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.
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.