Music has never been a big part of my life. That may seem very weird to most people, but it’s true. I never owned any music CDs, and the total cumulative time I spent listening to music as a teenager may be best represented by the Arabic numeral that resembles a circle (namely 0). In later years I’ve tried to experiment a little, and perhaps one of the things that has best helped me to understand and appreciate the role of music have been film soundtracks. Coming across the Alan Smithee cut of Dune helped immensely, demonstrating that it was no use having extra scenes if the mood of the movie was mutilated by a mistimed and mangled soundtrack.
Which takes me onto today’s scene. It may not be a popular opinion, but I genuinely believe Conan the Barbarian is a work of art, something that stands far above the standard Sword and Sorcery film of the 80s (I enjoy many of those too, but they are guilty pleasures). That’s not to say it doesn’t have have silly and schlocky stuff in it, as well as several scenes that are perhaps best skipped over. But I do not think the film as a whole has received the critical reaction it has deserved. Its cinematography is amazing (and from what I understand actually rediscovered some lost camera techniques), the battle scenes are clear and exciting, and there are a number of good performances (including – at least some of the time – from Arnold himself).
But perhaps one of the reasons it has been so under-appreciated (but one of the reasons I love it) is that its approach to story telling is so different from that of most films made in the West. There’s very little dialogue. Rather the burden of the story telling falls on the occasional monologue by the really good actors (Max von Sydow, James Earl Jones and so on), and upon the soundtrack itself. Basil Poledouris created for this film what I think is the greatest film soundtrack of all time, not least because how well integrated it is to the story telling in the film itself.
But since it is better to show rather than tell (or in this case, show and tell), here’s one particular scene that stands out, coming shortly after Conan has been freed by his slave master:
There’s so much I could say about this scene. It starts off with some silly patented Arnie sounds as he falls down the hole, which I’m sure connoisseurs of “eeaaarrrggghhh” really appreciate. After that however, as Conan finds himself in this tomb of the ancient world, the scene becomes achingly beautiful. The ability of this scene to evoke such a particular atmosphere – one filled with awe and mystery – dwarfs what I’ve seen in any other comparable fantasy film. It’s common for youtube comments to make statements like “they don’t make films like this any more”, but the truth is that few people made any films like this at all. And underpinning the scene, creating the atmosphere and telling the story is Poledouris’ soundtrack, for only one word is actually spoken in the entire (“Crom!”).
It’s such a wonderfully evocative piece. The low notes seem to me as if they could be the actual voices of the dead kings, speaking low out of the dust. There is an air of long-forgotten, long-dead power and grandeur. Then Conan finds the sword, which seems fitting, considering the role of swords both in mythology generally, and especially the role of steel as a motif throughout this film. As Conan attempts to uncover the sword, the skeleton of the ancient monarch moves. In a more generic Sword and Sorcery flick (indeed, possibly in the original short stories), the skeleton would attack. But here it does not: it slumps over, its helm falling to the ground, its head bowed. The movement is ambiguous: it could simply be coincidence, the result of disturbing the body. And yet at the same time it appears as if the ancient king is paying respect to Conan, passing on the sword to its new inheritor. The soundtrack shifts, almost to one of mourning and of lost glories. It is at this point Arnold says his one line, but “Crom!” here is not simply an exclamation. Conan is being reminded of what his father taught him before his village got wiped out: of Crom, deep in the earth, of the riddle of steel and how men learned its secret.
Up to this point, Conan has still been a slave. While he had been freed by his former master, he did not actually want to go, and had to be driven away. While instructed in many arts, his will has been forgotten, and so it is fitting that to this point his still has his shackles on him, for he still wears slavery’s shackles on his mind. But with this sequence, claiming the sword also seems to be a reclamation of his identity and will. “What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” asks the villain, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) later in the film, and here the sword appears to be a symbol of strength of will and character that Conan now reclaims. As the music moves to a triumphant note, it is fitting that as Conan now emerges from the tomb he uses the sword to strike the remaining shackles from his feet, a slave no longer. All this, in a sequence that has but one spoken word. One may almost not notice how the breaking of the shackles is perfectly choreographed with the soundtrack.
And rather hilariously, we see the wolves move to attack, Conan give a determined look… and then in the next scene (not shown above), we see him wearing wolf-skins… I honestly love this film.
Edit: And for a critical take that does engage with the film as more than it is often caricatured as, I’ve come across this article here: A Critical Appreciation of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian by David C. Smith