Conan the Barbarian: Limited Edition (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Todd Doogan
  • Review Date: Jan 23, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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Conan the Barbarian: Limited Edition (4K UHD Review)


John Milius

Release Date(s)

1982 (January 30, 2024)


Dino De Laurentis Corporation/Universal Pictures (Arrow Video)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A+
  • Extras Grade: A+
  • Overall Grade: A+

Conan the Barbarian (4K Ultra HD)

Buy it Here!


[Editor’s Note: The film portion of this review is by Todd Doogan, adapted from his 2000 review of the DVD Collector’s Edition. The AV and special features portions are by Bill Hunt and Tim Salmons.]

“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And onto this, Conan, destined to bear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”

Conan the Barbarian starts like most myths... with a message. In a time before recorded history, the Hyborean Age, a boy and his father sit high upon a mountain top. Having just fashioned a glorious sword, Conan’s father speaks of gods and the riddle of steel, teaching his young son most of what he’ll know in life other than pain and loss. “No one in this world can you trust,” his father says. “Not men, not women, not beasts. This you can trust.” This, of course, is a sword... but it sadly does little good against an attack upon Conan’s village by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his berserker followers of the Set cult.

Doom and his men have come to the village for two things: well-crafted swords (a rare commodity in this world) and children. Everything else is laid to waste, including Conan’s mother and father, and young Conan is ushered away to his new home—the wheel of pain. For the next dozen years or so, the boy’s life will be spent walking in a circle, pushing a heavy wheel that grinds wheat into flour. It’s not much of a life, but it does provide Conan with plenty of time to think, and reflect upon his plans to kill Thulsa Doom, and it also makes him strong.

When Conan gets big enough (now played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), he’s sold as a slave to wage battle nightly as a pit fighter. These fights are always to the death, using weapons that could as easily kill their bearer as an opponent. But Conan is a born fighter... and revenge is a very good reason to live. After years of mastering many forms of warfare and combat, Conan’s master releases him. The why of this is never explained, but it could be that he simply knows Conan’s skill is getting too good, making him impossible to contain.

Thus freed, Conan sets out upon on the road of adventure and soon meets a Mongol archer named Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the queen of thieves, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), who join forces with him on a mission for King Osric (Max Von Sydow). It seems that Osric wants to get his daughter back from the Set cult, the very same one led by Doom. So if they succeed, they’ll not only earn a reward fit for royalty... Conan will finally have his revenge. Naturally, the task will not be easy; many people will die and plans will change. But one thing is certain... Conan will not stop until he’s accomplished his goal.

As a film, Conan the Barbarian has problems—I won’t deny that. The acting is bad in spots (witness the scene where Conan meets Subotai for the first time), the visual effects could be better, and there are some large plot holes. But the same can be said of many adventure films, and it’s really Schwarzenegger’s charisma that sets this one apart—he’s essentially the living, breathing embodiment of a Frank Frazetta painting. Based on the character created in 1932 by Robert E. Howard, the film’s story is cobbled together from material taken from several of Howard’s stories, along with original ideas by writer/director John Milius and co-writer Oliver Stone (yes, the guy who directed Platoon), and elements of other myths and historical tales, including the life of Ghengis Khan. All of it comes together nicely here, even if the result diverges a bit from Conan as originally described in print.

Apart from Schwarzenegger, this film’s other source of appeal lies in its stand-out soundtrack. Written by the great Basil Poledouris, words simply can’t do this score justice. His music is beautiful, powerful... it simply is Conan the Barbarian. If you’re familiar with this film already, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. But if you’re not, this new 4K Ultra HD release from Arrow Video, containing all three versions, is the perfect way to discover and experience it.

Film Ratings (Theatrical/International/Extended): B+/A/A

Conan the Barbarian was shot on 35 mm photochemical film (specifically Eastman 100T 5247 stock) by cinematographer Duke Callaghan (Jeremiah Johnson, and TV work that includes Adam-12 and Centennial) using mostly Arriflex 35 BL cameras with Todd-AO anamorphic lenses, and it was finished on film at the 2.35:1 scope aspect ratio for theatrical exhibition. For its first-ever release on Ultra HD, Arrow Films has commissioned a new 16-bit 4K scan of the original camera negative by NBC/Universal, which was conformed to the Theatrical Cut. Additional negative elements and an original 35 mm interpositive (for the last two reels of the International Cut, in the custody of Disney/20th Century Studios) were also scanned in 16-bit 4K. The footage was then digitally remastered and graded for high dynamic range in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision.

Arrow’s Ultra HD disc includes all three versions of the film—the 127-minute Theatrical Cut, the 129-minute International Cut, and the 130-minute Extended Cut—on a 100GB disc via seamless branching. The resulting image quality is impressive indeed, not exactly what one might call perfect, yet perfect for this film, and notably more nuanced and refined than the previous Blu-ray presentations. Every bit of detail in the negative is apparent on screen, enhancing skin, hair, and textiles. Photochemical grain is light-moderate to moderate, only occasionally appearing heavier depending on whether you’re seeing original neg or interpositive (including the International Cut footage, as well as material run through an optical printer to create visual effects, titles, and transitions). There are a few shots here and there that exhibit softer focus, as has always been the case, though the image is remarkably clean and crisp looking overall. The contrast is mostly terrific, with inky blacks, good shadow detail, and bold highlights. Only occasionally do the blacks appear a bit crushed. Colors are well-saturated and accurate—particularly skin tones—though the film’s palette is somewhat biased toward Earth tones, as it’s intended to be. Most impressively, video data rates average between 70 and 100 Mbps (!), cementing this as an excellent upgrade of the previous Blu-ray image, and almost certainly the best most fans have ever seen Conan looking.

The film’s English audio is included on the 4K disc in the original theatrical mono in 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio format (the default option) as well as a new Dolby Atmos mix (7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible), both obviously lossless. (Per Arrow’s restoration notes, the mono track has been remastered and the Atmos mix was produced in part by adapting the legacy 5.1 Blu-ray mix provided by NBC/Universal.) The mono mix will certainly be the fan favorite choice—it’s pleasingly clean sounding, with clear dialogue and nothing untoward in terms of age-related defects. Meanwhile, the Atmos mix spreads the soundfield out across the front portion of the stage, and uses the surround channels mostly for music, while the height channels add just a dash of ambient fill. The Atmos also gains a pleasing bit of heft by way of LFE. Here again, the dialogue is clean and clear. But the Atmos mix really benefits the film’s score, which crashes through the listening environment in rich tones, with crisp brass, rumbling drums, and exceptional fidelity. Optional English subs are also available.

Arrow’s 4K Ultra HD package is a 2-disc set that includes the UHD movie disc along with a Region A-locked 1080p Blu-ray of special features. Being a boutique label release, no Digital copy code is included. The discs sit in a black Amaray case alongside 6 double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions, and an insert featuring the classic US theatrical one sheet on the front and a still of Conan on the reverse (an odd choice as this isn’t a clear case). Also included is a double-sided poster featuring theatrical artwork on one side and another still of Conan on the reverse, and an 80-page booklet containing cast and crew information, the essay Days of High Adventure by Walter Chaw, the location report Nine Days in Cimmeria: On Location with Conan by Paul M. Sammon, the essay King Conan by John Walsh, restoration information, and production credits. All of this comes housed in sturdy slipcase packaging with the same US theatrical artwork.

Special features on the 4K disc include:

  • Audio Commentary with John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Audio Commentary with Paul M. Sammon
  • Isolated Score Track (2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio)

All of these tracks are available on the Extended Cut only. The director and actor track was created for Universal’s Collector’s Edition DVD release back in 2000, and it’s quite good. The pair discusses nearly everything you’d want to know about the film and Schwarzenegger is actually quite funny, though not always intentionally. Also included is a newly-recorded commentary by film historian Paul M. Sammon, author of the book Conan: The Phenomenon, who was on set during the filming. This too is excellent, delivering a steady stream of first-hand production anecdotes, trivia, and other contextual information. (The track’s audio quality shifts occasionally, suggesting that it was recorded in different sessions and edited together.) But arguably the highlight of these features is the opportunity to listen to Basil Poledouris’ legendary score in isolation, playing alongside the film imagery in high-quality lossless stereo. It simply doesn’t get better than this.

To this, the Blu-ray special features disc adds…

  • Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan (SD – 53:11)*
  • New Interviews:
    • Designing Conan (HD – 14:17)
    • Costuming Conan with John Bloomfield (HD – 13:21)
    • Barbaric Effects (HD – 10:50)
    • Young Conan with Jorge Sanz (HD – 7:05)
    • Conan & The Priest with Jack Taylor (HD – 6:52)
    • Cutting the Barbarian (HD – 8:31)
    • Crafting Conan’s Magic (HD – 6:36)
    • Barbarians & Northmen (HD – 6:22)
    • Behind the Barbarian (HD – 17:10)
    • A Line in the Sand: Alfio Leotta on Conan the Barbarian (HD – 16:43)
  • Conan: The Rise of a Fantasy Legend (SD – 18:25)*
  • Art of Steel: Sword Makers & Masters (HD – 14:40)*
  • Conan: From the Vault (HD and SD – 10:22)*
  • A Tribute to Basil Poledouris:
    • Conan The Symphony (SD – 47:14)
    • Remembering Basil (SD – 35:37)
    • The Tale of Conan (SD – 15:01)
    • Basil at Úbeda (SD – 4:08)
  • Original Promotional Featurettes (SD – 35:11 in total):
    • Introduction (SD – 2:15)
    • John Milius (SD – 1:53)
    • Arnold, Gerry & Sandahl (SD – 1:59)
    • Nick Allder (SD – 2:02)
    • Ron Cobb (SD – 2:01)
    • Robert E. Howard (SD – 2:05)
    • Arnold Schwarzenegger (SD – 2:24)
    • Sandahl Bergman (SD – 2:18)
    • Dino & Raffaella De Laurentiis (SD – 1:53)
    • John Milius #2 (SD – 2:11)
    • Robert E. Howard #2 (SD – 1:58)
    • Marvel Comics (SD – 1:52)
    • Marvel Comics #2 (SD – 1:56)
    • Featurette (SD – 7:01)
    • On Location (SD – 1:45)
  • Deleted Scenes:*
    • John Milius Cameo (Upscaled SD – :53)
    • The Death of King Osric (Upscaled SD – 4:17)
    • Wolves Outtake (Upscaled SD – :24)
  • Special Effects Comparison (Upscaled SD – 1:37)*
  • Conan: The Archives (SD – 169 in all – 11:47)*
  • Conan the Barbarian: The Musical (HD – 3:01)
  • Trailer Gallery:
    • US Teaser Trailer (Upscaled SD – 1:40)*
    • US Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:10)*
    • International Teaser Trailer (Upscaled SD – 1:53)
    • International Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 1:27)
  • Image Gallery (HD – 101 in all)

*denotes legacy features

To say that this is one of the most comprehensive extras packages for a modern UHD release would be a vast understatement. It includes virtually everything that’s appeared on previous Blu-ray and DVD releases from around the world, including the excellent Collector’s Edition DVD release. Significant new content produced or gathered specifically for this release by Arrow Video is also present, including new and vintage interviews with the cast and crew, some of which have been locked away for decades in various archives. The cream of the crop is still Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary Conan Unchained, which gathers together the key players for an hour-long, retrospective look at the making of the film. But the new interviews cover many of the folks who’ve never been on record before, including illustrator William Stout, actor Jorge Sanz (who plays young Conan in the film), costume designer John Bloomfield, assistant editor Peck Prior, and Alfio Leotta, author of The Cinema of John Milius. There are also massive galleries of behind-the-scenes photos, promotional materials, and illustrated pre-visualization artwork, along with comprehensive promotional featurettes, and even a live performance of the score led by Basil Poledouris shortly before his passing. The only very minor thing not included are the film’s DVD production notes. Needless to say, this treasure trove of material is well worth one’s time and will take hours, if not days, to fully ingest.

For many people, there’s a single event they can pinpoint that broadened their perspectives and changed the course of their lives. Some had that awakening in May of 1977. Mine came the first time I saw a Frazetta painting, and then saw Conan the Barbarian in a theater. And it’s fair to say that nothing has captured that original experience quite so perfectly as Arrow Video’s new 4K Ultra HD release. With tremendous A/V quality and the most comprehensive set of special features created for this film to date, it’s a must-own title for fans, a terrific addition to this format, and highly recommended for any serious cinephile.

- Todd Doogan (with Bill Hunt and Tim Salmons)

(You can follow Bill on social media on Twitter and Facebook)

(You can follow Tim on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook. And be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel here.)




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