Picking up after the hard life of the cave dwelling hunter-gatherers of tens of thousands of years ago, the warring tribes surface again in the popular history of the world. This time they are far more sophisticated in their use of language and weaponry, but they are no less brutal. History knows them almost exclusively for their determined opposition to the ambitions of the Roman Empire, and their conquests of Europe after the fall of the Empire.
Dacii (The Dacians) (1967) – Romanian
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Arnold Schwarzenegger was built to play this role. There is not much history here; the movie is based on the character created by Robert E. Howard and set in the fictional Hyborean Age (“aeons” before the rise of Civilization). This cannot be technically true judging by the advanced technologies of these people, but it hardly matters. We are dealing in barbarian archetypes here. It can come as no surprise that this film will be driven by revenge. A very comely young Conan witnesses the savage killing of his father and mother by a tribe of “Scythian” warriors (central Asian nomads). The death of the mother is one of the more shameful episodes in the annals of Hollywood myth making. The leaders of the Scythians is a Black Knight (James Earl Jones) who coldly cuts off the lovely woman’s head as little Conan holds her hand. This comes just after the two have watched the brutal death of the father. Young Conan is taken away with other boys into a life of slavery, working a treadmill, perhaps an irrigation machine; it is called the “Wheel of Pain.”
He is chosen to become an “arena fighter” and is later freed for reasons that are unclear. Conan meets an engaging thief named Subotai and the two become friends (think Gilgamesh and Enkidu). They run together across the plains like indigenous hunters. When they come to a fortified city, Subotai speaks of the wickedness of Civilization. Here Conan meets an attractive warrior named Valeria. She leads him to a large and ornate temple where he steals a jewel called “The Eye of the Serpent.” Trouble is, a very large orange and black snake guards the jewel. Oddly,Conan dispatches the serpent fairly quickly passing up the opportunity to give this primal battle the full value of the famous Frazetta painting. Conan’s arch enemy is the evil warrior, called Thulsa Doom, who slew his parents. The bulk of the film is given over to the pursuit of vengeance in extreme situations.
In the end, Conan finds him standing at the top of a pyramidal temple exhorting his devotees to join him in paradise. As Conan approaches Doom from behind, Doom addresses him as “my son” (this is Darth Vader). Conan then takes his barbaric satisfaction. A legend says he went on to be a great conqueror. “But that is another story.” This is pure primal psychodrama for the human race; revenge in service to the ideal. There are ways in which this film may seem to be without irony, but the very presence of the larger-than-life Arnold creates an aura of parody. Conan is, after all, a Marvel Comics character. This was a career-maker for Arnold. It was followed by the less successful Conan the Destroyer (1984), which brought Schwarzenegger’s career as the Barbarian to an end.
The Vikings (1958)
Set in Europe of the 8th and 9th centuries, this Kirk Douglas movie centers on England living under the threat of violent incursions by the Norsemen. The English monarchy is presented as effete and debilitated by infighting. When the Vikings appear, led by Ernest Borgnine, they are a proud race living among the picturesque fiords of the North. The shots of their longboat approaching its home port are worth the price of the movie. There are some good scenes of life in the mead hall. Douglas is a defiant and young warrior, the son of Ragnar (Borgnine). The plot revolves around Tony Curtis, a slave in the Viking village, who is of royal birth. The foreground of 1950s literal-mindedness and movie star charm is unsatisfying, but the background is superb. Any time the Viking ship puts out to sea, the movie is at its best and it is no small achievement to make sympathetic heroes of these fearsome marauders. Acting on the counsel of an English traitor, Douglas leads a raid to capture a noblewoman (Janet Leigh) promised to the British King. Ragnar gives Janet to Kirk, but Tony rescues her and carries her off. Tony and Janet find themselves in love. Is this art imitating life? They were married from 1951 to 1962.
Arriving in England, Tony is able to bargain with the enraged King for the hand of Janet. Ragnar has been captured and there is a scene of emblematic brutality where he is forced to jump to his death into a pit of ravening wolves. Because Curtis enabled Ragnar to do this with Viking dignity, the King cuts off his hand. Luckily, it was not his sword hand. The King fears the power of the slave. Spartacus (with Douglas and Curtis, 1960) comes to mind. Curtis returns to the North to seek the help of Douglas in rescuing Janet from England. The longboats set sail through the fog. The Vikings march along the rugged shore, hauling a huge battering ram toward the fortified castle. The battle begins somewhat methodically, but has the advantage of being authentically unglamorous. The emphasis is more on the rivalry of Curtis and Douglas then on the capture of territory, and it ends badly for one of them. There is a stirring Viking funeral involving a burning longboat. The movie ends too quickly, or not quickly enough, depending on your point of view. There are too many loose ends, as if the filmmakers were happy to get to the funeral scene and keep it short. Based on Edison Marshall’s novel, The Viking, it is a Kirk Douglas Production. See also Last of the Vikings (1961), and The 13th Warrior (1999).
The Long Ships (1964)
The Warlord (1965)
Here’s a film I found under another heading in my archive and moved to this spot. Its a fairly dreadful Charlton Heston epic but nicely filmed and powerfully evocative of a neglected time in European history. Heston is the warlord, with Viking blood, defending the occupation of the Normandy coast in the 11th century.
Mel Gibson leads the cast of this Scottish historical epic. It opens in 1280 AD, the time of William Wallace. There is a long prolog in which William (Mel) as a young boy witnesses the devastations of clan warfare. His father is killed, and he is taken to live with a severe uncle. The grown-up Mel is a bit of a disappointment, bringing too much vanity to the filmmaking. It is the time of Robert Bruce. He rides to a village where there is a young woman he fancies. There is a wedding in progress and a British lord intrudes to claim his right to first sexual congress with the bride. She is taken away. Later Mel continues his courtship of the young woman (Catherine McCormack). She agrees to marry him over her parents’ opposition and they are wed at night in a cemetery. They make love in the forest. The next day, his bride is assaulted by British soldiers and Mel rescues her. The angry British commander cuts the girl’s throat. Mel takes bloody revenge and becomes a rebel dedicated to driving the British out of Scotland.
October 1996, we rented the video of Braveheart, and watched William Wallace attempt to marshal the Scottish male population to drive out the English. Just as victory is in hand, he is betrayed by his own forces. He becomes an outlaw in his own country and in the end he falls to an ambush – by his own countrymen. The English monarchy is portrayed as cruel and corrupt, while the Christ-like Wallace is tortured and chopped to pieces on a horizontal cross. Wallace’s last cry is, “Freedom!” (Wallace died in 1305) Robert Bruce, who betrayed his friend, is the benefactor of all this, and the English endorse his kingship. In an epilog, it is said that the rag tag Scottish army, inspired by the man they abandoned, won their freedom at Bannockburn in 1314. It took more than a decade of further skirmishing to achieve independence – in 1328. After that, there was a long period of “feudal anarchy,” with the nobles fighting among themselves.
Nomad (The Warrior) (2005) – Kazakhstan
This film has all the earmarks of a national epic celebrating the courage and sacrifice of those who built the unity among disparate tribes that makes Kazakhstan the place it is today. These are people who appear to live on the saber’s edge between nomadism and Civilization. The nomadic identity is strong for them because of its rich tradition in the mountains of Central Asia. There are some serious questions of historical veracity. This is not the history we understand in the West. The Mongolian Genghis Kahn is revered in Central Asia in ways we do not easily apprehend. After more than a century of Russian domination under Czarist and Soviet Socialist regimes, Kazakhstan declared its independence in 1991. It is the ninth largest country in the world. The available trailers for this film are of very poor quality.
See also Taras Bulba (1962) for Cossacks of the Ukraine, in Russian Empire: Ukraine