Welcome to Green Light, an ongoing column that delves into why talented filmmakers deserve the opportunity to helm their passion projects. In this edition, we propose a Legend of Conan movie.
It’s been thirty-six years since Arnold Schwarzenegger played Conan the Cimmerian, the character who put him on the map when he was still a bodybuilder with acting aspirations. The Austrian Oak brought Robert E. Howard’s nomadic warrior to life in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian and its 1984 sequel, Conan the Destroyer, before going on to become an action star who defined an era. He’s had a great career, but it’s time he reprised the Conan role for one last hurrah.
In the 21st century, the Conan movies might seem like relics of the ‘80s. However, before The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, the first film was the gold standard of onscreen entertainment about swords, sorcery, and fantastical adventure. Pulp adaptations are rarely successful, but Conan the Barbarian is an exception to the rule. Its commercial success even spawned a slew of excellent ripoffs such as The Beastmaster and Yor, the Hunter from the Future. That alone is a legacy to be proud of.
Of course, the franchise’s fire didn’t burn for very long. Conan the Destroyer failed to capture people’s imaginations the same way the first film did. This was due to the PG rating and the fact the movie is silly, comedic, and dumb. Conan the Destroyer is tame compared to its violent and gritty predecessor, which defeats the purpose of a movie about this particular barbarian. As a piece of camp ‘80s fun, though, it’s perfectly fine.
The producers also soured on the idea of another sequel after Red Sonja — a 1985 spinoff in which Arnie appears as the Hyborian warrior — was lambasted. Given that Conan the Destroyer didn’t blow people’s minds either, the appetite for more movies set in this universe wasn’t as strong as it had been following the original game-changer.
The poor reception to the sequel and spinoff didn’t completely kill attempts to make the proposed sequel, though. There were plans to release a movie called Conan the Conqueror in 1987, but Arnie’s scheduling conflicts due to Predator, coupled with him not agreeing to sign a new contract with producer Dino De Laurentiis, effectively halted the project for years to come. The original script for Conan the Conqueror was repurposed for Kull the Conqueror, another movie based on a Howard character.
Since Arnie’s last outing as Conan, there have been attempts to bring the long-gestating third film to fruition. So far, none of them have been successful. Instead of capping off the trilogy, Hollywood unleashed a panned reboot in 2011 starring Jason Momoa as the legendary hero. The film is quite entertaining, but it failed to launch a franchise. That’s why it makes more sense to give the original saga a swansong.
Arnie was hesitant to play Conan again for a couple of decades, but he opened up to the idea after calling it a day on his political career. In 2012, Universal Pictures announced plans for a direct sequel to the original movie, with Mr. Fast and Furious Chris Morgan handling script duties. The writer even compared the movie to Unforgiven in terms of tone and themes.
Morgan’s film would have followed an elderly Conan and embraced the franchise’s roots. He also discussed plans to explore the mythology of Howard and dig into the Nietzschian philosophy that permeated the original movie. The core concept would have dealt with Conan as an aging warrior, and that’s an ideal Conan story considering Arnie’s age.
Morgan’s movie was ultimately canceled in favor of a TV series that never happened. Back in 2018, there were rumors of an Amazon series in the works from Colony’s Ryan Condal, but it was a whisper in the wind. The reports stated that the series would have adapted Howard’s original stories, but the streamer ultimately passed on the project shortly after commissioning some script drafts. This presumably wouldn’t have involved Arnie, as the actor is too old to play the character in a show that adhered to the source material.
With or without Arnie, a Conan show is actually a great idea. The original stories are primarily episodic and chronicle the hero as he wanders the lands, getting into fights with all manner of foes, both human and beastly. The concept lends itself to a television format, even though previous attempts to establish the character on the small screen didn’t work out so well. That said, all of Howard’s heroes deserve their own prestige TV series, and there’s more than enough great material there to adapt. If they ever reboot Conan again, this is the way to go.
But before any more reboots happen, Arnie deserves to pick up the sword one more time. While Morgan’s planned film didn’t work out, the idea of an “Old Man Conan” movie is still on Arnie’s agenda. Titled The Legend of Conan, Paul Verhoeven expressed an interest in helming the project in 2017. His experience and knack for telling genre stories make him a good choice. Original director John Milius has also been working on a script for a movie called King Conan since last year as well. He’s the best candidate for the job in an ideal world.
As a filmmaker, Milius understands how attention to detail goes a long way and can increase the scale of a movie. Even when the budgets aren’t spectacular. Audiences would still expect some sense of awe from a Conan sequel, and Milius’ ability to stretch a buck and add depth through character work and storytelling prowess can accomplish that. He’s also passionate about ancient warriors and bloodshed, and these passions have informed his storytelling to great effect through the years.
There’s also a poetic beauty to having Arnie go full-circle and say goodbye to the character that launched him into the stratosphere. The actor is certainly open to reprising his iconic characters, but Conan is the one he still has unfinished business with. The franchise never got to realize its full potential back in the day, and there’s an opportunity there to tell a story that actually has some depth. Clint Eastwood used Unforgiven to bid farewell to the Westerns that made him a star. Arnie could do the same for sword and sandal movies in Conan’s final chapter.
Hollywood is also open to the idea of more Conan movies too, even if studios aren’t willing to spend megabucks on one. That said, studios wouldn’t have lined up creators like Morgan to pitch ideas if there wasn’t some interest there. The right studio and a passionate creator is essential for the success of a new Conan movie, but they’re out there.
Maybe The Legend of Conan won’t move the needle, but this is an IP that’s consistently churned out new stories across a variety of media for decades. Marvel released new comics last year — including reprints of the original 1970s run — and introduced the character to a new generation of fans. They’ll eventually discover the movies, and some of them will go see a third. Make it happen, Hollywood.