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The 40 years of “Conan, the barbarian”: the bizarre film that launched a Schwarzenegger who barely knew English to stardom

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian. A film that took more than seven years to film and that, despite low expectations, had a great performance at the box office

A bodybuilder turned actor, with impossible diction and surnames, who spent more than five years waiting for his chance. A script written in a madman rush fueled by cocaine Classic actors to give the cast some prestige. Scenes inspired by Japanese classics. A difficult genre like sword and sorcery. A director stubborn in not using great special effects. The death of a dictator behind the Iron Curtain that changed the filming plans. These were some of the ingredients, at first sight incompatible, that made it seem impossible that Conán, el Bárbaro did well at the box office or become memorable. Not only did it become a huge success but it launched Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom.

Conan the barbarian was a warrior created by Robert Howard in 1932. He had several reincarnations over the decades as a comic, novel pulp, radio drama and serial. The genre was sword and sorcerysword and sorcery, an epic of the fantasy.

Edward Pressman, a Hollywood producer, first showed his desire to bring the Conan story to the screen in 1975. It seemed impossible due to the magnitude of the company and the rudimentary development of special effects at the time. At that time, Pressman did not know that it would be a trip that would last seven years, in which several times he was about to fall off a cliff and even melt. But his obsession, almost a mania, ended up achieving a success that no one saw coming, although in the end he did not have control of the project.

Buying the rights was complicated. He led long talks, negotiations and even court appearances. The payment for them was 25,000 dollars but the producer had to spend an additional 100,000 dollars in legal expenses to achieve it.

En 1977 it was unveiled Pumping Iron, a documentary that delved into the world of bodybuilding. There Pressman discovered Arnold Schwarzenegger. He knew that he was to play Conan. He could no longer imagine the character without the face of the muscular Austrian. Arnold immediately accepted the offer: $250,000 insured even if the film did not get to be shot. He wanted to become an actor. And be a millionaire. He had played a few small roles in series and some low-budget movies. But his enormous physique, his lack of histrionic ductility and especially his poor handling of English were elements that moderated, and even seemed to liquidate, his possibilities (and his illusions) of him. When she came across this opportunity, he decided not to let it pass. Whatever she had imagined at the time of signing the contract, no matter how ambitious or crazy it was, she fell short of what the premiere of the film caused and the path that allowed her to start.

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In 1978 a studio became interested in the project. The condition he set was that the script be written by a prestigious professional. Oliver Stone was the chosen one. He worked feverishly driven by his addiction to cocaine. The result was a gigantic story from every point of view. Set in a post apocalyptic future, Bringing Stone’s writing to the screen would cost $40 million. (an insane budget for the time: something like 300 million now) and the film would last four hours and had its great climax in a final battle in which Conan faced a horde of 10,000 enemies. However with that story, the producer went out looking for a director. Ridley Scott was a candidate, but leaned towards Alien. Oliver Stone applied for the position, having wanted to make the leap for some time, but was not considered. John Milius appeared, who had participated in one of the first phases and had just participated in Apocalypse Now and in Shark. Milius made it a condition to be able to modify the script. He placed history in an uncertain past, with some medieval touch, a lot of fantasy, epic and added references to the cinema of Kurosawa and other Japanese masters.

Conan cost $19 million.  But his profits quintupled the investment.  It was a huge event all over the world
Conan cost $19 million. But his profits quintupled the investment. It was a huge event all over the world

With Milius at the head of the project, the protagonist did not change. He was the only actor he couldn’t cast. The director was confident in the power of Schwarzenegger’s image. The following two roles were also chosen for their image, for their physical appearance, despite the fact that the actors did not have much experience. The producers tried to convince him to choose more familiar faces but Milius refused. Both Subotai and Valeria were awarded to two rookies. Gerry Lopez was a former surfing champion and Sandahl Bergman, a dancer that had participated in some productions on Broadway and recommended by Bob Fosse.

To compensate for so much inexperience, they looked for actors with prestige for the rest of the characters.. Sean Connery and John Huston were among several who declined to participate in this somewhat bizarre project. But those who accepted, thanks to very generous salaries, to give it a patina of respectability were James Earl Jones and the Swede Max von Sydow.

By now, Milius had tweaked the script to his whim and managed to get it within a high but doable budget.

Pressman couldn’t get the funds to get the production off the ground until Dino de Laurentis, a specialist in big projects, came along. The Italian took over the film and made its realization possible.

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But De Laurentis came with the money and his own ideas. One of them was to find an actor who could articulate English to play Conan. Milius told him that was not possible. De Laurentis began to spread the rumor that Arnold was a Nazi, which was not true (His father had spent time in the Hitler Youth). Legend has it that, once Spain had been chosen as the main location for filming, Milius entered the office with Franco dolls that he had bought on the Gran Vía and placed them on the producer’s desk and told him: “I’m the only Nazi here! ”, he shouted madly.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was a great bodybuilding champion.  As such he participated in Pumping Iron, a documentary that delved into that world.  There he was discovered by the producer of Conan
Arnold Schwarzenegger was a great bodybuilding champion. As such he participated in Pumping Iron, a documentary that delved into that world. There he was discovered by the producer of Conan

But Spain had not been the first country chosen. The filming was going to take place in the former Yugoslavia, but the death of Tito, the strong man of the country, turned everything into a quagmire and De Laurentis and Milius had to choose another location. It was a matter of counting. In the United States it was impossible to film: again the budget exceeded 40 million dollars. In Italy the accounts gave 32 million. While in Spain, De Laurentis had to get 19 million. The choice was obvious.

Almería, Madrid and Seville were some locations. And Jorge Sanz, an actor who would later have a long career, got a role in this super production at the age of 9. More than a thousand extras also had work. But the Spanish extras annoyed Milius due to a particular histrionic excess: they took a long time to die. All, when pierced by a sword or felled with a heavy weapon, died with great gestures, quite a fuss and notorious death rattles. “Just die,” shouted Milius in despair, even offering an extra payment for those who died quickly, those who simply collapsed to the dusty ground and no longer moved.

Schwarzenegger, at the request of the director, lost pounds of muscle. Milius didn’t want a bodybuilder just, but someone athletic, with more graceful movements. Arnold practiced climbing, swimming, equestrian practices and daily outings to run several kilometers.

But when shooting the first scene, the obvious, what everyone expected, happened. Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to say a phrase attributed to Genghis Khan, but what came out of his throat was something unintelligible, barely resembling Englisheach word seemed to sound like a coin falling into the bottom of a deep can. The diction classes the fledgling actor had taken hadn’t worked. Milius changed his teacher and the progress was remarkable (They also simplified several parliaments). Gerry Lopez was eventually dubbed into the final mix.

John Milius, screenwriter of Apocalypse Now and with Jaws participation, was the director of the film.  He preferred mechanical and optical effects and a cast with several unknown actors.
John Milius, screenwriter of Apocalypse Now and with Jaws participation, was the director of the film. He preferred mechanical and optical effects and a cast with several unknown actors.

Milius preferred, in the classic way, optical and mechanical effects. Many miniatures and large sets that cost millions of dollars to give credibility to the scenes and to make that fantasy world convincing.

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The first advertisements for the film were seen in the late 1980s. But there was still a year and a half to go before the premiere. De Laurentis had faith in the film and spent an additional 12 million on promotion. The premiere in the United States was planned for the weekend of Memorial Day, the first date of the great premieres of the North American summer, the moment in which the great tanks arrive on the screen. But at the beginning of 1982 they decided to advance the date to mid-May. To not fight with those giants. It was released forty years ago, on May 14, 1982. Conan the Barbarian was pretty roughed up by critics. They laughed at the protagonist of him full of muscles, of that fantasy world, of Milius’s ambition. But the public gave its full support. It became one of the big events of the year. And it made Schwarzenegger a huge star.

Conan meant the great takeoff of Schwarzenegger in Hollywood.  From that moment he became a big star
Conan meant the great takeoff of Schwarzenegger in Hollywood. From that moment he became a big star

Arnold went from bodybuilder to leading actor of great Blockbusters. The choice of the following films was intelligent and progressive. From Conan to Terminator, action hero in Command o Predator and even comedy actor. It was directed by James Cameron, John McTiernan, Reitman, Verhoeven, and many others. Later, a marriage with a Kennedy and became governor of California for two terms. In the middle he also had his love scandal with infidelity and hidden son included.

Conan had a second foray for which Schwarzenegger was paid a million dollars, a salary that had been far out of phase for the stellar stature he had acquired. But that value had been fixed for almost a decade, when he signed the original contract. There it was established that if there was a sequel he would charge that figure. It also had a great box office performance.

That contract established the possibility of a third film. But it was never filmed. The actor’s salary was, according to the original clause, to be two million dollars. But by then, almost at the end of the eighties, for that money you couldn’t get a fingernail from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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