needed work. There was no doubt that Stone knew how to tell a story, but he also had a raging cocaine habit. He took on Conan with his characteristic zest, and wrote an epic script that was totally unproduceable. Stone’s draft was not based in Howard’s Hyborian Age, but instead turned into a post-apocalyptic action piece in which Conan takes on a mutant horde. It was epic beyond what was possible on film at that time, particularly given the budget Paramount was willing to front.
While Stone hammered away on his crazy script, Pressman and Summer found their Conan. They were watching the classic 1977 bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron which featured the charismatic Austrian bodybuilding phenomenon Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger was larger than life, both literally and figuratively. He dominated professional bodybuilding, having won five Mr. Universe titles and six Mr. Olympia titles. (A seventh would follow in 1980.) He also had a great personality, a winning smile, and good looks, but his accent was so thick you could barely understand what he was saying. Pressman thought Schwarzenegger was a natural to play Conan, and the bodybuilder proved an easy sell after being shown some artwork and concept designs.
Pressman wanted Frazetta to come on board as a visual consultant, but the artist turned him down. He then turned to production designer Ron Cobb, who was fresh off his groundbreaking work for Alien. Cobb’s designs, inspired by Frazetta’s work but also with his own sense of style, breathed life into Conan’s Hyborian world. He imagined spectacular sets and costumes. When Thulsa Doom’s snake cult became central to the story, Cobb incorporated snake designs into everything from temples to medallions and daggers, making serpents all-pervasive almost like the swastika in Nazi Germany. Later, Cobb did such a good job designing the Wheel of Pain, the giant grist mill that Conan toils on for his entire childhood, that the wheel operated with hardly any effort at all. Stagehands off-camera had to push against Schwarzenegger to give the appearance that he was using maximum effort to turn the wheel.
Next, Pressman approached John Milius to direct. Milius had just finished Big Wednesday, a picture about a group of young surfers set in 1960s Southern California. The film tanked, but Milius still had a solid reputation as a commercially successful screenwriter, having worked on Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Jeremiah Johnson, and other action fare that played to the macho American ideal. Milius was a gun collector and possessed a deep knowledge of military history. He was a big fan of Viking mythology and lore, and Pressman thought he would be a great fit to direct this picture. Surprisingly, Milius knew nothing about Conan, and although he was intrigued with the character, he initially passed on the offer.
Cobb showed Milius his drawings for the production, and the director rethought taking part in the project. Stone brought him up to speed on the history of the character and some background on Howard. Milius loved to tell the story about how Howard would write late at night envisioning that Conan was standing over him with a battle axe, threatening to cleave him down the middle if Howard did not record the barbarian’s tale. Milius related to feeling that kind of otherworldly pressure to create, and fully embraced the project. He accepted Pressman’s offer to direct, but he was contracted to make his next picture for Dino de Laurentiis. De Laurentiis was a major international producer who had made dozens of pictures, many in the fantasy genre. Pressman approached De Laurentiis about investing in the project, and he said yes, taking over the financing while Pressman retained approval over creative decisions. De Laurentiis approached Universal Pictures to act as the film’s distributor. The studio also kicked in some of the film’s $16 million budget and additional marketing costs.
Milius’s first task was to completely rewrite Stone’s script, resetting it squarely back in the Hyborian Age, and adding elements from a slew of Howard’s stories. Conan the Barbarian would be an original story pieced together with several elements, settings, and characters from Howard’s oeuvre. Stone would retain screen credit, but virtually everything he had contributed was edited out of the final draft. With the script in solid shape, Milius set about casting his epic. He wanted athleticism, brawn, and faces that would believably communicate the world of the story. Knowing that Schwarzenegger’s role would be exceptionally physical, Milius called upon the Austrian Oak to alter his training regime to include more running and exercises that would increase his flexibility and range of motion. Schwarzenegger’s accent and lack of acting experience were an issue for De Laurentiis at first, but Milius thought these were actually plusses for the character. He agreed to bring acting and dialogue coaches on board and De Laurentiis gave his blessing. Schwarzenegger later said of the famous producer, “When he became enthusiastic about the fact of me being in the movie, he just did everything possible to make this movie an extraordinary and big event movie. And he put a lot of money up there with the studio and he had a lot of confidence in it. From that point on, it was all up to me. Can I follow through? Can I perform up to the expectations that everyone had? And from that point on, I took it very seriously.”
Sandahl Bergman was hired to play Valeria after Milius saw her dance in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. “That is a Valkyrie,” he said. “Find that woman.” Gerry Lopez, a famous surfer who was a surfing buddy of Milius’s and had appeared in Big Wednesday, was brought on to play Subotai. Like Bergman and Schwarzenegger, Lopez had little acting experience. But he was one of the few people in the cast who had pre-existing knowledge of Conan. All three actors, who played the trio of thieves around which much of the story revolves, went through extensive training—daily workouts, swordplay, martial arts, combat, horseback riding. It proved grueling for all concerned. James Earl Jones was brought on board to play Thulsa Doom, the film’s iconic villain. Milius took the character from Howard’s Kull stories, and he envisioned Doom as the last of a dying race with his dark skin, blue eyes, and straight black hair. Jones, who in real life has been said to be a great gentle bear of a man, lends an aura of quiet menace that carries through the film, even in scenes he is not in.
Another acting legend who joined the cast was Max Von Sydow, as King Osric, the man who enlists Conan and friends to rescue his daughter from Doom. Von Sydow, who flawlessly speaks five languages and has worked for some of the greatest film directors in the history of cinema, was drawn to the part because his oldest son was a big fan of the Conan comics. Von Sydow would later say, “I thought it was a fun, theatrical part that gave me a chance to tap into that passion and have fun with it.” Mako, award-winning actor in several Japanese and American films, was hired to play the Wizard, who helps Conan along his journey and provides the film’s brief narration. And of course, anyone who has ever seen Conan the Barbarian, cannot forget Thorgrim and Rexor, played, respectively, by Danish bodybuilder Sven-Ole Thorsen and former professional football player and actor Ben Davidson. As Doom’s top lieutenants, these men were referred to by Milius on set as the Great Danes. They were also pranksters who would frequently engage in mischief to lighten up the long, exhaustive, and sometimes dangerous shooting days.
Many injuries were sustained as might be expected for an action film of this scope. Schwarzenegger, Bergman, and Lopez did many of their own stunts, and paid the price for it. Bergman almost lost a finger and Schwarzenegger took a fall on the first day of filming that required stitches. He also had to take a stiff cocktail of antibiotics after biting into a dead vulture during the crucifixion scene. Stunt coordinator Terry Leonard broke his leg, and others suffered assorted bruises, lacerations, broken bones, and sprains throughout the production. The film also took a lot of heat from animal rights activists for harming animals on set. Milius has always taken issue with what he has called baseless claims. “The only animals that got hurt on my site were the Great Danes,” he once said in an interview, referring to Davidson and Thorsen.
Conan the Barbarian went before the cameras in late 1980, and the film was shot almost entirely in Spain. The countryside provided a wide array of locales that served as the basis for Conan’s boyhood home, the temple of Set, and various cities that our heroes travel through. To reinforce the motif of Thulsa Doom’s snake cult, each of the actors was given a pet snake to care for during the production. Jones, who had been an Army Ranger in his youth, was quite comfortable with this. He later recalled a story about Ranger training in which he was required to keep a snake as a pet for a few days and later eat it. Jones’s comfort level with the reptiles was such that the snakes around him would often be so docile that they wouldn’t move and had to be stirred to action during takes.
Conan : You’re not a guard!
Valeria : Neither are you!
Subotai : We’re thieves! Ha! Like yourself. Come to climb the tower.
Valeria : You don’t even have a rope! Ha! Two fools who laugh at death. Do you know what horrors lie beyond that wall?
Conan : No
Valeria : Then you go first.
The shoot was injected with a lot of potent realism. Real archers were hired to fire arrows, and Milius himself stepped up to perform some of the trickiest shots, as he was an expert marksman. There were a variety of trick swords used in the film that were plastic or wood, but the final battle between Conan and Rexor featured real swords. The iconic sword that is forged in the film’s opening credits weighed several pounds and was rumored to be capable of splitting an engine block, though it is not known if it was really ever put to that test. The hieroglyphic inscription on the blade read, “Suffer no guilt he who wields this in the name of Crom.” The special effects consisted mostly of practical techniques. Doom’s transformation into a snake relied on the same process that was used in American Werewolf in London, and the giant snake Conan fights was a mixture of puppetry and hydraulic-powered machinery.
Milius fought hard to get his friend Basil Poledouris to create the score for the film. Up until that point, Poledouris had not done extensive film work, and the producers were more comfortable going with a proven conductor. Since the movie did not have a lot of dialogue, a rich musical score was needed to fill in the gaps. Poledouris’s music was epic in every way, encompassing elements of martial music, opera, metallic sounds, gongs, even chains to communicate the fierceness and brutality of the world in which the characters live. It proved a perfect match for the vision Milius created, and though not widely recognized at the time, the soundtrack has gone on to attain a legendary status all its own.
Sneak previews of Conan the Barbarian in early 1982 turned out huge sold-out crowds in several major U.S. cities. Positive word of mouth from these screenings built a lot of buzz around the film, which opened wide in the U.S. on May 14, 1982. It was a bona fide hit, and box office, home video rentals, and subsequent television airings would push the film’s earnings well over $100 million. The film put Schwarzenegger on the path to becoming an action star, giving him enough of a bump to later star in The Terminator, which would subsequently make him the biggest movie star in the world. Conan the Barbarian sparked a renewed interest in the sword and sorcery genre, and a slew of similar films followed throughout the 1980s. In 1984, Schwarzenegger returned to the role in the sequel Conan the Destroyer, directed by Richard Fleischer. Destroyer significantly toned down the sex and violence in hopes of drawing a larger, younger audience, but the lighter tone was not well received by fans and the film barely broke even at the box office.
Conan remains popular as one of the most iconic screen heroes of our time, and it will always be one of Schwarzenegger’s most famous roles. It is John Milius’s greatest movie, of which the maverick director had this to say: “I look at everything as a battle. I always wanted to be a general. I never wanted to be a director. [Conan the Barbarian] was a large battle. It was very carefully designed, conceived of, and executed with great skill and power, and the battle was won.”
Sources: Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan (2017).