The forging of the sword under the opening credits, from molten steel to magnificent blade thrust into the sky, cogently embodies the cinema of John Milius. Visualizing Robert E. Howard's creation in the midst of the Reagan era is an offer the auteur can't refuse, he has at hand Die Nibelungen and Basil Poledouris's noble score, and proceeds to conjure unsurpassed perceptions -- this isn't a matter of decorating juvenility a la Lucas, but of finding the ideal channel for a deeply felt worldview, and a personal stab at Apocalypse Now, besides. Oliver Stone's treatment originally took a post-apocalyptic view, Milius reverses it to "days of high adventure" for full, primeval splendor. The raid on the village which renders little Conan an orphan establishes the operatic tenor, accumulating intensity in the face of wackiness -- the leader of the Nordic horsemen removes an Eisensteinian helmet to reveal James Earl Jones himself, the boy is chained to the Wheel of Pain until he's as huge as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan learns "sense of worth" in the gladiatorial pit, his first line is a bloodthirsty Genghis Khan maxim: Vengeance is in his mind, he ventures into civilization, "wicked and ancient," to seek his parents' killer. Milius essays his aesthetic of body-worship and self-testing in the pellucid deep-focus of a giant serpent's dilating pupil and in the insinuating rhythms of a cannibalistic bacchanalia, with a canny sense of drollery (the Thulsa Doom cultists are the wimpy hippies of Big Wednesday, even Mako the clumsy wizard scoffs at them). Every performer is keyed to the timbre: Schwarzenegger hones his loping humor ("I am afraid and I am shy," he tells a pederast priest), Sandahl Bergman was born to don Valkyrie gear, Max von Sydow as the King Osric is cause to regret his never playing Lear. For all the fascinating fascism on display, however, Milius' vision of Man becoming Man by slaying Father and God is the opposite of Riefenstahl's enshrining of authority, an action blockbuster distilling Zarathustra's adage ("warrior, woman... the rest is madness"). With Gerry Lopez, Ben Davidson, Cassandra Gava, Valérie Quennessen, and William Smith.
--- Fernando F. Croce