The Hero-Free Zone: revisiting Conan the Barbarian (1982)


Having just enjoyed a birthday re-watch of the LOTR movies on July 2nd, I saw the original John Milius Conan had appeared on Netflix and turned it on. What the hell, right? Why not?

I first saw it in the theater when I was a teenager, and liked it a lot, although I didn’t love it. I think the problem was that I just wasn’t that impressed by the villains.

However, decades later, I was struck by something else: at no point in this movie does Conan act like a hero.

Spoilers, obviously.

He starts as a kid, then a slave. He has no agency of his own and is either neglected or brutalized. The first time he’s put into a pit to fight for his life, he’s bewildered and horrified–right up until he kills the other dude. After that, he becomes an increasingly skilled gladiator, killing enemies and glorying in it.

After he’s set free, he robs a grave, sleeps with a witch of some kind (which is possibly the first consensual sex of his life) and frees a thief.

Maybe that’s heroic, I guess? Saving a thief from his punishment? Anyway, now Conan is a thief, too, and he’s still hunting the guy who killed his family. He meets Valeria and they fall in love. They rob the bad guy’s temple, killing some people in the process. Sex. Spending stolen money. Getting busted. Beating up a gay priest to steal his robes…

There’s a princess to rescue from the guys who killed Conan’s family, but she doesn’t actually want to be saved. Plus, Team Conan is only going after her because they’ve been hired to do so. Plus, Conan’s pals ask him to put off his revenge so they can get their big score and he, the junior partner, blows them off. Plus, after they rescue the princess, they don’t take her home immediately. They have to stake her out like bait to draw in the bad guys for one big fight.

In later movies, Arnold would play villains, and he’d certainly kill a lot more dudes, but I don’t think he ever played an anti-hero like Conan again. And the 2011 version muffed the story by adding a mystical mask and a pure-blooded descendent and a threat to the whole world that Conan needed to stop, which only dragged things down.

Because the original had something that later iterations didn’t dare portray: a brutalized anti-hero single-mindedly seeking his revenge, without much thought to who else would be hurt.