Thursday, February 10, 2011

Revenge is Best Achieved with a Sword in “Red Sonja”

Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) seeks a powerful talisman which can only be touched by a woman. Before priestesses can destroy the talisman, Gedren has them slaughtered. Lord Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger) takes one of the women, Varna (Janet Agren), who has escaped but is mortally wounded, to her sister, Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen). Sonja, having already suffered at the hands of the evil queen, who killed her parents and brother, begins a journey to eradicate the talisman before its effects put an end to the world. Along the way, she is joined by the young prince, Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.), and his servant, Falkon (Paul Smith), all of whom are trailed by Kalidor, who claims to be protector of the talisman.

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 pe
rformance 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 appearan
ce 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.


  1. I'm not as much of a fan of these type of movies as you, Sark, but your review is really good and entertaining. I like very much your analysis of color used throughout the story -- that takes a keen eye and understanding of story-telling on film. Of course, your preference for pretty redheads is understandable. LOL. I hope you and your redheaded lady are managing in our ice-bound area. It's driving me crazy!

  2. Not one of my favorites in the genre, though the great Ennio Morricone score makes up for a lot. I was always amused how every John Huston movie from this era was greeted with much publicity, about the old timer still directing movies, while Richard Fleischer was doing the same thing with only one tenth the publicity. Sure, they were genre pictures, but some acknowledgment would have been nice.

  3. I must admit, Sark, that I like the Conan movies better than this one. However, I do like this film. I really like Sandahl Bergman and would have prefered her in Sonja's role, but I am not saying I thought Brigitte Nielson didn't portray Sonja well. It is Nielson's best movie because she is wasted in Cobra and Rocky IV. Arnold is always a pleasure to watch in all his movies. I really enjoy movies like this because I love swords, bows and arrows, the scenery, horses, and the interesting plots, and I really like strong female characters!! Kevin is right about Ennio Morricone's score. It really adds to the movie. I haven't see this movie in years. After reading your well reseached and outstanding review, I am going to do so and soon!

  4. Sark, there are some elements of this film that I like better than others. I liked the big outdoors feel, thought the green talisman was impressive looking and noticed Arnold looked quite physically fit. Brigitte's Sonja wielded the sword well and displayed a calm boldness, even when she was wrong and did need assistance. I also liked how her character wasn't beyond scolding the arrogant young prince. You had fun with this review and your research was, as usual, exceptional. This was quite a fun read.

  5. Sark, I admire your honest assessment of RED SONJA and readily admit there are many films I regard fondly even though I know they are less than stellar. I watched RED SONJA recently and am proud to say I picked up on the prevalent use of the color red. I thought it was interesting that Sonja's motivation for vengeance was covered in a brief, narrated flashback. I thought that diluted the emotion, though it certainly kept the story moving briskly and that was likely the reason. As you know, I am a big fan of films where the lead character picks up a "gang" along the way (the classic examples being THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and THE WIZARD OF OZ. That was my favorite aspect of RED SONJA. As for female performers in the sword-and-sorcery genre, I prefer Kathleen Beller from THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, which you mentioned in your comprehensive, informative, and just plain fun review.

  6. Sark, great review on a relatively bad film, but one people still enjoy watching--guilty pleasure? Nielsen isn't very good in this, but the score is great. Perhaps that is the secret to films like this and Conan...make a passable film with a great musical score and the viewers will come?

  7. i got one more thing too say sometimes the movies people think are terrible be some some of the greatest and somtimes the ones pewople think are the greatest are the worst red sonja wasn't any worst than most films i have seen wher actors were supposed to have did some of the greatedst acting in them so with that being said RED RED SONJA SONJA iooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ooooooooovvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv yoooouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!