We’ve had movie characters that set golden standards for heroism. We’ve also had likable protagonists who are awful people. Our cinematic palate has grown durable enough to handle cads, losers, conmen, rogues and a whole host of other negative adjectives when it comes to central characters. Regardless of their weaknesses, we typically want them to succeed if the movie works. When it comes to Conan the Barbarian, however, things get a bit trickier -- because while he’s definitely the film’s protagonist, he is also somewhat terrifying.
Filtered through the mind of John Milius, a guy defined by such strongly averred machismo that he could provide a safe-for-work emoji for testicles, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian, as portrayed by Arnold Swarzenegger, is very much a heroic figure. He transforms himself from a slave into an eventual king. He avenges his parents and people. He rids the world of an evil and powerful wizard. He also looks super cool, which is important.
But Milius’ Conan is not a nice or friendly figure. He’s a brutal, blunt and remorseless expression of alpha male ideals sent on a quest of personal vengeance that just happens to take out someone even more evil. Like Achilles before him, he wields a combination of power and emotional disposition that makes him both awesome and awful. As good guys go, this is one you might want to avoid.
This is especially true during the film’s first half, where an enslaved Conan explores his talent for violence without the benefit of his own agency. Doomed to spend his life as a pit fighter for the entertainment of others, Conan takes only a moment during his initial fight to understand what the stakes are and what’s expected of him. After he puts that first fighter down, we’re treated to a montage of Conan’s gladiator career, in which he kills guy after guy with the dumb glee of a dog pouncing on a wounded squirrel. This animal metaphor isn’t as off-base as it sounds since we also learn that Conan’s keepers feed him women for breeding. He is literally a stud.
Right off the bat, Conan supplies an interesting central figure because, while we might expect a typical hero to fight against his or her own slavery, Conan does not appear to mind. Rather than represent weakness, this passive resignation tells us how much Conan enjoys all this killing and free sex. This is part of who he is, and he’s into the power it grants him.
Once set free upon the world, Conan indulges in the hedonistic revelry befitting a guy restrained by captivity for most of his life. This includes expected treats such as alcohol, exotic food and drugs, but it also involves punching a camel in the face. Actually, Conan is especially rough on animals. Along with the camel assault, we see him kill wolves, a vulture and a gigantic snake.
But it makes sense that Conan inflicts so much violence on animals, as well as on men. Even his natural world (or supernatural when it comes to the snake) is a dark, unforgiving place that preys upon the weak at every turn, a fictional setting that seems very much a predecessor for Game of Thrones’ brutal kingdoms. Conan himself is a product of this brutality, a point that does not escape his nemesis, Thulsa Doom. The film offers a glorious montage of Conan’s rough upbringing, in which he is forced to endlessly turn the Wheel of Pain. As a child, he is just one of many. By the time he’s fully grown, we see a gigantic, lonely beast pushing the wheel, as though he absorbed the strength of all those who fell through the years. He also witnessed his mother’s decapitation just after seeing his father getting eaten by dogs. If you need an origin story for someone who grows up to be a psychopath, this one should suffice.
Once Conan finally embarks upon his quest to find and kill Thulsa Doom, he softens a bit. He gets a pal, and he falls in love. He has a drive to actually do something, which makes his character more recognizably heroic. But he is still Conan, out there worshipping the power of steel and killing like crazy. Even when crucified, he’s badass enough to bite a vulture to death. And when he does kill Doom, he does not just behead him quickly -- he lops it off in three ugly and painful-looking blows.
Conan is a barbarian. It says so right there in the title. And it’s a testament to John Milius that he actually lives up to that label. Conan isn’t a thinker (his attempt at subterfuge gets him caught in about two minutes), he’s not all that spiritual, he’s mostly unfriendly and he’s really fond of killing things. Barbarians aren’t supposed to be cuddly gentlemen who ponder the existential price of life and death. A barbarian is supposed to be a big dumb meathead who will punch a camel in the face for no reason at all. And that’s our Conan. You’d do well to give him wide berth.