Red Sonja (1985, Richard Fleischer)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.


Watched: 8 December 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD bought in a branch of CEX in Stratford-upon-Avon in October 2019.
Seen before? No. 

Review: The Sonja of the title is a woman living in a time before recorded history who is wronged by an evil queen. She was based on a character from a run of Marvel Comics who in turn had been taken from the writings of the fantasy novelist Robert E Howard. By 1985, Howard’s work had already provided Arnold Schwarzenegger with an early signature role for two films, the mighty Conan the Barbarian. But while Red Sonja nominally takes place in the same fictional world, here the top-billed Arnie has been given a new character.

The plot is humdrum beyond belief: Arnie’s wandering Lord Kalidor delivers a message from a dying woman to her sister, Sonja, who has recently been imbued with great strength by a goddess for not terribly clear reasons. But there’s a caveat: she can’t sleep with a man unless the man first defeats her in combat. (Riiiiiight….) Sonja then sets out on a vague mission to get her revenge on the evil Queen Gedren.

The script was the product of George MacDonald Fraser (he of the very funny and smart Flashman novels) and Clive Exton (who was later a driving force behind the classy TV shows Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Jeeves & Wooster). But they can’t give us much more than a boring, oomph-less and episodic plot with pompous characters pontificating rather than talking. There’s also a muddy hint of mysticism and a hopeless attempt at a feminist subtext. At least the film looks good, thanks to some grand sets, a few dramatic locations and the kind of costumes where the designers’ imaginations have been allowed to fly free.

Starring as Sonja (‘Sow-ne-ya’ if Arnie says it) is Brigitte Nielsen. It’s probably fair to say that she was cast thanks to her sultry, Nordic looks rather than any acting ability. She gives a completely dreadful performance, lacking any naturalism or charisma at all. Arnie’s no better either, so their shared scenes are a real test of your patience. Elsewhere, Sandahl Bergman – who was initially considered for the title role – is game enough as Gedren, while Ernie Reyes Jr and Paul L Smith have relatively enjoyable supporting roles as a puffed-up child prince and his last remaining loyal aide.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Before I hung up my broadsword for good, Dino [De Laurentiis, who had produced Arnie’s earlier Conan films] said, “Why don’t you just do, you know, a cameo?” He handed me a script called Red Sonja… Maria [Shriver, Schwarzenegger’s then girlfriend] read the script and said, “Don’t do it. It’s trash.” I agreed, but I felt I owed Dino a favour… My so-called cameo turned out to involve four whole weeks on the set. They shot all the Lord Kalidor scenes with three cameras, and then used the extra footage in the editing room to stretch Kalidor’s time onscreen… I felt tricked.’

Two talismans out of 10

Next: The Expendables 3

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