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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

Conan the Barbarian 4K UHD Review



Arrow Video

4K UHD Release: January 30, 2024

Video: 2.35:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color (all cuts)

Audio: English Dolby Atmos and DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono (all cuts)

Subtitles: English SDH

Run Time: 126:30 (theatrical cut),129:01 (international cut), 130:24 (extended cut)

Director: John Milius


Conan the Cimmerian thief and future king (Arnold Schwarzenegger) rises up from slavery to become an unparalleled and fearsome warrior, intent on vengeance against the evil snake cult that slaughtered his family long ago, led by the shape-shifting sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). (From Arrow’s official synopsis)



Based on the genre-defining pulp tales of Robert E. Howard, additionally inspired by the genre-defining fantasy art of Frank Frazetta, and the film that established the box office validity of bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982) has a critical and cultural impact that transcends anything interesting I could say about it. I considered comparing it more to Howard’s stories, but there’s so much of that already available in the extras of this very collection that I’ve decided to briefly explore the short-lived ‘80s sword-and-sorcery craze that it helped initiate.


The irony of the fad is that, besides Milius’ film, they didn’t make very much money. Fortunately, most of them were made on the cheap and still just profitable enough to entice studios into financing more of them. Prior to Conan, the UK got in the door early with Terry Marcel’s micro-budgeted Hawk the Slayer (1980) and John Boorman’s lavish Excalibur (1981), and two major US studios, Disney and Paramount, combined to prime the pump with Matthew Robbins’ Dragon Slayer (1981). Dragon Slayer bombed, though not as hard as Disney’s attempt at an animated fantasy, The Black Cauldron (1985), which almost tanked the entire animation department. Despite this, 1982 was the watershed year and saw the release of Conan the Barbarian (March Fotogramas de Plata premiere and May theatrical premiere), Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer (April), Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster (August), and Rankin/Bass’ The Last Unicorn (November), all of which developed loyal cult followings and established the tradition.



This brings us to B-movie king Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures entered the scene with Sorceress (October of 1982), secretly directed by the great Jack Hill. John Watson’s Deathstalker (1983) helped solidify the New World sword-and-sorcery formula, leading to four sequels (1987, ‘88, ‘91) and three Barbarian Queen movies (1985, ‘88, ‘89) with co-star Lana Clarkson. Legally unable to make actual Conan movies, Corman contemporaries Harry Alan Towers and the Cannon Group combined to make the uniquely misogynistic Gor (directed by Fritz Kiersch, 1987) and Outlaw of Gor (directed by Bud Cardos, 1988), based on the books by John Norman (aka: John Lange). Corman himself and writer/director John C. Broderick looked to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) for The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) and Cannon attempted to bring the He-Man toy line to the big screen with 1987’s studio-killing financial disaster Masters of the Universe. Kull the Conqueror, another Robert E. Howard creation (from which some of Conan’s movie backstory was derived), wasn’t officially adapted until 1997, starring former Hercules and current fascism enthusiast Kevin Sorbo (it was a flop). Peter Yates’ UK/US co-production Krull (1983, also a flop) has no relation to Kull or Howard’s stories.


And, of course, we can’t overlook Italy, where a similar peplum fad was reinvigorated by Conan, inspiring around 20 movies (not counting the fact that the two Conan films were made by Dino De Laurentiis’ production company). Franco Prosperi’s Guanan, King of Barbarians (Italian: Gunan il guerriero), Michele Massimo Tarantini’s Sword of the Barbarians (Italian: Sangraal, la spada di fuocol), Joe D’Amato’s Ator the Fighting Eagle (Italian: Ator l'invincibile), and its sequel, The Blade Master (Italian: Ator 2 – L'invincibile Orion), all sprinted out of the gate in 1982. Then, in 1983, Lucio Fulci tried his hand at the genre with the dreamily weird Conquest, Antonio Margheriti took things in a sci-fi direction for Yor, the Hunter from the Future (Italian: Il mondo di Yor), Luigi Cozzi attempted to revive the Hercules series with help from Cannon and Schwarzenegger rival Lou Ferrigno, and Umberto Lenzi shot caveman fantasy Ironmaster (Italian: La guerra del ferro: Ironmaster) in South Dakota. But no aging Italian master produced a sillier post-Conan barbarian movie than Ruggero Deodato, who teamed with the dying Cannon Group to make bad movie classic The Barbarians (1987), starring twin bodybuilders Peter & David Paul.


Bibliography:

  • Italian Sword and Sandal Films, 1908-1990 by Roy Kinnard & Tony Crnkovich (McFarland & Co, 2017)



Video

Conan the Barbarian is, as established, a very popular movie with a loyal cult following and has been released on more or less every format, from VHS and Beta to Laserdisc, CED, VHD, VCD, DVD, Blu-ray, and now 4K UHD (the only one missing is HD DVD). Arrow’s new restoration was created using a 4K scan of the original negatives (I didn’t get a retail copy, so I don’t have access to the complete restoration specs) and is presented in 2160p with HDR10/Dolby Vision enhancement. There are three cuts included: the original theatrical version, the international release, and the extended version, the latter of which I opted to view in its entirety. I’ve placed some screencaps from the same day Blu-ray version for illustrative purposes, though, unfortunately, I don’t have the original 2011 Universal Blu-ray on hand for a direct comparison.


Fortunately, you don’t really need to see the 4K and old BD side-by-side to notice the upgrade in detail and texture. The transfer does a really nice job of looking like a new, well-preserved 35mm print without oversharpening edges or DNRing out the film grain. The HDR enhancement punches-up highlights without overwhelming the scenes that cinematographer Duke Callaghan designed to appear dark and naturally-lit (the day-for-night shots are difficult to discern, no matter what format you watch the film on). Up for argument, as usual, are the differences in color timing. This transfer isn’t necessarily brighter than previous 1080p releases, but the colors are definitely more vivid – skies are bluer, skin tones are warmer, set-piece lighting is more violet, and those red-baked interiors skew more purely red, instead of slightly orange. I don’t know which option is “correct” (I imagine some fans will claim that the neutral hues are too red during fire-lit sequences), but I personally prefer the HDR-boosted 4K look (to get an idea of the color timing differences, I compared my caps to some this caps-a-holic page and checked out all related tweets from @TimesSqKungFu).



Audio

Conan the Barbarian is presented with Dolby Atmos (Dolby TrueHD core) and DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono options. I assume that the Atmos track was created using the older 5.1 remix that found its way onto DVDs and Blu-rays over the years. While I tend to prefer watching movies with their original audio presentations, the Atmos mix gives a nice bass boost to Basil Poledouris’ legendary score, depending on how loud you’re willing to crank the volume. Otherwise, the mono track is nice and busy for a single channel mix, including clear dialogue, crisp effects, and a good musical representation. 


And, hey, if you’re only here for Poledouris’ music (which is fair, since it’s very good and so much of the film is non-verbal), you are in luck, because this disc also includes an isolated score track in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 stereo.



Extras

Disc 1 (Conan the Barbarian 4K UHD)

  • Commentary with director John Milius and star Arnold Schwarzenegger (extended cut) – This archival track was recorded way back in 2000 and is lovingly remembered by commentary enthusiasts for Arnold’s wacky (possibly alcohol-driven?) hijinks, though, if we’re talking about classic Schwarzenegger commentaries, I personally prefer the dueling accents of his Total Recall track with Paul Verhoven. I digress – despite Arnold’s antics, Milius is on topic and full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. The only real issue is that the duo runs out of energy too early in the track.

  • Commentary with Paul M. Sammon (extended cut) – Genre historian and author of Conan: The Phenomenon (Dark Horse, 2013), who observed the filming of Conan the Barbarian on set in Spain, discusses the making of the film, while also exploring Robert E. Howard’s source material, Milius’ inspirations and use of symbolism, the careers of the cast & crew, and sharing a couple of personal anecdotes.




Disc 2 (Extras only Blu-ray)

  • Designing Conan (14:17, HD) – Production artist William Stout describes working on Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, being hired by Ron Cobb and Milius while seeking advertising gigs, sharing offices with Steven Speilberg and meeting George Lucas, anchoring the design in historical imagery, the ways Milius manipulated de Laurentiis, and the production’s attempts to save his original pieces.

  • Costuming Conan (13:21, HD) – Costume designer John Bloomfield recalls being hired onto Conan the Barbarian after being fired from Flash Gordon (1980), working with Cobb, studying the Conan comics, and the ideas behind his designs, including hi-res scans of his original sketches. 

  • Barbaric Effects (10:50, HD) – Special effects technicians Colin Arthur and Ron Hone share behind-the-scenes anecdotes about various physical and make-up effects mishaps.

  • Young Conan (7:05, HD) – Spanish actor Jorge Sanz looks back at his brief time on set as child-age Conan.

  • Conan & The Priest (6:52, HD) – Spaghetti western star and one of Jess Franco’s favorite actors, Jack Taylor, chats about his cameo.

  • Cutting the Barbarian (8:31, HD) – Assistant editor Peck Prior quickly discusses his career, the structure of the studio editing apprenticeship, and his work on the film under C. Timothy O'Meara.

  • Crafting Conan’s Magic (6:36, HD) – Visual effects animators Peter Kuran and Katherine Kean break down the sequences they worked on, including some standard definition before & after comparisons.

  • Barbarians and Northmen (6:22, HD) – Director Robert Eggers examines his affection for Conan the Barbarian and the film’s influence on The Northman (2022).

  • Behind the Barbarian (17:10, HD) – John Walsh, author of Conan the Barbarian: The Official Story of the Film (Titan Books, 2023), explores Howard’s original stories, the character’s film legacy, unrealized early adaptations, and the long process of completing Milius’ film. This is a nice distillation of the longer documentary included on this disc (and, one assumes, Walsh’s own book)

  • A Line in the Sand (16:43, HD) – In the final exclusive Arrow interview, Alfio Leotta, author of The Cinema of John Milius (Lexington Books, 2018), discusses Milius’ early career and Conan the Barbarian’s significance in it. 

  • 15 remastered original 1982 promotional featurettes (35:11, HD)

  • Conan the Barbarian: The Musical (3:01, HD) – One of a series of Schwarzenegger-themed comic tributes from composer brothers Jon & Al Kaplan.

  • Image gallery 



Archival extras

  • Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan (53:11, SD) – This 2000 documentary from director Laurent Bouzereau was part of Universal's first Collector’s Edition DVD and is still probably the primary video source for information on the film (half the Wikipedia and IMBb trivia comes from either this or the Arnold/Milius commentary). It includes interviews with all the important players – Milius, Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, James Earl Jones, de Laurentiis, Poledouris, original screenwriter Oliver Stone, production designer Ron Cobb, producer Edward Pressman, et cetera – deleted scenes, and production art.

  • Conan: The Rise of a Fantasy Legend (18:25, SD) – A 2005 featurette on the origins of Howard’s books and the Marvel comics.

  • Art of Steel: Sword Makers & Masters (14:40, HD) – A 2011 interview with sword master/trainer Kiyoshi Yamasaki.

  • Conan: From the Vault (10:22, HD/SD) – A compilation of 1981-’82 on-set cast & crew interviews

  • Visual effects comparison (1:37, SD)

  • Three deleted scenes (0:53, 4:17, 0:24, SD)

  • Four trailers

  • The Conan Archives slideshow


2009 Basil Poledouris tribute

  • Conan: The Symphony (47:14, SD) – A 2006 live performance of the film’s score.

  • Remembering Basil (35:37, SD) A documentary by Dan Goldwasser that includes interviews with some of the composer’s collaborators.

  • The Tale of Conan (15:01, SD) – A 2006 interview with Poledouris filmed at the Úbeda Film Music Festival.

  • Basil at Úbeda photo slideshow


The images on this page are taken from Arrow’s same-day Blu-ray release – NOT the 4K UHD – and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.

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