Red Sonja (1985)

2015 #64
Richard Fleischer | 85 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & Netherlands / English | 15* / PG-13

Red SonjaFrom the sword and sorcery ‘boom’ of the ’80s, Red Sonja concerns a warrioress going after the evil queen who slaughtered her family and has now seized a magical MacGuffin that will destroy the world or somesuch.

The first remarkable thing about Red Sonja is that I don’t think anyone in it can act. Our heroine is played by model Brigitte Nielsen. Discovered on the cover of a fashion magazine by producer Dino De Laurentiis, that’s more or less the extent of her acting skills. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays her love interest / fellow warrior / big name to go on the poster. He’s hardly renowned for his thespian credentials either, and this won’t do anything to persuade you otherwise. No one else fares any better, though Sandahl Bergman has a degree of entertaining over-the-top campiness as the villainess.

However, the screenplay is surprisingly not bad, provided you accept it’s trying to be funny rather than assuming it’s unintentionally so. The bluntness of Arnie’s character early on is particularly laughable… though I think that one might be unintentional. There are some character and/or plot beats that are very effective — the fate the villainess affords survivors of a temple massacre is chilling, for example. When it tries to be too serious it’s often not much cop, but generally it’s operating in a slightly-wry action-adventure tone, so it earns a cautious pass.

Technical elements are largely up to snuff, including some great production design (the skeleton bridge, for example) and some well-choreographed action scenes, with the Sonja vs. Arnie fight Lovers' tiffbeing a particular highlight. Veteran helmer Richard Fleischer’s direction seems to have come in for criticism from some quarters, but I found it adequately unremarkable. Damning with faint praise, I know, but it doesn’t merit slagging off either.

Red Sonja is by no means a good film, but it’s kind of marvellous in spite of its innumerable flaws. I sort of loved it.

3 out of 5

* Originally cut in the UK to get a PG. References to Sonja being raped and a throwing star were all that had to go, apparently (so not the two beheadings!) The first video release featured the cinema print; subsequent releases are all uncut and rated 15. ^

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5 thoughts on “Red Sonja (1985)

  1. As a huge fan of the original Robert E Howard books, I hate this movie. Unfortunately Hollywood insisted on making a King Kull movie (with that tv Hercules guy in the lead) that was even worse. No, REH has not been done justice by Hollywood… Although Solomon Kane was quite good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never read the books so can’t compare, but I can imagine why a fan would find this a disappointment! I don’t know if the version Robert Rodriguez was developing would’ve been any better — given his track record, it’s hard to predict.

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  2. George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman books, was one of the scriptwriters for this, as I recall – perhaps explaining why the screenplay is pretty good, with a sense of the film’s own ridiculousness. I have a feeling that Howard’s original character was Red Sonya – and set in the real world 16th century – so the film owes very little to REH and rather more to the comic strip.

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    • True, the character herself is a ‘name-only’ borrowing from the REH original, but the film (likewise the Conan sequel helmed by Lester) in no way approaches the tone and passion/darkness of REH. His stories were always very adult, hardly ‘kiddie/juvenile’ material, which is their appeal. Fantasy stuff is often dumbed-down unfortunately. I think much of the success of Game of Thrones is due to its serious and adult approach which owes much to Howards Hyborian Age.

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    • I remember noting Fraser’s name in the credits and thinking it was unusual, but then forgot to mention it come my review! He also wrote the ’70s Musketeers films, which have a similarly tongue-in-cheek tone, so I think you’re right that we can attribute much of the screenplay’s quality to him.

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