Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 5
Red Sonja (1985)
The Barbarian Boom has now arrived at 1985, the trough at the low point of the arc, the rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel. What can I say? These are stinkers. At least the first two, Lost Kingdom and the notorious Red Sonja, have got parts that are so jaw-droppingly dumb that you can have fun pointing at them and hooting. However, Barbarian Queen is a movie that genuinely offends Your Cheerful Editor, which isn’t easy to do. Ugh. As always, your mileage may vary, but I don’t think anyone can champion these particular movies as genuinely good. Fortunately, the only direction from this nadir is up, as the fantasy genre slowly climbs toward the quality and respectability it will reach in, oh, fifteen years with the Peter Jackson Tolkien films.
Wizards of the Lost Kingdom
Origin: USA, 1985
Director: Héctor Olivera
Source: M Square DVD
Gah. This Frankenstein of a fantasy film was shot on the cheap in Argentina and then padded out with extensive excerpts from two other Roger Corman productions, Sorceress (1982) and Deathstalker (1983). Even the soundtrack is largely recycled from James Horner’s music for Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). You might be able to overlook these invasive implant scenes but for the fact that their grim massacres and human sacrifices are completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the picture, which attempts to be a light-hearted parody like Wizards and Warriors set in a fairy-tale kingdom rather than a barbaric wasteland.
The attempt fails. The main protagonist is a young wizard named Simon (Vidal Peterson, aged 15), who commands jaw-dropping magical powers one moment and then forgets all about them for twenty minutes at a time. An evil wizard named Shurka (Thom Christopher) has killed the king and usurped the throne, and to defeat him Simon must get into the royal castle to retrieve a magic ring that he stupidly dropped just before being teleported out by his dying wizardly father.
Simon finds help from a warrior hero named Kor the Conqueror (top-billed Bo Svenson), who isn’t the usual long-haired barbarian muscleman — in fact, he’s more like a has-been minor sports star turned amiable celebrity pitchman for infomercials, only with a sword. Simon also has a white polar-bear Wookiee sidekick named Halsak or Balsak or something who moans like Chewbacca and does absolutely nothing. Their opponents include lizard goblins, a werewolf chimp dwarf, flimsy Halloween ghosts, a witch who turns into a giant bug, and a lady-cyclops-in-a-wedding-dress whom Kor left at the altar, which is supposed to be funny. (It isn’t.) All their costumes are terrible.
Frankly, this thing is nearly unwatchable, below the bottom of the barrel, not even bad in an amusing way. Doing your laundry is a more satisfying experience; go do that.
Origin: Netherlands/USA, 1985
Director: Richard Fleischer
Source: StudioCanal DVD
Set in Conan-creator Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, with Arnold Schwarzenegger top-billed, this is essentially the third Conan movie, and it shows how a series can go from self-important to self-parody in just three pictures. A number of talented people worked on this movie, but nonetheless it stinks like a dead fish from head to tail.
The backstory of title character Red Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) is such a sword-and-sorcery cliché that the film doesn’t even bother to expend a full scene on it, just summarizes it in a quick flashback: an evil tyrant burns her family farmstead, kills her parents, and leaves Sonja for dead. She’s awakened by a goddess who looks like a cloudy version of Glinda the Good Witch and who magically endows Sonja with strength and fighting skill, which is condescending as fudge: can’t a woman learn to fight well without divine intervention?
Vengeance is duly vowed, plus Sonja swears, “No man may have me unless he has beaten me in a fair fight” — which elevates her sexual availability above her fighting skills, so don’t feel threatened by the strong woman, lads, this film has its priorities in order. Plus, eye candy: Sonja may not wear a chainmail bikini like in the comics, but her outfit is still plenty skimpy, without any of that unbecoming armor stuff.
There’s a plot, of sorts: Evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman, who’d turned down the role of Sonja), the tyrant who’d killed Sonja’s parents, sends her troops to a temple shaped like a traffic cone to slaughter its priestesses and obtain a glowing green beach ball called The Talisman that has the power to destroy the world. Coincidentally, Sonja’s sister is one of the priestesses and the only one to escape, though she lives just long enough to tell her tale to a beefy warrior named Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who sets out to find Sonja and bring her up to speed. Sonja has just completed her weapons training in the arena of the Statue of the Pooping Buddha, and she thanks Kalidor for his warning but, in a few wooden and emotionless lines, refuses his aid in going after Gedren.
As soon as she opens her mouth it’s clear that Brigitte Nielsen is awful, possibly the worst actor to appear in any of the three Conan-et-al. films, and that’s saying something. As for the rest of the cast, look, at this point in his career Schwarzenegger is still learning his trade as an actor, yet he has more screen presence than everyone else in this picture put together. Veteran director Richard Fleischer, faced with this script and this cast, seems to have simply shrugged and given up. He made only one more movie after this one, a promotional tie-in for Glad-Lock trash bags, the final act of a broken man.
Fortunately for Sonja, Kalidor won’t take no for an answer and keeps showing up to help her out every time she gets in a fix. Sonja collects two other sidekicks, a child ruler whom Gedren has dethroned who’s meant to be endearing, and his pudgy bodyguard, who keeps talking about going on a diet. Are there worse sidekicks in any Eighties barbarian movie? I don’t think so. Meanwhile, Gedren hasn’t figured out that a plan to conquer the world with a weapon that will destroy the world is the worst plan, so Sonja and her sidekicks decide to infiltrate her Evil Palace just as the world-destroying earthquakes start shakin’. Cue the climax!
However, in addition to being unable to act, Brigitte Nielsen can’t fence a lick, so in their final confrontation it’s clear that Sandahl Bergman is holding herself back from mopping the floor with her. In fact, the only person who comes out well from involvement in this travesty is composer Ennio Morricone, who delivered a jaunty and adventurous score. Go look for his soundtrack album and give the movie a hard pass.
Origin: Argentina/USA, 1985
Director: Héctor Olivera
Source: Shout! Factory DVD
This movie is a fraud: ostensibly it’s about women warriors taking revenge on their abductors and rapists, whereas actually the women’s rape and abuse are the true point of the picture. The cast of fierce women in buckskin bikinis and Eighties hair are put into harm’s way solely to be harmed for the titillation of the viewer. This sort of heavy-breathing misogyny has a long history in cheap exploitation horror movies, but it took a while in coming to fantasy films.
It would be tempting with a movie this reprehensible to simply dismiss it as utter crap, but though born of evil intentions Barbarian Queen is nonetheless made with a certain craft and care — which only makes it all the more clear that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing. The sets and costumes make the best of the movie’s low budget, and star Lana Clarkson is at least enthusiastic about her leading role, adding a level of energy generally lacking in the rest of the cast.
The setting is a generic barbarian fantasy world, and for that it’s hard to find better scenery than rural Argentina, where this was shot. A village of blond and tanned farmers is preparing for a wedding between Amethea (Clarkson) and Argan (Frank Zagarino, zero charisma) when they are attacked by dark-haired raiders who burn, rape, and enslave. Amethea and two of her friends escape the raid and set out in pursuit, determined to somehow liberate their abducted people. The trail leads to a generic fantasy city ruled by, as usual, an evil tyrant, in this case named Arrakur (Arman Chapman). (Yes, there are too many characters in this film whose names start with “A”.)
There’s a resistance group in town that’s preparing to fight back but isn’t ready yet, which frustrates the impatient Amethea, because her stolen tribesmen are being pitted against each other as gladiators, while the women are added to Arrakur’s harem or forced to service the gladiators.
One of Amethea’s friends is arrested by Arrakur’s guards, and when Amethea tries to rescue her she, too, is captured. Amethea is taken to a torture dungeon where she is stripped down to a skimpy thong, tied spread-eagled to a board, and tormented. This is not a mere aside in the plot: this is the centerpiece of the film, an extended scene in which Amethea is cruelly abused and then outright raped. The means by which she escapes from her rapist we won’t describe here, but it’s a sweaty-palmed lad’s masturbation fantasy.
However, escape she does, and the film then proceeds to its final phase, in which Amethea leads the gladiators and resistance fighters in an uprising to overthrow Arrakur. It’s the same scene that ends every sword-and-sandal movie, but here the combat is sadly inept, with the entire cast clearly looking forward to finishing up and collecting their paychecks. One can only hope that what they got made it worth what they had to go through.
Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.
Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:
The Barbarian Boom, Part 1
Old School Pirates
Euro Dumas Trio
The Barbarian Boom, Part 2
The New Zu Review
The Barbarian Boom, Part 3
An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age
Fables and Fairy Tales
Goofballs in Harem Pants, Part 2
Boy-Toys of Troy
Piracy – Two Wrecks and a Prize Ship
Postwar in the Greenwood
The Barbarian Boom, Part 4
Blood-Red and Blind: The Crimson Bat
Updating the Classics
Sink Me! Scarlet Pimpernels!
LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle, with the fifth volume, Between Two Kings, available now from Pegasus Books in the US and UK. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net.
Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3.
Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? Yeccchhhh.
I’ve never seen any of these films all the way through and just reading your review leaves me feeling queasy and grungy. For God’s sake, man, don’t ever do this to yourself again!
I salute Lawrence Elllsworth, who plunges himself into cinematic slime so we don’t have to.
I saw Red Sonja in the theater. I was young, but even then it was bad.
Great article and I pretty much agree with you on every word. In my own article for Black Gate, INTO THE 80S: A LOOK AT SOME OF THE FANTASY AND SWORD & SORCERY FILMS OF THE DECADE, I didn’t even mention Red Sonja. I had more important things to do.
Arnold really does bring it, doesn’t he? I saw the body-building documentary, Pumping Iron, before seeing any of his feature films, and already you can tell that he is a natural attention focal point.
Not long after, while watching one of the old variety, “wide world of sports” TV shows, I saw a barroom bouncer competition. (We all have high-brow entertainment standards here on Black Gate, no?) The first move, on entering the stage, was a punch-ometer that the contestants mashed. Except for the last guy, the one wearing a feather on one ear, who merely pushed the bag up and out of his way, too cool to need to show off his strength. And I thought, this guy … what’s his name? … Mr. T(?) … he’s the one to watch.
Barbarians in film haven’t fared all that well. Peter Jackson could stick to the Robert E. Howard stories and make great Conan movies.