Back in 1982, John Milius reintroduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world not as a famous bodybuilder, but instead as the movie version of Conan The Barbarian, fighting his way across medieval landscapes through a bloody mosaic. Seen today, the movie doesn’t hold up that well, but there’s still something primal to it – a feeling of raw power coming from the unapologetic machismo on display, from Milius’ spare imagery, and from Basil Pouledoris’ mighty score. The new Blu-ray updates the earlier DVD release with intermittently successful HD picture and sound and a new featurette. Fans may want to rent this but be warned there are some issues here.
Studio: Universal/Dino De Laurentiis
Length: 2 hrs 9 mins
Genre: Comic Book Adaptation/John Milius
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
BD Resolution and Codec: 1080p, AVC (@ an average 33 mbps)
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 3.2 mbps – up to 5 in the bigger scenes)
Subtitles: English SDH, French
Film Rating: R (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Material, More Violence, Blood, Still More Violence)
Release Date: August 2, 2011
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Ben Davidson, Cassandra Gaviola, Gerry Lopez, Mako, Valerie Quenessen, William Smith and Max Von Sydow
Written by: John Milius and Oliver Stone
Directed by: John Milius
Film Rating: 3/5
When you think about it, Conan The Barbarian was a good project for John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger. For Milius, it was a chance to indulge his interest in ancient history and bloody spectacle, and for Schwarzenegger, it was a chance to transform himself from the genial bodybuilder seen in Pumping Iron to a full-fledged movie star. And at the time, the idea worked, more or less. But even when the film was released in 1982, there were reviews that called out Milius for the more outrageous moments of sex and violence, as well as for the wild casting of surfer Gerry Lopez in a crucial supporting role. And there were plenty of reviews that noted Schwarzenegger’s limited acting ability. However, the film still carries a primal aura of raw power, even when seen nearly 30 years later. There’s an attitude hanging over the whole thing, from the unabashed male machismo on display to the rivers of blood, that practically announces itself. And next to Big Wednesday, this may be the most successful film of John Milius’ directorial career. I don’t know that the film has aged particularly well, but it’s a great time capsule of where both men were at the time they made this movie. There’s not a lot of story to speak of – it’s a comic book origin story of Conan the Barbarian, from the time he was orphaned as a child through his adult quest for bloody revenge. The pacing tends to be slower than one would expect these days, but that slower pace helps in the epic feel of the movie. This is big, bold filmmaking of a style one rarely sees anymore.
Conan The Barbarian was released on Blu-ray this past week. The Blu-ray edition includes high definition picture and sound that have some issues, along with the special features from the earlier DVD edition, and a new HD featurette. Fans of John Milius or Arnold Schwarzenegger will want to rent this to check out the upgrade, but should be aware there are some pitfalls here.
VIDEO QUALITY 3/5
Conan The Barbarian is presented in a 1080p AVC 2.35:1 transfer that varies wildly between scenes and even between shots. At times, the picture quality is breathtaking. Early shots in the snow show great detail on faces and objects. Late shots of a night temple gathering have a satisfying inky blackness. But then we get into some issues. There are many images in the film that include a large vista of sky, particularly early on – and these earlier images tend to be quite noisy. An early shot of James Earl Jones is shockingly soft – but this may be a defect of the source print. On the other hand, an early night scene where Conan is freed from slavery has some major black level issues – he’s wearing a dark fur that gives the transfer fits in the low light. I should note that some fans have noted that one of the shots in this sequence doesn’t use the proper night filter, so that a pack of dogs chasing Conan at night are revealed to be doing so during the day. I’m not counting off for that, but I have to note the noise and blackness issues in scoring the PQ here. Certainly, this is head and shoulders above what anyone has seen before from this title. But we cannot ignore the issues at hand.
AUDIO QUALITY 2 ½ /5
Conan The Barbarian is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that is full-throated when it comes to the big battle sequences, but which stumbles over some basic matters that should not have been a problem. Specifically, there are several key moments in the movie where the choral part of Basil Pouledoris’ score has been simply removed from the sound mix. One of these comes during the pivotal opening battle that Conan witnesses as a child. Another comes during the key moment when Conan prepares for the climatic battle with a display of swordsmanship on the beach. This glitch is apparently present on all current Blu-rays of the title, and it’s perplexing. I have no idea why the chorus was eliminated from these cues. I'll clarify here to say that the DTS HD MA mix is the only one on the disc. The mono mix available on the prior DVD is not on the Blu-ray.
SPECIAL FEATURES 3/5
The Blu-Ray presentation of Conan The Barbarian carries over the extras from the prior DVD edition, adding in a new HD featurette about armorers and additional archival interviews from the set.
Commentary with John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger – This scene-specific commentary is quieter than you might think, considering the personalities involved. For many scenes, the guys just watch the movie for a while before piping up with their impressions of what was happening. Milius has more to offer here than Schwarzenegger. This commentary was recorded over 10 years ago for the DVD edition released in 2000.
Deleted Scenes – (5:35, 480p, Non-Anamorphic) – A pair of deleted scenes are presented here in standard definition. Most of the footage deals with the bloody death scene of Max von Sydow’s King Osric. This material was included on the 2000 DVD. For some reason, these scenes are given DTS-HD MA sound.
Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan the Barbarian– (53:15, 480p, Full Frame) – Laurent Bouzereau’s 2000 documentary on the making of the film is preserved here, including then-current interviews with all of the principals. This is another feature carried over from the 2000 DVD.
Art of Steel: Sword Makers and Masters – (14:37, 1080p) EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY – This is a new featurette covering the work of Albion Armorers to manufacture swords, and on modern day swordsmen to practice their craft.
Conan: From the Vault – (10:17, 1080p) EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY – This is a compilation of archival 1982 interviews with John Milius and various members of the cast on the set.
Special Effects – (1:37, 480p) – This is a split top/bottom screen dissection of a visual effects sequence where Conan is menaced by ghosts and his friends fend them off. On the top of the screen, we see the untreated footage. On the bottom, we see the final result.
The Conan Archives – (11:46, 480p, Full Frame) This is an assembly of photos and poster art, presented to the tune of Basil Pouledouris’ score.
Trailers – (3:48 Total, 480p, Non-Anamorphic) – Two trailers for the movie are presented in standard definition.
BD-Live – The usual BD-Live functionality is present.
Pocket BLU – The usual pocket BLU functionality is present.
D-Box – This functionality is available for those viewers who have this ability in their home theater.
The movie and the special features are subtitled in English and French. The usual chapter and pop-up menus are present.
IN THE END...
Conan The Barbarian may not hold up well over time, but it’s certainly an interesting statement of who made it and when they did it. The Blu-ray has some issues with both its picture and sound, but it’s still the best this movie has ever looked on home video. Fans of John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger may want to rent this to see what they think.
August 7, 2011.
Equipment now in use in this Home Theater:
Panasonic 65” VT30 Plasma 3D HDTV – set at “THX” picture mode
Denon AVR-3311Cl Receiver
Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray Player
PS3 Player (used for calculation of bitrates for picture and sound)
5 Mirage Speakers (Front Left/Center/Right, Surround Back Left/Right)
2 Sony Speakers (Surround Left/Right – middle of room)
Martin Logan Dynamo 700 Subwoofer