I am sure I had one other but I can’t remember what it was.
My study is currently a terrible mess, and miniatures I am waiting to paint are on the bookshelves. I feel kind of bad about my little toy soldiers being in front of this big row of depressing-ass books about the sufferings of millions in WW2. There may be a post in here about being a historian and a wargamer; I don’t know.
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.
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.
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!
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.
I’ve made the point before that the phony, screwball versions of various disciplines actually have a much longer pedigree than their more evidence-based counterparts: astrology is much more venerable than astronomy, chemistry comes from alchemy, quackery is the original medicine and people have been talking self-serving bollocks about the past much longer than they’ve been actually trying to understand it.
One thing I do is write reviews of history-related books for a magazine that covers not only history but also the paranormal, the esoteric and the generally weird. Sometimes this means that I get to review books that are about quirky and odd history, which I enjoy, and sometimes it means that I get to read books about how the folk tale of the Green Children of Woolpit (a local tale about people finding some green children) is clearly about how genetically-engineered photosynthetic human space colonists came to earth in the middle ages. Barmy as it is, that’s reasonably entertaining, but somehow the ones about how all of ancient history was really a sophisticated network of megalith-centred trade networks are even more frustrating, because … I can’t explain why. I think it’s the fact that they’re structured in such a way that it’s easy to knock down the premise (to wit — there is no evidence for this whatsoever, and it’s highly suspicious that you haven’t demonstrated this idea with any actual stone circles) but you know it won’t make any difference; there’s an infinite amount of special pleading in the Special Pleading Bin.
There are those who take great joy in the whackjob theory of the “alternative” historian or archaeologist, and in theeeeeeory I can enjoy them. I often do in the abstract. But the process of actually reading one of these goddamn things borders on the painful for me.
Boudica’s revolt is one of those historical incidents everyone is fascinated by, presumably because it’s easy to make the Roman Empire stand in for the empire du jour and because there are no pesky modern political ramifications to her struggle. Not to non-lunatics, anyway. As a result, it gets made into a lot of bad art, and 2003’s Boudica is no exception. It stars Alex Bloody Kingston, an actress of, shall we say, limited range. Follow along at home!
We begin in History, a time when, as we know, everyone was mad greasy.
Boudica is throwing a sword into a river and talking to the camera. She introduces us to the story; it’s 50-something AD, and Boudica is married to Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni, who is greeeeeeeaaaaaasy.
She also has two daughters, one of whom is a young Emily Blunt. The Romans come to make peace with the Iceni. Hotheaded Dervalloc wants to kill them, cryptic Magior is cryptic (and hey, it’s Gary Lewis, from Gangs of New York, in a coat covered in little metal snail shells!) …
… but finally Prasutagus, basically a nice guy and tired of war, agrees to make peace. Roman soldiers make snotty comments about the Iceni. Finally the Emperor Claudius himself turns up to shake on the treaty, impressing Prasutagus and Boudica with the fact that he’s basically a nice guy. This is well-played; Claudius is shown as someone who’s so aware of his power that he isn’t at all pushy about it.
The Roman soldiers are apparently all highly decorated veterans, because they’re covered in phalerae. All of them.
And their heads are covered in baco-foil? Also, they are armed with old-fashioned metal bin lids.
Times are peaceful, but they can’t last. Claudius gets sick and dies, possibly poisoned by his wife Agrippina in order to bring her boy Nero to the throne. Nero is a little shit:
Meanwhile, Prasutagus also dies, possibly poisoned by Magior. Without Claudius’s steady hand on the tiller, the Romans start taking Iceni slaves, something Boudica says was never part of the deal. When she objects, villainous tax dude Catus Decianus has her flogged and her daughters raped. She nonetheless gets her daughters to stand up and walk out of the Roman camp, where they declare that the treaty is ended and shit is, effectively, on.
They infiltrate the local Roman camp and kill it up a treat, then move on to sack Colchester, destroying the temple of the Divine Claudius. This is super unconvincing looking, but it doesn’t really seem that way in a photo; you kind of have to watch it with motion. Basically, the Britons tunnel under the famous statue of Claudius, then collapse it when Boudica makes a threatening gesture. So yeah, the Iceni used their superior engineering knowledge to fuck with the Romans, an incident history somehow failed to record. Anyway, a cute little kid cuts off and brandishes Decianus’s head.
Which is pretty hardcore, one of the film’s few genuinely disconcerting moments. (Even the rape scene is played up with Decianus as a smirking sadist rather than the much more chilling idea that this is just how things are done.) The massacre of the civilian population is referred to, but only just.
Shocked at having to hold the L, Nero dispatches Suetonius Paulinus to sort out the rebellion (in truth, he was already in Britain). Suetonius is one of the highlights of this film: he thinks the rebellion was caused by Decianus being an idiot, and he’s fully aware that Nero’s a prize little bastard. He has a conversation with one of his officers in which he explains that the Iceni are full of passion and heart while the Romans are just doing their jobs, and regrets this, but is also perfectly clear that the Romans are going to win handily. There’s a great little exchange as he goes to bed.
STOOGE: Good night, sir. And a glorious victory for the Emperor tomorrow.
PAULINUS: Mmm. Quite.
The morning dawns bright and clear. Boudica delivers a rousing speech about how the Iceni can’t lose, while Suetonius delivers a confident and much more accurate speech about how the Romans can’t lose. Then the battle starts, and Suetonius’s army whups the shit out of the Iceni.
During the battle, the Romans use torches as a version of those light-up wands they use at airports to signal to other parts of that army. In daylight. So visible! The weird thing is that the Romans had a system of military signalling using trumpets and so on, so I’m not sure why they didn’t just have that.
Boudica possibly does a runner. Emily Blunt gets knocked out on the field, but Magior uses his Druidical magic to make her invisible and she blends into the crowd. We cut to the statue of Boadicea in London, with a schoolteacher (is it, in fact, Emily Blunt again? I’m not going back to check) leading her charges past it. The end.
So, first off, this film is not very good. It looks shoddy as hell, it’s riddled with corny historical-epic stereotypes, and Alex Kingston’s tough swagger is even more unconvincing here than it is in Doctor Who.
It isn’t really her fault, I don’t think — she keeps getting asked to bark out some tough-guy lines with no real context, or go from zero to mad-as-hell in a split second. During the bit after the rape scene, when she’s trying to get her daughters on their feet and back to safety, she just uses the same emotionless declamatory tone she uses for everything that isn’t affection.
Needless to say, this movie looks like ass. Celts in hairy cloaks, swirly face-paint everywhere, Romans draped in bedsheets, armies of a couple of dozen people, dodgy special effects. Some nice landscapes.
Historically, it’s the usual imposition of a Romantic narrative on a bare-bones set of historical facts, and it only glances at the things that make the Iceni revolt less than noble, like the massacres of civilian populations. At one point one of the other British chiefs makes it clear that he and the lads are going to rape and enslave a bunch of people in London and nobody bats an eyelid, but mostly it’s presented as a simple struggle for autonomy / quest for revenge. Although the Romans do call it “terrorism” with every breath. I also wish Nero wouldn’t have spent so much time saying “God!” and “what the hell,” not because they’re references to Christianity but just because they sound so modern. Also, by the tenth time Boudica called Prasutagus a “warrior king” I wanted to kill them both.
The main thing the movie does to mess up the history is to compress everything, like they usually do. Prasutagus and Claudius died years apart, for instance, but you don’t get much sense of the passage of time in the film, which makes it even weirder when people teleport back and forth to Rome. Other than that, most of the facts are in place, although I doubt Boudica ran around with two swords killing people personally.
As I mentioned earlier, I was ill over Christmas, and even after recovering I was pretty low on energy for a couple of days. What I did during this period was sit around in my pyjamas and play L.A. Noire. Although the game came out in 2011, I only recently got a 360, so it was new to me — which is also why I did my series of posts about archaeological themes in Skyrim so recently.
Anyway, this game was a gift from a good friend who knows that I love interwar and postwar Americana in general, and James Ellroy in particular, so there was always going to be some rich stuff in there for me.
Murder mysteries in general are usually about digging up the past, metaphorically and often literally. Not for nothing are historians often compared to detectives. And the “sunny noir” genre — LA Confidential, Chinatown, even Who Framed Roger Rabbit — are often specifically how the sordid micro-history of a murder investigation is related to the grander history of an American city, usually Los Angeles. Given that it’s basically a pastiche of these novels and films, LA Noire is no different — we start with the usual series of crimes, but the unfolding backstory of what happened to Cole Phelps and his comrades during the war will provide the context for the end of the story. In the meantime, however, the individual personal tragedies are part of a larger setting where unstoppable “progress” is transforming the American landscape.
So, interesting in that respect. The other aspect of the game’s use of history that interested me was the role of the murder of Elizabeth Short (the “Black Dahlia”), one of LA’s most famous unsolved crimes. It’s a particularly gruesome crime and it’s provoked a lot of speculation about the killer’s identity, particularly after it was fictionalised by James Ellroy and then made into a film. But somehow there was some aspect of the killing’s use in the game that rubbed me the wrong way, as if the statute of limitations on the Short case had not yet expired. Which is weird — I’m certain there are several games that use the Jack the Ripper murders as part of their gameplay, and that probably wouldn’t bother me. But somehow in this case it seemed … I don’t know. It didn’t sit right with me, and I’m not sure why.
The third thing I thought was interesting was the game’s use, or non-use, of racial epithets. Racial and social prejudice is depicted throughout — there are characters with insulting things to say about Jews, African-Americans, Latinos and above all women; the second act pairs Phelps with a misogynist boor of a partner. But the language is mostly toned down. Characters sneer about “blacks,” or “Hispanics,” but there are only a few instances of racial epithets. The N-word comes up once, in the mouth of a black character. I thought that was very odd. If they had left it out altogether, I would have said “yeah, they’re making an (admittedly unrealistic) concession to modern sensibilities.” If they had larded the game with it, I would have said “yeah, they’re depicting (admittedly kind of offensively) the way people probably talked in 1947.” But to have it appear just once (together with just one example of a few other ethnic slurs) felt very strange, and I’m not sure of the reasoning behind that decision. Not that anyone has to explain anything to me, of course.
So yeah, part of the pleasure for me was just the visual design — the houses, the cars, the ads, the documents, all evoking a certain time and place. If it weren’t for the game’s frustrating, repetitive driving gameplay, just driving around the city would have been half the fun. But I do think the historical themes in the game go a little deeper than that, although largely because they’re so important in the genre from which it’s derived.