Let me take you back to May 14-20, 1982. During that week, basketball player Tony Parker was born, the New York Islanders swept Vancouver Canucks in four games to win the Stanley Cup, famed actress and model Sophia Loren was jailed in Italy for tax evasion, and Conan the Barbarian was the #1 movie in America.
After eight straight weeks of Porky’s box office dominance, it took a beefed up real-life superhero to take out those dweebs.
Conan the Barbarian is the perfect convergence of two bigtime 80s genres: the beefed up action film and the fantasy epic. It was directed by one of the most powerful writer-directors of the time, John Milius. And, of course, its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was one of the most iconic actors for nearly two decades. It might not be the pinnacle of either of their careers, but it is an impressive pairing.
Though it earned two weeks atop the box office, the returns aren’t overwhelming. It did have the fifth highest opening weekend of the year at $13.4MM, but it couldn’t sustain such a high level of success, ultimately at only #17 at the end of the year, behind films that never had a #1 week like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Annie, The Verdict, Firefox, and The Dark Crystal. Unlike many of the top grossers of the year, Conan the Barbarian was only in theaters for 8 weeks, constantly dropping box office rates and theater counts.
This begs the question: why didn’t Conan the Barbarian fizzle in the public consciousness like many films that had good opening weekends but little sustained success at the box office. The answer definitely isn’t the quality of the film -- Conan the Barbarian might hold up as a genre exercise and for its iconography, but it really is a big, bloated snooze. As the film that firmly put Schwarzenegger on the map, however, it is worth remembering.
This wasn’t the Austrian import’s first time on screen and he was already a massive star in the world of bodybuilding. Here are the films he starred in before Conan the Barbarian: the infamous Hercules in New York [for which he’s credited as ‘Arnold Strong’], an uncredited minor role in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Mr. Universe drama Stay Hungry, revisionist western The Villain, and a bit part in star-studded comedy Scavenger Hunt. This was a big step for him. Schwarzenegger didn’t have the acting chops or comfortable screen presence that would help him become the biggest star in the world. But he did have the muscles and Conan was the perfect kind of character to break him into superstardom. He could be stoic, a man of few words, and there were few men on the planet that could provide the sheer physicality.
As far as where Conan the Barbarian stands in the career of Schwarzenegger, it is basically where you would expect, smack dab in the middle. Interestingly, though, it ranks ahead of a few possibly unexpected titles, including the film’s sequel Conan the Destroyer [which doesn’t have the same cultural cache, but sequels do tend to outperform the originals], The Expendables 3, The Running Man, Junior, and even The Terminator, the film that truly put Schwarzenegger on his path to world domination. Of the films Schwarzenegger made in the 80s, only Twins [$111MM] and Predator [$59MM] grossed more than Conan the Barbarian’s $39.5MM. Interestingly enough, Conan the Barbarian held off another iconic 80s release for its second week at #1: George Miller’s The Road Warrior.
All the numbers suggest that Conan the Barbarian should be in line with less successful and mostly forgotten fantasy epics like Zardoz and Krull, but it remains one of the more iconic films of the decade because of what it meant for its burgeoning star. When we think about Arnold’s filmography today, I doubt many would put Conan the Barbarian up there with Terminator or Predator or even the later career comedies like Kindergarten Cop, but the image of him shirtless, in medieval costuming, and with a giant fucking sword is absolutely memorable.