Should I Watch..? 'Red Sonja'
What's the Big Deal?
Red Sonja is an action fantasy film released in 1985 and is loosely based on the character created by Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. The film stars Brigitte Nielsen in her acting debut as Sonja, a warrior given superior skills in order to seek revenge against the villainous queen who had her family murdered. The film also stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Ernie Reyes Jr and Paul L. Smith. Despite being set in the same fictional world as Conan The Barbarian and Conan The Destroyer, the film is a separate entity with Schwarzenegger and Bergman (who appeared in the earlier films) playing different characters. The film received a frosty reception from critics and it bombed at the box office, taking less than $7 million against a budget of $17 million. A planned reboot has been in development hell since 2008.
What's It About?
After her family resist the advances of the evil Queen Gedren by scarring the ruler's face, Red Sonja's family are murdered by soldiers and she herself is raped. Once her ordeal is over, a strange spirit visits Sonja and gives her the strength, power, and sword to seek revenge and she sets off after the Queen. Gedren has made off with a powerful orb which grants the user incredible power and she hopes to use this to conquer the known world. In hot pursuit of the Queen, Red Sonja teams with Lord Kalidor—a powerful swordsman in his own right—but Sonja knows that her powers only exist if she avoids giving herself to another man.
As the hunt for the wicked queen continues, Sonja and Kalidor are joined by the young Prince Tarn and his servant Falkon who are trying to raise an army against Queen Gedren for destroying the kingdom of Hablock. But Gedren's spies are everywhere and soon, the wicked queen rallies all her troops to defend her against this small band of heroes...
Queen Gedren of Berkubane
Paul L. Smith
Ernie Reyes, Jr
Clive Exton & George MacDonald Fraser *
Release Date (UK)
28th November, 1985
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Worst New Star (Nielsen)
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Actress (Nielsen), Worst Supporting Actress (Bergahl)
What's to Like?
It becomes apparent, when watching this movie, that the majority of effort went on the look of the thing. Sets and costumes feel much more believable than anything the cast can produce, which isn't saying much. I fear that the epic scope required for this tale of swords-and-sorcery was way beyond that which the film's budget could cater for but at least the characters look the part. Nielsen is every inch the Amazonian she needs to be and thankfully, is devoid of the stupid bikini armour that plagues most female characters of this type.
Having said that, the film is pretty much a disaster in every other respect. Lovers of trash cinema will enjoy Red Sonja the most, which is a country mile behind Schwarzenegger's earlier forays into this territory that I mentioned earlier. It actually takes a while to sink in that the former Governator isn't playing Conan, a ploy the movie tries very hard to pull off. Watch the trailer and you'll see that Nielsen has next to no mention and little screen time compared to that of her more established co-star—he's even billed above her, for heaven's sake! Once the film begins, Schwarzenegger's presence is greatly reduced which allows Nielsen the full stage. And sadly, this is where the film's many problems begin.
- Schwarzenegger's character was originally written to be Conan but the film-makers didn't have the rights to the character. Unofficially it is believed that Kalidor is a "travelling name" for Conan, in the same way that Gandalf is sometimes known as Mithrandir.
- Schwarzenegger cites this film as one of his worst. He only signed on in a cameo as a favour for producer Dino De Laurentiis but soon discovered that he would be on set for four weeks instead of one and his role had been expanded considerably. It would mark the end of their working relationship.
- Robert Rodriguez announced a reboot in 2009 with Rose McGowan lined up to star as Sonja. Due to the failure of the 2011 reboot of Conan The Barbarian, both backed out of the project and since then, it has remained stuck in development.
What's not to like?
Whoever said that clothes maketh the man clearly never saw Nielsen in this movie. Despite looking the part, her performance is shockingly bad with little hint of emotion at any point in proceedings. Arnie isn't much better and aside from Bergman hamming it up magnificently, the rest of the cast feel out-of-place and disinterested. Probably because the story makes little sense—what exactly did Gedren want with this powerful artefact, which looks like a stolen green traffic light? How did Sonja and her motley crew of part-time helpers travel such a long distance without coming across a single town or village to stock up on supplies? How many games of Scrabble did it take the screenwriters to come up with all the character names?
The character of Red Sonja, to me, conjures up images of a buxom wench brutally hacking and slashing her way through hordes of baddies but this film has none of it. Despite its short running time, the story is completely unmemorable while the direction is inept and clumsy. It's a really hard movie to like because there is a slight whiff of misogyny running through it—the story hints that Sonja couldn't really succeed in her quest without the help of her male companions. This film should be bloody and brutal but instead, it's as limp and lifeless as a fish out of water.
Should I Watch It?
Short answer is no. Unless you are the sort of person who can laugh off bad movies, Red Sonja represents one of the low points in the fantasy genre. It feels exactly like a laboured attempt at jumping on the Conan bandwagon, which it blatantly is, but incompetence behind and in front of the camera further damage not just the film but the fantasy genre as a whole. Nielsen set the template for her acting career with this clunker which does nobody any favours at all.
Great For: men of a certain age, lovers of bad cinema, the DVD makes a good coaster.
Not So Great For: comic-book geeks, Robert E Howard's estate, swords-and-sorcery films in general, Nielsen's acting career.
What Else Should I Watch?
Nielsen would ultimately move to a wide selection of straight-to-video garbage and low-budget B-movie shockers. Her career highlight would come in Beverly Hills Cop 2 where she played professional bank robber Karla Fry. Schwarzenegger hasn't returned to his loincloth ever since but hasn't done too bad for himself, considering what might have happened. You don't need me to tell you his highlights.
Considering how bad and toxic this film's reputation is, it's amazing that sword-and-sorcery films continue to be produced - even if few ever manage to become successful and fewer still well received by critics. Even the likes of Highlander and Willow received a mixed reception from critics, although I would much rather watch either film again than Red Sonja. Fantasy films wouldn't really recover until Peter Jackson's rightly heralded The Lord Of The Rings trilogy which saved the genre from terminal decline and made swords cool again.
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© 2017 Benjamin Cox