Red Sonja. 1985. Dir. Richard Fleischer. With Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Paul L. Smith, Ernie Reyes Jr., Ronald Lacey, Pat Roach. Written by Clive Exton and George MacDonald Fraser; based on characters created by Robert E. Howard; Red Sonja comic book by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith.
It’s kind of fascinating that out of all of the films Arnold Schwarzenegger has made, he refers to this one as his worst. I don’t want to disagree with the former Governator, but there is no way that this is worse than The 6th Day ,End of Days, Jingle All the Way, Batman and Robin, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Collateral Damage or Sabotage, to name a few. I would theorize that probably he was tired of making Conan type movies. Red Sonja came out in 1985, and Schwarzenegger had already made two other Conan flicks in the prior 3 years.
In fact, even though his character’s name is Kalidor, he is clearly playing a Conan type, and he was not named Conan in this film for legal reasons. Dino De Laurentiis, the legendary movie producer, whose film company produced Red Sonja, and told Schwarzenegger that he would have no more than a cameo in this film, and then promptly gave him first billing. It is bizarre in a film about Red Sonja to focus so much on this non-Conan barbarian character.
Of course, Red Sonja and Conan the Barbarian are both Robert E. Howard characters, and both obviously exist in the same world. It would make sense to have at least a Conan reference in this film, but, man oh man, do they play up the Conan stuff! The score by Ennio Morricone sounds very similar to Basil Poledouris’ score from Conan the Barbarian. Sandahl Bergman, who played Valeria in Conan the Barbarian, plays the evil Queen Gedren.
I mention the similarities to suggest that Arnold was probably just really tired of the sword and sorcery genre, and was aware that he needed to pivot his filmography if he wanted to stay relevant as an action star. Which he did. Again, it’s strange that Arnold seems to be the focus of this film when, you know, it’s called Red Sonja.
Brigitte Nielsen is probably known more today as a reality television star than as an actress, which I don’t think is really fair, because she does her best in this film. The script is not very good, and for an actress in her debut performance, she does hold her own. In 1985, the critics were not very kind to Nielsen, and she “won” that year’s Razzie for Worst New Star for her performances in Red Sonja and Rocky IV. I don’t think Nielsen’s performance is more wooden than Schwarzenegger’s, who is definitely on auto-pilot in this film.
This is a low-rent version of a familiar story, but it is still very charming. The costumes are beautiful and outrageous (all of the villains are decked out in black and gold, clearly Steelers fans). The sets are cheesy but capture the feeling of one of Howard’s adventure stories. I am a sucker for the 1980’s fantasy film, and it has always been one of my favorite genres. The movie is goofy, but in the best way possible.
I haven’t talked about the plot, because you can probably guess the beats by now. Young girl’s village is massacred by evil Queen, young girl is attacked and left for dead (the sexual assault details are glazed over quickly), young girl is granted magic powers by some ghost/fairy godmother character (this scene is right out of “Cinderella”), and young girl now turns into Red Sonja.
Eventually, Red Sonja meets up with Conan, er, Kalidor, and must fight Evil Queen Gerden to avenge her family, and to get the powerful talisman, that can destroy the world by earthquakes and lightning. She also meets the young Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr.) and his lackey Falkon (played by cult movie mainstay Paul L. Smith), who are kind of like the C-3PO and R2-D2 characters, as in they are here mostly for comic relief.
The film has some buried sexual repression themes, as Red Sonja is pursued by the very openly by the queen, who lusts after Red Sonja and wants her more as her possession and toy than to kill her. Red Sonja and Conan, uh, Kalidor also seem to really want to knock sandals, and try to find a loophole around their moral codes to do so. This is a running gag.
This is a ridiculous movie, but it works probably because of its ridiculousness. It is bad, but there is pleasure in the pain.