The film: Red Sonja (1985)
The Principals: Brigitte Nielsen (Red Sonja), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Lord Kalidor), Ernie Reyes, Jr. (Prince Tarn), Paul L. Smith (Falkon), Sandahl Bergman (Queen Gedren). Directed by Richard Fleischer.
The Premise: Red Sonja follows the titular (teehee) character on her quest of vengeance against the evil Queen Gedren of Berkubane. When the dark queen’s sexual advances on Sonja are spurned, Gedren has her brother and parents killed while nerds everywhere are extremely disappointed. Gedren then allows her troops to have their way with the newly orphaned firehair, which turns out to also be a disappointment for the Cheeto set because they don’t show anything. Broken and left for dead, Sonja is approached by a spirit who grants her great power in her pursuit of revenge against Gedren. In preparation for her quest, Sonja spends the next few years in training with some stereotypes to become a skilled and powerful warrior.
When the priestesses, who are planning to destroy a powerful Talisman, are killed by the dark queen and her minions (including Sonja’s sister), Sonja must use all of her skill and power to defeat Gedren before she uses the Talisman to destroy the world and remake it in her image – which, if you’ve seen her without her mask is a bit… eh. Along her journey, Red Sonja will ally herself with three others – our friends the Sorceress, Man-At-Arm Lord Kalidor, Protector of the Talisman; bratty, ex-nation-ruling Prince Tarn; and his bodyguard with a bone to wield, Falkon. In order to defeat Queen Gedren, Sonja will have to learn trust, humility, some other stuff, and how to kiss Arnold Schwarzenegger without feeling weird later when she marries Sylvester Stallone.
Roll for initiative.
Is It Good? By the gods, no. There’s just so much wrong with this film – the acting is atrocious, the characters are one-dimensional, and the plot is extremely simple and weak. Nielsen was a Danish model with no acting experience at all before she was given the lead role in the film, and it shows. There are some decent pre-Turtles martial arts moves on display from Reyes, but he comes at his bratty prince character with the same lack of finesse you would find when taking a baseball bat to a carpet tack. And even Schwarzenegger – who was clearly at the early stages of his career and not as refined in his acting talents when this was shot – seems to play his Conan-lite character with a fraction of the effort. Schwarzenegger himself has mentioned on occasion that Sonja is the worst film of his career (this must have been before he made Junior) – so much so that he’s even joked about threatening his kids with the movie as punishment when they get out of line (this must have been before he made an illegitimate junior).
Hunh. This is one of those rare moments in my personal MoD history when I feel like there really isn’t much else to say about the quality (or lack thereof) of this film, which I suppose is telling in and of itself. But there it is. When I first gave this another look, I honestly felt that I would have more to pick at. But honestly, I think I’ve hit every major issue with the film in – in record time. My usual verbosity is cut short by the simple fact that there just isn’t much to discuss, or rather, the issues worth noting aren’t worth going into great detail over. And that is probably the worst fate for a film – nothing worth discussing. Red Sonja is a forgettable film with elements you can find in much better movies from the same decade.
Is It Worth a Look? And yet, I’m still going to defend it to some degree. Even with everything that I just said (or didn’t say, because words here are apparently wasteful and unnecessary), I find that there is a certain kind of magical charm to Red Sonja that still makes it worthwhile to revisit every now and again. The eighties were a fun and interesting decade for fantasy flicks, especially ones playing specifically in the sword and sorcery realm. I remember watching pretty much anything that came pre-packaged with wizards, warriors, and amazons. And it always seemed to me that they all pulled from the same well when it came to how they were marketed and featured (a lot of that probably had to do with trying to get a piece of that Star Wars pie). I could almost believe that every one of them existed in the same universe somehow. They all certainly made me feel the same way – I’d watch in awe and wonder at the swordplay and mystical magicary on display. Each film succeeded in transporting me to a faraway realm, extending the spell I was under that began the first time I saw “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away…” on the big screen when I was three. For that reason, I’ll readily defend most fantasy flicks from the eighties, no matter where they stand on the quality meter. Legend, Highlander, Krull, Dragonslayer, Ladyhawke – movies like these and more still have that same power over me.
I suppose that’s why, despite the fact that I can recognize how bad Red Sonja is as a film, I can still say it’s worth a look. Even just in comparison with the other two flicks in the pantheon of Robert E. Howard adaptations, Red Sonja is clearly the weakest of the three. It’s practically what Supergirl is to the Superman franchise (which, incidentally enough, is currently being covered by our own fellow Chewer Joshua Miller in his Franchise Me column, and also which you should already be checking out). And even Joshua could find enough to like about Kara Zor-El’s sidecar misadventures. I think the same thing can be said for the vengeance trip of a crimson fem-mullet.
Random Anecdotes: Dino De Laurentiis went through two other actresses for the role of Sonja before settling on Nielsen. Originally, he tapped Bergman to play the role, but as she had already played a warrior hero in Conan The Barbarian, she opted instead to play the villian for the movie. His next choice was an actress by the name of Laurene Landon, but discovered she had already played a simlilar role in a film called Hundra. It was then that Dino went with Nielsen after seeing her on the cover of a magazine. Coincidentally enough, this is the exact same set of circumstances that befell Flavor Flav that led to the VH1 show Strange Love.
Red Sonja is an adaptation of the character created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith and featured in the Conan the Barbarian series the did from Marvel Comics. She is often miscredited to Conan creator Robert E. Howard, but is in actuality just a very loose adaptation (as in, practically name only) of the character Red Sonya of Rogatino that was featured in Howard’s short story “The Shadow of the Vulture”. Did everyone get all that? I think I need a nap. My head is dizzy.
Cinematic Soulmates: Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Krull, The Beastmaster, Kull the Conquerer, The Sword and the Sorcerer