TSMorangles takes a look at the 1954 film Sign of the Pagan, starring Jack Palance as Attila and Jeff Chandler as Marcian.
Hun. Rummage your school attic memories. Huns, Dark Ages, true pillaging. The Real stuff of which the Age of Migrations, the Barbarian Times (Continental Europe translation for Anglo-Saxon expression of Dark Ages) are made of. The Crossing of the Rhine pales compared to the irruption on the final days of the fall of the Roman Empire. Hitler was raving about a Gotterdammerung in 1945.
In 451 AD, all Europe and not only Berlin was feeling like it had come. If Constantine had become the first Christian Emperor (though he would only be baptised on his death bed), most of the Western Empire was still happy for a lot of parts to be either heretics as Arianist like the Visigoths, Pagan as the Franks. Ostrogoths were not true blue Roman Christian and Gauls in the countryside were still feasting on behalf of a conglomerate of Roman and Celtic gods while the local Gallo-Roman elite had converted to the Roman tradition.
Then came the Huns. As if Religious turmoil was not enough. Attila the Scourge of God. Attila who, if we believe our history teachers, wherever he went prevented grass to grow back. As the inventor of weed repellent had yet to be born, one may safely incur that the grass power … (musing as a super hero power: where he walks, weeds die. Weedor fights crime in your back garden) … OK, back to Attila.
Attila is not exactly a hero of the Dark Age but the super-villain of this era. Blame it on Attila.
He embodies Evil, destruction, populations turned into slaves, wanton plunder. Riches of what dreams are made of. His habit of requesting countless tributes always paid in gold did not help the emperors in paying the own troops…
Today Dark Ages movies take 2 brings you Attila. Attila seen some 50 years apart. We could start by the 1954 Dino de Laurentis movie as immediately, we are immersed in the action as hordes of cavaliers (Huns were redoubtable horsemen) ride toward us as a Roman temple is consumed by flames. Dino’s Attila means business. I mean pillaging.
Every movie has a plot line which quality on historical background depends on what we know of the characters and their time. Poor Hengest meets the historically uncertain Vortigern while about the very same years; today’s hero will meet his real life wife, possibly the real pope and a real defeat in Gaul. Historical movies depend on the critical participation of writers, reporters, chroniclers. Hengest is the stuff of legends; The Scourge of God will never meet Camelot.
As it is, I prefer the less known Sign of the Pagan. Also 1954. Instead of Anthony Quinn we shall meet Jack Palance. Huns are described here as Mongols but we have a hero who wears Roman armour and a rather acceptable helmet matching the 1954 knowledge acquired of archaeological digs. Jack, sorry your Highness, Attila smiles broadly as he is doing what is his best: (yes!) pillaging. And his lovely ransacking horsemen use…. Stirrups.
Now, I understand that in 2013, actors and importantly studio executives with insurance companies are not keen to pay claims of injuries if not deaths to said actors families substantial damages after falls. Still, it would be nice to remind the public that our ancestors rode not exactly rawhide but without stirrups until their invention sometimes around the 750s by the Frankish Carolingian Cavalry. Attila, like Hengist and Clovis rode like Red Cloud and Quanah Parker. Meditate, dear reader on the horsemanship of all these Romans and Barbarians alike… and on Hollywood stubbornness in flinging horns to Helmets (unless it was a freebee recovered from the props of last week movie.
After being thrown names like Theodosius and Valentinian, we meet Ildico of tragic fame. I will not tell the tale especially since today the movie is a talkie. Still, rather agreeably we are told Attila was fostered by Rome and having a character however villainous and (yes!) massacring as Attila, who is able to consider statesmanship is a nice change. Another approved detail is the depiction that Attila ruled over many nations hence his warriors wearing different attires.
Sparing you the budding love story (please, somebody tell Hollywood that Boy meets Girl chat up line within less than ten minutes of a Dark Ages movie is ridiculous) the scene moves to Constantinople or Byzantium/Byzantion as it was named). We get we are among Christians as the large Icon is displayed in case we have missed the ‘You, Christians’ proffered by Jack Palance and we get into the palace.
Tears of joy runneth. Yes, somebody in the props department has done some proper research. Emperors are dressed like Justinian would be later (Frankly, my dears – unlike a famous Southerner I do give a damn). The palace rooms are a tad small but the show is acceptable. We are still clueless about the Sign of the Pagan; still All Things Saxon is quite impressed. More so as the very complicated (dare we write Byzantine) power games of the Imperial court are introduced to us. Down to Pulcheria, seen here as a pawn of her brother while Real History knows her not only as an empress and a saint. Me hearties, this movie is ticking the right boxes!
And all comes to an end. Not only Attila appears in the middle of a banquet held by the Emperor (has nobody noticed Huns near the palace doors: what are the Imperial bouncers doing?) but the princess enters the triclinium with a sleeveless dress (Ravenna for Christ sake!) with a decidedly 19thC neo-Gothic diamond crown which would have got Victoria approval) As Vicky famously said: We are not impressed! Even less by a brawl in the middle of said banquet.
Hollywood is taking liberties with Clio though I will sometimes admit said liberties are elegant. Such as the imperial princess ring story. It was Honoria – Valentinian sister- who had willingly sent a ring (as betrothal symbol?) to Attila and not Pulcheria who was well into her forties besides being a keen politician who would never have behaved in such a foolish way.
It is about one third into the movie that at on last, the title appears to be explained. Rome was built on conquests yet has given itself to God. The Christian God. As such, Attila is warned. He will never conquer Rome as Man cannot conquer God. Is Hollywood trying to be forgiven for its lapse into the realm of fancy which saw Attila visiting Byzantion?
As far as story goes, the movie nobly tries to rise to difficult conundrums. How to describe to a 1954 audience Pagans with their beliefs in Gods, omens, prophecies. Seers, priests. Yet, for us 2013 public I am happy to say I have seen a lot worse when it comes to historical movies… Troy comes to mind…
Troy’s very long siege was imagined by Homer. Byzantion had not yet a seraglio; yet its political intrigues must have given serious headaches to our scenarists. Because this movie not only deals with Attila and the age of Migrations; but it tries to bring life to Imperial ambitions and the struggle between Paganism and Christianity. A very tall order. I am not sure the audience in the fifties was able to enjoy such diverse scenery. I am not sure at all our jaded 2013 public with its taste spoiled by Reality TV, Twilight nonsense and fast-food-like superhero-action movies is able to appreciate to its true value the effort and the very honourable storytelling of this movie. Even if it invents a battle which never was as to explain Attila’s death. Ildico does kill him though but it is a death I am sure the Hun would have preferred rather suffering the indignity of a nosebleed during his wedding night!
A storytelling which includes Marcian, the real Pulcheria consort with an alternate daughter of Attila (who naturally dies), Pope Leo but totally misses the Cataulanian Plains, the battle Attila did not foresee he would lose. By losing it, he lost access to Gaul.
Paris or Lutece as it was called escaped his siege due to the will power of a mere woman: Genovefa, issued of the budding Frankish-Gallo-Roman aristocracy. Orleans he would storm but would have to leave in a hurry with not only Roman (the native Gauls saw themselves as Roman or Gallo-Roman) legions but Visigoth, Burgondian and Frankish allied war-bands were hot at his heels. Jordanes, another of my favourite chroniclers-reporters for the Dark Ages says it was the battle between two worlds: civilization (including Rome Arian and Pagan Allies) versus Barbarity (the Hunnic Realm). Attila lost. The Visigoths would give Spain its first kings, Burgondes would provide France with a Province and the name of a very good wine. The Plains would one day belong to Champagne and the Franks would rule Gaul and give France its name. Of Attila, the Scourge of God… nothing would remain but a name, some gold treasures and a few movies.
Of which this movie which probably made less gross than Sophia Loren in Dino de Laurentis’ film. But when it comes to history, complexities and a global respect for the scope of such a massive invasion it was as from the borders of nowadays Russia to Italy, Sign of the Pagan deserves 5 shields.
The intrigue is multi-layered; some major developments as described above are missing but a praiseworthy movie doing honour to its subject. I am quite surprised Hollywood allowed it and I would be very surprised if 2014 Hollywood would invest in it. But it did and bloody right it was.