‘Do You Want to Live Forever?’—John Milius’ ‘Conan the Barbarian’
"Oliver Stone originally took a crack at writing it, meeting with intended and final star Arnold Schwarzenegger, hoping to direct him (he had the Austrian oak read to him from the Conan comics to get a feel for the atmosphere and dialogue), and although John Milius took over both chores for producers Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis, the finished film has Stone’s imprint all over it. Critic and Stone biographer/essayist Matt Zoller Seitz suggests there is (to Stone’s apparent discomfort) a semi-autobiographical element to it, of the orphaned slave turned gladiator, thief, mercenary, avenging barbarian and lover, and finally, hinted at future king. “The more you know about Stone’s own biography,” Seitz opines, “[such as] his emotional estrangement from his parents, his self-reinvention in the brothels and killing fields of Southeast Asia, his fondness for stories about both real and fictional adventurers, including Alexander the Great and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim—the more Conan seems like an exuberant and perverse autobiography.” Milius is a martially minded philosopher poet also. “Ultimately Conan is John’s movie,” Stone told Seitz, with perhaps a degree of modesty or disappointment at Milius’ necessarily cut-down version (Stone’s vision was vastly ambitious and effects reliant). “He’s such a wonderful, Macedonian character. ‘Oliver! Come in! I just wrote something; I want you to hear it!’ And then he’d read some section he was working on, read it to me like it was Apocalypse Now, like it was just the greatest thing ever! ‘Whaddya think? Isn’t it great? We got it! By Crom, we got it!’”
“It took me four months to write Conan,” Stone recalled elsewhere, and recounted in The Conan Completist. “I had been hired to write the first draft. Paramount and Edward R. Pressman had told me to go ahead without restraining myself. I was expecting they would ask for a more digest, second draft. But I never had the chance to write it: Paramount canceled the project. [To write the script] I read each book, each comic book. Robert E. Howard… wrote all these great stories, originally in pulp magazines. He had a great gift for this perverted mythos of darkness and death, raging and mad Wagnerian mentality. [John Milius said that my script was a ‘feverish dream under acid’] but it is exactly what the film should have been! It is what arises from the work of Howard. What Edgar Rice Burroughs had made a success of with Tarzan, Howard renewed with Conan, who is a kind of post-modern Tarzan, less noble but more mischievous.”
“Conan is the classical story by excellence. I very much liked the idea that he had been a slave, had suffered and managed to rise. What is great in Howard’s novels is that Conan passes from the stage of peasant to that of a king. A young peasant gains his royalty through a series of tests and marries… In my script, which concentrates several stories of Howard, Conan saves the life of one princess. At the end of the film, after having reconquered her throne thanks to his assistance, she offers her hand in marriage to him so that he becomes king. But Conan refuses this honor. He tells her: ‘I can’t be a king this way, as your husband. I can’t inherit the throne. I will earn my throne.’ So, he leaves her, like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood at the end of their westerns, with the sunset in the background. And he goes riding off to the second adventure, which was supposed to be the follow-up sequel. If they’d done it my way, they would have had a Bond-type series, 12-13 pictures, which is what I had wanted to do.”"