Was Friedrich Nietzche’s maxim “What does not kill me makes me stronger” popularized by G. Gordon Liddy or Conan the Barbarian? It’s hard to imagine that readers of Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy (1980), in which the Watergate co-conspirator claims to have recited Nietzche’s original German to a reporter upon exiting his prison term, outnumber the millions who lined up for writer/director John Milius’s quintessential 1982 sword-and-sorcery epic, which opens with a title card misquoting Nietzche in the plural. But far-right New Hollywood provocateur Milius was surely among Liddy’s fans. According to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s own autobiography, when producer Dino De Laurentiis entered the project late in development, he tried to have the star removed on the grounds that “He’s a Nazi.” “No, Dino,” Milius is said to have replied. “There is only one Nazi on this team. And that is me.”
In J. Hoberman’s new book Make My Day: Culture in the Age of Reagan (whose publication is the occasion of today’s screening), David Denby is quoted as writing Milius “doesn’t have the consistency or the visual skills to be a good fascist filmmaker,” and while it gives one pause to consider the implication that Mr. Denby believes there can be such a thing as a good fascist filmmaker, it’s also unkind to argue that Conan lacks consistency or visual aptitude. Are there more indelible images from the cinema of the 1980s than Arnold Schwarzenneger swinging a broadsword on the beach as the wind caresses his flowing barbarian locks? Although fundamentally based on Robert E. Howard’s 1930s stories first published in Weird Tales, Conan the Barbarian owes as much to the 1970s comic series authored by Roy Thomas, and perhaps even more so the genre-defining artwork of Frank Frazetta on the Lancer/Ace paperback anthologies. This is not Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen — despite the number of oversized reptile battles — but Milius does a more than serviceable job of bringing a D&D fan’s basement to life in fetishistic detail. And for all of the Milius’s blowhard fascist posturing, the Steve Mnuchin-produced Lego Movie has more to do with America’s most openly illiberal, Nazi-sympathizing regime than Conan the Barbarian.