Movie Monday: Attila (2001)


In the 5th century, the Roman Empire — which was split into eastern and western halves — spent a lot of its time fighting off a series of barbarian invasions. One of the largest was the invasion of the Huns, under their leader Attila, which was thumped by the Romans at the battle of the Catalunian Plains, also called the Battle of Châlons, in AD 451. The name of the Hunnic leader, Attila, is a byword for savagery and cruelty throughout the west — and if you were about to say that in Hungary Attila is remembered rather differently, you were probably paying attention to our conversations about Dracula or Genghis Khan or, for that matter, the last time we did a film about Attila.

Anyway, I’m not going to go over the history of Attila, other than to point out that if you were to just watch this movie you’d assume that he was a Generic Barbarian Hero, which I guess is what we get when we consider that not a huge amount is known about him — and bear in mind that we have much better sources for the life of Attila than we do for your typical non-Roman of the era.

Before we even get started, let me get this off my chest: what the fucking fuck is the point of making movies based on history if you’re just going to change the history to be more like the movies?

So then: Attila.

Unlike most Movie Monday movies, I’m not going to go into too much detail on this stinkburger because it is three hours long — it was originally a TV miniseries, and in fact I saw it back when it aired. It’s weird that we say aired, isn’t it? I think it was on cable even then.

But let’s say hypothetically I were to tell you that we were reviewing a TV movie about the life of Attila, you might make a checklist that included the following elements.

  • Attila will be wild and brave and free.
  • There will be a beautiful and fierce woman for Attila to woo and win. Bonus points if she starts off as his enemy.
  • Civilised Roman women will think Attila is sexy sexy.
  • Romans will be English.
  • And decadent.
  • Non-Romans will be hell of greasy.
  • There will be a lot of shoddy wooden structures on fire.

No surprises here, then.

Except maybe among the cast! For starters, Attila is Gerard God Damn It Butler, not yet famous but already shit. I cannot represent his baffling accent in a photograph, but believe me it is weird. Is it Scottish? Is it American? Is it like phony Eastern European? Incidentally, he played a good warlord in Coriolanus, so it’s not like he can’t, but he hasn’t got a lot to work with here.

God, look at him, the tit.
God, look at him, the tit.

And Flavius Aetius, the Roman general who put a stop to Attila’s shenanigans, is played by no less than Powers Boothe, who never saw something he couldn’t stare goggle-eyed at while rasping like he can’t decide whether he wants to murder it or have sex with it. And if you think that’s a criticism, you do not know me. Powers Boothe!

Actually, here he looks a little sleepy.
Actually, here he looks a little sleepy.

Aaaanyhow, we follow the life of Attila from a youngster, being raised by his dad Mundzuk, getting orphaned, having some kind of prophecy about being a great king, being adopted by his uncle Rua, feuding with his brother Bleda, capturing and falling in love with feisty warrior woman N’Kara (what the fuck kind of name is that supposed to be?), etc. Meanwhile, the Romans, represented by stiff general Felix, clever queen mum Placidia (Alice Krige, better known to dorks everywhere as the Borg Queen) and airheaded western emperor Valentinian III fret about it. They don’t know what to do to stop him, so they release Aetius from durance vile (where he never was in reality) and give him a swell hat. He goes off to get the Huns on side … 

… oh, sod it. This is going to take too long even if I tell it out in the bare bones — we’re not even an hour in yet.

Right, so, here are some notable things about this film:

  • the Roman princess they try to set up with Atilla, Honoria, wears my hand to God a corset.
  • there is all kind of pagan hoo-hah in Rome despite the fact that it’s 450 and they’re all Christians.
  • Attila goes to Rome, which is not a thing that happened.
  • the eastern emperor, Theodosius, is Tim Curry!
  • the Visigothic king, Theodoric, is Liam Cunningham, which is cool but not as cool.

And people change sides, and Bleda tries to steal N’Kara/Ildico away from Attila, and he finds the magic sword, and in the end there’s a big battle, and I think my main problem with the movie is this. Here’s the Roman army getting ready to fight the Visigoths or whoever:


I know the photo isn’t great, but look at them! They look like they’re about to go chasing around the countryside after Asterix and Obelix. It’s the fifth goddamn century. That’s like if in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan all the GIs had morions and arquebuses. Arquebusses. Arquebi. Hackbuts.

And it’s the same with everything: the scheming Emperor’s mother, the orgies, the foppish youth on the throne, Aetius’s low-rent Julius Caesar costume — it’s just a bunch of corny stereotypes about “Romans” based on I, Claudius and where it’s right (Gallia Placidia appears to have meant business, for example) it’s a fucking coincidence. Oh, and Theodosius II died in 450, which I think Sign of the Pagan at least got close to right.

The 5th-century Roman army, as I mentioned when I talked about King Arthur, looked crazy as hell, and instead of that, instead of doing something that is both visually exciting and challenges people with an unfamiliar view of a familiar concept, these tiresome sons of bitches decided to make a movie that just showed people what they expected to see, even if they had to make a botch of the history in order to do so. And that just goes for the whole thing.



Movie Monday: Attila (2001)

4 thoughts on “Movie Monday: Attila (2001)

  1. I saw this movie when it came out on TV when I was in high school. I was very excited about it because I was very interested in the story of Attila and of the 5th Century in general…and still am. It’s mostly due to the study of this time period and its various personages that I became a specialist in tribal history and culture. However, this film was a great disappointment for me. I humorously commented to my friends that the only thing that the film got right were the names of the characters, and that’s about it – even then, a few characters were pure fiction, like Galen the witch / Attila’s secret crush, N’Kara, and Ligus the assassin. The guy who played Bleda, Attila’s older brother (Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan) was the only one who actually LOOKED like a real Hun.

    As a correction, Attila did go to Rome, but he went there when he was very young, possibly 12 years old or so, during a hostage exchange program. In return, the Huns recieved a young 20-something nobleman and up-and-coming military officer named Flavius Aetius. In the movie, Aetius briefly makes reference to this event when he says that he lived among them during a hostage exchange, but doesn’t elaborate on it further.

    I could go on and on about how horribly inaccurate this movie is, from talking about the Romans’ armor, to the weird Irish / Scottish / English accents spoken by many of the characters, to the incorrect sequence of events, to outright fictionalized events. Instead, I’m going to talk about what this movie got right – don’t worry, the list isn’t that long.

    First, it did show the Hunnic way of life rather well – a horse-dominated culture where life was kill or be killed and the various tribes and clans were often in perpetual feuds with each other. It portrayed the Huns as being semi-nomadic, which they were by the time they entered “the western lands” as they called Europe in the film, gradually casting aside their true nomadic ways and beginning to settle down and establish fixed communities.

    Secondly, it showed just how over-stretched and ill-equipped and prepared the Roman Army was during this stage in Rome’s history. There’s a wonderful dialogue between Emperor Valentinian III and Gen. Flavius Felix (who, in real life, was actually assassinated on Aetius’ orders) rather early on in the film regarding the problems of defending the empire with a poorly-organized and numerically inferior force.

    Thirdly, it did give a few glimmers of the rivalry that existed between the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire. Sometimes, this animosity almost boiled over into real war.

    Fourthly and lastly, it protrayed VERY WELL the back-stabbing plots and intrigues within the Roman court. You need to keep a play program to keep track about who is going to do-in whom. The material is meant to represent nearly forty years of time, and is compressed into just four hours, so this might give the impression that assassinations and betrayals happened on an almost weekly basis. Well, it wasn’t that extreme, but it did happen rather regularly. Read the history books. You’ll be amazed at how many rebellions, revolts, usurpations, back room plots, murders, and government-sponsored assassinations took place within that 40-year window of time.

    I hope that you found my commentary interesting and informative. I look forward to getting any feedback.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Is there actually evidence that Attila was a hostage in Rome? I’ve heard it said, but I don’t know where the assertion comes from. Obviously, the sources are fragmentary, and I could definitely be missing something.

      The best assassination in the 5th-century Roman Empire is, of course, Valentinian killing Aetius himself. I don’t know if someone actually said “you’ve cut off your right hand with your left,” but they should have.

      1. Hmm, I did some digging and it appears that you are right. There are multiple secondary sources which state that Attila was given over as a peace hostage to Emperor Honorius’ court when the little Hunnic prince was 12 years old. However, I have not yet been able to track down any primary sources which state the same thing. These would be few in number anyway, so the information should be relatively easy to track down! Jordanes, the 6th Century Visigoth historian, is the one that immediately pops into my mind (there are others, like Priscus of Panium and a few other odds and ends here and there), but I do not believe that Jordanes mentions this event.

        My earlier assertion in regards to Attila being sent to Rome as a peace hostage comes from the fact that I became roaringly interested in Attila very early on (high school) and began collecting facts about him from everywhere, not really giving much thought to the idea that certain historians just make stuff up. I didn’t know any better. I figured “Well websites might not always be accurate, but if it’s in an academic book, then it must be true”. I’ve recently figured out the hard way that I should know better, and I tell my students this repeatedly – always back-check your source material, regardless of how credible it may look. Just because something looks legit that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.

        Also, it bugs me that this seems to be a bit specific for something that was made up. Mostly, a liar…er, I mean a historian…would say something like “when he was a child” to make it as vague as possible. Giving a specific age – 12 years old to be exact – is either a very daring lie, or it really is written down somewhere in some ancient or early Medieval document and I can’t remember where. I’ll have to do some more checking up on it when I have the time. Thank you for answering my earlier comment.

  2. Well, it’s completely *possible* that the story’s true — you often get secondary sources passing things on from some primary source that we just no longer have access to. Ancient historians weren’t above not citing their sources. Of course, they weren’t above flat-out making shit up either, so …

    … either way, whether Attila spent some time in Rome or not, he didn’t do it the way it appears in this show, as a sexy sexy adult.

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