By Darren Franich and Keith Staskiewicz
Updated January 05, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

Conan the Barbarian sounds like the ultimate beefcake action movie. But the film is actually a fascinating curio, starring a cast of non-actors and featuring one of cinema history’s great scores. The first major starring role for Arnold Schwarzenegger (who supposedly had to lose muscle mass in order to swing the sword), Conan has very little to do with Robert E. Howard’s character and everything to do with the particular obsessions of director John Milius, who mashed several different Conan stories together, sprinkled on some Nietzsche and some caveman religion, and then poured in a river of blood. Voila: Conan juice! Like revenge, it’s best served cold.

Note: This is Part One of a three-day Governor Schwarzenegger Retrospective. Click through for PopWatch Rewind takes on Commando and Predator.

Keith Staskiewicz: As hilariously awesome as the movie is, and for all the ridiculous hair it has draped about it, Conan the Barbarian has two things going for it: a distinctive visual style with impressively huge sets that somehow make Arnold seem normal-sized, and its own philosophy. Now, that philosophy may be that hippies are bad, bloodthirst is good, and that the best thing in life is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women, but at least it’s there. Plus, who’s to argue when Arnold won the gubernatorial election with that exact campaign platform?

Darren Franich: There’s an absolute purity of vision here, and that all comes straight from Milius, who was the token gun-loving war-hawk conservative in the lefty Film Brat generation of ’70s directors like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma. Milius is at least half-crazy, but he turns Conan into a uniquely unflinching ode to a prehistoric moral sensibility. I had a bit of an epiphany watching the movie this time: It looks and feels like a D. W. Griffith silent film. Like Griffith, Milius was clearly casting actors more for look than for any particular acting talent — besides Max Von Sydow and James Earl Jones, none of the leads were even actors, really. Schwarzenegger was still best-known as a weightlifter, his sidekick Gerry Lopez was a championship surfer, and his love interest Sandahl Bergman was dancer. The villain’s blond henchmen are played by an ex-NFL player and a Danish stuntman. Since most of the dialogue is unnecessary (albeit awesome), I wonder if the way to watch Conan is with all the sound turned off…except for Basil Pouledoris’ incredible soundtrack, of course.

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KS: Fair enough, but we should probably keep in mind that there’s a scene of someone sexing up a llama. So it’s not exactly like a DW Griffith movie.It’s really the visuals that stay with you, not the hilariously over-the-top dialogue or the fact that Milius puts Nietszche into the mouths of both the good guys and the bad guys, or even the Crom-based theology, no offense to any devout Crommians. No you end up most remembering the Tree of Woe, Conan lopping off people’s heads, and 1500 dirty, writhing snake women mesmerized by James Earl Jones’ terrible wig.

DF: I actually really like the dialogue, just because it’s so simultaneously terse and florid. But I will admit I’m probably the one person on earth who actually kind of gets moved when Schwarzenegger drops lines like: “Almost 20 years of pitiless cumber! No rest, no sleep like other men. And yet the spring wind blows, Subotai. Have you ever felt such a wind?” How many other movies would ever let Schwarzenegger say a word like cumber?

KS: Not preceded by “cu-“? Probably not many. Speaking of which, this movie makes a powerful argument against wheel-based economies. I mean, you slave away the first 30 years of your life away pushing that enormous wheel contraption, which may or may not do anything, and what do you get? No retirement package, no pension, not even a lousy watch. Plus, that’s four years of wheel school tuition down the drain.

DF: I think a big reason why I’m in utter film-love with this movie is because it’s exactly what all action movies WANT to be. Remember the first time you saw the trailer for 300? Easily one of the best previews ever, it seemed to promise that 300 was going to be the exact Platonic Ideal of “Action Movie.” Slow-motion! No colors except blood red! Arrows filling the sky! And then you actually saw 300, and it was about 1/4 action and 3/4 talk, talk, talk. I feel the same way about Michael Bay movies — there’s the popular notion that they’re nonstop car chases and guns, but half of every Michael Bay movie is just dudes duding out dudically. (Transformers 2 is practically a ’50s Disney campus farce for the first hour, with Shia LaBeouf in the Tommy Kirk role.)

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DF: Next to that, Conan is just so direct. There’s a romance, but it’s not belabored — I think that Conan doesn’t actually say anything to Valeria the entire movie. Of course, as you point out, Conan is only the ultimate action movie because Milius clearly thought he was making some sort of epic philosophical drama. But you have to admire that Milius’ mad passion did not blind him to the fact that Schwarzenegger should probably talk as little as possible.

KS: And Schwarzenegger was originally supposed to narrate the movie! Listening to the DVD commentary with Arnold and Milius, which incidentally is the most hilarious thing since sliced bread with Groucho Marx glasses, you realize exactly how distracting that Teutonic drawl would be. I can’t imagine anyone at the time would think that this would end up being the first step to making Schwarzenegger a household name, albeit one that no one could spell. Schwarzenegger has one of the most ridiculous, unique, but totally American career arcs of pretty much anyone. I mean, one moment he’s cutting off the head of giant snake monsters with a stroke of his sword, and the next he’s trying to cut the deficit. Except as everyone knows, budget deficits are a lot harder to kill than snake monsters.

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DF: I grew up in a Schwarzenegger household, meaning I’ve seen nearly all Arnold’s movies but barely any Stallone movies. (They’re the Coke and Pepsi of 80’s action stars, making Bruce Willis the Dr. Pepper.) Another great thing about Conan is just how unencumbered Schwarzenegger’s badassery is at this early point. In a weird way, Schwarzenegger spent the vast majority of his career figuring out ways to cute-ify his image. In Commando, he’s killing an army, but to save his adorable daughter. He pretended to be Danny De Vito’s brother. He starred in a movie called Kindergarten Cop. Here, he’s just playing a character with two modes: brute force and caveman desires. (One of Schwarzenegger’s best lines in the Conan commentary: “I get laid a lot in this movie!”) There’s no way to argue that Schwarzenegger is a good actor in Conan. It literally seems as if he’s never experienced fear, sadness, anger, or indeed any emotion, and so Milius had to explain those concepts to him offscreen and then watch as Schwarzenegger tried in vain to recreate them. But there’s a non-actorly charisma to him that’s utterly magnetic.

KS: Don’t forget he punches camels in the face. I can’t think of a clearer example of machismo than that. But you’re right: Can you imagine going from this to Jingle All the Way, from Conan the Barbarian to Sinbad the Comedian? Imagine showing both of those to your kids: One of them would scar them for life with horrifying imagery and the other would be Conan. Arnold really had a violent aspect to him that evaporated post-Terminator. Even in Terminator 2, he couldn’t keep playing the heartless, Germanic killing machine. He had to be made more cuddly.

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DF: I find it to be a beautiful quirk of history that Oliver Stone wrote the original draft of Conan the Barbarian, which was then ultimately rewritten and directed by John Milius. Somehow, Stone’s semi-misogynistic messianic liberalism matches up perfectly with Milius’ semi-misogynistic messianic conservatism, and the result is Thulsa Doom ordering attractive hippie women to jump off high places for his amusement. Interestingly, Stone’s original draft was apparently much more fantastical, with lots of magic and giant creatures. The sequel, Conan the Destroyer, ended up being more along those lines, with ice castles and evil magicians — and, crucially, much more dialogue for Schwarzenegger. Conan the Destroyer is coincidentally one of the worst movies ever.

KS: I can only imagine that Stone envisioned the snake orgy scene like he did most of The Doors, with the cauldrons of green stew made from human beings replacing psychotropic drugs. I’m sure Milius saw it the same way, except he was only too happy to gleefully disembowel them while yelling from behind the camera, “Get a job hippie! Stop wasting your parent’s money on sex parties and people soup!”

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DF: As a director, Milius can seem like a bit of a disappointment. After Conan, he made the fondly-remembered-for-pure-insanity-of-its-premise Red Dawn, and his career quickly settled into the Frankenheimer trajectory of TV movies and wise-old-film-sage talking head-ness. But explore along the margins, and Milius has an incredible career of adding an essential dose of awesome to great projects. He co-wrote Apocalypse Now, and arguably had more perspective on the material than Coppola did. He’s generally credited with writing the famous “Indianapolis” speech in Jaws, and many of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry one-liners. He was vaguely involved in Rome; you can see echoes of the best elements of Conan in that show. I sort of think of Milius as a great closing pitcher, and Conan the Barbarian is a fluke game day that every other pitcher was sick, so he had to pitch, and he pitched a perfect game. Baseball metaphors! The Barbarians win the pennant!

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KS: He was also involved in the creation of Ultimate Fighting. And best of all, he was the basis for John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski. He’s essentially what would happen if a punch in the stomach took human form. Apparently Hollywood is already well into remaking Conan, which is pretty depressing, especially since they have the blander-than-Wonderbread-and-water director of the Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw remakes on board. I mean, you don’t have to make this movie good, but you do have to make it interesting. If you don’t have a woman being f—ed into a wolverine and then thrown into a fireplace, what do you have?

Tomorrow: Grab yourself a stein of beer and at least fourteen sausages for day two of Arnoldfest ’11 as we look at Commando, a touching drama about a father-daughter relationship featuring a young Alyssa Milano, a South American Dan Hedaya, and the absolute most non-threatening villain in movie history.http://img2.timeinc.net/ew/dynamic/imgs/100630/conan-musical_320.jpg

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