‘Do You Want to Live Forever?’—John Milius’ ‘Conan the Barbarian’

Written by Tim Pelan. Photo credit: Bob Penn & George Whitear © Universal Pictures, Dino De Laurentiis Company, Edward R. Pressman Film


By Tim Pelan

The Frankenstein’s monster that is Justice League, the Warner Bros/DC superhero team-up film that has critics and audiences comparing notes on who shot/wrote what, Zack Snyder or Joss Whedon, calls to mind somewhat the mixed bag that is 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. Oliver Stone originally took a crack at writing it, meeting with intended and final star Arnold Schwarzenegger, hoping to direct him (he had the Austrian oak read to him from the Conan comics to get a feel for the atmosphere and dialogue), and although John Milius took over both chores for producers Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis, the finished film has Stone’s imprint all over it. Critic and Stone biographer/essayist Matt Zoller Seitz suggests there is (to Stone’s apparent discomfort) a semi-autobiographical element to it, of the orphaned slave turned gladiator, thief, mercenary, avenging barbarian and lover, and finally, hinted at future king. “The more you know about Stone’s own biography,” Seitz opines, “[such as] his emotional estrangement from his parents, his self-reinvention in the brothels and killing fields of Southeast Asia, his fondness for stories about both real and fictional adventurers, including Alexander the Great and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim—the more Conan seems like an exuberant and perverse autobiography.” Milius is a martially minded philosopher poet also. “Ultimately Conan is John’s movie,” Stone told Seitz, with perhaps a degree of modesty or disappointment at Milius’ necessarily cut-down version (Stone’s vision was vastly ambitious and effects reliant). “He’s such a wonderful, Macedonian character. ‘Oliver! Come in! I just wrote something; I want you to hear it!’ And then he’d read some section he was working on, read it to me like it was Apocalypse Now, like it was just the greatest thing ever! ‘Whaddya think? Isn’t it great? We got it! By Crom, we got it!’”

“It took me four months to write Conan,” Stone recalled elsewhere, and recounted in The Conan Completist. “I had been hired to write the first draft. Paramount and Edward R. Pressman had told me to go ahead without restraining myself. I was expecting they would ask for a more digest, second draft. But I never had the chance to write it: Paramount canceled the project. [To write the script] I read each book, each comic book. Robert E. Howard… wrote all these great stories, originally in pulp magazines. He had a great gift for this perverted mythos of darkness and death, raging and mad Wagnerian mentality. [John Milius said that my script was a ‘feverish dream under acid’] but it is exactly what the film should have been! It is what arises from the work of Howard. What Edgar Rice Burroughs had made a success of with Tarzan, Howard renewed with Conan, who is a kind of post-modern Tarzan, less noble but more mischievous.”

Conan is the classical story by excellence. I very much liked the idea that he had been a slave, had suffered and managed to rise. What is great in Howard’s novels is that Conan passes from the stage of peasant to that of a king. A young peasant gains his royalty through a series of tests and marries… In my script, which concentrates several stories of Howard, Conan saves the life of one princess. At the end of the film, after having reconquered her throne thanks to his assistance, she offers her hand in marriage to him so that he becomes king. But Conan refuses this honor. He tells her: ‘I can’t be a king this way, as your husband. I can’t inherit the throne. I will earn my throne.’ So, he leaves her, like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood at the end of their westerns, with the sunset in the background. And he goes riding off to the second adventure, which was supposed to be the follow-up sequel. If they’d done it my way, they would have had a Bond-type series, 12-13 pictures, which is what I had wanted to do.”


So, from the Conan-that-might-have-been to the Conan-that-was. Conan was also very much in Milius’s wheelhouse, and he jumped at the chance to direct it, even though he knew less of the character than Stone, rewriting his post-apocalyptic first draft and setting the story firmly in Howard’s original ancient Hyborian Age, treating it absolutely seriously. Milius infused the character and script with the bushido code of discipline, duty, and honour, and a Nietzschean, operatic appreciation of the concept of the übermensch, with a keenness for life lived in the moment, full of self-reliance, ready to confront peril and defying the gods: “Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what’s important! Valour pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!”

Legend has it he always wanted to direct a Viking movie, and this was the closest he got to that spirit. “Howard seemed as highly suspicious of civilization as I am,” the widely read Milius said. “You know, people ask me how I could be interested in pagan, Teutonic cultures, and I tell them I cannot help myself—voices sing to me. I tell them there might be something we can learn from them.” The film’s most famous imperative exchange, “What is best in life?” “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women,” derives from a Harold Lamb book on Genghis Khan (The Emperor of All Men):

One day in the pavilion at Karakorum he [Genghis Kahn] asked an officer of the Mongol guard what, in all the world, could bring the greatest happiness.

“The open steppe, a clear day, and a swift horse under you,” responded the officer after a little thought, “and a falcon on your wrist to start up hares.”

“Nay,” responded the Kahn, “to crush your enemies, to see them fall at your feet—to take their horses and goods and hear the lamentation of their women. That is best.”


The director and his production designer Ron Cobb “decided to make a picture as though there was a [sic] Hyborian world,” according to Cobb. “Howard didn’t just imagine it. It was real.” They studied Celtic and Nordic design and history to imagine and realize a world that might have shaped those forces in earlier times. The production wizard enjoyed “being able to create a realistic, believable prehistory,” the duo settling on Spain’s dusty Almeria as a cost-effective location—Stone had favored a lush, green, primal environment. He dismissed Milius’ vision somewhat unfairly as “a western.” Quite a few subsequent sword and sorcery films have followed in Conan’s dusty trail, visually. The film retains several sequences and elements from Stone’s script, refashioned to Milius’ liking and emphasis, including the Tree of Woe, upon which villain Thulsa Doom has a beaten and bloodied Conan crucified and left for dead. The tree was made up of a framework of wood and steel encased in layers of Styrofoam and plaster. To aid visual continuity over the three days of filming it could be rotated to account for the differing light. Schwarzenegger sat on a disguised bicycle seat with fake nails “driven into” his wrists and ankles. Real vultures were secured to the tree branches whilst a mechanical one was made for the one that attempts to feed on him, getting a barbarian bite in return. There was no end to the ingenuity of the set design and effects. Carlo De Marchis, makeup effects supervisor, and Colin Arthur, former head of Madame Tussauds, created many convincing dummies to flesh out crowd scenes and be carved up in battle. A lot of the blood that flows from sword strikes came from blood bags filled with real slaughterhouse blood. Fiberglass prop swords also had tubes running through them, allowing them to spew blood as they struck their targets. Milius discounted matte shots, employing, like John Boorman’s Excalibur, miniatures placed in the environment, added to life-size sets, as if larger cities or villages extended in the background, seamlessly segueing from Conan entering a city’s gates, to his drunkenly punching out a camel impeding his progress through markets which throng with myriad extras.

Schwarzenegger studied the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa for the grace and fluidity of movement with sword. On the publicity circuit in 1982, he stated, “I learned the expression of serenity in combat.” For months he and his co-stars Gerry Lopez (thief Subotai) and Sandahl Bergman (Valeria, a female warrior and fellow brigand, his equal in lust for life—‘Let us take the world by the throat and make it gives us what we desire.’) studied kendo, horse riding, and dance movement. Despite the extensive training, several injuries and accidents occurred on set, Bergman suffering a finger cut open to the bone by a sword strike, Schwarzenegger himself grazed in the neck by an axe. Milius brushed concerns off, with the dismissal, “Pain is temporary, this film is forever!” Lopez was a surfing buddy of Milius’, his Subotai imagined as a kind of proto-version of Genghis Khan’s real-life general. Bergman was recommended by Bob Fosse, who’d directed her in All That Jazz (Milius wanted a dancer for the role). Sean Connery was originally mooted for the big bad, Thulsa Doom, but he passed, not for the first time, not quite getting the fantasy genre. The part was of course played by James Earl Jones, who saw the appeal in playing a cult leader akin to contemporaneous ones in the American news. That shapeshifter’s voice could believably hypnotize the weak-willed to his bidding–Bergman recalled to a post-screening audience at the Egyptian Theatre in 2015 that during a speech in front of a thousand extras at the impressive temple set, he didn’t use a microphone.

The film would be nothing however without Basil Poledouris’ score—mood, pacing and minimal portentous dialogue driven, really driven, by that amazing music, a near two-hour infusion of percussive Teutonic intent. Dino De Laurentiis had favored a modern pop-tinged feel but was wisely dissuaded from this idea by Milius and Poledouris, knowing the score would have to fill long dialogue-free interludes, helping to suggest the atmosphere of the ancient Hyborian age. Because of this and its many choral pieces, it is often considered operatic in intent and execution. The composer flexed his musical muscles with his knowledge of the Middle Ages’ musical construction and folk melodies, utilizing a huge ensemble of players and choral singers from two separate orchestras, recording in Rome. He actually began work based on nothing more than storyboards, modifying as filming progressed. Milius had originally wanted to use Carl Orff’s powerful “Carmina Burana” but discovered John Boorman had already done this with Excalibur. He was also interested in the Gregorian chants of “Dies Irae.” Poledouris managed to successfully convey the feel of these pieces without creating a slavish rip-off, adapting lyrics for the chanting of the piece accompanying Doom’s opening attack on Conan’s village (“Riders of Doom”) to Latin, based on a medley inspired by the structure of “Dies Irae.” His score is full of powerful brass, cymbals and percussive elements threaded throughout several different motifs that sweep the action and mood along. “Anvil of Crom” is meant to suggest the primitive period setting, full of primal timpani drums and 24 French horns. It is the string sequence of that piece, noble, regal and romantic, that suggests Conan’s heroic nature. The long, swaying theme for “The Orgy” where Conan and friends infiltrate Thulsa Doom’s bacchanalian retreat is a wonderful piece, composed jointly by Poledouris and his young daughter. It incorporates strings, winds and brass, building in a manner akin to Ravel’s “Bolero” as the action kicks in.


Milius had created a rough cut soundtracked to classical pieces by Richard Wagner, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, to illustrate where he wanted emotional beats to land. Poledouris wrote two hours of music for Conan the Barbarian, probably one of the most heavily scored films since John Williams’ music for Star Wars revitalized classical movie accompaniment. The composer told Starlog magazine at the time that, “It was always in John’s mind that Conan would be solid music—much like an opera… From the first frame of reel one to the end of the Wheel of Pain sequence, somewhere in the middle of reel three, is one long cue without any break. I was terrified when I first realized that.” The score is considered Poledouris’ signature work, a piece of haunting power and lyrical staging that says, “Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”

Back to that Genghis Khan source quote—John Milius hopes someday to complete a biopic of “the son of a hit man whose father is murdered and who went on to conquer the known world and become the greatest military and civil genius in history.” So says the self-styled “barbarian of Hollywood.” By Crom, where would we be without him?

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »


Screenwriter must-read: Oliver Stone & John Milius’ scripts for Conan the Barbarian [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.


Epic 1981 article in Cinefantastique Magazine Vol. 11 #13 by Paul M. Sammon on the making of Conan the Barbarian.


Photographed by Bob Penn & George Whitear © Universal Pictures, Dino De Laurentiis Company, Edward R. Pressman Film. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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