I Try to Find Nice Things to Say About the Red Sonja Movie

Yesterday I beamed down my digital copy of Red Sonja, the 1985 fantasy flop starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that hastened the death of the sword-and-sorcery boom of the ‘80s. My intention was to find something to like about the movie. Red Sonja has a terrible reputation and I’ve never found myself on any side of the opinion spectrum more positive than, “Yep, this is pretty bad.”

But I try to avoid extreme negativity about art when writing on my website, even just for the laughs. One of my most popular posts is a semi-defense of Exorcist II: The Heretic, and that shows people do enjoy reading a few good words about a despised picture. I couldn’t mount the same defense for Night of the Lepus. And, sorry to report, I can’t do much for Red Sonja either after returning to it more than a decade after my last viewing.

I did uncover a few positives. Top among them is that this is a beautifully designed fantasy film with a unique appearance that sets it apart from the two Conan films that came before it. Danilo Donati, who worked on multiple Frederick Fellini and Franco Zefferlli movies, handled both production and costume design duties. His work has a “sword-and-sorcery sincerity” the rest of the movie lacks. Most of the sets are stunning, with the blue ribbon prize going to the Chamber of Light where Queen Gedren stores the green Doomsday-doohickey. 

I can’t imagine the labor involved in lighting all those candles; that’s commitment to an encompassing cinematic design you never see in the numerous Conan knock-offs of the period.

I also like the mechanical fish monster design. The creature doesn’t make much sense in the fantasy setting—is it an enchanted metal sculpture or an actual piece of SF machinery?—but I consider big monsters an important part of the sword-and-sorcery experience. 

The exterior photography by Giuseppe Rotunno, another Fellini collaborator, is also impressive. The Conan films were shot in Spain, but production for Red Sonja moved to the hilly countryside of Italy, and the visual difference is often striking. I don’t believe the production was purposely trying to forge a different look for the film, but their efforts to craft something fresh come through.

The other superb visual elements are Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings. Whitlock was the master of this now vanished art, and his work here can stand up with his finest. I put my favorite matte painting at the top of the post, which feels like an oil painting from the Romantic era. Here are a few more examples.

The bone bridge does the job these production elements should in fantasy film, which is to make viewers wonder what sort of beast it was and how it got there. A number of other parts of the production design conjure up a similar promise of greater vistas beyond the edges of the screen and the limits of the running time. 

A score by the late maestro Ennio Morricone will always end up in a film’s plus column. I’ve never heard a Morricone score that hurt a film. The Red Sonja score is good but not exceptional. Calling it a disappointment is extreme, but it never rises to the full promise of what an Ennio Morricone epic fantasy score could sound like. The film’s muddled mono mix and questionable edits don’t do it any favors. I found myself embracing the score much more on its 2010 album, where the music feels like it can finally breathe.

What hurts the score the most is how sparse it becomes. After giving the movie a distinctly medieval sound to contrast with Basil Pouledouris’s Wagnerian approach to Conan the Barbarian, Morricone’s music starts to fade until almost nothing remains during the finale except two short cues. The film needs help the most during its tired ending, and the odd silence on the soundtrack makes it all feel dry.

Okay, I’m starting to fall out of compliment mode. I guess I have to do this part now …

Now I’ll briefly get un-nice

Red Sonja is a bad movie. The only way time has treated it well is that matte paintings and practical effects age with grace. That gives the film an edge over mid-‘90s travesties like Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Almost everything else about it fails:

The Acting. There are three types of performances in Red Sonja: bad actors giving bad performances (Brigitte Nielsen and Janet Argen), good actors giving “who cares?” performances (Ronald Lacey and Sandahl Bergman), and miscast actors giving wrong performances (Paul Smith and Ernie Reyes Jr.). I’ll go easy on Reyes, a child performer and excellent martial artist. He does what he can with the thankless part of an annoying brat the audience wants off the screen as soon as possible. 

I won’t go easy on Nielsen, who plays the title role and is the single worst thing in the film. Nielsen looks the part and is in the right physical shape for a warrior woman, but she blows every line she speaks. The intonation is always wrong and she doesn’t appear to understand what the other actors are saying to her. The movie was an opportunity to put a powerful heroine on screen in a fantasy film. Even with the poor script, an actress with the right screen presence (think a Gal Gadot) might have saved it. Didn’t happen.

Schwarzenegger. Arnold is a special case, since poor acting is never an issue with him. He’s a movie star, a figurine rather than an actor. But Schwarzenegger has rarely been as bland as he is here. He might as well have not shown up, and the long stretches when he’s off-screen make it clear he never wanted to in the first place. With Nielsen’s poor performance and Arnold tuned-out, the central relationship of the film is an Ambien overdose. I’ve often heard the character of Kalidor referred to as a “Conan in all but name,” but that’s absurd. Kalidor is a blank, with nothing either of the movie Conan or the literary Conan to him.

The World Is Empty. For a fantasy epic with more money to spend than one of Roger Corman’s dire Deathstalker films, Red Sonja put none of its cash toward hiring extras. Or anyone beyond a dozen people for Queen Gedren’s “fearsome” army. Gedren is supposedly cutting a swath of destruction through other kingdoms, but we never see any of it. The annihilation of Hablock, which Kalidor calls a “great city,” occurs off-screen and all we see of its remains is Ernie Reyes and Paul Smith goofing off in empty ruins. Did Hablock not have a population? Maybe there was no Hablock and Prince Tarn is just a kid playing make-believe? When Queen Gedren’s lackey Ikol (Lacey) says “Our vaults are brimming with gold. Great kingdoms live in terror of us!” I had to wonder what movie he was watching. Maybe a separate reel went on the cutting room floor. This failure to provide any scope to the film’s action, even among spectacular scenery, makes it impossible to invest anything in the outcome. 

Rotten Comedy. Comedy can work in sword-and-sorcery—but you’d better be Fritz Leiber-level witty to pull it off, or else go full Terry Pratchett parody. Red Sonja is neither. The one-liners, most assigned to poor Paul Smith, are sitcom-level groaners. I also do not condone little kid comedy in my sword-and-sorcery film, even when that kid could kick my butt.

A final, small complaint, but an important one for fans of fantasy literature. Behold this misleading credit:

These few words in a silly font are more responsible than any other source for the persistent myth that sword-and-sorcery legend Robert E. Howard created Red Sonja. The credit isn’t entirely false, since a Howard character inspired the creation of Red Sonja. But Howard never wrote about a red-haired warrior woman of the Hyborian Age named “Red Sonja.” That character was created by comics writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith, who should have the credit here, with maybe “Inspired by a Character Created by Robert E. Howard” appended. Howard wrote about a Russian adventurer named Red Sonya, who appeared in one of his historical tales, “The Shadow of the Vulture.” When Thomas and Windsor-Smith adapted “The Shadow of the Vulture” for the comic Conan the Barbarian, they turned Red Sonya into the new character of Red Sonja, who then went on to have her own career.

So if you’re still trying to hunt down those Red Sonja stories by Robert E. Howard, you can stop. I’m sorry about that movie credit; I didn’t write it. 

Now let me check: 670 words of positivity, 760 of negativity. I think that’s generous enough for Red Sonja. If you want to experience Red Sonja, stick with reprints of the comics—they’re easily available in digital editions.