Blockbuster History: The world of Robert E. Howard, Part 2
Two important facts: one is that Conan the Barbarian made a whole lot of money in 1982, and kicked off a new subgenre, the sword & sorcery film, that was for a few years the genre film of choice in English-speaking parts; the other is that Conan the Barbarian was produced under the aegis of Dino De Laurentiis, a man who knew from chasing trends and capitalising on a sequel.
The third important thing isn't a fact, but a sort of a notion or hunch, which is that though Conan the Barbarian was hugely popular and influential, most of the films it influenced were a lot different: not so self-consciously serious-minded, not so deliberately epic in their scope. They were also, in the main, cheaper. So when the inevitable Conan sequel came out, it wasn't altogether in the same mold as its predecessor, taking its cues instead from the distinctly campier, funnier, friendlier movies that made up the vast majority of the sword & sorcery ranks. In other words, Conan the Destroyer is what happens when you take everything that makes Conan the Barbarian memorable, and strip it down to a light-hearted, PG-rated version of itself. In other other words, Conan the Destroyer is a ridiculously stupid and boring and generally unintelligible movie.
It suffers from the inverse narrative problem of the first movie: where Barbarian starts out as just a random series of scenes happening in chronological order, but not otherwise constituting a linear story, Destroyer proceeds in a nice, smooth, orderly fashion for a solid third of its running time. And where Barbarian eventually turned into a much more sensible quest movie around the midway point, Destroyer devolves into a cluster of confusing "this happens and then this happens and then this happens" incidents for the other two-thirds. The bigger difference between the two films is that while Barbarian made up for the parts that were a narrative shambles by being boisterous and rousing, Destroyer can't even carry off the parts that make sense: the whole thing is about as boisterous as a cold bowl of canned chicken noodle soup. The film's saving grace is that, at about 100 minutes, it's nearly a full half-hour shorter than its predecessor, so we're not subjected to it for very long.
The film opens with Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) praying to an altar of the barbarian god Crom, that his dead lover Valeria be returned to him. He is interrupted in this devotion by his new sidekick, Malak (Tracey Walter), who establishes himself within about five seconds as being a horrible, awful jackass whose function in Conan's band of adventurers is apparently to be so totally incapable of anything that it makes everybody else feel better whenever they make a mistake. And boom! we've already in the first scene run into two perfectly formed expressions of just how and why Conan the Destroyer is going to be hardly a hair on the ass of the trend-setting original. Firstly - or secondly, rather, but it's the easier one to deal with - we have in Malak the purest form of the grueling slapstick comedy that infects nearly every corner of the film, instead of the immaculately somber sword-fighting that made up most of Barbarian. Then, there's the matter of Conan's prayers.
I realise only now, only after having seen Conan the Destroyer, that I gave Conan the Barbarian a bit of a hard time when I reviewed it. Taken on the absolute scale of all movies everywhere, it's awfully dense and violent for violence's sake, but in the context of '80s barbarian pictures, it's actually pretty damn thoughtful, and one of the most well-explored corners of its philosophy is its take on religion. Conan, in that film, was something of a pagan atheist: he believed that Crom existed, sure, but he didn't have much of a connection to his chosen god, and certainly didn't believe that Crom or any other deity gave much of a shit about human beings or their troubles. It was all part and parcel of that film's overarching message that we can only rely on the things we win and defend for ourselves, and the gods deserve to be ignored far more than worshiped. It takes new screenwriter Stanley Mann and new director Richard Fleischer (whose career deserved to end far more nobly than the crappy string of pictures he was reduced to in the '80s) hardly any time to throw all that out of the window for... nothing at all, in fact, and that was my point. Conan the Destroyer doesn't replace the first film's themes and philosophies with different themes and philosophies, it replaces them with a bland quest peppered with wacky incidents.
At any rate, it comes to pass that Conan and Malak are invited by Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas) to help her in a most important quest: it seems that her virginal niece Jehnna (Olivia d'Abo, all of 14 at the time of shooting, and sexualised to a degree that is just not at all okay) has been chosen by destiny to acquire a magical gem that shows the way to the lost jeweled horn of Dagoth, the Dreaming God, the sacred deity of Sharazad, Taramis's kingdom. In exchange, Taramis will revive Valeria, and Conan can hardly say "yes" fast enough. Off he and Malak go, then, to protect Jehnna from danger; Taramis sends along her guard Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain, in his only film appearance) to protect Jehnna's purity from Conan and Malak, which is a good idea given how desperately the girl wants to jump Conan's mighty broadsword, if you know what I mean. I mean that she wants to have sex with his penis. Olivia d'Abo was 14 when this movie was made, incidentally. Did I mention that? Because she totally was. Besides defending the girl's chastity, an acting challenge for which Wilt Chamberlain was uniquely ill-suited, Bombaata is also there to kill Conan the second he's not needed, because Taramis is transparently up to No Good.
Off they go, and the party picks up a couple other members along the way. Akiro (Mako), the wizard from the first movie (only now given a name), joins after Conan saves him from cannibals. A little while later, they encounter a lady barbarian named Zula (Grace Jones, nothing but sinew and a snarl, and very much the best part of this whole movie), who is about to be stoned by some townspeople, except that even chained she's giving them a run for their money. And once Conan frees her, it's a matter of a few seconds before she levels the people trying to kill her and pledges herself to the protection of Jehnna as well. From this point on, the movie doesn't exactly stop making sense. Everything that happens mostly makes sense in terms of filling a hole in the plot. A better way of putting might be: the movie stops being sensible. We've entered the stage of the film that is largely just arbitrary happenings one by one, so that Schwarzenegger will have opportunities to swing his sword around.
It's tedious. I could wrack my brain looking for all the different ways to describe it, and never come up with a better way than that one adjective. Gone is the sense of holy-shit-this-is-amazing urgency, and it's pretty clear why: John Milius and Oliver Stone believed fervently in the story they were telling, while Fleischer and Mann did not. To them, Conan was just an inarticulate man in an indiscriminate fantasy setting. It couldn't have helped matters that they were obviously charged with making a "nicer" picture: no, Conan the Destroyer is nobody's idea of a Disney picture, but it earns its PG rating, let us say. It is still a film at the maturity level of a 12-year-old boy, but instead of being full of the things 12-year-old boys want (tits, decapitations, snake monsters), it is full of the things adult movie executives think 12-year-old boys want (loony comedy, shiny production design, a climactic monster that looks precisely like a dude in a toothy suit).
Along with that deflated anti-urgency, everything else goes away: Basil Poledouris's score is still all misty and epic and all, but so much thinner and blander than it was the last time (a crime in and of itself), and paradoxically, as Schwarzenegger became a better actor - for he is noticeably more comfortable speaking English sentences this time - he became a worse Conan, since Conan is largely just a hollering brute (in the films, at least; not, I am given to understand, in the source stories. There's really nothing at all to like about the film: as '80s sword & sorcery pictures go, it's not specifically terrible, but the genre was sufficiently puerile that "not terrible by the standards of its stablemates" is by no stretch of the imagination a compliment. Ah well. Sequeldom in the 1980s was ever thus.