HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Seeing Red

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, he answers why Red Sonja gets profiled here and Conan the Barbarian does not.

So, if you have been following all the installments of this series, and have noticed that they followed a certain chronological pattern, you might have also realized that when 1982 rolled around, we didn’t cover John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian

…or its sequel, 1984’s Conan the Destroyer, which had the added incentive of being written by comic book writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway…

…while also ignoring the Conan the Barbarian remake from August…

…yet I am going to devote an installment to Red Sonja, a movie adapted from a character that made her debut as a supporting character in the Conan the Barbarian comic book? What gives?

Well, even though Conan has had a long and productive history in the world of comic books, he was not created in a comic book. Conan first appeared in a series of short stories written by Robert E. Howard that ran in the magazine Weird Tales in the early 1930’s.

You might ask, “Well, didn’t Howard also create Red Sonja? Didn’t she appear in one of these stories too?” Yes and no.

Howard created a character called Red Sonya that appeared in a bit of historical fiction titled The Shadow of the Vulture that appeared in Magic Carpet Magazine in 1934. The story is set not in the Hyborian age of Conan, but in the 16th century and features a gun wielding Sonya facing off against Suleiman the Magnificent. 

Howard’s original character had no connection to Conan before Roy Thomas and Barry Smith used her in the Conan comic book. Most of the character’s attributes and personality were created and defined in the comic. So, therefore, her movie is more of a comic book adaptation than Conan’s were.  That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

Red Sonja first appeared in Conan the Barbarian #23 in 1973 with her origin appearing in Kull and the Barbarians #3. Sonja was a victim of a mercenary attack on her village. The mercenaries killed her family and brutally raped her before setting fire to her family home. She cried out to the gods seeking vengeance and was answered. Scáthach, a warrior woman from Celtic mythology, hears her prayers and grants Sonja the skills of a seasoned warrior, better than most men, to use in her pursuit of justice. The only qualification is that Sonya must never “lie with a man” that cannot best her in combat.

This origin is the chink in the armor (which, in Red Sonja’s case, would be a chain mail bikini, which would be another chink in said armor) of Red Sonja becoming a strong, kick-ass female character. Red Sonja is more than a match for any man she meets. She is capable, skilled and intelligent. Yet, the reason why she is that way is because of a brutal act done to her when she was a teenager. That’s enough to make many people uncomfortable. Add to it the fact that she will become docile and submissive if a man can beat her in combat makes the character even more troublesome.

That part of her origin carrying over to the Red Sonja film might have been one of the reasons why it was a failure.

Red Sonja was greenlit to fill in the space between the successful Conan the Barbarian and the planned, yet never filmed second Conan sequel, Conan the Destroyer. Danish model Brigitte Nielson, hired mostly for her looks and height, was cast as Sonja. Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to play Conan in the film, but, in perhaps a telling move, had his character changed to a “Lord Kalidor,” who was essentially everything Conan was except in name. 

The dark aspect of Sonja’s origin was included in the film, and served as a jarring contrast to the campy, high-adventure aspect of the rest of the film. The film flopped at the box office and was widely panned by the critics.

At the 2008 San Diego Comic Con, Robert Rodriguez announced that he was going to produce a new Red Sonja film starring his then-fiancée Rose McGowan in the lead. At teaser poster was presented at the time, showing a red-headed McGowan as Sonja, seductively liking blood off of her sword (Groan). Both McGowan and Rodriguez sounded fairly enthusiastic at the time (although McGowan slightly more enthusiastic than Rodriguez):

Financial woes delayed the film and caused Rodriguez to drop out. McGowan played an entirely different character in Conan the Barbarian, so it’s anyone’s guess if there will be a new Red Sonja film. Latest is that Avi Lerner is producing, Simon West is directing, and McGowan is out as the lead. But that is subject to change.

Next, we continue our journey through the morass of 1980s comic book films by asking, “George Lucas producing a comic book adaptation? What could go wrong?”

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About William Gatevackes 1932 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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