For some viewers, Conan the Barbarian (1982) is something to watch while intoxicated: entertaining but not good. While I agree it’s flawed, I think it deserves better than to be thrown into the “guilty pleasures” bucket. True, the movie is not finely nuanced, morally ambiguous, or character-driven. Its revenge-centred plot is as simple as they come. There is never a moment’s doubt as to who is the hero or who is the villain. It’s often melodramatic, it’s gory, and it doesn’t even resemble the original short stories.
What rescues the movie is its ambition – it tries so hard to be a serious, gritty, low-fantasy epic. It doesn’t quite succeed, for the reasons I named above, but it comes close enough to nail the feel of what it would be like to live in such a world. Conan’s foes – slavers, witches, demonic snake cults – imply how cheap life would be, both through their nastiness and through the suddenness with which they intrude. The visuals hint at an untamed world in other ways – the wilderness is vast and harsh, the cities are worn, teeming, chaotic. The soundtrack, stirring and bombastic during battle, gentler when Conan and sidekick are travelling, is worth the price of admission all by itself. The various bodybuilders cast in the movie – led by Arnie, the living, breathing embodiment of physical power – fit perfectly into the setting. Even all that fake blood serves a point – this is not a dainty world. The movie’s final image, a brooding, older Conan sitting on a throne, promised a sweeping story arc just waiting to be told.
We never saw the rest of that story. Instead, we ended up with Conan the Destroyer (now that would be a guilty pleasure, if I thought it were any good) and now the new Jason Momoa vehicle, which I haven’t seen but which the critics hate. There have been other good fantasy movies in the last 30 years, but none of the ones I’ve seen have brought a world to life quite as well as the original Conan the Barbarian. This was a movie that excelled at worldbuilding, and for that reason, I feel no shame for holding it up as an example of the genre.