Conan the Destroyer went into production with some fundamental problems hardwired in.
It was one of the first movies that basically said, “screw the old core audience of the franchise. We want a new and better one.” It is easily the silliest of attitudes you can have when making a franchise production. Yet, it is one that has proven to be profoundly pervasive today.
This odd belief that all you need from the last story is the title, and a new audience will follow, despite the fact that they weren’t interested the first time around, seems to be nearly an article of religious faith in the modern entertainment industry. Despite the fact that it invariably leaves the core fanbase wandering away muttering, “what the fuck?”
And if you are going to try something this dumb then it is imperative that you make sure your new movie is actually, you know, good.
Conan the Destroyer failed rather badly at this last point.
Movie begins. The nameless wizard, who now actaully has a name, (it’s “Akiro” for some reason) is reading an abbreviated version of the Nemdian Chronicles opening, “Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
I know it wasn’t practical to include the whole thing but it would have set the proper atmosphere. Although, I suppose the fact that they severely truncated it, also set a mood.
That mood, unfortunately, was continued as the opening credits rolled. The soundtrack which was such an integral part of the first Conan movie, sounded very tinny this time. It was influenced by the last film score but felt like a cheap pastiche.
The horsemen galloping across the screen, filmed through a ruddy, cinnamon-colored filter, helped things a little. That actually did look good and felt more in keeping with the Hyborean world.
We first see a much more buff looking Conan kneeling before a stone altar dressed in a furry and comically overstuffed banana hammock. Richard Fleischer had wanted Schwarzenegger to be as big and ripped as Conan was in the comics. John Milius, had had Arnold slim down as he wanted his version of Conan to look more like a warrior than a body builder. I’ll give Fleisher credit where it’s due, time has found his version to be the more iconic one.
The horsemen quietly surround Conan and his little buddy the clown-thief. They attack. And what little promise the opening shot had vanished. Conan spoke.
Malik: We must have made the Merchant angry!
Conan: Are you, surprised?
Malik: We didn’t steal everything he had!
Conan: We didn’t have time.
In Conan the Barbarian, the first dialog we hear is Conan’s father telling him about Crom and the Riddle of Steel. This established a tone that was consistent though out the entire film
In Conan the Destroyer, this “comedic” exchange, immediately neutralized any tension that was built up by the horsemen galloping up in the previous scene. Conan was now going to be “funny.” And honestly, this was so thickly delivered that Dino may as well have telegrammed the audience in advance to let them know when they were supposed to laugh.
Fight scene begins and Malik the clown-thief reveals himself to be a backstabbing coward. Fine, whatever. What we also see at this point is that Richard Fleischer was drastically behind the power curve on contemporary fight scenes. There were frequent slow-motion shots, to show off Arnold doing something spectacular, like pull a couple riders trying to net him, out their saddles. These shots were good in their day but by 1984, slow-mo in an action scene killed the momentum for a Generation-x audience.
Admittedly, I don’t know how much of this was ordered by Dino DeLaurentis to try and appeal to adolescent viewers. But this is a Richard Fleischer film, his name is on it so he has to answer for it in a way that David Lynch doesn’t for Dune.* And they both had the same crazy boss.
The other issue with the action scenes were frequent, jump-zooms on various characters, which showed their faces rather than what they were doing. This didn’t work with Arnold back then. He needed firmer direction like he had with Conan the Barbarian. In Conan the Destroyer these shots just made him look comically googly-eyed.
Conan dispatches the baddies and the villainess introduces herself. She is on a recruiting mission and promises to return Conan’s dead (uh) wife (I think) Valeria to life. Okay, Conan was never a mental giant but he wasn’t that trusting either. He shouldn’t have taken her at her word for it but does so because the movie needs him to.
They ride into town and there is more clumsy humor. For some unexplained reason the crowd turns out to cheer Conan’s entry into the city, and again, there is no justification as to why they should react this way to a Cimmerian desert bandit. Also, they steal a joke from the first movie, which was itself stolen from Blazing Saddles.
And again there is such a long wind up for “Conan punches another camel” that no one over the age of eight would have laughed at it.
Parade is over and the Queen briefs Conan on his mission. Her niece has been born with a special mark (which they forgot to show), which means she has to go to a magic castle on a fetch-quest, so she can get a MacGuffin that will allow her to go on another fetch-quest.** She also has to be sacrificed at the end to bring the Dreaming God, Dagoth back to life but she didn’t tell Conan about that, since she plans to kill him anyway. He has to take Princess Jenna and her bodyguard Bombata with him.
I also, don’t know why they made such a big deal out of Jenna needing to be a virgin when she’s sacrificed. Okay, sure the virginity part is a standard trope but her cherry was never once placed in danger. Not by Conan, not by bandits, not by Wilt Chamberlain (who was rather ironically playing a eunuch). The eunuch thing was another leftover from the previous version of the script and probably left the audience’s confused when Princess Jenna says that Bombata isn’t “a real man.” It was such a vague statement that the viewer couldn’t help but wonder if she felt Bombata was a sub-human because he’s black.
Again, it had been turned into a kid’s movie so there was no real need to leave any of this stuff in. It was clumsy and it just wasted time for no reason.
They ride out.
Conan rescues the shaman from the first movie from cannibals. It was another boring fight scene with a lot of quick zooms featuring googly-eyed-Arnold. Plus a slow-mo head spinning, which was something I guess.
Then the fifth member of this Nekama (yes, the use the word is sarcastic) is recruited. I have no idea where Hollywood’s mid-Eighties obsession with Grace Jones came from. She couldn’t act and if you wanted a black woman there were much better-looking ones available. Seriously, I don’t get why she was such a thing back then. She couldn’t move tickets. Her “music” was about as popular as Yoko Ono’s and no one sane wanted to have sex with her. But somebody at Universal must have thought she was hot because we got to see lots and lots of shots of her ass in this “kid’s movie.”
Team Conan is now assembled, so they start their first fetch-quest.
The first MacGuffin is a jewel and it’s guarded by the Wizard Toth-Amon. When I first saw this in the theater back in 1984, I immediately forgave the movie for everything. I was too fast off the blocks there.
Toth-Amon was Conan’s recurring villain in the Marvel’s The Savage Sword of Conan. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, title, was a proper comic book and thus subject to the Comic Book Code. Savage Sword was a “magazine,” and as such was NOT. It was much more graphic, with plenty of blood, tasteful nudity, and frequent decapitations. It was everything my grandmother thought comic books were in 1955 and I felt they should have been when I was a kid.
And Toth-Amon was a great bad guy. A perfect foil for Conan.
Conan was physically powerful and Toth-Amon was a legendary sorcerer. Gifted in the Dark Arts and morally flexible in their use. Toth was civilized and Conan was savaged. The Barbarian had cunning, the Stygian had vast other worldly knowledge. They were born to be a Cobra and Mongoose act.
And it was terrible. The big duel was just a wrestling match with a guy in a rubber-mask. Then Conan kills him. So, much for Toth-Amon. I don’t know why they used him.
They go off on the second fetch quest and are briefly waylaid by the queen’s guard in yet a third action scene that does it’s best to avoid showing the effects of sword fighting. Conan punched another horse.
Anyway, Jenna uses the jewel to retrieve the Horn of Dagoth. Conan’s five-man band then runs into the Keepers of the Horn of Dagoth, who declare their peaceful intent to keep the horn and girl for themselves. And Conan suddenly remembers, oh yeah, I’m a barbarian and shouts, “ENOUGH TALK!”
It was the only decent action scene in the movie and credit where it’s due they made the most of it.
It did its job. It was good little choppy-choppy sequence and Bombata was made out to be a very creditable threat to Conan. When they had their showdown in the climax the tension is real because you buy him as an opponent.
Anyway, Bombata betrays the team and takes Jenna back to be sacrificed. The sacrifice gets messed up. Dagoth turns into Andre the Giant. There is another wrestling match. Wilt dies, the Queen dies, Dagoth dies. What is left of the Nekama stay on with Queen Jenna and Conan turns down her offer of marriage because it felt more awkward and out of the blue than Kylo and Rey’s first kiss.
Was there anything I liked?
The fight scene in the temple, as I already said. It should be mentioned that Wilt Chamberlain did better than should have been expected for a first performance. Scenes with Jenna were tender enough that I was honestly surprised that Bombata didn’t betray the Queen and try to save Jenna at the end.
The costuming was excellent and very much on point. ***
The rest of the it was like Grace Jone’s butt, obvious, over-exposed and unwanted.
Okay, I’m done here.
*Dune was directed by David Lynch but so hated the cuts DeLaurentis made and took his name off of it. It was officially directed by Alan Smithee. The pseudonym that directors used to use when they demanded their name be removed from a project.
** I don’t have anything against this. I’m just a little overly sensitive to them after the Rise of Skywalker.
*** Conan the Destroyer was shot in Mexico and the costumes and sets stayed there when production wrapped. This lead directly to a plethora of super-cheap, direct to video, sword and sorcerer movies in the Eighties. While in the foreground, Princess Bosom-Flowers is getting her top ripped off by the evil Lord Brun-ock, you can spot the Conan costuming on the extras in the background of these flicks.