Quantum Geek: Conan the Destroyer (1984)

Welcome, ladies and gents, to Quantum Geek - your comprehensive guide to geek movie history - where today we drop the current Game of Thrones craze for something a little more upbeat!

Quantum Geek reviews Conan the Destroyer

First attempting to conquer the United States in the '60s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a ridiculously large man of few words (English words at least). Dominating the bodybuilding contests, he wanted to dominate the box office, too, but with movies such as Hercules in New York and Stay Hungry going unnoticed, he wouldn't catch the attention of audiences worldwide until 1984's game changer The Terminator.

It's been an ongoing joke amongst actors of the day that nobody expected Arnie to ever become as successful as he did. Terminator co-star Michael Biehn once comically recalled his dread at being cast alongside the largely unknown Austrian. But when you become as big as Arnie, time tends to be kinder towards your past as the decades go by. Today we look back on how his earlier role as Conan affected not only his career but our culture, criticisms aside.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Richard Fleischer fantasy adventure Conan the Destroyer, Conan the Barbarian sequel
The beginning of the '80s saw a somewhat brief rise of the fantasy movie, the sword and sorcery drama, or dare I say the adult fairy tale? It was nothing new. Fantasy movies as we know them have roots dug firmly into the mythology of ancient Greek and Roman fable. But after Star Wars (another kind of fantasy) took the world by storm with its tales of sabre duels, princes and princesses, dark magic and otherworldly beings, to explore the world of fantasy and mythology was a natural progression in film. It didn't last.

Krull, The Beastmaster, The Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, just a few to mention. John Milius's 1982 adventure Conan the Barbarian was a standout movie. As much as the critics had a gay old time tearing these movies apart, Conan was also one movie to return with a sequel two years later, just before Schwarzenegger's career would take off. Swivel on that, bitches!

Okay so nobody's saying that the Austrian Oak was ever a great actor but there is no denying that he is a great performer. Does it hurt his feelings that you laugh at his performances and yet still quote him en masse, thirty years on from his breakthrough role? No, because it's Arnie. Arnie is why Arnie films are so much fun to watch. The fact that Conan the Destroyer was made as more of a comedy action adventure in comparison to its blood-drunk daddy just makes this movie a great little companion for a throwback movie day, even if it's not one of his best. That's my point, even his worst films are entertaining.

Arnie with Wilt and Andre the Giant behind the scenes of Conan
Heh. Little companion. Geddit?
Also starring classic Japanese favourite Mako, Olivia D'Abo, Sarah Douglas (Superman II's Ursa), Grace Jones, and late basketball giant Wilt Chamberlain, Conan the Destroyer sees our sword-wielding conqueror set on a quest to escort a princess to an island to acquire a magic crystal that can awaken a god. Travelling with the princess (D'Abo) and her bodyguard Bombaata (Chamberlain), in tow are Conan's goofy thief sidekick Malak (Tracey Walter from Tim Burton's Batman), wizard Akiro (Mako) and batshit crazy renegade warrior Zula (Jones). None of our guys are aware that they're being used to fulfil the apocalyptic prophecies of dodgy Queen Taramis (Douglas), but oh well, what could possibly go wrong there?

Counting on references in Conan's own movie history, he's still reeling from losing his lover and partner in crime Valeria, whose spirit acts as his moral compass in Destroyer, and Mako's wizard is the same one who helped Conan to defeat Thulsa Doom and his army the first time around. We still get literal blood explosions as Conan lays waste to the enemy, and plenty fine creatures eat dirt as men foolishly attempt to rush Conan by horseback. They just don't make carnage like this anymore.

Superman villain Sarah Douglas as Queen Taramis in Conan the Destroyer
Being a kid of the '80s, I grew up playing a lot of RPGs (role-playing games) and reading the books. One thing that can be said of all these old sword and sorcery movies is that they really do stick to the cliches, and Conan the Destroyer is no different. It's pretty clear cut who the bad guys are, who the good guys are, and who the bad guys pretending to be good guys are. You got that?

It's also cool that director Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green, Red Sonja) made a point of all characters being enjoyable to watch nonetheless, considering you don't have to think so hard to figure out what's going on. There are some serious culture clashes going on here, and then there's Conan just not giving a fuck, because one day he's going to be king; most probably when there's no more warm flesh to sate the bloodthirst of his deadly cold steel.

Sometimes the action is really shoddy, but you don't tend to care. This movie wasn't exactly planned. ell, even that mad bitch Grace Jones admitted to being on a ridiculous amount of hallucinogens during filming. I wish that could excuse her behaviour, but none of us ever knew her to be any other way. Scatty is an old slang word that describes Conan the Destroyer pretty well, but then it also describes the movie industry of that age and the money men financing them.

I get the feeling that these types of fantasy movies actually ended with Schwarzenegger because there was nobody else, with the exception of Dolph Lundgren in Masters of the Universe, with a physique anywhere near his. There was one thing in the '80s that did have more muscles though, and that was the He-Man action figure...

Classic 1980s He-Man Masters of the Universe action figure

The special effects are also notably bloody awful, but in such a laughable way that makes it all the more acceptable. There was much worse around the same time and yet one of the funniest things about Arnie movies are the villains he has to face on occasion. How about Vernon Wells's character in Commando who miraculously gains a jolt of super-strength by being shocked with a fatal dose of electricity? Fantastic.

The late Basil Poledouris returned to score the movie but it wasn't the same atmosphere-charging theme that Jerry Goldsmith ripped off for Total Recall. This time the fantasy adventure vibe is dialled up to 11 and set to repeat everytime something hilarious happens, or whenever Arnie defeats an enemy (same thing).

Looking back, it wasn't so much that Conan the Barbarian/Destroyer influenced geek culture as we know it. Let's be honest. Arnie did. Considering the majority of his greatest movies were adult action movies, kids couldn't get enough. He was the ultimate action hero and there can be only one Arnie. However, not even the Jason Momoa reboot could spurn a movie series, as originally intended.

Today we have Game of Thrones, but there are no characters anywhere near the calibre of Conan. If there were, all the enemies would have been long ago slaughtered and a lot less heroes would have been slain. Back in the '90s, when the videogaming culture began to boom, Sega nodded in Conan's direction with the legendary Golden Axe...

Sega Master System Golden Axe inspired by Conan the Barbarian

Before then, we also had the forgotten Commodore 64 game Barbarian...

Conan the Barbarian inspired Mortal Kombat prototype Barbarian game
Yes, that is Wolf from Gladiators...
And pretty much every videogame set in the fantasy realm had a warrior character that was the same one-dimensional take on the exact same character, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan. I'd say that makes the likes of Conan the Destroyer a lot more influential than our critics past and present would like to admit.

Next week, June 1994, sci-fi behind bars and howling over Michelle Pfeiffer. Don't miss out!

-Dan Ashley
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