Review: Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Composer: Basil Poledouris

Label: Varese Sarabande  

Catalogue Nr.: VSD 5390

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In a time long before Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy boosted sword & sorcery movies back into highest realms of success, John Milius was the unquestioned king of the genre with his incredibly successful Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Conan The Barbarian (1982). The role of the muscle-packed barbarian Conan was perfect for Arnie who only speaks less than 200 words in the entire movie. Not sure if that's the reason why many people consider this to be the best Schwarzenegger movie ever but I would not rule it out as one important factor. The story is  a relatively simple revenge-plot: Young Conan's parents are killed by the evil illusionist Thulsa Doom and Conan's life is then driven by the wish of tracking down and killing Doom. He grows in strength during decades in slavery, earns his freedom, finds friends in thieves Subotai and Valeria and fights witches and other evil to ultimately get what we wants. His journey of revenge was executed in a quite theatrical and amazing way with beautiful panoramas of raw landscapes and some amazing set buildings and decorations. This was still the time when large temples were not just CGI but real made architecture. The film became such a surprising success that it spanned a sequel and several imitators.

The score:

Universal's producers first pushed for European legend Ennio Morricone to score Milius rude epic of violence and sex. Especially executive producer Dino De Laurentiis was aiming for a popular music approach to the film but John Milius instead wanted to go with a totally unknown talent from the very beginning who he felt would be the perfect choice. It turned out to be Basil Poledouris with whom he worked with successfully on the surfer drama Big Wednesday (1978), resulting in Poledouris' first noteworthy score for a mainstream picture but the real breakthrough for the composer would become Milius' sword & sorcery epic. The director envisioned the score as operatic and as a carrying element to compensate the small amount of dialogue from the very beginning and thus Poledouris was involved early on even before location shooting began to provide Milius with several key themes of the score. And there are a lot of really beautiful themes in this amazing piece of epic scoring which not only carries the movie almost entirely and without flaw but is an incredibly powerful listening experience on album. Poledouris recorded the score in Italy with two orchestras and a choir which resulted in the raw sound that became so characteristic for the recording. It's the sound of the days of high adventure and a true film music classic not to be missed.

Already the introduction with "Anvil Of Crom" unleashes sheer power with timpani strikes and heavy percussion joining forces with grim horn fanfares. It's the Crom-theme that we hear and a first musical identity for Conan's character follows when the piece suddenly switches to incredibly lush strings performing a warm, lyrical theme for the riddle of steel that drives Conan forward before the percussion and horns continue their powerful roll. It's the particular romantic riddle-theme that opens "Riddle Of Steel / Riders Of Doom" in a toned-down variation for an emotionally intriguing solo woodwind performance as we see young Conan with his father as he explains the riddle to his son. Quite soon Poledouris adds grim horn fanfares to note the arrival of Doom and his myrmidons. Demonic Carmina Burana-esque choirs of grand proportions join the orchestra while trumpets are rolling fanfares around the chanting and percussion gives the piece a furious speed as it develops into one of the most amazing musical tour-de-forces in film history. It's incredibly dramatic and powerful music and I have never met one single person calling himself a fan of film music who did not like this amazing piece. "Gift Of Fury" is a piece for Conan's first encounter with Doom. It's a heavy and slow piece with deep male choirs singing Latin vocals and showing Conan's inner feeling of mourn for his dead parents and also his growing desire for revenge. The next classic piece is "Wheel Of Pain" which starts in a small scale for woodwinds and builds up to a kind of march as Conan grows stronger and stronger during his times in slavery and compulsory labour. Crashing percussive effects like a gong scratched by a triangle stick are creating a feeling of workforce and threat as the piece builds up. It's so cool to hear more and more instruments slowly chiming in and then the whole ensemble suddenly slows down for a moment only to burst into a mighty fanfare as we see Conan as a grown-up - only one of the countless goose-pumps-moments in this film music masterpiece. A sense of majesty from a time long forgotten embodies "Atlantean Sword" with the riddle-theme briefly shining through some intriguing string music as Conan finds his first companion: an old broadsword. Mighty fanfares are swelling as Conan frees it from rust and dust.

"Theology / Civilization" has always been my personal all-time favourite cue from this score. I love the way the English horn and woodwinds slowly hint the theme for Subotai at the beginning of the cue and then suddenly they start speeding up followed by a large swelling of the strings picking up the playful melody as we witness Conan and his new friend are running through a stunning panorama. Clearly sone of the most beautiful travelling-music I have ever heard. Poledouris also developed a bittersweet love theme for the romantic relationship between Conan and Valeria called "Wifeing" which makes stunning use of the riddle-theme for lush strings. The late composer simply had a hand for composing such ambivalent thematic pieces as the love theme from Conan The Barbarian. It's certainly a romantic composition but also has a strong sadness to it as if there is a higher fate at work which will eventually part the lovers. While Conan loves Valeria, he is still driven by his wish for revenge which leads to "The Leaving / The Search". That particular cue is playing around with the bitter side of the love theme, resulting in yet another piece of beautifully written, magnificent film music. "Mountain Of Power Procession" is a very special kind of film music that I use to call semi-source-music. It's an amazing set piece of percussion and fanfares with an ancient medieval touch for Thulsa Doom's temple setting and the crowd of pilgrims. It's as if there is a large orchestra sitting right behind Doom's temple, so even though we can't see the source of the music on-screen, it is still believable as a presence within the context and setting - ergo semi-source-music. There are a couple more cues with a semi-source-music nature coming later in the score. "The Tree Of Woe" starts with sustained notes played by horns and strings as Conan is crucified on a tree in the hot desert. Subotai's theme suddenly comes in with a cheerful fashion first on English horn and then by the full ensemble as we see Conan's companion is coming to the rescue. A downright sad variation of the love theme at the end of the cue forms the transition to "Recovery" in which the riddle-theme is played mournful on woodwinds backed up by sensitive choir as Conan is fighting with death.

Now comes another example of semi-source-music with the operatic "The Kitchen / The Orgy". Already the cue's name suggests that it's divided in two parts. The first one represents the scenes in the dark kitchen of doom where slaves are working for Doom's catering. A male choir is brawling festive Latin vocals while the melody is lifted from the "(...) / Riders Of Doom" piece heard at the beginning. I always saw the singing of the choir as some kind of working song performed by the slaves in the kitchen. The second part of the cue is a meditative, almost hypnotic piece for strings while the orchestra is always repeating the same basic melody to intensify the large orgy of naked bodies in Doom's throne room. It's as if every piece of this score is a highlight in one way or the other and so is "Funeral Pyre" which takes the love theme and the riddle-theme and turns it into a grand, emotional piece that perfectly embodies the feeling of loss. According to Poledouris' comments about the piece from the DVD music featurette, the night before he composed it he had a dream about loosing his family in an accident. Shows what an important source of inspiration dreams are for every artist. "Battle Of The Mounds" accompanies the battle preparations of Conan and the arrival of Doom's men with a lengthy sequence of large choral battle music that was certainly an inspiration for Howard Shore when he had to compose battle music for his Lord Of The Rings scores. The choral mayhem and theme for Doom's men from "(...) / Riders of Doom" is repeated again in a much more furious manner at the end of the cue. If I am not mistaken, "Death Of Rexor" consists of mainly unused music though is an amazing summary of material from the score including a powerful statement of the riddle-theme, a statement of the love theme and a moment of the choral music heard in "Gift Of Fury" with some more elegiac choral music following as Doom is trying his mind tricks on Conan but ultimately fails. Mourning choir is heard at the beginning of "Orphans Of Doom / The Awakening" which is yet another example for semi-source-music because the mourning carol can easily come from Doom's disillusioned pilgrims. There is also a strong sense of regret in the music as we see Conan sitting on the stairs of Doom's temple. He found revenge but lost so much for it. Another ambivalence that is understandable only through Basil's music. He builds things up one more time starting with a single, falling 5-note figure for horns that is rising to an astonishing epilogue with a rousing coda. This is how the real classics have to end.

 

RATING:

Score as heard in the film: 94%

Score as heard on CD: 94%

TOTAL: 94%

 

The presentation:

Several issues and re-issues of this score exist out there. The most commonly known release is probably the Milan Records version which is significantly shorter than this expanded 1992's re-issue from Varese Sarabande Records. It's surpassing the Milan album with nearly 20 minutes of marvellous material from this classic and also includes a small analysis of the film and score by Kevin Mulhall. Sadly, the album isn't without flaws. Sound quality is overall a little more muffled than on the Milan version and even though there is more music on it, a good chunk of material still remains unreleased and probably will never see the light of day because the master tapes have since been deteriorated according to insider sources. In a way this album is a missed opportunity which leaves a re-recording as the only option to make the complete material available in the future. I guess this 67 minute album was the best they could do back in 1992. If only it would be still available. The album is now a sought-after collectors gem which rarely sells for less than 50 euros on Ebay or Amazon's marketplaces. Only the shorter Milan version is still widely available at a regular price tag.   

Presentation by the Label: 76%

 

Summary:

If there is one score that Basil Poledouris will be always remembered for then it is Conan The Barbarian. It's raw and brutal but never unbearable, it's lyrical but never cheesy and its the entire foundation that is holding the movie together and makes it believable. Milius' sword and sorcery epic simply would not work without this powerful music that is guiding the audience with emotional material that makes Conan's inner feelings understandable and makes the character as well as the long forgotten world he lives in believable. On album, the score is a hair-raising event that grabs you from the very first note and does not let go until the last track finished. It's up to you whether you want to spend 15 euros on the shorter Milan album or more than 50 euros on the long OOP expanded album from Varese Sarabande - just buy and enjoy some of the most powerful music a fantasy adventure has ever received. No film music fan should live without this classic score.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

                   Tracklisting:

01. Anvil Of Crom (02:34)
02. Riddle Of Steel / Riders Of Doom (05:36)
03. Gift Of Fury (03:50)
04. Wheel Of Pain (04:09)
05. Atlantean Sword (03:50)
06. Theology / Civilization (03:13)
07. Wifeing - Theme of Love From Conan The Barbarian (02:10)
08. The Leaving / The Search (05:59)
09. Mountain Of Power Procession (03:21)
10. The Tree Of Woe (03:31)
11. Recovery (02:11)
12. The Kitchen / The Orgy (06:30)
13. Funeral Pyre (04:29)
14. Battle Of The Mounds (04:52)
15. Death Of Rexor (05:34)
16. Orphans Of Doom / The Awakening (05:31)