To put it bluntly, the road to Hollywood accepting that women can carry action movies has been as smooth as the back of a Stegasaurus with scoliosis, but as bad as things once were with such comic books movies spectacularly missing the point as Elektra and Catwoman, mismanaged female led fantasy flicks have been crashing and burning for a lot longer than that as 1985’s Red Sonja testifies.
Red Sonja, like Conan The Cimmerian and the evil smiting Solomon Kane, sprung from the pulsating brain pan of Robert E. Howard, but in her debut in a short story in 1934 she’s actually a pistol slinging Polish/Ukrainian who aids the hero in the 16th Century and it was actually Marvel writer Roy Thomas who actually transferred the flaming haired warrior to the Hyborian Age in order to rub muscular shoulders with Howard’s most famous creation. So naturally, after banging out a couple of rollicking fantasy epics with Conan The Barbarian and Conan The Destroyer, producer Dino De Laurentiis fancied going for the Hyborian hat trick by bringing Howard’s fierce female to the high screen – however, back in the 80’s, fantasy flicks proved very much to be a man’s world.
As a hastily rushed through introduction introduces us to Red Sonja’s harrowing past in a rather frustrating shorthand, we are immediately confronted with the evil queen Gedren and her desire to own the Talisman, a glowing, spiky orb that looks like a minty fresh sea mine but has the ability to create violent storms that could wipe her enemies off the map. Gedren acquires this mystical WMD by slaughtering a temple full of priestesses and shield maidens who were on the verge finally disconnecting it from it’s power source (light) by burying it underground, but one of the critically wounded (who just happens to be Sonja’s sister) is found by the bulging biceps of the wandering Prince Kalidor, who goes and retrieves her sibling so they can spend their final moments together.
As she groans her last, Red Sonja’s sister tasks her with locating the Talisman, ending the reign of Gedren once and for all and finally collecting some payback for all the crap the killer Queen has inflicted on her family over the years and so the sword twirling warrior woman rides out and soon crosses paths with various disparate characters willing to aid her on her quest.
Aside from the annoyingly inconsistent Kalidor (he seems to be treating the quest as some sort of timeshare he just drops in and out of), there is the duo of the overwhelmingly brattish Prince Tarn and his incredibly passive mountain of a bodyguard, Falkor; so with the devastating power of annoying side-characters backing her up, Sonja, sets out to settle Gedren’s murderous hash once and for all.
So, to cover the basics, Red Sonja is not a good film, which is a legitimate shame considering that it came on the heels of the two, tonally very different Conan movies that legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis bankrolled in the early eighties and that gave Arnold Schwarzenegger one of his first, signature characters. What’s even more annoying is that director Richard Fleischer had actually made this movie once before as he helmed the goofier, pulpier, Conan The Destroyer that saw the Cimmerian juggernaut encounter Andre The Giant dressed as a monstrous salamander and Grace Jones’ exposed buttcheeks; all you feel the filmmakers had to do is just make the film again, but with a female lead. However, as the film commences you cant hell but notice there’s a noticably weird disconnect with the material and you get the suspicions that it stems from the fact that the movie is unwilling to fully invest in the fact it has a female lead.
The main proof of this is the appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger who drops in and out of the film in the Conan-lite form of the smug Kalidor and if you care to debate that, just scroll back to the top of the page and take a look at the poster. Even though it’s a sound marketing strategy, Arnie’s suspiciously prominent for a supporting character (in fact, you could argue that he is the fucking poster) and the actor himself admitted that he was only supposed to film for a week on a “glorified cameo” which instead ballooned to a four week shoot which positively screams that the producers didn’t have the confidence to have a solely female lead fantasy epic.
To be fair, Red Sonja’s backstory, swiftly brushed under the carpet in the opening minutes, is hardly the stuff of gaudy, romps, but it is something that would have fit nicely if the film had been shot in the same tone as John Milius’ absurdly gritty original Conan film. As a result, Sonja’s impressively hardcore origin, that sees her raped by Gedren’s troops after the titular redhead violently rebuffs the queen’s lesbian advances, leads to some incredibly complicated sexual politics that a goofy sword and sorcery movie is simply ill equipped to handle and the fact that Sonja gets her superior sword skills from making a deal with a goddess in return that she can only have sex with a man who can best her in combat only complicates matters more.
It’s here where the movie starts to really fumble the ball – Sonja has been granted superhuman fighting skills but struggles with the horny – and very mortal – Kalidor because, what? Getting some D is more important than her quest? The movie also uncomfortably translates her “curse” as some sort of mythical frigidness, with everyone around Sonja constantly banging on about how great it would be to bed her (even her elderly mentor gives her the”If I was 30 years younger…” talk) and seeing her steely resolve as merely something to be conquered.
Stepping away from the gender issues, Red Sonja is notoriously creaky, even for an 80’s fantasy flick with the performances often veering dangerously into pantomime territory and the comedy double act of cult actors Ernie Reyes Jr. and Paul Smith stretches our patience to its breaking point and middle of it all is 80’s Hollywood amazon Bridgitte Nielsen doing her best in her movie debut. Are her acting skills up to snuff? Not really, no – but to give her her due, put a sword in her hand and have her twirl it in ferociously before tearing into a group of soldiers and she’s arguably the only person who could have embodied the character at the time.
In fact, Red Sonja is still a character that Hollywood has been unable to crack with the heroine trying to hack her way out of development hell for decades with such names as Robert Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, Simon West, Bryan Singer, Amber Heard and Hannah John-Kamen linked to numerous iterations of the project.
But still, it seems that to do justice to one of the fantasy genre’s longest standing heroines, Hollywood needs to stop trying to conquer the legend and instead worship the woman.