Boudica Warrior Queen  (2003)

This film is notable for its reverse perspective. It is the story of a Celtic queen who leads her people in opposition to oppression by the Roman Empire. She is today a British national hero, but this would not have been so likely a century earlier while the British Empire still occupied its many foreign territories. Set in the first century CE, it opens with the reconquest of Britain by Claudius. The Emperor is presented as a kind and reasonable conqueror anxious to make pacts with the tribes that had opposed him. One who sees the wisdom of accommodating to the Romans is Prasutagus king of the Iceni tribe. He and his queen, Boudica (say Boo-dik-ah), do all they can to cooperate with the occupiers even as younger hotheads of the tribe protest their loss of autonomy.

Back in Rome, Claudius is aging quickly and soon dies. The young and pretty Nero leaps gleefully to the throne. When the new Emperor learns that Prasutagus has died in Britain and his wife has stepped into his place, he orders the occupation force to take harsh measures. Boudica and her two daughters are seized. The Queen is whipped as her daughters watch, then she must witness the rape of the two girls. She returns to her tribe snarling for vengeance. Uniting other tribes under her command, she leads attacks on Roman garrisons and colonial cities. They sack Camulodunum, home of the temple dedicated to Claudius, and decimate Londinium.

Nero is outraged by this humiliation from a mob of ill-equipped rabble and orders his general to put an end to it. The general warns that he must lure the enemy guerrilla fighters into a situation advantageous to classic Roman infantry tactics, and that it will be costly in both blood and treasure. The final battle is fought in a field where the Romans have a position that is protected on three sides. The tribes must attack in funnel formation. The Romans cut them down by the hundreds. It is not known whether Boudicca died in battle, committed suicide afterward, or went into hiding. Her legend favors suicide. The Romans stayed in control of Britain for 400 years until the collapse of the Western Empire.

Dacii (The Dacians)  (1967) – Romanian

The visage of  King Decebalus, leader of the Dacians, on a remote hillside along the Danube in Romania.

The visage of King Decebalus, leader of the Dacians, on a remote hillside along the Danube in Romania.

Covering the early stages of the Dacian Wars (87-88 CE), this is the story of a Romanian culture hero. Emperor Domitian has his Roman legions arrayed on the southern shores of the Danube and is preparing his assault. The film opens with an attractive young man and woman riding across the Romanian countryside hunting deer. They are the offspring of King Decebalus (say Daitch-eh-balus). Abruptly, they are summoned back to the fortress as the threat of Roman invasion increases. Equal screen time is given to the machinations in the Roman camp, where generals vie for positions of power and the Emperor arrives to assert his superior authority. General Severus holds the pivot position in opposition to his rival officer, Fuscas. Three major battles are punctuated by distracting episodes involving the King’s pretty daughter and the sacrifice of his son.  In the second battle, the Roman army is ambushed by the Dacians and suffers a humiliating defeat. The film ends with the third battle in full mayhem and the vague sense that there is more to this story.

See also The Column (1968), another Romanian film that covers the later confrontations of Trajan’s Dacian Wars (101–102, 105–106 CE). This campaign resulted in the suicide of King Decebalus in 106. Both Decebalus and Vlad the Impaler are national heroes of Romania for their efforts to protect the country from foreign invasion. The Column (or Columna) is also unavailable in English. In the trailer, King Decebalus clearly resembles the rock sculpture on the Danube.

Centurion  (2010)  117 CE

Set in the early years of the reign of Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-38 CE), this British-made film documents the hard realities of life beyond the edges of Civilization. Hadrian’s Wall is just beginning to be built. It is loosely based on real historical events. The Ninth Legion is charged with the task of finally bringing the Pict barbarians to their knees. A centurion named Quintus Dias, stripped to the waist, is running across snow-covered mountain terrain in Scotland. In voice-over flashbacks he speaks of a raid on the Picts, of slaughter and capture, and the escape of a small group of Romans pursued by the barbarians. The Pict pursuers are led by two striking women, one black-haired and one blond. The black-haired one has a fictional history. Her parents were savagely murdered by the Romans and she was raped and left for dead with her tongue cut out. She came to live with the Picts, becoming a scout and warrior. The Roman escape is harrowing and the pursuit is relentless. The Pict king’s young son has been killed during the escape attempt and the king wants vengeance. The chase becomes increasingly violent and costly to both sides. In the end, the one surviving a Roman returns to the arms of a woman he met along the way and love triumphs. Too little, too late. I did not enjoy this movie. It made a very poor showing at the box office.

The Eagle  (2011)  140 CE

Acting as a sequel to Centurion of the previous year, this British-American film begins twenty years after the massacre of the Ninth Legion in Northern Britannia. It is based on the historical novel for young people written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, The Eagle of the Ninth (1954). Young Marcus Flavius Aquila has come to vindicate his father who lost his life along with his command of 5000 men in the massacre of the Ninth Legion. The Eagle standard of the legion was never returned. Marcus acquits himself with valor against a fierce band of Picts who attack Hadrian’s Wall, but he is wounded in the battle. His superiors give him high commendations and an honorable discharge. When he is taken in by his eccentric uncle (Donald Sutherland), he is warned not to pursue his mission to the north. “No Romans can survive beyond the wall.” Marcus is determined to retrieve the Eagle and restore his father’s good name. He takes as his lieutenant a young barbarian slave whose life he saved in a gladiatorial arena and pushes north beyond of the wall. Deep in the wilderness beyond the wall, the two are captured by the Seal People whose warriors have a strangely Africanized look (they look most like white guys made up as fantastical aborigines). There is an escape and harrowing chase, which makes this film very much like it’s 2010 predecessor. Even so, this is the better of the two movies.

Part of a wave of antiheroic post-paradigm* movies, these films appeared to have no other purpose than to demonstrate that barbarism begets barbarism and that the Roman Empire at its best was part of the problem and had no solution.

Attila  (1954) – Italian  450 CE

This is Italian spaghetti fare, featuring Anthony Quinn opposite Sophia Loren. It’s a bit over-the-top, but it would have made Attila proud. The action begins in the year 450 with the Huns thundering down on Rome from the north. A Roman general is sent to the shores of the Danube, where the Huns are camped, to negotiate a peace treaty. The general spends time with Attila (Quinn) and realizes the weakness of his position. He asks Attila why he hates civilization so much. Attila answers with a fairly accurate characterization of the decadence of Rome. The general gives in and agrees to the Huns’ harsh demands.

The Roman Empire is now ruled from Ravenna where the Emperor Valentiniano (Valentinian III, 419-455) and his ambitious mother, Galla Placidia (Irene Pappas) hold court. The Emperor is weak and fretful. Loren is the Emperor’s headstrong sister, Honoria, who imagines her life would be better if she offered herself to Attila. The Huns have crossed the Alps. There are some good shots of their war caravan. Honoria goes to their camp and presents herself to Attila. She says she can deliver him half of the Western Empire. When she  confides her own ambitions, he humiliates her. The Romans and Huns advance on one another. The Huns make a mounted assault on ranks of Roman archers. In a second assault, foot soldiers clash in a cacophony of hacking swords. Honoria is killed in the confusion and nothing more is said of her. The Huns win the day. The Huns arrive at the edge of the Tiber beyond which is Rome. They encounter a Christian procession led by gentle Pope Leo on horseback. The Pope counsels Attila that innocent blood cannot be washed away. A narration says that no more is known of this conversation, but Attila turned around and rode away raising his sword to salute the procession. This was not a film to excite the admiration of critics but it employed the Hollywood formula for popular success. Loren is not seen to advantage and Quinn is neglected in most of the promotions available on YouTube. The dubbing is terrible and the choreography is laughable. Still, it is a legitimate expression of the folklore derived from the clash of Christianized Rome and the barbarians.

Sign of the Pagan  (1954)  453 CE

Jeff Chandler gets top billing in this movie as the handsome Roman envoy sent to Constantinople to secure help for the threatened Western Empire. He is captured along the way by Attila (Jack Palance) who delivers a jaunty but convincing Hun. The historical role of Honoria is eliminated in favor of two love interests for Chandler, the daughter of Emperor Theodosius II in the east and the daughter of Attila. While the key characters are historical, the invented dramas become ridiculous. In the end, the Chandler character kills Attila. This did not happen.

Attila  (2001)

This was a made-for-TV-movie, which ran in two-hour segments over two nights on the History Channel in October 2003. I saw only parts of it while we were on the road. The actor playing the title role is entirely too comely and not in the least credible. His beautiful love interest compounds the problem. Attila the Hun dallying with his sultry concubine on a fur-covered bed is probably a stretch on the authenticity scale. There are some interesting confrontations between the barbarian invader and a Roman general; and there is some good scenery.

A historical note: The Attila movies are the first in this collection to be set in Ravenna after constant pressure from barbarian invasions forced the Western Empire to relocate its seat of government. For a moment of levity toward the end of this sad chronicle, I am including a second trailer from Attila (1954), which displays the Hollywood-style decadence of Ravenna, with choreography. Ravenna

The Last Legion  (2007)  460 CE

Set in 475 CE, the film is about a twelve-year-old boy named Romulus Augustus Caesar who is said to have been the last to occupy the Emperor’s throne in the West. Driven out of his palace by the onslaughts of the barbarian Goths, he makes his way to Britain under the guidance of his Roman bodyguard (Colin Firth) and a mentor who turns out to be Merlin (Ben Kingsley). History has already been left in the dust.

The bodyguard has acquired an exotically beautiful sidekick, named Mira. She fights like a Chinese movie star. Romulus has found “the sword of Caesar,” which has mystical powers. Merlin believes it to be Excalibur. There is an awkward but interesting transition from the inaccurately represented fall of Rome to the legend of King Arthur. We are asked to believe that young Romulus, who is twelve in the film but sixteen historically, lives out his adult years in Britannia after it was abandoned by the Romans. At some point, he changes his name to Pendragon and fathers a boy child who will one day become King Arthur of Britain. It’s a good literary trick, but too clever by a long shot.

All this must wait until the final battle is fought at Hadrian’s Wall against a hoard of barbarians that threaten the Arthurian destiny. Romulus and his entourage seek the help of the beleaguered Ninth Legion and beat back the foe. Disgusted by the slaughter,  Romulus throws his sword into the air and it lands firmly upright in a stone. Arthurian legend begins where Rome leaves off (see Early Europe for the bridge). How many people do you suppose left the theater after seeing this film thinking they learned something they did not know: that the last emperor of Rome became the father of the legendary king of Britain who pulled the sword out of the stone just like in the Walt Disney movie?


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