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CONAN THE BARBARIAN – Basil Poledouris

January 13, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Conan The Barbarian is based on the Conan stories penned by author Robert E. Howard. The movie adaptation tells the story of a young Conan who lives in the mythic Hyborean Age and suffers grievously at the hands of an evil ruler of the Snake Cult, Thulsa Doom, who kills his parents and sells him into slavery. Eventually after much suffering he gains his freedom and trains to become a mighty warrior. He then sets out to solve the riddle of steel and avenge his parent’s death. As such, this is a classic morality tale with an unambiguous hero and villain. The film was a commercial success, which spawned a sequel and served to reinvigorate the fantasy genre.

Producer Dino de Laurentiis initially wanted Ennio Morricone to score the film and even at one point contemplated a pop score. Director John Milius however who had previous collaborated with Poledouris for “Big Wednesday” lobbied hard and succeeded in changing de Laurentiis’ mind. He asked Poledouris to provide an “operatic” quality to support the epic nature of the film. Poledouris responded by writing a classical leitmotif based score for a massive full orchestra and chorale that both exceeded Milius’ expectations and nearly brought down the recording venue!

“Prologue” is a stark and portentous cue that opens darkly in the low register with bass drums and metallic strikes as the film’s narrative unfolds. At 1:02 “Anvil of Crom” introduces the first of the score’s four primary themes, the Hyborean Theme, meant to emote the essence of this primitive mythic age. We hear the orchestra erupt with a fortissimo statement born boldly by horns and powerful percussion as we see Conan’s parents forge the mighty Atlantean sword, their legacy and ironically the instrument Conan will some day wield to avenge their deaths. At 1:56 strings and French horns introduce Poledouris’ second theme, Conan’s Theme, a lyrical and heroic statement that underpins the entire score. As the melody drives forward it swells with irresistible force for a stunning bravado statement. Folks, this piece abounds with just a stunning array of percussion that includes anvil strikes, metal sheets, cimbalom, hard mallets, timpani and bass drums. It is just breath taking and a score highlight!

“Riddle of Steel” expands upon the Conan’s Theme, which is introduced by ethereal strings and woodwinds. Born exquisitely first by solo oboe and then by solo cor anglais and violins, we are treated to a tender rendering of the theme as Conan’s father mentors him in the strength of steel. A dark bass chord at 1:28 portends the approach of the Thulsa’s Riders of Doom, which will soon sack the village and kill Conan’s parents. In “Riders of Doom” Poledouris introduces his third and most powerful theme, the Riders of Doom Theme. Some have argued that Poledouris adapted Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, but I disagree. While the open fifths and modal harmonies are kindred, I believe the cue’s construct, pacing and development are original and not an adaptation. Belying the approaching danger, the cue opens with gentile woodwinds, strings and harp. At 2:10 chorus enters and the theme slowly gains in both potency and horrific power as we see the village sacked. Adding to this extraordinary passage are its compelling Latin lyrics that drive the piece and are voiced with dramatic power. Folks, I quiver with every listen of this cue, which in my opinion is a masterpiece cue that gains Poledouris immortality. In “The Gift of Fury”, we behold the murder of Conan’s parents. Opening with regal fanfare as Thulsa Doom enters, we hear a religioso chorale from which ascends Conan’s Theme. Taken up by strings, a lamentation unfolds and renders the Dies Irae Theme which is classically used to convey death and The Day Of Judgment. At 2:30 his mother is beheaded and religioso chorale returns as an inconsolable Conan’s stands alone and devastated. The music for this cue is superb and perfectly conceived!

“Column of Sadness” emotes the dread of a forced labor march as the children are driven north to Thulsa Doom’s mill. The piece is a dirge scored simply with tom-tom percussion, woodwinds, strings and chain sounds. At 1:20 in “Wheel of Pain” we see Conan condemned like Sisyphus to toil without hope as he pushes the mill wheel in an unending circle. Poledouris brilliantly conceives a toiling bass ostinato that rises and falls to illustrate Conan’s struggles against the mill wheel whose relentless revolutions mark the passage of time. The piece is accented with lyrical strings, male chorus and horn play to perfectly emote Conan’s unrelenting pain and suffering. After referencing the Hyborean Theme, the cue concludes with an unexpected madrigal like sensibility. “Pit Fights” reveals Conan being sold into slavery to fight as a gladiator where he thrives with a frightening efficiency and brutality. The piece is clearly Rozsa-esque and draws inspiration from his “Roman Galley” cue from “Ben Hur” where we hear a repeating trumpet line playing over a bass ostinato. Slowly and inexorably we are treated to a remarkable trumpet accelerando that builds to a stunning crescendo as Conan is seen slaying one opponent after another. Bravo!

“Atlantean Sword” reveals Conan, now a free man, stumbling into the tomb of an ancient Atlantean king where he finds the famed Sword of Power. This cue is a masterful creation with a moving religioso quality. It opens mystically with sul ponticello strings that progress to vibrato, glockenspiel, subtle percussion and woodwinds. At 1:06 a trumpet blast and deep bass chords introduce the religioso passage born by strings and horns with accents of glockenspiel, harp and woodwinds that reference his theme. The music slowly builds with reverence to a beautiful revelatory climax as Conan discovers the legendary sword. This music is perfectly conceived, attenuated to the film’s imagery and it is just an outstanding cue.

In “Theology” Conan befriends Subotai who discuss their respective gods over a campfire. As they talk, we hear the Civilization Theme, a wonderful Madrigal like woodwind line with harp, glockenspiel and tambourine accents. At 0:58 as the scene shifts to morning, we see them running cross-country with the theme’s main line now born by lyrical strings. At 1:27 horns announce the city of Zamora and in “Civilization” Poledouris continues thematically with the music now carried by dancing woodwinds, playful strings, tambourine and finger cymbals, all of which impart an ethnic flavor to the locale.

In “The Tower of Set/Snake Attack” a third member, Valeria joins the party as they scale the citadel wall to discover a ritual human sacrifice unfolding below. A scene shift shows Conan battling and defeating a giant snake guarding “The Eye of the Snake” jewel and a snake god amulet. Most interestingly, Poledouris juxtaposes the pagan ritual and snake battle with source music, “Las Cantigas de Santa Maria” a classic 13th Spanish piece. This is a most pleasant Renaissance flavored cue carried in dancelike fashion by six violas, Persian drum, darbuka, congas and wordless female chorus.

“The Wifeing” introduces the Love Theme that plays as Conan and Valeria make love. The cue opens tenderly and hesitantly with viola. A repeating string line joins, ushers in and plays beneath a solo oboe that takes up the melody. This in turn transitions to a lush string statement, which references Conan’s Theme as the themes, intertwine while they embrace. It is a wondrous and stirring synergy and a gorgeous cue. “Conan Leaves Valeria” is an achingly beautiful cue and a score highlight. The scene reveals Valeria entreating Conan to forgo his revenge and to stay with her. Poledouris expands upon the Love Theme that enters with solo clarinet, which is then passed to flute. Emoted now with longing, it plays in duet against his theme. At 1:44 we bear witness to a glorious ascent of strings, which rise to climax as Conan eyes the hated image of the Thulsa Doom snake standard and realizes he must leave her. The cue closes with a scene change to morning which opens with harp, solo oboe, strings and cimbalom playing the love theme, now full of mourning, as Valeria wakes to find herself alone. The scene shifts again to “The Search” which stands as a truly sumptuous cue of uncommon beauty, which brings a quiver and a tear. At 2:56 a sad solo cor anglais plays as we see Conan traveling to Doom. The music swells on lush strings that reference his theme until eventually joined by full orchestra for a wondrous statement that mirrors Conan’s inner state of regret for having left Valeria. The cue concludes with cyclic strings and a repeating three-note horn motif as Conan approaches The Mounds, an abandoned temple.

“The Mountain Of Power And Capture” is a complex and powerful cue that plays as Conan, disguised as a priest, enters the temple complex only to be discovered and captured. The music opens as an up tempo march alight with sparkling fanfare and strong rhythmic percussion. At 1:31 the march is interrupted for a gentile interlude of violins, piano, celesta and harp accents as Conan speaks to the High Priestess. But the march returns in force and builds with fortissimo power until King Osric’s daughter appears and Poledouris introduces the precursor of the Orgy Theme. The music is a lush string carried statement with dramatic horns that diminishes until shattered by dissonant tri-tone horn blasts with pounding percussion, which signal Conan’s discovery and capture. The cue concludes with a mysterioso passage of glockenspiel, celesta, crotales and vibraphone as Thulsa and Osric’s daughter gaze down with remote expressions.

“The Tree Of Woe” reveals Conan condemned to die by crucifixion upon the Tree Of Woe. As he lies dying, we hear dissonant strings supported by wordless female chorus and ethnic percussion. At 2:00 as Subotai appears in the distance, the Civilization Theme emerges on harp and strings as we see him and Valeria come and rescue Conan. There is a heavy sadness in the strings as they cut down Conan and take him to a wizard so he may be healed. We segue at 3:28 into “Recovery” which is a cue that deeply inspires and stands as another score highlight. As Conan finally opens his eyes to a longing Valeria, she confesses her undying love as we hear Conan’s Theme rise slowly, yet with nobility on cor anglais doubled with clarinet. Soon the theme fills in with strings, trumpet and lastly with reverent wordless chorus that takes the cue into the realm of the sublime.

In “The Kitchen” our three heroes enter Mount Doom by way of the kitchen as the staff prepares a gruesome cannibalistic feast. We hear a less kinetic variation of the Riders of Doom chant that also lacks the martial bravado heard earlier in the score. At 2:13 “The Orgy” begins as our heroes enter the great hall where Thulsa presides over a primal orgy, Poledouris unfurls his stunning Orgy Theme, which sustains play throughout the rest of the scene. This lyrical and repeating theme is in reality a dance with a strange and mesmerizing quality. We note that at 2:51 he introduces a counter melody carried by bassoon, which adds complexity to the piece. With each repeating cycle the music gains intensity until it achieves a deafening conclusion.

“Orgy Fight” is a fight scene where King Osric’s daughter is rescued. The piece is multi-thematic as Poledouris opens with the potent horn lead and percussive Hyborean Theme that gives way at 1:32 as guards arrive to the equally powerful Riders Of Doom Theme, which is emoted without chorus. “Funeral Pyre” is the highlight of the score and a masterpiece cue. It is filled with a terrible pathos of grief, despair and desolation. In the tragic scene Valeria dies from a poison arrow shot from Thulsa’s bow. Conan holds her as she passes and then sets her atop a funeral pyre where he stands vigil, inconsolable. The cue opens with a descending and slowing string line as Valeria’s life ebbs. At 1:04 low register strings mark her passing. From a plaintive oboe the Love Theme emerges and is taken up with reverence by French horns before returning again to oboe. As fire consumes her body the theme becomes heart rending, ascending on strings over pedal bass with dramatic counterpoint by horns doubled with chimes until it achieves a breath-taking climax. Tutti strings carry the final passage and achieve a secondary bi-tonal climax before yielding to a forlorn cor anglais, which concludes the cue with finality.

“Battle Preparations” displays Conan and Subotai preparing for the final battle with Thulsa Doom. A primitive percussive cadence opens the cue. Sustaining the primitive sensibility are the horns that augment the main line, which now receives counterplay from a lyrical violins. A delightful interlude of woodwinds and pizzicato strings highlight Subotai’s conjuring of weapons and armor as they arm themselves. At 2:06 as the men see the approach of Thulsa Doom the orchestra lead by strings and heraldic horns announce the coming battle. Single note repeating piano percussion, syncopated timpani and violin ostinato join to raise the alarm. Religioso chorus and trumpets join as we see await the coming battle. A contemplative interlude of woodwinds and violins reveals Conan praying for victory. An ascent of horns that rise in their register and intensity announce at 4:35 with “Battle of the Mounds Part I” that the battle has been joined. The music explodes into the fury of battle as we bear witness to Poledouris setting the Riders of Doom Theme against the Dies Irae Theme playing in counterpoint. This passage is pure genius and simply astounding!

In “Battle of the Mounds Part II” the battle continues with pizzicato strings while trumpets and trombones counter in harmony with the Dies Irae Theme. Soon French horns playing in their lowest register blast forth over syncopated timpani as the fighting intensifies. The music continues to shift as pizzicato strings return and are joined by rumbling bass and trumpet blasts. The Civilization Theme on woodwinds joins but is short-lived as Subotai fumbles in battle. The cue closes with strings playing over a percussive line. “Battle of the Mounds Part III” sustains the battle and opens with drum roll and a repeating line of horns playing over bass drums. A lamenting solo trumpet call set to tremolo strings heralds a vision of Valeria. This serves to potentiate blood lust in Conan who proceeds to slay Rexor as strings and timpani propel the confrontation. Strings playing Conan’s Theme announce victory over Rexor as horns blast a fragment of the Love Theme while religioso chorus sings a lamentation for her inspiration. As we segue into “Night Of Doom” at 1:55 Thulsa flees and gathers his followers for a last stand at Mount Doom. Wordless chorus, glockenspiel and gentle percussion open the passage, giving way to lamenting strings as our heroes pursue Thulsa.

“Orphans Of Doom” is a stunning score highlight. The music is a transcendental homage of sublime beauty to Conan’s triumph as he rescues Osric’s daughter and frees the children of doom from servitude. The cue features a religioso tenor with woodwind arpeggios, harp and female chorus singing the Dies Irae Theme. At 1:19 in “The Awakening” as Conan reflects upon his victory we hear a tender clarinet and harp line play over kindred woodwinds and high register violins. When Conan takes a lantern and hurls it at the temple to begin a cleansing conflagration he achieves an apotheosis. Glorious French horns exalt him as Deliverer as tremolo strings and solo flute commence the inexorable build up to the finale, which Poledouris declares with heraldic French horns at 3:29. We follow with solo piccolo, which plays over tremolo strings rising in intensity that are joined by kindred woodwinds. A solo flute prelude at 5:06 unleashes major modal horn play that ushers in a stunning, bravado, full orchestral affirmation that is simply glorious.

“Epilogue” begins with a reprise of the “Prologue” cue. At 1:00 the “End Titles” begin with bravado statements of the Hyborean Theme and Conan’s Theme. After this we are treated to the three motifs of the Riders of Doom Theme and the Dies Irae Theme as we conclude this epic passage. As for the bonus cues, all feature slight variances in instrumentation and tempo, which I invite the reader to explore. The last cue, “Riders of Doom – Orchestral Version” omits the chorus and indulges my curiosity, however I believe it results in an inferior rendering of the theme.

I must applaud James Fitzpatrick and Tadlow Music for a most impressive reissue of a complete version of this historic and classic score. The sound quality is excellent and of the highest standards. In my view this score is Poledouris’ crowning achievement, his career’s apogee and his Magnum Opus. His music is supremely lyrical, abounds in wondrous chorus, hosts a multiplicity of themes and motif expressions, and bears an uncommon beauty. Indeed this score will echo through time and gain Poledouris immortality. This is an essential, must have score for any serious collector. I cannot understate the beauty, power and glory of this score, which I assign my highest rating.

Rating: *****

Buy the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (Film Version)/Anvil of Crom (3:38)
  • Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom (5:23)
  • The Gift of Fury (3:25)
  • Column of Sadness/Wheel of Pain (4:09)
  • Pit Fights (2:45)
  • Prologue (Original Version) (1:03)
  • Atlantean Sword (4:00)
  • Wolf Witch (3:21)
  • Theology/Civilization (3:04)
  • The Street of Deviants/Hopefuls at the Tower of Set (1:28)
  • The Tower of Set/Snake Attack/Las Cantigas de Santa Maria (5:21)
  • Infidels (1:03)
  • The Tavern (1:51)
  • The Wifeing (2:20)
  • In The Court of King Osric (1:13)
  • Conan Leaves Valeria/The Search (6:03)
  • The Mountain of Power/Capture (4:00)
  • The Tree of Woe/Recovery (6:04)
  • The Kitchen/The Orgy (co-written by Zoe Poledouris) (6:23)
  • Orgy Fight (2:53)
  • Funeral Pyre (5:15)
  • Battle Preparations/Battle of the Mounds (Part I) (5:59)
  • Battle of the Mounds (Part II) (2:11)
  • Battle of the Mounds (Part III)/Night of Doom (5:56)
  • Head Chop (0:53)
  • Orphans of Doom/The Awakening (6:30)
  • Epilogue/End Titles (5:13)
  • Theology/Civilization (Alternate Version) (3:27)
  • The Tower of Set (Alternate Cue) (3:37)
  • Battle of the Mounds (Part II) (Original Version) (2:11)
  • Chamber of Mirrors from “Conan the Destroyer” (7:16)
  • Riders of Doom (Orchestral Version) (4:05)

Running Time: 122 minutes 00 seconds

Prometheus XPCD-169 (1982/2010)

Music composed by Basil Poledouris. Conducted by Nic Raine. Performed by The City of Prague Philarmonic Orchestra and Chorus. Original orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Recorded and mixed By Jan Holzner. Album produced by James Fitzpatrick.

  1. Captain Future
    January 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Craig – A superbe review as allways! Just, why didn’t you mention the original recording on milan and Varese as well as the Tadlow follow-up “Conan the Destroyer”?


  2. Beyond El Mar
    January 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    I have been putting off buying this score, but after reading your review, I have to get this.

    As you said, if you consider yourself a serious score collector, this score has to be a part of you collection.

  3. January 26, 2015 at 4:04 am

    Sorry, but I disagree. The music functions okay on its’ own, but in the film, it is incessant and inappropriate, and often plays in big chunks, oblivious to what’s actually going on on screen. Poorly used soundtrack, but not only that, very unremarkable, and pompous.

    • April 3, 2022 at 3:08 am

      Wow! Really? Seriously?! You need to have your head and ears examined. And quite frankly, your basic sentiments even come into question This is an absolute masterpiece and scored beautifully to the films antiquity and mythology.

  4. Ariel Harabalja
    March 10, 2019 at 3:23 pm

    Dear Craig
    I just wanted to express gratitude for such a nice review. I am not much of a music or movies connoisseur, but I consider Conan Barbarian one of the best movies ever made and the soundtrack is just as Arnie is in the role of Conan, perfect.
    Actually, your review is so good that I will not read it now but bookmark it for another time so I can watch the movie and follow your comments. Thanks again, Ariel

  1. February 6, 2014 at 5:01 am

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