Conan and Schwarzenegger, by Kate Voss
Conan the Barbarian is largely thought of to be Arnold Schwarzenegger in a loincloth. With the new Legend of Conan film featuring Arnold in the titular role once again, this is a pop culture image sure to be carried on for years to come. The truth is though, Robert E. Howard’s original stories of Conan have been around for a long time, and they even pre-date J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. They have had a profound impact on almost all sword-and-sorcery fantasy since their publication, while the original films launched a film and political career for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Prior to Conan the Barbarian in 1982, Arnold Schwarzenegger was primarily a bodybuilder. A success in the sport, it wasn’t long before he came knocking on Hollywood’s door. Unfortunately, it was only bit parts as thugs, gym owners or bodybuilders that he was cast in. Starring roles for Schwarzenegger were almost non-existent even though he won a Golden Globe in 1976 for Stay Hungry. Other roles included a bodybuilder in Hercules in New York , a documentary about bodybuilders in Pumping Iron and a tough hood in The Long Goodbye.
Realizing that they can use Arnold Schwarzenegger’s thick accent and large physique to their advantage, producers Edward R. Pressman and Edward Summer signed him to a retainer contract. Over time, the film changed hands but this contract kept Arnold attached as Conan. This turned out to be a great move for both the franchise and Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger knew this was his chance to break free from those small parts as thugs or muscle-men and into a whole new arena of acting. After his impressive turn as Conan in the original film, which is being rerun this month on the El Rey network (check this resource for listings), and its sequel Conan the Destroyer, Schwarzenegger’s film career took off. The next decade is when he would bring some of his most memorable characters to life. If it wasn’t for the Conan films, we wouldn’t have classics like The Terminator, Commando or Predator.
The film version of Conan was inspired in part by the source material from Robert E. Howard but also partially from historical figures. Conan was meant to be taken from the book but slight changes to the character made him seem less free and less intelligent than his novelized counterpart. Other characters such as Valeria and Thulsa Doom have their roots in Howard’s work and combine elements of several characters. Still others have their roots in real-life history. Faithful sidekick Subotai was based on Genghis Khan’s main general by the same name. This mix of real history and fantasy helped lend itself to the great staying power of Conan (and Schwarzenegger) in mainstream pop culture.
Since the early ’80s, Schwarzenegger has done a great number of films. While he is still a big box office draw, these films still revolve around action more than story. His most recent film, Maggie, is a far cry from those films. Maggie centers around the story of a man coping with the loss of his daughter during the zombie apocalypse. Few and far between are the zombie kills. They are replaced with scenes of sorrow and contemplation which is a side of Schwarzenegger we have not seen much of.
A man to stay true to his roots, Arnold is attached to Legend of Conan. This new fantasy film will be a sequel to 1982’s film and put Schwarzenegger in the loincloth that made everything possible for him. This latest installment is said to be an event film that is well-written and worth the three decade-long wait.