Thursday, August 25, 2011

Conan: King of Thieves

With all this Conan around, it got me thinking of that stack of Starlog magazines sitting by the a/c unit; that and the fact that I had to move them as the thing sprung a leak. Here's a little something from the May 1984 issue about the upcoming movie Conan: King of Thieves...

Arnold Schwarzenegger
The Complete Barbarian

A look back in humor by America's favorite bodybuilder-turned-actor, now battling swords and sorcerers as Conan: King of Thieves.
by Brian Lowry

If you don't agree with the slogan "money talks" - particularly in the film industry - just listen to Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Every decision is based on money." he says emphatically.

And if you don't agree with Arnold Schwarzenegger when he sounds emphatic - well, it's your neck, you tell him.

Actually, the Austrian-born actor would probably only laugh if you did. He has reason to smile these days, for money - to the tune of more than $100 million worldwide - has talked producer Dino De Laurentiis and Universal Pictures into mounting a sequel to 1982's Conan the Barbarian filmed down Mexico way and slated for release later this year.

Only Schwarzenegger is returning in this follow-up; most of the original cast (James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, William Smith) were hacked to pieces in the first adventure. This time, the supporting barbarians include Wilt Chamberlain, Grace Jones and Sarah Douglas.

Surprisingly, one person left standing on the sidelines is writer/director John (The Wind and the Lion) Milius - of whom Schwarzenegger has said "There never would have been a Conan movie without him." Milius, who once avowed that he could go on making Conan movies for the rest of his life, is not involved in the sequel. Director Richard (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) Fleischer replaces him.

Additionally, this sequel will seek a PG rating rather than its forebear's R badge of butchery. The first film's violence and bloodshed has been cited as a reason for its relative dearth of merchandising spin-offs and its limited number of under-18 admissions, both of which reduced potential income. Conan: King of Thieves will be an adventurous tale of fantasy, according to Universal, rather than a violent quest for revenge.

Roy Thomas, who helped revitalize interest in Conan by bringing Robert E. Howard's pulp hero into Marvel Comics stardom in 1970, co-wrote the screenplay with fellow comic book writer Gerry Conway. The two also scripted Ralph Bakshi's Fire & Ice. Final polishing of the screenplay was done by Stanley (Firestarter) Mann.

The script of Conan, Conan: King of Thieves reportedly underwent various revisions, in an effort to keep the barbarian chained within a PG-rating.

Schwarzenegger has strong feelings about playing a less savage Cimmerian. "I think it's a mistake," he says. "I know Sylvester Stallone made an extra $20million because he got a PG-rating for Rocky Ill, but it's a matter of how much you want to stay within the character's reality.

"Can you slaughter people and never see blood? Is it possible? You must have battles. That's part of life, war and Conan."

The Candid Cimmerian
It quickly becomes apparent that Schwarzenegger is remarkably frank, good-natured and affable. And after looking at him, it's not all that hard to understand. He can afford to be. Although now out of bodybuilding and into acting, Schwarzenegger, at 6'2", is still a formidable sight. When he walks into a room, he looks like a tank camouflaged in a business suit.

And business is certainly what his screen career has been all about.

"Since I didn't have financial troubles, I didn't have to go out and act to make a living. I could wait for projects which would help me one way or another with my career," he explains. "Even when I did The Villain - I read the script and knew it was not interesting -I thought I would love working with Ann Margret and Kirk Douglas; I could learn from them. I wanted to work with Hal (Megaforce) Needham, because he's a very different kind of director and I would learn.

"This is the way I chose my roles: I had to find something in the package that interested me or which could slowly move me up."

After receiving positive reviews for Stay Hungry and Pumping Iron, his waiting strategy paid off with Conan the Barbarian, a serious part suited to his physique - which, he admits, isn't that of the typical leading man. Earning $50 million domestically, Conan really reached blockbuster status thanks to its performance abroad, as it became the highest-grossing film in the history of Germany and Austria. As a native Austrian (who recently became a naturalized American citizen), did Conan's success in his homeland spell any special significance?

"Anywhere it did well makes me happy," he says booming with laughter. "Doing a sequel usually means they're pretty happy with the first one. And Conan has been very profitable to everyone involved."

There won't be just one sequel, however. Present plans - and Schwarzenegger's contract - provide for Conan: King of Thieves and four subsequent adventures. On the tourism front, Universal has added to its studio tour "The Adventures of Conan," a $3 million stunt-and-special effects attraction, which features fierce sword fights, laser beam sorcery and a 17-fool mechanical dragon. The studio also recently announced they have  urchased film rights to all the Conan novels and short stories by Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter and others.

"I thought that [the tour] was a pretty good sign," says Schwarzenegger, who had been previously uncertain about the barbarian's future in the jungles of Hollywood. "It shows that Universal is really committed to Conan. I am.

"He is a fun character to play, to bring to people. I could see myself playing him until Conan X. I could do a Conan every few years and other projects in between them."

Nine sequels? "That's up to Dino," Schwarzenegger admits. "It was a fact that Rocky III was the last Rocky movie, and now, they're working on Rocky IV; First Blood was supposed to be one movie, and now, there will be a second one, maybe Second Blood.

"So, it all depends. If Conan V makes $100 million, they'll probably be stupid enough to do a sixth one."

The Bandaged Barbarian
Listening to Schwarzenegger talk about innumerable sequels is remarkable when you realize the experiences he underwent during the first one. Due to his massive physique, finding a stunt double to match was all but impossible. Instead, the actor did almost all of his own stunts - leaping off a 50-foot tower, getting mauled by wolves and wrestling a 36-foot, hydraulically-operated snake.

Additionally, Schwarzenegger was bitten on the head by the camel he punched out, fell down and cut his forehead badly in the cave where he discovered the Atlantean sword, and was nearly decapitated while lensing the orgy chamber battle. When the axe wielded by former Oakland Raider Ben Davidson was parried by Schwarzenegger's sword, the axe blade flew off, striking Schwarzenegger's shoulder and missing his head by inches.

Still, when it comes to finding the bright side to such a situation, Schwarzenegger seems more like Little Orphan Annie than barbaric Conan. "The only way you could do the role is by going through the physical pain in reality, to really get its feeling," he explains, noting the difference between acting and reality. "Then, you don't have to fake the facial expressions. I mean, if you get attacked by wolves, you look scared - you don't have to make funny faces anymore.

"The same goes for the snake, which could lift 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of weight. It really could throw me around and I really was struggling with it.

"But I was never too concerned about the dangers. I always thought, 'Well, if I have an accident, to hell with it, I have an accident. And Milius would always tell me, 'Whatever accident you have, remember the pain is temporary, the movie is permanent."

He survived - and the movie became a success. According to Schwarzenegger, based on the feedback he has received: "Not one guy who is a Conan fanatic or a Robert E. Howard freak, didn't like the movie. That's the biggest compliment you can get - to please the people who know the stories and love the character."

This fan response to his barbaric portrayal, the actor quickly points out, is "unlike the Flash Gordon situation (also produced by De Laurentiis), where the fans hated the result. That's why it bombed, and that's why it was important for John Milius not to let Dino interfere.

"Dino didn't want me to be in the movie," Schwarzenegger contends. "He didn't like me playing the part. He thought that I had a Nazi accent, he didn't like the way I talk. And then, Milius said, 'Well, listen, if we don't have Arnold play Conan, we have to build one; so, if you have time to build another Arnold, then go ahead."

De Laurentiis reluctantly agreed to the casting, but remained constantly concerned about the project's costs. Milius wrapped Conan the Barbarian with a $19 million price tag. That's not much, Schwarzenegger notes, compared to the $24 million De Laurentiis spent remaking King Kong, with a mechanical ape that didn't work.

"Those are the things which are important to Dino," Schwarzenegger says. "The biggest gorilla in a movie or the longest snake."

The actor largely attributes Conan's international success to director Milius, whose contractual obligations to several other film projects apparently precluded his involvement in Conan: King of Thieves. Ultimately, Conan the Barbarian is Milius' film - and a hodgepodge of cinematic elements from similar movies, from Kirk Douglas in The Vikings (directed by Fleischer) to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's samurai films (whose The Seven Samurai proved especially Inspirational).

"Milius is such a strong director that Dino couldn't fight him," Schwarzenegger comments. "In Europe, Milius bought a lead statue of Mussolini. And then whenever he would have a meeting with Dino, he placed Mussolini on the desk in front of him. He would say, 'Dino, while you talk to me, look at this."

By design, Schwarzenegger said relatively little in the first film, speaking softly and carrying a big sword instead. "Milius never wanted Conan to talk that much," Schwarzenegger explains. "He would say, 'Look, there's nothing to be said; all you have to do is kill this guy.'

"We always wanted to make Conan the Barbarian more of a silent movie, rather than sitting around as if it was Kramer vs. Kramer."

The role's physical requirements, meanwhile, kept the actor more than busy. Aside from taking lessons in kendo, the Japanese art of sword-fighting, Schwarzenegger and co-stars trained for months with broadswords and perfected their horseback riding technique. Schwarzenegger, judged somewhat "over-muscled" by Milius, resorted to swimming and other exercises to make his ample bulk look more natural, less the product of bodybuilding.

Although Milius is out of the picture, Schwarzenegger seems unconcerned about the future direction of the Conan saga. He's quite happy to be involved in a solvent project, which hasn't always been the case. Some 12 years ago, he flexed his pecs as "Arnold Strong" in Italy for Hercules Goes Bananas, a cheesy, silly comedy recently re-released in Europe to cash in on his current popularity.

The flick's overseas success had prompted interest in its possible American distribution - to the dismay of the producers of Hercules, which toplines Schwarzenegger's Pumping Iron co-star Lou Ferrigno. The prospect of competing Olympian escapades - and decreased box office revenues - didn't thrill anyone.

Schwarzenegger, for his part, is generally unconcerned. He doesn't list the movie among his credits, but he also doesn't regret making it, though he admits that he can't see much value in its American release.

"Of course not," he says, ridiculing the notion. "It wasn't made for theaters. It was made for Italian TV on a $300,000 budget. How could it be any good in theaters?"

Still, his Hercules heroics are well behind Schwarzenegger, as are any aspirations about the field which launched his career: bodybuilding. The winner of five Mr. Olympia titles, he is no longer a competitor, but still a patron of the sport. He has also moved behind the camera as executive producer of Pumping Iron II, inspired by the original bodybuilding documentary which convinced Conan producer Edward R. Pressman that he had found the man who should be Conan. In an egalitarian twist, this follow-up focuses on female bodybuilders.

Schwarzenegger says he has no intention of appearing in the film "unless maybe I emcee the competition." He laughs. "I guess I'm relegated to emceeing now."

He remains a highly sought after presence in front of the cameras, too. Currently, Schwarzenegger is negotiating for a movie adaptation of "Big Bad John," Jimmy Dean's story song classic about "a giant of a man" and his self-sacrifice in a mine cave-in.

Whatever his film future holds, Schwarzenegger is convinced that he should hold out and wait for more "serious" roles in movies produced by major studios like Universal. The  offers to do Tarzan spoofs and the like keep rolling in, but he plans to avoid involvement in "some $3 million Italian operation. There are other bodybuilders they could use for those things," he grins.

That may be true, but there are few with the fame and physique that Schwarzenegger brings to a role. Yet, that's the dilemma which has plagued him in his bid to become a "serious" actor: his build is more suited to a bit part as the sultan's bodyguard than the leading man roles he desires. With Conan, Schwarzenegger seems to have carved himself a niche where he can be a bit of both, a sword-and-sorcery hero of mythic proportions and a serious actor as well. Like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a character he can return to if all else fails and, more importantly, a barbaric hero to help all else succeed.

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