I am sorry, Red Sonja. For years, I have doubted you. Surely you cannot be as good as Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. You have to be a weaker sister, I always thought, so I avoided you.
I was wrong. So wrong.
Today, dear reader, I am here to tell you that while this film is not as good as the first two Conan romps, it’s still an astounding sword and sorcery adventure filled with plenty of great effects, well-shot battles and a cast of some of my favorite actors.
Oddly enough, Red Sonja may be owned by the Robert E. Howard estate, but the character itself was really created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith, who used Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino as inspiration. But man, those 70’s Conan comics were monsters and people fell in love with the idea that Sonja could be as tough as Conan and had promised the goddess Scáthach that in exchange for heightened strength, stamina, agility and fighting skills that she would never lie with a man until he could defeat her in fair combat.
Let’s not debate how the survivor of sexual assault must pretty much get beat up to enjoy lovemaking, because that’s the kind of complex argument that won’t be solved inside a movie that’s really about stabbing people. I’m not saying it’s an important discussion to have, but I’m an expert in exploitation movies, not humanity.
Directed by Richard Fleischer, whose career goes from the heights of Soylent Green and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the depths of The Jazz Singer and Amityville 3-D — not to mention Mandingo — this moves quick, looks good and is just plain fun.
After surviving the death of her family and being attacked by the soldiers of Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman*, who seems to relish the opportunity to play a villain instead of the female sidekick), Sonja trains to become a legendary warrior.
Meanwhile, her sister Varna (Janet Agren, Hands of Steel, City of the Living Dead) has become a priestess in an order of women who plan on banishing the Talisman, which created the world but could now destroy it. If any man touches it, he disappears, so of course Gedren wants to use it for her own ends. Led by Ikol (Ronald Lacey, Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark), her army kills the priestesses and takes the Talisman for their queen.
Lord Kalidor** (Arnold Schwarzenegger) finds Varna and brings Sonja to her, where she learns of the Talisman and how she can kill two birds with one stone by destroying it and Gedren. Her adventures take her to meet Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.), a young king of a land destroyed by Gedren, and his bodyguard Falkon (Paul L. Smith, who the handyman in Pieces and Bluto in Popeye). She also defeats the ominous Lord Brytag (Pat Roach, the former pro wrestler who shows up as a major bad guy in so many movies, from the mechanic that Indiana Jones knocks into a Flying Wing in Raiders of the Lost Ark to Hephaestus in Clash of the Titans, Toth-Amon in Conan the Destroyer and General Kael in Willow) before an awesome duel with Kalidor for the right to aardvark*** and then another battle against Gedren as her castle explodes with lava flowing everywhere.
Speaking of that great cast, this also has a third Indiana Jones alumni, Terry Richards, who played the Arabian swordsman that Indy so memorable shot after a long flourish of sword swinging. Plus, Tutte Lemkow, best known as the Fiddler on the Roof is a wizard and The Swordmaster that trains Sonja is Tad Horino, who was also Confucius in Bill and Red’s Bogus Journey. Erik Holmey, who played the soldier who asked “What is best in life?”, and replied, “The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair!” is in this. And of course, Arnold’s buddy Sven-Ole Thorsen shows up.
Plus, how can you be let down by an Ennio Morricone score?
Again, I’m sorry, Red Sonja. You’re actually pretty darn good.
*Bergman was offered the role of Red Sonja, but turned it down, choosing instead to play Queen Gedren. Producer Dino De Laurentiis met with actress Laurene Landon and was set to offer her the role until he learned that she had pretty much already played the same part in Hundra. He spent a year looking for an actress who looked like an Amazon, almost picking Eileen Davidson (The House On Sorority Row) before discovering Brigitte Nielsen on the cover of a magazine.
**There’s a fan theory that Kalidor is really Conan, as some heroes would use “adventuring names” while they were in other counties, like how Gandalf was also known as Mithrandir. De Laurentiis didn’t have the rights to use Conan again, which explains this financially. Speaking of money, Arnold signed up for a cameo as a favor to the producer, but one week turned into four and when he saw a rough cut of the movie, he realized that he was really a co-star. This is why he terminated his 10-year deal with De Laurentiis.
***They totally did, for real, according to Arnold in his book Total Recall – My Unbelievably True Life Story. Neilsen confirmed this in her book You Only Get One Life, saying that they had “no restrictions” in their lovemaking. You know, while some of us debated whether Stallone or Schwarzenegger was the best action hero, Neisen had Biblical knowledge.