As we close out 2018, “4-Color to 35-Millimeter” is firmly ensconced in the 21st-century renaissance of superhero movies. However, your humble rewatcher did miss a few 20th-century flicks that fit the bill, so in this final week of the year, we’ll take a look at those forgotten films, starting today with 1985’s Red Sonja starring Brigitte Nielsen.
Red Sonja, who has appeared as a supporting character in Conan the Barbarian comic books and on her own, both is and isn’t a creation of Conan creator Robert E. Howard. Howard had a character named Sonya of Rogatino who was not part of the Conan stories, but instead a historical fiction character, from a tale taking place in the 16th century.
Marvel had the rights to do comic-book versions of Conan from 1970 to 1993. In issue #23 of Conan the Barbarian, published in 1973, Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith introduced the character of Red Sonja as a woman who teamed up with Conan on a thieving job.
The character became hugely popular, and is still published as a comics character today—and also was the star of a 1985 movie.
The Marvel version of Conan is arguably the most popular version of the character, though a case is to be made for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies made in 1982 and 1984. Having said that, a big reason why those two films were green-lit was the character’s popularity in four-color form. Still, Conan has his origins as a literary character, so those two movies (and the disastrous 2011 version starring Jason Momoa) don’t fall under the purview of this rewatch.
(Digression: the Momoa film is actually the adaptation of the character that’s closest to Howard’s original stories. That’s both its greatest asset and its greatest weakness, as those stories haven’t really aged particularly well, and don’t work with an early 21st-century movie-going audience that has different expectations from the early 20th-century pulp-fiction-reading audience.)
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Red Sonja, though, is a different kettle of fish. While strictly speaking based on a Howard character, that Howard character is not part of the Hyborean milieu of the Conan stories. (There’s also an argument that Thomas and Windsor-Smith were equally inspired by another Howard character from his medieval historical fiction, Agnes de Chastillon, but she’s not part of the “Conan-verse,” either.)
Dubbed “the she-devil with a sword,” Sonja quickly became a fan favorite, especially in her adventures as drawn by the legendary Frank Thorne, who popularized her chain-mail bikini look, an armored outfit that is as epic in its impracticality as it is in its influence (the “bad-girl” boom of comics in the 1990s can trace some of its inspiration back to the popularity of Sonja in Conan the Barbarian, Marvel Feature, and her own eponymous title).
With the success of Schwarzenegger’s two Conan films, Dino de Laurentiis wanted to do a Red Sonja film. He originally approached Sandahl Bergman—who played Valeria in Conan the Barbarian—to play the title role, but she preferred to play Queen Gedren, the film’s villain. Schwarzenegger was also cast in the film, but not as Conan, but rather as Lord Kalidor, who aids Sonja in her quest in the film. Because it was the 1980s, there needed to be a kid sidekick, so we get Ernie Reyes Jr. in only his second film role (following The Last Dragon) as a snotty prince, with Paul L. Smith as his long-suffering majordomo Falkon.
Casting of the title role proved difficult. Bergman turned it down, de Laurentiis’s second choice, Laurene Landon, had had a similar role in the movie Hundra, and Eileen Davidson auditioned, but didn’t get it. Allegedly, de Laurentiis saw a picture of Danish model Brigitte Nielsen on the cover of a European fashion magazine and summoned her for a screen test. It was Nielsen’s first acting role, one that led to tons more, as she has worked consistently as an actor ever since (and been pretty heavily featured in tabloid journalism for a variety of reasons having little to do with her acting).
The movie was a serious flop, with Schwarzenegger calling it the worst film of his career. (No small accomplishment that, given his filmography.) A new Red Sonja film is currently in development with a script by Ashley Edward Miller (X-Men: First Class, Thor) and to be directed by Bryan Singer (four of the X-films, Superman Returns).
“I know my future—you have none”
Written by Clive Exton & George MacDonald Fraser
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Produced by Christian Ferry
Original release date: July 3, 1985
We first see Red Sonja unconscious near a burning village. She awakens, and the goddess Scáthach appears before her, telling her (well, really, the audience, since Sonja knows all this stuff) that her family was killed and her village torched by Queen Gedren after Sonja refused the queen’s sexual advances and then scarred her face with her sword. Sonja was left for dead, but Scáthach now gives her great power so she can seek vengeance on Gedren.
A collection of female priests are the caretakers of the Talisman, a stone of incredible power that supposedly helped create the world. It becomes more powerful as it’s exposed to light. They need to enclose it in darkness forever, but before they can, Gedren’s soldiers attack. The priests put up a good fight, but are eventually defeated. Gedren takes the Talisman—which can only be touched by a woman, any man who touches it is disintegrated—and heads back to her castle.
Only one of the priests is still alive: Sonja’s sister, Varna, who is wounded. She escapes, and finds Lord Kalidor, who was supposed to supervise the ceremony, but was running late. Kalidor finds Sonja training with the Grand Master, a master swordsman who claims that Sonja is now his equal.
Kalidor takes Sonja to Varna, who tasks her sister with retrieving and destroying the Talisman, then dies. Sonja refuses Kalidor’s help and goes alone to fulfill Varna’s request. The trail leads through the realm of Hablock, but all that is left of Hablock by the time she arrives is the snotty Prince Tarn and his majordomo Falkon. Gedren attacked and destroyed Hablock, scattering his people and his armies. Tarn intends to raise another army to take his land back, though he’s unclear as to the specifics of how he’ll do that. Sonja politely refuses Tarn’s offer to become his cook, and continues on.
She crosses the realm of Lord Brytag, who will only let her pass in exchange for sexual favors. Sonja has sworn she’ll only sleep with a man who has defeated her in combat. Brytag will take that action, and they fight—but Sonja kills him, and then is attacked by his troops (who are probably pissed that she killed their employer). Kalidor shows up out of nowhere and holds them off while she continues on her way.
Tarn and Falkon have been captured by bandits, who are torturing the boy in the hopes of getting their hands on his gold—the prince’s insistence that he has no gold falls on deaf ears. Sonja saves them and the three of them continue together to Gedren’s domain. Sonja also gives Tarn—who already has some fighting skills—some sword training.
Gedren’s wizard detects hostile forces approaching, and shows her Sonja, Tarn, and Falkon. Gedren recognizes Sonja as the one who scarred her and insists that she, at least, be captured alive so she can kill her herself. Using the Talisman to conjure a storm, Gedren forces Sonja and the others to take refuge in a cavern. A pearl inside a gargoyle proves too tempting for Tarn, who has Falkon remove it—but his doing so causes the cavern to flood, and a mechanical monster to attack them. Kalidor shows up again to save the day, and he and Sonja manage to disable the creature.
Kalidor finally explains who he is and who he works for, and Sonja finally accepts his assistance. He also comes on to her, at which point she tells him about her vow. So they fight—but neither side gets the upper hand, and eventually they are both too exhausted to continue.
They arrive at Gedren’s castle. Tarn stays behind to guard the outside while the other three go in.
The storms are growing worse, and Gedren’s chamberlain, Ikol, fears that she’s losing control of the Talisman. He insists that she put it in a dark place, but instead Gedren puts it in a room filled with candles, making it more powerful—and more destructive. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, Ikol legs it—but he bumps into Tarn outside. The little prince manages to fend off Ikol with his mad sword skillz, then smushes him with a rolling door. (Even the prince makes an “ew ick” face as Ikol is flattened.)
While Falkon and Kalidor fight off Gedren’s soldiers, Sonja and Gedren face off inside the chamber where the Talisman is kept. At this point, the storms and earthquakes have gotten so bad that the earth is splitting open and the castle is falling to pieces. Sonja defeats Gedren, throwing her into a newly opened chasm, then throws the Talisman down after it. Our heroes then run away quickly before the castle collapses.
Despite the fact that he hasn’t actually defeated her in combat, Sonja kisses Kalidor.
“If danger is a trade, I’ll learn it by myself”
This movie actually isn’t as bad as I remember it being. That’s not to say that it’s, y’know, good or anything, but there are worse ways to kill an hour and a half.
There are several issues with this movie, the first being a similar problem to that which plagued the two Conan films. English is not the first language of either of the two primary leads, and it shows. Schwarzenegger is better than he was in Conan the Barbarian (where they sensibly kept his dialogue to a minimum), but he’s still struggling, and his struggles are as nothing compared to those of Nielsen. Her dialogue comes across as labored, as Nielsen is obviously struggling to wrap her tongue around an unfamiliar language. Her inflections are off, the words sounding wrong.
At the very least, she has the physicality for the role, and her perpetually pissed-off look serves the character well.
If only the antagonist had the same excuse. Sandahl Bergman is not someone you hire for her acting skills—she’s got tremendous physical presence and is a superlative stuntwoman, and she would’ve been much better in the title role. As it is, Gedren doesn’t do anything physical until the climactic swordfight. By then it’s too late, as it’s impossible to take Gedren seriously as an antagonist because Bergman’s performance is so wooden.
The rest of the cast does decently. Like Bergman, Ernie Reyes Jr. is better known for his physicality (even as a kid) than his acting skills (recall his dreadful performance as a teenager in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze), but here he takes the cute-kid-sidekick role and inverts it sufficiently by making Tarn as obnoxious as humanly possible. Paul J. Smith does quite well as the long-suffering Falkon, and Ronald Lacey plays pretty much the same slimy character he always plays (cf. Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark).
The script is trapped between adapting an existing character and servicing the needs of Hollywood. The two biggest problems are the presence of Schwarzenegger’s Kalidor, who’s there as a hedge against a) a female protagonist who is b) played by an unknown; and the ending, where they kiss. It contravenes the whole point of Red Sonja to have her forego her vow just like that at the end for the sake of a very Hollywood-ized kiss. (And yes, I know Sonja’s vow only to sleep with a man who overpowers her is problematic to say the least, and one that has been fodder for many a comic book story, but this movie doesn’t really address it except to have Kalidor make fun of it and have Sonja ignore it for Kalidor, which is giving Schwarzenegger’s musculature way too much credit.) Having said that, I enjoyed the hell out of Sonja and Kalidor fighting each other so hard that they both collapse from exhaustion.
In the comics, Red Sonja has been both a figure of sex appeal and a figure of feminism, sometimes both at the same time. (Tellingly, she’s been at her best when written by women, as the best Sonja comics are the ones written by Louise Simonson in the 1980s and Gail Simone in the 2010s.) On film, though, she’s just another generic 80s fantasy action heroine indistinguishable from all the others. Even the one thing that makes her different from the others—her vow—is handled poorly.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the 1990 film adaptation of the comic strip classic, Dick Tracy.
Keith R.A. DeCandido wishes everybody the happiest of holidays.