When his mother and father are killed in a raid by the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom, Conan is sent to a slave camp. As the years pass, he develops into a powerfully-built man, still determined to get revenge for his parents' death and solve the riddle of steel. He learns that Thulsa Doom is the head of a mysterious snake cult and in his attempts to get closer to the evil sorceror Conan makes some powerful friends and many deadly enemies.
Given the mythic nature of Conan The Barbarian's eponymous musclebound hero it is perhaps not surprising that the film itself has generated a greater than average mythology. There is the story, for example, of toy company Mattel who were intending to market a range of Conan action figures until they saw the blood-soaked final product and opted out. By then, however, they were lumbered with several hundred thousand effigies of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Desperate to recoup some money, Mattel revamped the dolls and came up with a very different kind of icon: He-Man.
Then there's the one about how Schwarzenegger and Conan producer Dino De Laurentiis first met. At the time the Italian was trying to cast the lead of Flash Gordon and believed that the then largely unknown bodybuilder might be just the man for the job. As Schwarzenegger biographer Nigel Andrews later wrote, "The meeting is said to have lasted one minute 40 seconds. According to Arnold, Dino had time only to comment, 'You have an accent! I cannot use you for Flash-a Gordon! Nah! Flash-a Gordon has no accent!' Arnold retorted, 'I have an accent? I can't even understand you!'" De Laurentiis, however, is not a man to bear a grudge — at least not when doing so might stand in the way of making money — and had few problems with the casting of Arnold as the decidedly un-American Conan.
Ironically, Sam J Jones, who was eventually cast as Flash Gordon, had his entire part dubbed by another actor. The original Depression-era Conan comic had been written by Robert E. Howard who, like Schwarzenegger, transformed himself through bodybuilding from skinny pup into an adult hulk before blowing his brains out at the age of 30. By then, however, Conan's rampaging his way through ancient lands, beating to a pulp as many people as he could get his hands on, had captured the public's imagination.
And who better to put him there than John Milius, who had already proved his empathy for myth with films like Dillinger (1973) and The Wind And The Lion (1975) But, after showing initial interest, Milius disappeared to make his surf epic Big Wednesday (1978). For a while Conan co-writer Oliver Stone was in the frame to direct. Other names considered included completed work on Big Wednesday, the director re-attached himself to the project. Filming eventually began in January 1981.
But the shoot would prove to be a difficult one, in part due to the number of stunts involved but also because, as De Laurentiis had feared years before, Schwarzenegger's accent rendered some passages of dialogue virtually incomprehensible. Ultimately, many of the actor's lines were redubbed or cut completely. Moreover, while the Austrian Oak's swordplay proved Ralph Bakshi, Ridley Scott and Hal Needham who directed Schwarzenegger in The Villain. "I read the script," recalls Needham, "I didn't understand it. I said, 'Shit Arnold, I can't do this.' Big mistake. 'Cos I haven't been asked back to do anything else."
Needham's loss would prove to be Milius' gain when, having impressive, his foes tended to be less so, in particular a giant snake that, even in pre-CGI times, couldn't have looked less realistic if it had "Made in Taiwan" stamped across its scales. Yet, the seriousness with which Milius took proceedings — a good indication of which is his prefacing the whole shebang with a quote from Nietszche — elevated the enterprise far beyond both its pulp origins and technical limitations. The result, which finds Schwarzenegger tracking down the snake cult leader who killed his parents, may at times border on camp but it is never tongue-in-cheek. In fact, the director had originally planned on making a film, "As serious as Star Wars," and, even if he never quite achieved those lofty heights, the end product remains a truly epic piece of action-heavy myth-making. Indeed, seen today, Conan eerily resembles such epics as El Cid (1961), Ben-Hur (1959) or virtually any other vintage Charlton Heston movie you'd care to mention — a similarity that is by no means coincidental.
"I told Arnold, 'look at Charlton Heston,'" says Milius. '"He's always bigger than life. And if you look at his career he was very smart in picking things to play that way. In The Greatest Story Ever Told he's John The Baptist — and he plays him like Conan!'"
Still immensely popular 40 years on, Conan was always going to be a natural for the big screen.