I’m sure you know all about Conan the Barbarian, one of the most popular fantasy movies of the eighties starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Its sequel, Conan The Destroyer, is like a lightweight version of the original, more humorous and silly. The audiences didn’t appreciate this much although the movie made more money than its predecessor. It’s been almost forty years since its release so I think it’s time to take a better look at this campy oddity.
Proudly sporting a PG rating, this movie features a lot of graphic violence, partial nudity and adult themes. Just imagine being a kid in the eighties and seeing all this. It feels similar to the whole ninja craze of the early eighties. Ahhh, it was a time of shurikens, nunchucks and awkward visits to the doctor. Just a couple of years later, PG-13 rating would appear and change the movie industry forever.
The Vision Behind Conan The Destroyer
After the huge success of the first movie, everybody knew there will be a sequel. However, since the original director John Milius wasn’t available, Richard Fleischer came onboard. He already worked with producer Dino De Laurentiis and had a good track record. The studio knew that if they play their cards right, they could end up with a lot of money. So, they decided to take on a more active role in the production. This didn’t sit too well with Fleischer and Arnie because the studios wanted to make a movie for kids.
Blown away by the huge success of E.T. they wanted to make a sword and sorcery movie that would appeal to younger audiences. Not only the director and the lead star of the movie didn’t like this idea but also the writers of the original movie, Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway. Despite all of this, Stanley Mann finished the script the studio wanted and delivered it on time. Thomas and Conway, furious over these changes later published a graphic novel “Conan: The Horn of Azoth” telling their version of the story in this format.
If you look at the story in Conan The Destroyer, it has very game-like structure. Like you’re playing a video game or Dungeons & Dragons. There are main quests, side quests, powerful items, formidable opponents, and archetypical characters are woven into this larger-than-life narrative. You could argue that Universal got exactly what it wanted, an engaging fantasy movie that all the kids are going to love. It knows perfectly well what it is and it leans heavily into this unpretentious adventurous atmosphere.
Wow, This Still Looks, Sounds and Feels Epic
Conan The Destroyer benefited greatly from the experience of its crew. Veteran director Richard Fleischer knew exactly how to use a smaller budget to its full extent. The same goes for the cinematography and music that still felt epic just as it did in the original. This is not a hastily made fantasy movie with inferior sets that look fake but a carefully planned and executed movie.
The places we will be visiting look imposing and dare I say magical. They match the atmosphere perfectly. We open with an orange, almost post-apocalyptic atmospheric shot of a distant mountain followed by a scene featuring a huge stone forest with an opening in the middle. Or just take the scenes where they’re riding through desert with that huge Mammoth skeleton in front of them.
Now, from this perspective the transitions feel too forced, something that I’m certain wasn’t a problem for our young audience in the eighties. Speaking of perspectives, they used a foreground miniature method to create the illusion the the miniature model of the fortress is sitting on top of mountain. The mountain is real by the way. Plus, you’ve got all these cool characters to look at. The swords, armors and costumes all look believable and stylish.
After all, each of the swords cost $10.000 and that says something. They have a real weight to them. The fights are not as brutal as in the original but are still relatively convincing. There are just two scenes that are a bit off. The boat ride that feels like it’s made twenty years ago and the scene where they crawl through stone rubble that’s clearly fake. Other than that, the visuals in this movie are quite impressive.
The Most Diverse Cast You’ll Ever Meet
Before there was such a thing as woke casting, Conan The Destroyer had an incredibly diverse cast. In a lead role we had Austrian actor Arnold Schwarzenegger who would go on to dominate the action genre in the coming decades. Next to him rides Wilt Chamberlain, a former basketball star in his first role ever. Joining them on this quest is Grace Jones, a controversial Jamaican rock and new wave star who also happens to be a model.
So, we’ve got one white guy, one black guy, one black girl, all we need now is a Japanese actor Mako to make this cast feel almost complete. Next to these characters, Tracey Walter, who was born in New Jersey felt too ordinary and boring. We also shouldn’t forget about Sarah Douglas of her Superman fame. You’ll have to admit that a British actress fits in nicely with the rest of the cast.
The final piece of the puzzle is young Olivia d’Abo playing the role of the virgin. This was also her first movie, just like it was for Wilt and Jones. Oddly enough, writer Roy Thomas wrote the character of Zula as a fierce black male warrior. However, the production team thought because the name of the character ended in “a” that he’s a she.
So, they contacted Grace Jones who gladly accepted the role. The script was changed to accommodate this gender switch. The supporting cast is also not to shabby featuring such giants as Andre The Giant who plays Dagoth and Pat Roach who plays the gorilla magician. What, you never heard of the gorilla magician, well, you better watch this movie.
So, What’s This Movie About?
Conan The Destroyer continues to follow the adventures of Conan The Cimmerian who this time gets a quest from Queen Taramis. If he manages to find a magical horn, queen will resurrect his dead love, Valeria. So he sets out to find it with his trusty friend thief Malak and Queen’s emissary Bombaata and his ward Princess Jehnna. Their group will slowly increase in numbers as they overcome one obstacle after another upon finally reaching their destination.
Along the way, our merry band will fight magicians, soldiers and ultimately, monsters. Monsters that don’t look so great but we have to remember that these are the eighties. At least that horn plucking scene was fucking brutal but more about that later. The villains in this movie are not as threatening or memorable as they were in the original. I guess that works well with this rather aloof atmosphere.
When it comes to humor, some of the jokes did land but they were also some unintentionally funny scenes. As you can see, the story is a pretty much straightforward fantasy affair. It sounds like a video game or a session of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s delightfully unpretentious and goofy going straight for that teenage sweet spot but more about that in the next section.
A Really Fun Shoot, At Least For Some
One of the first problems production ran into was finding the right horse for 7 ft. 1 in (2.16 m) Wilt Chamerlain. He was so tall that his feet touched the ground while riding normal horses until they brought in a special one from Spain. That wasn’t the end of troubles for him as Grace Jones whacked him a couple of times with her stick and bit him for real. During their fight the blood you see running down his neck is real as is his shock.
Grace took her role very seriously, practicing stick fighting for several months. However, this was her first movie and this is why she also sent two stuntmen to a hospital. On the other hand, Arnie said that making this movie was the best paid vacation he ever had in his life. He already knew all the ropes, two years after shooting the original one. Wilt found the costumes hilarious and every time he would look at himself as Bombaata in the mirror he would burst with laughter.
Other than that things worked out relatively fine mostly because of the vast experience of the crew. I will leave you with a final little bit of curiosity about Conan The Destroyer. The achieve the effect of cold breath, actors had to put dry ice in their mouths. Dry ice that’s quite dangerous when it comes into contact with skin. So, they made little cages for it that actors had to balance on their tongues while filming these scenes.
PG Movie That’s Not Really A PG Movie
The opening scene in Conan The Destroyer demonstrates that you’ll not be watching some toothless fantasy movie but an exciting epic. The fights are quite brutal and they even show blood squirting out of the wounds. I also found the whole fight with Dagoth really nasty. The practical effects were amazing and when Conan starts pulling his horn, it feels so visceral and realistic. Something you’re not going to see in today’s movies.
The same goes for the animal treatment that feels quite cruel at times. Horses will fall and stumble in pretty painful ways although it seems they were alright afterwards. Conan even knocks out one of them. However, that’s not the only animal he’ll be knocking out as he also clobbers one poor camel into oblivion.
Moving on, although the movie doesn’t feature nudity, it does feature scantily clad women. Grace Jones as Zula is basically half-naked the entire movie running around and jumping in her revealing “armor”. Luckily, Olivia d’Abo’s dresses are more conventional. Still, we’re talking about 14-year-old girl here! So, I think that any sexualization of her character was just too much.
Oddly enough, Wilt Chamberlain was in charge of keeping her virginity on and off the screen. The same Wilt who claims that he slept with more than 20.000 women. Both him and Arnold were very protective of her on the set and rightfully so. At least that turned out alright. Finally, I just have to mention the finale where our homeboy Arnie stuffed a couple of socks down his crotch. Just keep an eye out for that scene, it’s freaking hilarious.
What’s certainly not hilarious is the fact they’ve kissed. Arnie was 37 and Olivia was 14 at the time. To make things even stranger, her next movie is the ill-fated Bo Derek Bolero in which she appears nude. I really don’t know how this movie is still available although they could’ve just cut out scenes where she appears. Just to bring home the whole thing, Olivia later confessed in an interview that she didn’t know someone was in a monster costume on set. She thought that the monster was real. Fucking eighties man, what can I tell you.
Conclusion: Conan The Destroyer Deserves Your Attention
I know that Conan the Destroyer is not as outrageous as other movies we’ve covered in our Rabbit Reviews Blog section but it’s woefully underrated. Check out our blogs about Highlander II or Lifeforce, if you’re looking for more of that eighties craziness. I also know that the fans of the original didn’t appreciate the change in intensity but what can you do. You can look at it as Conan The Barbarian Light or Zero, whichever you prefer. The movie works fine as stylish and nostalgic distraction. And I just loved its storytelling and diverse cast.
The visuals are great and if you can, get your hands on the remastered version that looks phenomenally good. It’s also a nice segway to Red Sonja, also starring Arnie who this time teamed up with Brigitte Nielsen. Although that movie is way worse than this one, at least in my opinion. And while the formula is quite simple, we will see it many times in hugely successful Arnie movies over the next two decades.
This is actually the first movie where they heavily leaned into him being this muscular hunk of a man. He’ll be bending prison bars, lifting heavy gates, people and doing all kinds of other stuff. Plus, he’s almost nude the entire movie. This is the first thing director Richard Fleischer had in mind when he was hired. To quote him: “I made sure that Arnold was undressed 99 percent of the time.”