Something went seriously wrong with Richard Fleischer’s 1985 RED SONJA. And if one’s to believe the weight of reviews that have accumulated in these last 25 years, almost everything went disastrously wrong. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger (who played Kalidor, with top billing) considers it the worst movie in his career, and in due honesty, even a detractor of the acting abilities of the current Governor of California would feel hard-pressed to point a worst one out. And still, why should it be so? How could they miss so blatantly the characteristics that made Roy Thomas’s she-devil with a sword such a cult phenomenon among comic book readers?
Fleischer helmed RED SONJA only one year after directing CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984), in and by itself a very satisfactory pulp yarn. Although it was not an equal to Millius’s vastly superior CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1981), it was a clever movie, exploring and expanding the Conan mythos, and clearly demonstrating Fleischer’s ability to work in the Sword & Sorcery genre. Moreover, in Olivia D’Abo’s princess and Grace Jone’s warrior, Fleischer had two opposite and strong female characters that justified some expectations as to his own Red Sonja. So, what went wrong?
Many blamed the casting of Brigitte Nielsen as the titular character. However, and despite her considerable acting limitations, she was not a bad choice to play the hyrkanian red-head. If fault is to be placed, it should be with the characterization. Even dropping the chain-mail bikini, Nielsen should have been alllowed to wear her hair in the style she had in COBRA (1986) and to keep the steely countenance of her Ludmilla character in ROCKY IV (1985). Besides what, the cuirasse she dons in RED SONJA isn’t in the least flattering to her ample physical charms, and one can only but think that it was the producers’ intention to de-emphasize her cleavage. The Red Sonja we see on-screen is a totally de-sexualized (or, more correctly, de-eroticized) character, and I believe that is the main trouble with the film.
CONAN THE DESTROYER was such an enjoyable movie because in it Fleischer didn’t have to worry with the (always problematic) origin story. Milius had done (brilliantly) away with it, and so the story could advance along a more leisurely and self-contained pace. Not so with RED SONJA. Burdened with the origin myth of the red-haired warrior – and such a problematic one, at that – the story on-screen had to go along with the studio’s felt need of closure. It is a common problem with origin stories in film that the main plot of the feature must deal with the problems of said origin and resolve them with a satisfactory sense of roundness. But how to do it when the origin story involves such an un-PC element as rape and you do not want to treat it as a rape-revenge flick since it is aimed at a PG-13 rating?
It’s the tough balancing act between the seriousness of Sonja’s predicament and the light tone one expects from a pulpy adventure for kids that dooms the film to an inglorious fate. But is it that not the same problem that limits a more adult-oriented scope in any mainstream comic book? Not that the origin story of Sonja in the comics is devoid of problematic issues. Consider this: raped as a teenager, and empowered by a goddess with fighting abilities and swordsmanship, and undefeatable for as long as she abstains from sex (unless she is beaten in a fair fight), Sonja is a walking add for further rapes. (In the movie, Kalidor tiptoes around this question by saying “So, the only man that can have you, is one who's trying to kill you. That's logic.”, but there’s no denying what that amounts to.) In the comic books, the origin story was only told in 1975 by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin (“The Day of the Sword” in Kull and the Barbarians #3), when Sonja was already an established character (having appeared for the first time in “The Shadow of the Vulture” in Conan the Barbarian #23 in 1972), and even then she is deprived of her vengeance over her rapist.
By placing the origin story in the core of the plot, Sonja’s rape becomes not her background, but her defining trait. It is therefore imperative that she resolves this issue in order to carry on with her life. Sonja is a woman bent on revenge. When she accidentally discovers that it was Queen Gedren (a magnificent Sandahl Bergman), the sadist lesbian tyrant that ordered Sonja’s gang-rape, who’ve laid waste to the kingdom of Hablock, her face lightens up with a newfound-meaning for life. In “The Day of the Sword”, Sonja unwillingly saves the life of his rapist five years after the event. Insane from torture, her former assailant cannot recognize her and so her vengeance upon him is senseless. Sonja laughs. Because she has matured and she has overcome her plight – Sonja is already Red Sonja, she has a life-history of prevailing against unfavourable odds. Not so with Fleischer’s Sonja. The movie’s woman-warrior is an obsessed man-hating simpleton, whose “sexuality is displaced in exhausting bouts of swordplay”, as Nigel Floyd once accurately put it in the Monthly Film Bulletin.
Moreover, one can not but think that the filmmakers didn’t had much sympathy for the character, for they kept playing the movie against her as if anxious to pigeon-hole Sonja in a more acceptable feminine role. Sonja seeks revenge against Gedren, but since Gedren purports to destroy the whole world, her personal quest plays second fiddle to the main focus of the film. Feminist readings over the years have demonized the movie for its supposed treatment of homosexuality – not only is Gedren a lesbian, but it is because Sonja resists her advances that she orders the red-headed gang-raped by her troops (so that Sonja is effectively raped by a woman, not by men – who were only following orders). More subtle and perhaps perfidious, is the way the film keeps trying to fit Sonja in a world of domesticity defined by sex-roles. In at least two instances in the film Sonja must walk under huge phalluses (even if only implied): the entrance to the training ground where she learns how to fight with an incongruous and anachronistic Chinese master (Tad Horino) is located under the legs of a huge stone statue holding two clearly phallic swords, so that Sonja has to step (or ride) under its penis to enter or leave the precinct, as she does when Kalidor comes looking for her with news of her sister’s imminent dead. And her sister, who sets Sonja on her quest, is laying under the legs of a huge stone auroch, so that Sonja must crawl under its (inferred) penis to receive her mission in life. The message is clear: it is under the tutelage of the phallus that she is trained and that she gets her purpose (as it was under the phalluses that raped her that Red Sonja was born – significantly, Gedren is also seen holding a phallic symbol when she destroys the order of the priestesses and takes hold of the Talisman).
The phallus, however, is not only a symbol of power, but of fertility as well, and Sonja is made to play the role of mother to young Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.), on one occasion even suggesting to put him over one “knee and beat some manners into him”. That Red Sonja, Kalidor and Tarn are treated as a nuclear family is obvious from the scenes where Tarn imitates the fighting movements of both his surrogate parents. But even the mother role is awkward for Sonja, for when she tries to teach Tarn to use a sword, Fleischer chooses to make it look as if the warrior is teaching him how to masturbate, once more underscoring how unacceptable a woman-warrior is for maternity and how sexual Red Sonja’s role is, despite her manly look. And it’s no coincidence that she’s made to look the most sexy and sensual when lying down after the rape or when temporarily unconscious and semi-naked:
Brigitte Nielsen has a great physical presence on-screen, and carries well her fighting scenes. In another movie, with another script and a more mature bend, she would have made a great Sonja, capable of both fierceness and femininity, tough and sensual, intimidating and alluring. As it is, she’s lost in the quagmire of a would-be third Conan picture. Just a promise to be fulfilled, not much more than a operatic caricature of a great comic-book character and the illustration of the troubles of the comics medium: a world aimed at kids, populated by females aimed at grown men. Not a fair fight at all.