Arnold Schwarzenegger became a superstar with The Terminator, but two years before that he got his first great leading role in epic fantasy adventure Conan the Barbarian. The first big screen treatment of writer Robert E Howard’s pulp hero, the 1982 film cast the former bodybuilder as an orphaned slave who grows into a mighty warrior, and seeks vengeance for the murder of his parents.
Here are some facts about this sword and sorcery classic which you might not have known.
20. Ridley Scott turned down the chance to direct before John Milius signed on
Before cameras rolled on Conan the Barbarian in October 1980, the film had spent around a decade in development. After the success of Star Wars, Hollywood’s taste for old-fashioned mythic adventures was rekindled, and the project was finally able to get off the ground. It was still a bumpy road though, as it took a while to settle on a director.
After writing the initial screenplay, Oliver Stone offered the film to Ridley Scott, the then-comparatively-unknown British director who had just made Alien. However, Scott was attached to direct Dune at the time, and wasn’t interested in making Conan. Eventually, the job was accepted by John Milius, who was best known for his screenwriting work on Apocalypse Now, Jaws and the Dirty Harry movies.
19. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the only choice for the title role
It may have taken a while to find the right director, but the producers knew early on who they wanted to play Conan himself. After seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron in 1976, they knew he was a perfect match physically for Conan as written by Robert E Howard, and felt he had the right attitude to bring the character to life on film.
Schwarzenegger had some acting experience by this point (notably winning the New Star of the Year award at the Golden Globes for 1976’s Stay Hungry), but there were still some concerns about his ability and his box office appeal. For this reason the producers briefly contemplated approaching the better-known Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson, but ultimately never made an offer to either actor.
18. Schwarzenegger lost 30 pounds and grew his hair long for the part
So often when an actor takes on a big action hero role, we hear about them undergoing an intensive training regime to gain muscle. By contrast, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as Conan the Barbarian, he was already in massively musclebound shape thanks to his career as a bodybuilder, so he was instead asked to slim down for the role.
One of the main reasons was the sheer size of Schwarzenegger’s arms made it awkward for him to comfortably wield a sword. Over the course of 18 months, Schwarzenegger reduced his bodyweight from 240 pounds to 210. In addition, he grew his hair long for the role (it’s not a wig, as many viewers may have assumed over the years).
17. The film sparked controversy due to animal cruelty on set
Watch the end credits of Conan the Barbarian, and you’ll see there is no appearance of the familiar credit ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film.’ This is because Conan the Barbarian was shot primarily in Spain, where laws about the treatment of animals on film sets were extremely lax at the time, and the filmmakers took advantage of it.
For this reason, Conan the Barbarian has proved to be a controversial film among animal rights advocates, because of multiple scenes in which animals are mistreated. The most notorious such moment comes when Schwarzenegger’s Conan punches a camel. There are also scenes in which a dog is kicked and horses are tripped over on wires.
16. Schwarzenegger was originally the film’s narrator, but studio executives were worried about his accent
Conan the Barbarian famously features evocative narration throughout, evoking the spirit of Robert E Howard’s original stories. Initially, director John Milius had Schwarzenegger himself deliver this narration, but studio Universal Pictures were worried that the Austrian actor’s thick accent would be unintelligible to most audiences.
Because of this, the more experienced actor Mako (who co-stars as the Wizard) was given the job of narrator instead, and the lines were rewritten accordingly. Today, the opening lines of this narration have become some of the best-remembered dialogue in the movie: “Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of…”
15. It was intended to start a long-running series
Early on, the plan was for Conan the Barbarian to kickstart a franchise which would spawn many entries in the vein of James Bond, based on the many stories written by Robert E Howard. However, in the end only one sequel was made, 1984’s Conan the Destroyer, which presented a far more light-hearted and simplistic take on the material.
Conan the Destroyer was nowhere near as well received as the previous film, and Schwarzenegger himself was left so dissatisfied with the experience that it not only put him off playing Conan, it also put him off making sequels for any of his subsequent movies. (He wouldn’t star in another follow-up film until 1991’s Terminator 2.)
14. A third Conan movie was almost made by the Wachowskis
In the wake of 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, writer-director siblings Lana and Lily Wachowski were attached to a proposed third Conan movie entitled King Conan: Crown of Iron. This would have cast the then-age-appropriate Schwarzenegger as the aged Conan, who has found himself entrusted with a kingdom, as teased at the climax of Conan the Barbarian.
Two of the hottest action newcomers of the time, Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel, were both rumoured to be contenders to appear alongside Schwarzenegger as Conan’s son. Sadly, the Wachowskis’ commitment to the two Matrix sequels plus Schwarzenegger’s move into politics meant the project fell through the cracks. The project has languished in development hell ever since.
13. Schwarzenegger was originally meant to reprise Conan in Red Sonja
Schwarzenegger may have been put off making any more Conan films after sequel Conan the Destroyer, but the actor was contractually bound to play the role once more in 1985’s Red Sonja. Another sword and sorcery adventure film, Red Sonja is based on another character originating in the writings of Robert E Howard (although the character as we know her was largely the creation of comic book artist and writer team Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith).
However, although producer Dino De Laurentiis had purchased the rights to both characters, there were unforeseen legal issues that meant the filmmakers were forbidden to use the character of Conan in the Red Sonja movie. For this reason, Schwarzenegger’s Conan was reworked into an original (though similar) character named Kalidor, alongside Brigitte Nielsen in the title role. Schwarzenegger would later call Red Sonja the worst film of his career.
12. Schwarzenegger displayed Conan’s sword in his office when he was Governor of California
In November 2003, just over 21 years after the release of Conan the Barbarian, Arnold Schwarzenegger took on a new, very different role: the 38th Governor of California. The bodybuilder-turned-actor had long held ambitions of moving into politics, and proved popular enough with voters in California to be elected as the replacement for previous governor Gray Davis.
Schwarzenegger wound up serving two four-year terms as Governor (the longest period legally allowed in the role), and both throughout his campaign and time in office, he would often refer back to his movie roles, Conan among them. On top of often reciting a variation on Conan’s iconic “crush your enemies” speech, Schwarzenegger had the original sword he wielded in the movie on display in his office.
11. The dogs that attack Conan were genuinely vicious
One scene in Conan the Barbarian sees Schwarzenegger’s title character running for his life from a pack of vicious dogs, climbing up a rock to escape them. According to director John Milius, Schwarzenegger was not acting in this moment: the dogs in question truly were dangerous and bloodthirsty animals, and anxious to sink their teeth into him.
Milius remarked of the scene, “When you had the dogs chasing Arnold Schwarzenegger and he’s running, he’s actually running for his life because he knew those dogs were very dangerous and they even attacked their trainer.” Schwarzenegger suffered an injury shooting this scene, as one of the dogs jumped up at him whilst he was climbing the rock, causing him to fall and hurt his back.
10. James Earl Jones gave Schwarzenegger acting tips in exchange for training from Schwarzenegger
Assuming we don’t count his debut film Hercules in New York (which presumably Arnold Schwarzenegger would prefer we didn’t), Conan the Barbarian gave Schwarzenegger his first real leading role. As neither he nor co-stars Sandahl Bergman and Gerry Lopez had much experience, John Milius made it a priority to cast some far more seasoned actors in supporting roles.
To this end, James Earl Jones was cast as the villainous Thulsa Doom, whilst Max von Sydow agreed to take the small but important role of King Osric. Both actors made a big impression on Schwarzenegger, and offered him acting tips which he found extremely helpful. In exchange, Schwarzenegger helped Jones with his workouts for the movie.
9. Schwarzenegger and Sandahl Bergman did their own stunts because convincing doubles couldn’t be found
Arnold Schwarzenegger was of course world-famous in his prime for his distinctive, muscular physique. He was joined in Conan the Barbarian by Sandahl Bergman, an experienced dancer who stood a statuesque six feet tall; director John Milius cast her on the basis of her appearance in the film All That Jazz, in which she struck him as Valkyrie-esque.
While their striking physiques were key to the casting of both actors, this did cause an issue when it came to finding stunt doubles for them. The filmmakers didn’t have much luck finding stunt performers who could convincingly pass for either Schwarzenegger or Bergman, so both actors were obliged to perform their own stunts.
8. Real vultures (including one carcass) were used in the crucifixion scene
One of Conan the Barbarian’s most memorable scenes sees the titular hero crucified on a tree, at which point a vulture flies down to peck at his head – but the ever-resilient Conan kills the bird by biting it in the neck. As might not be surprising given the lack of concern for animal safety on set, real vultures were used in this scene.
Don’t worry though, Schwarzenegger is no Ozzy Osbourne: he didn’t literally bite a winged creature to death. Even so, for the biting shot the filmmakers did place a genuine vulture carcass on his shoulder, which the actor had to bite for real. As soon as director John Milius called cut, Schwarzenegger had to immediately wash out his mouth to avoid infection.
7. Oliver Stone’s original script was set in a post-apocalyptic future
When Oliver Stone was hired to write Conan the Barbarian’s screenplay, his ambitious vision strayed quite far from Robert E Howard’s original Conan stories. Rather than being set in a mythic past, Stone’s story took place in a post-apocalyptic future, featured armies of mutants and gargantuan demonic monsters, and told what would have been a roughly four-hour story.
When John Milius was hired to direct, he also set about rewriting the bulk of Stone’s script to keep the action on a far smaller scale, closer in tone and content to Howard’s vision and set once again in the mythic-historical context. At the same time, Milius brought the script’s length time down to around two hours (129 minutes in reality), all of which made the film far easier to realise on a comparatively limited budget.
6. Subotai actor Gerry Lopez was a surfing buddy of John Milius’
It wasn’t only Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sandahl Bergman who were lacking in on-camera acting experience. Another of Conan the Barbarian’s key characters, Conan’s friend Subotai, was played by an almost completely inexperienced actor named Gerry Lopez, who landed the role primarily because he was acquainted with director John Milius as a surfer.
Milius was a passionate surfer (as a screenwriter, he was responsible for the famous surfing scenes in Apocalypse Now), and had previously made a movie about surfing, Big Wednesday. This earlier film had given Gerry Lopez his first film role (as himself). While the producers of Conan the Barbarian agreed to Lopez’s casting as Subotai, they had reservations about his line delivery, hence all his dialogue was later overdubbed by stage actor Sab Shimono.
5. Sandahl Bergman’s performance landed her a Golden Globe
Conan the Barbarian was never a film that was likely to win any major film awards, but it was recognised by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organisation behind the Golden Globe Awards (controversial today, but prestigious at the time). The HFPA were impressed by Sandahl Bergman’s breakthrough performance as Valeria, and named her New Star of the Year – Actress.
Schwarzenegger himself had won a New Star of the Year award several years earlier for Stay Hungry. While Bergman had appeared in films beforehand, Valeria was her first significant role, and she landed more fantasy-oriented roles in the years that followed, including the title role in 1984’s She, the villainess in Red Sonja, and ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper’s sidekick/love interest in Hell Comes to Frogtown. Alas, few of these films could be considered hits.
4. Schwarzenegger spent 18 months learning fighting, swordplay, climbing and horseback riding
Signing on to play Conan the Barbarian proved to be a major commitment for Schwarzenegger, as the role took over his life for a year and a half before cameras even started rolling. As part of the former bodybuilder’s gradual slimming process from his excessively muscular condition beforehand, Schwarzenegger had to learn the athletic disciplines in which Conan was proficient.
This meant that Schwarzenegger entered into a training regimen that incorporated martial arts, the use of a broadsword and other weapons, riding on horseback, plus swimming and rock climbing. Much of this was new territory for Schwarzenegger, and he declared it to be every bit as challenging as any training he had undergone as a professional bodybuilder.
3. Sandahl Bergman almost lost a finger shooting a sword fight
Taking on any action-oriented role comes with inherent physical risk, particularly when the actors are called on to perform their stunts themselves, as was the case for the two leads on Conan the Barbarian. Things almost went very badly wrong for Valeria actress Sandahl Bergman when she was badly cut whilst wielding a sword – an injury that almost cost her a finger.
Whilst shooting a sword fight scene, Bergman was allegedly facing off against an untrained extra who had for some reason been given a real sword. When the inevitable accident followed, the tip of Bergman’s finger was severed. Director John Milius, far from showing any concern for the actress’s well-being, is said to have bluntly complained, “Valeria would never let that happen.”
2. The stuntwoman who jumps at Thulsa Doom’s command set a new record
Even though Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sandahl Bergman were obliged to perform their own stunts on Conan the Barbarian, there was still no shortage of actual professional stunt performers on the set, some of whom had to go to even greater lengths than the lead actors. One such stunt performer was Corrie Jansen, who makes a brief but memorable appearance in the film as a follower of Thulsa Doom.
In the scene in question, James Earl Jones’ Doom wants to show Conan the extent of his power over his followers, and so casually instructs a young woman to fall to her death. The woman in question is Jansen, who is reported to have fallen a terrifying 182 feet. This was a new world record for a free fall drop performed by a woman.
1. The film was delayed for several months due to studio fears about the violence
While there was no shortage of family-friendly fantasy adventure movies in the 80s, Conan the Barbarian most definitely cannot to be counted among them. The level of violence in the film, not to mention a number of scenes featuring sex and nudity, guaranteed director John Milius’ film a restrictive rating – but things could have been worse if they’d stuck to Milius’ first cut.
After seeing the completed film, executives at studio Universal were reportedly alarmed by the graphic violence. For this reason, the film’s release date was pushed back from December 1981 to May 1982, allowing time for significant re-editing of its more gruesome and extreme moments. The decapitation of Conan’s mother was reshot to be less gory; other scenes, such as Conan battling a female gladiator and hacking off the arm of a pickpocket, were removed completely.