Hello, Tor.com! Please to be welcome to my next effort of Great Nostalgia!
Which be, today, 1985’s sword and sorcery classic, Red Sonja! Swords! Magic! Brigitte Nielsen! Inadvertent Ah-nold! Whoo!
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
I didn’t really realize it until I gave it some thought (mostly as a result of doing this blog series, in fact), but of the adult figgers in my life, it was almost exclusively my mother who formed and enabled my tastes in speculative fiction—mostly because those were (and are) her tastes as well. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting with my mother and watching (on our big enormous 12-inch screen) Linda Carter in Wonder Woman and Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman, along with reruns of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, and of a deeply weird show featuring a British dude in a giant scarf I only later realized was the Tom Baker incarnation of Doctor Who. She loved to watch Morgus the Magnificent, a show which you’ve almost certainly never heard of if you didn’t grow up in New Orleans, but was essential viewing for every nascent movie geek and horror aficionado who did, which was how I got introduced to Hitchcock, among many others.
It was my mother who bought me The Hobbit and the Narnia books, who took me to the library and let me loose in the SF/F aisle, who took me and my sisters to see E.T. and the rerelease of Fantasia and the Star Wars movies, whose lifelong Trekkieness led her to forcibly corral the whole family and get us all firmly addicted to Star Trek: The Next Generation when it premiered in 1987. So basically when it came to entertainment, I followed my mother’s lead and my sisters (mostly) followed mine.
My father, by contrast, was… not really involved in the entertainment end of things. Outdoor and physical fun was much more his purview. He was the one who took us out to parks and taught us to waterski and built us swings and playhouses and tried (almost entirely in vain, the poor dear) to get us interested in hunting and fishing. My father was one of those who really did not have a whole lot of investment in fiction of any stripe; aside from the aforementioned mandatory TNG time, when he watched television it largely tended toward things like nature documentaries and news programs and, heaven help us, fishing shows. So other than having a vague recollection of watching a few genre-overlap shows like the original Cosmos series with him, my memories of produced entertainment and my memories of my father largely do not intersect.
There is, however, one very big exception to this rule, and that was because for some reason, despite all his other inclinations to the contrary, nevertheless my father loved, loved, LOVED Conan the Barbarian movies.
I mean, seriously adored them. Or any of their ilk, really—if it involved swords and magic and ambiguously medievalish settings and improbably muscled dudes and scantily clad (but also muscled) chicks, my dad was on it like white on rice. It is kind of hilarious in retrospect—really, it was hilarious at the time—that my father of all people should so enjoy what a lot of people regard as the least respectable (or at least the most easily mockable) subgenre of fantasy out there, when all the rest of it left him mostly cold.
I dunno, whatever it was about those movies, they just worked for him. Maybe it was just all the skin on display, but he also seemed to derive great glee from the improbable plotlines and the crazy dialogue and the fighting and the, well, everything about it, really. The upshot was, if there was a Conan or Conan-esque movie on TV, he was going to be watching it, come hell or high water.
And more often than not, my sisters and I would be right there watching it with him. As a result, my sisters and I have seen an awful lot more of the sword and sorcery section of the ’80s fantasy oeuvre than I think we otherwise ever would have. Not that I remember most of it very clearly.
And the reason I say that is that the other thing I am realizing about myself as a result of this blog is that my preferences regarding “wanting as many awesome female characters as possible” in my fiction-consuming life was set way way earlier than I had previously been aware of. I didn’t know it at the time, and wouldn’t be able to articulate it for many years, but apparently I was a feminist even before I knew what feminism was, or why it was important. And it was important, of course, precisely because my want for meaningful ladies in my fiction was a want that was so often thwarted.
But I didn’t have any real concept of all of that when I was a kid, of course. All I knew as a young ’un was that if a given TV show or movie or book failed to contain at least one interesting female character (“interesting” being a very important qualifier there), my interest in it, and my later retention of memories regarding it, tended to drop precipitously. Which is perhaps why, other than a few vivid mental images of Grace Jones, most of these particular kinds of movies have sort of smeared all together in my memory into a blur of sweat and furred Speedos and well-oiled biceps and testosterone.
(Note: do an image search for “furry Speedos” at your peril. THAT IS NOT WHAT I MEANT GOOGLE AAAGGH)
This is not necessarily to say these movies weren’t fun, or even that they were all automatically sexist (though, uh, honestly I’m not very optimistic about their chances on that score, generally speaking). But I honestly couldn’t say one way or the other, because the truth is I just don’t remember very much about them.
But there is, of course, one very big (and very obvious) exception to THAT rule, and that, naturally, is my father’s absolute favorite of all these movies, and ours too: 1985’s Red Sonja.
It is important to note at the outset that as children we were pretty much completely ignorant of Red Sonja’s provenance—either of her origin as a character in the Robert E. Howard Conan stories of the 1930s, or her later incarnation in the 1970s as perhaps the most impractically costumed Marvel comics heroine of all time—which is really saying something. And in fact even today the only knowledge I have of her earlier iterations is via the Internet. Mostly because even just looking at the Marvel covers online convinces me that whatever is happening in those comics is really really really not going to be relevant to my interests. Let’s just say, there’s boob armor, and then there’s the chainmail bikini. Holy hell.
Given that, any objections I might have had to Brigitte Nielsen’s costume in the movie version really rather fade in contrast. Even though in practical terms her outfit is still utterly ridiculous, by comparison to the comic version of her, the movie version of Red Sonja is downright demure.
KATE: And her red fur cloak thing is KICKASS.
Even so, I suppose it might be surprising that I so like this movie and this character, given her highly problematic origins. But here’s the thing: the scantily cladness of it all aside, what I (mostly subconsciously) loved about Red Sonja the movie then, and what still impresses me about it now, is that the female characters in it—all the female characters in it—are unquestionably shown to possess authority and power of their own, whether for evil or for good. They are not ciphers or helpless damsels, but forces to be reckoned with in their own right. And that, my friends, is a rare beast to find in Hollywood, particularly in the 1980s.
Even the fight at the very beginning, where the priestesses guarding the MacGuffin I’m sorry the Talisman are slaughtered by Queen Gedren’s invading forces… well, even aside from the fact that the scene shows them acquitting themselves very well against their attackers, even if they are ultimately outnumbered and overwhelmed, the fact that their conquerors are led by a woman, even a batshit crazy one, resonated with me. That was significant, even if I didn’t totally get why at the time.
Because this is a movie in which women mattered. It was a movie which, like Willow, passed the Bechdel Test effortlessly from the start, and surpassed Willow in that it showed multiple relationships between Sonja and other women which are far more complex than the “chicks fighting over/endlessly discussing dudes” dynamic that is so drearily often the sole way in which we see female characters interacting with each other onscreen.
Even the overt “lesbianism=evil” vibe that Queen Gedren displays was not enough to dispel my approbation of this fact. Though I must admit that my sisters and I were all rather startled at both that, and the depiction of Sonja being gang raped at the opening of the movie (for refusing Gedren’s advances, no less!). Liz is fairly certain that our shock is largely because we never actually saw the opening segment of the movie (in which a half-dead Sonja is visited by a (female) spirit who grants her the strength to get revenge on Gedren for the murder of her family and her rape) until now; she thinks the opening segment was simply edited out of the broadcast version we saw on TV, probably as much for its blatant references to gayness as for its depiction of rape, which just goes to show you. Considering I didn’t remember that bit of the movie at all, when I remembered the rest relatively clearly, I am inclined to think she is right.
The thing is, though, even from my modern perspective and with all of that taken into account, I still feel like the movie is more empowering than it is exploitative. I don’t know that everyone would agree with me on that, any more than than they might agree that this is actually a movie worth watching. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking. But all I can tell you is, I admired (and still admire) the shit out of Sonja and her determination to beat all the chauvinist pigs she came up against at their own game. I loved that the other members of her party respected her as a warrior, even if they also desired her as a woman. I loved that the ultimate conflict and showdown of the movie was between Sonja and Gedren, and that I completely believed and understood their respective reasons for engaging in that showdown. Even if Gedren’s motivations were batshit crazy, they still made perfect sense in context because she is batshit crazy.
GEDREN: You gave me facial scars!
SONJA: You slaughtered my family!
GEDREN: Whatever, LOOK, SCARS. ON MY FACE. I KEEL YOU. TOTES REASONABLE.
Hahaha, awesome. Liz totally wants to cosplay Gedren sometime. I mostly just wanted to play with her badass silver mesh hipscarf, because metallic cloth is awesome, so that shows you where my priorities are.
Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger was in this movie.
Apparently a lot more than he had intended to be, actually. It transpires that producer Dino De Laurentiis had played fairly fast and loose with Schwarzenegger’s multi-picture contract at the time, and with what did and did not constitute fulfilling that contract. The story goes that Ah-nold got pretty miffed at being duped into playing second fiddle to a female lead (heaven for-fucking-fend), while basically playing the Conan part and yet not being able to claim the official title, and that his professional relationship with De Laurentiis disintegrated soon after. Is any of this true? Who the hell knows. But it unfortunately rings pretty true to me.
Other random things:
ME: OMG it’s Ernie Reyes, Jr.! He’s the kid from the Ninja Turtles sequel!
Yep, turns out he was. And turns out I am an even gianter geek than may have been previously supposed, that I knew that off the top of my head. Both my sisters, for instance, were extremely judgy that I knew that. Thbbt. Nevertheless, I think Reyes did a really good job playing the spoiled rotten prince with a secret core of moral steel, and I enjoyed his and Sonja’s interactions now as much as I did back in the day.
In other Hollywood incestry, there are other familiar faces here: Most obviously is Sandahl Bergman, who played the love interest in the first Conan movie as well as evil Queen Gedren in this one (definitely a step up, IMO), and Pat Roach, who has previously appeared in the MRGN as the skull-helmeted General Kael in Willow, and apparently made quite the career out of playing ’80s-ish era protagonist-obstacle thugs in general, in everything from the Kevin Costner Robin Hood to multiple bad guys in the Indiana Jones trilogy.
And speaking of Indiana Jones alums, there is also Ronald Lacey, who played the most menacing coat hanger of a villain we’re likely to ever see in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and was very convincingly slimy here as Gedren’s right-hand-man-turned-traitor-and-later-squashed-by-impractical-door-mechanisms. You know, as people so frequently are.
And, there’s probably a lot more I could say about Red Sonja, but I am running out of time (and brain), so I will sum up by reporting what Sister Liz says about it:
LIZ: I feel like most people would consider this a bad movie, and maybe it is. But we watched it with our dad so many times when we were kids, and he loved it so much, and just for that I will always love it, too.
And she is right, but I would also add that we loved it not just because our dad loved it (though that was a big factor), but because of all the movies we watched with him, this was the one we could identify with most. Because with Red Sonja, just for once, we didn’t have to pretend we were boys to get to be the hero and save the day. And that was pretty frickin’ cool. Even if we also had to imagine we were wearing boob armor to do it.
KATE: Also, she has the best femullet known to man.
And so, as nearly always, we end with my Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!
And that’s the MRGN for the nonce, kids! Have a lovely Thanksgiving next week if that is your national inclination, and a lovely random November Thursday iffn it isn’t, and rejoin me the following Thursday for a look at one of our absolute favorite nostalgia movies: 1986’s The Golden Child! Now go on home and stop smoking scrolls, go on. Whoo!