As Conan the Barbarian reaches its 40th birthday, there’s no better time to remember the cult classic epic fantasy that helped begin Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting career. It was peak 1980s fantasy action and it led to Schwarzenegger becoming the go-to hero for mainstream Hollywood action, usually with guns instead of swords. Schwarzenegger is probably the most famous bodybuilder and one of the most famous actors to ever live, and one of the few to go on to hold public office. Born in Austria in 1947, the son of a policeman that joined the Nazis, he began weightlifting in his teen years, and at 20 became the youngest person to ever win Mr. Universe, winning it three more times consecutively (1968-1970) and winning Mr. Olympia from 1970 to 1975—and again in 1980. The 1975 tournament became the subject of the docudrama Pumping Iron which helped jumpstart he and rival Lou Ferrigno’s acting careers. While Schwarzenegger had appeared in a couple of films before, Conan the Barbarian’s release amid a sea of fantasy adventure films in the 1980s set him up to define a decade and a half of Hollywood action cinema.
Conan was created in 1932 by author Robert E. Howard and the idea of a Conan film started circulating in the early 1970s, around when Marvel started publishing comics about the character. By 1979, legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis had the rights. His daughter Rafaella produced the film while director John Milius rewrote a script by Oliver Stone, bringing Howard’s lost “Hyborian Age” to life alongside cinematographer Duke Callaghan, costume designer John Bloomfield, production designer Ron Cobb and Pier Luigi Basile’s Art Direction team. The film’s setting blended historical Mongolian and Viking cultural aesthetics with inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi and Wilhelm Richard Wagner.
Conan the Barbarian follows the story of a warrior-king narrated by his subject, a nameless wizard portrayed on-screen by Mako. It begins with young Conan being instructed by his father about the trustworthiness of steel (weapons) over flesh (people and animals), before a mystical snake cult army led by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) raids their village, killing his parents. The enslaved Conan becomes an accomplished pit fighter before being freed and seeking vengeance. He befriends Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the two meet Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) while sneaking into one of the snake cult’s temples. He and Valeria fall in love, while the trio take a quest from King Osric (Max von Sydow) to retrieve his daughter (Valérie Quennessen), who has become a priestess of the snake cult under Doom’s spell. It’s a harrowing journey with many detours, but eventually Conan gets his vengeance.
The plot isn’t mind-bendingly profound, but its success comes from the marriage of the writer-director’s thematic philosophy and the performers’ personality and charisma. While it’s a fantasy movie, Milius’ focus on Conan’s sheer will and determination matched well with Schwarzenegger’s persona. Conan the Barbarian focuses on three relative newcomers to acting in Schwarzenegger (bodybuilder), Lopez (surfer) and Bergman (dancer) alongside the steady-handed veterans Jones and von Sydow. Narrative dynamism comes from the relationships between the protagonists while film kinetically mixes that camaraderie with moments of mysticism, suspense and brutal violence.
Milius’ creation of a northern European hero that goes on a quest for vengeance against the realm’s sole Black man—a cult leader who bewitches an impressionable young white woman—inspired critiques of the story as broadcasting the type of propagandistic images that people worried about with The Northman. Still, the captivating depiction of The Austrian Oak as a sword-swinging hero was effective for more than just reproducing “problematic” imagery. It created a star who sold tickets for decades.
Not many of Conan’s contemporaries have such a legacy. Flash Gordon, another cult classic under the eye of De Laurentiis, didn’t spawn a sequel or propel a comic franchise you can still find on store shelves. Ferrigno’s star turn in Hercules spawned a sequel in Italy, but isn’t remembered as well in the U.S. While director Richard Donner always succeeded across genre, the fantasy Ladyhawke is not among his best-loved films, and he mirrored Schwarzenegger’s own transition from high fantasy to gun-toting action and comedy by closing out the decade with the first two Lethal Weapon movies sandwiching his Dickens adaptation Scrooged. Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander, starring Christopher Lambert, is like a cross between Schwarzenegger’s first two big successes in Conan and The Terminator: It’s a cult fantasy film that spawned several poorly regarded sequels.
While Schwarzenegger’s first feature was 1970’s Hercules in New York, where he was credited as “Arnold Strong ‘Mr. Universe’” and his voice had to be recorded over, he later won a Golden Globe for New Star for 1976’s Stay Hungry before appearing in Pumping Iron. A second bodybuilding documentary, The Comeback was released in 1980 after his surprise reentry into the Mr. Olympia pageant. But Conan the Barbarian was Arnold’s breakout role because of the magnetism of his central performance. He was written and directed to act almost as if he were a man gone feral whose penchant for violence enticed his masters to educate him and then finally free him. Arnold played every bit convincingly, from the effective warrior to the desperate runaway, from the sneaking thief to the man caught drunk partying; from lout to warrior, ever single-minded in his vengeance, neither humorless nor dull, eloquent in his declarations and oaths behind his thick Styrian accent. Audiences and studios saw this and thought: “We need more!” It led to the sequel Conan the Destroyer coming just a few months before his iconic antagonistic role as The Terminator in 1984. In 1985, he teamed-up with Conan the Destroyer director Richard Fleischer for Red Sonja as a supporting character (alongside Conan’s Sandahl Bergman) to Brigitte Nielsen’s heroine.
Propelled by the success of Conan, Schwarzenegger averaged a new film nearly every year. In 1985’s Commando and 1987’s Predator, he played government agents in the jungle, appearing alongside Carl Weathers in Predator and Bill Duke in both films. Jesse “The Body” Ventura appeared alongside Schwarzenegger in The Running Man and Predator in the same year. Toward the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Schwarzenegger started his comedic successes with 1988’s Red Heat (a buddy cop film co-starring Jim Belushi) and Twins (with Danny DeVito) before 1990’s Kindergarten Cop. Yet he didn’t fully cede his claim as a bankable action star, starring in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall released that same year, followed by Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991. These were followed by 1993’s Last Action Hero, a fantasy-action satire where he plays multiple roles—including himself and a parody of the gun-toting character archetype he had begun to define after stepping away from the sword-and-sorcery genre. Schwarzenegger teamed up with DeVito again in 1994’s Junior, where he plays a cisgender man that gets pregnant, and it was sort of all downhill from there. None of his films have been appointment viewing since. Four Terminator sequels were released between 2003 and 2019, with Schwarzenegger appearing in all but one, cast in two roles in the most recent film.
If actors were ever set in this mold, they’re not anymore. As a musclebound hero, Arnold is of a kind with Rocky and Rambo star Sylvester Stallone (and whoever else Stallone casts in The Expendables franchise), but his acting ability has been underrated because of his iconic accent. Conan, the T-800 Terminator, Doug Quaid (Total Recall) and Harry Tasker (True Lies) are distinct characters. How many well-remembered comedies was Stallone in? Schwarzenegger has Twins, Kindergarten Cop, The Last Action Hero and True Lies. Aquaman is a much better movie than Batman & Robin, but Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is far more memorable than Dolph Lundgren’s King Nereus.
Perhaps Stallone’s (increasingly critically panned) Expendables franchise is instructive because of the variety of action-star archetypes it casts while exemplifying an over-the-top throwback style. On the one hand there’s the giant athlete-turned-actor in Schwarzenegger, his contemporary Lundgren and their latter-day successors Terry Crews (NFL) and Randy Couture (UFC). In age and size, Steve Austin is somewhere on that spectrum, while Jet Li is a legendary martial artist-filmmaker. Bruce Willis is a whole other sort; he’s similarly aged into a nostalgic action space, but he wasn’t ever their type of action hero. His breakout role in Die Hard was not a glamorous, well-oiled killing machine but a hard-scrabble cop improvising in a bad situation, remembered for outwitting terrorist bank robbers, barefoot and bleeding. That persona would follow him through sequels and into the flamboyant space opera The Fifth Element.
As Schwarzenegger has aged out of his acting prime, the most obvious comparison for the past two decades has been Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, another musclebound former athlete. While Stallone handed the Rocky torch to Michael B. Jordan through the Creed movies, I thought The Rock fit Schwarzenegger’s archetype. Johnson has the charisma; the charm; the bulging, defined, musculature that definitely has nothing to do with steroids. While he’s a consistent international box office draw, he lacks a truly iconic performance carried on his shoulders, the kind of movie you want to show your younger family members and friends as you age. I have an uncle that used to quote Conan the Barbarian. The entire world quotes the first and second Terminator movies, and Predator also has its famous lines and memeable moments.
While seeing The Rock on screen brings me joy, the closest thing to a memorable quote is the frequent utterance of “sumbitch” in Fast Five. The Scorpion King is not quoted. Hercules is not remembered. And none of this is because The Rock himself is not compelling. Johnson commands a screen and is often funny in addition to being a handsome mountain of muscle, but his films (such as Hobbs & Shaw) ask him to take a dive less than his wrestling did because, as his fame and popularity have increased, he’s constructed his image in a way that basically prohibits losing fights.
On the other hand, Schwarzenegger took licks. He gets crucified in Conan the Barbarian, he’s harried through the jungle in Commando and Predator, and he was constantly on the run, as in Raw Deal, The Running Man and The 6th Day. Short of The Rock, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have a clear successor—his son Patrick was good in Daniel Isn’t Real, but he’s hardly a hulking action star. His son-in-law Chris Pratt doesn’t have his charm. Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of a kind.
Among the other action stars of the 1980s, those he co-starred with in Commando or Predator, it might have been hard to predict Arnold’s longevity or singularity. Schwarzenegger got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987, before becoming Chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Health and Fitness from 1990-1993, and California’s governor from 2003-2011. None of his other co-stars reached Arnold’s level of iconic status, though Jesse Ventura did win an upset bid to become governor of Minnesota. The determination and willpower that defined Conan matched Schwarzenegger’s own drive and, while he’s often spoken about the mentors that enabled his opportunities, he’s an easy man to build a myth around. Conan the Barbarian stands out among the continuum of 1980s fantasy adventure movies because of this incredible legacy. The visually distinct execution of a simple plot showed a style of fantasy adventure separate from its contemporaries and predecessors, setting Schwarzenegger on a path to become the most successful action star of his generation. Conan enabled an Austrian bodybuilder to become a global film icon.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.