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5 Things You Might Not Know About John Milius' 'Conan The Barbarian'

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 14, 2012 at 11:20AM

These days, after "Lord of the Rings" and "Game Of Thrones," fantasy isn't just big business, but it can also be an critically acclaimed awards favorite, picking up Oscars and Emmys by the handful. As such, it's easy to forget that prior to the 1980s, the genre barely existed on screen, with animated takes on Tolkein's works the only really significant pictures in the genre. But in 1977, "Star Wars," a film that owed as much to high fantasy as to science-fiction, became the biggest hit in history, and that opened the door to all kinds of new fantasy worlds.
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Conan The Barbarian

These days, after "Lord of the Rings" and "Game Of Thrones," fantasy isn't just big business, but a genre that's spawned critically acclaimed awards favorites, and picked up Oscars and Emmys by the handful. As such, it's easy to forget that prior to the 1980s, the genre barely existed on screen, with animated takes on Tolkein's works the only really significant blip on the radar. But in 1977, "Star Wars," a film that owed as much to high fantasy as to science-fiction, became the biggest hit in history, and that opened the door to all kinds of new fantasy worlds.

The 1980s would see many, many examples of the genre, from "Labyrinth" and "Legend" to "Krull" and "Ladyhawke," but the film that started it all -- and was probably the finest of that decade's wave in the genre, was 1982's "Conan The Barbarian." Written and directed by gonzo, gun-loving genius John Milius (read our take on his essential films here), it took the classic pulp creation by Robert E. Howard and put it on screen, iconically embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became an instant star. The film was sullied by a subsequent sequel, and by last year's disastrous reboot, but the original still stands as a firmly entertaining fantasy epic. "Conan The Barbarian" was released thirty years ago today, on May 14th, 1982, and to mark the occasion, we've gathered up five facts you may not be aware of about Milius' bloody, musclebound picture. Check them out below, by Crom.

1. The first draft of the script, by Oliver Stone, was set in the post-apocalyptic future.
Producers Edward R. Pressman and Edward Summer had started planning a film based on Robert E. Howard's character in 1975, although it took them two years to sew up the rights. A name screenwriter was needed, so they brought on Oliver Stone, who was causing buzz with his script for Turkish prison drama "Midnight Express." Stone was hitting coke and pain-killers pretty hard at the time, and turned in a four-hour script, described by eventual director John Milius as "a total drug fever dream," which moved the character to a post-apocalptic future to battle against an army of 10,000 mutants. Still, the producers liked what they had, and Stone was considered to direct the project, along with "Jaws" production designer Joe Alves, who would go on to direct "Jaws 3-D" (later in the process, Ridley Scott was offered the gig after the heat from "Alien," but turned it down). Ultimately, Stone's vision, budgeted at $40 million, proved too expensive: Pressman sold the project to Dino De Laurentiis, and Milius, who was under contract to the producer, was brought on to rework the script to a more manageable level, as well as direct the film. Stone does retain credit on the finished film: several sequences, including Conan's crucifixion and the climbing of the Tower of Serpents, come from his draft.

2. Milius was pretty loose in his adaptation, combining a number of characters into one.
With 25 Conan stories by Howard, and countless other comic and novel storylines, Milius had his choice of characters and plotlines to draw from, and for the most part, ended up combining several characters into one. Villain Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), for instance, was named after a bad guy in the non-Conan "Kull of Atlantis" series, but the character was closer to sorceror Thoth-Amon,  the villain in the first Conan story "The Phoenix on the Sword," albeit embellished with Milius' own research on the Hashishim and Thuggee cults. Female lead Valeria, meanwhile, is named after the sidekick in "Red Nails," but has a personality (and tragic fate) closer to lady-pirate Belit in "Queen of the Black Coast." Milius was't above inventing characters, though -- sidekick Subotai was an original character, based on and named after the right hand man of Genghis Khan (always a recurring interest of Milius). But it was actually in his depiction of the title character that Milius came in for the most criticism from fans, with many complaining that Conan was a weaker and stupider character than in Howard's source material.    

3. We could have seen Charles Bronson as Conan, facing off against Sean Connery.
When Pressman and Summer first started developing the project, they had a few ideas for who could play the Barbarian, with Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone and B-movie actor William Smith (from "Any Which Way You Can," who would end up playing Conan's father in the final movie) among the names discussed. But in 1976, the producers saw body-building documentary "Pumping Iron," and found their lead in the shape of a then mostly unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger. The actor remained attached throughout the process, and the film would make him a star. Milius went with other untested actors for some of the main roles -- Sandahl Bergman, who played Valeria, was a dancer, recommended to the director by Bob Fosse, while Subotai was played by professional surfer Gerry Lopez, whose sole credit to that point was playing himself in Milius' "Big Wednesday" (the gamble didn't pay off in the latter case as Lopez was dubbed in the final release by stage veteran Sab Shimono). But stars were clearly needed, and John Huston and Sterling Hayden were both considered to play King Osric, which Max Von Sydow eventually ended up taking. Meanwhile Sean Connery was courted to play Thulsa Doom before it was decided to add a touch of "Star Wars" magic with James Earl Jones.

4. The film's release was delayed when Universal found the film too violent.
Given the nature of the source material, it was always assumed that the film would be R-rated in nature -- indeed, the film was envisioned as something like an adult take on "Star Wars." But Universal, who De Laurentiis had struck a deal with to distribute the film, were a little shocked by what they saw at first. The film had gone before cameras in October 1980 in the U.K. and Spain, for a shoot that lasted six months, and the film was originally intended for release in the 1981 holiday season. But that August, when Milius debuted his rough cut to studio executives, they were shocked by the level of violence, and put the release date back nearly six months in order to make some changes. Eleven minutes were eventually removed from Milius' 140-minute cut, mostly of violence, including a close-up of the decapitated head of Conan's mother, the hero cutting off a pickpocket's arm, and Subotai killing a monster on the Tower of Serpents. Not that it helped the reviews, necessarily; Richard Schickel of Time called it "a sort of psychopathic 'Star Wars,' and Newsweek said the violence was "cheerless and styleless."

5. Milius tried to return to the character in 2001 with a new script called "King Conan: Crown of Iron."
The film was a bit hit when it arrived in theaters, and a sequel script was swiftly greenlit, but Milius wasn't asked to return. Stanley Mann ("The Collector") penned the script for "Conan The Destroyer" and Richard Fleischer ("20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," "Doctor Dolittle," "Solyent Green") directed the film, which was less successful than the original, scuppering a planned third installment, "Conan The Conqueror". But fifteen years later, Warner Bros. picked up the rights for the character, and hired Milius to write and direct a new version, which was to have been called "King Conan: Crown Of Iron," and the Wachowskis, then hot off "The Matrix," were brought on board to produce. The film would have been a continuation of the earlier installments with Milius' 167 page script involving Conan siring a son, becoming king, and teaming up with his offspring to fight off a rebellion. By all accounts, the script was unfiltered Milius, and it's surprising that it got as close to getting made as it did, but Schwarzenegger's decision to run for office as Governor of California pretty much kiboshed the project. Robert Rodriguez came on to direct the film after Arnie bailed, but without their star, Warners were reluctant to give a greenlight. By 2006, Boaz Yakin ("Remember The Titans," "Safe") had been hired to start again from scratch, a path of events that led to last year's Marcus Nispel-helmed monstrosity.

This article is related to: 5 Things You Might Not Know About..., John Milius, Features, Conan The Barbarian, Arnold Schwarzenegger, On This Day In Movie History


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