Conan the Barbarian inspired a short-lived boom in sword & sorcery movies in the 80s. None of the official or unofficial sequels (or just plain rip-offs) of that movie have a good reputation, and Red Sonja is a movie that very few people seem to have a good word for.
Maybe its because my expectations were very low, or maybe it’s because I was comparing it to Deathstalker which I saw (and hated) recently, but I found myself enjoying Red Sonja more than I’d anticipated.
For copyright reasons the producers weren’t able to make another Conan movie, but they still wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger. So this time Schwarzenegger’s character is renamed Kalidor, and (more surprisingly) he’s not the hero. He’s the sidekick. The hero, or in this case heroine, is Red Sonja, played by Danish model Brigitte Nielsen. Although a character named Red Sonya had played a minor role in one of Robert E. Howard’s stories the Red Sonja of the movie is based on a character invented by some of the many writers who have continued to churn out mostly second-rate imitations of Howard’s work since his death.
The plot is nothing more than a collection of clichés but in a movie of this type that doesn’t matter too much. What you want is a mix of action and humour, with larger-than-life heroes and villains. In any case the plot, such as it is, begins with Red Sonja’s family being largely wiped out by the villain of the piece, the wicked lesbian Queen Gedren. Gedren’s soldiers rape Sonja, and worse is to come. Sonja’s sister Varna dies at the hands of Queen Gedren, trying to prevent Gedren from capturing a magic talisman known as The Talisman.
The gods have compensated Sonja somewhat for her misfortunes. They have given her the strength to become a mighty warrior. Sonja has spent years training and perfecting her fighting skills. Now she must find and destroy The Talisman. She intends to do this alone, but instead accumulates no less than three sidekicks. One is a boy prince named Tam whose city was destroyed by Queen Gedren. He’s accompanied by his chief courtier and general dogsbody, Falkon. The third is Kalidor. Sonja isn’t the kind of girl who needs rescuing by muscle-bound barbarian heroes like Kalidor but she has to admit that he does come in handy at times. And although she has sworn not to have sex with men it’s clear that she thinks he’s pretty hunky.
They have the usual adventures, encountering bandits and mechanical dragon monsters along the way, before the final showdown with Gedren. And in their spare time Sonja and Kalidor practise their own odd courtship rituals, which mostly involve attacking each other with swords.
Schwarzenegger gets less to do than usual, not being the chief hero, but he’s more than adequate for this type of thing. Given that Brigitte Nielsen is just over six feet tall she certainly has the physical presence her role requires. She can’t act at all, but she isn’t really called upon to do any serious acting anyway. Ernie Reyes Jr as Prince Tam and Paul L. Smith as Falkon provide the comic relief. They’re not overly annoying and they’re even quite amusing at times. Sandahl Bergman can’t act either, but as the evil mastermind
Queen Gedren she really only needs to look suitably villainous and glamorous, with more than a hint of sexual perversity, which she manages quite successfully.
This movie has the feel of an old-fashioned Italian sword & sandal epic, probably not surprisingly given that Dino de Laurentiis had assembled a mostly Italian crew and the film was shot in Italy. I think it’s that old-fashioned fun feel that I liked. Despite some of the ingredients’ having the potential to make a fairly dark movie the end result is more of a light-hearted adventure romp.
It’s not by any means a great movie, or even (to be perfectly honest) a good movie, but it’s an entertaining popcorn movie.