AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 89 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Sonja is raped and left for dead when her village is destroyed and her family murdered by Queen Gedren because she scarred the queen’s face while rejecting her sexual advances. Answering her cry for revenge, the red goddess Scáthach appears and gives her heightened strength, stamina, agility and fighting ability. Entering a male-dominated fighting academy, she becomes the top pupil, vowing to never make love to any man who cannot best her in combat. Meanwhile, Gedren steals a powerful talisman and in the process kills Sonja’s sister Varna. Swearing vengeance, Sonja leaves the academy to stop Gedren before uses the talisman to ravage the world with storms and earthquakes…
So this was the one out of these two films that I’d previously seen, though not for at least 20 years. It has something of a reputation of being a bad movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed that it worked as a good tool of discipline for his kids, the threat of them being forced to watch it ten times meaning that they never gave him much trouble, while at the film’s premiere his then-wife Maria Shriver said to her husband: “If this doesn’t kill your career, nothing will”. Consequently I was rather dreading the thought of watching it again, though I didn’t recall it being that bad – and indeed it isn’t. A bit closer in feel to a peplum [Italian sword and sandal movie from the late 1950’s to the mid 1960’s] than the two Conan films, it’s certainly hamstrung by the decision to put Arnie in it and subsequently beef up his role to the point that Red Sonja, the film’s title character, just can’t do without him, in the process making a mockery of the idea of a strong fighting woman. Both the two stars seem to struggle with natural-sounding line readings, especially Brigitte Nielsen [though given some of the dialogue they have to deliver it’s perhaps hardly surprising], there’s little sense of danger despite there certainly being plenty of action, and there’s plenty of evidence of carelessness. However, there’s certainly a camp charm to it and it often looks magnificent, courtesy of production and costume designer Danilo Donati and cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno.
Despite what you may have heard, the Red Sonja character did not originate with original Conan writer Robert E. Howard but with Marvel Comics, though they loosely based her on Red Sonya of Rogatino who was in the Howard short story The Shadow of the Vulture set in 16th century Turkey. Sandahl Bergman, who’d played Conan’s woman Valeria in Conan The Barbarian, was offered the role, but turned it down, choosing instead to play the villainous Queen Gedren. Producer Dino De Laurentiis then met with Laurene Landon but decided not to give her the part when he discovered she’d played Hundra. It took him almost a year to find an actress “Amazonian” enough to play Sonja and he only found model Nielsen when he saw her on the cover of a fashion magazine eight weeks before shooting was due to commence at the relaunched ‘Dino Citte’ Mastacciano Studio at L’Aquila. Clive Exton wrote the original script, but George Macdonald Fraser was asked to do some re-writes during filming, largely because Schwarzenegger’s cameo was expanded more and more. Much to his annoyance he ended up being on set three weeks longer then was intended – though no doubt his affair with Nielsen kept him from being bored. He was originally intended to play Conan, but they didn’t have the rights to this name so he became Prince Kalidor. They also almost used Michael Moorcock’s evil weapon Stormbringer until his lawyers intervened. Shooting was beset with language problems and the film went on to become something of a flop. The UK cinema version was cut by twelve seconds to achieve a ‘PG’ rating with edits to a rape in the opening scene, and a shot of a metal throwing star. The initial 1985 video featured the cut cinema print though all later releases were upgraded to ’15’ and fully uncut.
So we’re back in the prehistoric Hyborian Age again and some onscreen text takes us into a really awkwardly handled opening scene in which Sonja is visited by the goddess Scáthach while brief flashbacks show us snatches of the massacre that occurred in her village. Considering that the original theatrical trailer of this movie contains some extra footage of these glimpsed moments, I would surmise that originally we were meant to open with a much fuller version of the massacre and have the Scáthach scene take place after. The decision to edit it down into almost nothing may have been made to get a lower rating, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sonja’s rape was filmed in more detail. Anyway, it results in a rather disjointed beginning. Conan [sorry Kalidor] is shown riding around during the credits as if he’s the real main character, after which we then see another massacre, though the priestesses certainly put up a good fight. Then the nasty Gedren orders the survivors to be sealed inside a pit. Bergman has a great deal of fun as the truly cruel villainness and you believe her evil. It’s a shame that she mainly did TV roles after this, though the version of She she starred in is an enjoyably bonkers movie more people should know about and which will get a review on this website one day! Unfortunately though we spend far more time with the terribly stiff Nielsen as she sets out for revenge. She first encounters the truly unpleasant child Prince Tarn and his absurdly obedient servant Falcon. The torture of children is one thing I usually have trouble watching in movies, but I can’t help but admit to getting some joy when some robbers kidnap Tarn and nearly hang, draw and quarter the horrible little brat.
The three keep on getting into danger, but never mind Kalidor is always right behind them to save the day. Obviously the writers just couldn’t conceive of a female heroine who couldn’t save the day by herself, nor do without a man. The dialogue between Sonja and Kalidor is often laughably bad i.e.”No man may have me, unless he’s beaten me in a fair fight.” “So, the only man that can have you, is one who’s trying to kill you. That’s logic.”, and despite their offscreen hijinks there’s no chemistry whatsoever between the two at all. Their lengthy sword fight should have a real sexual charge to it [think of The Mask Of Zorro], but it has none whatsoever. Elsewhere we get to see two decapitations and some bloody impact wounds, indicating that even more than Conan The Destroyer they were aiming more for a family audience, but they could at least have wrought more erotic tension from the final duel between Sonja and Gedren, whom don’t forget once tried it on with Sonja and got a scarred face as a result [just imagine how the Twitter mob would be up in arms at the depiction of lesbianism as one of the villain’s attributes if this film came out today]. At least both Bergman [a dancer] and Nielsen move fairly athletically, and Schwarzenegger also gets to do some cool Frank Frazetta-style poses, though his fight scenes lack fluidity despite much of the action in the film having apparently been shot by the great action choreographer Vic Armstrong.
Decisions ranging from unwise to just plain stupid hamper things throughout. Gedren’s chief aide Ikol [played by Major Toht himself Ronald Lacey, and spell his character’s name backwards] decides to use a mechanical sea serpent against the goodies, but says: “One cannot guarantee that something will go wrong”. Immediately we stop being worried and the subsequent confrontation has little excitement whatsoever. On another occasion the good guys creep along a narrow ledge until a pullback shows that they could simply walk to where they want to go, revealing that director Richard Fleischer, despite being a veteran of adventure classics like 20 000 Leagues Under The Sea and Fantastic Voyage, stopped caring at some point. One bad guy gets his mortal comeuppance by getting crushed to death with a giant stone disk. He has several seconds to get out of the way, but instead he just chooses to lie there and get squashed. There are a few signs that a partial send-up was possibly intended, and I don’t especially mean the funny [though maybe more funny peculiar than funny ha ha] scene in which Gedren’s wizard helper constructs what is basically a TV to observe the progress of Sonja and company and accidentally tunes in to a topless belly dancer. For a start Schwarzenegger, already thinking about creating a screen persona, finds a few bits of humour in his character which may have been improvised. And one can’t not appreciate the sets for a fantasy world which at times feels like it’s lived in and has a history much like Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth, such as the huge animal skeleton that serves as a bridge and the giant swordsman statues over a training arena, while there’s also fantastic photography of the Italian countryside, very fine use of old school techniques such as matte paintings and miniatures, and some striking costumes that are drawn from a wide variety of influences. I especially liked the Swordmaster – basically a Shaw Brothers-style elderly kung fu master with flags coming out of the back of his neck.
As with Hundra, Ennio Morricone provided the score. His title theme is a variant on one from the previous film, though it’s pretty rousing. Unfortunately, it’s never heard again. However, Morricone perfectly judges the film in his score – his themes and motifs often bridge the gap between corny and uplifting, especially his piece for the Sonja/Kalidor relationship. His chorale action theme gets one going. The more I think about it, Red Sonja is very odd. It seems like some of the people involved with it didn’t care less about it or gave up half way through, yet others really did care and tried the best they could. The result is hardly a good film, but its cult status is easy to understand. They’ve been trying to remake this for over a decade now, and it seems like it’s finally going to get off the ground. It would be nice if they dispensed with the Kalidor character altogether and brought in some of the feminist elements of Hundra. In the meantime though, while it most certainly has its pleasures, this Red Sonja is decidedly inferior to the lesser known Hundra despite being far more expensive, so Hundra is the film out of the two that I recommend you check out.