Robert E Howard is often credited with inventing the sword and sorcery genre with the introduction of one of the all-time great fantasy characters, Conan the Barbarian. This was way back in the early 1930s. Writer Karl Wagner describes sword and sorcery as, "...a fascinating synthesis of horror, adventure, and imagination...the common motif is a universe in which magic works and an individual may kill according to his personal code." The atmosphere of sword and sorcery is charged with violence, darkness, sexuality, and supernatural perils. The themes of the stories often reach deep into the abyss of cosmic horror and dread. It takes quite a hero to stride undaunted and undeterred across this landscape!
In the early 1980s Conan got his first film. It launched Arnold Schwarzenegger's career. It was a brilliant film, flawed, but it soared above its flaws. It has been often imitated since then, yet most of those efforts failed miserably.
Why do imitation films fail in this genre? Because they focus on the half-naked babes, the half-naked muscle bound (and often angry) hero, the violent fights, the wizards with special effects at their fingertips, as if this were enough. But they fail to capture the fundamental and necessary element of the genre - a subtle atmosphere of the supernatural and the uncanny. There must be a credible, ever-present but not over-done supernatural theme pervading the setting. The darkness, the pathos, the sense of horror necessary for the genre entered for a few moments of the film. The witch, the wizard, the evil priest of the snake cult, the cultist's suicide, the scene where the spirits are trying to steal Conan's soul, the occasional banter about the gods, the orgy...all of these elements capture the proper atmosphere. The sorcery is not overblown, nor is it all about special effects. Few S&S movies get this right. Conan the Barbarian shows how it is done.
There are a few issues with the movie that will bother Conan purists but all in all, I imagine Robert Howard would be happy with this Conan. A few of the scenes were right out of his stories - the crucifixion tree, the ghostly help from a dead girlfriend, gigantic snakes, thieves climbing a mysterious tower. Sadly missing are the monstrous man-apes, or unnatural creatures summoned out of the abyss by sorcerers, both of which feature prominently in Conan stories.
The music is awesome, James Earl Jones and Sandahl Bergman are fabulous. And of course Arnold is perfect. I keep hoping for another great Sword and Sorcery movie like this one and there are no contenders as of yet.