Film Torments: The Barbarians (1987)
LIKE all great decades, the 80s was rife with cultural vapidity and creative appropriation – it was the decade of Reaganomics, Thatcherism and a million keys of coke, after all. Golan-Globus were two of the largest cinematic titans in this miserable era, essentially taking over from Roger Corman as the great schlock purveyors of the time. We’ve already featured the esteemed Superman IV on Torments; since I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the baffling milieu of a different Golan-Globus opus (Tough Guys Don’t Dance), this week we’re taking a look at 1987’s The Barbarians, starring… well, the Barbarian Brothers.
Comprised of Peter and David Paul, twin brothers and bodybuilders, the Barbarian Brothers starred in a handful of ill-fated, barely-received films that capitalised on their gimmicky occupations. You don’t need me to tell you that Double Trouble, Twin Sitters and Think Big plummeted straight into the bargain bin, but it turns out that they actually featured in a scene from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers! Shame it was deleted really; imagine watching Robert Downey Jr. try to have a conversation with these two steelslabbed ironpecced knuckleheads (you can, right here, and it’s pretty awesome).
Cue The Barbarians, a more obvious fit for the brothers. Massive, boulder-muscled beefmen flexing their way through 90 minutes of sword-and-sorcery nonsense was, in principle, a perfect vehicle. Get B-movie-villain master Richard Lynch in, grab a bunch of nubile young women and build some castle market sets in five days and hey presto you’ve got yet another Conan the Barbarian rip-off to join Yor: Hunter from the Future, Deathstalker and Conan the Destroyer (oh, wait). Trouble is when, for some godforsaken reason, you decide to turn it into a comedy. The Barbarians has all the tropes of a standard swords-and-sorcery caper: the damsel in distress, the Schwarzenegger stand-in(s), magic and mystery yet, inexplicably, it isn’t played straight.
On the one hand such a novel approach should be applauded. The filmmakers were evidently under no illusion that this would present any kind of rival to Conan; working under a limited budget ($4,000,000) which ultimately failed to recoup even half of its bulk, they decided to play it far more broadly, instructing the Pauls to ad-lib much of their lines and relying heavily on their, er, natural chemistry. They forgot to understand the importance of tone. The result is, as you can imagine, a bipolar hodge-podge, lurching from sweeping, epic bombast to infantile sexuality to awkward physical comedy within single scenes.
The film tells the tale of the eponymous barbarians, appropriately named Kutchak and Gore. Taken from their adoptive home of the Ragnick tribe – a nomadic group of circus performers from what I can gather – and brainwashed to one day kill each other (because Richard Lynch’s Kadar AKA Thulsa Doom promised Canary yes that is her name their adoptive mother they wouldn’t die by his hand or his servants’ because he wanted to bang her except why does he feel the need to be so exact in his pledge I don’t even), Kutchak and Gore escape. Vowing to free Canary (Virginia Bryant), they embark on a quest to recover the mysterious Belly Stone (yes, Belly Stone) and save the Ragnicks from Kadar’s evil, unclear schemes.
The Barbarians is, obviously, face-slappingly stupid, but it’s dumber than you can even imagine. When the titular barbarians are, no joke, the smartest characters in your entire film… yeah, you might as well just bin your copy of Brain Academy because I don’t think you’re gonna need it. Kadar commits possibly the dumbest error I’ve ever seen in a film when he tries to fire a crossbow at the twins and is unable to pull the trigger, somehow forgetting that they bit his fingers off 15 fucking years ago. I guess he carried it around for nostalgia.
Then there’s the Ragnicks themselves, lead in Canary’s absence by the bug-eyed gesticulator Ibar (Franco Pestoni). Upon encountering the grown-up (and beefier) twins, Ibar decides to immediately hang them despite their protestations. Miraculously, none of the Ragnicks notice the massive identifying “mark of the open road” embedded into each twin’s neck, even when they’ve put nooses on them. But never mind that, there’s something more important to look at here: Gore’s war cry/mating call/walrus imitation. It has to be heard to be believed. Sadly there are no available clips for me to regale you all with; just take my word for it.
Really though, The Barbarians isn’t trying to be good. It’s schlock, made specifically to be schlock and to exploit the schlocky furore around its stars. You don’t sit down to watch a film like this and expect anything other than utter, utter schlock. In that regard, The Barbarians delivers spectacularly, giving Deathstalker a run for its money in the no-budget swords-and-sorcery nonsense stakes – check it out on Youtube, it’s all there. It’s also a considerable deal smarter than Lucy.