Features Films

Seeing and Hearing the ‘Scourge of God’: Attila the Hun in film, music and opera

By Murray Dahm

Attila the Hun gained the title ‘Scourge of God’ in the 8th or 9th century in the The Life of St Lupus. He remains one of history’s greatest villains. Say or evoke his name, and it’s a clear sign that we are talking about a thoroughly evil person: a barbaric destroyer of all that is good and right. John Man surmises that Attila is ‘remembered as our worst nightmare, matched in folk memory only by Genghis Khan.’ When we look a little deeper, however, things are not quite that simple.

Unlike Genghis Khan, Attila is a figure who has been treated in all manner of different ways, positive and negative in various art forms – from classical to contemporary music, sculpture, painting, opera, fiction, and film. In all of those art forms he is not always the out-and-out villain we would expect to see, but a figure who can also be depicted as noble, heroic, the victim, and even a sex symbol. If you doubt such a statement of such variety, I need only remind you of the character from Disney’s Tangled (2010), one of the misunderstood villain-residents of the Snuggly Duckling who are actually the film’s (anti)heroes: Attila Cupcake. Or, take a look at the topless Attila of Gerard Butler in the 2001 television miniseries (not the first ‘sex-symbol’ Attila, however). Most recently (in 2018) he has been returned to his villainous roots with Rory McCann (fresh from his role as Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane in Game of Thrones) as Attila, playing him as a psychopath.


Who was Attila the Hun?

Attila the Hun ruled a tribal empire centred on eastern and central Europe for a relatively short period, from around AD 434 to his death in 453. The Huns emerged violently onto Roman history in the 4th century AD but had been around long before that. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus mentions them in the context of the barbarian invasions of the Rome empire in the 370s. At its height, Attila’s empire stretched from the Black Sea into Roman Gaul (reaching as far as Orléans). He invaded, ravaged and conquered large swathes of both the Eastern and Western Roman empires, his progress only stopped at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (or Châlons) in 451 but thereafter he remained a potent threat and subsequently invaded Italy. Attila ravaged Roman provinces and (unusually) took several cities in his conquests. He put Constantinople under siege (although he did not take it) and, on several occasions, accepted vast amounts of gold from both Eastern and Western empires to secure peace from him. In 453, he died planning yet more campaigns against the Roman Empire.

The origins of Attila and the Huns are controversial. Some see them as a Gothic people, others as Scythian, Slavic, Eurasian, or as coming from eastern Asia, perhaps as far away as Mongolia (and see Attila therefore as a precursor to Genghis Khan). They may originally have been a part of the Xiongnu, an empire situated north of modern China, which flourished in the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. Who the Xiongnu were precisely has also divided scholars but they seem to have been multi-ethic and multi-lingual, something the later Hunnic empire reflected.

The language of the Huns also continues to divide – some arguing it was Turkic, or the Ket language of Siberia, others that it was unique and perhaps the original language of the Xiongnu. All of these ideas can be seen in various depictions of Attila and the Huns in art and on film. The Hunnic empire was certainly polyglot (centred on an area between the Dnieper and Danube rivers) and contained all manner of tribes, from the Alani to Greuthungi, Tervingi, Sciri, as well as Huns and other peoples from the vast stretches of the territory controlled by them. In order for the Huns to reach where they encountered the Roman empire, that they began some kind of westwards migration.


Over the ensuing centuries, the Huns gathered tribes to them as they moved, as well as putting pressures on the populations in their path who, in turn, moved west themselves. Several of these peoples were allies rather than subject peoples although the distinction between, and status of, such peoples is not always clear and or sources are not always satisfactory. This vast Hunnic empire seems to have been ruled by an unusual dual kingship where the kings were brothers from the same family. Some argue that this dual kingship was a Xiongnu institution. We have evidence of this dual kingship from the late 4th century as soon as we encounter the Huns in the Latin and Greek sources with Basich and Kursich who attacked the Sassanids.

Probably born around the time the Huns were allying with Goths and raiding or invading both the western and eastern Roman empires, Attila was from a noble family and his father, Mundzuk (or Mundiuch), was the brother of the two Hunnic kings Octar and Rua. Octar died in 430 and Rua in 434. Their brother’s sons, Attila and Bleda, therefore inherited the dual kingship. This diarchy remained until Attila attained sole power on his older brother Bleda’s death in around 444. Attila was therefore probably around 50 years of age (perhaps older) and we should note that none of the depictions of him on film comes close to showing him as a fifty-year-old man.

The Huns made various alliances with the rulers of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire and fought as mercenaries in their armies. The new kings seem to have made an alliance to stay away from Roman territory as early as 435. Instead, the Huns moved against the Sassanid Persian Empire but were repulsed, and they then invaded Roman territory again in 440 (when the terms of their previous treaty expired), crossing into the Roman provinces of Illyricum and Moesia. In 441 the Huns invaded the Balkans sacking several cities, and, in 443 the Huns turned against Theodosius in Constantinople, taking cities and putting Constantinople itself under siege. The Byzantine ruler sued for peace and paid a huge indemnity of 2,000 kilograms of gold as well as agreeing to an additional yearly tribute of 700 kilograms.


The Huns, satisfied, then withdrew back across the Danube. Bleda died soon after this and Attila took control as sole king. Jordanes speculates that Attila murdered his brother. In 447, Attila once again invaded Moesia, defeating Eastern Roman armies and making his way through the Balkans and Greece (reaching the pass of Thermopylae). In 450 he turned his attention west, not against Rome per se but against the Visigothic Kingdom centred on Toulouse.

In the same year, the older sister of the western Roman emperor Valentinian III, Justa Grata Honoria, sent Attila a request to assist her. This request has been interpreted as including a declaration of her love for Attila. Honoria, born in 417 or 418, has often been interpreted as promiscuous and ambitious (and called ‘ludicrous’ by Theodore Mommsen), a reputation tied to her interaction with Attila. J. B. Bury spoke of her ‘brief but conspicuous and outrageous’ part in Roman history.

It appears that a marriage was arranged between Honoria and the senator Flavius Bessus Herculanus (who would become consul in 452). Honoria, along with her sister Pulcheria, had been forbidden to marry. According to John of Antioch (writing in the 7th century) Honoria had seduced her chamberlain, Eugenius, and their affair was discovered. Marcellinus Comes (writing in the 6th century) claims she was sent to a convent, but his evidence is dubious and the dates don’t match.


Whatever the truth, Honoria sent a letter to Attila along with her ring and Attila interpreted this request as an offer of marriage. He accepted – asking for half the western Roman empire as dowry. Valentinian tried to back out of the terms and Attila said he would come and take what was rightfully his. The actuality of a marriage proposal (an official one at least) seems unlikely – Honoria’s mother, Galla Placidia, had authorised the putting to death of her cousin Serena in AD 409, sister of the emperor Honorius and former wife of the general Stilicho, who had been carried off by the Goths but then married their leader, Athaulf, bearing him a son. The union was considered a gross scandal and attitudes had not changed at Rome in the forty years since.

Before proceeding to Italy, Attila needed to deal with the situation in Gaul where he was intervening in the Frankish succession. The Roman general Aëtius (who had been a Hunnish hostage and had even fought with Attila by his side earlier in his career) allied with the opposite faction of the Franks and the and Visigoth king, Theodoric, to oppose Attila. Conquering cities on his route through Gaul, Attila was turned away from Orléans and then fought to a standstill by the allied forces at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains, probably located somewhere in the Champagne-Ardenne region of northeastern France. The Huns were bloodied and forced to withdraw, but they were still intact.  What is more, Theodoric was killed and Aëtius did not press his advantage and so the Huns remained as great a threat as they had been before the battle.

Attila then invaded Italy in 452 and pressed his claim to marry Honoria. Honoria disappears from the historical record at this point but we do not know her fate, it is probable that she was dead by 455 since she was not taken to Carthage as a hostage by the Vandals (as her sister-in-law and nieces were) after the assassination of Valentinian III. Attila ravaged northern Italy, sacking cities and sending whole communities running from his advance (one group of which, according to legend, founded Venice). Italy had also suffered a crop failure in 451 and so her situation was dire.

Attila halted at the Po River and Valentinian III sent envoys to the Hun king, including the Pope, Leo I, at Mantua. Much has been made of Attila not reaching Rome but the city’s role by that time was largely symbolic; it held no political function at all. It was, however, the seat of the Pope as Bishop of Rome and thus the function of Christianity in the Attila story has come to dominate, but the city was politically unimportant by Attila’s time.


By the 5th century the Roman capital was located at Ravenna with Milan (Mediolanum) the second most important city – it had been the capital since 286 to 402 (when it was besieged by the Visigoths) and was north of the River Po. Attila put Mediolanum under siege during 452. The Romans therefore negotiated peace terms and Attila evacuated Italy returning over the Danube (and encouraged to do so by an Eastern Roman army attacking his lands from the east).

The meeting with Leo has taken on much symbolism, and features greatly in later sources, but in one of the early sources, the reason for turning away from an invasion of Italy was the fear that Attila might die soon after, just as Alaric had done when he sacked Rome in 410. Soon after returning to the Hun homelands, at a feast celebrating marriage to Ildico, a Gothic or East Germanic princess (who has been associated with various kingdoms and later named as Kriemhild and Gudrun), Attila suffered a nosebleed and choked to death. The exact cause of his death has been much debated and has been the vehicle for much dramatic speculation (including poison and assassination). With his death, the Hunnic kingship was split between Attila’s three sons, Ellac, Dengizich, and Erak, but the power of the Huns quickly disintegrated and they ceased to pose a threat to Rome’s and Byzantium’s borders.

Plunged into the darkness?

By choosing to discuss the depictions of Attila here, I do not intend to be controversial as to whether he correctly falls in the category of the Late Roman or Early Medieval periods (such things are blurred at any rate). If we accept the beginning of the Medieval Period to date to the fall of the Western Roman Empire (something which itself has been challenged), then it simply falls to say ‘when did Rome fall?’ Simply. Ha.

If we can use the term ‘usually’, we might say that 410 is the year the Western Roman Empire fell – it is the date of both the rescript of Honorius, advising the province of Britannia to fend for itself, and of Alaric’s Visigothic sacking of Rome in August. Some scholars now date the rescript to 409. Others say that Rome’s fall was a process, beginning as early as 376 when masses of barbarians (including some Huns) were allowed to cross the Rhine and Danube and settle within the empire. This eventuated in the disastrous defeat of the Eastern Roman army at Adrianople in 378. Others say the decline began even earlier, perhaps with the accession of Commodus, son of the last ‘good’ emperor, Marcus Aurelius in AD 180 (the implied argument in both of the films Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Gladiator (2000)). Others push out the fall to 476 with the deposing of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, or 480 with the murder of Julius Nepos, ruler of Dalmatia. Rome had, however, already fallen by then and both Augustulus and Nepos represent the last gasps of a severely weakened state. 410 therefore seems a more portentous date.

Of course, accepting this date also means rejecting the idea of the Dark Ages (controversy everywhere). The destruction and uncultured barbarity associated with Attila and the Huns also seems to usher in a period of relative ‘darkness’, as does his association as the Scourge of God, when the civilised world of the Roman Empire was plunged into the darkness of (pagan) barbarity. The Huns had a complex culture all their own with art and oral traditions, as did the multitude of other cultures which flourished in the 5th and 6th centuries. What is more, the late Roman Empire was also hardly what you would call civilised or enlightened, so I happily reject a ‘Dark Age’ and accept Attila’s conquests of the former Roman Empire as occurring at the beginning of the Medieval Period. Phew! Glad we got that out of the way.

Attila in medieval and early modern works

The legends surrounding Attila began relatively soon after his death in 453, indeed various stories of his death were part of the legend: poisoned or stabbed by his new wife, heavy drinking, nose-bleed, or some oesophageal haemorrhage. Legends might even have begun during Attila’s lifetime with the whispered mentions of his invincibility and the discovery of the Sword of Mars recorded by Jordanes in The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. As sources, we have nothing from the Huns themselves, and it is unknown if they ever wrote any, in any language. They had oral traditions which may have left traces in later Germanic poetry. We have Ammianus Marcellinus who recorded the savagery and ferocity, not to mention the perfidy, of the Huns when they first appear in Western sources in the late 4th century (but these descriptions look like they are already stereotypes), as well as several other sources, some of little value.

Ecclesiastical and secular histories, chronicles and Saints’ lives make up the bulk of our other sources. Several do not survive complete and we rely on fragments of contemporary authors like Priscus and Frigiderius (later used by Gregory of Tours). Priscus of Panium’s History of Byzantium only survives in fragments but has eyewitness authority since Priscus actually met Attila at his court (in 448/9) and so is our best source. Priscus travelled to the Hun capital as part of an embassy from Theodosius II at Constantinople.

Several of these sources are responsible for the legends, especially the role of the Christian God turning Attila away from Rome, but also legends about the sword of Mars, Attila’s vast wealth (hoarded like a dragon rather than distributed among his warriors as it more probably was), and his death. According to István Bóna (Das Hunnenreich (Budapest, 1992), the whereabouts of Attila’s tomb has led to more speculation than any other grave save that of Alexander the Great. Indeed, Attila’s tomb as well as the location of the Hunnic capital city continue to evade discovery and the idea that the tomb contains vast riches can still excite archaeologists and treasure hunters alike.

Attila next appears in several Norse, Germanic, and even Old English epic poems, from the Poetic Edda to the Nibelungenlied and Waldere. His character is depicted differently in each tradition – in Norse poetry he is a crude drunkard whereas in Germanic and Old English works he is a dignified and respected monarch. In the Nibelungenlied, it is Attila who displays the two highest virtues of kingship: faithfulness and mildness. The unexpected variety in treatments of Attila therefore begin relatively early.

He appears in the 7th circle of the Inferno as the ‘scourge of the earth’ in Dante’s Divine Comedy in the 14th century. In the 15th and 16th century, a curiously Venetian resurgence of interest in Attila took place, relating to his role in the foundation of the city a millennium earlier. This saw twenty editions of Giovanni-Maria Barbieri’s La Guerra d’Attila, Flagello di Dio published between 1500 and 1632. This was in turn based on the poem Libro d’Attila. There is also the famous 16th medallion (perhaps based on a fresco in the Certosa di Pavia monastery) showing Attila as Flagellum Dei, complete with goat horns; a similar depiction can be seen in a 1604 woodcut by Wilhelm Dilich. We’ll briefly examine other depictions in art below.

In 1647, the students at the Jesuit Royal College in Rouen performed L’Épée fatale ou le fleau d’Attila. This play was probably seen by Pierre Corneille who also chose Attila as the subject of an eponymous play in 1667. This play was performed by Moliere’s company at the Petit Bourbon Théâtre and received 20 performances. It was based on the surviving Greek and Latin authors Marcellinus Comes and Priscus. Corneille’s preface states:

Attila’s name is well known, but not everyone has an understanding of his character. He was a man of intellect rather than of action and sought to divide his enemies. He attacked defenseless peoples in order to strike terror in others and extracted tribute through their fears. He exercised such dominion over the kings who accompanied him that, had he commanded them to commit parricide, they would not have dared to disobey him.

Converting Attila to a figure who would work within a traditional tragedy for the French Classical stage was problematic. Corneille has Attila die of an explosion of rage rather than of drink or at his new wife’s hand, an end he justified in his preface. Attila has never really worked as a figure of straight drama although other plays followed. And, as Corneille’s preface showed, approaches to Attila could be nuanced and not only that of the barbarian destroyer.

Plays and operas

Attila, König der Hunnen by Zacharias Werner, written in 1808, became one of the most widespread plays. Werner first became known through the sponsorship of Goethe who called the playwright a ‘very gifted man’ although Goethe lost interest in Werner when the latter converted to Catholicism in 1811. Werner gave up the theatre and ended his days as a popular evangelist. The famous German dramatis Friedrich Hebbel then penned his trilogy of plays, Die Nibelungen (consisting of Der gehörnte Siegfried, Siegfrieds Tod and Kriemhilds Rache), his last work in 1861. This play had incidental music by Eduard Lassen (a Belgian-Danish composer based at Weimar) for performances in 1873. The music of Attila is something we can explore too, and it offers up all manner of surprises.

In the same period as plays were being produced, Attila was set as a protagonist of opera – again not necessarily as the villain. The first opera was in 1672 by Pietro Andrea Ziani. More followed in 1682 (Franck), 1806 (Farinelli), 1812 (Generali), 1818 (Mosca), 1827 (Persiani). Attila also get a mention in Pietro Metastasio’s opera Ezio (1728) – Ezio is the Italian name for Aëtius. This was set forty times between 1728 and 1827 including by George Frederick Handel in 1732. The most famous Attila opera is that by Giuseppe Verdi in 1846 but they continued even after that (in 1847 Malipero set Ildegonde di Borgogna). This work and the others, where they even survive, however, are no longer performed and, barring some incredibly brave choice by an opera or recording company, are lost to history. Even Beethoven considered setting an opera on Attila in 1812, based on Werner’s play, and he approached August von Kotzebue for a treatment. Alas, nothing came of the project. Julian Budden notes that Giuseppe Farinelli’s 1807 opera Attila predates Werner’s play and, he suggests, possibly inspired it.

Verdi thought that the character of Attila was ‘stupendous,’ a man ‘who refuses to be thwarted by fate.’ Attila is one of Verdi’s less performed works and several commentators cannot understand the composer’s enthusiasm. Verdi even considered turning the subject into a Grand Opera in five acts for Paris. He wrote: ‘What a wonderful, wonderful subject. The critics can say whatever they like, but I say “What a wonderful libretto for music.”’ The opera was written for Venice to whom it was expected to appeal because of the links to the foundation of their city (and something depicted in the opera’s prologue). Most interestingly, the opera contains a duet in which the Roman general Ezio offers to betray the Roman Empire to Attila; the Hun can have the remainder so long as Ezio is allowed to rule Italy. The noble Attila is horrified at such an offer (and the breaking of Ezio’s oath to his emperor) and rejects it. The music of the duet, however, contains a line (for Ezio) which Italian patriots in 1846 took up as a rallying cry until Italian unification in 1866: ‘Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me’ – ‘You may have the universe, let Italy remain mine.’ When you hear the musical importance Verdi gave to this line, you understand that Verdi knew what he was doing vis-a-vis Italian patriotism.

And yet, Attila is the noble character in this exchange. In the 1980s, the Kansas bass Samuel Ramey began to depict the role of Attila bearing his chest (earlier operatic Attilas remaining fully clad throughout). The sexy Attila seen in subsequent films may have its origins here (even if unaware of the operatic precedent). Actors like Anthony Quinn and Jack Palance who portrayed Attila in the 1950s were big stars, and both show off their bare chest in 1954, but they were not sex symbols per se. Palance’s chest is partially clad in furs so part of his barbarity rather than any appeal to his sexuality.

Attila continued to inspire other musicians. In 1857 Franz Lizst’s Die Hunnenschlacht (The Battle of the Huns) was performed in Weimar. Lizst was inspired by a fresco depicting Attila and Theodoric at the battle of the Catalaunian Fields. In Attila, King of the Huns, Howarth comments that ‘as theme music for a film on Attila and the Huns it could hardly be bettered.’ Lizst’s evocation of riding Huns, battle, and ghosts evokes wonderful images and yet has not been used in any Attila film.

Later, Lizst combined Eduard Lassen’s incidental music to Hebbel’s Die Nibelungen trilogy and set some of the text himself as incidental music for performances of Faust in 1878 and 1879.  This was transcribed for piano as Aus der Musik zu Hebbels Nibelungen und Goethes Faust. We should note here the connection between music for Attila and that for Mephistofeles in Faust. The most recent operatic adaptation is the 1993 Hungarian rock-opera Attila-Isten kardja (Attila, Sword of God) by Levente Szörényi which has had several revivals in Hungary.

Compare Verdi’s duet between Attila and Ezio and Szörényi’s equivalent scene here:

From Heavy Metal to Attila the Hen

The inspiration Attila provided to musicians continued in other, far-flung, fields. More recently, Attila has provided inspiration for heavy metal bands and songs – the change from the 19th century (and 20th century film scores) where Attila inspired classical music is noteworthy although the themes of destruction and conquest associated with him today seem far more akin to a heavy form of music rather than the classical genre. Attila also features in rap lyics – usually associated with ‘bad boy’ or destructive imagery. Just like the genre of opera, heavy metal (and the links below) may not be to everyone’s taste so please click at your own discretion!).

One of Billy Joel’s first bands, a Heavy Metal duo called Attila, put out an eponymous album in 1970. Consisting of only organ and drums, it has, unfortunately, been called the worst album ever made (a view challenged in the youtube comments) but their only album contained the instrumental ‘March of the Huns’ (starting at 14.40). The ‘guitar’ solo is actually Joel showing off the capabilities of the Hammond organ.

In 1981 a progressive-jazz-rock group, Dixie Dregs, released a track  ‘Attila the Hun’ on their all instrumental album Unsung Heroes.

Ground-breaking Russian metal band Aria also have an Attila song.

In 1994 a Norwegian black metal band, Dimmu Borgir, released ‘Hunnerkongens Sorgsvarde Ferd Over Steppene’ (‘The King of the Huns’ Sorrowful Black Journey Across the Steppes’) about Attila.

And band Iced Earth has also explored Attila in one of their songs on the 2004 album The Glorious Burden.

Even here, the variety of sound worlds Attila has inspired are remarkably varied and not at all what you would expect. They also explore more than a simple one dimensional Attila. In 2005 a US metalcore band was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, calling itself Attila (metalcore is a fusion of heavy metal and punk – again ideas associated in the modern mind with the themes of destruction in turn associated with Attila). They have released eight albums and chose Attila as their name because they were looking for a simple one word name that did not imply the typical death metal clichés of blood, dying and darkness. These themes (and the choice of Attila) show the modern associations with the name. The band also present their overriding purpose as to have fun and party (their second album was Soundtrack To A Party). Perhaps this is an (accidental?) connection to the scenes of Attila’s court with its orgies seen in film. Despite the name of the band, none of their songs have any connection to the figure from history or themes from his life. We should contrast the nobility and kingly-ness of Attila in the 17th, 18th and 19th century and the shift in thought (but not variety) from the late 20th century.

One other musical adaptation of Attila reveals the bewildering variety of approaches to the Hunnic king. In 1977, Caroll Spinney released ‘Attila the Hen,’ performed by Spinney’s Big Bird character on Sesame Street: The Sesame Street Fairy Tale Album. The fact that this rendition counts as a fairy tale is, itself, peculiar. The song tells of a hen with six chicks who she raises to be good and illustrious. They find some stray corn and, when the other animals refuse to help, Attila and her chicks plant and care for the corn until it is harvested. This is a retelling of the story of The Little Red Hen although choosing to name the hen Attila must have been deliberate (and ironic?), playing against expectations.

At the same time, in 1979 ‘Attila the Hen’ was a nickname applied to the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher only five months after she took office by Labour politician Denis Healy (others credit Liberal Clement Freud). The nickname was not intended as praise but referred to Thatcher’s stern determination, her dominant and demanding personality. It was not intended as any kind of accusation that she was ravaging and destroying everything, although ‘Attila’ seems to imply that criticism. Given her later reputation as ‘The Iron Lady’ and the respect she earned, the ‘Attila the Hen’ title took on the qualities of her determination and strength; Attila the Hen was even chosen as the title of the first volume of a Thatcher biography by John Campbell in 2000, exploring her rise to power (1925-1979). And in the days of the Brexit debate in 2016, ‘leadership lessons from Attila the Hen’ were evoked – her response to a united state of Europe famously being: ‘No. No. No.’

In 2008 Attila the Hen was then the eponymous character of a book by Paddy Mounter where an admittedly ‘big and stroppy’ hen named Attila, has no intention of becoming a caged battery bird and so plans a daring escape. The choice and use of this title may have tied into the reputation of Margaret Thatcher. The story was intended for children to see a ‘chicken’s eye view’ of thoughtless animal cruelty. Once again, using ‘Attila’ as the vehicle for this is ironic and the juxtaposition of the story and the images the name of Attila evokes, is worth thinking about.

On the cover of Joel and bandmate Jon Smalls Atilla album in 1970, the two stand in a semblance of Hunnic costume (fur and helmets) in the middle of an abattoir hanging with fresh meat. The disconcerting image of Attila in an abattoir brings us to the idea of what Attila should look like and indeed how he has been presented on film. Unusually, Jordanes  preserves a physical description of the Hunnic king. It is remarkable how often in (medieval) history, physical descriptions of the figures we study do not survive. Jordanes provides us with a description of Attila, presumably through the eyewitness Priscus:

He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body. He was indeed a lover of war, yet restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to supplicants and lenient to those who were once received into his protection. He was short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and a swarthy complexion, showing the evidence of his origin.

Jordanes also tells us that Attila was ‘a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands’ this seems to be as close as the original sources get to the epithet ‘flagellum dei’ which first appears in The Life of St Lupus. Nonetheless, this phrase is one of the things people attach to Attila – some even claiming that he called himself the ‘Scourge of God’ (certainly it is a tradition adopted in the theatrical, filmic, and operatic worlds). When we explore film (or depictions in paintings before that), very few representations of Attila have come anywhere close to such an image. The images of Attila, beginning in 1360 with the illustration in the Chronicon Pictum made for Louis I of Hungary, and moving through Raphael (1514), the Attila Medallion (16th century), Dilich (1604), Algardi’s sculpture (1646-53), Delacroix (1843-7), Mor Than (1870), and Checa (1887) we can see a variety of Attila’s depicted but none is especially short, swarthy or flat-nosed.

Attila the Hun in Chronicon Pictum

Most are also much younger than the historical Attila who was at least in his mid- to late fifties when the films are set. And none embrace the small eyes or sparse beard (and often it is not included). Depictions of Attila span a vast number of centuries, from Raphael to Rory McCann, most having little to do with what the man of history may have looked like and much more to do with the menacing figure of imagination and what the name of Attila evokes in the minds of the time. That in itself has changed which adds yet more fascination to the king of the Huns.

Attila on film

Attila has been on our screens since at least 1916 when Febo Mari’s Attila was produced. One of the most indelible images of Attila remains Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s depiction (as Etzel) in Fritz Lang’s second part of his Die Nibelungen, Kriemhild’s Revenge (1928) where menace is suggested both by Klein-Rogge’s penetrating stare (and shaved head) as well as Gottfried Huppertz’s original music score.

Attila here certainly looks villainous and his men are rather scantily clad horsemen, albeit skilled (with bareback riding in evidence). The debauchery and barbarity of Attila’s court is suggested by the drinking, knife throwing, and animal skin-clad Huns. This contrasts with the elegant and sophisticated Kriemhild whose severe beauty makes Attila aware (and ashamed?) of his own barbarity as well as fall madly in love with her. Kriemhild enlists an innocent Attila to enact her revenge on Hagen and the Burgundians (for killing her husband Siegfried in the first film). Unbeknownst to Attila, she bribes his Huns to attack the Burgundians and finally burn Attila’s palace to get her vengeance. Attila is therefore the dupe of Kriemhild, the barbarian in love, and the 2 ½ hour epic closes with his sending Kriemhild back to her dead husband because she never belonged to anyone else. The film ends with Attila still well and truly alive.

In the 1950s, German producer Artur Baruner wanted Lang to remake his silent epic but Lang resisted and in 1966 Brauner instead employed Harald Reini, the most commercially successful director in Germany at the time. The film would be the most expensive in post-war Germany to that time, costing eight million Deutschmarks. The second part, Kriemhilds Rache, was released in 1967 and had Czechoslovakian actor Herbert Lom as Etzel/Attila (better known from The Ladykillers (1955) and as Dreyfus in the original The Pink Panther film series (1963-1993)). The film was slated by the critics but was re-released in 1976 and 1982. Attila is black-clad but noble and dignified (with a hairstyle that understandably pays homage to 1928).

The early 1950s saw fierce competition to put the Attila story on film in America. Both Dino de Laurentis and Universal Pictures released films in 1954 (both in December that year) – Attila, starring Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren (as Honoria), and Sign of the Pagan starring Jack Palance and Jeff Chandler (as the Roman centurion, Marcian). Universal’s Sign of the Pagan was a big deal. It had been announced in October 1953 and was to be the studio’s first use of Cinemascope, their most expensive film of the year. Jack Palance as Attila was coming off his second Academy Award nomination – he’d been nominated for Best Supporting Actor as the villain, Lester, in Sudden Fear in 1952 and, again as the villain, Jack Wilson, in Shane in 1953.

Sign of the Pagan had a music score by Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter. The Huns are ‘A plague from the north’ and Attila ‘the most ruthless conqueror of all times’ and yet Attila’s first act is to free a Roman centurion (Marican) because he ‘has courage; he dares to speak the truth.’ Attila himself then cuts out the arrow which has wounded Marcian. Still, Attila’s music consists of dark, punctuating chords of brass to emphasize his menace; aided all the while by Palance’s distinctive drawl.

The film certainly appealed to contemporary ideas about the barbarian: ‘in the year 452 AD, a tidal wave of destruction poured out of Asia, threatening to destroy early Christianity and all civilisation.’ This date does not quite work since most of the action of the film takes place before 450. At the same time, we are invited to witness ‘the pagan deluge that ravaged a continent’ and the ‘shameless bacchanalian revels’ in all their splendour. There is a violence to Palance’s Attila (and more than one actor was injured by his portrayal of brutality, especially towards the female leads – the Ildico, Allison Hayes, was injured by Palance in their scenes and you can easily see how, Palance getting carried away with his ‘barbarity’).

There is fur aplenty here (and helmets worth pausing the film for!). Still, Palance’s Attila is shrewd (he copies the Romans ‘the more I am feared the easier my victories become’) and looks to learn the Roman art of war. The Roman equipment is woeful, but we do get accurate Byzantine mosaics and Chi-Rho symbols of the time. We get a wonderful sense of Attila’s command when he names his barbarian chieftains who have visited Theodosius’ court (all stand on his command) and later when he convinces them to march on Rome.

Alas, Attila does actually reach Rome, camping outside its walls (he never got so close – and of course Rome was not significant by this time). There is no battle of Châlons at all in this film but a fictional defence of Rome by Marcian. Bleda is present throughout (historically he was already dead) and not co-king but simply brother. But there is nuance here too, but in the Machiavellian, indeed Byzantine, negotiations attempting to secure Attila’s loyalty by both Theodosius and others. Attila seeks, not only to destroy the Roman empire, but to restore that which they had destroyed, and to rule the world of which the Roman empire is but a small part. Palance’s histrionics suit such megalomania but he also respects two (Scottish!) monks and is afraid of the cross in a temple where a ravaged population and their monks have retreated. This Attila matches the qualities of leadership presented by Jordanes, ‘gracious to suppliants and lenient to those who were once received into his protection.’

Attila’s disquiet when Pope Leo turns him away from Rome is palpable and after he kills his daughter, he suffers a nightmare of martyrs marching against him from Rome.  The final battle (a fictional one) takes place as an ambush as Attila retreats from Rome, and there, in a horrible unhistorical clash, Attila is bested in one-on-one combat by Marcian before being stabbed by Ildico. Thus Attila dies, though not in any of the ways he was rumoured to immediately after his death. His last line: ‘bury me deep’ is a lovely touch, as is the shadow cast by the sword hilt that killed him, a crucifix.

The Quinn/Loren Attila was also a big deal. It would become one of Sophia Loren’s biggest successes of the 1950s. The film had rushed into production after Universal’s film was announced, filming beginning in late-February 1954. In fact, the success of negotiating an Italian production starring American Kirk Douglas, Ulysses, in 1953, led to an immediate attempt to do the same with Quinn and Attila although producers DeLaurentis and Carlo Ponti made this one independently (whereas Ulysses had been made in cooperation with Paramount). Quinn also co-starred in Ulysses as Antinous (he spoke no Italian and spoke all his dialogue in English (as did Douglas) and the actors then dubbed their English dialogue later (or were dubbed into Italian). This was the standard technique of Italian filmmaking at the time.

In its attempt to further such a cooperative market with America, Attila failed in 1954/5 although when it was re-released three years later it achieved greater fame. By then the peplum craze (launched by the success of Ulysses) was in full swing but distributor Joseph E. Levine used Attila specifically to launch what became known as ‘saturation booking,’ where multiple theatres in a small area showed one film (on favourable terms) and cost-effective spending on print, radio, and screen advertising could be used to promote the (short) season of screenings. This pattern would then be repeated at another hub and the success of the system led to the fame of the film during its second rerelease. This was a revolution in film distribution.

Anthony Quinn worked on Federico Fellini’s acclaimed and influential La Strada at the same time as Attila (also produced by Conti and DeLaurentis). A broken ankle to a cast member had delayed shooting on Fellini’s film in October 1953 and the new schedule caused issues although in the end the two films were shot simultaneously. La Strada was shot in the morning and scenes from Attila were shot the same afternoon and evening. This meant Quinn had to get up at 3.30am to be ready for the light Fellini wanted. He would then leave for Rome at 10.30 to be ready to shoot Attila in the afternoon. Quinn later went on to recall that the resulting haggard look of Zampanò in La Strada was perfect, but it hardly suited Attila. There are moments when you can detect Quinn’s exhaustion, his attention wanders and he stares into space. What is more, filming in February with the very cold nights and mornings of late winter and early spring had an adverse effect on the actors too. Fellini used the idea that Sophia Loren might make an appearance on the La Strada set to convince thousands of unpaid extras to stay around. One thing worth keeping in mind for Quinn’s Attila, however, is that the character of Zampanò was a self-destructive and brutish circus strongman. This may have had an effect on his characterisation of Attila.

Quinn’s Attila has a very similar approach to Sign of the Pagan. Set in 450, it tells of the ‘legacy of the Huns; barbarian hordes sweeping with the full force of a tidal wave across the fertile plains of the West. A mighty tide of blood, destructions, and death.’ We are told of the insatiable desire for loot and that Attila is ‘fierce and fanatic, whose name is told in whispers like that of an evil spirit.’ Yet when we meet Attila he is encouraging his sons to fight. When the Roman envoy is announced, Attila tends to the wounds of his youngest son and so the Romans do not meet Attila on his throne but as a father caring for his son (Rua has just died, so claiming a setting of 450 is false, that is 15 years in the future). This Attila holds council and makes jokes.

The nuances continue throughout the film and Quinn’s depiction is not just of a brute. Yet Attila is portrayed as a warmonger in contrast to his peace-loving brother Bleda (who, historically was already dead by 450). Attila then organises the assassination of Bleda to become sole king (but only after Honoria’s offer of marriage which comes too early). In the film, Attila’s son, also called Bleda, is killed at Châlons and this traumatizes Attila and leads to his abandoning conquest and plunder. The film portrays Rome as decadent and ruled by Valentinian III’s mother Galla Placidia while the emperor lives a dissolute life full of orgies. Interestingly, this depiction of Rome continued in film despite orgies normally being associated with pagan emperors such as Nero or Elagabalus (the third century emperor (ruled 218-222) who oversaw the heyday of the Roman orgy). Just like Roman legionaries, film would have us believe that there was a continuity of orgies at Rome, regardless of the religion of its rulers. And of course, Attila, famous for his own supposed orgies therefore presents a problem – you can’t have both Roman and Hun orgy, at least not of the same type.

The 1954 film ends with Attila turned away from the conquest of Rome by Pope Leo wearing perhaps one of the silliest Attila helmets on film, if not silliest film helmet overall (although there are some stupendously ridiculous contenders!). This meeting with Pope Leo is presented very much as a triumph of Christianity (the cross appears in the sky as Attila retreats over the crest of the hill), and whose power Attila recognises although he also hears the voice of his peace-loving brother Bleda (who he assassinated) telling him that the blood of the innocent will haunt him. Again here, Attila remains alive at the close of the film. Both Attila and Sign of the Pagan use the thunderbolt and lightning strike as symbols of Attila’s religion and, oddly, in Sign of the Pagan at least, paganism is shown as having some true authority, especially in the omens. It is also interesting how both 1954 films are relatively distinct geographically, Sign of the Pagan beginning in the east and Attila set in the west. Thus we do get two very different Attilas, not just in the actor portraying him.

Another figure worth exploring in the 1954 Attila is the depiction by Sophia Loren of Honoria. She has only been filmed as part of the Attila story three times, in 1954 and then she plays a small part in the 2001 Attila miniseries and in 2016’s Barbarians Rising. This is in stark contrast to her actual historical role in Attila’s invasion of Italy. We saw above that Honoria was characterised as a woman of loose morals by 6th and 7th century sources and she has been paired with other scandalous Roman women such as Valeria Messalina and Agrippina the Younger (the emperor Nero’s mother). The association seems unfair, not least because we have so little surviving source material on Honoria.

What damns her seems to be that she asked Attila for assistance and no contemporary source mentions the scandals which are recorded later. As such, Loren’s depiction is fascinating and the most in-depth portrayal of this historical figure. In 1954, Honoria hopes to eliminate her mother and brother and invites Aëtius to join her coup d’état. He refuses (thus he is depicted entirely differently than in theatre and opera). Honoria therefore joins with Attila and is found in the Hun camp in the aftermath of the battle of Châlons. There she is killed and Aëtius too is felled by an arrow to the neck (historically he was put to death by Valentinian three years later).

The film, as a vehicle for Loren, takes ample advantage of her beauty and casts her as the ambitious femme fatal. This at least has corroboration from the sources which cast her as both ambitious and promiscuous even though those sources are flawed and perhaps created that image of Honoria in order to explain her attempted alliance with Attila. Like the anachronistic Roman soldiers, the villas and dress of Honoria are first century Roman, favouring the flowing chiton to show off her figure. The same is true of many Roman women depicted on film (again suggesting a false continuity of female dress and fashion at Rome). In fact, much of the jewellery reaches back even further, resembling the treasures uncovered by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae and Troy.

In Sign of the Pagan, we do not get Honoria at all but a version of Pulcheria (not Honoria’s sister but who had been regent for her brother Theodosius II in 414, then became empress herself in 450 when Theodosius died, and who then married Marcian but maintained her virgin status at the same time). In the film, however, it is Pulcheria (Ludmilla Tchérina) of whom ‘her amorous intrigues are the talk of Rome’ suggesting she has been combined with Honoria’s reputation. It is Pulcheria who meets with Attila here, in the palace at Constantinople, attempting to persuade Attila to enter into an alliance with her against the enemies of East and West. He kisses her, much to her distaste.

We also get a fictional daughter of Attlia (Kubra played by Rita Gamm) who falls in love with the Roman, Marcian, and who wishes to convert to Christianity (and ends up betraying Attila for her new faith). In the film, it is she who sends Pope Leo to talk with Attila (and in a rage Attila kills her, something he immediately regrets). Marcian, the centurion Attila saves, would become emperor with Pulcheria when she married him in 450. We also have Ildico who appears much sooner than she does in the historical record (only appearing in the sources after Attila was turned away at the River Po). Here she is a captive, and one of Attila’s wives, from the start.

Attila has made numerous appearances on television and in brief mentions too numerous to mention. Usually these reference his barbarity and destruction but there are curious juxtapositions too such as his use on Monty Python’s Flying Circus with its 1970 skit of ‘The Attila the Hun Show.’ False quotes have been attributed to him such as in Superman III (1983) where the villain, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), (falsely) claims that Attila’s motto was ‘It is not enough that I succeed, but everyone else must fail.’

In 1982, Italian comedian Diego Abatantuono starred in Attila flagella di Dio, directed by Castellano e Pipolo (the screen name of the combined forces of Franco Castellano and Giuseppe Moccia). This saw a comical Attila attacking Lombardy and Rome but the depiction and jaunty pop score are far from what you expect of Attila although the look of Attila and his horde (of about twelve) certainly fits with the image. Attila is large and hairy and clad in furs (as are his men); they only grunt and most of the comedy consists of visual sight gags with very little dialogue.

This seems to connect Abatantuono to another comic Attila, in the three films of the Night at the Museum franchise (2006, 2009, and 2014) portrayed by Canadian actor Patrick Gallagher as a museum exhibit come alive. He too is inarticulate but becomes one of the ‘good guys’ as a sensitive brooding man who is misunderstood but only needs someone to reach out to him, namely Ben Stiller’s character Larry. Gallagher is also of Irish/Chinese descent and so this Attila plays into the Asian origins of Attila (some suggest that the character may originally have been intended to be Genghis Khan – perhaps the unexpected sensitivity matched Attila better than Genghis). What is more, Attila makes an appearance in all three films whereas other characters do not.

The 2001 Attila miniseries gets an immense amount of its history wrong, in characters, events and costume. The Roman army is equipped as a second century AD army so typical of film Romans. Attila visits Rome (which he is never known to have done) and there are many other issues. Bleda and Attila co-ruled for approximately eleven years and the ideas about Attila assassinating his brother are popular and present in earlier depictions. We have already mentioned that the depiction of Attila by Gerard Butler is as the sex symbol, topless muscled shots of him abound. He is also portrayed as a great lover (perhaps to give credence to the offer of marriage from Honoria). In this version, it is Honoria (Kirsty Mitchell) who seduces Attila when he (fictionally) visits Rome (he even dresses as a clean-shaven Roman). Sign of the Pagan too made brief mention of Attila having been a hostage at Rome when he was a boy (thus giving him a revenge motive to destroy the city) but there is no evidence he ever saw the city.  What is more, in 2001 this all takes place before the death of Attila’s uncle, the Hunnic king Rua. Indeed, history here is very thin on the ground.

In 2005, the Sci Fi channel’s Cerebus saw Attila the Hun’s breastplate stolen by mercenaries from a museum in Bucharest, Romania. The breastplate is meant to lead to the Sword of Mars (an actual artefact Attila was associated with) but it is guarded by Cerebus, the three-headed dog of Greek myth who guarded the entrance to Hades (if not Fluffy from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). There is no special mention of a breastplate of Attila in any of the sources (indeed the idea of a breastplate in the mid fifth century AD Hunnic warfare is totally out of place). Romanian Gabriel ‘Gabi’ Andronache plays Attila and this is another sex-symbol casting. This odd connection of Attila and science fiction (and the mixing of Attila and other myths) is not an isolated instance. In 2013 Attila was released (the similarity of names of these films can become confusing!). This iteration stared UFC champion Cheick Kongo as Attila and saw mercenaries (again) steal Attila’s secret riches and the mummified zombie Attila emerges and takes revenge. This Attila is of African extraction (with a Congolese mother and father from Burkina Faso) adding yet more variety to his depiction on film.

A re-release

Attila has also been covered in several recent documentaries which feature re-enactments, such as an episode of the BBC’s Barbarians (2004) and Heroes and Villains in 2008, and Barbarians Rising (2016) and the second series of Deadliest Warrior (2010) where Attila himself was pitted against Alexander the Great, and Attila emerges victorious. On the History Channel’s 2009 Ancients Behaving Badly Attila scored ‘best’ on the ‘psycho-meter,’ the show adjudging Attila one of the worst psychopaths in history. He is called ‘history’s first terrorist’ who was interested only in power and money and ‘created nothing, built nothing.’  This judgement and depiction tie in with returns to presentations of Attila in recent history as a barbarian destroyer lacking in some of the nuance of earlier depictions. The subtlety of earlier depictions seems entirely forgotten (although Night at the Museum has kept the subtlety alive).

2016’s Barbarians Rising is peculiar in that its four episodes tell a linked tale that ‘Rome didn’t fall in a day’ and its episodes (linked alliteratively: Resistance, Rebellion, Revenge, and Ruin) suggest a contiguous story. When we look at the episodes, however, they are not linked at all – exploring Hannibal, Spartacus, Boudicca and Attila. Thus, Attila lived almost four hundred years removed from Boudicca who lived one hundred years after Spartacus who lived more than one hundred years after Hannibal. It is not a continuous or contiguous story at all but plays into ideas that Rome remained the same.

In truth, the Rome of Hannibal was as far removed from the Rome of Attila as the London of today is to the London of Henry V, and a similar approach would be to explore Henry V, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II as all representing the same city, culture and empire without any of the complex developments between each period. Attila is a ‘ferocious, wild beast’ but also talked up as a great military and tactical genius (the juxtaposition of these two contradictory statements doesn’t seem to bother the producers). In the re-enactment scenes it is Attila’s brutality that is emphasised and the terror his troops inspired. The idea that the Huns were a new phenomenon and that the Romans were unfamiliar with them belies the years of contact under the previous kings before Attila.

So too the idea that Attila was ‘undefeated;’ Attila and his Huns had been repulsed by the Sassanids and had failed to take Constantinople. The episode also talks of the ‘final battle’ between Huns and Romans, fought for the ‘very survival of western civilisation’ which does not correctly sum up Châlons at all. We are told, after this ‘defeat’ Attila’s aura of invincibility was broken which is a poor substitute for actual history. Unfortunately, despite a stellar line up of scholars (Noel Lenski, Susanna Elm, Peter Heather and others) delivering authoritative-sounding info-bites about Attila, there is not much substance here and instead a perpetuation of incorrect history and myth.

2018’s Attila announces in bold text that it is directed by Gareth Edwards (of Godzilla (2014) and Star Wars: Rogue One (2016) fame) and with the familiar face of Rory McCann as Attila. I say familiar because McCann was by 2018 almost universally recognisable for his portrayal as The Hound on Game of Thrones. This Attila, in fact a re-release of an episode from the BBC’s 2008 Heroes and Villains. No doubt it was re-released as a stand-alone product to cash in on both McCann and Edwards’ subsequent fame. This is, refreshingly, a more historically grounded villain Attila (‘part genius and maybe even part psychopath’). This ‘psychopath’ approach does link back to Sign of the Pagan especially, although it would seem to be more connected to audience expectations of McCann’s character in Game of Thrones but was made before he was cast in that show in 2009. It was also made by Edwards before his big break in 2010 with the film Monsters.

We are told by voice over (with an Irish accent from Allen Leach’s Edeco, mind) that the Huns are only united by a lust for gold and Attila. Attila is again a genius ‘brutal and brilliant.’ There are links to Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century Voivode of Wallachia, another brutal figure whose homeland partially coincides with Hunnic territory. Vlad and Attila impale their prisoners. Yet there is more history here than in other Attila films and documentaries – the dual kingship, the range of peoples ruled by the Huns (Edeco as a Scirii chieftain is accurate), even the payment of tribute by the Romans to ensure that the Huns would not harass their borders. Peter Heather was the historical consultant and, for once, it seems his advice was listened to, to some extent at least. We get the taking of Naissus by Attila, the first time the Huns successfully took a city by siege using towers and rams. In a nice touch, we also have Zercon, the dwarf jester of Bleda, playing a prominent role until banished by Attila.

Attila is still bloodthirsty and brutal (and very much a pre-Hound: I wonder if this performance in 2008 actually led to casting him in Game of Thrones in 2009). This Attila leads his assaults in person (for which there is no evidence) and on foot – but this plays into a different model of the inspiring military leader. However, this Attila also shows moments of thought and reflection although he does murder his brother Bleda. The assassination, in public and at Attila’s hand is unexpected (and plays into the brutality and psychotic behaviour of this depiction). After the killing, covered in his brother’s blood and calmly drinking, he asks the assembled (dumbstruck) Huns nonchalantly ‘What?’ We can contrast this with 1954’s Attila where Bleda is killed on Attila’s order on a hunting trip (a detail extrapolated from Jordanes), where Attila then watches his brother die. In 2008 there is nothing of the sword of Mars (although McCann does wear an enormous sword) whereas in earlier versions the sword has played a much more prominent part in Attila’s aura (in 1954, 2001 and 2005 for instance – it’s also a big part of Verdi’s opera).

The episode concludes with the battle of the Catalaunian Plains although it is, ahistorically, an all infantry affair and fought for the control of a ridge – although one which is much more precipitous than those of the possible actual battle site such as the Les Maures and Montgueux Ridges near Troyes of Evan Michael Schultheis’ 2019 reconstruction. That said, Jordanes does state that the battle was fought on a steep ridge so this depiction can still pass muster. Once again Attila leads his men (on foot) in what should have been a futile charge against a solid Roman shield wall (the archery which decimated Edeco’s charge earlier in the battle is entirely absent from Attila’s charge). Attila hurls the first spear and bursts through the shieldwall but alas, as in so many medieval films, combat then disintegrates into a series of one-on-one melees with no semblance of the formations that had been there and intact just seconds before.

There the episode concludes, with Attila a broken man (which he was not), calling for a funeral pyre to be built for him (the approach is from Jordanes). This does not capture the pragmatic and expedient Attila whose army was still intact, still a threat, and which almost took Milan and Ravenna the following year (Aquileia was taken). Attila had also had close battles before – the battle at Utus in 447 (which is a welcome inclusion earlier in this version) was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory. Instead, here we get ‘the myth of his invincibility had been shattered’ which is disappointing although it does give McCann some scope for a more nuanced performance. There is no invasion of Italy in 452 (except in very brief voice over), the Pope turning him back or offer of marriage to Honoria. It is perhaps understandable that the battle of the Catalaunian fields is the climactic scene of modern depictions (as opposed to the triumph of Christianity of earlier versions). It is almost as if modern productions are afraid to couch the conflict between Rome and the Huns in religious terms whereas such a position was more readily accepted in the 1950s. It is noteworthy how few films deal with Attila’s death (certainly as the sources record it), considered one of the more dramatic episodes of his life in the 19th century and earlier. We should also note that several of the Germanic tribes (even those in alliance with Attila) were also Christians themselves, usually converts to Arianism, and so to frame the story of Attila as pagan versus Christian Rome is, in itself, too simplistic.

McCann, at 198 centimetres (6’6”) tall, certainly does not match the ‘short stature’ of Jordanes’ description. Indeed, Chiek Kongo was 193cm tall, Jack Palance 191cm tall, Gerard Butler 188cm, Anthony Quinn 185cm, Diego Abatantuono 183cm, and Patrick Gallagher approximately 179cm. It is also worth remembering that a short stature to the Romans, who had an average height 166cm (5’5”), must have been short indeed, perhaps 5’2”. Nearly all filmic Attilas have been tall and imposing, in keeping with our modern ideas about a barbarian conqueror; the shortest was Rudolf Klein-Rogge at 173cm (well. Herbert Lom was 172.5cm). We saw that Attila would have probably been in his mid- to late fifties in 451 and that the actors portraying him were nowhere near that age (Butler was 32, Abatantuono 33, Palance 35, Kongo 38, and McCann and Quinn 39. Klein-Rogge comes closer at 43 although Gallagher was 38 when he started and 46 when he finished. The winner in the age appropriateness is Herbert Lom who was 49 in 1966. In all these depictions, Klein-Rogge comes closest to matching Jordanes’ description in several ways, especially the rolling eyes, haughty stare, and large head. All the other depictions project what a ‘barbarian’ should look like based on far more modern criteria down to the copious wearing of fur and animal skins.

In the 2008 film, we do at least see late Romans with large oval shields and wearing mail and spangenhelms. Such accuracy is not consistent and we also see earlier helmets and muscled cuirasses. For the most part, however, these Romans are as we should see them, not as the stereotypical, banded armour-wearing, rectangular curved shield-carrying typical film and television ‘Romans.’ That style of armour had a very short lifespan (about AD 40-180) and had died out in the second century AD, three hundred years before Attila, but it is what most viewers expect to see Romans from any period wear and will be seen in almost every film, these Attilas included. According to film, the same armour, shields, helmets and weapons were worn, without change, for some 1,200 years, from Rome’s foundation in c.753 BC to her collapse in the 5th century AD! For Attila films, it would be like having the powdered wigs and frockcoats of the 1720s being worn by a modern 21st century businessman. So, in the 2008 Attila, it is great to see Late Romans depicted as they would have appeared.

Attila in Novels

Attila’s life in film is unexpectedly wide-ranging in breadth and scope. He is not the out and out villain we would expect. Just as in opera and on stage, he has been given a surprising range of personas, from pure villain all the way to hero and sex-symbol. These peculiar and surprising representations of Attila are not restricted to film and music – in literature too we get the whole gamut of presentations.

Attila has been a popular subject of novels, usually as the eponymous villain although he is not always presented as such. In 1901 Géza Gárdonyi published A láthatatlan ember in Hungarian (published as Slave of the Huns in English since the actual translation ‘The Invisible Man’ might have been confused with H. G. Wells’ 1897 novel). This contained a positive Attila where he is a wise ruler (and continues the approaches to him from earlier in the 19th century). It remains popular and continues to be read widely in Hungary today.

A sampling of other novels include: George James Attila (English) in three volumes (1837); Felix Dahn Attila (German) (1884-1888); Louis de Wohl Throne of the World (1949) (later re-published as Attila the Hun (1964)); Roger Fuller, Sign of the Pagan (1954); Thomas Costain The Darkness and Dawn (1959);  Ross Laidlaw, Attila: The Scourge of God (2004); William Dietrich, The Scourge of God (2005). William Napier also published an Attila trilogy between 2005 and 2008 (Attila: The end of the world will come from the East (2005), Attila: The Gathering Storm (2007), Attila: The Judgement (2008)); Stephan Grundy, Attila’s Treasure (1996).

Attila, oddly, also appeared as the protagonist of a very successful series of leadership and management handbooks. Wess Roberts’ Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun (1989) and Victory Secrets of Attila the Hun (1993) contain such eternal corporate wisdom as ‘you’ve got to want to be in charge’, ‘picking your enemies wisely’, ‘the essentials of decisiveness’, and ‘risk-taking can backfire.’ Attila was deliberately chosen as an unlikely metaphorical role model precisely because the challenges his leadership had to overcome were so monumental – Attila was a determined, tough, rugged and intriguing leader who ‘dared to accomplish difficult tasks and performed challenging feats against “seemingly” insurmountable odds.’ Roberts, with no apparent irony, claimed that today Attila might be characterized as ‘an entrepreneur, diplomat, social reformer, statesman, civilizer, brilliant field marshal and host of some terrific parties’ and a figure who ‘provides a compelling opportunity for relating leadership fundamentals to a new generation.’ In each book, Attila delivers a series of lectures to his Huns around the campfire in which he expounds the fundamentals of leadership (which, Roberts admits, have no basis in reality).

In a more obvious comic vein (but still an unexpected place for Attila), the Hun king was acknowledged as the author of a newly discovered manuscript in 2005. This turned out to be The Bumper Book of Lies (Attila the Hun The Bumper Book of Lies, translated from the Latin by Shaun Hutson (2005)). This book contained such wisdom as: ‘Like Nostradamus, Attila the Hun was able to foresee the advent of modern life and technology.’ This work contains non-sensical comedy such as: ‘the largest country in the world is Norway. With its population of close to 156,000,000 people and a moose, this large island in the Indian Ocean is the principal exporter of toothpaste’. Why Attila the Hun is singled out as the author of such ridiculousness, or the unlikely pontificator of contemporary business wisdom are worth pondering. They do add, however, to a rich variety of approaches to Attila across the centuries.

Attila in all his guises and modes of presentation provides an immense amount of food for thought, several different threads of the Attila myth can be interwoven in whichever combination the creator choses. This presents a remarkable tapestry of material and approaches to Attila, many more than we would ever have expected when we first evoked the name of the ‘Scourge of God.’ Happy viewing and listening.

Murray Dahm is the movie columnist for You can find more of his research on or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

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Top Image: A painting of Attila riding a pale horse, by French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)


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