Right now Alexander Skarsgård is on a roaring rampage of revenge as Amleth in Robert Eggers’ The Northman, carving his way through Dark Ages Iceland to wreak terrible vengeance on the man who killed his father. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Eggers is drawing on a number of older narratives for his arthouse Viking epic, but chief among them is John Milius’ powerful, perverse, and problematic Conan the Barbarian, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
Adapted from the stories by pulp legend Robert E. Howard and beaten into feature-length shape by Milius and co-writer Oliver Stone, Conan the Barbarian sees Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular reaver, orphaned and sold into slavery when his village is sacked by the villainous warrior-priest Thulsa Doom (a magnetic James Earl Jones).
rom there we follow him on his adventures as a gladiator and thief, finding comradeship with archer Subotai (Gerry Lopez, one of Milius’ surfing buddies) and love with warrior woman Valeria (dancer Sandahl Bergman, who was recommended by Bob Fosse) before finally taking his revenge—and Thulsa’s head—in the film’s Wagnerian climax.
Which all sounds pretty rote, but fantasy was an unloved screen genre in 1982, and if any single film can be said to have rehabilitated the genre’s reputation, it’s Conan the Barbarian. As Richard Donner had earlier grasped with 1978’s Superman and later filmmakers would apply to the entire superhero subgenre, the trick to mounting a genre work successfully is to take it seriously—keep the tongue far from the cheek and approach the matter earnestly.