Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
Those days surely include Arnold Schwarzenegger providing another grand achievement in film commentary, and though we’ve already covered Total Recall, we weren’t going to let that little fact stand in our way of checking in with Arnie once again this week. The commentary the Governator recorded with director John Milius for Conan the Barbarian has gone down in history as one of the greats, a true wonder to behold. It’s the movie that made Arnold a star, and he thankfully provides a commentary as awesome as the movie itself.
But, in case you aren’t ready to behold it just yet, we’ve got you covered. So here, by the will of Crom, are all 33 things we learned while listening to the Conan the Barbarian commentary – that is, besides crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentation of their women. That comes later.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Commentators: John Milius (director), Arnold Schwarzenegger (really? It’s Arnold), the guidance and power of Crom
- So, the commentary starts with Milius and Schwarzenegger introducing themselves as each other followed by Schwarzenegger cracking a joke about Richard Simmons Jr. All of this takes place over a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, the great philosopher. The cultures are clashing and Schwarzenegger is laughing his ass off.
- The narration at the beginning of the film was intended to be for Schwarzenegger. Milius points out that certain executives at Universal – he doesn’t name any names – didn’t trust Schwarzenegger, and there were concerns about his accent. “I said, ‘Of course, he has an accent. That’s why he’s Arnold.’,” says the director.
- “Here’s the making of the sword. This whole movie has to do with THAT,” growls Schwarzenegger. “The sword. The building of the sword. Building with steel. And the character being like steel.” He says it with such purpose, then tags it with, “Right?” Maybe he wasn’t so sure what the movie is about.
- Milius says there were supposed to be three Conan movies, each with different themes involving swords. The first was to be about strength, or the strength of the sword, with the second being about how to wield the sword and the third being about consequences. “Very nice,” says Schwarzenegger. “I’m still waiting for you to write the second one.”
- “Does the kid wear lipstick or…?” kind of asks Schwarzenegger about the child actor playing young Conan. Milius says it’s just a kid, Schwarzenegger chuckles, and somewhere out there that young actor, now a man, plots his revenge.
- “I always like it that he doesn’t look at her. He looks at his hand, because that’s all that’s left,” says Milius just after Conan’s mother is killed. “And he (Thulsa Doom) looks at the blade, because steel is true.”
- Schwarzenegger questions about the Wheel of Pain and what its real purpose is. Milius points out that they are grinding grain. He also notes that the set they built for the wheel really did work.
- Milius points out how Conan becomes used to the violence of the pit fights in the early montage. “One of the things about Conan that’s good is that Conan is like us all,” he explains. “He has a dark side. He has faults. He loves combat.”
- When the woman is offered to Conan, Milius notes the actress was genuinely scared of Schwarzenegger when she is thrust into the cage. “You never said anything to her or anything. You never let her get relaxed,” he says to Schwarzenegger, who is completely quiet during this scene. There is nudity, so no further explanation is necessary.
- One particular day during shooting, Milius became sick and began directing the film from his trailer. “I thought I was breaking new ground directing from a trailer, and then I read a thing where Francis (Ford Coppola) was directing a movie from a bath tub,” he says.
- Schwarzenegger notes that he recently saw Cassandra Gava, who plays the witch Conan comes across, and that she looks just the same. Just in case any of you were young men when you first saw Conan the Barbarian.
- Milius remembers a time right after the film came out when he heard Schwarzenegger talking with a woman who had just seen it. She noted how sexy the scene between Conan and the witch was, to which Schwarzenegger replied, “You know, even for me that doesn’t happen every time.”
- “Oh, right. This is when I was searching for Thulsa Doom,” says Schwarzenegger 30 minutes into this movie which is completely about Conan searching for Thulsa Doom.
- During the sex scene between Conan and the witch, Schwarzenegger and Milius both remember a sound guy on set who, as Milius puts it, “was quite taken with this scene.” He also notes the guy was “getting his jollies.” None of this is totally explained, but we can only assume he having a good time.
- “I did something no actor can do,” says Milius. “I cut myself out.” He’s referring to a deleted scene where he plays a vendor selling lizard-on-a-stick. He also makes a crack about golden tusks, but we’re unsure if he’s making a McDonald’s reference or not.
- For the giant snake scene, a mechanical snake was actually built. Milius points out, however, that it didn’t move much, and only a few shots of the mechanical snake were actually used. Much of the giant snake scene was done using a rubber snake with ropes tied around it.
- Executive producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted Milius to take out the scene with Conan, Valeria, and Subotai getting drunk in an inn, because he didn’t think it was dignified enough for the characters, particularly Conan. “The idea is that it’s great. They aren’t dignified. They have money, and they’re totally drunk and excited with power,” explains Milius. De Laurentiis especially didn’t like the shot where Conan passes out in his soup. “It’s like an Alka-Seltzer commercial,” says Schwarzenegger.
- Max Von Sydow was the first real actor Schwarzenegger ever worked against, at least according to Arnold himself. Schwarzenegger learned so much just from the one scene he had with Von Sydow and watching him transform from off-camera to on. “It was staggering how loud he could scream, how well he projected the scene and everything,” says Schwarzenegger. “I knew how far one could go with his acting.”
- Milius wanted to confuse the time and place in which Conan the Barbarian is set. He included forms of battle, weapons, and costumes from different real cultures including Vikings and the Japanese Samurai. He also had production designer Ron Cobb include various styles of architecture in all of the sets, never focusing on one, specific time or place.
- Schwarzenegger had issues with riding the camel. Even after getting it to stand up, which evidently took a long time, the camel would constantly walk Schwarzenegger right into a wood beam. “I couldn’t figure out how to make the camel make a wider turn around that thing,” he says.
- Schwarzenegger mentions John Milius has two life-long partners, the IRS and Milius’ ex-wife, Celia Kaye, who appears in Conan the Barbarian as one of Thulsa Doom’s followers. Anything that lets Schwarzenegger crack himself up is okay in our book.
- Milius hired actors to play against Schwarzenegger specifically based on their size, as he didn’t want many of Conan’s enemies to be smaller than he was. The director felt it helped build Conan as this iconic hero if he continuously took on and bested men who were much larger. “To have an opponent for Arnold, the guy has to be huge,” says Milius. Even James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow are taller than the 6’2″ Schwarzenegger.
- During the periods where the snake wrangler – and all of his snakes – were on set, everyone on the crew would get their own, personal snake to wear during the day. Milius notes the snake Thorgrim, played by Sven-Ole Thorsen, is holding became anxious while they were shooting. The director notes Thorsen, who is a body building like Schwarzenegger, grabbed the snake by the head, looked into its eyes, and made it understand who was in charge. We’re not sure how accurate this is, but we know at least Van Damme wasn’t on set.
- The Tree of Woe scene where Conan is crucified and kills a buzzard with his bare teeth was take directly from one of Robert E. Howard’s stories. A live buzzard was used for some shots in the scene, and Schwarzenegger remembers having to gargle alcohol, which the medic had given him. Evidently the buzzard had lice. Nothing was said about if anything was given to the buzzard, because we’re not sure where Schwarzenegger has been.
- “Conan is a movie that has definitely got a singular vision in it,” says Milius. “Directors don’t do that today. They just shoot the movie. It’s all how slick it can look, as opposed to whether you like this movie or not. It does have it’s own morality. It does have it’s own code of behavior.”
- Milius went to the University of Southern California with Conan the Barbarian’s score composer, Basil Poledouris. Also at the school during this time was George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the aforementioned Coppola. As Milius puts it, they all graduated together, but Basil was the only one of them who was fully developed in his craft while still in film school. “He could have written this score at USC,” he says.
- “You’re so sick, John,” says Schwarzenegger during the orgy/cannibalism scene. Milius doesn’t go into details, but he mentions Dino De Laurentiis had an issue with the cannibal aspect to the film. He doesn’t say whether De Laurentiis thought cannibalism was undignified, but he definitely had qualms about it.
- Milius points out a moment where Sandahl Bergman, who plays Valeria, actually injured fellow actors, cutting or stabbing them with the weapons she was swinging about. Schwarzenegger mentions Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer was even worse. “She damaged more people than you can think of,” he says. We all pretty much knew that about Grace Jones, though.
- Schwarzenegger messed his knee up after falling off one of the horses about a month before filming was done. As Conan the Barbarian was mostly shot in sequence, you can notice a slight limp now and again in the last 30 minutes or so of the film.
- There was a scene dropped that Milius refers to as the “Moby Dick scene” where Conan delivers a speech about what might have been had he never set out for revenge against Thulsa Doom and even questioning if revenge was the right course for him to take his life. Again, Milius ran into issues with the scene, since most at the time didn’t trust Schwarzenegger’s acting abilities. This was cut out of the original release of the film but is included within the film for the DVD and Blu-Ray releases.
- No horses were hurt during the film’s climactic battle sequence, but a whole lot of stunt guys were. Milius and Schwarzenegger recall one stuntman who was injured, had 15-20 stitches, and went right back to working. As far as the horses in the sequence go, Milius points out they are all stunt horses, they are trained to take the falls the horses take in this scene, and they even grow to have fun falling the way they do. Of course, no one actually asked any of the horses if they were having a good time, but Milius can speak for them with authority.
- Milius speaks on the film’s violence and says he didn’t set out to make it as violent as possible for no reason whatsoever. He feels the film is very faithful to the world it creates, and the people and events in it are as violent as they would naturally be in that world. “So you don’t dwell on any of the violence,” he says. “Because in the Greek Theatre, you wouldn’t. It’d be too far away, but it’s there. There is blood. You know what’s happening to people, and it’s very realistic.”
- Schwarzenegger mentions over the end credits that he thinks he and Milius should absolutely do a third Conan film. No one is arguing with this, but it still remains something we’ll always have to dream about. Unless, of course, you count the remake.
Best in Commentary
“Everybody wants to push at the Wheel of Pain and become Arnold.” -John Milius
“I remember shooting certain scenes very well.” -Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the scene where he punches the camel will always be his favorite.
“It’s really not just a simple story. It’s about what makes us what we are.” -Milius
“I was getting laid a lot in this movie. It’s amazing.” -Arnold Schwarzenegger, pointing out what is really best in life.
The Conan the Barbarian commentary is one of those, as with all Arnold Schwarzenegger commentaries it seems, that you can’t just read up about. You have to listen to it first-hand and take in all of Schwarzenegger’s sense of humor and the way he watches his films. There isn’t a whole lot of insight on this commentary, either from Schwarzenegger or from John Milius. Much of the commentary is a play-by-play of what’s going on with anecdotes and changes in the film coming up here and there. There’s enough found within, at least enough to cover a decent enough sized Commentary Commentary article.
However, the real gems on this commentary come from Schwarzenegger, even when it’s him simply saying “That’s funny” or “That is a funny scene” or “I remember that,” all of which he says on more than a few occasions. Listening to Schwarzenegger laugh at himself punching out a camel or falling face-first in a bowl of soup is every bit as enjoyable as a top-notch director explaining his craft of storytelling. Schwarzenegger isn’t the most well versed when it comes to film theory, but you know that’s not the reason why we love Schwarzenegger anyway.