Monday, November 06, 2006

1982: The Overlooked -- SANDAHL BERGMAN in Conan the Barbarian

I love swashbucklers. Knights, highwaymen, pirates, desert warriors and Vikings too. So I was right on board with the mini-boom of sword and sorcery films that popped up in the early 80’s. The cycle petered out quickly. But it sowed the seeds that sprouted up a decade or so later with Xena. And let’s face it. This kind of picture’s never really going to disappear. There’s just too much potential for exotic fun, high adventure and sweeping spectacle. Sometimes the women in these films function on a purely decorative level. But the genre’s been known to accommodate some feisty, full-blooded heroines, too. Maureen O’Hara could parry and thrust with the best of them. And Lucy Lawless put some serious spark in the Dark Ages. But I think the warrior maiden I’m fondest of would have to be the marvelous Sandahl Bergman. She had the good fortune to appear in the best of the sword and sorcery films, “Conan the Barbarian”. But I’d say her participation in the picture is one of the reasons it IS the best.

“Conan” had a lot of other things going for it, too. A substantial budget, for instance. When moneybags Dino De Laurentiis came on board as executive producer, it was clear “Conan” would be travelling first-class. The script (co-written by Oliver Stone, no less) embellished its central quest with imaginative details and picaresque digressions. But it still sustained its forward momentum. There was plenty of scope for action but the narrative passages in between were nicely judged – frequently riding a wave of pulp poetry. John Milius turned out to be an ideal director for the piece, energetic and meticulous. He planned and guided the project like a giant military campaign, communicating his own enthusiasm to colleagues at every level.

I would have bet money that Arnold Schwarzenegger would never make it as a film star. Certainly, in most kinds of swashbucklers, he couldn’t have pulled it off. He’s no Don Juan or Scaramouche. Brocades, plumed hats and courtly speeches are definitely not in his comfort zone. But the role of Conan required a more Cro-Magnon approach. Brute strength and grunting determination were the order of the day. And for these things, Schwarzenegger’s a good fit. Even those thick-eared speech patterns that mark him as something of a Teutonic hillbilly were not inappropriate. Conan doesn’t have that much dialogue anyway. And seeing as the script has him brutalized into a kind of stoic silence during his formative years, it makes sense that, conversationally, he’s a late bloomer. Flowery speeches needn’t come trippingly to the tongue. The role called for neither the pretty nor the prolix. It did, however, demand commitment. Something Schwarzenegger was ready, willing and able to provide.

An awesome work ethic had helped propel him to the top of the body-building world. And he brought the same dedication and focus to his work in “Conan”. He’s really good with the heavy archaic weapons and props, achieving a kind of resolute fluidity one would never have thought possible in him. Schwarzenegger was not a man to be underestimated. He knew how to keep his eye on the prize, an ability that eventually led him to success in some pretty unexpected real-life arenas.

As far as his film career goes, it was the success of “Conan” that gave him movie star credibility with the public. And provided him entrĂ©e into other big-budget assignments. “Terminator”, “Total Recall”, “True Lies” – these all came later. But it’s “Conan” that got the juggernaut rolling.

Secondary casting in the film’s effective too. The picture opens explosively with the ambush that destroys Conan’s village and uproots him. The boy wordlessly playing young Conan is no stick figure. He’s expressive and affecting. The actors portraying his parents have only the briefest of opportunities to make an impact. But they concentrate so much charisma, character and intensity into those fleeting moments that their deaths are genuinely wrenching. Max Von Sydow brings a plummy authority to his single scene as a cantankerous king, hamming it up in all the right ways. The over-familiar James Earl Jones, villain of the piece, is given a look so striking – long straight hair and icy blue contacts, nicely augmented with some quirky reptilian moves of his own – that never once do the words “Verizon Wireless” cross your mind.

Terrific and unusual locations combine with spectacular art direction to create a massively believable fantasy world. Check out the pervasive twining motifs adorning the snake cult temples. Not since Alessandro Blasetti’s wild 1941 masterpiece “La Corona di Ferro” had so many mythic visual/cultural elements been mixed into such a dizzy and satisfying swirl. The physical solidity of the whole production reverberates with the ringing clang of hammer on anvil. That’s reflected in Basil Poledouris’ rousing neo-barbaric score, too. All resounding brass and thundering timpani. He occasionally borrows from the choral style of “Carmina Burana” – totally appropriate here. Elsewhere he daubs the landcape with a mix of primal colors and elegant pastels. Enriching and enhancing an already heady experience.

Conan’s adventurous arc gets underway quickly. Forty minutes in, it’s already clear the film’s a winner. Then everything’s kicked up a notch. Because that’s when Sandahl Bergman gets swept into the story. Conan and a sidekick have embarked on a recklessly under-strategized night-time assault on one of the snake cult’s crazy temple/towers. The goals – vengeance, theft of a fabulous jewel and maybe just a little general hell-raising. That’s when they run smack dab into solo brigand Valeria (Bergman) who’s apparently staging her own larcenous attack on the tower. She emerges from behind a pillar. A striking presence. Alert. Lithe. A blonde beauty – but no pampered princess or runway cutie. Bergman’s background was in dance (She’d turned a few heads with a flashy solo in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” a couple of years before). And she sizzles with energy and cat-like grace. Her face has a frank, gutsy beauty – straight planes, an almost Quaker-ish simplicity. But the eyes are vigilant … searching. There’s a bruised, lived-in quality in her. She’s someone who’s emerged from experience like tempered steel. Robust, self-reliant, down-to-earth. So many impressions are conveyed – yet, at bottom, she’s a mystery woman. The credits identify her as Valeria but her name’s never actually spoken onscreen. Her origins, her backstory remain shrouded. Still, there’s no doubt that, like Conan, there’s derring-do in her past. And that, like him, she’s the pilot of her own destiny. Now, suddenly – fully engaged in rival robbery operations – the two come face to face.

Decisions have to be taken instantaneously on both sides. Pros and cons are weighed in a heartbeat. Valeria’s actually a little better equipped for the caper. She knows about the inner workings of the tower. Conan can profit from her knowledge. She can use the extra brawn. Without actually articulating it, they join forces. Swiftness is all-important – and Valeria’s participation proves essential in pulling off the heist. Like Schwarzenegger, Bergman had obviously committed to the fight training. But her aptitude’s even greater than his. It’s one of the film’s joys to see her grace and urgency of movement applied to some really breathtaking fight choreography and swordsmanship.

Once inside, they overcome a horde of bad guys, battle a spectacular (non CG) giant snake and snatch the jewel. The whole sequence rattles along with crackling panache. They’re off – with the enraged snake cultists in hot pursuit. And now they’re a team. A montage – and now they’re lovers. And, what do you know, it’s convincing. The movie really does capture the exhilarating feeling of lives led separately. colliding suddenly in the night and changing forever. There’s scarcely time to breathe and the adventure hurtles on. But now there’s a new equation – constellations have re-aligned, the earth’s axis has shifted.

Longtime loner Valeria makes a big decision, lets down her guard and decides to tell Conan she’s ready for commitment. This is the moment when Bergman consolidates her claim to screen glory – in a beautiful heartfelt speech. No Actors’ Studio veteran could invest the words with more intensity or sincerity than Bergman does in her stripped-down, emotional delivery. It’s to the bone.

“I have never had so much as now.
All my life I’ve been alone.
Many times I’ve faced my death with no one to know.
I would look into the huts and the tents of others in the coldest dark.
And I would see figures holding each other in the night.
But I always passed by.
You and I have warmth.
That’s so hard to find in this world.
Please let someone else pass by in the night.”

Conan, obsessively dedicated to his quest and reluctant to put Valeria in danger, slips away in the night, leaving her behind. Bergman’s out of the picture for a long stretch now, that absence underlining her status as a supporting rather than leading player in the film. But just as Conan’s about to expire from an especially imaginative crucifixion, she returns in the nick of time to save him. And you can imagine a theatre full of kids erupting with thunderous hoots and hollers. The cavalry’s arrived! She literally wills him back to life with a pledge to the gods that seals her own fate.

She builds on the effect of her previous speech with another one, so embedded in her role that every line sounds as if her life depends on it.

“If I were dead and you were still fighting for life
I’d come back from the darkness
Back from the pit of Hell
And fight by your side.”

Valeria dies – and Conan tends her funeral pyre. But return she does – in spectral form and shining armour – to save him one more time. In the end, Conan walks ambiguously into the sunset with a sexy princess, her rescue a side-effect of his adventurous quest. But it’s clear she could never be more than a consolation prize next to Valeria, the stalwart, shining (yet utterly real) Superwoman embodied by Sandahl Bergman.

This memorable appearance seemed to forecast a long and interesting career to come. For whatever reasons, it never materialized. I remember excitedly setting out to see her in a 1982 version of Rider Haggard’s “She”. I’d always loved the book – movies had never done right by it. And of course I was sky-high on Bergman, post-Conan.. What a disappointment! A tattered quickie that chose to relocate the story to a post-apocalyptic (i.e. no budget) setting, then just kept the camera rolling, untended. It came across like one of those reality show challenges (“You have $500 and 48 hours to make a full-length adventure movie in the city dump. Your time starts now.”). It’s a set-up that would have defeated the combined resources of the entire Redgrave family. In the circumstances, all Bergman could do was grit her teeth and get through it. A couple of years later she turned up in the “Conan”-ish “Red Sonja”. It at least represented a return to mainstream moviemaking. Purportedly, Bergman turned down the title role, choosing instead to play the villainess. It may have seemed a good decision on paper. But the results were less than gratifying. Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed under-invested in his role, probably recognizing it correctly as not a milestone – but a minor hiccup – in his march to success. The talents of leading lady Brigitte Nielsen began and ended with swordplay. And she soon settled for brief tabloid notoriety and, eventually, a particularly tacky residence on “The Surreal Life”.

As for Bergman (brunette this time out), she lacked the villainous flair of, say, Faye Dunaway. The clearwater tones she’d used to project Valeria’s forthrightness seemed inappropriate. The wicked queen needed deeper, more insidious bottom notes and a much more theatrical flourish. Perhaps Bergman had simply made too indelible an impression as the heroic Valeria to ever truly convince as a bad apple. Some action fans say she’s good in “Hell Comes to Frogtown” with wrestler Roddy Piper. The title’s always been enough to keep me away. But, then, I wasn’t aware till recently that Bergman was even in it. So. you know, I may investigate it – just to spend a little more time with her.

Academy members had their noses in the air when they ignored Bergman’s Valeria at nomination time. But in my own personal alternate universe, she stands as one of the great fantasy film creations – superb role model, fierce fighter, the loyal friend we’d all love to have watching our backs and – no doubt about it – one of the five supporting actress nominees of 1982.



wow. i had no idea you had covered this (i should check in more often). I really loved this performance in 1982 and I was wondering as last month's festivities kicked off, how it would age.

thank you for doing these 'overlooked'

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Sometimes the Golden Globes get it right, while Oscar falters- the Globes awarded Bergman the "Most Promising Newcomer" prize, and I'll never forget the opening line of her acceptance speech- "This is such a bitch!"

by chance said...

No no no Xena is still the best!! lol

Unknown said...

Love this! Great piece! It's one of my favorite movies and it holds up over time. I just rewatched it again last night and was tempted to write my own blog on the awesomeness of the character Valeria in this film. Sandahl Bergman is awesome is this movie. She's an excellent female character in the type of movie that usually doesn't have strong, independent ones. An underrated movie overall.

CanadianKen said...

Thanks for the kind words. I certainly agree with you that -through the years - Sandahl Bergman's impassioned work in Conan
has lost none of its power. Just thinking about it puts me in the mood to watch it again right now!

Billthesurly said...

I have been looking for another Valeria for 30+ years. I have yet to find one. Sandahl was truly one of a kind. Michelle Yeoh is the only one to come close.

CanadianKen said...

Nice sentiments about Sandahl Bergman's Valeria. And you're so right about Michelle Yeoh. Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich have had their moments. But it's Yeoh who consistently projects a Valeria-like mix of physical prowess, emotional candor and spiritual grace. There just seems to be a kind of gallant beauty about her - inside and out.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thank you again for blog

Unknown said...

Hi. I was wondering if you could clarify something for me.
Was SHE made right after Conan? ~1981 or made made a few years later.
The sources I see say 1984, but some say 1982.
I was just wondering why Bergman high off of winning a Golden Globe award and being so very good in Conan would take a role in "SHE" so quickly.

Thank you.
Love your blog

CanadianKen said...

Glad you enjoyed the "Conan" piece. As far as I understand, principal photography on "Conan" was completed in May of '81. It opened in North American theaters a year later. My guess is that Ms Bergman was probably offered the role in "She" sometime during the period between "Conan" 's filming and its release. At that point no one knew yet that "Conan" would be such a success or that Bergman would be so widely praised for her work in it. As a fledgling movie actress, she was probably happy to be offered a film where she'd be top-billed. Perhaps the producer did a good job pitching "She" to her. Maybe the money was tempting. Whatever the case, she probably didn't realize how flimsy a vehicle "She" would turn out to be.It was produced pretty quickly, with Italian/Israeli funding I believe and turned up in European theaters in '82 not long after "Conan". I don't believe it made it to North American screens till quite some time later. I saw it when it sneaked in and out of a Toronto multiplex. Don't remember the year, probably '83 or '84. But I do remember being shocked that after her glorious performance in "Conan the Barbarian", Ms Bergman got trapped in such a shoddy production. Certainly she deserved better.

Unknown said...

Hi there. Thank you so much for your very informative and well thought out response.
I concur with your analysis. It's what I think happened as well. I have a few other thoughts which I hope you will indulge me on. I don't have the time to leave them tonight. I'll do it in next few days or over the weekend. I would like to say for now thank you and it's nice to have a blog like yours where like minded people can ask questions and receive intelligent responses.
It's also sad that the level of movie making has declined so far since films like Conan.
Milius and those like him, be it in America or France, or the German New wave were quite innovative and creative. I remember seeing a documentary where Milius was speaking about his concept for Conan. It was suppose to be in Three parts. One about Strength, one about skill, and the last about Wisdom (to paraphrase). Wow, I thought you may not agree with some of Milius's views but he has a VIEW. I doubt for example the the director of the latest Conan remake thinks beyond his paycheck. As for Bergman, Yes, I agree she was a fresh talent which did not get the chance she deserved. Even in something like 'SHE', she was good.

One thing I did wish to ask you. It's my understanding that Milius had a script called "King Conan. Crown of Iron." in which Bergman played a big role. Something about an Innkeeper which in someway was related to Valeria! Interesting idea. Have you heard anything about this at all? Is the script accessible anywhere? I'd love to read it.

I think teaming up Milius, Arnold and Bergman again would, is a great idea. If only the studios would get their collective heads out of you know where.

Sorry for this being so long. I'll write more few days.
I hope to hear from you. thank you again Ken.

My name is Merlyn AKA Drforbin FYI

CanadianKen said...

I suspect your knowledge of all things Conan is much wider than mine. As you may have noticed, I wrote my Conan post many years ago. Since then, I've rewatched the film a couple of times and still love it. But "Conan the Destroyer" and "Red Sonja" were both disappointments to me. And I really haven't followed Conan-related things since. So I had no idea about the "King Conan: Crown of Iron" project you mentioned. Movie-wise, my real comfort zone is pre-60's stuff. Which isn't to say I don't appreciate movies from other eras. The 80's gave us lots of great films. But I think - outside the big tent-poles and gross-out comedies - today's films offer lots of even richer fare. You proposed a Milius/Schwarzenegger/Bergman reunion.I assume what you're envisioning is an action film. And given their ages, I suspect Schwarzenegger and Bergman would be functioning more as instigators and onlookers, with most of the onscreen mayhem left to younger performers. Still I'm up for any new John Milius project. Last week I rewatched "Apocalypse Now" and his screenplay remains a powerhouse. Certainly any quality project that would put Ms Bergman back in the spotlight would be welcome by me (and I'm sure) many others.
By the way, I looked up the "King Conan" Crown of Iron" screenplay online. And reasonably priced copies seem to turn up regularly on e-bay. So you might check that out if you haven't already.