Richard Fleischer, having helmed Conan the Destroyer, the less-than-auspicious follow-up to John Milius’ grandiose 1982 Conan the Barbarian, moved on to another iconic hero partly derived from Robert E. Howard’s universe, the flame-haired barbarian minx Red Sonja, for this gallivanting cheese-fest. Red Sonja is both better than its exceedingly low reputation suggests, and yet also certainly fails to make the most of some very real assets. Chief amongst those assets is Fleischer’s eye for epic vistas and beautiful settings, and his clean pacing. Also amongst the undeniably classy collaborators are George MacDonald Fraser, author of the ‘Flashman’ novel series, credited as co-screenwriter along with Clive Exton, who had helped pen one of Fleischer’s best films,
Ten Rillington Place (1970), and Ennio Morricone, providing a suitably high-riding score. It’s faint praise indeed to describe a film as “surprisingly not terrible”, but that’s the best I can come up with for Red Sonja, which, along with Conan the Destroyer, signalled a return for Fleischer to the swashbuckling genre he had proven so adept at with 1958’s The Vikings. Fleischer’s late oeuvre is a hellish mass pile-up on the career motorway: after the utter nadir of his remake of The Jazz Singer (1979), he became adept as saving tacky franchises, to which his surprisingly good Amityville 3-D (1983) stands in evidence, and yet many feel he perhaps pushed the Conan series in the other direction, towards premature self-destruction.
The refined eye for visual expanse he brings to this project is, at least, hard to deny: Red Sonja’s trappings, from high overhead shots that revel in geometric compositions of actors and sets, to the lavish stygian spectacle of the inevitable evil castle, are compelling enough in their own right to make the film tolerable. The production possesses a solidity and lustre that reflects a large budget well-spent, and Fleischer’s awareness of how to use colour in creating a mythic atmosphere is as admirable here as it was all the way back in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Perhaps the most interesting quality of Red Sonja is the way it attempts to deal with the unfamiliarity of a physically strong and wilfully indomitable action heroine, still an uneasy concept in mid-’80s American cinema, at a time when such figures were just starting to emerge, in the likes of Supergirl (1984), and, most effectively, Aliens (1986), but particularly fraught in feeling a need to comment on altered gender dynamics (Aliens proved the triumphant model by sidestepping any such need). The revived action template of the '80s had up until then been defined by the colossal bulk of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, ironically enough, is the top-billed star of this film, and the steroid-pumped vision of machismo he and Sylvester Stallone had brought to a style that was utterly, undeniably about affirming manly strength.
Rather than suppress the issue, Fleischer and Fraser emphasise the gender difficulties by placing Sonja in a sexual quandary. Her origin story (apparently hacked down from a lengthier, hopefully more coherent and affecting version) hastily presents Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) as a victim of a double violation, for, having become the lust-object of the wicked queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman), Sonja had rejected her advances, but Gedren’s revenge had been awesome, sending soldiers to exterminate Sonja’s family and have her pack-raped. Sonja, mangled and dying, is however revived and imbued with phenomenal warrior powers by a spirit. Sonja, is, then, both hostile to male attention but bound to a path that will bring her in conflict with her wicked female opposite – read this as politically hostile to male domination but also aghast at a queer alternative, and the narrative makes it clear that this her essential choice.
Sonja, in struggling against Gedren’s attentions, left Gedren with a scar on her cheek, a perpetual brand that renders her nature difficult to hide. Sonja gains a new spur to action against Gedren when the queen exterminates a cult of priestesses who want to destroy a magical talisman that possesses apocalyptic powers. Sonja’s sister
(Janet Agren), a member of the cabal, is the only one to escape, but with an arrow in her back. She’s rescued by Kalidor, a prince who was supposed to witness the ceremony of the talisman’s destruction. Kalidor brings Varna to Sonja, who’s been refining her swordplay with some Tartar warriors, and she dies after giving Sonja sufficient exposition to set the rest of the plot in motion. Varna
Sonja initially rejects Kalidor’s offer of aid, unaware of his identity and mission, and determines to go it alone, but she soon finds that life with someone to watch her back is preferable, as they fight their way across the land. When Sonja takes down a colossal warlord, Brytag (Pat Roach, a perpetual face in ‘80s adventure films) who’s used to using his strength to crush men and bully women into sex, she needs Kalidor’s help in escaping his minions. Sonja soon finds herself playing an unusual kind of matriarch to Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr), the imperious, insulting little brat who was autocrat of a city before Gedren levelled it with the talisman, and motherly male Falkon (Paul Smith), his flunky. Sonja rescues the pair from bandits, but soon tires of Tarn’s insufferableness, commencing to school him in modesty and appreciation as well as the self-reliant arts of war, praising the selfless, resourceful Falkon as a “real man”.
In this fashion, Red Sonja tries to both allay masculine anxiety whilst presenting a ball-busting heroine, as well as affirming the process of the traditional knitting together of a curious kind of family as an heroic band. Kalidor and Falkon are physically and temperamentally opposite types of manhood who are both nonetheless potent and exemplary (as opposed to Gedren’s use of men as her surrogate sexual implements). Falkon, although hesitant about going into battle, is pretty handy once in it. The duel that Sonja and Kalidor fight because Sonja has declared she will not give herself to a man who has not defeated her in single combat is then one of the most perfectly distilled metaphors for the still-nebulous problems of a changed hierarchy in the wake of second-wave feminism, and it proves both mutually exhausting and unsatisfying. Gedren’s lust for Sonja simmers, but remains a very minor, barely-stated element: the theme’s presence teases with the allure of exploitative free-for-all, soft-core thrills, and potential gender anarchy, but Red Sonja’s too determinedly (1985) mainstream to go anywhere with that, and so Gedren is left as a prime example of a cardboard, crazy Hollywood dyke baddie. The same year’s Legend was similarly conceived with a dark sexual edge to the usually euphemistic fantasy genre, and similarly hacked to pieces.
Sonja’s own fearless bravado, whilst occasionally overreaching, is never foolish, and the character at least stands mostly on her own two feet as a heroine of potential. It’s a true pity then about the actress animating it: Nielsen, a Danish former model, is wooden and radiates only the faintest charisma. She’s less Valkyrie than Versace clothes-horse. She’s matched in woodenness by Schwarzenegger and Bergman, both so appealing in Conan the Barbarian: Bergman in particular, who was initially supposed to play Sonja but changed parts reportedly to avoid typecasting (and probably to put a more strikingly beautiful but far less interesting actress in the lead), is disappointing, for where her glimmering soulfulness was great in a heroic role, she totally lacks necessary spice and style to play a villainess: she postures well in her amusing line of fabulous (dahlink!) black spandex bodysuits with gold trims, but her dialogue recital is flimsy.
Nonetheless, Bergman and Nielsen show what they’re good at when it comes to swinging swords with real physical bravado and ferocity in their final duel, and Fleischer’s staging is anything but the arthritic sort that many late-career directors indulged. And yet Red Sonja is constantly undercut not only by the bad acting but by a story that seems to have been left partly incoherent by severe editing throughout, lacking any but the most basic set-ups from the get-go. Gedren’s collective of villainous followers are poorly described and assigned: who is that chick – played by Lara Naszinsky - who hangs about her? Girlfriend? Daughter? Biographer? Something that always amuses me about the sword-and-sorcery genre, apart from the proliferation of leather jockstraps and bikinis, is that arbitrariness of it all. Gedren rules “the land of perpetual night”. Why? Because where else would an evil queen reign, silly? Schwarzenegger’s wrestling match with a mechanical beast is a tacky thrill in the tradition of Victor Mature battling toothless lions, but his general loathing for this film signalled the end of his involvement with fantasy films: the success of The Terminator (1984) meant that his action-oriented subgenre of choice for the next few years would be mostly sci-fi. As it is, the whole project is poised unsuccessfully between drive-in fetish flick and genuinely epic, accessible adventure film, leaving it as neither fish nor foul, but on the level of campy good time, Red Sonja is a mildly worthwhile relic.