Arnold Schwarzenegger and Olivia d'Abo in Conan the Destroyer.
While Conan the Barbarian was a financial and critical success, reportedly the producers felt that they could make even more money on this, its sequel, if they toned down the graphic content to get a PG rating. This lightening of the mood coupled with the loss of John Milius as director, gives the movie a much broader, jokey feel that spills over into campiness too many times. There are still enjoyable elements in it, but it feels as different from its predecessor as a Roger Moore Bond feels from a Sean Connery.
The story opens an undetermined amount of time after the original. Conan is still mourning his lost love, Valeria and still traveling with a thief, only not Subotai from the original, but instead - for reasons never explained - with Malak, an idiotic coward whose only purpose seems to be to provide comic relief and not very much of that. Subotai's absence or fate is never commented upon. Rumors of the original script containing a death scene for him persist, but he's nowhere to be found in the finished product. Oddly though, Conan and Malak have an exchange that seems to be referencing a scene from the first movie where Conan punched a camel, but since Malak wasn't there, I have to wonder if the scene was originally written with Subotai in mind.
After an opening battle scene, Conan is approached by Queen Taramis with a proposition. She wants him to accompany her niece on a quest. It seems that this niece is the one chosen to reclaim the horn of Dagoth, the Dreaming God. If Conan does this, Taramis claims that she will be able to resurrect Valeria. With that as bait, Conan agrees, but what he doesn't know is that Tamaris plans to have him killed as soon as the quest is done.
Like Dorothy on her way to Oz, Conan picks up a motley crew on his journey. Grace Jones (who briefly had a movie career around this time) plays Zula, a female warrior with a staff. Mako returns as Akiro, the wizard and narrator from the first film. Making his feature film "acting" debut, Wilt Chamberlain plays the captain of the guard assigned to protect Princess Jehnna's virtue. And playing one of the most beautiful pieces of jail bait ever put on film is Oliva d'Abo as the aforementioned princess, just fifteen at the time, but smoking hot already. She develops a crush on Conan, but he's so in love with dead Valeria that he doesn't even give her a second look.
Where the first movie was gritty and as realistic as the budget and setting could allow, this one is brightly lit, gaudily colored and sanitized. No matter how far out in the wilderness, Jehnna is always perfectly coifed and made-up. The sets and monsters, while impressive at the time, seem now like something out of an old Star Trek episode. The ape-man in particular seems phony, while also featuring some of the worst fighting this side of a WWF grudge match.
Although it seems out of character and silly, Arnold does deliver some decent comedy. The campfire scene where he becomes drunk is perhaps the movie's best comic moment, even if it will make you ask if this is the same character from the first film. Conan also comes across as dumber this time around as well. At one point Jehnna mentions that Zula is outnumbered 6 to 1. Conan starts to count and gets to 3, before agreeing that Jehnna is right, implying that he can't count higher than that.
Schwarzenegger was under contract with Dino De Laurentiis for three films and so there was supposed to be another Conan movie. The finale was to finally tell the tale of Conan becoming King, as the ending of both the first two films kept hinting at. Instead, the horrible Red Sonja movie was produced, with Arnold playing, not Conan, but a character pretty close to him. Either way, it fulfilled his contract and so the third Conan languished in development hell. Given the quality of this installment though, maybe that wasn't such a bad thing.
Wilt Chamberlain and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer.
I remember seeing this movie as a teenager and enjoying it. The scene where Conan fights the Man Ape in a room of mirrors stood out in my memory as being intensely violent. Wrong! It is as cheesy as Scott said it was. But then the entire movie is borderline camp. It still has some entertainment value but I agree with my brother that it's a far cry from the more serious tone of the first movie.
Shot on location in Mexico it features some impressive locales and fine cinematography. Watching Conan and his companions traverse this rugged terrain is quite breathtaking at times, and the pace with which this adventure unfolds is excellent. Today's directors could learn a thing or two about pacing from this movie (Peter Jackson, I'm thinking of you). It wastes no time with unnecessary exposition or character developing small talk. And the action, while silly at times, does contain some actual blood and gore and it isn't ridiculously over-the-top like so many of today's CGI fight scenes are (again, I'm thinking of you Peter Jackson).
As unlikely as it seems, it has been reported that Grace Jones trained with a staff for 18 months before filming began. I guess she wanted to be fully prepared. It paid off however; in her zeal for realism she put two stuntmen in the hospital. Her intensity is borderline comic. In fact I kept thinking about Kim Wayans' hilarious spoof of Jones on In Living Color in the early 90s. She didn't exaggerate by much.
As Scott wrote, this was Wilt Chamberlain's first movie role. It was also his last. His part seems a bit ironic in hindsight; a man who claimed 20,000 sexual conquests during his lifetime guarding the virtue of a young maiden.
The already incredibly buffed Schwarzenegger gained an additional ten pounds of muscle for this movie. I don't think he has ever appeared more impressively huge than he does here. He certainly looks the part and handles the action and humor equally well. The dialogue is so bad at times that I only hope it was intentionally so. Here's a sample. Jehnna to Conan, “I suppose nothing hurts you.” Conan, “Only pain.” Ouch.
So I didn't enjoy this movie anywhere near as much as I did when I was 17, I still enjoyed it. Although on another level and for different reasons. And with the recent propensity for older actors reprising parts they played as younger men (Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones), why not bring Arnold back as Conan for that originally planned third installment? I'm sure Grace Jones could use the work.
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer
I was once a big Conan fan, reading the novellas by Robert E. Howard and the Marvel comic books. I found the adventures of this lone warrior to be a very entertaining read. Although it changed some key elements of the original story, l still enjoyed this film completely when it first came out, getting caught up in the adventure and action of it all. Like Patrick, I once found it all terribly exciting. Watching it now, I find Conan the Destroyer to be more comical than tense.
As Scott mentioned, the scene at the campfire is the film’s most comically famous. I laughed my ass off the first time I heard Olivia d’Abo, as Jehnna, say to Conan, “I suppose nothing hurts you.” and Arnold Schwarzenegger famously responds, “Only pain.” The writers included many jokes throughout the film, such as when Malak tries to explain sex to Jehnna or when the bad ass Amazon warrior Zula gets scared by a mouse.
There are also some unintentionally funny scenes. At one point, Jehnna wakes up screaming because of a night mare. Was it really because of the bad dream or the seven foot man standing over her as she sleeps? While we are discussing her body guard, I agree with Patrick, that it is a joke that Wilt Chamberlain is the man charged with protecting her virginity. For the record, in the original story, Conan popped that cherry.
Conan and company come upon a group of villagers who cannot subdue a single woman armed only with a big stick, yet we are told that these inept villagers fought off the rest of her group of bandits. Who were her fellow bandits, ten year olds? How did these villagers chain her up and why did they let her keep her staff? Once Conan frees her, she easily escapes on a conveniently placed nearby horse as dozens of armed men stare on in fear. The entire scene makes no rational sense.
Later, we have a scene that makes that one seem like poetry. Thoth Amon, a powerful ancient wizard decides to fight a sword wielding Conan in a glass room in which the breaking of said glass defeats him. When there are only two glass panels left, Conan announces that he will throw his sword through one of them, giving the wizard plenty of time to take evasive action. He, instead, decides to stay put and ends up with steel through his chest.
The only person who makes this wizard seem smart is Conan himself. This film treats Conan as if he were utterly stupid. Scott wrote of the scene where it implies that Conan cannot count above three, “One, two, three... I think you're right.” The funniest scene in the entire film is when Queen Taramis asks Conan what it is he wants and tells him to think. We then get a close up of Schwarzenegger looking constipated as he struggles to concentrate.
All of these years later, I still found Conan the Destroyer an entertaining watch but this time it was more for the humor than the action.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1984)