Arnie, Ancient & Modern: Part 1 – Ancient

I’ve been taking a trip down Arnold Lane recently (with apologies to Pink Floyd).

Hercules in New York (1969)

Arnold’s first film and it was four years before they let him in front of a camera again. He plays Hercules, demigod and strong man, and certainly looks the part, but his heavy Austrian accent and lack of facial expression are anything but Greek godlike. After what seems like an eternity on Mt Olympus, the rather whiny and petulant son of Zeus heads off to New York to live his life, in spite of dad forbidding him to do so. He makes a name for himself as a wrestler, only to have his strength taken away from him and subsequently get defeated, which puts him and his human friends in the bad books of a gangster who bet heavily on his victory. Fortunately the gods are on hand to take care of their own, and it’s all a plot conceived by Juno to humiliate her husband’s bastard offspring. Oh dear, where to begin in describing how bad this film is. It’s very, very bad, with a cast that could pretty much be replaced with cardboard cutouts, a plot that gives new weight to the word ‘ridiculous’, and Olympus as setting is about as heavenly as Skegness seafront on a wet weekend in October. It makes the TV series with Mr. Sorbo seem incredibly sophisticated in comparison. They can’t even get nomenclature right, with a Greek Zeus, while everyone else – Hercules, Juno, Mercury, Venus etc. – gets to go the Roman route. A few years earlier the team of Lee and Kirby showed how Hercules in New York should have been done, and I advise reading that classic of the Marvel Age of Comics to wash this drivel out of your mind.

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Thirteen years later, and once again Hollywood needs a muscleman who looks the part for the title role in John Milius’ film based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. When his family are slain by the minions of sorcerer Thulsa Doom, a young Conan is sold into slavery, over the years working his way up through gladiatorial games and winning freedom. With a group of thieves as his allies, our hero sets out to save the Princess and thwart the man he holds responsible for all his misfortunes. It’s an engaging story, one that holds the interest and with plenty of imagery that can be interpreted in various ways, as for example with Conan nailed to a ‘tree of woe’ that brings to mind both Christ and Odin, while Thulsa Doom and his mission has about it all the trappings of some cult, such as the Branch Davidians and/or Heaven’s Gate. There are some excellent fight scenes, while the set piece at the end with Conan destroying his nemesis’ stronghold is especially moving in its symbolism. The characters are all well rounded and the two main leads do their job with real panache. James Earl Jones as Doom has a voice and presence to send chills up the spine, while his ability to turn into a giant snake is convincingly done, and the nihilistic philosophy behind his cult although ultimately vacuous is engagingly so. Arnie as Conan has little to do except look like he could tear you apart with his bare hands, though he does a bit more with the role, even throws in the odd moment of humour, as with the camel punch out. It’s a good film, one that is a credit to the source material.

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

Back to the well two years later, and in my opinion not as successfully, though the film is still a lot of fun. Conan and his companions are persuaded to go in search of the jewelled horn of the dreaming god Dagoth by evil queen Taramis, who has plans to raise her god by sacrificing an innocent princess. Along the way our intrepid band of adventurers must deal with the wizard Toth-Amon, priests protecting the horn, and treachery in their own ranks, before Conan gets to go one on one with Dagoth. It looks good, though not as evocatively shot as “Barbarian”, and Arnie is just as good as before, maybe even a little more rounded in that he has to fend off the attentions of Princess Jehnna, something I’m not at all confident the REH original would have done. The rest of the gang do good, as with a glaring Grace Jones as warrior woman Zula, and Sarah Douglas as the leather clad Taramis (channeling her costume, if not her personality, from her time as Ursa in the “Superman” movies). Perhaps the real problem for me, is that there simply isn’t a bad guy of the stature of Thulsa Doom, only an assembly of mini-monsters. Toth-Amon, played by Pat Roach, is promising, but doesn’t seem to have any game plan beyond keeping what he has, while Taramis’ wish to revive Dagoth seems pretty much pointless. None of them seem to have a personality or purpose beyond being a villain for Conan to knock down in his own good time. There is nothing truly memorable about them, no real presence or depth as there was with Doom, and for that reason the film isn’t as memorable either.

Red Sonja (1985)

This time round Arnie plays second fiddle to Brigitte Nielsen’s Sonja, a warrior woman based on a character created by Howard and fleshed out by Marvel’s Roy Thomas. The plot could be almost a fusion of the two previous films Conan films. On a personal level, Sonja is seeking revenge on the evil queen whose soldiers slaughtered her family and raped her. On a greater scale Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) is seeking the powerful artifact known as the Talisman to cement her rule, though it’s more likely that it will destroy the world when she unleashes its power. Arnie plays the noble Kalidor, a warrior who pops up to help out every time it looks like Sonja has bitten off more than she can chop up into little pieces. Think of him as a sort of muscleman ex machina. The role isn’t exactly demanding, and given Arnie’s stony expression throughout that’s just as well. Though she looks the part in pre-Xena chic, Nielsen doesn’t do much better in the acting stakes, and I’d say the same about nearly all the cast, but I guess this wasn’t ever going to be a film where Oscar winning performances were a serious possibility. Overall it’s a mildly entertaining slice of hokum that doesn’t tax the viewer’s patience if we take it at face value, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but it lacks a budget to match its ambition, and tries too hard to do too many different things, with the result that it doesn’t really do any of them especially well. It’s all very ho hum. If you like seeing well-oiled and muscled men and women in skimpy costumes (actually, that’s just the women) working out with broadswords then this may just be the movie for you.

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