Conan the Destroyer (1984) – By Matt Singer

Arnold Schwarzenegger has a bad rap as an actor.
Because he’s lived in this country for over thirty
years and still has his grinding Austrian accent, and
because for years he never appeared in anything
requiring him to display any human emotions besides
bloodlust, he is perceived as a talentless
muscleman.

This is unfair. When you watch as many Schwarzenegger
movies as I have, you come to appreciate just how far
he’s come; how expressive and powerful his use of his
face is, his talent for a range of comedy, from broad
physical slapstick to dry wit. Back in 1976’s Stay
Hungry
the man was barely convincing playing an
professional bodybuilder from Austria.

That said, if you want to see why
Schwarzenegger has that bad reputation, you won’t find
a better example than his genuinely awful performance
in Conan The Destroyer. The first Conan
picture, directed by military enthusiast John Milius,
is a deadly serious picture about all the grand themes
a manly man like Milius is interested in; mortality,
war, honor, revenge, things like that. Arnold plays
it very straight, says very little, and looks every
bit the savage barbarian. The second Conan
picture directed by Richard Fleischer is as silly as
the first is serious. The change in tone lets Arnold
show off his range, which at this stage in his career,
is like a blind person showing off his
marksmanship.

Schwarzenegger’s performance have always risen to the
level of his co-stars. When they work with him and
his unique energy, things usually turn out well. It
takes a talented actor or actress to push up against
him and test him (This is a guy, after all, who loves
to compete). So what master thespian does
Schwarzenegger share the screen with in Conan The
Destroyer
? None other than Wilt Chamberlain. The
chemistry between the two is about as stiff as my neck
after I sat through all of Titanic in the front
row of the theater.

Arnold isn’t really even acting at this point, he’s
posing. As Conan he has four poses, all involving his
massive sword (which he wields with impressive skill):
drawn out directly in front of him, held at the side
with both hands, held at eye level with both hands,
and held at the side with one hand with the other hand
outstretched toward the enemy. Schwarzenegger likes
this last pose as lot; he uses it many times when he
leaps out from behind enemies while screaming
“YARGRUH!” which I think loosely translates from
Austrian to English as “Pardon me sir, while I
eviscerate you. Where would you like your remains
sent?”

If everyone wasn’t so terrified that Arnold would tear
the flesh from their bones, someone would have told
him how ridiculous this material is. The man is
required to galavant around the countryside in tiny
fur underwear (replete with titanic codpiece), with a
tan so orange it would give Robert Evans pause. Since
everyone knows blinking makes you look weak in a
scene, Schwarzenegger never blinks and whenever
possible he does the opposite, opening his eyes as
wide as possible, bulging them out as if he smells
something fowl in the air and he’s trying to swat it
away with his sword.

The relentless ass kicking is in the service of a
story where Conan agrees to help a Queen regain a
jewel and a horn and some other crap, in exchange for
her help in returning Conan’s lost love to life.
Hilariously, the narration has to tell us that “Conan
mourned his lost Valeria” since Schwarzenegger himself
is incapable of visualizing that sort of intense grief
on-screen. Conan doesn’t get his lady back, but he
does fight a god and win. Yes, Schwarzenegger beats
the crap out of a god. No wonder this guy thinks he
can be President.

The grunting, the posing, the “YARGRUH!”ing, it’s all
in good fun, especially when the cutaways in the film
are to Wilt Chamberlain in a gigantic dreadlocks wig
(trying look to like he’s scheming, but mostly looking
like he’s trying to do long division in his head) and
Grace Jones in a buzz cut. Schwarzenegger’s next film
was The Terminator, where James Cameron
harnessed the actor’s difficulty with emotion by
making him play a robot. He was off and running after
that, and getting better and better too. But back in
Conan The Destroyer? Yeah, he totally sucked.