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Cinematic Milestones with Sara Michelle — Conan the Destroyer

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Feminine journeys through the Hyborian Age with Robert E. Howard's sword-wielding barbarian icon

I'm not going to make a case that 1984's Conan the Destroyer, based on the writings of author Robert E. Howard, is a great movie. It's juvenile. It's cartoonish. It's structured like a combination of a second-rate Ray Harryhausen knockoff circa one of his latter Sinbad efforts or one of those Italian-schlock Hercules adventures of the 1950s and '60s. Acclaimed filmmaker Richard Fleischer, the man behind bona fide classics like The Narrow Margin, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings, and Fantastic Voyage, directs much of the action as if he were on autopilot.

At best, that makes the sequel to 1982's box office smash Conan the Barbarian (a legitimately great motion picture) an obvious mixed cinematic bag. At the very least, it's certainly a massive change of pace from the John Milius-directed, Oliver Stone-scripted, and extremely R-rated original.

But I like Conan the Destroyer quite a bit. Just having Sarah Douglas, Wilt Chamberlain, and a captivatingly unhinged Grace Jones in the supporting cast would be enough, but with the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger's magnetic, sword-wielding swagger; a bigger role for veteran character actor Mako; and creature effects courtesy of Academy Award winner impresario Carlo Rambaldi (E.T.), there's plenty in this sequel I frankly go ga-ga over.

But that's not the reason I find the film unforgettable. I was 10 years old when I saw it, and the presence of actor Olivia d'Abo as Princess Jehnna knocked me sideways. Not that I was exactly sure why that was at the time, but her performance as this lithe, confidently feminine heroine captured my attention. I was floored by Jehnna: The way she moved. How she talked. How she wore costume designer John Bloomfield's phenomenal creations. Her hair. Her makeup. I found all of it fabulous.

There are signature moments in the life of every Trans person, instances when we have incredible realizations about ourselves that no one else seems remotely aware of. They come in a myriad of ways, most of them when they are least expected. Sometimes the egg cracks, and we respond to these moments immediately. Sometimes we push them deep inside, hiding our reactions from the rest of the world as if they never even happened. Frequently it's a complicated mixture of all of the above.

Jane Schoenbrun's masterful I Saw the TV Glow covered some of this, especially how media can play a central role in someone's "coming out" journey and how nostalgia tends to color our emotional reactions to all types of entertainment. I do not deny that this is somewhat the case here. Four decades later, I can easily see this sequel's flaws, its storytelling hiccups, and the general shortcuts taken to produce a cheaper, more family-friendly installment in the franchise — but I can't say I care about any of that.

Still, my affinity for Conan the Destroyer isn't entirely due to nostalgia. This Hyborian Age expedition may be on the goofy side of the equation, but that doesn't mean it can't be a heck of a lot of fun. With tongue firmly in cheek, Schwarzenegger picks back up the Cimmerian warrior's sword and wields it to perfection. His pairing with NBA icon Chamberlain is a stroke of mischievous genius. Adding a maniacally out-of-control Jones to the mix is equally so. There are enough bruising sword fights, battles with wizards, and gruesome creatures to fill several epic quests, and while 10-year-old me adored that, I'm happy to admit my adult self still gets a thrill out of watching them too.

The plot revolves around the malevolent Queen Taramis (Douglas) hiring Conan to assist the virginal Princess Jehnna on a quest to obtain a fabled jewel that only she can touch without dying. They are joined by a wisecracking thief (Tracey Walter), the queen's captain of the guard Bombaata (Chamberlain), a wily marauder (Jones), and Conan's former ally, the wizard Akiro (Mako). It all builds to a standard climactic clash between good and evil, with Conan and his ragtag team forced to stop the sacrifice of Princess Jehnna to a demonic evil deity and in the process keep the world from being plunged into eternal darkness.

The whole thing moves like lightning, and even if Fleischer doesn't seem to be giving things his full attention, he's still enough of a consummate old-school craftsman that his handling of the picture is hardly embarrassing. A confrontation between Conan and a shape-shifting sorcerer in a frozen cavern of mirrors (purposefully reminiscent of The Lady from Shanghai and Enter the Dragon) is excellent, while the Cimmerian's thunderous battle with Bombaata is worth waiting for. Jones steals scenes left and right with fiery panache, and Douglas is a delightfully despicable villain who vamps it up splendidly.

But who am I kidding? The reason I'm writing about this (and not its vastly superior predecessor) is because of how it affected me on a deeper level. I'm not saying I wouldn't have enjoyed the film if it hadn't hit some girly buttons that I didn't fully comprehend or know the best way to deal with, but that didn't hurt either. I didn't want to be like Conan; I wanted to be Princess Jehnna, and all these years later, darn it if those aspirational fantasies don't still remain.

There's a moment I'll never be able to shake. Princess Jehnna has been abducted by that sorcerer to his towering castle of stone and ice. She's under some sort of sleeping spell and splayed out upon the bed, covered in furs, wearing perfect makeup, her lips pursed as if she's about to kiss an unknown prince. For years I'd go to bed at night, trying my best to emulate that pose, a part of me believing that if I did, that maybe, just maybe, I'd wake up and be magically transformed into the person I secretly dreamt I could be.

Silly? That's undeniable, but that also doesn't make it any less true. We all have secret dreams and desires, and it's always something of a surprise what ends up sparking them to life in ways we never could have anticipated. Conan the Destroyer did all that and more for me, and even if aspects of it don't quite hold up or are now predictably dated, I still love this crazy, cartoonish frolic through Howard's sword-and-sandal realm all the same. Heck, I think I'll watch it again right now.