Red Sonja (1985)
Dir. by Richard Fleischer
Starring Brigitte Nielsen, Sandahl Bergman and Arnold Schwarzenegger
A female warrior is tasked by her dying sister to recover and destroy a power magical artifact that has been stolen by an evil queen, before its power grows out of control and it destroys the world. Along the way, she is joined by a deposed prince, his servant, and
Conan the Barbarian Kalidor of Hyrkania.
This is one that we had taped off of TV sometime in the early 90s. I watched it a couple times, but it never really caught my imagination the way even something like Beastmaster did. I included it in a bad movie marathon that I ran in college, but I believe that was the last time I’ve seen it before this viewing.
As I discussed back in my Beastmaster review, the unexpected success of Conan the Barbarian in 1982 kicked off a sword and sorcery movie boom that lasted until the middle of the decade. While The Beastmaster might have been the first movie out of the gate during that boom, Red Sonja just about represents the last gasp of the genre, at least for the major Hollywood studios. It was a certified bomb at the box office, making less than half of its production budget. While there would be fantasy films released theatrically after this (Labyrinth, Legend, The Princess Bride), there wouldn’t be another medieval-set action/fantasy movie like this until Willow, three years later.
Other than possible genre fatigue, I blame the end of the movie boom on the movies not actually being any good. Red Sonja is an excellent example. This movie, frankly, sucks. It’s only 90 minutes long, yet I found myself getting bored halfway through, and was actually struggling to remain awake by the end. It had a higher budget than Conan the Barbarian, but looks significantly cheaper. It’s as if they blew 75% of the budget on getting Arnold (who’s only actually in the movie for maybe five minutes before the halfway mark), and had to skimp on everything else as a result.
That presumably includes all of the non-Arnold actors, as everyone else is universally terrible. And when Arnold Schwarzenegger is the best actor in your movie, you’ve got problems. Brigitte Nielsen, who plays Sonja, had never acted before this, and was discovered by the producers while modeling in Italy. She was only cast a bare eight weeks before production began, which isn’t a lot of time for an acting crash course. She’d go on to have a respectable career as a B-movie actress, but she’s extremely wooden and stiff here in her first role.
While Nielsen was a beginner actress, Sandahl Bergman doesn’t really have an excuse. She went from winning a Golden Globe for Best New Actress in Conan to a (deserved) Razzie Award nomination here for her turn as the evil Queen Gedren. And child actor Ernie Reyes Jr. manages to give us one of the most annoying performances of the 80s as the deposed Prince Tarn.
Speaking of the queen, let’s talk about her characterization, especially its use of a particularly annoying and noxious trope. Namely, she’s an Evil Lesbian, and it’s implied that being a lesbian is part of what makes her evil. She’s introduced at the beginning of the movie when she sexually assaults the young Sonja, and when Sonja resists and injures her face she orders the death of Sonja’s family and her gang-rape at the hands of her soldiers. Later on, during their end-of-film confrontation, Gedren claims that the destruction of the world is of less consequence than the scar Sonja left on her cheek. Even Sonja, for all of her badass warrior independence, has still sworn an oath to not have sex with any man that can’t beat her at combat – which leads pretty much every male with a sword in the movie to challenge her to a fight in order to get her into bed.
So yeah, between the bad dialogue, worse acting, boring action, cheap sets and morally dubious sexual content, there’s very little to recommend this movie. It’s definitely not one of those movies that deserves a so-bad-it’s-good watch. However, the concept of Red Sonja itself is one that I could see working, especially in a post-Fury Road/Wonder Woman action environment. 80s remakes are en vogue right now, so how about this one? It couldn’t be much worse.
-It’s billed as being based on a character created by Robert Howard, the writer of Conan, but that’s not really true. It’s really based on the Marvel Comics character of Red Sonja (making this actually a comic book movie), who was a composite character compiled from several minor Howard characters.
-Arnold himself considers this the worst movie he’s ever been in. He’s been quoted as saying “when my kids get out of line, they’re sent to their room and forced to watch Red Sonja ten times.”
-There was one scene that I definitely don’t remember from our VHS. At one point, Queen Gedren has her court wizard use a magic mirror to spy on Sonja, but instead the image of a naked belly dancer comes up. It’s literally a fantasy version of the computer tech caught looking at porn during a meeting, and seems like it comes from a more modern parody film (say, Your Highness) rather than from anything made in the 80s.