The Revision: Red Sonja

Red Sonja was created in 1973 by writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith for Marvel Comics. Partially based on several of Robert E. Howard’s characters, Red Sonja first appeared in Conan the Barbarian before being promoted into her own solo series.

Cover of The Further Adventures of Red Sonja: Vol. 1

As a character, it does depend on who is writing Red Sonja, but she’s typically independent, tough, thoughtful, and empathetic. Yes, she’s essentially wearing a bikini of scale armor but her sexuality is rarely the focus (or at least not the only focus).

She, unfortunately, has the typical backstory too many women characters get — her family was killed and she was raped (at least in her original origin anyway) but the stories rarely dwell on that. Sonja’s life doesn’t revolve around men and she’s always willing to prove the people who underestimate her wrong. Her world is full of violence and magic, but there’s still plenty of time for humor. It’s a surprising amount of fun.

Many women have written and drawn Red Sonja stories, from Mary Wilshire and Louise Simonson earlier on to Gail Simone and Amy Chu more recently and I think that’s great.

It’s easy for me to see why so many women immediately connected with this character. I didn’t expect to as much as I did but after finishing the two books I had, I wanted more (I ended up buying the 1983 run).

Red Sonja (1985, directed by Richard Fleischer) isn’t taken from any specific story from the comic, but just the general idea. Sonja’s (Brigitte Nielsen) origin story is mostly intact, although her family is killed and she’s raped under the direction of evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) for rebuffing her advances (we’re off to a really good start here). Then there’s stuff about an orb, the Talisman, that has the power to destroy and only women can touch, which ends up in Gedren’s hands. People fight with swords and there’s something that almost resembles a plot.

Following two Conan movies, Red Sonja probably seemed like an easy sell. It was, after all, more of the same as those other two movies. It even also had Arnold Schwarzenegger, who … didn’t play Conan in this (well, at least not by name, but essentially, Lord Kalidor is Conan). Bergman who played Valeria in the first two movies is also obviously playing a different character (but at least she seems like she’s having fun) These are the first of the baffling choices this movie makes.

It’s actually a rare movie where I wished it was longer. Do I think that would’ve made it better? Probably not, but so much of it felt like jumping from one set piece to another set piece without much to connect it. There are other things, like how Red Sonja had just completed her training and was given a sword mere moments before Not Conan came looking for her help. It doesn’t feel like amazing timing so much as it is just sloppy writing.

And speaking of sloppy, for a movie that features a lot of fighting with swords, these are some terribly choreographed fights. I’m not asking for much, but these are essentially some swords banging together and then some quick edits to hide stunt work.

I don’t dislike the idea of Nielsen as Sonja, although she’s not quite right for the part (her styling could’ve had something to do with that, too — her hair is this weird long mullet). I understand why she was cast, though, and she does bring a physicality to the role that feels appropriate. Her acting isn’t up to the bits of humor sprinkled in here and there but it’s not like much of that would’ve been funny anyway.

There is an entirely exhausting subplot with the young Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) and his caretaker, Falkon (Paul L. Smith). I think it’s meant to show Sonja’s humanity but obnoxious children in movies will always be obnoxious.

I do have to say the production design of this movie is great. Sonja’s costume isn’t a metal bikini but it captures her vibe really well. Gedren’s black and gold outfits are dazzling. The sets look pretty good. Some effects, like the alligator-like Killing Machine, are decently cool.

But like I said, it’s all just set pieces. You know Sonja’s going to defeat Gedren and destroy the Talisman the moment this movie started. There’s little excitement in getting there. While Schwarzenegger was probably a bit of a draw, giving Sonja three male companions to help her is also antithetical to her character. It was the ’80s but by having the major antagonist be another woman is tiresome, especially since Sonja spends so much of the comic holding her own and fighting against men.

A new Red Sonja has been in the works for nearly decades now but it feels like it’s going to be trapped in development hell forever. I think a more modern take on the character could work, but I also feel like it would be hard to pull off in a way that’s satisfying. But until that happens, I’m glad I have the comic.

I will have a couple of things to write about when it comes to Red Sonja on my Patreon later this week.

Note: I am taking a break from The Revision for the next few weeks so I can focus on something else that I’ll be posting here. My Patreon posts will continue, though, and The Revision will resume on July 12.