Think what you want of “Conan the Barbarian”, but the feature film released on May 14, 1982 starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow was co-written by... Oliver Stone and was even almost directed by Ridley Scott!
This comic book hero was born under the pen of Robert E. Howard in 1932 in the "pulps", these low-cost magazines - because of poor quality and very popular - at the beginning of the last century. One-year-old ancestor of Superman, Conan evolves in the Hyborian age, a distant and mythical (not to say mystical) past, and his adventures are a festival of brutality and "gore". Conan, whom nothing and no one can resist, obeys no rules.
In the mid-1970s, producer Edward R. Pressman (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) became interested in the muscular Barbarian. He meets a stranger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, after seeing the documentary "Pumping Iron", talks to him about the possible role and hires him immediately. Pressman, who obtained a budget of US$2.5 million from Paramount to start the project, had just seen "Platoon" and hired Oliver Stone to write the screenplay for his "Conan". Stone then envisages an immense franchise, is vaguely inspired by two episodes of the adventures of Conan, and, time obliges, adds mutants to it. It also sets the story in the distant future and, according to Pressman, delivers an early scenario worthy of Dante's "Inferno."
In short, Stone's vision would cost at least US$40 million and is therefore not admissible. No big deal, the script serves as a business card, even if everyone is aware that it will have to be reduced to more modest dimensions.
Disheartened, Pressman spoke with Dino De Laurentiis (“Barbarella” or “King Kong” with Jessica Lange) to sell him the project. The Italian-born producer accepts the offer, retaining Pressman as co-producer. He goes to see Universal Studios, takes them on an adventure... even if the scenario is still hyper violent, exaggerated and therefore expensive. But how to lower production costs? De Laurentiis will then speak to John Milius, screenwriter of “Dirty Harry”, so that he can rework the screenplay and put it into pictures. After some procrastination, the latter accepts on the express condition of being able to considerably modify the story imagined by Olivier Stone.
An amazing mix
Milius, fascinated by the empire of the rising sun and a great fan of "The Seven Samurai", therefore includes a Japanese aesthetic, also adding the whole part on Conan's childhood and his physical transformation. Its artistic director, Ron Cobb ("Star Wars" or "Alien"), complete with elements of Norse mythology and, if the two men retain many passages from Oliver Stone's screenplay - including "the tree of misfortune – they remove all references to mutants and other zombies.
Filming began in Spain in January 1981 with the scene in which Conan fights against a pack of wolves. Arnold Schwarzenegger works like crazy to make his Austrian accent less heavy and his dialogue understandable, going so far as to repeat his lines 40 times before takes. He also needs to take his strength training down a notch – he is a bodybuilder by profession – to be able to wield the sword correctly – each of the weapons costs US$10,000 –, learn horseback riding, master climbing techniques and basic stunts, like knowing how to fall or jump since he performs his stunts himself, the production having found no one with a similar physique able to double him.
Despite – or thanks to, the era being one of a decline in the quality of female representations on screen – a degrading image of women, “Conan the Barbarian” is one of the rare adaptations of “comics” to have success at the box office, the feature film raking in US$79.1 million on a budget of 20 million. Arnold Schwarzenegger's film career took off, this first role following him even during his political career where he was often nicknamed "Conan the Republican". Today, and since the 2011 “Conan” fiasco with Jason Momoa in the title role, the warrior has retired from the big screen, although rumors of a TV series have swirled around from time to time.