Aug 19 2011 10:51am

Gigantic Mirth: Conan the Destroyer

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired [badly wigged], sullen-eyed, looking mostly confused, sword in hand, [with] a thief, a reaver [former NBA star], and slayer Grace Jones, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet [and amazing jockstrap].

If you watch Conan the Destroyer back-to-back with Conan the Barbarian, it should take you less than five minutes to divine know how bad this movie is going to be. In the thirty years since I last saw it, I’d forgotten just how terrible it is. The Carmina-Burana-like “Anvil of Crom” theme that started the original has been replaced by a more upbeat adventure theme; the forging of a sword is now footage of horsemen wearing armor that looks suspiciously like armor from the first film; and we’ve been informed that Wilt Chamberlain is playing a role, and may be speaking lines. Things go rapidly downhill from there, and never recover.

Conan has lost his leather trousers, and is now clad in just his underwear, or what is quite possibly the jockstrap David Bowie wore in Labyrinth. Despite being nearly nude, he’s adopted a form of Hyborean Puritanism, pining away for his lost love Valeria, and having nothing to do with any other women (although this wasn’t the case in the original cut — just the PG version that we ended up with). He’s just a big sweaty tease.

This whole movie is an exercise in what happens when you take an R-rated character like Conan and try to make him PG. There are some moments that scream for Tom Servo to make commentary, like when Sarah Douglas, as Queen Taramis, rushes to her teenage neice’s bedroom to find her screaming, clad in a slinky little number. Wilt Chamberlain, the man who boasted of having had sex with 20,000 women, is already there. Creeeepy. 

Or consider Azoth, The Monster at the End of this Film, played by, but not billed as, Andre the Giant. Azoth was designed by Carlos Rambaldi, the man responsible for the giant penii of Dune. He was clearly in some extended Freudian phase, because Azoth’s pissed-off self has a head shaped like a bundle of female genitalia topped by one of those fertility horns. Maybe Carlos was feeling as sexually repressed as Conan....

Of course, there couldn’t be any sex in this Conan movie, because Dino De Laurentis had decided he’d make more money if the franchise was accessible to a younger crowd (as it turned out, it made less than the R-rated original). Enter Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, both comic-book writers. Roy Thomas is the man when it comes to Conan’s Marvel comics incarnation, but that’s a far cry from either Robert E. Howard or even John Milius’s vision. Conan the Destroyer is a Quest, and it’s really only in the comics and pastiches that Conan goes on Quests. In this case, a Quest ripped right out of one of Roy Thomas’s Conan stories, from issue 115 of the Marvel series: “Conan, do what I want, and I’ll resurrect your true love.” In the comics, it was the raven haired Bêlit, and in the movie, it was the golden haired Valeria. I knew it when I saw it as a kid: sure, the original script by Thomas and Conway (later turned into the graphic novel The Horn of Azoth) had no trace of this, but I can’t imagine the plotlines of Conan #115 and Conan the Destroyer had similar plots by chance, given Thomas’s involvement.

So in short, it’s the comic-book Conan you get in this movie, complete with band of sidekicks. (Conan the Destroyer is arguably the reason we got that lame Conan television show.) Sure, Grace Jones has a certain onscreen charisma, and I chuckled occasionally at Tracey Walter’s schtick, but even as a kid, I knew this movie was a dud. I’d read enough of the paperbacks to know better.

There is a way to watch Conan the Destroyer and enjoy it. You could make it part of a movie night viewing inferior knock offs spawned by Conan the Barbarian. You would watch Deathstalker, Beastmaster, and of course, Blademaster aka Cave Dwellers (MST3K version recommended, unless you’ve already achieved a sublime level of sarcasm watching the other films), and close with Conan the Destroyer. (For the record, the folks at i09 already did this with Destroyer, and tweeted their commentary. Here’s the best of it.)

Or, you could make it into a drinking game: every time Grace Jones yells her lines, Wilt Chamberlain has a line with fewer than five words, Conan fights that guy from the first movie who got a giant SPIKE rammed through his guts but now has-a-mask-on-so-you-don’t-know-it’s-him, someone engages in clunky exposition, or director Richard Fleischer mistakes someone running at the camera in close-up as fight choreography, take a drink. You’ll be bombed before half the film is over.

It’s not that I can’t enjoy a cheese-fest. I have a special place in my heart for The Sword and the Sorcerer, Big Trouble in Little China, and Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice. The issue is that this is a sequel. It’s supposed to bear some passing resemblance to the film that came before, and it doesn’t. It’s like watching the fourth Superman movie. It’s so bad it leaks its badness back into all the good of the original. Conan the Barbarian is a classic sword and sorcery film. Conan the Destroyer isn’t worthy to tie the sandals of Conan the Barbarian.

Sadly, I can’t get rid of my copy of Conan the Destroyer, because it’s on the back of my Conan the Barbarian disc. That’s how it’s been packaged for a while now, as the “Complete Quest,” as though the revenge driven bloodbath of Barbarian was any sort of quest. I didn’t want to own Destroyer, but the Marketing Gods forced me to buy it. Thankfully there’s a new Blu-ray edition for each film, so those who want mirth or melancholy now have a choice. Give me another 30 years and maybe I’ll be able forget Destroyer all over again.

Oh, there’s one more way to enjoy this movie. Mix this approach with the drinking game: once you’re properly pickled, discuss how Conan the Destroyer is a prequel to Labyrinth, through the plot device of the magic jockstrap, passed from Conan, down through generations, until it was found by the evil Goblin King, Jareth. The possibilities are staggering.

Mike Perschon is a hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and on the English faculty at Grant MacEwan University.

Mike Conley
1. NomadUK
Yeah, so, everything I said about Conan the Barbarian in that earlier post? Not that here.

Crom, did this film suck.
Richard Fife
2. R.Fife
Just for a credit where credit is due, wasn't this plot also lifted from one of the Robert Jordan Conan novels of the same name? I haven't actually read it myself, so won't say for sure, but I swear I'd read that in a few places.
S Cooper
3. SPC
As awful as it is, I'm still fond of this one. It has the sacrificial polka and the funniest codpieces of all time.
Mike Perschon
4. Mike_Perschon
R.Fife - Jordan wrote the novelization of the film.
Mike Perschon
5. Mike_Perschon
And all apologies for referring to the monster as Azoth - that's his name in the comic book Thomas and Conway released to get some mileage out of their original script. In the movie, his name is Dagoth, a thinly veiled reference to Dagon, or an opportunity for a joke that would be hilarious once far enough into your drinking game: "Who da Goth? YOU da Goth!"
Cassandra Cookson
6. cass
Are you going to post about Red Sonja next? I know it's not Conan exactly, but it's got that vibe. I saw it years ago in the theater with a friend who still hasn't forgiven me for dragging him to it. I remember it as a great piece of cheese though and far better than the second Conan.

Mike Perschon
7. Mike_Perschon
Cassandra - I had no plans to do so, and technically, the movie King Kull is the third Conan film rejigged for a different REH character. If I were to blog further barbarian posts, I'd do Scorpion King. I've always felt Dwayne Johnson would have made a cool Conan in his earlier years.
Richard Fife
8. R.Fife
Ah, okay, I knew it was there somewhere. Still need to read it, though. I read Conan the Unconquered by Jordan and really enjoyed it, especially since it mostly just Conan going around, being Conan, and the only reason he ends up fighting the villains was because they mistook him running his mouth as him knowing something. I have to wonder if Jordan managed to make this story more bareable in book form.
j p
9. sps49
I think the 1st movie wasn't as good as you wrote (I hated that Wheel of Pain, and the pitfighting may have been filmed well, but it wasn't Conan), and this one isn't as bad.

I didn't like the PG and comic elements much, but the story did have more elements consistent with Howard's work. The plot is roughly similar to A Witch Shall Be Born minus the crucifixion scene, the young woman needing Conan's help directly (vice a father sending him on a retrieval mission) pops up often, and his fighting relies on skill and strength, not Rube Goldberg traps.

I have never read any Marvel Conan, just the Ace books and Robert Jordan's books, so I might be less tolerant of deviations from the original. I see Conan like I do Star Trek- if you want to write stories about either, you should start from the original, not derivations of derivations.
Twila M. Price
10. Twila M. Price
I've always had a soft spot for this movie -- isn't it the one which has the lines about "my brother's cousin's friend's uncle" or somesuch "broke into the palace through here"? Classic sillyness.

Plus, I really like the music when the princess first awakens Dagoth.
Twila M. Price
11. Indiana Jim
You could be like me, and Destroyer could have been your first introduction into Conan, because it was like the only movie they played on the syndication channels on Saturday afternoons when I was a kid. I realize how bad the movie is, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE it, and it's still better than a lot of crappy 80's fantasy like Sword and the Sorcerer or even Beastmaster (thought I love that, too). At least there is quality music, quality film editing and good action sequences. Who cares about plot? I have since fallen in love with the original Barbarian, even though it too departs from the as-written Conan, but the 10-year old in me still squees when this movie is played.

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