Sunday, April 12, 2015

Film Score of the Week: Conan the Barbarian, by Basil Poledouris (1982)

Writing and reading about Game of Thrones all week, and hearing its epic score, reminded me of my other favorite score for a fantasy story, the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian

What I love about Conan the Barbarian is that it's an only semi-watchable B-Movie, but it carries itself like the Citizen Kane of loincloth flicks. The lead costars were tri-named prestige actors James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow, the screenplay was by Oliver Stone, it was directed by John Milius, who was (seriously) considered to be part of the same "Movie Brat/Film School Generation" group as Spielberg/Coppola/Scorsese, and the score sounded like it belonged to a David Lean-style epic. 

The main theme goes through three basic parts: the thundering build-up (1:06-1:57, and again 2:41-2:58), the romantic theme (1:58-2:40), and the hero theme (2:59-3:40). All three parts are very good, but specifically the first 10-15 seconds of the hero theme are what makes the score transcendent. I honestly think it's one of the best pieces of heroic film music ever written, and it stands up to John Williams' best work. It's so layered, so gigantic in scope, and so seemingly weathered, like just getting to that sound was a struggle. There's a mythology to it that's almost godlike, like when fantasy characters say ridiculous things like "Songs shall be written of this deed." This would have to be what those songs sound like. Honestly, Marvel should have just purchased the rights to that score-segment and reused it for their Thor movies. There're only about 38 people on the planet that would have recognized it anyway. 

The score was by Basil Poledouris, a Greek-American composer also noted for the scores of Robocop (which is equally great), The Hunt for Red October, Starship Troopers, Red Dawn, The Blue Lagoon, and the Emmy-winning score of the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove. Poledouris never became the film-scoring force that it seems he should have. He mostly stuck to B-movies by overly masculine directors like John Milius, Paul Verhoeven, and John McTiernan, never really doing anything that could generously be called a prestige project. He never received an Oscar nomination, and died in 2006, at the age of 61. 

Poledouris also scored the Conan sequel, 1984's Conan the Destroyer. It's a horribly regarded movie, fully embracing its "B-ness" by employing the likes of Grace Jones and Wilt-fucking-Chamberlain as lead characters. Consequently, it's much more fun than its predecessor, almost 30 minutes shorter, and featuring far more ridiculous looking villains, including one that's basically a cross between a unicorn and an aborted yeti. So of course I love it. 

But it's hard not to hold a special place for the original, which really believed itself to be a Great piece of filmmaking. And it goes through stretches of nearly convincing the viewer of that, until you realize things like one of the score segments is called "The Orgy Chamber Attack on Thulsa Doom," and then you're right back to reality. 


  1. Those were the days.
    We grew up with Arnold.

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