Conan the Barbarian is a film from 1982 starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan, the fictional, fantasy hero created by Robert E. Howard in 1932. Conan the Barbarian was quite the surprise. Not having seen the film in years, and expecting it to be decent, my eyes were treated with a well-paced, Sword & Sorcery adventure; quite the opposite of Hercules in New York.

The opening of the film includes an origin story; Conan as a child learning about the “Riddle of Steel” from his father, who is forging a sword that will one day be Conan’s. Shortly after the opening, Stygian raiders attack the village and promptly kill all the adults, including Conan’s father. Conan’s mother attempts to protect young Conan but ultimately has her head chopped off by her Husband’s own blade by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). Conan and the remaining children are gathered and sold into slavery.

arnold conan the barbarian movie action robert e howard
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.

After years of pushing a wheel of pain (a grain wheel), Conan grows into a colossal man and is thrown into a gladiator pit, where he becomes a furious warrior. Eventually, his strength and wins in the pit takes Conan east to be trained in the secrets of warfare, language, writing, philosophy, and woman by his owner.

“What is best in life? Conan!”

“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”

Conan The Cimmerian

Eventually freed by his owner, Conan is now off on a quest to find the man that murdered his family and village. Along his travels, Conan meets some allies, who all make up a pretty standard D&D/RPG party:

  • Subotai – a thief and archer
  • Valeria – another thief and warrior
  • The Wizard – a…wizard (and narrator of the film)

New allies and love thwart Conan’s original plan for revenge. The group starts out as simple thieves looking to make some coin and wind up on a quest to save a King’s daughter. A few run-ins with Thulsa Doom and his captains, along with some deaths and fun battles make up the rest of this very satisfying, low fantasy, adventure.

If only looking at the movie as Sword and Sorcery, fantasy, fun. Conan the Barbarian, holds up quite well for a film from 1982.

It’s a fun ride, with great swordplay action and some legit comic relief. If that’s as much as you’re looking for, then you will not be disappointed; while you may not catch it on the first watch, there is quite a bit of depth to Conan the Barbarian. There are hints at philosophy throughout. Before a single scene is shown, the viewer is shown the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche’s slightly misquoted line, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”.

conan the barbarian riddle of steel
Conan contemplates the riddle of steel.

Many times throughout his hero’s journey, Conan must endure pain and suffering: the loss of both his parents, his life as a slave, and gladiator fighter. Conan must physically, become the strongest, so that he may live. His drive is revenge for the death of his loved ones.

But, Conan evolves from more than just a revengeful barbarian; answering the “riddle of steel”, a subject that is mentioned multiple times over the course of the film, is Conan’s true goal in life. Conan’s father teaches his son about the riddle as he is forging the sword; “No one in this world can you trust…this you can trust”, as he shows Conan his sword. Ironically Conan’s mother loses her head to that very sword. Steel cannot be the answer to the riddle.

Thulsa Doom’s interpretation of the riddle of steel — “steel isn’t strong…flesh is stronger”, meaning that if you control those who wield the steel, you wield the real power. But Conan sees that this is not the answer either, as his lover, Valeria, dies. Flesh is weak!

The riddle of steel must be answered correctly at death, to enter the gates of Valhalla. At the end of the film, Valeria comes back from death, clad in shining armor, and saves Conan from an attack that would have surely killed him. Valeria must have known the answer to the riddle! Earlier in the film, with Conan returning from the verge of death, Valeria makes a promise to Conan that even if she were dead, she would come back to fight alongside Conan to help him fight for his life. Is the riddle of steel, love? Willpower? Ultimately, Conan is able to defeat Thulsa Doom, so he must have figured out the answer to the riddle of steel. We, the viewer are never outright given the answer, so it is something fun to ponder.

I quite enjoyed Conan the Barbarian. I consider it a must-watch film for Arnold Schwarzenegger fans.

I rate on a 5-Star Scale:

1 – Awful – Stay Away
2 – Bad – Didn’t like it
3 – Okay – Mixed bag
4 – Great – Really enjoyed it
5 – Amazing – Must watch

Conan the Barbarian gets a 4/5.

Is this the best fantasy adventure I have ever seen? No, but I enjoyed my multiple watches of it. It’s a fun time and a little digging brings out some interesting philosophy to think about.

Next up will be a review for Conan the Destroyer. Check out all the film and television appearances Arnold made before Conan the Barbarian.