Red Sonja


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Red Sonja
"Nielsen may not have been able to act - and this is by far her worst performance - but she certainly had the charisma to carry off the role, together with the all-important muscle."

One of the few Eighties sword and sorcery films firmly rooted in the pulp stories and comics that originally gave rise to the genre, Red Sonja is also the only one with a woman in the leading role. A female counterpart to Conan and created by author Robert E Howard to inhabit the same universe, she too is seeking revenge on the murderers of her family. She's also on a quest to destroy an evil talisman that threatens to destroy the whole world. And like Conan, she has only her sword, her wits, and a rag-tag band of followers with which to see it through.

The Red Sonja film very nearly didn't happen because producer Dino De Laurentiis simply couldn't find a woman capable of playing the part. At the last minute he spotted Brigitte Nielsen modelling in a magazine, and a B-movie star was born. Nielsen may not have been able to act - and this is by far her worst performance - but she certainly had the charisma to carry off the role, together with the all-important muscle. She's a woman who can convincingly pit her sword against Arnold Schwarzenegger's with neither able to win outright victory - unfortunate for their smitten characters as each has sworn an oath never to sleep with somebody who can't defeat them in a fair fight.

Copy picture

Once described by Arnie as the worst film he's ever been in (and that's a tough choice), Red Sonja has plenty of problems. There are those one expects from the genre - shaky sets, dodgy dialogue and a lot of fairly pointless running about - plus an awful performance from Sandahl Bergman (who was briefly in the running for the lead herself) as evil Queen Gedren. The film has also been slated as homophobic because Gedren's hatred for Sonja arises partly from her unrequited lust, but this is such a common plot device with male evil overlords that it seems churlish to grant it any special significance. The biggest problem with Gedren is that, mystical powers and fancy masks aside, she isn't remotely a match for Sonja, leading to a rather flaccid final confrontation. Despite this, if the film intended to be homophobic, it defeats itself due to the undercurrent of homoeroticism so common in the genre.

If you're into muscles, mayhem and the clash of steel, Red Sonja will satisfy. It's unfortunate that we have to put up with an annoying child along the way, thrown in there to provide our heroine with somebody to save that won't take the challenge to traditional gender roles too far. Still, he isn't nearly as bad as the brat in Conan The Destroyer, and occasionally he gets to be useful. Towards the end Arnie spends most of his time holding up masonry, a poignant indicator that the days of men like him are already numbered and he'll only be needed in future for heavy lifting. But he's still entertaining, even in this awkward, ahem, supporting role, and he provides that little hint of self-awareness that the film needs to make it all feel joyously camp instead of po-faced and tedious. As such, Red Sonja remains one of the more watchable sword and sorcery epics, a good bit of fun if you don't take it too seriously.

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2011
Share this with others on...
Red Sonja packshot
A warrior with a magical sword sets out to take back a powerful talisman from the sorceress who destroyed her city.
Amazon link

Director: Richard Fleischer

Writer: Clive Exton, based on the story by Robert E. Howard

Starring: Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Ernie Reyes Jr, Paul L. Smith

Year: 1985

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Conan The Barbarian
Conan The Destroyer