Sunday, September 12, 2004

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

Apartheid in South Africa, one of the more shameful episodes in the last half of this century, seemed to be mostly ignored by Hollywood until late 1980s. Before that time, American mainstream producers didn't dare to tackle the subject of the country that was nominally capitalist democracy and Western ally, yet with the regime that made Communism look good. Instead of them, that task was carried out by movie authors in Commonwealth countries, less troubled with cheap Cold War politics. One of such projects is 1975 British production THE WILBY CONSPIRACY, directed by Ralph Nelson and based on Peter Driscoll's novel.

The movie begins in Cape Town courtroom, where Rina van Niekirk (Prunella Gee), liberal white lawyer, tries to win freedom for her client Shack Twala (Sydney Poitier), black anti-apartheid activist who spent ten years in prison. To her own big surprise, the government decides to let Twala go, but only hours after the release he gets again in trouble with police, this time together with Rina's boyfriend Jim Keogh (Michael Caine), British engineer. Two men become fugitives and are forced to drive to Johannesburg, where Twala seeks help by Doctor Mukharjee (Saeed Jaffrey), Hindu dentist and fellow member of Black Congress. In the mean time, sadistical Major Horn (Nicol Williamson) from the secret police is on their trail.

Like many thrillers from the 1970s, THE WILBY CONSPIRACY has a rather complicated plot and some of today's viewers might even get lost in a quagmire of political intrigue and endless double-crossings between the movie's protagonists. But, Ralph Nelson wraps it up as a solid piece of entertainment, using political reality of contemporary South Africa mostly as a background for conventional action thriller. So, we have a lots of humour, fistfights, car chases and even one totally gratuitous sex scene. Some might argue that the subject of racial inequality and totalitarian oppression would be inappropriate for the use in a such mainstream product. Anyway, the actors did a really good job - Michael Caine brings a lot of charm to his role, unlike Sidney Poitier, whose almost solemn presence gives a rather nice contrast to Caine and establishes "buddy buddy" chemistry between the two. Other performances seems bland, except for Nicol Williamson as very convincing and intelligent villain. The end of the movie is perhaps slightly disappointing, but nevertheless THE WHILBY CONSPIRACY as a whole is worth watching, especially compared with today's "politically correct" movies.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Review written on October 1st 1998

The Godfather (1972)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

Many years ago, when the author of this review had to rely only on cinemas and television as the source of cinematic knowledge, he was intrigued by the word "godfather", featured in many movies and television shows as the synonym for organised crime. The use of the word didn't stop there - many movies were branded "godfathers" by their distributors, in order to bring the audience hungry for intelligent and spectacular drama about gangster organisations. Fascination with the word and the movie who inspired their use grew with years. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see the first movie before being exposed to the second. Nevertheless, the first seeing of THE GODFATHER was memorable experience indeed - years of waiting actually paid off in a three hours of cinematic feast.

In many ways, THE GODFATHER follows the same pattern of many cinematic classics who used to be made in a time periods or circumstances that aren't here anymore. It was made in a era when the Old Hollywood collapsed, and the new rules hadn't been established. The studios were willing to experiment and to give the movie authors free reign over their projects. One of such authors was Francis Ford Coppola, who made one of the most intimate, yet most universally appealing movies of all times; the movie which earned its cult status by satisfying both the high standards of snobbish critics and the simple needs general audience. The greatness of the movie can't be seen only in a success that followed him in a last quarter of century; it could be even more tangible in a series of references, imitations and hidden remakes created by Coppola's colleagues through the years.

Almost every scene in a movie is memorable, but for many most effective is a beginning - in a dark room, Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), Italian undertaker, tells that he believes in America and its values; but only minutes later his speech gives another spin on the beliefs in life, liberty and pursuit of happiness - they shatter confronted with the humiliating and unpunished rape of his daughter. In order to see justice done, Bonasera is forced to ask favour from his godfather, powerful Mafia figure Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), using the marriage of Don Vito's daughter Connie (Talia Shire) as an opportunity to win over the mobster's heart. That same wedding is a nice opportunity to meet Don Vito's sons, family and friends. Don Vito has three sons - Sonny (James Caan), whose macho temperament is nicely combined with the calm wisdom of his adopted brother and family advisor Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall); hedonistic Fredo (John Cazale); and, finally, college educated Michael (Al Pacino) whose disgust with the violence and crime forced him to leave the family and come to the wedding as a decorated WW2 hero. However, Michael's reluctance to engage in the family business gets tested soon after the wedding. Angered by Don Vito's refusal to engage in narcotic operations, other Mafia families from New York organise the attempt on his life; simply by trying to protect his father, Michael gets drawn in the war and slowly becomes the rising member of his crime organisation.

Since both the real-world Mafia and numerous Italian American organisation actually tried to stop this movie from being made or distributed, it is quite ironic to see THE GODFATHER as a source not of numerous movie cliches that actually portray the Mafia as a social element more benign than in real life (mobsters as devout family men; violence exists only between its members and doesn't affect general and innocent population; opposition to drugs etc.). It is even more surprising to see THE GODFATHER not only as an inspiration to other, less original, filmmakers, but also to the real-world gangsters who tried to imitate the appearance of his main characters. However, although the movie might seem a little bit apologetic towards Mafia, and definitely has insiders' point of view, it still has the flavour of authenticity, necessary for the viewer to have a critical relations towards the characters and their morally questionable actions.

The authenticity of the movie isn't just in some references towards real-life mobsters and mob-related stories and urban legends. Coppola worked very hard to capture the way of life in his native Italian American community, and also invested a lot of effort in order to have his epic story, that takes place in late 1940s and early 1950s, firmly set in that time period through production design, costumes, hairstyles and soundtrack that is well balanced with the original music of Nino Rota, that also became one of the identifying symbols of the movie.

The most memorable element of the movie are its actors. Marlon Brando, almost washed-up in the time when he made THE GODFATHER, gave the performance of his life by playing Vito Corleone - his role was so grand that the actor himself parodied it in THE FRESHMAN. Although obviously shadowed by Brando, the other actors were also impressive. Among them, Al Pacino, who had to work hardest by portraying slow transformation of lead character, shines most brightly and his role of Michael shone the path to his future as one of the best serious movie actors in contemporary American cinema. The calmness of Pacino's character, calmness that crumbles under emotions only in brief moments of family crisis, is so in contrast with the emotional outbursts that would be Pacino's trademark in a years to come.

The other actors might not be in Brando's or Pacino's league, but they benefited from Coppola's good casting and also gave the roles of their life simply by being in this movie, so well-written and directed. The only exception to this is James Caan, who works well with the role given to him, but whose all-American appearance seems a rather out of place with the more or less ethnically pure Italian American cast. Despite that shortcoming (one and perhaps the only in the entire GODFATHER), the cast is really more than impressive, although many actors and actresses later didn't live to the potential indicated by their performance in this movie.

Those who like analysing movies to death would probably ask why THE GODFATHER kept its cult status through the quarter of century. There were many well-made, well-directed and well-acted movies produced in the years before and after, but it seems that only THE GODFATHER stood the test of time and kept the imagination of the future moviegoers. The reason might probably be in the universal subject of the movie; although it shows rather obscure and ethnically isolated phenomenon the messages of THE GODFATHER can be translated on all the worlds languages and applied to other systems in different times and places. The movie portrays both the society and individuals who lost their freedom because they were too insecure or unprepared for responsibility; same as the poor Italian immigrants had to rely on Mafia to overcome the difficulties of New World (like Bonasera in the opening sequence), Michael is forced to join the family because he, despite all his efforts, can't live in a insecure world outside his father's omnipotent shadow. And even when he actually becomes his father (in a brilliant and most memorable last shot), the freedom is lost - omnipotence and freedom are just illusion, because with the power comes both the responsibility and the never ending task of keeping. The story of this movie could have taken place everywhere in the world, and that explains why the people will associate with its characters for many decades to come.

RATING: 9/10 (++++)

Review written on August 21st 1998

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

In the first DEATH WISH movie, mild-mannered New York architect Paul Kersey, played by Charles Bronson, was avenging the death of his wife. In the second, he was avenging his daughter. In the third, he instigated small war in order to avenge the old friend. Fourth movie, on the other hand, begins with Kersey doubting the point of his violent crusades and living the quiet life with his girlfriend Karen, played by Kay Lenz. However, since this is DEATH WISH MOVIE, we know that sooner or later something bad is going to happen to the people Kersey cares for. This time Karen's teenage daughter dies of a crack overdose and Kersey is forced to return to his old vigilante ways. Kersey's new targets, unlike the previous movies, aren't the ordinary street punks but rich, heavily armed and well-connected drug dealers. Even such unstoppable killing machine like Kersey needs some support, and it comes from the publisher Nathan White (John P. Ryan), determined to avenge the drug-related death of his own daughter. White's plan is to make Kersey kill major players in two rival drug dealing organisations and thus instigate the war between them. The plan begins to take shape, but Kersey's actions bring attention of two police detectives - Reiner (George Dickerson) and Nozaki (Soon Teck-Oh).

Fourth (and, unfortunately, not the final) installment in the DEATH WISH series, will probably remembered as the typical movie of Cannon Group, production company responsible for some of the worst cinematic trash of the last decade. However, although some critics might argue, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN represents slight improvement over the DEATH WISH 3. Paul Kersey, one of the most intriguing (and potentially controversial) characters of the 1970s, is still being dumbed down by mediocre script, and Charles Bronson really doesn't feel the need to put much effort in his acting. However, the hand of a veteran director J. Lee Thompson seems more capable of Michael Winner's and the action scenes seem slightly less surreal, although they still look cheap and repetitive and downright boring. There are some attempts for the movie to have a plot between the numerous scenes of violence, and one of such attempts is a potentially interesting plot twist at the end. The script even tries to fake some social conscience (through criminally underused Kay Lenz's character) and predates the War on Drugs campaign that would inspire many Hollywood products in next few years. There are even some half-hearted attempts of humour - both intentional and unintentional, like in a scene where Kersey assassinates mob figures by a wine bottle - but the quality of this movie is still far away from Bronson's 1970s classics.

(Special note to x-philes: Mith Pilleggi, the actor who plays AD Skinner in THE X- FILES, could be seen in a small role of cannery lab foreman).

RATING: 4/10 (+)

Death Wish 3 (1985)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

Fact that Charles Bronson represents one of the most important movie icons of the 1980s represents one of the biggest and almost tragic ironies of that decade. Tragedy lies in the fact that the icon status was earned less by quality of his work in movies, but the quantity. Most of those movies were produced by Cannon Group, company led by Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Those two men probably thought that they could be the next Roger Corman, B- movie mentors of future Hollywood legends. Unfortunately, that didn't happened, and when Cannon finally went bankrupt at the end of the decade, behind it stood the huge pile of cinematic garbage, that would require at least few centuries before it reaches the camp appeal. Sadly for Bronson, that garbage also contained numerous movies in which that capable character actor and action hero of the 1970s tried to raise their worth simply by being the main lead, and lowering his own reputation in process. On the other hand, Bronson could take comfort in a fact that those movies were extremely popular, especially among the audience 3 or 4 times younger than Bronson himself.

One of such movies that seriously marred Bronson's reputation is DEATH WISH 3, third sequel in the series which began with DEATH WISH in 1974. In the original movie, Bronson played Paul Kersey, mild-mannered New York architect who turns into deadly street vigilante after his family fell victim to urban violence. That movie was far from masterpiece; yet, in it the director Michael Winner was skillfully offering the cinematic remedy for very real disease of growing crime rates of the time (on the same lines like Siegel in DIRTY HARRY). Unfortunately, six years later Cannon Group got rights to the character of Paul Kersey and began destroying it by pumping out sequels; even the presence of its original director didn't stop the rapid decline of the quality. DEATH WISH 3 begins when Kersey comes to visit an old friend, living in the urban wasteland of East New York, populated by young criminals and people too old or too poor to move out. Before the reunion, Kersey's friend falls victim to the street gang led by evil Fraker (played by Gavan O'Herlihy, probably the only noteworthy role in the film). Kersey decides to avenge his death and slowly prepares for his crusade, while the police inspector Shriker (Ed Lauter), ants to use him as a secret weapon in his losing war against the urban crime.

Bronson, the main asset in this movie, plays the character who is nothing more than an efficient killing machine. Although Bronson's charisma does help in overcoming some implausibilities (single man in his 60s and armed with a single pistol manages to wipe out dozens of opponents with superior firepower), the lack of emotions or Bronson's own commitment could be seen in a very few lines spoken in a film. The movie authors were somewhat aware of that emotional shallowness, so they added romantic interest for their hero - public defender played by Deborah Raffin and conveniently terminated in order to give some more motives for Kersey's crusade. On the other hand, emotions are much better played by confronting law-abiding, yet ethnically stereotyped citizens with their daily nemesis of street punks - ruthless enough to exercise their reign of terror on the entire city blocks, and stupid enough to be killed in droves by Kersey. Unfortunately, Michael Winner doesn't know how to work out the plot, and after torturing the viewers with mostly uninteresting characters and cliched and formulaic situations, ends this movie with a bang. The big showdown at the end - that turns East New York into the Sarajevo-like battle zone - is probably the worst part of the movie, because of the poor editing and the cheap sets and props that give away the low budget.

In short, this movie could be recommended only to the most fanatical Charles Bronson fans or for the people who are already desperate for 1980s nostalgia.

(Special note for trekkies: Marina Sirtis, the actress who played Counsellor Deanna Troi in STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION could be spotted in a small role of Portorican wife).

RATING: 3/10 (+)

Review written on July 30th 1998

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

If the current trends of Hollywood filmmaking continue, we are probably five or six years away from the moment when the 1980s would become the next Golden Age of movie nostalgia. Although some Hollywood products already use the last decade as a background for their stories (mostly in ironic way, like GROSSE POINTE BLANK and ROMY & MICHELLE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION), some time should pass before the good memories of that era overcome the bad ones. Until that happens, 1980s would be remembered as the Decade of Greed, when the revolutionary ideals of 1960s turned into its cruel, materialistic opposite and the money became the only thing that matters. Contemporary movies are good in illustrating what was bad for the people who had to live in those times. One of such movies, one that probably brings the essence of 1980s to the screen, is William Friedkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.

The money isn't just the symbolic motive in the film, it is the major elements of the plot. Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is an ex-convict who used his artistic abilities in order to become one of the best counterfeiters in L.A. Being too intelligent to fall into police traps, and ruthless enough to eliminate anybody or anything that could jeopardise his career, Masters managed to elude law for years and became well- connected. Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) is a Secret Service agent, adrenaline junkie whose life gets new meaning after his partner got killed by Masters. However, his plans of bringing the counterfeiter down meet one obstacle after another. Finally he sets up a final sting, but his superiors deny him the necessary money. Being frustrated, and against the reluctance of his new partner John Vukovich (Bill Pankow), he decides to get the money by robbing underworld courier. Their plan backfires with almost tragic consequences when their target turns out to be undercover FBI agent, but Chance decides to carry out his scheme anyway.

Like FRENCH CONNECTION, one of his previous masterpieces, this Friedkin's movie was inspired by real life. Gerrald Petievich, author of the novel that later served as basis for his screenplay, spent many years working as a Secret Service agent. That turned to be useful for the portrayal of that law enforcement agency, not much utilised by Hollywood. Secret Service millieu was also cleverly used in order to bring the viewer into the Decade of Greed; the beginning scene where the movie's hero works as a part of presidential security detail is a nice opportunity to hear Reagan's speech that could illustrate the political and economical notions of those times.

Ultramaterialistic and egotistical view of the world is shared by almost any character in the movie. Willem Dafoe brilliantly portrays dangerous and intelligent psychopath, whose ruthlessness and lack of any moral fibber doesn't seem like affliction in the Reagan years; on the contrary, those qualities actually makes Masters socially acceptable. Compared with him, and all the other side characters that want their "piece of the action", two heroes on the side of Law seem like losers. Instead of being a classical good guy, Secret Service agent Richard Chance (portrayed by William Petersen in his most impressive role so far) is nothing more than a lunatic whose adrenaline addiction and madness work against his better judgement; his sidekick, who should serve as those "better judgement" is a weakling and sentimental fool that gets suckered in the end. In such surroundings of moral decay, the not so happy, yet surprising ending doesn't seem out of line (although the very last shot leaves too much questions unanswered).

The dark atmosphere of L.A. - city of glamour and moral decay - is nicely captured by William Friedkin's directing skills. The tight and realistic scripts with memorable characters (portrayed by such capable actors like John Turturro, Dean Stockwell, Debra Feuer, Darlanne Fleugel and Steve James) gave opportunity for Friedkin to use another gimmick that made him famous in his 1971 masterpiece - great car chase. That scene alone, with lot of realism, thrills and surprise twists, is worth seeing the rest of the film. The soundtrack, provided by now almost forgotten band "Wang Chung", is also one of the more memorable of that decade. In every case, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. is one of the rare movies in which Hollywood actually tries to tell some unflattering truths about the world and succeeds in it.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

Review written on July 30th 1998

Casablanca (1942)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

There are some works of art that are almost impossible to review, not because of their own complexity, but because of their legendary status which prevents the reviewer to say anything original. One of such masterpieces is CASABLANCA, probably not the best film in the history of the seventh art, but definitely the most popular one. Its popularity can be measured not in a multitude of more or less disguised remakes that were made in more than half a century since its premiere, but also in countless tributes and references that movie makers use in their works to this day. CASABLANCA is also a movie that has the very rare virtue of both being praised by the critics and loved by general audience.

One of the things that makes this film even more unique was the fact that it was doomed to fail, at least judging by conventional movie-making wisdom of its time. It was based on a Broadway play so mediocre that it hadn't been produced on stage; screenplay by three writers - Julius G. Epstein, Philip J. Epstein and Howard Koch - was beeing written as shooting went along; the main actors were producers' second choice, and, finally, man behind camera, Michael Curtiz was considered to be capable, but not great director. However, the movie was commercially successful and earned three "Oscars", including the one for the best film. Until this very day, it is considered to be the best example of Hollywood film- making in its own Golden Age.

The plot of the movie was heavily influenced by the needs of WW2 propaganda, yet it also used rather complicated and now almost forgotten political circumstances of that global conflict in order to make intriguing story. In December 1941, Casablanca, exotic port on the Atlantic coast of North Africa is controlled by officially neutral, yet Nazi-collaborating French Vichy government. Thousands of refugees from war-torn Europe are stuck there on the way to Lisbon and safety of America, and ready to pay any price for precious exit visas. Many shady characters thrive on their misery, including the corrupt police chief, Captain Renault (Rains). His best friend is Rick Blaine (Bogart), who used to be idealistic anti-Fascist, and now owns popular night club in Casablanca and lives by his own cynical philosophy of "sticking his neck for nobody". However, everything changes when he gets in possession of two precious extra visas. This event coincides with the arrival of two new refugees to Casablanca. One of them is Victor Laszlo (Henreid), Czech resistance leader who escaped three times from Nazi concentration camps and became the legend of enslaved Europe. He is accompanied by his beautiful wife Ilsa Lund (Bergman), with whom Rick had a stormy affair in the eve of Nazi occupation of Paris. The couple needs visas, especially because of the Gestapo Major Strasser (Veidt) being on their trail. Rick is now forced to choose between love, wounded pride, self-
preserving interest and his own hatred of Fascism.

The casting for this movie seems influenced by divine inspiration - Humphrey Bogart, most legendary actor in the history of cinema, is one of the rare character actors who elevated his persona to the star status. Bogart's portrayal of Rick as complicated man, torn between idealistic past and bitter present, was so perfect, that his icon would forever be connected with that character. Another icon in his company is Ingrid Bergman, great actress of Old Hollywood, here in her artistic and visual prime. The cinematic coupling of Bogart and Bergman became one of the main symbols of that era of filmmaking - some happier times when the romance on the screen didn't look childish nor trite like in some more contemporary works. For many people, CASABLANCA is probably the best romantic film ever made. But the reason for that isn't the romance itself - it's the realistic story of people forced to make tough, and often wrong choices in their life.

The casting of CASABLANCA was right on target not just in a case of main leads. The supporting actors also did a marvellous job. Sidney Longstreet and Peter Lorre were here mainly to give a mystic flavour spotted in a previous Bogart classic - John Huston's MALTESE FALCON; yet both of them managed to portray colourful and original characters. Another shining example of good casting is now almost forgotten Paul Henreid as the weakest part of love triangle; character of Victor Laszlo has believable charisma and looks like a somebody who could inspire millions of people to rise against Nazi tiranny. Unfortunately, the charisma that burdened Laszlo, leaves little place for difficult choice, making his character forever overshadowed by Rick/Ilsa coupling.

However, Rick and Ilsa actually have a serious competiton for most memorable character in CASABLANCA. Captain Renault, brilliantly portrayed by Claude Rains in a role of a lifetime, was embodiment of perfect, almost unmatched balance between ethical corruption and physical charm. Despite being the undoubtful villain in almost entire movie, Rains managed to make Renault sympathetic character, and his final conversion to the side of Good, symbolized in not so subtle gesture at the end of movie looked unnecessary. Rains also gave another dimension to the movie, making it even more ambiguous; people who like to analyse movies to death discovered signs of homosexuality in Renault's relationship towards Rick, and Rick's final words leave room for even more outrageous speculations.

Together with well-drawn characters and exciting story, the movie was good in creating his own atmosphere. Professional nitpickers would probably have a field day in discovering numerous historical and geographical inaccuracies, but CASABLANCA is still a shining example of Hollywood WW2 movie that is beliavable, if not realistic. Any way, even if we don't see it as a historical document, CASABLANCA is movie that can be source of entertainment as well as infinite inspiration.

RATING: 9/10 (++++)

Review written on July 16th 1998

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

Disparity between popular and critically acclaimed movies isn't something that should catch any reviewer by surprise. On the other hand, sometimes things get a little bit personal. In my case, I was puzzled by the low rating of a movie I consider one of my favourite masterpieces of seventh art. CONAN THE BARBARIAN by John Millius is, in humble opinion of this author, one of the top ten motion pictures ever made. However, whenever I mention that movie to the average moviegoer, they show either disdain, ignorance or indifference.

Unenviable status of CONAN THE BARBARIAN among movie lovers puzzled me for years. At the beginning I was close to the conclusion that I had been trying to find artistic justification for my ultimate "guilty pleasure". However, years passed and my movie taste developed enough for me to distinguish true art from commercial trash, but my affection for CONAN stayed the same. Finally, I was beginning to make my own pet theory about Millius' masterpiece and that theory can be summed up in a phrase "wrong time".

However, it looked like a good time for Dino de Laurentiis, Italian movie producer who saw mega-success of Donner's SUPERMAN as an impulse to start making his own movie adaptations of popular comic books. His previous attempt in that direction, FLASH GORDON, was successful despite being chewed by critics, then allergic to 1970s camp. Unfortunately, when De Laurentiis decided to make another comic book adaptation he chose the wrong hero.

Unlike squeaky clean characters of Superman, Flash Gordon or even Buck Rogers, Conan the Barbarian actually didn't belong to G-rated world of simple morality virtues of late 1930s and early 1940s. His character was indeed invented in 1930s, but the dark imagination of tragically deceased author Robert E. Howard (1906- 1936) kept Conan outside pulp fiction mainstream. It was only in 1960s when, thanks to L. Sprague de Camp and other authors, Conan was rediscovered and later served as some kind of adult alternative to Tolkien-inspired stereotypes in fantasy genre. However, Conan reached the peak of its popularity in the media of comic books, using the new standards of depictions of sex and violence in order to make his character popular among male teeenagers.
De Laurentiis knew that the campy and ironic approach towards Conan's character wouldn't work. So, he needed some real 1970s author to deal with 1970s phenomenon. The choice fell on John Millius, one of the biggest names in so-called "New Hollywood" of 1970s. Millius was perfect, because the vision of Conan as lonely but free character in amoral world was in line with Millius' own individualistic and libertarian views.

According to many Conan purists, the plot is inconsistent with the "canon" of Conan novels and comic books. In other way, it uses many of Conan stories in order to make the story both original and faithful to the works of Robert E. Howard. The story begins in time of Conan, some 12000 years B.C. when the continents of Africa, Europe and Asia were single land mass, and when many ancient but corrupt civilizations shared the space with barbarian tribes. One of such tribes becomes target of a raiders led by evil sorceror and demigod Thulsa Doom (Jones) who kill all the adults and take children into slavery. One of those children is Conan who, thanks to years of hard work, grows up to be muscular and extremely strong slave. Such qualities later lead him to the career of gladiator, and, after earning freedom from his master, he begins his personal crusade for revenge. The quest leads him to the city of Zamora where he strikes friendship with thieves Subotai (Lopez) and beautiful Valeria (Bergman). After succesfully stealing jewels from the Temple of Snake, they are approached by old King Osric (Von Sydow), whose own daughter (Quenessen) became the follower of Thulsa Dooom, now the leader of growing and dangerous cult on the way to global domination. Conan accepts the offer to return the Princess to King, although his friends doubt his real motives.

From the perspective of an average moviegoer, who expected some escapist mind- blowing adventure, CONAN THE BARBARIAN might have been a disappointment or mediocre piece of work. Instead of an adventure, the movie is an epic story where the plot and characters tend to be more important than the visual and other attractions. However, the movie doesn't lack those attractions - there are fewer action sequences than in an average action/average movie, but they are beautifully shot and choreographed. Also, the movie authors paid great attention towards detail, in a quantities unpreccedented from von Stroheim's time. Although the world of Conan is fictious, the Millius cleverly portrayed it as mythical vision of Bronze/Iron Age Europe, using many actual historic details of that, in Hollywood movies generally ignored, time period. Amounts of blood, gore, sex and nudity that may be gratuitous in any other film , here, paradoxically, give great deal of historical realism to the film that is basically a mythical fantasy. But the biggest attraction of all is Basil Poledouris' musical score, so beautiful and perfect, that even some of the biggest critics consider it one of the best in history of cinema.

The acting attractions are very few, but there are some wonderful parts. CONAN THE BARBARIAN is now mostly remembered as Arnold Schwarzenegger's first major movie role, that later catapulted his career. Although the future star received one of first "Razzie" anti-awards for his performances, I must say that his role in CONAN is perhaps the best in his career. He didn't just worked hard to make his character as physically identical to Conan as possible, but emotionally as well. His role is quite serious, and lacks one-liners that would later become Schwarzenegger's trademark.

Schwarzenegger's acting partners in this movie weren't that lucky in their later career. James Earl Jones was probably most successful of them all, and it's thrilling to see him here in atypical but brilliant portrayal of the ultimate bad guy. Apart from Max von Sydow, almost everyone else - Gerry Lopez, Sandahl Bergman and Valerie Quenessen - sailed to oblivion, although their parts were adequate at worst.

Apart from the major misunderstanding between the commercial audience and artistically ambitious movie creators, CONAN THE BARBARIAN suffers from another, more serious problems in his approach towards viewers. Some critics are prone to appraise this film not on its artistic merit, but on its, sometimes questionable, ideology. Screenplay was written by Oliver Stone in his best screeenwriting years, but also in a period before his attempts to become cinematic conscience of America, and for some, his referrences to Nietzsche philosophy are enough to brand the screenplay fascistoid. Portrayal of Thulsa Doom's cult in a movie might be interpreted as influenced by Nietzsche's unflattering views on Christianity, thus making movie more anti-Christian than some more harmless but more hyped cases (like LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, for example). However, John Millius was definitely more involved in the screenplay, and political overtones were lost or hidden behind Millius' own individualistic philosophy. Anyway, even if the movie does have some hidden "message", that message wouldn't prevent mature viewer to enjoy in a cinematic masterpiece that is very rare to find these days.

RATING: 10/10 (+++++)

Review written on June 27th 1998