Just Look Away

Posted on April 1, 2011

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Red Sonja

“So, the only man that can have you, is one who’s trying to kill you. That’s logic.“

This 1985 fantasy adventure movie has a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 35% of the audience reported liking it.

Why Bother?

“I don’t need eyes to find you, I can smell you at a hundred paces!”

Conan the Barbarian came out in 1982. Conan the Destroyer came out in 1984. This movie has the same director and producers as Destroyer, so if you’re a fan of Robert E. Howard and either of the previous movies, you might be tempted to see this.

You might love sword and sorcery films. In the 1980s, when we were desperate for fantasy films of any kind, this one would pass. Today, you can do better.

Then again, you might be a fan of Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sandahl Bergman. Nielsen stars, with Schwarzenegger and Bergman in supporting roles.

I watched it

“If danger is a trade, I’ll learn it by myself.“

Queen Gedren is trying to take over the world. She comes to a farmstead, where she discovers a beautiful, Amazonian redhead (Sonja). Sonja refuses the Queen’s Sapphic advances, and in retaliation the queen destroys the farm, murders the redhead’s family, and has her soldiers rape Sonja. We learn all this when Sonja awakens after the brutal assault and a spirit (Goddess? Ghost? Filmy, white shape?) covers all that, complete with brief flashbacks, and grants Sonja the strength to seek vengeance.

The Verdict

“You can’t miss it, but it’s worth a try.”

I should start this with a caveat: I’ve read Robert E. Howard, but I don’t remember reading any Red Sonja stories. All I have to go on is the film. If I say something that’s accidentally critical of Howard’s work, I apologize.

Let me compare the opening of this movie with the opening of Conan the Barbarian. We get to see Conan’s life as a child. We get to see his relationship with his family. We learn a little about Crom, and the riddle of Steel. Then the raiders come, kill everyone, and sell Conan into slavery. Conan’s life as a slave gives him strength, and eventually he earns his freedom. Then his adventures begin.

We see nothing of Red Sonja’s character or relationships; we just know that she’s a victim. She doesn’t earn her revenge, her power is granted to her by a capricious otherworldly power. Then we get some plot development involving Gedren and a glowing gem known as “the Talisman.” Apparently the Talisman was used by a nameless god (Howard named his deities) to create the entire world (and it’s only just now become too powerful for mortals? Really?). The next time we see Sonja, she’s become the greatest sword fighter ever trained in a scanty leather costume by some Grand Master or other. Granted, Sonja’s sister was a warrior-priestess of the Talisman, but how did her sister survive the attack on the farm? How did Sonja earn a place at the Grand Master’s school?

The effects are cheesy, the acting is sub-par at best, the production quality is below Conan standards, and the writing never rises above the failures in the beginning of the film. The sets are hilariously awful. The costumes are ridiculous. Don’t even get me started on the crappy fight choreography, or how bad Brigitte Nielsen is at stage fighting.

In Conan, the hero earns everything that he has through years of slavery, brute labor, pain, combat training, and gladiatorial scars. In Sonja, the hero is too weak to suffer all that, apparently because she’s a woman, so she gets handed the means to exact revenge on a silver platter.

In Conan, Sandahl Bergman played Valeria, and had to do her own stunts (so did Schwarzenegger) because they couldn’t find a body double to match her build. She was already an experienced thief when she encountered Conan the first time. She was an equal partner, not some weakling who needed to be helped to her feet and gifted with the world’s best training to make her worthy of heroism. Brigitte Nielsen must do the same, for the same reasons, but her character lacks Valeria’s strength. Now, I will grant you, that this completely cack-handed attempt at female empowerment could be a result of the original source material, since pulp fiction was hardly known for its enlightened portrayal of women. That said, you would think someone would have realized that sexual politics had changed over the preceding forty or fifty years.

Ultimately, this movie fails because it wants to be about strong female characters, but it’s too sexist to accomplish that. Here’s hoping the writers of the new version, with Rose McGowan, learned their lessons. From the movie poster, it doesn’t look hopeful.

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Posted in: Movies