A blacksmith (William Smith) forges a sword and tells his son Conan (Jorge Sanz) about the Riddle of Steel and the importance of steel to their people, the Cimmerians. A band of raiders led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) comes to massacre the village. Conan’s father is killed by dogs and his mother is decapitated by the very sword his father made. All the children are chained to a millstone called the Wheel of Pain. Over the years, Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) develops powerful muscles. His master trains him to be a gladiator. After years of success and training, he is freed. Pursued by wild dogs, he seeks refuge in an Atlantean tomb, where he finds an ancient sword. In his wanderings, he meet and seduces a witch (Cassandra Gava) possessing prophetic powers, and he befriends Subotai (Gerry Lopez), a Hyrkanian thief and archer.
Following the witch’s advice, Conan and Subotai travel to Zamara to seek out Thulsa Doom, where they meet Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a female thief. They rob the Tower of the Serpent Shrine of jewels and other objects , including the Eye of the Serpent, and slay a giant snake. They celebrate their success and Conan has sex with Valeria, but they are captured by city guards and brought before King Osric (Max von Sydow), who wants them to rescue his daughter, Princess Yasmina (Valerie Quennessen). She is now a zealot in Doom’s cult. The others decline, but Conan seeks revenge and sets out to the Temple of Set, or the Mountain of Power.
Disguised as a priest, Conan infiltrates the temple but is discovered, captured, and tortured. Doom lectures him like a Bond villain on the Power of Flesh. He demonstrates his power by hypnotizing a girl and making her jump to her death. Then he has Conan crucified on the Tree of Woe. He is rescued by Subotai and brought to Akiro (Mako Iwamatsu), the Wizard of the Mounds, who lives on a burial site for warriors and kings. He summons spirits to heal Conan, but they will exact a heavy toll, which Valeria offers to pay. The spirits try to abduct Conan but Subotai and Valeria drive them off and Conan is restored to health.
Subotai and Valeria decide to help Conan infiltrate the Temple of Set and rescue Princess Yasmina. During a cannibalistic orgy, they attack and seize the Princess, but Doom transforms into a giant serpent and escapes. Valeria is mortally wounded and dies in Conan’s arms. She is cremated at the Mounds as Conan and Subotai prepare to battle Thulsa Doom. Conan asks the god of his people, Crom, to give him revenge. They slay Doom’s warriors with booby-traps. Just as Conan is about to be killed, Valeria appears as a Valkyrie to save him. Doom escapes, but Conan recovers his father’s sword. Conan and Princess Yasmina, who is now free from Doom’s control and looking for revenge, sneak into the temple and confront Doom, who tries to hypnotize Conan, but Conan resists and decapitates Doom with his father’s sword. The cult disperses. Conan burns down the temple and returns the Princess to King Osric.
The film was directed by John Millius and written by him and Oliver Stone, based on the fantasy stories of Robert E. Howard. Producers Edward R. Pressman and Edward Summer had begun trying to get the film made in 1975. Eventually, Pressman sold the project to Dino de Laurentiis and his daughter Raffaella. Scenes from the Seven Samurai and Kwaidan were added to the story. Arnold Schwarzenegger was attached nearly from the beginning. Two 11-pound $10,000 broadswords were made for him, one of which he later hung in the California Governor’s office. It took more than a year to edit the film and a number of particularly violent scenes were cut. It received mixed reviews from both critics and audiences, but it made good money and is now a cult film. A sequel, Conan the Destroyer, was made in 1984, and the story was rebooted in 2011 with Jason Momoa and Ron Perlman.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales were published in Weird Tales comics from 1923 to 1954. In the Sixties, many Conan novels were written by the likes of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, because Howard committed suicide and left many stories unfinished. Valeria appeared in Red Nails, but her character in the movie is more like that of Belit, the Pirate Queen of the Black Coast. Subotai was Genghis Khan’s general. He is the Best Pal, a standard character in fantasy. The villain Thulsa Doom is an amalgamation of Kull the Conqueror and Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer in the story Phoenix of the Sword, mixed with the orders of the Hashishim and the Thuggee. Many of the visuals came directly from the glorious book-covers of Frank Frazetta. You can spot them throughout the movie.
There were battles over licensing because Lancer Books was in receivership. The best thing that happened to the Conan films was Star Wars, not to mention Oliver Stone’s involvement. Early on, Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone were considered for the lead, but it was clear that Schwarzenegger was born to play Conan. He actually had to lose weight for the role, dropping from 240 to 210 pounds, because he was too muscle-bound to swing a sword with grace. He had voice training to soften his Austrian accent. Sandahl Bergman was a dancer in All That Jazz by Bob Fosse. They both did all their stunts because no body-doubles for them could be found. She won a Golden Globe and a Saturn for her role. Actors had bags of fake blood strapped to them. ILM created the ghosts. Basil Poledouris wrote the music. The pace of the movie seems glacial by today’s action standards.
Max von Sydow and James Earl Jones gave Arnie acting tips, but he basically modeled himself after Steve Reeves as Hercules. When the film was released, people lined up around the block in 16 cities. At one showing, a third of the audience was bodybuilders. The first versions of the ghosts were scrapped because the scene looked too much like the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The original casting-call was misspelled as Conan the Barberman. So many actors with gorgeous hair showed up that the ancient cities were filled with beautifully coifed barbarians. In the crucifixion scene, Schwarzenegger actually bit a dead vulture and then had his mouth washed out. The opening scene is the forging of a sword, followed by the death of the hero’s parents. He grows up as a slave and slays a giant serpent. This is actually the story of Siegfried in the Ring of the Nibelung operas by Richard Wagner.