I’ve seen Conan The Barbarian probably ten times in the last thirty years. Until last night, I had never seen it on screen. I went to the Bell Lightbox and saw it with a mainly twentysomething crowd. They’re an ironic bunch and they laughed a lot. They clapped when Arnold made his “Crush your enemies. See them driven before you..” speech. And when the movie was over. At other times, they were very, very quite.
There is a huge visual difference between seeing the movie on screen than a VHS or DVD. The screen is in the proper aspect ratio. The screen is almost twice as wide as it is high. Television is great for sitcoms shot in a single room with an aspect ratio that is almost square. The aspect ratio gives depth of field. And in Conan The Barbarian that has two big effects.
The first is what it does to animals. Those dogs that rush across the ground to kill Conan’s father are huge. The wolves chasing him across the steppe are also huge. The pigs pouring over the stairs in the city like rats are weighty and present in a way they aren’t on television. The same for that camel he punches. All the warhorses at the beginning and the end look like they weigh a ton.
The second is landscape. Maybe sixty percent of the movie is shot outdoors in Spain. On the screen it looks like “Ben Hur” or “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”. The landscape scenes have wide scope and deep depth of field. The director knows this and works with it in ways that are hard to see on television.
The scene with the grain grinding wheel of pain has a beacon fire on a hill. It creates a line of perspective that takes the eye from foreground, to middle ground, and then to the background. In almost every landscape that follows the director does the same thing. Over and over.
The scene where Conan bludgeons a priest and take his robe the stairs to Mount Doom are in the middle of the shot in the far background. We see this intriguing structure several times in the background before we get close to it. When we do, the director shoots up and down those stairs to great effect. Thulsa’s head thrown from the top of the stairs describes a trajectory like a cannon ball.
Tsubotai emerges over a hill to rescue Conan on the tree of woe. Disappears under a hill and pops up again. The depth of field makes this look great. There are lots of shots in the sandy, menhir covered burial ground that are foreground, middle ground, background. The princess chained to a rock at the top of the hill is used as a vanishing point. A lot.
It’s a better movie on a screen. You can’t say that of “The Sword And The Sorcerer”. Ninety-five percent of that movie was shot indoors on a sound stage.