Movies That Shaped Me: Red Sonja
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Clive Exton & George MacDonald Fraser
Starring: Brigitte Nielsen, Sandahl Bergman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul L. Smith, Ernie Reyes Jr.
Dino De Laurentiis Company
PG-13, 89 minutes
Red Sonja (1985) is a horrible movie. The dialogue is cliche, the acting flat, and there are inexplicable plot holes. It has an 18% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Arnold Schwarzenegger who starred opposite Brigitte Nielsen’s Red Sonja has been noted as saying that he uses the movie as a disciplinary tool for his children:
“I tell them, if you get on my bad side, they’ll be forced to watch Red Sonja ten times in a row. Consequently, none of my kids has ever given me much trouble.” (IMDB)
If I had been Arnie’s kid, I would have been in trouble a lot.
My first idol was Red Sonja. Granted, I was first exposed to Red Sonja via the 1985 movie not the comics.
I imagine I would have had a very different reaction, as would have my mother, had Red Sonja been dressed in the film like the comic Red Sonja. In looking at the comic Red Sonja, it’s pretty clear that a young girl is not the audience that Marvel is aiming for. Despite being a warrior – the chain mail bikini pretty much negates potential for identification or even aspiration. But back to the movie. My mom, a fan of the Conan movies and the sword-and-sorcery genre in general, shared the movie with me because it had two female warriors and featured Sandahl Bergman who had played the female lead and warrior in Conan the Barbarian (notably, Bergman did all her own stunt work in Conan).
Red Sonja quickly became a frequent rewatch in our household. I was enthralled. The movie was originally intended to capitalize on Schwarzenegger’s Conan fame, but the film company could not acquire the rights to the Conan name. Though Schwarzenegger received top billing, he only plays a bit part as barbarian warrior Kalidor.
Instead, Red Sonja centers on the conflict between antagonist Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) and Red Sonja played by Brigitte Nielsen. Both actresses were nominated for Razzie Awards for the film. Red Sonja was Brigitte Nielsen’s first role, and while her acting is often wooden and stilted, she’s dynamic in the fight scenes and undeniably statuesque. Producer Dino De Laurentiis is said to have to struggled with finding a woman who could fill Red Sonja’s boots. He spied Brigitte Nielsen, a model at the time, and she was hired not long before filming began.
Bergman’s scenery-chewing portrayal of Gedren is delightful and appropriate for a fantastical villainess like Gedren. And besides, I was a kid. I didn’t care about acting technique. I cared about watching two women play powerful warriors. Add horses, a fantastical landscape, outrageous costuming, and swordplay, and there was no doubt in my young mind that Red Sonja was the best movie EVER! It was like the live action version of She-ra, and warrior women have always been iconic in our household: Xena and Gabrielle, Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Sorcha from Willow, Buffy, Zoe Washburne, and Cynthia Rothrock in all of her martial arts movies from the 80s and 90s.
The film begins with Queen Gedren of the Land of Eternal Night and her army invading the lands of Red Sonja’s people. Gedren expresses an interest in Sonja as her royal consort: together they can “rule the world.” Sonja rejects Gedren and uses a mace to disfigure the side of her face. In retaliation, Gedren orders her men to kill Sonja’s family and “have their way” with Sonja. (Rape is not explicitly mentioned in the narrative, and there’s a brief scene of a soldier on top of a screaming Sonja. I only realized later what was intended.)
Gedren had no counterpart in the comics prior to the film. She was created for the film and later appeared in a comic book adaptation of the film by Louise Simonson and Mary Wilshire. The character of Gedren was criticized for showing homosexuality in a negative light. Throughout the film, Gedren is shown to be not just power-hungry, but mentally unstable: the “Psycho Lesbian” trope rears its ugly head yet again.
Gedren is also notable because in Red Sonja’s first origin story (written by Roy Thomas and Doug Moench), a gang of male mercenaries rape her and murder her family. However, in the movie, Red Sonja’s rape and the murder of her family occurs at the order of a female ruler. This is an important plot change. After the raping and pillaging, the goddess Scathach appears to Sonja and anoints her with special powers on the condition she never lay with a man unless he can defeat her in battle. This is consistent with the Roy Thomas’ origin, but when the antagonist becomes female, the interpretation becomes vastly different. At first, it seems empowering to have two warrior women battling it out, and Red Sonja certainly passes the Bechdel test. However, this important origin change and several other crucial plot points make Red Sonja less empowering than it appears. Much like 1980s postfeminism, Sonja and Gedren both appear active and in control, statuesque and uncompromising–if you just ignore everything else going on around them.
Time passes, and Gedren is now after the talismen, a supernatural jewel with the ability “to make and destroy worlds.” The talisman is a highly feminized object, a metaphor for the threat of female power. When exposed to light (the light of reason–male), the talisman’s power increases. If it is kept in the dark (irrationality–female), it can do no harm. The talisman’s power causes thunderstorms and other natural causes often associated with witchcraft and can only be touched by women.
As a lesbian, Gedren is a significant threat to the patriarchal order of the world in which the movie and its characters inhabit. The sword and sorcery genre is typically a patriarchal world where the men largely outnumber the women, and only a few women manage to survive by either becoming savage warriors or attaching to powerful men. No man can usurp Gedren it seems, and many men serve her ends including her all-male army and a variety of sorcerers and aides. The only other woman in her company, who has one line in the entire film, appears to be a consort of Gedren’s; a plaything who must do her bidding as everyone else does. In sum, Gedren undermines the patriarchal order by not only being in complete control, but also by appearing to not even sexually desire men. She only has need for them to serve her quest for power.
The warrior priestesses are in the midst of a ceremony to cut off the power of the talisman–doing the work of the patriarchy, but it’s okay since they are warrior priestesses. Gedren and her all-male army invade the tower. The warrior priestesses fight hard, but are overcome by Gedren’s army. One of the priestesses, a redhead, escapes. As she flees, one of Gedren’s men shoots an arrow into her back which is fortunately when Arnie arrives.
Arnie’s role in the film as Kalidor is intriguing. While he has very little screentime in comparison to Red Sonja, he ends up asserting considerable control over the story and the viewer’s identification. At the bequest of the wounded priestess who is Red Sonja’s sister (guess she survived, too), he finds Red Sonja and brings her to her sister. This is largely Kalidor’s role throughout the film; to show up when needed or when Red Sonja appears to be getting in over her head. This constantly undermines Red Sonja’s independence. As does his romantic interest in her.
Kalidor ends up following Red Sonja as he is the High Lord deemed to destroy the talisman (women can touch it, but only men may destroy it), which is also Red Sonja’s mission per her sister’s bidding. Throughout the film, the camera pans out to reveal Red Sonja traversing the sweeping landscape to the epic music of Ennio Morricone, but this view is from Kalidor’s perspective.
When Red Sonja learns that Kalidor has been following her, he reveals he is the High Lord sent to destroy the talisman, but he has additional motives–he is interested in Red Sonja. (So, he’s kind of being a stalker.) Red Sonja bursts his bubble by explaining to him:
Red Sonja: No man may have me, unless he’s beaten me in a fair fight.
Kalidor: So, the only man that can have you is one who’s trying to kill you. That’s logic.
And Kalidor is right. But in this case, the killing is symbolic. Kalidor must dominate Red Sonja via the sword (a symbolic phallus) before he can have sex with her. By defeating her, the patriarchal order is restored. This little clause has long been an element of Red Sonja’s origin story. (Gail Simone takes this to task in issue #10–it’s hilarious and well worth the read for any fan.) While Red Sonja is imbued with supernatural power and skill in physical battle, she must do so on the condition that she have no sexual desire. If she did, she would be an even bigger threat to the patriarchal order.
Kalidor and Red Sonja battle and eventually wear themselves out unable to defeat one another. (The sexual metaphor is painfully obvious.) While Kalidor’s background is never revealed, it would seem Red Sonja, imbued with supernatural strength and prowess, could defeat Kalidor, a mere human assumably, but this is not the case. At one point, when they are invading Gedren’s castle, Kalidor has to help Red Sonja up the wall they are scaling. Again, why would someone imbued with supernatural strength need this help? In fact, Red Sonja’s independence is frequently presented as practically endearing: if only she would accept that she cannot operate alone. This could be potentially transgressive by undermining the ideal of the lone wolf, but the film insists that it is specifically a man’s help Red Sonja as a woman needs.
Red Sonja: But why didn’t you tell me who you were?
Kalidor: You didn’t seem to want a man’s help. But you needed it, so that’s why I followed you. I had to be sure you reached the talisman.
Red Sonja: I see, I misunderstood. I thought you had another reason.
Kalidor: I did. (He kisses her.)
Even the mystical Asian grandmaster (orientalism was a huge influence on the genre) warns Red Sonja:
“Hatred of men in a lovely, young woman could be her downfall.”
She assures him she doesn’t hate all men. #notallmen
Now let’s examine this altogether:
- Only a High Lord can destroy the talisman though only women can touch it. Who has more agency here?
- Kalidor frequently shows up at the last minute to save Red Sonja’s ass indicating that she cannot get along without his assistance. It is later emphasized that it is specifically a man’s help that she needs.
- Kalidor is equal to Red Sonja in battle though she is imbued with supernatural strength by a warrior goddess. Dafuq is that about?
- The camera positions the audience gaze of Red Sonja from Kalidor’s perspective who we quickly learn is romantically interested in her. This gaze controls the way in which the audience views Red Sonja by forcing us to identify with the heterosexual male lead.
Considering this, the potential for Red Sonja as truly empowering starts to unravel. Gedren looks to be the better option. But, don’t worry, Red Sonja will soon handle that in the service of the patriarchy. Red Sonja ultimately defeats Gedren and destroys the talisman herself–no High Lord needed. It starts to feel a little good, a little cathartic, but then it’s more like this:
Red Sonja can bring home the bacon, fry it, and assure Kalidor he is still a man because Red Sonja is empowered. Her roles change…as in they increase, but his do not.
If we accept Red Sonja outside the context of the film, she is a great figure to enact our own feminist narratives. I loved Ariel from The Little Mermaid for similar reasons, but on closer examination, Ariel’s defiance is motivated by her passion for Eric and reinforces the old adage that all women really want is marriage. Similarly, Red Sonja’s independence and rebellion against the patriarchal order is frequently undermined.
Fortunately, as a child, the romance part was largely forgettable for me, and my mother always emphasized the warrior component. I was and am lucky to have the influence of my mother as my first feminist figure even if she would never have claimed the moniker herself. However, we don’t develop our ideas independently of outside influences. I enjoy a little light romance in my action films, but all too often we are presented with conflicting messages of “empowered” or “strong women.” These characters are powerful until the male lead walks onto the screen, and suddenly the narrative succumbs to him, to his desires and needs. She starts to play second fiddle to him though we get thrown in our face that she “chooses” to do so or that she “chooses” to wear stiletto heels while engaged in hand-to-hand combat. While Red Sonja is a 1985 film, this pattern still continues today. So in conclusion, movie people, don’t fuck up Storm this way.