Apologies for the lack of posts over the weekend; coming back from a trip, I missed the last train out of London and had to rely on a friend to pick me up. Thanks to her kindness, I did get home eventually, but not until very late at night, so no post on Saturday. Then I spent Sunday preparing for class and, er, sitting around in my pyjamas playing video games.
Anyway, as is the custom of our people, Monday is Movie Monday, and today’s film is 1954’s Sign of the Pagan, a movie I chose on no more recommendation than that it has Jack Palance playing Attila the Hun.
Yeah, you heard me. The first thing that leapt to mind was of course John Arsing Wayne in The Conqueror, but as we will see Palance is not quite so terribly miscast, although there were … interesting wardrobe choices. In fact, this movie is earlier than The Conqueror, which I was not expecting. If it was an inspiration for that crapfest, those guys had better hope the Lord is merciful.
Anyway, as with most of these old historical epics, it’s on YouTube, so you can follow along.
Here we go!
Now, the historical Attila is kind of a murky figure. He played a major role in an eight-volume history by a contemporary writer called Priscus, but unfortunately it was lost, so all we have are references to it from other sources. There’s some disagreement among the textual sources, but the basic outline of Attila’s campaigns against the Roman Empire and/or the Visigoths is clear. However, there’s much we don’t know about the historical Attila, and a lot of legend has sprung up around him.
The film takes an odd approach. Some of the time, it’s writing about the legend, and a lot of the time it’s just doing “for ‘Attila,’ read ‘generic barbarian’ throughout.”
Anyway, we begin with Marcian (utility Western star Jeff Chandler), a Roman soldier of humble origins, later to become the Emperor Marcian (reigned 450-457). In fact, the historical Marcian was originally a soldier of humble origins, although he probably didn’t look like a painted plaster statuette of Julius Caesar like this dipshit does. Marcian gets captured by the Huns while riding to deliver a message that displays a spectacular misunderstanding of what the separation of the Empire into its Eastern and Western halves meant.
The Huns are led by Attila, who …
… who …
… is Jack Palance in brownface.
This is a Bad Idea. Such a bad idea. But we’re not done with the story of this Bad Idea, although I’m not sure I took any pictures of it. Oh wait, I did. See, Attila has a daughter, Kubra (Rita Gam), who is not so bad. She’s like feisty and fierce and stuff, but she’s kind of nice. There is goodness within her. You can tell because:
She’s way whiter than he is. And she’s going to be whiter yet as the film progresses. So, yeah. 1954 won’t let us get through this movie without at least one dispiriting reminder of pervasive racial prejudice.
Aaaanyway, Marcian tricks Kubra into letting him escape, and rides to Constantinople to report in with General Paulinus. Who is a stock General, but he gets a mention here because:
It’s Jeff Morrow! Exter from This Island Earth! Look everybody, it’s Jeff Morrow!
The Eastern emperor, Theodosius II, is a cowardly schemer who plots to ally with the Huns and their various barbarian vassals while leaving the Western Empire to its fate. He also bullies his sister, Pulcheria. Now, when I saw this name, I laughed, but Theodosius II did in fact have a sister named Pulcheria, who ruled as regent when he was a kid. So there you go.
Pulcheria flirts a bit with Marcian, asking him what the women in Rome are wearing and generally setting herself up as the goodie. He gets all flustered because he is a simple soldier and she is a princess; you know the drill. Then Attila turns up, crashing a banquet to which Theodosius has invited a bunch of barbarians with swell hats, and things get complex. Attila and Theodosius strike a deal, Kubra and Marcian flirt some more, and Kubra starts to get concerned with Christianity. Attila and Marcian are opposed to each other, but each honours the other as a plain-speaking, manly tough guy. All clear so far?
It’s a neat little diagram, actually. Kubra is the tragic love interest, Pulcheria is the proper love interest, and Attila is the stab-happy elephant in the room. Attila plans to attack Rome, knowing that Theodosius won’t do anything about it. Marcian suggests warning Rome, but Theodosius has him locked up. Paulinus and Pulcheria spring Marcian, they overthrow Theodosius and all march to the defense of Rome.
Meanwhile, Attila is getting more and more obsessed with prophecies and religion and worrying that the Christian God is going to fuck him up for defying Him. He has a confrontation with Pope Leo I in which Leo scares the shit out of him by knowing about a time one of his pet soothsayers got struck by lightning. He obsesses over a dream in which he died with the shadow of a cross over him. When it turns out that Kubra snitched him out to Leo, he loses his shit and kills her.
Marcian has arrived with his troops to defend Rome, but it turns out not to be necessary, because Attila, crazed with grief, guilt and superstitious terror, has ordered his men to retreat. Marcian and his guys lay an ambush for them, and in the fighting, Ildico, one of Attila’s wives, shanks him up a treat. The result:
Marcian and Pulcheria get married, Rome is saved for another … little while … and goodness triumphs over badness, except for Kubra, but she’s only a girl.
So, the good and the bad: first up, obviously the costumes and sets are pure Hollywood fantasy. I might make an exception for some of the wall paintings, but I have a hunch they’re actually in a later style, although I don’t know enough about Byzantine art to say for certain without looking it up.
Some high-quality hats and beards, though.
Some of the history is kinda-sorta right. Like, for instance, Marcian did get to be emperor by marrying Pulcheria, but the invasion of Italy that Marcian intervened in — and in which Attila encountered Leo I — happened after that, not before it. And, of course, Marcian didn’t come riding to the rescue of Rome directly. He sent troops to menace the Hunnic homeland, possibly causing Attila to fall back to secure his own bases. And all this stuff about Christianity … it’s like The Robe up in this bitch.
What else? It’s weird that Theodosius and Pulcheria both have accents, but pretty much nobody else does. The battle scenes are what you’d expect; lots of guys in minidresses clanking tin swords together. It occurs to me that much of the “historical” aspect of 1950s historical epics is that they’re based on 19th-century novels (in general, rather than always specifically). I was surprised that the story of Honoria wasn’t in there at all, nor the whole thing with Aetius.
Jack Palance as Attila is … pretty good. He doesn’t play him as a “passionate barbarian,” even in the bit where he flirts with / molests Pulcheria. He’s nicely restrained most of the time, even funny and easygoing when it suits him. The dialogue is, as always, ludicrous.
So there you have it: I had no idea this movie existed this morning, so now I am more knowledgeable, if not exactly wiser. I hope you are too.