The 1985 film, Red Sonja, invites us to take a journey to a forgotten age, a time of a mythical kingdoms, evil sorcery, epic sword fights, and annoying little child kings who spent a lot of time shouting. It’s a time of wonder, danger, heroism, and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Reportedly, the once and future governor of California has frequently named Red Sonja as being the worst film in which he ever appeared. When you consider some of the other films that have featured Gov. Schwarzenegger, that’s indeed a bold statement. In Red Sonja, Schwarzenegger plays Lord Kalidor. Interestingly enough, Lord Kalidor is absent for the majority of the film. He shows up briefly at the beginning of the film and then he vanishes for quite a bit of Red Sonja‘s 89-minute running time. Whenever Schwarzenegger does show up, he wears the smirk of a man who knows that he’s going to get paid a lot of money for doing very little actual work.
The majority of the film focuses on Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen), a warrior who lives in one of those vanished ages, perhaps after the War of the Rings but before the sinking of Atlantis. When we first see her, she’s being spoken to by what appears to be a puff of smoke, which is apparently meant to be some sort of warrior goddess. The puff of smoke fills tells Sonja about everything that happened to her before the start of the movie, though we never do learn why Sonja needs to be told her own backstory. After rejecting the sexual advances of the evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Begman), Sonja was forced to watch as her parents and brother were murdered and then she was raped and left for the dead by the Gedren’s soldiers. The Goddess promises to make Sonja into a superior warrior, on the condition that Sonja agree to never have sex with a man unless that man can first beat her in fair combat. Sonja agrees and is sent off to get trained by the Grand Master. It’s kinda like Kill Bill, if Bill was a puff of smoke.
Jump forward to …. well, I’m not sure how many years pass. To be honest, it’s next to impossible to really discern any sort of coherent logic to the film’s narrative progression so let’s just give up on that. What’s important is that there’s this temple and, inside the temple, there’s a glowing green talisman. Apparently, the talisman created the world but now it needs to be carefully watched over before being destroyed. Only women are allowed to handle the talisman (Yay!) but they’re not allowed to destroy it unless directed by a man. (Booooo!) The temple priestesses are waiting for Lord Kalidor to arrive so that they can get rid of the talisman. However, Queen Gedren shows up first. Not only does she steal the talisman but she kills the priestesses as well.
One of the priestesses was Varna (Janet Agren, who you might recognize from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead). Varna just happens to be the sister of Sonja. (Sonja is now known as Red Sonja, because she had red hair. From now on, I want to be known as Red Lisa.) Now, Sonja has yet another reason to want to kill Gedren! Rejecting Kalidor’s help, Sonja heads off for revenge. Along the way, she meets an annoying child king named Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.), who is upset that Gedren previously destroyed his kingdom. Despite hating him, Sonja allows Tarn and his guardian, Falkon (Paul L. Smith), to tag along with her. Despite not being an official member of the revenge party, Kalidor decides to follow after them because he wants to beat Red Sonja in fair combat, if you get what I mean.
Red Sonja is a spectacularly silly film. The dialogue is stilted. Even by the standards of the 1980s ,the special effects are poorly executed. This the type of film where the evil Queen nearly destroys the world not because she has any sort of grand scheme but instead, just because she’s evil and that’s what evil people do. Brigitte Nielsen delivers her lines with a forced solemnity while Schwarzenegger, Bergman, and the great Paul L. Smith seem to be struggling not to start laughing.
And yet, there’s a sneaky charm to be found in all of the silliness. For instance, when Sonja does finally reach the queen’s castle, she has to cross a bridge that appears to basically be the skeleton of giant rhinoceros. No none in the film seems to be surprised to come across a skeleton a giant rhinoceros and, to be honest, there’s no reason for it to be there. It’s just there and it’s so wonderfully out-of-place that it becomes rather fascinating. Add to that, while the portrayal of the evil lesbian queen is problematic in all sorts of ways, this is a film about a strong female warrior who doesn’t need a man to rescue her and that was probably even more rare in 1985 than it is today!
Watching Red Sonja, you get the feeling that nobody involved in the film took it all that seriously and that perhaps the best way to handle the movie is to just sit back and have a laugh. It’s dumb, it’s campy, it often makes no sense but, at the same time, it’s still a lot easier to follow than Game of Thrones. Like many bad films, it’s only bad if you watch it alone. Watch it with a group of your snarkiest friends and you’ll have a totally different experience.