The movie that introduced Brigitte Nielsen also introduced movie-going audiences to Red Sonja. The character of Red Sonja is not a creation of Robert E Howard, but is inspired by one..Red Sonya. While the two characters are both women of adventure, the differences pretty much end there. The character of Red Sonja as we know her (the She-Devil with a sword) first appeared in the pages of the Marvel book Conan the Barbarian, issue #23 (February 1973). The creation of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith, Red Sonja became the most well known of Sword & Sorcery heroines.
Fast forward twelve years to 1985. Dino De Laurenttis, who brought us both "Conan the Barbarian" as well as "Conan the Destroyer" is looking to return to the well of Fantasy. Bringing back Richard Fleischer, the director of "Conan the Destroyer" they green light Red Sonja.
The movie opens by quickly establishing Red Sonja's back story. In many ways it does not stray far from the standard Sword & Sorcery film tropes. Her family is killed, her home burned, and she is violated by her family's killers. Left for dead she rises and seeks vengeance on teh evil Queen Gedren. So, suffering the victim's trifecta of murder, arson, and rape our main character is approached by a spirit who offers an unequaled sword arm for her quest of justice and vengeance. In the written Red Sonja storyline, this is an important moment. This is where the Red Goddess Scathach appeared to Sonja... In the movie it is a misty figure with a mostly disembodied voice, who touched Sonja on the head with a misty sword. Vague and unsatisfying, much like the rest of this movie.
While we do have Arnold Schwarzenegger in this movie, we do not have Conan. He certainly sounds like Conan, but even if you squint he doesn't look like Conan. The character of Lord Kalidor is dressed as if he combined the fashion sense of Olivia Newton John and wrestling superstar Rik Flair. It is seriously painful to look at. The character was meant to be Conan, but rights were not acquired in a timely fashion. Seeing Conan as not-Conan is a bit jarring, but the usage of Schwarzenegger is even more bothersome.
Filming what he thought was going to be a cameo, Schwarzenegger's time on set stretched from one week to four weeks. What the role turned into was a top-billed co-star, who was only on set for a few weeks. This leads to lengthy action sequences where Arnold Schwarzenegger suddenly appears by stepping through a doorway after a lengthy absence. The constant coming and going for a co-star (and romantic interest) is abrupt and jarring. The reluctant co-star of this movie has publicly stated that it is the worst movie he ever made (and he's made some stinkers) and joked that he uses the watching of the movie as punishment for his children.
The plot, if you can call it that, of this cinematic mess, revolves around "the talisman". A glowing, green, orb of magical power. The destruction of the device is thwarted in the beginning of the movie by the forces of Queen Gedren who have come to steal it for their queen's plans of conquest. The talisman draws energy from light and so is to be destroyed by placing it in permanent darkness. Why anyone waited so long for such an easy fix is never explained...but this is fantasy. Who needs logic?
Leaping across that plot chasm, the queen's men charge in and steal the talisman, capturing and killing all of the priestesses who protect it. One lone priestess escapes, the villains in hot pursuit. Coming to a chasm she sees
Yup. Remember that family that was slaughtered in the beginning of the movie? Well it appears that Sonja's sister was alive and doing well as a priestess, up until today. When told that her sister is dying, Sonja shows no surprise that she has a sister that is alive. Then again, the wooden acting of fashion model Bridgette Nielsen also shows no real concern that her sister is dying either. So the two rush back to where Kalidor left Sonja's dying sister lying on the ground. She repeats the importance of destroying the Talisman by sending it into darkness, asks her sister Sonja to swear to do so....and dies.
Ok, now Red Sonja's family are all dead. Conveniently, they are all still dead at the hands of the forces of Queen Gedren. Hurrah! The back story from the first three minutes is still intact! Moving on.
Riding on alone (because she doesn't need the help of a man), Sonja arrives after the destruction of the city of Hablac. Rescuing the bratty Prince of the city (played by annoying Ernie Reyes Jr) from the rubble, Sonja is greeted by youthful sexism (the Prince's army may need a cook) and we observe just how clueless the young Prince is as he decrees that he will dine in an hour..in the middle of his city.. which is nothing but smoking rubble. Showing solid common sense, Sonja gets directions and rides on alone.
Two pointless fights later and young Prince Tarn and his long-suffering man-servant Falkon are once again rescued by Sonja. Why they left the city and how they got in front of Sonja (who took the short cut) are things never explained. But this is fantasy. Who needs logic?(x2) This time, Sonja's maternal instinct kicks in, showing concern for the young boy. She begins to take him under her wing, trying to make him a better person. It doesn't really stick, but its a nice effort as Sonja builds a strange sort of replacement family around herself.
Finally, after many further forced and hokey scenes, we arrive at the climactic battle between Red Sonja and Queen Gedren. The scene lacks any real tension, and drags on like the rest of this painful movie. Finally, Sonja destroys the talisman by throwing it into a river of brightly glowing lava.
You know, because that is just like destroying it in darkness. But this is fantasy. Who needs logic?(x3) Seriously, if one has made it past this far they are either watching it for the purposes of review, they are one of the Schwarzenegger children being punished, or they are waiting for their brain to melt.
The pure awfulness of this movie never crosses into the realm of "so bad it is good", rather choosing to linger on the far side of "just awful." Sandahl Bergman (who was the romantic interest, Valeria, in "Conan the Barbarian") was offered the role of Sonja but reportedly turned down the role in favor of Queen Gedren to avoid being "typecast". It seems far more likely that, as an actress, Bergman didn't want to pass on getting work but preferred to spend her time wearing a mask to cover the shame of being involved in this movie.
Bridgette Nielsen was just not right for this role. Sandahl Bergman might have been able to play the role believably but the real missed opportunity is Laurene Landon. With a bit of hair dye, Landon could have played the role perfectly, easily shown by her playing of virtually the same character two years earlier in "Hundra". Of course, the similarities between that film and this were too great and so she was passed over for the job. To date, few people have played the role.
1) Bridgette Nielsen's portrayal here was wooden at best. She doesn't have the look, nor the attitude to pull off this character. She was nominated for a Golden Razzie for Worst Actress and won a Golden Razzie for Worst New Star.
2) Wendy Pini (of "ElfQuest" fame) portrayed Red Sonja for years, performing "Sonja & The Wizard" on stage at conventions in the 70's. If you can find any footage of those performances, I strongly recommend it. Her portrayal is strong and believable, despite the fact that she's wearing an armored bikini, the power of Red Sonja comes through.
3) Angelica Bridges portrayed Red Sonja on a single episode of the TV series "Conan the Adventurer." There is a pretty good reason for this.
4) Rose McGowan was to play the role in a 2008 remake/re-imagining. Massive nerve damage in her arm prevented her from playing the role and the film was scrapped.
5) Amber Heard is the latest actress to be rumored to be slated to play the role.
Queen Gedren wanted Sonja for herself. Sonja, not interested in women, spurns her advances...by slashing Gedren's face. Sonja's family are then murdered, her home put to the torch, and Sonja's body "violated" by the soldiers of Queen Gedren. Yes, the evil lesbian queen has the object of her desires brutally raped for saying "no". Pretty strong back story, even if mostly handled off camera. This little bit of plot caused the Encyclopedia of Fantasy's labeling the film "morally dubious" and led, in part, to their calling it a "great embarrassment". If only it stopped there.
The next piece is from Sonja's back story and actually comes from the original character source prior to being continued into the movie. The goddess Scathach orders that Sonja will not lie with a man unless he defeats her in fair combat. In the movie, this is mentioned much later in the movie, and there is no direct connection to the goddess given. Now, at first glance, this may seem like she will accept no man who is not her equal. It almost seems reasonable. However, upon second look? We have a rape victim who will only have sex with a man who can dominate her on a physical level. Sonja is a rape victim who has the need to be faux-raped to have any sort of intimate contact.
Once Kalidor returns, he shows interest in Sonja and so, the two fight. The lengthy fight, filled with grunting and heavy breathing, is certainly an allegory for the sex that they both are wishing for. In addition, young Prince Tarn comments "Why does she fight so hard? She doesn't want to win."
That comment is representative of what is wrong with the movie.This isn't a movie about a strong heroine. This isn't a movie about a woman who "doesn't need the help of a man" (because she often does). This is a movie about a woman who has been brutalized and craves what she loathes. The sexual attitudes in this movie are just plain creepy.
What Didn't Stink
Despite all of the flaws in this movie, and there are many, there are some high points that do stick out. While not always used very effectively, the score of the movie was penned by legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. The music is very evocative of the genre and certainly well worth enjoying if you can find a copy of the film's soundtrack.
Secondly, as bad as the acting was, the sets were wonderful. Much like the first Dino De Laurenttis offering in this genre, "Conan the Barbarian", the sets are large scale and envelope the viewer. That the sets work so well to draw the viewer in whilst the acting is failing to build upon this foundation is the tragedy of the movie. Certainly, the crews that toiled to build those sets worked much harder than the people who strode about them woodenly reciting their lines.
Painful. The genre offers much better, especially in the 1980s. Two stars.
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