The early 1980s brought a fantasy story from the 1930s to the big screen and the launch of a new action hero: Conan the Barbarian.
Based on a collection of fantasy stories published in the 1930s by Robert E. Howard in Weird Tales Magazine, the movie idea started with producer Edward R. Pressman.
In 1975, Pressman tried to get support for the film, recruiting Oliver Stone to write the screenplay and asking Arnold Schwarzenegger to be the lead actor.
But in 1979, Pressman couldn’t get the interest of any of the major studios and sold the project to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who had his daughter Raffaella De Laurentiis and Buzz Feitshans produce the film, with John Milius as director. Although Pressman was supposed to be a partner, in the end he he was a minor player in the project.
Millius rewrote the Stone screenplay, and Schwarzenegger spent 18 months working on his body to become less muscle and more athletic and had agreed to not star in any other fantasy or action film while the production was prepared for the filming.
Milius was known for his male-focused screenplays that became Clint Eastwood films – Dirty Harry and Magnum Force. Stone completed his script in 1978, but Milius took another two years to rewrite the script and filming began in England and then Spain for six months starting in 1981.
The storyline begins with Conan as a child, who sees his parents killed during an attack on his people, and he becomes a slave. As he gets older, he becomes a gladiator and earns his freedom. He soon befriends Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) to help him go after the cult leader who killed his parents – Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).
After a few successes, Conan is asked by King Osric (Max von Sydow) to rescue his daughter, who has now become under the control of Doom’s cult. His first attempt, Conan fails, is captured and sentenced to die. Subotai and Valeria rescue Conan and promise this time to help him rescue the king’s daughter and defeat Thulsa Doom.
Released in Spain in March at a film festival, Conan the Barbarian came to the big screens in the US in May 1982, just before Memorial Day weekend. Young male film fans came in crowds to see the film and the film, which had a budget of US $16 million, was a success for the 1982 summer season.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was confirmed as an action star, and the resulting $130 million at the box office insured the sequel – Conan the Destroyer – went into pre-production, which came to the big screens two years later.