RED SONJA – Ennio Morricone
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Cashing in on the popular success of Conan the Barbarian and the various other sword-and-sorcery epics of the early 1980s was Red Sonja, the tale of a barbarian warrior princess, based on the original story by Robert Howard, the creator of Conan, and directed by Richard Fleischer. The film starred Brigitte Nielsen, the Danish supermodel and future wife of Sylvester Stallone in her first acting job, in the title role as a woman seeking vengeance upon those who murdered her parents, while simultaneously embarking on a quest to find a magical talisman whose power could destroy the world. Despite the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a supporting role as the legendary swordsman Lord Kalidor, the film was critically decimated, receiving brickbats for its acting, writing, direction, and wooden action sequences. In fact, possibly the only member of the cast and crew of Red Sonja to escape unscathed was the legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who unexpectedly found himself scoring the movie.
Morricone was splitting his time fairly evenly between Europe and Hollywood in the mid 1980s – his output around that time included such classics as Once Upon a Time in America in 1984 and The Mission in 1986 – so for him to have scored a fairly mainstream movie like Red Sonja was not out of the ordinary, especially considering that the film was shot mainly in Italy with a predominantly Italian crew. Morricone was not entirely new to the fantasy genre either, having scored the little-known Anglo-Spanish effort Hundra in 1983, whose star Laurene London was also considered for the Red Sonja title role. In fact there are a number of conceptual similarities between Red Sonja and Hundra, including the overall tone of Morricone’s music, which was adventurous and bombastic. In many ways, Red Sonja can be seen as a blending of Morricone’s own fantasy style with some of the compositional touches Basil Poledouris brought to his Conan scores, especially in terms of the choral writing, and the prominent use of solo trumpets and lyrical woodwinds to lead the thematic lines. As such, anyone who knows and enjoys any of those works will find much to their liking here too.
After a brief diversion for a cooing choir in the magical “Prologue,” the “Main Title” presents a rousing performance of a heroic, galloping theme for solo trumpet, which is passed around different sections of the orchestra as it progresses, even picking up a wordless choir during the cue’s second half. Many believe this to be Sonja’s theme, but it isn’t – it’s actually the theme for Lord Kalidor, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, who trains and guides Sonja throughout the story, and eventually becomes her lover. Although some may consider it to be too light and bouncy for a character intended to have a great deal of power and nobility, I’ve always really liked it. It’s a typical Morricone piece, and has a great deal in common with some of his spaghetti western themes, which often subverted the conventions of the genre by giving a vaguely comical aspect to their stoic heroes. Its subsequent recapitulations, in cues like “Vanna’s Death,” are welcome.
Sonja’s theme is actually a more intimate, gently romantic idea, a six-note rising and falling motif for woodwinds and strings, which is less about raw power and barbarism, and more of a lament, reflecting on the terrible wrongs done to her, and the honorable nature of her quest. You don’t really hear it until the second half of “Vanna’s Death” – the actual catalyst for Sonja’s mission – but its performances in that cue, and subsequently in “Sonja Teaches Tarn,” “Kalidor and Sonja,” and “A Fair Fight” are really lovely. Morricone often adorns the theme with a softly intonating choir and pretty harp glissandi, to further enhance the sense of righteousness that follows Sonja, while in the “End Credits” he adds a light pop rhythm section and solo trumpet flourishes, concluding the score on a surprisingly contemporary note.
The action music is powerful and aggressive, which is not something Morricone is known for. Each of the score’s main action cues – “Temple Raid,” “Fighting the Soldiers,” and “Sonja Defeats the Queen” – is built around a shrill, rising motif for complementary strings and brass, accompanied by great booming timpani hits, and a choir singing variations of the word ‘Sonja’. This last element should, under normal circumstances, reduce the score to a laughing stock – it did on Leonard Rosenman’s Robocop 2 – but the sincerity of the performances, and the creativity of the musical ideas somehow make it work. Morricone has always been able to take ideas which, on paper, sound ludicrous – who knew that the combination of bass flute, electric guitar, coyote noises, and people whistling and grunting could become the legendary theme for The Good the Bad and the Ugly? – and Red Sonja continues that trend.
Other cues of note include the religioso harp and choir motif for “The Talisman,” which appears later in cues such as “Touch It” and the extended “The Chamber of Lights”; the superb restatement of the magical theme from the Prologue in “Sonja and the Sword Master”; and the nervous, staccato action sequences in “Sonia vs. Brytag” and “Entering the Castle,” which owe a great debt to the off-kilter rhythms from his 1970s suspense scores, including Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
Like many scores from this era, the release history of Red Sonja’s soundtrack is checkered and complicated. It was released on vinyl LP by Varese Sarabande at the time of the film’s release, but it was sequenced oddly, being presented as two long “Symphonic Suites for Chorus and Orchestra,” lasting 17 and 19 minutes respectively. The two Symphonic Suites were released on CD for the first time in 1990, coupled with Morricone’s score for the film Bloodline, as part of the Varese Sarabande CD Club, but that album quickly went out of print and became a highly prized collectible. Fans of the score would have to wait another 20 years for its first ‘proper release’, sequenced and broken down into individual cues, when Robin Esterhammer’s boutique label Perseverance Records released it as a 2000-copy limited edition in 2010. This is, by far, the recommended presentation of the score, and is the one people should seek out.
I think many people find themselves quite overwhelmed by Ennio Morricone’s vast filmography and discography, and don’t know where to go next once they have added the half dozen or so ‘essentials’ to their collections. With that in mind, I would not hesitate to recommend Red Sonja to people who want to explore some of Morricone’s less famous works. It has all the compositional hallmarks and stylistic ideas that make him such a wonderful composer, but it is much more accessible than many of his more experimental scores. The excellent trio of central themes, the exciting action music, and the overall ‘straightforwardness’ of the sound make it a more than worthwhile diversion.
Buy the Red Sonja soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Prologue (1:24)
- Main Title (2:22)
- The Talisman (3:15)
- Temple Raid (1:39)
- Touch It (1:03)
- Sonja and the Sword Master (1:49)
- Vanna’s Death (2:00)
- The Gate of Brytag (1:47)
- Sonja vs. Brytag (1:14)
- Fighting the Soldiers (3:36)
- The Chamber of Lights (2:02)
- Sorcery (0:46)
- Sonja Teaches Tam (1:33)
- Treasure in the Cavern (2:07)
- Kalidor and Sonja (1:43)
- A Fair Fight (1:50)
- Entering the Castle (2:12)
- Sonja Defeats the Queen (1:36)
- End Credits (3:42)
Running Time: 37 minutes 42 seconds
Perseverence Records PRD-035 (1985/2010)
Music composed and conducted by Ennio Morricone. Performed by Unione Musiciste de Roma. Orchestrations by Ennio Morricone. Recorded and mixed by Sergio Marcotulli. Edited by Cesare d’Amico. Score produced by Ennio Morricone. Album produced by Robin Esterhammer.