I mentioned the film version of Red Sonja in my article on the character, but in thinking about it, I realized I remembered very little about the film itself. I had not seen it in probably 25 years, and then only once, and I didn’t remember much in the way of details, so in the interest of fairness, I put it in my Netflix que and subjected myself to it, and yes, that is pretty much the right term. Any hoping that this was an underappreciated film was quickly dispelled.
Red Sonja was put together in 1985 – the year after the underwhelming Conan the Destroyer had gone a long way toward killing the film franchise, and this movie was pretty much the final nail. It was intended as a starring vehicle for Danish model Brigitte Nielsen, who had never acted before. She went on to a moderate film career after this, mostly in the 80s, but she never achieved any kind of real success after this misstep.
Conan the Barbarian had made Schwarzenegger into a household name – especially when he followed it up with indelible pop-culture hits like The Terminator – and obviously there was hope for the same kind of thing here. In fact, they originally just contracted Arnold for a cameo here, and then ended up making him a supporting character who is almost as much the hero as the titular lead – obviously because his name was intended to draw audiences in. His character is named “Kalidor”, because De Laurentiis didn’t have the rights to make him Conan. But he sure is meant to look like Conan.
Sadly, all the elements that made the original Conan so good are absent here. Nielsen is not bad, but she’s not given much to work with. The look of the movie is cheap, despite some good costume design and some really nice-looking sets. The fight choreography could be worse, and is surprisingly bloody in places for a PG-13 movie, but it never reaches the kind of fury that the story needs. For an action movie, there is not as much action as you would expect.
The score, by Ennio Morricone, is really quite disappointing, as it possesses none of the operatic grandeur or intensity of Poledouris’ iconic score for Conan. The script is lackluster and characterless, and the acting, while competent, is never really good. There are none of the quotable lines that made Conan so memorable.
It would seem unfair to judge this movie against Conan, when it is not really a continuation of that film, except that it so obviously wants us to remember that better movie and associate them together. Given the timing and the presence of Schwarzenegger so prominently in the movie and the advertising, they are trying to make it seem like this is the next chapter in that story, and everywhere the comparison makes this film look worse.
The real failure, to me, is how this movie represents a falling away from the Sword & Sorcery aesthetic and moves completely into a much more standard fantasy quest structure. Rather than a morally-ambiguous character in a dangerous world, we are instead presented with a Chosen One narrative where only Sonja can stop the poorly-defined Macguffin from something something and save the world. That is not a Sword & Sorcery idea or story, and it reads very much like a fantasy story written by people who don’t really understand how fantasy works. You have a sense of plot elements inserted not because they make sense, but just because they worked in other stories.
It would be another 26 years before there was any attempt to return to the Hyborean Age on film, resulting in the rather piss-poor 2011 Conan reboot. There is still talk of another Red Sonja movie, but maybe it’s better to just let this one lie, unless someone can be found who really understands what Sword & Sorcery is supposed to be about.