Medieval Matters

The Barbarians: Conan Without Conan

Conan the Barbarian came out in 1982. It was a hit, and it catapulted a muscled Arnold Schwarzenegger into action stardom.

That success led to a sequel—Conan the Destroyer, in 1984—as well as a host of mid-80s Conan knock-offs like Krull (1983) and Masters of the Universe (1987).

These are all Really Bad Films, and I might well review them all before my time here is done.

Starting today… with The Barbarians (1987).

Somehow I had managed never to hear of this film until recently. It was the other movie included on an “action packed” double feature DVD with The Norseman, which I’ve previously declared to possibly be the Worst Viking Film Ever Made.

As loyal readers may recall, a colleague and I attempted a historical accuracy drinking game during our viewing of The Norseman. We had to quit within minutes due to concerns about hospitalization, so by the time we were watching The Barbarians that night I was in No Shape for Writing.

Ouch. And ouch again.

As a result, I’ve just watched it again.

Please understand at the outset that this is a bad movie. The script is awful. The direction and editing is B-movie at best. The music (when they bother to put it in) is bad 80s without being good bad 80s. The special effects are cheap. The stunt choreography is below the quality of LARPers in the Park (with George!). And the acting …

Oh how I love it.

I mean, the acting is bad. Genuinely horrible. You’ve seen better from actors in the park (with George!).

At the same time, no one in the film cares. Frankly, the stars seem to positively revel in the preposterous nature of the whole thing. At least one person in every scene is looking around at the others as if to say, “Can you believe this is happening?”

Often times, it’s everyone on screen.

I love it.

Before we get to all that, though, we start with the opening credits, cued to cheap 80s synth music, during which we learn that Michael Berryman, who played Pluto in The Hills Have Eyes, will be playing a character called “The Dirtmaster.”

This is the first sign that this is not just a knock-off of Conan, but a sort of riff on Mad Max, as well.

All hail Queen Canary!

Okay, here comes the opening narration. Ready for this?

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there existed a world of savage splendor, an age made for adventure, a time of darkness, demons, of sorcery. It was a time when man, woman, and child were ruled by the sword. But one tribe, the Ragniks, had the right of safe passage throughout this world. In the dawn of time, their ancient king had traded a mountain of gold for a single sparkling ruby. The stone was magic, and contained the secrets of music, of joyful laughter, of human kindness. A wise and good man, the king knew these things were far more precious than any earthly treasure. And so the Ragniks became the world’s entertainers, storytellers, musicians. They were joyfully welcomed everywhere.

Oh gods. That’s great.

Pretty much how the Ringling Bros. started, I think.

Anyway, they’re peaceful jugglers and sideshow folks these days. They laugh a lot, apparently on account of the Magic Ruby they have. Their leader is (not making this up) Queen Canary, played by Virginia Bryant. She’s the keeper of the Magic Ruby, and as the movie begins in earnest she’s riding with a caravan of carts and wagons filled with these circus folks.

But oh no! Some freaky bad guys show up, who look like background extras from Mad Max who were too far from the lens to get the Good Makeup and have had to ditch their gas-guzzlers for horses.

No explanation for this is given.

A running fight ensues in which the circus performers use their circus skills to take out bad guys. They also use a pop-up ballista that they have hidden in their cart. Because peaceful folks roll like that.

It’s a tough fight, though. A beatnik Ragnik with a pink afro clown wig is smitten with a styrofoam cardboard axe.

And still more bad guys are coming! One of them sets fire to the cart full of straw that the gopniks Ragniks inexplicably have with them.

Sensing danger like, say, a bird in a coal mine, Queen Canary (LOL) gives the Magic Ruby to Some Guy who does the ol’ tuck and roll to get off their speeding wagon. Not one of the many pursuing riders notice.

Behold the action! (Also, I don’t know what’s up with the phallic thing in the road.)

Eventually, Queen Canary is trapped in a canyon by The Bad Guy, who is named Kadar, played by Richard Lynch in eye shadow, whose outfit and hair are clearly playing off David Bowie’s Goblin King from Labyrinth (which came out the year before).

There is tense music.

There is not-tense acting.

Kadar threatens Queen Canary, who is wearing a shiny gold miniskirt and an outfit to show off her plumage. He wants the Magic Ruby. She doesn’t want to give it to him.

I want a drink.

There’s two orphan boys with the circus, and when they see how mean Kadar is they attack him and bite off his fingers.

Kids were like that in the 80s. You kidz 2day don’t know what it was like.

Queen Canary begs for their lives and (checks to confirm this was written by men: yup) she says she’ll “do anything you want” if he lets them live.

He takes the deal and promises that he won’t harm them by his hand.

So that’s the first 14 minutes.

Back in the Bad Guy camp, we encounter lots of leather bikinis, horned helms, greased dudes, ’80s Metal hair … and a striking lack of music. 80s films were like that sometimes, with the soundtrack coming and going, but some scenes in this film don’t have music when you’d think they normally would. It’s pretty unsettling.

Anyway, Kadar has a rotating platform Throne of Doom. He doesn’t call it that, but he should. It’s quite elaborate, and in the end it will have no bearing on anything in the film whatsoever.

Kadar and China. (Not pictured: a hair stylist gone rogue.)

Kadar also has an evil sorceress, because of course he does. She has what can only be described as donut hair (the “Krispy Kreme” will make a comeback, I’m sure!). Her name is China.

With her is a tall bald guy wearing a uni-horn on his noggin—it naggingly reminds me of a tefillin—and … yes! It’s the Dirtmaster!

Apparently the Dirtmaster runs “a prison called The Pit”—the narrator tells us this in voiceover—and the orphan kids he’s promised not to kill are separated from one another and sent there to work as slaves in a quarry of some kind. One of them is regularly punished by a guy in an iron helmet. The other is punished by a guy in a bronze helmet.

Here comes the Dirtmaster!

Now comes a time jump, which means a return for our trusty narrator, who points out how badly the orphan twins are treated, and yet …

Nevertheless, they remain rebellious and unbroken. And they grew until they were men. But not ordinary men. Barbarians.

Thus are we introduced to Kutchek and Gore, who are played by Peter Paul and David Paul, respectively.

No characters in the film call them barbarians. Their sole identification thus appears to be an attempt to cash in on Conan, as they are even billed on the movie poster not as Paul and Paul but as the otherwise nameless Barbarian Brothers.

Gore is on the left. Or the right.

The word barbarian, if you don’t know, derives from the Greek word βάρβαρος (barbaros; pl. βάρβαροι barbaroi), which the Greeks used as a pejorative for pretty much anyone who didn’t speak good Greek. In particular, the languages they were encountering in Anatolia sounded to their ear like guttural nonsense: bar-bar-bar (bar-barbara-ann!). Since these non-Greeks were in Greek eyes uncivilized, the term’s connection to language was eventually lost, such that today we call an uncivilized person a barbarian.

More specifically, we’ve come to imagine barbarians as having a particular look—one that’s generally tied to Rome’s version of an uncivilized person: the Germanic tribes along the Roman frontier.

All that to say that I suspect these Barbarian Brothers don’t speak a lick of Greek, so the term is quite fitting.

This was also (apparently) the first incursion of these gentlemen into acting, and it’s clear that they were cast by virtue of their ginormous muscles. Honestly, they’re huge. Like, can’t-put-their-arms-to-their-sides-huge.

They will spend almost the entirety of this film flexed out in loincloths and utterly smothered in grease. My wife points out, in this regard, that although there’s an inordinate number of half-clothed girls in this film, these two buffed-out bros are indeed giving lots to see for those who enjoy the other side.

Will flex for food.

As the foregoing hopefully makes clear, the Barbarian Brothers were not, it seems, hired for their ability to do Shakespeare in the Park (with George!).

But—oh my gods—they’re perfect.

A person hired to do a job that they are not really qualified for will often try way too hard to prove themselves. They feel the pressure, and they take the fast-train to overacting, aka Nic Cageville.

This is not the direction that the Barbarian Brothers take. It looks like they can’t believe they’re in this film, but they don’t view that as their problem. They’re here, for whatever reason, and before anyone wises up and kicks them out, they’re going to make the most of it.

In short, they are having a friggin’ blast, and that makes these two meatheads the best damn thing in this movie.

Back to it, then:

Kadar has a “harem” (I should probably write about the misuse of the term sometime), and Queen Canary is in it. She’s held behind bars, like…well, like some kind of caged bird. Happily, it seems that over the years she had managed to smuggle some hot rollers into her cage. She’s got some serious ringlets.

Things really get going when China the Sorceress—I still can’t decide if that name is cultural appropriation or just crappy creativity—comes in and pronounces that “it’s time.”

See, the Bad Guy promised he wouldn’t kill those lads with his own hand, but that whole repetitive-beatings-from-guys-in-helms thing was psychological training to get them to kill each other.

One barbarian bro puts on an iron helm, the other puts on a bronze helm, and they are set into a cheap-ass Thunderdome. They fight, one guy gets his helmet knocked open, and they recognize each other. Then Rosencrantz Guildenstern one of the Bros looks up and sees Queen Canary.

Barbarian Bro 1: Canary! She’s alive!

Barbarian Bro 2: That’s right, bonehead. And we got to get out of here if we’re going to save her!

Do they get out? Hell yeah, they do, even if they can’t run well on account of their ginormity.

They randomly meet a girl in a cage in the middle of the forest. Why is she there? I dunno. Her name is Ismene, and she’s played by Eva La Rue. She blatantly gives the bros the eye, which is a nice turn-about on the film’s objectification of women…except that, at the same time, her outfit consists of a fur bikini.

Eat your heart out, Amidala.

Anywho, the Barbarian Bros walk like twenty yards and find the remains of the Ragnik caravan, which is currently led by this goofy dude with an Amidala hairdo named Ibar. Hijinks and hilarity ensue, and, after being almost hanged—one of the Bros blows the noose off his neck by flexing it—they’re identified as the long-lost orphan kids.

Ibar: Stay where you are, fatty.

Gore: Fatty? Me?

Kutchek: You.

Gore: Fatty?!? Who you calling fatty, moosehead?

A plan ensues in which the Ismene is going to help the Bros get weapons from someone at a tavern called the Bucket of Blood in order to break into Kadar’s camp and free the Canary from her cage. This will involve arm-wrestling with a character called “The Jackal” … and me pondering the ways I spend my time.

The Bros get into the camp. Ismene has (off-screen) learned of a secret passage into Kadar’s harem. Getting inside, the Bros have to fend off a lot of boobs. They reach Canary, whose secret message lays out the remaining plot like an episode of Dora the Explorer:

You’ve got to go to the Tomb of the Ancient King to get the Sacred Weapons to fight the Guardian Dragon at The Lime Tree to get the Magic Ruby!

Of course, she told them all this in the harem. And one of the other girls was listening and tells the Sorceress. So the back half of the movie is a chase.

It won’t surprise you that the Ancient Tomb will have lit candles inside. It won’t surprise you that this made me ponder what a shitty job it must be to be the one keeping those going for centuries.

Well, like, I don’t want to ruin any of the actual surprises, dude, but I can assure you that you’ll get more bad acting than you can flex a bicep at, a handheld crossbow that may or may not dramatically jam, disco lights in the innards of a beast, and, in the end, a Cinderella story with a belly button gem instead of a glass slipper.

Mike’s Medieval Ratings
Accuracy: 1 of 10 worlds of savage splendor
Just Plain Fun: 2 of 2 Barbarian Brother biceps

Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Culture at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy trilogy set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of Heaven, The Gates of Hell, and The Realms of God, is available from Tor Books.

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