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)

Movie Monday: Sign of the Pagan (1954)

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 …

Yooou … are my number one … hhhhhhaaaguy ….


… 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:

Jeff Morrow!
Jeff Morrow!

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.

haaaaaats beards


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.

Movie Monday: Sign of the Pagan (1954)