Red Sonja (1985) was based on a comic book character created by writer Ray Thomas and illustrator Barry Smith and who first appeared in Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (though the film credits the character solely to Howard, as Thomas was purportedly inspired by the character of “Red Sonya” from Howard’s 1934 historical fiction, “The Shadow of the Vulture”). In many respects, the film is another sequel to Conan the Barbarian (1982), to follow Conan the Destroyer (1984). Most fans consider it an unofficial sequel, since Schwarzenegger, who played Conan in the two previous films, is portraying a slightly more sophisticated Conan as Lord Kalidor. Director Richard Fleischer, who’d also helmed Conan the Destroyer, revamps certain elements -- picking up allies during a trek, similarly choreographed sword battles, a rest around a fire presenting opportunities for romantic interludes, or something more specific, like having to push against a heavy gate to allow for escape or entry. To further connections to Conan, Bergman appeared as Conan’s love, Valeria, in Conan the Barbarian.
By most accounts, Red Sonja is an unexceptional film, but it’s one for which I’ve always had a fondness. I’ve long had an affinity for both strong female characters and women with red hair. The film, by extension, is draped in red, which most often represents Sonja’s anger and vengeance. One lord, with a bright red band in his hair, makes the mistake of underestimating Sonja. Interestingly, Kalidor himself is covered in red attire through half of the film, during which time Sonja rejects his offers to aid in her quest. As Sonja’s feelings for him ease, Kalidor is eventually adorned in darker colors. By contrast, Queen Gedren wears black and gold, the latter which seems to be an expression of greed and vanity. This is most clearly defined by Gedren’s gold mask (to hide a scar made by a resisting Sonja and which the queen considers more offensive than the murder of Sonja’s family), though Prince Tarn is also clothed partly in gold, as he initially displays identical characteristics.
Nielsen, in her film debut, was critically panned, but I found her performance more than adequate. She’s offered very little in terms of drama, but she displays a lithe quality when swinging a sword. The same year that Red Sonja was released, Nielsen married Sylvester Stallone and co-starred in his film, Rocky IV, appearing with Stallone again in the action film, Cobra, in 1986. (Cobra was reportedly a revised script from Stallone, from a story that eventually became 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop, after the studio decided to cast comedian Eddie Murphy in lieu of Stallone. Nielsen had a role in Beverly Hills Cop II in 1987, the same year that she and Stallone divorced.) Nielsen eventually moved to B-movies, but garnered some fame around the mid-2000s with appearances in reality shows such as The Surreal Life and Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. She found moderate success in European countries with a musical career in the late 80s to early 90s, also releasing some tracks in 2000 and 2001 as Gitta.
Reyes, Jr., though his Red Sonja performance is weak, is an accomplished martial artist, even showcasing his abilities at the meager age of 13. He fared a little better on his short-lived TV series, Sidekicks, in 1986-87, and has since moved on to smaller but memorable roles, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991) and The Rundown (2003), opposite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He’s also performed motion capture stunts for computer-animated films such as James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010).
Fleischer’s father and uncle, Max and Dave Fleischer, were animators and owners of Fleischer Studios, which, among other things, brought the comic strip character of Popeye to theater screens. Robert Altman’s 1980 live-action adaptation featured Red Sonja star Smith as Bluto. Smith is perhaps best known as the malicious prison warden in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978).
In 2008, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez announced a Red Sonja remake with his then-partner, Rose McGowan, in the title role, even exhibiting promotional posters boasting a 2009 release. Since the couple’s public split, the remake has been delayed, while reports of a cancellation have been quashed. In the meantime, McGowan will make an appearance in the new Conan film, set for release this summer.
Films of the sword-and-sorcery variety belong to one of my favorite subgenres, and it admittedly requires a diminutive effort on my part to uncover prevailing attributes. I unashamedly acknowledge my adoration of films such as The 13th Warrior (1999), Pathfinder (2007), or the more overtly titled The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), movies that more often than not struggle to find critical acceptance. My appreciation of Red Sonja moves beyond nostalgia, as I still enjoy watching it today. I think Nielsen’s interpretation of Sonja stays true to the character’s more basic ingredients: she’s honorable, able-bodied, fearless and courageous. She is a redheaded woman whom I would follow on any adventure.