How ‘Red Sonja’ Still Delivers a Huge Dose of 80s Action Silliness

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If you’re a sucker for S&S flicks, it doesn’t get much more ultimate than ‘Red Sonja’ (1985).

The success of Conan the Barbarian triggered a wave of copycats, including its own sequel Conan the Destroyer in 1984. One year later, producer Dino de Laurentiis gave it another shot with Red Sonja, a character from the expanded Conan Universe of the Marvel comic books. Newcomer Brigitte Nielsen took center stage, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in a supporting role. Even though the film tumbled down the quality latter quite a bit compared to the Conan films, it still became a fun Sword & Sorcery flick, so let’s have a look!

The mighty warrior Sonja (Nielsen) heeds a call for aid by her sister, who is part of an order that protects a powerful and dangerous relic, The Talisman. The artifact is stolen by the evil Queen Gedren (Sandal Bergman), and Sonja’s sister mortally wounded. Sonja sets out to destroy Gedren and the Talisman, with aid from the stalwart Lord Kalidor (Schwarzenegger) and the Kung Fu prodigy prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr.).

She lived in a savage world in an age of violence

I wouldn’t insist that Red Sonja was inspired by Sword & Sorcery (& sex) jank like Hundra and The Sorceress, but these films at least pioneered the female main hero in this genre. Red Sonja is not the best example for feminism in the action genre either, as Lord Kalidor shows up every time Sonja is in turmoil and saves the day. One the other hand, the voyeuristic chain mail bikini from the comic books is gone, and Sonja’s outfit may have inspired the costume for Xena Warrior Princess.

The film shares its visual style and opulence with Conan the Destroyer, and no costs were spared to create a feast for the eyes. It was the high time of matte shots, and the magic of Academy Award winner Albert Whitlock produced epic shots of lava chasms, bridges made from huge skeletons and grim castles high up in the mountains. The indoor sets are also looking awesome, and the room with thousands of burning candles – the ultimate medieval fire hazard – oozes an incredible atmosphere, and we must respect the insane effort that must have gone into creating this scene.

No man may have me unless he has beaten me in a fair fight

The costume design is outlandish and wonderfully over the top. Helmets and armor seem to be made of living metal that has taken a life on its own, growing in all directions. Red Sonja was filmed in Italy, and if you watched some of the old Spaghetti Westerns, the locations may look familiar to you, especially the rocky plains with the Gran Sasso massif towering in the background. And in Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack the old Western vibe also shines through sometimes.

Nielsen came to the film with no acting experience, and not surprisingly it shows. Her line delivery is not very energetic or convincing, but she gives it all in the fights, and also sports a fantastic mullet flaming red hair. Schwarzenegger makes a comeback, not as Conan, but his Kalidor is just as fierce a warrior. His physical presence and charisma lift up the quality of every scene he is in. 

He is reunited with Sandahl Bergman who was his co-star in the first Conan film. Bergman goes completely unhinged with a crazy outfit that features a gold mask and a black spandex suit. Her queen Gedren hugs her giant pet spider, struts through the palace yelling at her servants or sits on her throne all day between ornamented skeletons.

I have fought 177 men, and only one survived

Red Sonja is not a non-stop action fest like Conan the Destroyer, but our band of adventurers finds itself in a good number of perilous situations, which are all resolved with maximum violence. The sword fights are pretty violent with plenty of blood squirting and heads flying. 

Most of the action sequences are of the run-off-the-mill kind, but there are two truly memorable and awesome moments. Sonja’s showdown with Queen Gedren and her inane minion in the throne room is a chaotic mess, but full of crazy energy. The fight is then taken to the chamber of thousand candles where the madness continues. And there is an exciting water battle with a sea dragon that is brought to life thanks to fantastic creature special effects.

The pieces are all there, but in Red Sonja they don’t come quite together as well. But it delivers a huge dose of 1980s action silliness, and if you’re a sucker for S&S flicks, I think you will have a fun time with it.