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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 5/18/00

Conan the Barbarian

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Conan the Barbarian: Collector's Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs
Conan the Barbarian
Collector's Edition - 1981 (2000) - Universal

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/A+

Specs and Features:

130 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray keep case packaging, featurette Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan, audio commentary (with director/co-writer John Milius and star Arnold Schwarzenegger), split screen special effects comparison of "Wizard's Spell" sequence from chapter 12, The Conan Archives (featuring production drawings, production photos and publicity material), 6 deleted scenes, cast and crew bios, production notes, 2 theatrical trailers, film-themed menu screens with animation and sound, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English and French

Conan the Barbarian (original version)

Conan the Barbarian
1981 (1998) - Universal

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D-/B+/B

Specs and Features:

126 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, cast and crew bios, production notes, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Spanish and French

Since I'll be talking a lot about myself in this review, to avoid the angry e-mails about what this has to with DVD, I decided to give you a chance to back out now. If you have no desire to read any of my comments about myself and my connections to the films I review, you might want to turn around now and read something else on our site. But if you so desire, here's the full story about how much I love Conan the Barbarian and why.

Still here? Well, let's go.

When most kids were off flying their plastic TIE Fighters around or marveling at how large Han Solo's plastic head was, I was out in the woods, swinging something metal around and trying my best to be a barbarian. Once, I even got in trouble for saying "Crom" at the dinner table. My mother was so reactionary... even when she didn't know what it meant. But that's the rule for most mothers, I suppose - if you don't know what it means, it must be a swear word. Anyway, for a whole generation of kids, Star Wars is the thing that turned them on to film and mythologies in general. But my savior was a Cimmerian thief and warrior named Conan.

A neighbor friend, who had a whole collection of beat up paperback books, first turned me on to Conan. I was utterly fascinated by a painting in his living room done by artist Frank Frazetta, and I had to ask more about it. The image showed a man chained to a floor with a giant snake rising above him. For an eleven-year-old kid, that's a pretty hard image to shake. Without really saying anything, he just handed me a stack of books and sent me on my way. Now there's two ways a fascination like this can go. Just like Star Wars, there's a good side and a bad side to Conan. The good side, is that you start chasing down the books and all the artwork Frazetta did featuring Conan and other fighters. This is what I did. The bad way to go, is to start chasing down Molly Hatchet records that feature the same Frazetta art. Thankfully, I never did this. Sure, I listened to the one with Frazetta's Snow Giants (large Vikings swinging battle-axes) on the cover... but I didn't like the music and was not tempted over to the dark side of Conan.

Keep in mind, that all this was a little bit post the Conan the Barbarian movie, circa 1982. Until this point, I had a fair share of Star Wars toys, peppered with Planet of the Apes dolls, Mego superheroes, Kiss dolls and anything else worth playing with. But it was an empty experience. I was simply going through the motions. I just didn't like Star Wars that much as a movie. I know... sacrilege! How dare you!?! George Lucas is God! Blah, blah, blah. Sure, I liked the toys enough, but didn't like one thing about the movies. Jaws was cool. I liked Jaws. I even had the Jaws game where you had to fish out the garbage from his stomach without dropping his mouth down. But movie-wise, there really wasn't something I could call my true "awakening" film experience until I saw Conan.

The only problem with all this was, I wasn't allowed to see the film for multiple reasons, the biggest being the reports of animal cruelty in the making of the film (they're all false, by the way, Mom). And so my first taste of Conan on screen was gained from sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to catch a late-night showing of the film on HBO. Once I was sure that no one had heard me creeping around, I would press my head up against the TV's speakers (set to minimal volume) and watch the worms-eye image, both fascinated and in total fear that I would be caught. For some kids, getting caught masturbating was the driving force of fear. For me, it was being caught watching movies that my parents told me that I couldn't see until I was 18. Bah! I have thousands of stories about which forbidden movies I saw and how I saw them... but I'll save 'em for another review.

This is a long way to go to set up a review I know, but this an important film for me. For some, it sucks. For others, it rocks. But for me, it's a shining light in my life and one that I forever will be indebted to, because it made me see what I wanted to do with my life. Be something. So with all that said, we now return to the review portion of The Digital Bits. Below is my review of Conan the Barbarian. And when you read it, you'll know it's coming from someone who loves this movie more than most love Star Wars. That a pretty bold statement, but I'm writing this review, so deal. Here at the Bits, we are all, first and foremost, fans of film. And that's a personal thing. So here we go...

"Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And onto this, Conan, destined to bear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!"

Conan starts like most myths... with a message. It's a time before recorded history, The Hyborean Age, and a young Conan and his father sit high above the Earth on a mountain top. His father has just fashioned a glorious sword, and explains to him about gods and the riddle of steel. He sets up most of what Conan will know in his life, besides the pain and the loss: "No one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts. This you can trust." "This" is a sword. And "this" does no good against an attack by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his squadron of berserker followers of the Set cult.

When Doom and his men enter town, they seemingly come for two things: well-crafted swords (a rare commodity in this world) and the children. Laying to waste everything else, including Conan's mother and father, Conan is ushered to his new home for the next 10 or 12 years - the wheel of pain. His life will be spent walking in a circle, pushing on a wheel that grinds wheat grains to dust. It's not much of a life, but it's one that provides Conan with a lot of time to think and reflect on his plans to kill Thulsa Doom.

When Conan get big enough (filled out by Arnold Schwarzenegger), he is sold as a slave to wage battle each night as a pit fighter - a gladiator of sorts. The fight is to the death, using weapons that look like they could kill the person wearing them as easily as they kill the opponent. But Conan is a born fighter, and he has a reason to live through each of these battles - he knows that he must have his revenge against Doom. And after years of mastering many forms of war and fighting skills, his master releases him. The why is never explained, but the best guess would be he knows Conan's skill is getting to the point that he could kill everyone involved and walk whenever he wants. Thus, Conan sets upon on the road to vengeance and a trail of adventure.

On his journey, he meets rouge Mongol Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the queen of thieves Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). They join forces with him on a mission ordered by Osric (Max Von Sydow), a King they get caught stealing from. He wants them to get his daughter back from the Set cult... lead by one Thulsa Doom. If they do this, they will get a reward fit for a king or queen. Well, here you go... nothing like killing two birds with one stone. Conan, has the chance to get riches AND revenge. But it's not going to be as easy as it sounds. People will die, and plans will change. But one thing is to be certain - Conan will not stop until he accomplished his goal.

The film itself has some problems - I won't deny that. It's just as flawed as any adventure film. The acting is bad in spots (proof can be found in chapter 6, when Conan meets Subotai for the first time), the effects could be better and there are some large plot holes. But the same can be said about a certain film directed by George Lucas. I'm not going to name names, but I think you catch my drift. Conan itself is pulled together from material taken from the books I mentioned above, as well as some stuff made up by John Milius and Oliver Stone (yes... the guy who directed Platoon wrote this). There are also some elements of various myths and historical stories of people like Ghengis Khan. It all comes together nicely, even if it's not truly the Conan from the books. What are you going to do? I love both incarnations.

The real appeal for this film is its killer soundtrack. When I think of soundtracks that just really stand out, I have two favorites: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Conan the Barbarian. This score was written by Basil Poledouris and words can't describe it. It's beautiful, powerful... and it IS Conan the Barbarian. If you know the film, then you either know what I'm talking about or you think I'm a crazy man. But if you've never checked this film out, wait until you see the collector's edition DVD coming out from Universal.

The original DVD version of Conan the Barbarian is one of the most embarrassing discs to ever rear its ugly head on this format. It's not just that it looks horrid, which it does (although I've seen worse). The problem is that this movie just screams out to be taken care of properly. You don't dump Conan on disc. Well... you can dump Conan the Destroyer and no one's going to bat an eyelash. But Conan the Barbarian deserves better. So I basically kept the original version hidden away in a black box, lest it contaminate all the other discs I have. What a crushing disappointment! So imagine my surprise when I come home one day and (as if a warrior god had come to my home to bring me a treasure) I had this beautiful DVD sitting in my mailbox. I actually had no idea that Universal was working on a special edition. Fight Club, this ain't... but THIS is the disc that should have come out back in 1998 - not that other piece of digital trash.

The video comparison is like night and day. To start with, this new DVD boasts a wonderful anamorphic widescreen transfer, which is lacking on the earlier version. Where the original has inaccurate colors, blacks that worm with artifacting and tons NTSC noise, this new edition has none of those problems. The colors are beautiful. Just look at the skies right from the start, or the color of young Conan's lips - it's all so much more natural looking. The blacks and contrasts are perfect, and you can hardly make out the grain. I've truly never seen this flick looking as it does here.

On the audio side, these discs are pretty much the same. Both feature an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. It does what it has to do, and not much more. But it does at least sound clear, with no snaps, crackles or pops. The really odd thing here, is that the original DVD has subtitles in English, French and Spanish, but this new edition drops the Spanish subs. Why? That's just crazy. In any case, unless you're deaf and Spanish, you have no reason to keep the original edition around.

But the true power of this new disc (as if increased video quality wasn't enough), is a bucket load of extras. There's a commentary track with Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Milius, in which they discuss EVERYTHING you'd want to know about the film. Arnold is even quite funny here... and not always intentionally so. There's also a documentary that covers every aspect of the film, from the original screenplay by Stone (and his plan for a new Conan film every year) to the fact that no animals were hurt producing this film (see... I told you Mom). It's actually very well done and is one of my new favorite documentaries. Cap all that off with an archive of production and publicity art, an effects demo, a bunch of production photos, 6 deleted scenes (also seen in the doc, but isolated here) and a loop of trailers for the film, and you have one rockin' DVD special edition. Oh... and the production notes and bios featured on the original edition are replicated here. You can't beat this, man. Not even with a barbarian's sword.

For many out there, there is a single moment that you can pinpoint when your perspective broadened and your life changed course. Some had that awakening in May of 1977. I had mine the first time I saw that Frazetta painting. Maybe you're like me, and Conan the Barbarian is an important film in your life. Or maybe not. All of our most important film experiences are different, but all of them - all of them - unite us. So mine was Conan. Bill's was Star Wars and Brad's was The Goonies. It doesn't matter, because we all love movies and we all love DVD. That's what brings us together, and that's what keeps us doing what we're doing. So I hope that all of your personal film treasures find their way to DVD... and get the treatment they deserve. If The Digital Bits has anything to say about it, they will.

Todd Doogan

Conan the Barbarian: Collector's Edition

Conan the Barbarian

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