The flames of her burning home as red as her hair, Sonja was the only survivor of the assault ordered by Queen Gedren of Berkubane upon her family; awoken by a voice from the netherworld, it stirs her to a call of justice and vengeance too late to save her sister and the mystical order who are seeking to destroy a powerful object known as the Talisman, seized by the forces of Queen Gedren who leave nothing but bodies behind them.
Allying herself with Lord Kalidor of Hyrkania, a warrior and master swordsman, and less enthusiastically with the child Prince Tarn of Hablock and his guardian Falkon, Sonja must traverse the wild lands and the traps laid by the Queen Gedren’s generals and wizards to defeat her and plunge the Talisman into darkness before its power splits open the rocks and engulfs them all in flame.
Arnold Schwarzenegger already established as a Hollywood star with Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator, he reunited with Richard Fleischer, director of Conan the Destroyer, for the 1985 adaptation of Red Sonja, another character of the Hyborian Age from the pen of Robert E Howard. Ostensibly a supporting role, Schwarzenegger is top billed over inexperienced newcomer Brigitte Nielsen and in practical terms reprises the monosyllabic barbarian in all but name; Sandahl Bergman, formerly Conan’s ally Valeria, at least switches sides and dons a mask for her turn as the evil Queen Gedren.
Red Sonja a by-the-numbers sword and sorcery production financed by the studios of Dino De Laurentiis, there is a feeling that with a background in conventional British drama screenwriters Clive Exton and George MacDonald Fraser did not click with the source material, the poor dialogue leaving the acting as a race to the bottom, and despite having created the classic science fiction films 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Fantastic Voyage as well as Norse epic The Vikings nor does Fleischer bring excitement to proceedings, though where he and his team excel is in the creation of the fantastical realm.
With maquettes and matte paintings, the skyline is dominated by idolatrous sculptures and sinister temples, ravine of lava crossed by bridges constructed from the skeletons of terrible beasts, interior chambers lit by firelight and candles, the set design and costumes by Flash Gordon’s Danilo Donati spectacular yet ridiculously impractical, the priestesses entering battle in skimpy negligees rather than any form of armour.
Restored from the original 35mm negative for StudioCanal, Red Sonja cannot overcome its flaws, unbalanced by making a secondary character the lead and inappropriately forcing Nielsen into a thankless maternal – or at least big sister – role with the insufferable Prince Tarn when she should be a warrior and champion, the new edition unfairly ignoring her entirely and instead featuring a documentary praising Schwarzenegger and a series of interviews from production crew in addition to a feature-length history of the artist Renato Casaro who provides the new cover.