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  • Stefan Riedlinger

Conan The Barbarian - Basil Poledouris - Soundtrack Review

„Conan“ was the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger to a stat. The amazing career of the Austrian from bodybuilding to a movie star and then to the governor of California is one of the greatest bigger than life stories ever. When I was a teenager, I preferred Stallone to Schwarzenegger, but with “Total Recall” I started to become a great fan of Arnold, and finally, you have to admit that overall Arnie’s movies are better, but Stallone is because of “Rocky” and “Rambo” a part of American culture.

The movie

"Conan the Barbarian" is a 1982 American epic sword and sorcery film directed by John Milius and written by Milius and Oliver Stone. It is based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. The film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Earl Jones, and tells the story of a young muscular barbarian warrior named Conan (Schwarzenegger), who seeks vengeance for the death of his parents at the hands of Thulsa Doom (Jones), the leader of a snake cult. Here is the trailer:

In his autobiography, Arnold explains in a very entertaining way the making of “Conan”. This kind of movie would not be possible today because it is very rude, very violent and directed by a really non-political director. John Milius, also the uncredited writer of “Dirty Harry” and the director of the great movie “The Wind and the Lion” for which Jerry Goldsmith wrote one of his finest scores, said in an interview: “I've always been considered a nut. They kind of tolerate me. It's certainly affected me. I've been blacklisted for a large part of my career because of my politics—as surely as any writer was blacklisted back in the 1950s. It's just that my politics are from the other side, and Hollywood always veers left.”

“Conan”, based on the stories of the pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard from the 30s, is a fantasy action movie about a young barbarian who seeks vengeance for the death of his parents at the hands of Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones. Buzz Feitshans and Raffaella De Laurentiis produced the film for her father Dino De Laurentiis. The movie was successful and earned more than $ 100 Mio., and, of course, critics were not pleased and said this movie is advancing the themes of fascism. This is not only not true, it is totally off topic because “Conan” is the story of an individual fighting against a very bad guy who killed a lot of innocent people, so a typical Schwarzenegger and also Stallone topic. Fascism? Oh, come on!

Schwarzenegger trained a lot to be prepared for the role. He, for example, took an 18-month training before shooting began; aside from running and lifting weights, he practiced rope climbing, horseback riding, swimming and sword fighting. James Earl Jones helped Schwarzenegger a lot to deliver his lines in the right tone, Arnie pointed out in his book. The producers took a huge effort to bring this fantasy world alive, with real decorations, miniature models and some effects by George Lucas Industrial Light & Magic.

The composer

The score is one of the most important parts of the movie. Milius planed the movie like an opera, and therefore, the music has a lot of choir tracks in it. Basil Poledouris, a friend of Milius, had a successful collaboration with the director before. Poledouris composed the music based on the storyboards and modified it through the recording. He also used a Musync, a music and tempo editing hardware and software system invented by Robert Randles to modify the tempo of the compositions and synchronize them with the action in the film. The music is similar to classical composers like Richard Wagner, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev.

The starting point for the music was the melodic line, the musical ideas that became well-known as “Riddle Of Steel”. This music uses massive brass, strings and percussion and became the Conan-Theme. Milius initially wanted a chorus based on Carl Orff's “Carmina Burana”, but after Excalibur (1981) had used Orff's work, Milius asked for an original creation. The lyrics were composed in English and roughly translated into Latin. The pieces of music were orchestrated by Greig McRitchie, Poledouris's frequent collaborator, and also an orchestrator who worked a lot for James Horner.

Basil Poledouris (August 21, 1945 – November 8, 2006) was an American music composer who won the Emmy Award for Best Musical Score for the TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove” in 1989. He is very well known for his collaboration with Paul Verhoeven (“RoboCop” and “Starship Troopers”) and also for his great score for “The Hunt for Red October”. Poledouris was mostly composing in a big and majestic orchestra style, his theme for “RoboCop” is a typical example and still very popular, but he has also composed more lyrical music such as for the Kevin Costner movie “For Love of the Game”.

Born in Kansas City, Poledouris said he was influenced by classic film music composer Miklós Rózsa. At the age of seven, Poledouris began piano lessons, and after high school graduation, he enrolled at the University of Southern California to study both film making and music. At USC, he also met Milius. Poledouris scored some extra music for the original “Star Trek” series, wrote the music for Verhoeven’s “Flesh & Blood”, and composed the music for Brooke Shields “The Blue Lagoon”, Tom Selleck’s “Quigley Down Under” and for the very popular “Free Willy” movies. Poledouris died 2006 from cancer.

The music

The main theme of “Conan” is very popular, and Jerry Goldsmith used this theme for “Total Recall”. When I was writing my review of “Total Recall”, I could not find any information why Jerry did this. I still have the Milan “Conan” CD of the soundtrack that consists of 12 tracks. Intrada released a 3CD box with the music, and you can find a lot of more tracks on that release.

Let’s just talk about a few tracks: “Prologue/Anvil of Crom” introduces the majestic theme for the movie, a real classic of film music, and it is interesting to compare this track with Jerry’s theme of “Total Recall”. Track 2 “Riddle Of Steel/Riders Of Doom” is the first highlight of the score. After introducing a lovely melody, Poledouris underscores the attack of James Earl Jones and his guys with a great action track and a fabulous use of the choir. This is really amazing movie music!

You have great action tracks in this score such as the already mentioned “Riddle Of Steel” and all the battle music (e.g. “The Kitchen/The Orgy”, “Battle of the Mounds”) , but also more lyrical tracks such as “Atlantean Sword”, “Recovery” and the beautiful “Theology/Civilization”, and tracks such as “Wheel Of Pain” and “Gladiator” that shows Poledouris approach to underscore this epic movie by using a lot of brass and more primitive rhythm. These tracks are not always easy listening music, but have a great function in the movie. You can also discover a lot of typical folk music in tracks such as “Escape from the Tower of Set”. In the end, you have to decide what you want: the original score in a sound quality that is not up to date, or the new recording by Nic Raine. I always try to get the original one, therefore, the Intrada set will be the best choice.

The movie itself is still fun to watch though you feel some scenes are totally awkward today, e.g. the sex scene between Conan and the witch. I still really love this scene. “Conan” is a product of its time. The themes reflect the political climate of the US in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan as president. Reagan emphasized the moral worth of the individual in his speeches, encouraging his fellow Americans to make the country successful and to stand up against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Schwarzenegger was the perfect guy to transport this message.

Poledouris’ music ranks as one of the best film music scores ever, and it deserves this rank. I personally like the second track most and have some trouble to get into the whole score, but the music is worth to discover again, Milius planed the movie with more music than dialogue, and that was a great approach. Poledouris is a composer film music enthusiast should watch out, there are still some nice CDs with his music out there.

I found a great video of a live performance of the score. The quality is not the best, but you can imagine how this score sounds live.

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2015, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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