Franchise Killers: Conan The Destroyer
In 1982, John Milius wrote and directed a very pulpy movie about Robert E. Howard’s fantasy character, Conan the Barbarian. Knowing that physicality was more important to his movie than actual acting ability, Milius cast athletes in the lead roles rather than actors. Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the time an ex-body builder who was struggling with English. The success of the first Conan didn’t exactly make Schwarzenegger a star, but it did crack open the door for more acting roles. Schwarzenegger was under contract to make three pictures for producer Dino De Laurentiis, so it makes sense that a sequel would follow. What’s the one role you know audiences will accept the Austrian body builder in? Conan.
But the sequel turned out to be a very different movie from the original. Conan the Barbarian was co-written by Milius and a then-unknown Oliver Stone. Milius was known as an eccentric genius in Hollywood. His tough guys sensibilities made him the perfect director for a blood-soaked sword and sorcery movie. When Milius decided not to return for a sequel, the De Laurentiis family hired Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had already directed two movies for the company and he had also directed the movie Vikings which Milius had cited as an inspiration for Conan.
The original script was written by comic book writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway. It was titled Conan, King of Thieves. Screenwriter Stanley Mann was brought on to rewrite the script. Mann was credited as the only screenwriter with Thomas and Conway getting a “story by” credit. Years later, Thomas and Conway repurposed their script as a comic book titles, Conan the Barbarian: The Horn of Azoth. In order to distance their script from the movie, most of the characters’ names were changed for the comic book.
Fleischer felt that one of the shortcomings of the original Conan was that Schwarzenegger was too covered up. For his movie, the director said, “I made sure that Arnold was undressed 99 percent of the time.” That philosophy seemed to apply to the rest of the cast as well. A 13-year-old Olivia d’Abo made her movie debut playing a princess whose virginity must be protected by Conan and his band. D’abo remarked on her costume, “I knew I was going to be scantily clad — but not this scantily clad!”
De Laurentiis had another change in mind besides reducing the costume budget, He also wanted to tone down the violence. The original movie had been rated R. But that meant a lot of kids couldn’t buy tickets. So De Laurentiis thought that a PG-rated Conan movie might sell more tickets. The original cut of Conan the Destroyer actually did receive an R-rating, but the studio cut out enough violence to secure the desired PG rating.
Like the first movie, the cast was front-loaded with athletes. Basketball legend Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain costarred as the warrior tasked with maintaining d’Abo’s status as a virgin. Yes, it’s okay to snicker in light of Chamberlain’s boasts about his love life. Hiring Chamberlain to protect a girl’s virginity is like asking Rick James to watch over your blow. It’s not a good idea. However, in this case Chamberlain was reportedly protective of his charge. He told d’Abo that if anyone gave her a hard time, he would “take care of it.”
There was one cast member that Chamberlain didn’t get along with. Reportedly, he fought with singer and model Grace Jones over the volume of her boom box. Jones repeatedly ignored Chamberlain’s requests to turn her music down. Jones played a fierce warrior who might be slightly unhinged. According to Schwarzenegger, that wasn’t acting. “That’s really her. She’s wild and crazy.”
Tracey Walter was cast as Conan’s sidekick. Walter was brought in as a last-minute replacement for David L. Lander who was struggling with the onset of multiple sclerosis. At one point, Schwarzenegger’s future Twins costar Danny DeVito was close to playing the part. Sara Douglas, who played Usa in the Superman movies, played the evil queen who is only protecting the princess so that she can be used in a sacrifice. Aside from Schwarzenegger, Mako was the only other actor to reprise a role from the original Conan. Sven-Ole Thorsen was in both Conan movies but played different characters in each one.
The minor roles were filled out with some genre regulars. Pat Roach who appeared in all three Indiana Jones movies (he’s the Nazi mechanic in Raiders and the Thugee slavemaster in Temple) played both the ice wizard Toth-Amon and the Ape-monster Conan battles in a room full of mirrors. Reportedly, d’Abo really was scared of Roach.
The movie ends with the bad guys summoning the evil deity Dagoth. The big guy in the rubber suit playing Dagoth was none other than Andre the Giant.
Unfortunately, the less violent and more scantily clad Conan sequel did not enjoy the success of the original. It still performed well enough that De Laurentis wanted to complete the trilogy. A third film, Conan the Conqueror was planned for 1987. But by then, Schwarzenegger had already filled his contractual obligation to the director. Following the success of The Terminator and Predator, Schwarzenegger wasn’t interested in returning to the genre. Eventually, the script for the third Conan movie was reworked into Kull the Conqueror which starred Kevin Sorbo as a very Conan-like character who was also created by Robert E. Howard.
Since then, there have been attempts to revive Conan. John Milius came close to reviving the series in 2002. Milius’s script would have been called King Conan: Crown of Iron. Unfortunately, this attempt was derailed when Schwarzenegger decided to pursue a career in politics. In 2011, Conan was rebooted with Jason Momoa taking over for Schwarzenegger. It flopped ending hopes of continuing the series. But once Schwarzenegger retired from politics, it was announced that he would at long last return to the role that proved he could manage just enough English to pass as an actor.
Let’s break this down:
How many movies in the series? 2
How many of them were good? 1
Health of the franchise before it died? Strong
Likelihood of a reboot? There has already been one and Schwarzenegger is scheduled to return for Legend of Conan.
Any redeeming value? Oh yeah. Tons! And not just d’Abo either. Conan fights a guy in a gorilla mask in a room full of mirrors. This movie is so bad it’s terrific.