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 The Carmina-Burana-like “Anvil of Crom” theme that started the original has been replaced by a more upbeat adventure theme; the forging of a sword is now footage of horsemen wearing armor that looks suspiciously like armor from the first film; and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….

Conan’s Freudian sword pose

Conan’s Freudian sword pose

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.

Arnold, as bewildered as we are about Richard Fleischer's direction

Arnold, as bewildered as we are about Richard Fleischer's direction

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.


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