RED SONJA (1985)
The fearless warrior Red Sonja sets out to avenge her family's murder and rid her kingdom from the tyrannical rule of evil Queen Gedren.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian character had been brought to the big screen in 1982 by director John Milius, with Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the eponymous warrior. A less successful sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984), was quickly made by Richard Fleischer—acclaimed director of classics 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Doctor Dolittle (1967). Fleischer returned to complete this “barbarian trilogy” with Red Sonja, despite Schwarzenegger now confusingly playing the supporting role of Lord Kalidor—who’s clearly intended to be Conan, but they couldn’t secure the rights.
‘Red Sonja of Rogatino’ was one of Howard’s lesser-known creations, introduced in his 1934 short story “The Shadow of the Vulture” before getting a more popular 1973 update in Marvel Comics. A film adaptation was announced in 1983 with animator Ralph Bakshi set to direct, but Fleischer replaced him and producer Dino De Laurentiis began a worldwide search for an “Amazonian” actress to play the lead. Sandahl Bergan (who played Velaria the thief in Conan) was offered the part of Red Sonja, but she instead insisted on playing the villainous Queen Gedren. Then Laurene Landon (Airplane II: The Sequel) was almost hired until producers realised her role in fantasy movie Hundra (1983) was remarkably similar. Eventually, De Laurentiis spotted a 21-year-old Danish model called Brigitte Nielsen on the front cover of a fashion magazine and invited her to a screen test in Rome that she passed
Red Sonja is a bad movie, not helped by how dated it feels so many decades later. There’s promise in the idea of a Conan the Barbarian-style heroine (the Supergirl to Conan’s Superman), and Nielsen’s striking looks and statuesque height work wonderfully, but too many things drag the film into the doldrums. Nielsen’s ginger mullet certainly doesn’t help, but it’s more her stilted line deliveries that prevent Sonja from leaping off the screen.
There’s also a rushed opening that involves Sonja being raped and left for dead by soldiers of Queen Gedren, only to be granted increased strength and agility by a goddess (who is largely unexplained). And she then plans to use her new abilities for revenge after training at a nearby temple amongst men she’s come to distrust. Her priestess sister Varna (Janet Agren) is then introduced trying to banish a Talisman only women can touch, although the ritual’s interrupted and the relic is stolen by Queen Gedren and her men. Varna is mortally wounded during the theft and found by ‘not-Conan’—Kalidor, Lord of Hykrania—who reunites her with Sonja and assists in trying to retrieve the Talisman before it can be used to conjure storms and earthquakes.
The screenplay, by Clive Exton and George MacDonald Fraser, does a poor job of setting things up efficiently. It’s as if they had to rewrite things during filming, to work around the limitations of Nielsen’s acting while finding more ways to keep Schwarzenegger semi-present. Everything is fumbled. It also doesn’t help that Red Sonja’s big moments keep being interrupted by Kalidor arriving to “help”, in a manner that feels like she wouldn’t survive this adventure without him. And it’s not great when the female hero of a fantasy epic keeps being overshadowed by a male star. Then again, Red Sonja would be undeniably worse without the Austrian Oak essentially reprising Conan a third time.
The 1980s were full of swords and sorcery movies thanks to the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons around that time. The films were also heavily influenced by the success of Star Wars (1977) in crafting vivid mythologies on the big screen, but most of them look quaint or even silly in a post-Lord of the Rings (2001-03) world. There’s decent production design in Red Sonja, plus a few visual ideas that work (like the skeletal carcass of some strange beast being used as a bridge over a canyon), but it all looks antiquated even for 1985. It’s just one Ray Harryhausen stop-motion set-piece away from being the kind of movie you’d have seen in the ’60s (maybe not coincidentally Fleischer’s heyday), with plenty of moments where the actors look like they’re in the medieval zone of a theme park.
There’s certainly some enjoyment to be mined from Red Sonja as a product of its time, and an early Schwarzenegger movie that is often overlooked. He’s probably happy with that, as he’s said this is the worst film he ever appeared in, and that must include Hercules in New York (1970). With a formulaic swords-and-sorcery plot, a wooden performance from Nielsen (who makes Sonja seem arrogant), awful dialogue, unfunny comedy sidekicks, Schwarzenegger overshadowing a movie he’s not the star of, and villains that don’t elicit any reaction (despite the presence of Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Ronald Lacey), Red Sonja is terrible on almost every level. It’s no surprise it was a huge flop in 1985, as the decade had already given us Dragonslayer (1981), The NeverEnding Story (1984), and Legend (1985), so audiences understandably expected a lot better.
USA • NETHERLANDS • GERMANY | 1985 | 89 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Red Sonja has been restored by Picture Shop LLC from the original 35mm negatives, with colour grading overseen by France’s Hiventy Laboratory after 150 hours of manual work to remove dust, dirt, and scratches. Whatever your opinion of the film itself, Red Sonja has certainly never looked this good and as most people’s memories of it perhaps hail from the VHS era it’ll be eye-opening for the over-35s. The HDR10 (Dolby Vision also available) image helps counter what’s always been a rather drab movie, although the quality of the image throughout dips in places. However, details and fine grain is resolved nicely and you’re unlikely to be unimpressed by what’s been achieved. It’s just never going to be a sumptuous visual experience.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is the same one from Optimum’s Blu-ray release from 2010, so expect the same clear dialogue but a frustrating tendency to keep things in the mid-range with no memorable surround sound moments to speak of. Ennio Morricone’s music score is clear but lifeless as a result.
director: Richard Fleischer.
writers: Clive Exton & George MacDonald Fraser (based on ‘Red Sonja of Rogatino’ by Robert E. Howard).
starring: Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Paul L. Smith & Ronald Lacey.