Title: Red Sonja (1985)
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Arnold Schwarznegger, Brigitte Nielsen, Sandahl Bergman, Ernie Reyes Jr.
Robert E. Howard the famous fantasy writer best known for creating the Conan Universe, wrote many adventures featuring Conan the Barbarian for years and years. The character even got his own comic book series, thanks to the guys at Marvel Comics. Those series of comics spawned a character which many incorrectly associate as one of Robert E. Howard’s creations, when in reality the character has its roots in the comic book universe. I speak of Red Sonja. You see folks, what many don’t seem to know is that Red Sonja comes to us thanks comic book writer Roy Thomas and comic book illustrator Barry Windsor Smith. Red Sonja is a character with its roots firmly planted in the comic book world. Her first appearance was in Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian #23. As a character and a franchise, Red Sonja has never really died, the red headed 'she-devil with a sword' has always existed in one form or another. There are currently a couple of comic book series being made with Red Sonja as the main character. One of them is Queen Sonja from Dynamite Comics. Robert Rodriguez, the director behind films like Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn is looking to produce a new Red Sonja movie in the near future. But during the 80s it was the popularity of the Conan movies that got Red Sonja her own feature film in 1985. How was it?
Red Sonja's origins are firmly rooted on comic books
Story goes something like this: Evil Queen Gedren is out to get control of a device called The Talisman. This Talisman is said to have been used by “the creator” (are we talking about God here?) to make the universe. It is said that this Talisman can either create or destroy a world via earthquakes and storms. So logically, Queen Gedren being the power hungry tyrant that she is wants it all to herself. Problem is, she doesn’t know that The Talisman’s powers can get out of control! Good thing that one of the priestesses that protects The Talisman sent a message to Red Sonja so that she would make sure that The Talisman is properly destroyed, so it wont fall into the wrong hands. Will Sonja be able to find and destroy the Talisman?
The cult that protects The Talisman
There are a couple of problems with this movie for me. First, the story is a disaster. It’s so silly, so simplistic that it would insult the intelligence of a monkey. We don’t even get to know who Red Sonja is before she goes galloping on to her adventure. Her origin story is told in a fast forward sequence that seems to have been compiled of a bunch of discarded or deleted scenes that they didn’t have time to include in the film. So what we end up seeing is a quickie version of Sonja’s origin story. On this flashback sequence, we see glimpses of Sonja’s hometown being destroyed, of Sonja being raped, and of Sonja receiving magic powers from some sort of benevolent spirit all in the course of less than five minutes. That’s one thing I enjoyed about the first Conan movie. It took its time to show us Conan’s past in an awesome extended opening sequence. Not so with Red Sonja which seems more interested in getting to “the good stuff” than showing us any character development. So Sonja is given sword wielding powers by some forest spirit we never even get a good look at. And just who is this spirit, and why does she choose Sonja to give her these supernatural sword wielding abilities? Who the heck knows, neither the director nor the writers cared enough to let us in on it. I guess it’s up to us to bestow this forest spirit with a name and a reason.
Even though she received supernatural sword prowess, Sonja still needs to train.
So is this a film that exists within the Conan Universe or not? It feels to me like it was actually trying to distance itself from the Conan Universe. Arnold Schwarznegger is on this film, but he doesn’t play Conan, he plays a character called Kalidor. Who the hell is Kalidor? And why does he look and act like Conan? When I was watching this movie as a kid, I didn’t care, to me he was Conan having an adventure with Red Sonja. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was confused by this. Anyhow, Kalidor is a wanderer, simply going around the world looking for his next adventure when suddenly, Sonja and the whole Talisman deal falls on his lap and, Kalidor being the good guy that he is decides to tread along with this motley crew of adventurers. I mean, literally, a lady falls on his lap asking for his help to find Sonja so they could destroy The Talisman. It has been reported that Schwarznegger agreed to be on this movie only out of respect for its producers, he really didnt want to be on this one, and it shows. His "acting" is some of the worst of his career and he knows it. On the films premiere his own wife told him "if this movie doesnt kill your career, nothing will". Arnold agreed to be on this film, but only as a secondary character, yet he ended up getting top billing for this, this was something he resented when he saw his name on the films credits and promotional material. In a way, he plays Sonja's sidekick, following her, making sure she survives her journey.
After that, it’s a journey through a strange and mysterious land filled with giant skeletons that form bridges, Kingdoms that are ruled by children, and a cave that harbors a giant mechanical snake. By the way, this giant mechanical snake that Red Sonja and Kalidor fight off is the high point of the film. Unfortunately, after that it’s all downhill for this movie. It doesn’t get any better than the giant mechanical snake. Then it turns into one of those movies where the good guys have to enter the bad guys castle and ends with the good guys exiting the castle and the castle turning into rubble. I cannot tell you just how many fantasy movies end with the bad guys castle either burning to a crisp or crumbling apart. Krull (1983) being the first one to come to mind. Red Sonja is a movie that is so cliché filled that we even finish the movie with Kalidor and Red Sonja kissing and horse back riding into the sunset! And just how many movies do you know where we see the villain falling to their death in a fiery pit below? Way too many that’s how many! So be ready for a cliché filled movie.
On to the movies themes. Red Sonja is commonly looked upon as a silly sword and sorcery movie, and you would be correct if you saw Red Sonja under that light. But it does have a hint of “meaning” to it if you look past its idiotic dialog. Number one is The Talisman device. This device, which is a green glowing sphere, has the power to create or destroy a world. Red Sonja was made during the mid 80s, a time when most Americans feared a nuclear holocaust. Everyone was afraid that the Americans and the Russians would collectively blow each other out existence with weapons of mass destruction. Hence, we get the Talisman device on Red Sonja which is actually referred to as a weapon in the film. So the film plays with that fear of complete annihilation. One of Queen Gedren’s own lackeys is constantly reminding her how The Talisman will soon be too powerful for her to control. How if they continue to use it “There will be no world!” But Gedren, being the power hungry tyrant that she is doesn’t give a damn. So there’s a hint of a theme in this movie after all. But it aint much. There is the whole them of rape. Sonja hates men because she was raped, but through her adventures, side by side with Kalidor, she learns that not all men are evil. She soon learns to leave the past behind, and let some love come into her life.
Last words about Red Sonja. I don’t think this movie is all that bad. Yeah, it has some bad dialog. Yeah Arnold considers it to be the lowest point in his career. Yeah it has two main actors who can’t speak English very well (Arnold is from Austria while Nielsen is from Denmark) and yeah the story is silly as hell, but it’s still a fun movie in my book. The dialog is laugh inducing, and the acting? Well, let’s just say that I agree with Arnold. Both actors were delivering their lines in the most robotic way possible! The ending in which Conan (I mean Kalidor!) finally conquers Red Sonja and manages to give her a kiss, it is the coldest most unnatural kiss you are apt to see on any movie! I mean, you could tell these two didn’t want to kiss at all. But whatever, its still in a way part of the whole Conan Universe, and it does have cool looking sets. Speaking of expensive looking sets, it boggles the mind how producers spent so much money on Red Sonja when it had such a horrible script. Millions spent on this? Damn. But, I guess Hollywood has never had a problem spending millions. They are currently spending more of those millions right now making a new Conan film. Hopefully it will be good (I’m crossing my fingers here) and hopefully it will reignite interest in the Conan Universe. We just might see that proposed Red Sonja feature with Rose McGowan as Red Sonja and Robert Rodriguez directing/producing. Maybe then we will get a Red Sonja movie that doesn’t have to be looked upon as a guilty pleasure.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Posters for the upcoming Conan remake and the proposed Red Sonja remake