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Films

Katherine of Alexandria: Decline of an Empire

Katherine martyred on the wheel
Katherine of Alexandria - movie poster
Katherine of Alexandria – movie poster

Katherine of Alexandria: Decline of an Empire

“They will surely kill you.” ~Gallus

“I know of false words that can save me but a later death, perhaps of age, will not be good for a soul like mine. I shall never waver from my Father.” ~Katherine

So begins the retelling of Catherine of Alexandria, of one of the most famous saints of the Middle Ages. After seeing so many paintings of Catherine at the National Gallery in London, and on a recent trip to Paris, I was fascinated by her story and curious about her popularity. So who was she and why was she one of the most famous medieval saints?

The History: Who was Catherine of Alexandria?

According to hagiographers, (C)Katherine was a princess, the daughter of  Roman governor named Constus. She was well educated, beautiful and highly intelligent. She converted to Christianity at the age of 13 or 14 and caught the eye of the Roman Emperor, Maxentius (278-318 AD). Maxentius was intrigued by Catherine and wished to marry her but Catherine refused his proposal saying she was consecrated to God. Maxentius tried to wear Catherine down by having 50 of his best philosophers engage her in debate and instead of chastising a simple girl into submission, the philosophers ended up converting to Christianity. Furious at her rejection and for being humiliated by a mere girl, Maxentius had Catherine sentenced to death. He attempted to have her tortured on the breaking wheel, what’s now known as ‘The Catherine Wheel’ but as she about about to be tortured, she cried out to God. He interceded and the wheel exploded at Catherine’s touch, sparing her. Maxentius was foiled yet again but in the end, he had Catherine beheaded. According to legend, her body was carried away by angels to Mount Sinai where rumours claimed that her tomb leaked a healing oil. Catherine was a 4th century Saint but her popularity in the West was tremendous during the Middle Ages. Pilgrimage to her final resting place was popular and many people flocked to see her to be healed. She was a patron to people from all walks of life, rich and poor, men and women, religious and lay. She is one of the Fourteen Helpers; saints most called upon as intercessors and the medieval reverence of her is remarkable. This movie tried to tell her tale.

Katherine of Alexandria is taken as a child by Roman soldiers
Katherine of Alexandria is taken as a child by Roman soldiers

The Hollywood Take: Katherine plus One

On the whole, this wasn’t the worst movie I’ve seen but it was a far cry from being any good. Known as Decline of an Empire in the US, it was stacked with some Hollywood heavyweights; Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, The Tudors, Troy) Steven Berkoff (A Clockwork Orange, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Borgias) and Edward Fox (Gandhi, The Day of the Jackal). Sadly, even they couldn’t save it from mediocrity and a dull delivery. Hollywood wasn’t satisfied with simply retelling Catherine’s story, extras were (of course) added for filler. What’s the filler here? The story of her childhood friendship with Emperor Constantine (February 27, 272 AD – May 22, 337 AD), played by Jack Goddard (Vessel in Vain, Suspected). The movie opens with Catherine being snatched by Maxentius, played by French actor, Julien Vialon (Rush, The Counsellor). She was to be educated by the Romans and become an official translator for his Empire. Constantine is determined to one day be reunited with his childhood friend. How much of this happened? Constantine the Great did battle Maxentius, he was the first Christian Roman Emperor and he was also remembered for decreeing tolerance of Christians in the Empire…but was he friends with Catherine? Probably not. In fact, since Catherine’s existence is entirely debatable, the tie in with Constantine is weak and just an attempt to offer some guys in Roman costumes a chance to bluster around the screen, fight barbarians and say some bad lines. Fast forward 15 years and Catherine is a young woman in her mid-20s. Since Catherine’s authenticity has been called into question, Hollywood can get away with the time line here, but according to hagiographers, Catherine was martyred at 15 so the actress playing her is too old for this role.

Constantine chatting with a Barbarian
Constantine chatting with a Barbarian

“It was Germania all over again”. ~Roman soldier

Germany? Hardly. More like a bad Halloween party. At this point he movie flashes between Constantine’s life as a soldier in the North, the political drama in the upper echelons of the Roman elite, and Catherine’s life under Maxentius. The Constantine story was boring and at a points laughably bizarre. He was fighting female Barbarians somewhere near Hadrian’s Wall. Whoever was hired to do the costumes for this film should really look into another line of work. These were some of the worst Barbarian costumes I’ve ever seen. Leather mini skirts and fur vests, anyone? Enough said. The women look they were part of some 1980s heavy metal album cover. The Barbarians aren’t just good enough being a thorn in Constantine’s side, like they were in history, Hollywood had to add in some odd relation to Catherine by wearing her symbol, the breaking wheel. I have no idea why it’s there and why it was neccessary. It was a bad diversion from the better part of the tale, which was Catherine’s life and death.

Peter O'Toole as Gallus
Peter O’Toole as Gallus

Sadly, this was screen legend Peter O’Toole’s final role. It’s a pity because it’s not a particularly good film but his scenes make it manageable. It is a good thing he did not live to see this released; it was not the way to remember such a distinguished actor. His role as Gallus, Catherine’s teacher, father figure and protector, was what I looked forward to seeing most. The man steals the show. Catherine, played by newcomer Nicole Madjarov, was a bit stilted at times but for the most part, she did a decent job. Madjarov really shines in her scenes with O’Toole. She’s also stand out when she takes on Maxentius’ philosophers. Gallus is conflicted by Catherine’s beliefs but in the end, he stands by Catherine even though she threatens to unravel his way of life.

Katherine is questioned by the philosophers
Katherine is questioned by the philosophers

“Be not deceived young woman. You may be beautiful, but you are not so learned.” ~Philosopher

Catherine is questioned by the most learned philosophers Maxentius can find in his realm, refutes their claims and insults them. She is tortured on the breaking wheel and dies. However, we see very little of her death and the movie diverges here from the standard hagiography; Catherine dies on the wheel as opposed to being beheaded. I’m not sure why they decided to do that other than for dramatic effect, which didn’t end up being dramatic anyway. Then mixed into this is Constantine marching from the North in an attempt to save Catherine before she is executed but arrives with his men to find her already dead. There is an attempt at a big, noble speech about religious freedoms and then roll end credits.

Katherine martyred on the wheel
Katherine martyred on the wheel

All in all, it had the chance to be so much more. It had some brilliant moments that were overshadowed by poor acting and unnecessary screen filler. I veered from really enjoying it to almost turning it off. It’s one of those films that you’re just waiting for to get good, and it nearly takes you there and then fails miserably. It’s a frustrating film to watch, because it was dull and confusing for long stretches but then had some fantastic scenes that made me hope it was about to redeem itself but sadly, it never did.  If you’re interested in saint’s lives, or Catherine of Alexandria in particular, this isn’t the worst movie you can sit through.


~Sandra Alvarez

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