Site created 12/15/97.
review added: 5/18/00
review by Todd Doogan of
The Digital Bits
Collector's Edition -
1981 (2000) - Universal
Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras):
Specs and Features:
130 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced,
single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray keep case
packaging, featurette Conan Unchained:
The Making of Conan, audio commentary (with
director/co-writer John Milius and star Arnold Schwarzenegger),
split screen special effects comparison of "Wizard's Spell"
sequence from chapter 12, The Conan
Archives (featuring production drawings, production
photos and publicity material), 6 deleted scenes, cast and crew
bios, production notes, 2 theatrical trailers, film-themed menu
screens with animation and sound, scene access (16 chapters),
languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English and French
1981 (1998) - Universal
Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras):
Specs and Features:
126 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), single-sided,
single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, cast and crew bios,
production notes, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens,
scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono),
subtitles: English, Spanish and French
Since I'll be talking
a lot about myself in this review, to avoid the angry e-mails about
what this has to with DVD, I decided to give you a chance to back
out now. If you have no desire to read any of my comments about
myself and my connections to the films I review, you might want to
turn around now and read something else on our site. But if you so
desire, here's the full story about how much I love Conan
the Barbarian and why.
Still here? Well, let's go.
When most kids were off flying their plastic TIE Fighters around or
marveling at how large Han Solo's plastic head was, I was out in the
woods, swinging something metal around and trying my best to be a
barbarian. Once, I even got in trouble for saying "Crom"
at the dinner table. My mother was so reactionary... even when she
didn't know what it meant. But that's the rule for most mothers, I
suppose - if you don't know what it means, it must be a swear word.
Anyway, for a whole generation of kids, Star
Wars is the thing that turned them on to film and
mythologies in general. But my savior was a Cimmerian thief and
warrior named Conan.
A neighbor friend, who had a whole collection of beat up paperback
books, first turned me on to Conan.
I was utterly fascinated by a painting in his living room done by
artist Frank Frazetta, and I had to ask more about it. The image
showed a man chained to a floor with a giant snake rising above him.
For an eleven-year-old kid, that's a pretty hard image to shake.
Without really saying anything, he just handed me a stack of books
and sent me on my way. Now there's two ways a fascination like this
can go. Just like Star Wars,
there's a good side and a bad side to Conan.
The good side, is that you start chasing down the books and all the
artwork Frazetta did featuring Conan and other fighters. This is
what I did. The bad way to go, is to start chasing down Molly
Hatchet records that feature the same Frazetta art. Thankfully, I
never did this. Sure, I listened to the one with Frazetta's Snow
Giants (large Vikings swinging battle-axes) on the
cover... but I didn't like the music and was not tempted over to the
dark side of Conan.
Keep in mind, that all this was a little bit post the Conan
the Barbarian movie, circa 1982. Until this point, I had
a fair share of Star Wars
toys, peppered with Planet of the Apes
dolls, Mego superheroes, Kiss dolls and anything else worth playing
with. But it was an empty experience. I was simply going through the
motions. I just didn't like Star Wars
that much as a movie. I know... sacrilege! How dare you!?! George
Lucas is God! Blah, blah, blah. Sure, I liked the toys enough, but
didn't like one thing about the movies. Jaws
was cool. I liked Jaws. I even
had the Jaws game where you
had to fish out the garbage from his stomach without dropping his
mouth down. But movie-wise, there really wasn't something I could
call my true "awakening" film experience until I saw Conan.
The only problem with all this was, I wasn't allowed to see the
film for multiple reasons, the biggest being the reports of animal
cruelty in the making of the film (they're all false, by the way,
Mom). And so my first taste of Conan
on screen was gained from sneaking downstairs in the middle of the
night to catch a late-night showing of the film on HBO. Once I was
sure that no one had heard me creeping around, I would press my head
up against the TV's speakers (set to minimal volume) and watch the
worms-eye image, both fascinated and in total fear that I would be
caught. For some kids, getting caught masturbating was the driving
force of fear. For me, it was being caught watching movies that my
parents told me that I couldn't see until I was 18. Bah! I have
thousands of stories about which forbidden movies I saw and how I
saw them... but I'll save 'em for another review.
This is a long way to go to set up a review I know, but this an
important film for me. For some, it sucks. For others, it rocks. But
for me, it's a shining light in my life and one that I forever will
be indebted to, because it made me see what I wanted to do with my
life. Be something. So with all that said, we now return to the
review portion of The Digital Bits.
Below is my review of Conan the Barbarian.
And when you read it, you'll know it's coming from someone who loves
this movie more than most love Star Wars.
That a pretty bold statement, but I'm writing this review, so deal.
Here at the Bits, we are all,
first and foremost, fans of film. And that's a personal thing. So
here we go...
"Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise
of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And onto this,
Conan, destined to bear 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!"
Conan starts like most
myths... with a message. It's a time before recorded history, The
Hyborean Age, and a young Conan and his father sit high above the
Earth on a mountain top. His father has just fashioned a glorious
sword, and explains to him about gods and the riddle of steel. He
sets up most of what Conan will know in his life, besides the pain
and the loss: "No one in this world can you trust. Not men, not
women, not beasts. This you can trust." "This" is a
sword. And "this" does no good against an attack by Thulsa
Doom (James Earl Jones) and his squadron of berserker followers of
the Set cult.
When Doom and his men enter town, they seemingly come for two
things: well-crafted swords (a rare commodity in this world) and the
children. Laying to waste everything else, including Conan's mother
and father, Conan is ushered to his new home for the next 10 or 12
years - the wheel of pain. His life will be spent walking in a
circle, pushing on a wheel that grinds wheat grains to dust. It's
not much of a life, but it's one that provides Conan with a lot of
time to think and reflect on his plans to kill Thulsa Doom.
When Conan get big enough (filled out by Arnold Schwarzenegger), he
is sold as a slave to wage battle each night as a pit fighter - a
gladiator of sorts. The fight is to the death, using weapons that
look like they could kill the person wearing them as easily as they
kill the opponent. But Conan is a born fighter, and he has a reason
to live through each of these battles - he knows that he must have
his revenge against Doom. And after years of mastering many forms of
war and fighting skills, his master releases him. The why is never
explained, but the best guess would be he knows Conan's skill is
getting to the point that he could kill everyone involved and walk
whenever he wants. Thus, Conan sets upon on the road to vengeance
and a trail of adventure.
On his journey, he meets rouge Mongol Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the
queen of thieves Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). They join forces with
him on a mission ordered by Osric (Max Von Sydow), a King they get
caught stealing from. He wants them to get his daughter back from
the Set cult... lead by one Thulsa Doom. If they do this, they will
get a reward fit for a king or queen. Well, here you go... nothing
like killing two birds with one stone. Conan, has the chance to get
riches AND revenge. But it's not going to be as easy as it sounds.
People will die, and plans will change. But one thing is to be
certain - Conan will not stop until he accomplished his goal.
The film itself has some problems - I won't deny that. It's just as
flawed as any adventure film. The acting is bad in spots (proof can
be found in chapter 6, when Conan meets Subotai for the first time),
the effects could be better and there are some large plot holes. But
the same can be said about a certain film directed by George Lucas.
I'm not going to name names, but I think you catch my drift. Conan
itself is pulled together from material taken from the books I
mentioned above, as well as some stuff made up by John Milius and
Oliver Stone (yes... the guy who directed Platoon
wrote this). There are also some elements of various myths and
historical stories of people like Ghengis Khan. It all comes
together nicely, even if it's not truly the Conan from the books.
What are you going to do? I love both incarnations.
The real appeal for this film is its killer soundtrack. When I
think of soundtracks that just really stand out, I have two
favorites: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
and Conan the Barbarian. This
score was written by Basil Poledouris and words can't describe it.
It's beautiful, powerful... and it IS Conan
the Barbarian. If you know the film, then you either know
what I'm talking about or you think I'm a crazy man. But if you've
never checked this film out, wait until you see the collector's
edition DVD coming out from Universal.
The original DVD version of Conan the
Barbarian is one of the most embarrassing discs to ever
rear its ugly head on this format. It's not just that it looks
horrid, which it does (although I've seen worse). The problem is
that this movie just screams out to be taken care of properly. You
don't dump Conan on disc.
Well... you can dump Conan the Destroyer
and no one's going to bat an eyelash. But Conan
the Barbarian deserves better. So I basically kept the
original version hidden away in a black box, lest it contaminate all
the other discs I have. What a crushing disappointment! So imagine
my surprise when I come home one day and (as if a warrior god had
come to my home to bring me a treasure) I had this beautiful DVD
sitting in my mailbox. I actually had no idea that Universal was
working on a special edition. Fight Club,
this ain't... but THIS is the disc that should have come out back in
1998 - not that other piece of digital trash.
The video comparison is like night and day. To start with, this new
DVD boasts a wonderful anamorphic widescreen transfer, which is
lacking on the earlier version. Where the original has inaccurate
colors, blacks that worm with artifacting and tons NTSC noise, this
new edition has none of those problems. The colors are beautiful.
Just look at the skies right from the start, or the color of young
Conan's lips - it's all so much more natural looking. The blacks and
contrasts are perfect, and you can hardly make out the grain. I've
truly never seen this flick looking as it does here.
On the audio side, these discs are pretty much the same. Both
feature an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. It does what it has
to do, and not much more. But it does at least sound clear, with no
snaps, crackles or pops. The really odd thing here, is that the
original DVD has subtitles in English, French and Spanish, but this
new edition drops the Spanish subs. Why? That's just crazy. In any
case, unless you're deaf and Spanish, you have no reason to keep the
original edition around.
But the true power of this new disc (as if increased video quality
wasn't enough), is a bucket load of extras. There's a commentary
track with Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Milius, in which they
discuss EVERYTHING you'd want to know about the film. Arnold is even
quite funny here... and not always intentionally so. There's also a
documentary that covers every aspect of the film, from the original
screenplay by Stone (and his plan for a new Conan
film every year) to the fact that no animals were hurt producing
this film (see... I told you Mom). It's actually very well done and
is one of my new favorite documentaries. Cap all that off with an
archive of production and publicity art, an effects demo, a bunch of
production photos, 6 deleted scenes (also seen in the doc, but
isolated here) and a loop of trailers for the film, and you have one
rockin' DVD special edition. Oh... and the production notes and bios
featured on the original edition are replicated here. You can't beat
this, man. Not even with a barbarian's sword.
For many out there, there is a single moment that you can pinpoint
when your perspective broadened and your life changed course. Some
had that awakening in May of 1977. I had mine the first time I saw
that Frazetta painting. Maybe you're like me, and Conan
the Barbarian is an important film in your life. Or maybe
not. All of our most important film experiences are different, but
all of them - all of them - unite us. So mine was Conan.
Bill's was Star Wars and
Brad's was The Goonies. It
doesn't matter, because we all love movies and we all love DVD.
That's what brings us together, and that's what keeps us doing what
we're doing. So I hope that all of your personal film treasures find
their way to DVD... and get the treatment they deserve. If The
Digital Bits has anything to say about it, they will.
Conan the Barbarian: Collector's
Conan the Barbarian