Barbarian Movie Review: Werner Herzog’s Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Review: I just watched the new Conan the Barbarian (2011) directed by Marcus Nispel.  It could have been worse, and it could have been better. Here’s a write-up of the Conan movie I actually wanted to see. Without further ado, I give you: Werner Herzog’s Conan the Barbarian (2011).

The movie opens with a voice-over by Isabella Rossellini. “The legends tell us that before the lands of time parted the red sea of space, in a world where money was made out of lava and chickens had fangs, the gods made a bet with themselves that someday a movie would be made with dubbed Italian actors in loincloths and somehow it would sweep the Academy Awards. The forger-god Klügmân knew it would take powerful magic indeed, and he bottled the necessary magic forces into a Golden Statuette and hid it deep within the bowels of the earth. The gods fought, and man was created in this war. As mankind developed he learned the basic arts of civilization: irrigation, mining, and roads. The story of Klügmân’s Golden Statuette was foretold in prophecies by magical fortune-telling witch soothsayers in leather bondage gear. And so, man began the hunt for this magical talisman, and many nations would perish before the end of this pointlessly overwrought exposition.”

The emblem of the evil Parakeet Cult

We move to a shot of the villain, Thoth Magumbo (Edward G. Robinson) and his drooling mutant henchman Gary (Michael Berryman), leaders of the evil Parakeet Cult, who peer into a cauldron and discover that the Golden Statuette has been unearthed by the Sumerians. Their inability to spell leads them to prepare a massive army to take the Golden Statuette from the Cimmerians. As Thoth Magumbo explains: “What we’re gonna do, see, is we’re gonna attack ’em, see, and we’re gonna take away that statue, nyah? Yeah, that’s what we’re gonna do, see?”

Edward G. Robinson and Michael Berryman in Werner Herzog's Conan the Barbarian

Edward G. Robinson (right) and Michael Berryman in Werner Herzog's Conan the Barbarian

Meanwhile (star wipe), in Cimmeria’s capitol village Conapolis, young Conan (Klaus Kinski plays himself as a boy and as an adult) is learning philosophy from his father Corin (a CGI-enhanced Woody Allen). “When a barbarian feels thirst,” Corin explains, “it is the thirst for blood. It’s a classic symptom of a serious Freudian complex. We’re atavistic and our priorities are tragically misplaced! Why has Crom forsaken us? Why would anyone want to drink blood when he could be having sex? What’s wrong with us people? This whole tribe really needs to see a good psychoanalyst.” Conan also learns fashion sense from his mother Conanna (Charlotte Rampling) and the art of witty reparteé from his uncle, Conagra (Sean Connery).

Corin (Woody Allen) defends the village, while Conan's mother Conanna (Charlotte Rampling) and uncle Conagra (Sean Connery) take shelter behind a yak.

Young Conan is frolicking with his pet rabbit Doctor Coniglio, when suddenly Thoth Magumbo’s troops attack in search of the Golden Statuette. In a thrilling fight sequence, the Cimmerians fight back, led by Corin, but the tribe is overwhelmed and everyone dies except Conan, who escapes into the woods. He is chased by the evil Parakeet Cult but eventually they give up and leave. Alone, tired and hungry, Conan is set upon by a pack of wolves. But when the young boy catches and feeds them a squirrel, the wolf pack adopts him as their own, to nurture and raise.

This is where Herzog hits his stride, providing a trademark voiceover. “As the years go further Conan’s veneer of civility is stripped away like the skin of an onion and he is reduced to barbarity on the level of mere animals. But this is upside-down: the true animal is mankind, for the animals are capable of coöperation, while mankind can only wage war and cause devastation.  Thus the movie’s title ‘barbarian’ is in fact an ironical statement.”

A local warlord (played by George C. Scott) burns down the forest and hunts all the wolves. Conan escapes the fire, but is enslaved. Cue spinning newspaper footage.

Conan's discovery makes the papers

His new adopted village turns out to consist primarily of hookers, drunks, and circus freaks, and Kinski’s Conan develops into a mature adult under the watch of the latter, where he is paraded around various villages as The Wolf Boy– scratching his ears with his legs, howling at the moon, shitting on carpets, etcetera. Over time, though, the circus begins to get a little old and goes bankrupt, and the performers go their separate ways. By this time, Conan has learned too much to remain a true Wolf Boy anyway, and visitors are uninterested. So, the circus disbands. Conan wanders the earth and eventually comes to the Sumerian capital, Ur, one of the longest words he knows. He gets drunk and punches a camel. Then a royal procession goes by and he is spotted and admired by the princess Ambiena (Lana Clarkson). He follows the procession but when he tries to get into the palace, he is arrested by the palace guards and the king of Ur, Koil (David Carradine), has him thrown in prison. In his cell he meets Lamar (Billy Dee Williams), a thief, and they become fast friends.

Conan (Klaus Kinski) and his sidekick Lamar (Billy Dee Williams)

Meanwhile, the forces of the Parakeet Cult, none of whom have aged at all in the intervening 15 years, finally figure out they’d attacked Cimmeria instead of Sumeria, and they come to attack Ur. After a thrilling battle with no CGI, they capture the city, the Golden Statuette, and the princess. During the battle, the prisoners are freed. Conan joins forces with Lamar and a totally naked valkyrie named Saganaki (Sabrina Siani) and although his companions have no particular motivation, they join Conan in his effort to rescue the princess and return the Golden Statuette to King Koil. But first, Kinski’s Conan demands a new sword: “I want my steel! I must have my steel!”

Saganaki (Sabrina Siani)

Along the way to the fortress of the Parakeet Cult, they battle lizard men, dog men, a tribe of bandits led by the feisty Granola (Miles O’Keeffe), a blood-thirsty double-crossing pirate (Harvey Fierstein), and an evil wizard and his henchman (Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff). Over time Saganaki falls in love with Conan, but he does not return it, because he is too stupid to notice. Our heroes soon meet and enjoy the carnal temptations of a tribe of Amazons (with cameos by Maria Socas, Ty Randolph, Laurene Landon, Sybil Danning, Brigitte Nielsen, and Parker Posey as the quirky one with eyeglasses who turns out to be the toughest of them all, and who has to be in this somewhere because it’s an independent movie). In the director’s commentary, Herzog admits “This was not the first time the Amazonians cast in my movies offered to kill Klaus Kinski, and given the problems we encountered, I once again considered it.” The Amazons join Conan, which persuades Granola’s bandits to join as well (cameos here by Lee Horsley, Rick Hill, John Terleskey, John Allen Nelson, Michael Ironside, Anthony de Longis, Sven-Ole Thorsen, David and Peter Paul, Marc Singer, and Steve Buscemi as the slippery, fast-talking one). Subsisting entirely on shrews and voles, Conan’s army makes its way to Thoth Magumbo’s fortress.

Thoth Magumbo's fortress

Thoth Magumbo sends out a brigade of flying hobgoblins (played in maximum CGI glory by Andy Serkis) and both armies are just about wiped out. Magumbo casts a spell that brings down a wall of papier-mache rocks to crush the remaining survivors other than Conan, Lamar, and Saganaki.

Merciless hobgoblins attacking Granola (gifted thespian Miles O'Keeffe), in Werner Herzog's Conan the Barbarian (2011).

Conan & Co. fight their way into the castle and find the princess, who is so happy to be rescued that she immediately starts making out with Saganaki while Conan and Lamar enjoy the show. Their sapphic embrace is interrupted by Magumbo’s lead henchman Gary, who captures Conan and Lamar and threatens to feed them to the Sarlacc. They are tied up in an elaborate contraption with ropes that dangle over the giant worm’s toothy mouth. Meanwhile the princess is detained in another room where she is tortured by a nameless scientist (Harold Ramis). Only Saganaki is free to save them– for reasons that the director glosses over, she is not captured. So, she finds the room where Conan and Lamar are captive, and leaps across the Sarlacc pit to cut the ropes. They are freed while Saganaki drops into the Sarlacc sword-first. Fed and somewhat aggrieved, the Sarlacc slithers back into its hole. Lamar starts to cry, and explains to the audience, “He is Conan, Cimmerian, he won’t cry, so I cry for him,” while Conan plans their next move and snacks on an opossum po’boy.

The Sarlacc, played by Bruce Vilanch

They beat up two guards and steal their swords, then run off to the princess’ torture chamber, where they push Ramis into a pit of fondue and free her. Conan then dispatches Lamar for no evident reason, saying he must do this part alone. Lamar shrugs and wanders off. Conan and the princess find the magic room where Thoth Magumbo and Gary are preparing to perform some spell with the Golden Statuette. Terrified at the sight of the enraged barbarian warrior, the drooling mutant Gary trips and falls out a window.  He rolls down a cliffside and explodes. Thoth Magumbo stands pat.

Thoth Magumbo (Edward G. Robinson) is unimpressed by Conan.

“Remember me?” says Conan.

“Ah, no,” says Edward G. Robinson’s Thoth Magumbo.

“You killed my parents, my uncle, my pet rabbit, and also a lot of extras with rakes.”

“Nyah, doesn’t ring a bell, see?”

“Ring this,” Conan shouts– “I am the wrath of Crom!” He charges at Magumbo with his sword aloft. But Thoth Magumbo casts a lightning spell that pins Conan and princess Ambiena against the rocky wall. Conan screams in agony, but then Lamar walks up behind Thoth Magumbo and bashes his head in with a brick. “Yaaaaa-hooo!” he yells when the evil wizard is defeated.

Lamar uses this magical brick to beat the evil Thoth Magumbo to death.

Conan gets the princess, and the three of them carry Klügmân’s Golden Statuette upriver across Hyboria deep into the jungle.

Conan (Kinski) smiles, having finally obtained the Golden Statuette.

At last they find a volcano.  Conan gives the Golden Statuette to Lamar to throw it into the glowing magma, and they watch it fall, but instead of landing in the lava, it gets stuck behind a rock about halfway down. “Son of a bitch!” Lamar yells. Then he and Conan and the princess all have a good laugh. They high-five and there’s a freeze frame. A star-wipe takes us to the credits, which are superimposed over footage from a French zoo filled with mutant albino crocodiles, and another voiceover by Werner Herzog: “As one man suppresses his animalistic will-to-violence to become a prey, a weaker man becomes the predator, and in so doing, he crushes his enemies.  So, in the end, you see that man’s triumph over his own nature is short-lived, for in the end, aren’t we all really a little bit yogurt, and a little bit taco sauce?”  As he fades out, there’s music by Basil Poledouris, instead of the rote by-the-numbers action music they used in Marcus Nispel’s Conan, and when the orchestra finishes there’s a mid-1980s rap song: “He’s Conan. Cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-Conan. He’s the man with the sword. He’s Conan, Cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-Conan.  He’s the man, no kiddin’, you heard me, WORD.”


Movie titles go at the end now, don't ya know. The thing in the background on the left is a hobgoblin's butt.


A Golden AxeA Golden AxeA Golden AxeA Golden AxeA Golden Axe



For barbarian movie reviews of the entire barbarian movie canon, barbarian humor, and a whole lot more, order Barbarians: A Handbook for Aspiring Savages!


Image sources: Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God.  Billy Dee Williams in Return of the Jedi. Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments.  Michael Berryman in The Hills Have Eyes.  Castle from Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (as well as several Deathstalkers). Hobgoblins from, well, the Hobgoblins DVD cover. Miles O’Keeffe from Ator the Invincible.  Woody Allen from Bananas, with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling from Zardoz.  Sabrina Siani from Sangraal, Il Spadi di Fuoco (the Sword of the Barbarians).  Sarlacc from Return of the Jedi.  Conan 2011 imagery from the Conan the Barbarian press kit.  Parakeet Cult logo homemade.


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One Response to “Barbarian Movie Review: Werner Herzog’s Conan the Barbarian (2011)”

  1. […] for one, enjoyed reading’s write-up of Werner Herzog’s Conan the Barbarian.  That’s how you make a good barbarian […]

  2. Herzog on Conan « Ben Chadwick - writer, etc on February 2nd, 2012 at 1:43 pm

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