Conan on Camera: J.W. Ward on one Barbarian’s life in film

It might be hard to believe, but Conan the Barbarian has been with us since 1932.

That’s when writer Robert E. Howard first saw his most famous creation in print, when the story “The Phoenix on the Sword” was published in the famous pulp magazine Weird Tales.  Writing and releasing 17 more stories over the next 4 years, Howard is credited with creating the sword-and-sorcery subgenre of fantasy before dying by his own hand in 1936.
Since Howard’s death, Conan has become the world’s best known “barbarian” character through his many appearances in novels, comic book series, on television and, of course, in film.
With a brand-new Conan film hitting theatres this weekend, Biff Bam Pop! takes a look back at the barbarian’s legacy on the big screen.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)

When producers Edward Summer and Edward R. Pressman first saw bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1977’s Pumping Iron, they were impressed by his personality enough to start work on a vehicle for him.  Being fans of North American fantasy, the two decided on the character of Conan, beginning  a five-year developmental journey.  While the first draft of the script was written by Summer and Conan comic book writer Roy Thomas, it wasn’t until then-screenwriter Oliver Stone delivered a version of his own that the project generated serious interest.  Intent on directing, Stone would find himself pushed aside when European producer Dino De Laurentiis purchased the rights, hired John Milius as director and had him rewrite the script.
Made on a budget of about $20 million and released on May 14, 1982, Conan the Barbarian became a box office success despite featuring unknown actors supporting Arnold like dancer Sandahl Bergman as Valeria and surfer Gerry Lopez as Subotai.  James Earl Jones, famous at the time as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, appeared in Conan as the villain Thulsa Doom, originally a character from Robert E. Howard’s Kull stories.

Conan the Barbarian would become Schwarzenegger’s breakthrough vehicle and introduced one of the most famous pieces of dialogue in film history.

Conan The Destroyer (1984):
After Conan the Barbarian made almost $70 million at the box office, a sequel was fast tracked by producer Raffaella De Laurentiis.  With John Milius unavailable, Richard Fleischer was recruited to direct.  Thinking that Conan the Barbarian would have made more money if it hadn’t been rated R, Dino Di Laurentiis pushed for a film with less violence, more humour and a PG rating.


Again featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular hero and Mako as the wizard Akiro, Conan the Destroyerintroduced a larger collection of companions for the famous barbarian, including Grace Jones as Zula, Wilt Chamberlain as Bombaata, a 15-year-old Olivia d’Abo as Princess Jehnna, while Sarah Douglas stepped in as the villainous Queen Taramis while an uncredited Andre the Giant worked in disguise as Dagoth, the “Dreaming God.”Critically panned but commercially successful, Conan the Destroyer paved the way for Fleisher and De Laurentiis to dig deeper into Conan’s world, unleashing one of the worst films of all time.

Red Sonja (1985)

Based on a character created by Barry Windsor-Smith and Roy Thomas in the Conan comics (that was loosely based on a Robert E. Howard character called Red Sonya, a Renaissance-era heroine), Red Sonja saw model Brigitte Nielsen debut as the red-haired warrior, seeking revenge against the killers of her family. 

Destined to only fall in love with a man that can best her with a sword, she meets her equal in Prince Kalidor.  Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kalidor is Conan in every way but in name due legal issues at the time over the rights to Conan relative to Howard’s “Red Sonya” and Thomas’ “Red Sonja.”

Add to that the terrible script, poor acting from almost every party involved and overall poor production and it’s easy to understand why it didn’t make back half of its $18 million budget.

Conan the Conqueror (1987)
Following the box-office slaying of Red Sonja in 1985, Dino De Laurentiis’ contract with Schwarzenegger expired and would have cost him dearly to renew due to the actor’s commitment to filming the movie Predator.  Thus the third Conan film, based on the Robert E. Howard Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon, fell into developmental limbo for many years.

Conan the Adventurer (1992)
As Conan’s film career stalled, Graz Entertainment and Sunbow Productions were able to license the rights to the character for kid-friendly, Saturday morning cartoon consumption.  Debuting in September 1992, Conan the Adventurer aired for 64 episodes in syndication and followed Conan as he fought a snake cult in an effort to bring his family back to life from “living stone.” 
Conan and the Young Warriors (1993)
Spinning off from Conan the Adventurer, this cartoon series had Conan play mentor and protector to a group of kids destined to rule over Hyboria.  As if anyone could believe in Conan as a family-friendly babysitter, the show mercifully only lasted for 13 episodes on CBS.
Kull the Conqueror (1997)
Through the 1990s, Arnold Schwarzenegger continuously refused to take up the role of Conan again, pushing producer Rafaella Di Laurentiis to drastic measures – a recasting.  Actor Kevin Sorbo, popular at the time for playing the title character on TV’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, was approached but refused to take on a character so well established.  Conan was replaced with Kull, Howard’s other barbarian pulp hero, and Kull the Conqueror arrived in theatres in 1997.  It promptly bombed at the box office.
Conan the Adventurer (1997)
Evil Dead director Sam Raimi found himself with a bit of a success on his hands in the 1990s with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its spin-off show, Xena: Warrior Princess.  Eager to cash in the sudden popularity of fantasy television, Balengica Productions, Keller Entertainment Group and Threshold Entertainment developed the low-budget Conan the Adventurer series, starring bodybuilder Ralf Möller as Conan.   Bearing no continuity with the earlier films or comics, the series lasted only one 22-episode season.  In case you’re wondering why…
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
Over the last decade, the rights to a Conan film remained largely with Warner Bros. until 2007, when they were shifted to Nu Image/Millennium Films.  Development of a new film, unconnected to the Schwarzenegger franchise and more faithful to Howard’s stories, began almost immediately. Big names like director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men: The Last Stand) and producer Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Grindhouse: Planet Terror) were attached to the project at different times, but nothing concrete materialized.By 2009, Marcus Nispel (Frankenstein, Friday the 13th) was signed to direct. In January of 2010, Jason Momoa, of Stargate: Atlantis fame, was signed to star alongside Rose McGowan, Rachel Nichols and Ron Perlman, with a script by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood.

Will it hold up? Will Momoa’s take hold water against Arnold’s? You’ll be able to judge for yourself this weekend. In the meantime, here’s a taste:

Schwarzenegger, Moeller or Momoa…who’s your favourite Conan?

JW Ward is a Toronto-based writer, media personality and professional cynic. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonwardDOTca, through his website at and every Thursday here at Biff Bam Pop!

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