Red Sonja, a medieval semi-epic, may be the first example of a sequel without a predecessor. As the film begins, we see the title character (played by model Brigitte Nielsen) waking up among the ruins of her home. Something big has happened, though we don’t know what. A ghost appears and tells Sonja to avenge the carnage here—a convenient expositional device to let the audience know how all this happened.
The ghost says that Sonja’s family was killed by an evil queen (Sandahl Bergman of Conan the Barbarian) and that Sonja must avenge the deaths and retrieve this big glowing green ball, which contains the power to destroy the whole world. Sonja fulfills this revenge, naturally, which constitutes the rest of the film.
So, basically, the filmmakers have saved themselves the trouble of shooting the whole first half of the story by summarizing it in this introduction. You’ve got to give them credit for being smart; unfortunately, this leaves the film a bit shy of motivation and meaning. We don’t care too much about what happens here—we just know who’s good and who’s evil.
Included in the good is Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a warrior who helps Sonja along her sword-swinging way. Since the film is basically a showcase for the long, lanky physique of Nielsen, Arnold is to be forgiven for looking a bit miffed during the action. Just when he’s riding hotter than ever (on the strength of last year’s hit The Terminator), he gets saddled with a smaller role.
Sonja and Arnold attack the castle of the evil queen with the dubious help of an obnoxious child king and his obedient slave (Paul Smith). They’re the comedy relief, such as it is.
Even though Red Sonja is only half a movie (at barely 90 minutes), there’s little evidence it would have been any better longer. Veteran director Richard Fleischer, whose career has ranged from interesting small films (The Narrow Margin, 10 Rillington Place) to sprawling epics (The Vikings, Conan the Destroyer), clearly hasn’t got his heart in the proceedings.
He manages only one good sequence—a nifty fight with a mechanical monster, in an underground cave in which the water keeps rising—and the rest is perfunctory. Even the pretty photography of Giuseppe Rotunno doesn’t help.
Mogul Dino di Laurentiis, who also executive-produced the Conan films, brought these folks together after having spotted Nielsen in a magazine ad. She’s moved on to a co-starring role in Rocky IV, alongside Sylvester Stallone (a role she inhabits in real life, too).
About the only element of interest here, for those who wish to bother about it, is the women’s lib subtext. These kingdoms—or queendoms—are ruled by women who wield their swords and decapitate men. Sonja herself has an aversion to men, which blocks Arnold’s hopes for hanky-panky until he can “conquer her,” or vice versa. It’s all a little weird. A decade from now, someone may evaluate Red Sonja in Freudian terms and proclaim it a rediscovered masterpiece. Until then, give it a wide berth.
First published in the Herald, July 1985
This weekend brings the new Conan the Barbarian, so here’s a shard from that world. Can’t find my Conan the Destroyer review, but I remember it as being pretty lame—I like Fleischer as a director, and along with his top-line stuff he did nice work on lesser material, but I can’t recall anything really noteworthy about these two pictures.