Conan the Barbarian (1982)

conan the barbarian

Reagan’s Barbarian

Every time my kids watch an episode of Family Guy, I can’t help but think that Seth MacFarlane’s nostalgic view of the 1980s, peppered with sexism and apathy, ignores the real cultural components of the decade in which I endured my miserable adolescence. As with most things, the best way to approach this problem is through the cinema. When I want to teach my students about the 1980s, I don’t do so through the great films—The Shining (1980) and Blade Runner (1982)—but instead through the execrable ones. There is none more horrifying than Conan the Barbarian, right wing John Milius’ 1982 vehicle for the rising fascist action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Like the recent Argo (2012), which celebrates the rise of neoconservative triumphalist America, Conan employs Reaganite fantasy maneuvers in order to undo the purported damage of the 1960s to the nation’s self-confidence. Like the quintessential Reaganite fantasy film, Back to the Future (1985), Conan features a plot about eliminating the damage caused by the 1960s by returning to the 1950s. For Marty McFly, that involves time traveling from the 1980s to the 1950s in order to invent rock and roll, a white kid teaching Chuck Berry what the music of rebellion should sound like. After accomplishing this task, Marty returns to the 1980s, where his nerdy father has been fixed; the family now lives in affluence, having transformed their material circumstances via the discovery of aggressive masculinity.

For his part, Conan has to chop off the head of a snake turned Black Panther, Thulsa Doom (played in full Darth Vader mode by James Earl Jones), who has hypnotized nubile white girls into a sexualized stupor. As soon as the head of the angry black man is severed, the girls come to their senses, douse their hippie candles into the water, and return to their fathers.

Conan offers a textbook full of examples of how the identity politics of liberation from the 1960s have ruined America. In a scene early in the film, Conan is trying to sneak into Thulsa Doom’s palace. A stereotypically predatory gay man working as one of the snake cult’s priests admires Conan’s body. Conan pretends to accept the man’s sexual advances, taking him to an out of the way location. Conan punches the man viciously, stealing his robes such that he can sneak into the temple. In short, the plot advances via the validation of a gay bashing.

Next is the film’s Neanderthal treatment of women. Accepting the classic duality of virgin/whore, the film’s women are either deceitful and sexualized, or virginal and revered. At the beginning of the film, Conan asks a witch woman for help in locating Thulsa Doom. She agrees to trade sex for information. As she orgasms, she tells Conan the information he needs, but then mysteriously changes into a ghost demon. Conan barely survives by throwing the harridan into the flames, thus neutralizing her evil.

In contrast, Conan falls in love with the blonde thief, Valeria (played by Sandahl Bergman). When Thulsa Doom’s snake arrow murders her as they escape from a raid on his fortress, Conan deifies her with an honorary funeral, burning her body. However, this time, the fire does not douse evil, it canonizes Valeria, turning her into a divinity. At a crucial moment late in the film, she returns from the dead to save Conan, bathed in backlighting and clad in shiny reflective armor.

Finally, it is the ideas about racial difference that most link Conan with the 1980s traditions of neo-conservatism. The film deflects suspicions of racism by having its supporting characters surround Conan with diversity. Both the wizard (played delightfully by Mako) and Subotai (played by Hawaiian surfing star, Gerry Lopez) are kindly non-white men who help Conan on his mission to destroy Thulsa Doom. As such, they represent the safety of assimilationist racial identity, presented by the film as far superior to the dangers of radical, violent separatism. Here, Thulsa Doom shares the function of Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T) in another 1980s Reaganite horror show, Rocky III (1982). In that film, the assimilated black businessman Apollo Creed partners with his former foe, Rocky against Lang, who grunts like an animal during his fights. In the film’s key ideological scene, when the City of Philadelphia unveils a statue of Rocky, Clubber comes to taunt the great white hope for not agreeing to fight him. Rocky takes the bait when Clubber tells Rocky’s wife Adrian that when she tires of Rocky’s impotence, she should come over to his place so that she can have a “real man.”

This 19th century white fear of the stereotypical Buck, the hyper-sexualized black man, is the cornerstone of Conan the Barbarian. When King Osric (sadly played by a befuddled Max von Sydow) hires Conan to rescue his daughter, he makes it clear that his disdain for Thulsa Doom revolves around him wanting to make his daughter “his,” sexually. The Austrian muscleman’s severing of Thulsa Doom’s head at the end of the film is clearly revenge against the sexual aggression represented by unassimilated, sexually aggressive black men such as Clubber Lang. And straight of out the racist The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1914), Conan accomplishes this after having been crucified by Thulsa Doom on the “tree of woe.” Conan’s status as Christ figure redeeming white America from the black threat is what whiteness scholar Richard Dyer calls “white crucifixionism”: The Birth of a Nation ends with Christ overseeing an America purged of the black threat by the “heroic” actions of the Ku Klux Klan.

Such were the fantasies of the 1980s. What Reagan optimistically referred to as “Morning in America,” represented a retreat to the 1950s and beyond, a time before the Civil Rights movement, the time of Jim Crow and “colored only” lunch counters; a time before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), when women were divided into two limited functions, sex and mothering; and a time before Stonewall, when gay sexuality was so unacceptable, the only logical response to it was brutal violence. You won’t see any of that challenged on Family Guy, amidst MacFarlane’s misogynist jokes, but it should be.

– Walter Metz