There are fewer enjoyably bad movies than one likes to think, and it usually takes an MST3K-style roasting to really get the juice out of a prize turkey; in most cases, a vanilla viewing of a bad movie is a boring experience. But sometimes the constellations align, and a truly self-contained guffaw-fest emerges that is destined to stand the test of time. Richard Fleischer’s Red Sonja is such a film.
Released in 1985, my father and I rushed to see it at the cinema on its first night of release, only to find that there had been one showing in London and that there would be no others. I don’t know whether that elusive single public screening was for purposes of establishing copyright or Oscar™ accreditation, but if it was the latter, I rejoice at the optimism of the human spirit in the face of the clear evidence, for some of Hollywood’s worst dialogue here combines with some of its worst acting to produce 85 unmissable minutes of sword and sorcery hokum.
Nowhere else will you hear deathless lines such as: “Woman, I have fought 177 men. Only one survives – and he has no legs!” and “So it is true, only women may touch it!”
The flame-haired warrior, doing her worst in the time of Conan The Barbarian, is a loose interpretation by Marvel comics’ Roy Thomas and Barry Smith of the rather different ‘Red Sonya of Rogatino’ who appeared in a historical short-story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard in 1934. The re-imagined and re-spelt ‘Sonja’ started out guesting in the Conan comics and went on to a 15-edition run of her own in the late 1970s, which was reprised twice in the 1980s.
In a decade that was big on pro-feminist heroes such as Ms. Marvel, Satana, Vampirella, the X-women and many others, Red Sonja stood out as the most uncompromising of the x-chromosome crusaders. It was a great comic. I used to buy it with the equally compelling Howard The Duck, little knowing that both would share a common cinematic fate…
Sticking to the occasionally bowdlerised comic-book roots, the film immediately goofs by compressing the set-up of our heroine’s revenge scenario into a recap narrated by the divine female goddess who descends to aid the plight of Sonja (herself played with obvious difficulty by Brigitte Nielson).
The divine being explains to Sonja (and more importantly, to us) that her entire family has just been killed by evil Queen Gedren – played by Sandahl Bergman from the preceding Conan movies – and that she herself has been violated by Gedren’s troops for refusing the evil ruler’s Sapphic advances. One wonders if Sonja could reasonably be unaware of these unfortunate facts, but this kludge of exposition is a clear attempt to brutally shorten the movie, so let’s proceed…
Invested with great strength for her vendetta by the goddess, Sonja steals away to learn sword-wielding at a temple of military training under the tutelage of a Keye Luke-alike. In the meantime Gedren raids the sacred city of Hablac and steals a talisman of great destructive power and kills the priestesses who guard it (the talisman being the McGuffin that may only be touched by women).
One of the dying priestesses is Sonja’s sister, who falls fortuitously into the muscle-bound arms of roaming warrior Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Kalidor fetches the news to Sonja, who ups sticks to begin her mission of revenge, refusing the help of Kalidor or of any man. Kalidor trails a way behind in any case, as he has ulterior interests both in Sonja’s mission and in Sonja, whose war-path to Gedren finds her encumbered with the irritating deposed child-Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr.) and his loyal minder Falkon (the robust Paul Smith, a familiar face from Dune, Midnight Express and Crimewave)…
Red Sonja can disappoint no-one, as it declares itself to be a bad movie within seconds; after that, it’s all good…or bad, if you know what I mean: Brigitte Nielson’s sumo-bouts with the English language (she loses every time); Arnie trying to cope with the fact that someone has given him a lot of expositional dialogue, which he labours over gallantly but painfully; the sheer clumsiness of tacking on Shakespearean-style ‘fools’ in the form of the prince and his keeper…
However, don’t expect too many laughs out of the production values – like its heroine, Sonja doesn’t attempt anything it can’t handle. The film obviously lacked the budget to contend with the Schwarzenegger Conan franchise that got Sonja green-lit, and wisely limits its optical shots. It also features good production design from Flash Gordon’s Danilo Donati and competent cinematography from Giuseppe Rotunno. To boot, the legendary Ennio Morricone produces a stirring score that deserved a far better movie. Additionally, Paul Smith turns in his usual excellent performance despite unpromising material, and whatever heart Sonja has is his.
Ultimately, it was Brigitte Nielson who killed the film, without lifting a finger. Brigitte won a Razzie for Red Sonja, and the usually-excellent Sandahl Bergman was deservedly nominated alongside her.
Howbeit, it’s arguably the fault of Dino De Laurentis, who plucked fashion model Nielson from the catwalks mere weeks before principal photography (when Sandahl Bergman declined the principal role, preferring to play the villain), and okayed her screen test. It was a gamble that failed totally, but you can see the rationale behind it: Nielson has athletic lines and a striking face, and this was probably the only way to go in casting the part, since the comics’ Sonja was perhaps unfeasibly endomorphic.
Sonja would have benefited from the emergency services of Tom Mankewiecz to un-crap the script: bad dialogue aside, the lesbian stylings of Gedren were clichéd even for the time, and may now offend, whilst Arnold’s presence as protector arguably undermines Sonja’s self-determinism and hobbles the feminist firepower of the character (Schwarzenegger was reputedly angry when he was cynically given lead acting credit in the movie for what he rightly considered a supporting part).
De Laurentis too would have benefited from shutting down production whilst he found a workable Sonja. Anyway, none of that happened, and the result is a strangely compelling and semi-abandoned rhinestone in the scabbard of Hollywood sword and sorcery. Bad as it is, and predictable as it is, this is not a boring movie…even if for all the wrong reasons.
Extras: A ropey trailer featuring a kiss that is not in the movie (Sonja may not succumb to the attentions of a man unless she beats him first in a fair fight)