Conan always tries to tell people what’s best in life, living by example, but in return, he hasn’t been treated especially well in the world of live-action adaptations. Most of us are familiar with the success of Conan the Barbarian, but its sequel, Conan the Destroyer, is usually mentioned in harsher tones or by people who feel they need to defend their love for the 1984 installment. There are many reasons why the movie faltered and a ton of blame to go around, but at the end of the day, the thing that this epic hero is the best at destroying is his franchise.

Conan the Destroyer was an attempt to capitalize on the critical acclaim and buzz around the first film, but producer Dino De Laurentiis believed that the previous outing could have made even more money had it not been rated R, allowing in younger viewers as well. Some of the higher-grossing movies at the time were aimed at family audiences, so Destroyer would shoot to be PG since it was released months before the PG-13 rating would be implemented with Red Dawn. John Milius directed that movie, coincidently, as he was the director for Conan the Barbarian and discussed returning, but it was said that he had scheduling conflicts and also wasn’t a fan of working with De Laurentiis. This eventually led to Richard Fleischer (Doctor Dolittle, Soylent Green) coming on board, a skilled director and veteran of the craft, who was, unfortunately, closing in on the end of his career and didn’t feel like he could fight back against the studio’s interference, even with the support of the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now with a different director, a studio who was more invested, feeling the need to meddle, and a stricter rating, the stage was set to create something less than spectacular.

When it came to writing the script, Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway were brought in, due to the pair having a strong connection to the Conan comics and character. These industry legends produced a screenplay for Conan, King of Thieves but were asked to change it due to content and budgetary concerns. The duo felt that with each draft, their story was getting worse, and eventually, their ideas were reworked into a new script by Stanley Mann, but their original version would make it into comic book form after some name changes. The finished version of Mann’s re-imagining feels like the base story was copied with other random character moments slotted in, making it disjointed. There are a couple of scenes that come across like pure fluff, interactions that were intended to fill time between the heroic fighting. At best, Destroyer comes across like a tertiary adventure with fewer stakes, easily forgotten.

Though Barbarian was shot in Spain, the new film would swap it out for Mexico, mostly for cost-cutting measures so that the same locations, materials, and many crew members who were also there working on David Lynch’s Dune could pull double duty. Both movies were being produced by De Laurentiis, and his control over the finances gave him a lot of say in day-to-day operations. The shoot was tough for most of the actors, some of which were doing their own stunts and getting injured. Grace Jones reportedly hurt two stuntmen and made Wilt Chamberlain bleed.

Conan the Destroyer starts with our hero praying to Crom, hanging out in the middle of nowhere with his new companion, Malak (Tracey Walter, Batman 1989, “Bob, gun.”) before being assaulted by knights of Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas, The Return of Swamp Thing, Falcon Crest). She has an important task for Conan, and after being satisfied with seeing him in combat, she offers to reward him by bringing back Valeria, his love from the first film, from the dead. Princess Jehnna (Olivia d’Abo, Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm, The Wonder Years) must be escorted as she retrieves an important gem that will lead them to a great treasure, the jeweled horn of the dreaming god, Dagoth. Accompanying the two thieves is Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain), the captain of the guard who is also tasked with returning the princess home safely, and with her virginity still intact. Along the way, the group meets Akiro (Mako, Samurai Jack, Sidekicks), the narrating wizard from the first film who has finally been given a name, and Zula (Grace Jones, A View to a Kill, Vamp) a skilled warrior who wishes to adventure with Conan. It seems like a straightforward quest, except that Bombaata has been given orders to kill Conan once the task is complete, and for the Queen’s plans of resurrecting her god to work, the princess will have to be sacrificed as well.

Acting isn’t the strength of this film. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some good performances, but many of those involved here were still new to the craft or hindered by their circumstances. I thought Walter’s Malak was a little too much at times, but his greed and a few of the longer jokes helped him grow on me. He comes across as a prototype Rob Schneider but isn’t completely ineffective in a fight, even if he’s just as bad with the ladies. D’Abo was only 14 when the movie was filmed and was genuinely scared during a couple of the scenes. Her performance isn’t fantastic, but she could have been so much more annoying. Watching this on USA as a kid, I remember thinking she was a bigger issue with the movie, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. A few of her questions feel genuine, but most of her other lines come across as wooden. Mako is wonderful, as always. As for Chamberlain, he’s fine for what he was (not an actor), and some people had genuinely positive things to say about him on the set, but ever since the 2021 allegations, I feel like his role has been overshadowed and best left at that. 

The two performances I was more interested in were Jones as Zula and Douglas’ stunning evil Queen, Taramis. Jones’ character is presented as a troublemaker, a fantastic fighter, and someone who recognizes Conan’s skills almost immediately, pushing her desire to travel with him. A few of the characters have fun little quirks, but Zula’s fear of rats stands out positively. This woman’s intensity is only matched by her weird costume, having almost her entire ass showing, minus an odd tail. I swear it has its own sound effect later when she comes out of the water and attempts to shake herself dry. At the end of the film, she adds to this by donning a strange hairpiece as well. It’s hard not to look at her.

The Queen has an amazing presence, a voice that commands attention, and she is wonderfully cunning and seductive, it’s just a shame we didn’t get more of her. Taramis is set up to be a superb villain for our hero, but she must share the screen with other wizards and monsters, and it is a shame she hasn’t seen more. The script called for an additional love scene between her and Conan, another where she would have seduced the statue of her god, and moments of her being abusive and slapping her men, as well as an extra virgin sacrifice. Most of these were cut for the rating, but robbing fans of seeing Douglas acting out more cruelty is the real crime here.

Perhaps there were too many side characters. By the third act, a few of them feel tacked on without pertinent moments to make them needed, even if most are participating in the action, they seem lost at times. Producers were banking on the fighting scenes being the meat of the film, but it means some of the conversations and investigative moments show a few of the actors just standing around.  

That’s okay, though, because everyone is here to see Arnie. The megastar returned to fulfill the second film in his deal, but this does feel like a slightly different Conan. Schwarzenegger has more lines this time around – about the same number of weird grunts – and expresses a bit more, having several moments of humor. Some viewers felt this fleshed the character out a bit, while most thought it took him further away from their version of the hero from the first film. Arnold also put on ten pounds and stacked more muscle for Destroyer, as the director asked him to get back in his bodybuilding shape so they could show him off more. The idea was for Conan to look more like he had been depicted on the covers of the comics and novels, which meant he needed to be cut and in most scenes, less clothed. Perhaps I never gave Schwarzenegger enough credit for his sex appeal.

We see a lot of sexual overtones here. Not only is the princess’ virginity a major plot point, but she is also becoming interested in men and asking for advice from the other characters, as well as rubbing ointment on Conan’s muscles and inquiring about his love life in one scene. She also offers to marry him and give the barbarian half of the kingdom at the end, but he’s too determined to be a self-made man. Grace Jones has a few moments, and others, like Malak, are clearly attracted to her, but Zula telling Jehnna when she finds a man she likes to simply “grab him” was hilarious. There was no real nudity this time, even though it came close, but especially with some of the cut material from the script, it’s easy to see that the filmmakers wanted to put some of that ‘sleaze’ many associates with the Sword and Sorcery genre into the movie.  

Arnold supposedly pushed for better action scenes and to keep some of the blood. There is a good bit honestly, even toned down from the first film. Some felt that people were trying to make this movie as close to an R rating as they could get while still securing the PG label, but this meant that the movie was a bit much for younger viewers and not savage enough for older fans, meaning that few people were satisfied with the final project. Destroyer was initially heavily edited for television to cut down even more of this, while scenes of Conan’s animal abuse were also removed in certain countries.

Visually, Destroyer has some incredible shots and a lot of practical work with fantastic uses of miniatures and matte paintings. Some of the visual effects are dated, but still intriguing, though a couple of scenes are overly blurry to the point of being distracting, falling just short of helping to create atmosphere. The mirror fight is always held up as an excellent moment in the film – to some it should have been the climax – but the rubber monsters are often seen as a negative. Even at the end, when Conan takes on Dagoth, played by André the Giant, the imposing creature just lacks something. They kind of made up for that with how visceral his horn being ripped out looks. The ending was originally going to be much bigger, apparently, but the budget forced changes. As a kid I didn’t get some of the intricacies of the lead-up to the final battle, I was too busy laughing at Malak stabbing the monster after Conan did all the work. These days, I love the theory that Bombaata was a eunuch, therefore a virgin, and his death helped shape Dagoth’s final form, it explains his look when the princess says he isn’t a ‘real man.’ The score is also energetic, having a different tone from the original but managing to enhance most of the action scenes. 

Conan the Destroyer is just over an hour and 40 minutes long and feels like it should have either been shorter or simply structured better. It’s like a classic D&D quest from the genre that helped popularize those tropes, especially with the party we follow, but there’s not as much substance, less of that philosophy or sense of purpose from the first one. Perhaps embracing the horror aspect more or simply cutting out some of the comedic bits could have helped, but John Milius believed that shooting for the PG rating hurt what Fleischer was trying to do by showing this more comic-bookish side of Conan. We’re most likely never getting that third Conan movie after all these years, so now is a good time to revisit Destroyer and try to focus on its positives without considering how it also helped seal the franchise’s fate.

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