Sunday, October 04, 2009

2010 - A Screen Odyssey?

Last post, I said we’d look at films about ancient odyssey-type voyages that sailed closer to home than the upcoming cycle of films about Jason, Hercules et al which we covered last time.
The Danish film Valhalla Rising now filming in Scotland, Scandinavia and Canada (for a March 2010 release) does bring us closer geographically, with a voyage showing relations between Scots and Vikings.
This is something that has been in the news headlines. Earlier this year, the papers carried articles with headlines like "The Vikings: it wasn't all raping and pillaging" (The Independent), "Spotlight on the cuddly side of the Vikings" (Guardian), "Vikings 'were not barbaric'" (The Press Association), "Those nice Vikings did a lot for us, says experts" (Independent, Ireland), and "Don't mention the pillage as academics explore the nice side of the Vikings" (Irish Times). The press stories were about the 'Between The Islands' conference organised by Cambridge University's Dept of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic Studies, presenting Viking raids as an example of ‘positive immigration’ from which we could learn ‘important lessons’ today. It was convened with 20 ‘cutting edge’ research papers to “celebrate the gentle side of the invaders: the town planners, shipbuilders, farmers, coin-minters and stonecarvers who were forever swapping songs, stories or advice on a better way to rig a mainsail with their Gaelic neighbours.” (As Basil Fawlty might put it, we're all friends together now, eh, and no need to Mention The War - or in this case, the centuries-long Viking terror contemporary sources write of.)
A more recent story outlined the older view more representative of the people at the time, as indicated by the source materials, the ancient codices containing Icelandic sagas, navigation guides etc, “set down on yellowed calf vellum eight centuries ago.” The comments gleaned from these on Scots-Viking relations by a historian at Reykjavik University, Gisli Sigurdsson, were summarised by the Telegraph [20-Sep-09] as: “Vikings 'were warned to avoid Scotland' - Scotland is full of dangerous natives who speak an incomprehensible language and the weather is awful. That was the verdict of a series of 13th century Viking travel guides that warned voyagers to visit at their peril.”
The sources quoted were one-sided, only representing the Nordic view, complaining the Scots made a dangerous prey: "Icelanders who want to practise robbery are advised to go there. But it may cost them their life." There is unintended irony here, with the historian saying the Vikings were ‘nervous’ about the wild Scots and Irish Gaels. The word Scot, like Vikingr, is thought to mean raiders, and the residents of the Western and Northern Isles had been raiding by sea since at least Roman times, when their population was beefed up by refugees from the new ‘Pax Romana,’ and raiding took on a nationalist-political appeal.
Well, all this promises rich dramatic possibilities, but what of this latest film, Valhalla Rising? This has a giant mute Viking (Mads Mikkelsen again) called One-Eye escaping longterm slavery among the Highland clans, joining up with a boy-companion/interpreter, some other Vikings and Scots missionaries en route south to the Crusades, who get turned around in the fog, and end up coming ashore on what they believe to be Valhalla, the warrior paradise of Nordic myth, which proves to be their accidental discovery c1000 AD of America. (Quite an odyssey that, setting out for Jerusalem and ending up discovering North America). There, their companions meet a gruesome fate at the hands of the local denizens, while 'One-Eye discovers his true self.' (YouTube trailer here.) From this synopsis, it sounds a bit like The 13th Warrior, the Beowulf-inspired spinoff (via an obscure Michael Crichton novel called Eaters Of The Dead) of a few years ago - a reworking of various existing strands of history and legend, set amidst brooding northern landscapes where unknown foes lurk.

It also sounds sadly similar to director Marcus Nispel's previous epic, Pathfinder, which in turn is a remake of a 1987 Scandinavian native epic from an old Saami folk tale, authentically filmed by a Saami filmmaker, which was nominated as Best Foreign Film. (Beware the video version, evidently taken from a badly dubbed 16mm US TV print.) The 1987 Pathfinder, a 70mm epic originally titled Veiviseren or Ofelas, recounted how a youth helped defeat an incursion by murderous neighbours in remote Lapland. The 2007 remake has a youth, himself a Viking left behind among the natives as a boy, leading the fight against an incursion by murderous Vikings landing in North America. (Apparently, the locals are the Beothuks of Newfoundland - the original 'Red Indians', who used red-ochre war paint, and were one of the first native tribes to be exterminated). The director is best known for the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and had extra gore added for a special 'unrated' version of the remake.

Historically, the Norse and Picts (as opposed to the western Scots and Irish Gaels) were also rivals and neighbours, until the Norse colonised Pictish bases in northern and eastern Scotland, but nobody has made a film about this yet. One writer who tried to work close to this area in pulp-fantasy terms was the American Robert E Howard, with his Conan and other stories. As reported previously, his Bran mak Morn stories, about the last king of the Picts, are being filmed. Now we also have both a new feature and a new British TV series of 90 minute episodes, on Conan. As I mentioned before, author Robert E Howard was a Romantic Celtophile, and took the name Conan from Celtic legend. The movie began shooting in late August in Bulgaria, after a long wrangle over rights, while the Brit TV series is being prepared by some of those behind the HBO/BBC series Rome. It uses some short stories fallen into the public domain since Howard's death by suicide in 1936, not using the name Conan in the title. (Unlike a lot of REH's other motifs, it's a genuine Celtic name, usually spelt in early sources such as The Gododdin of c600 AD as Cynon). The bad news is the film has the same director as the Pathfinder remake, Marcus Nispel, whose interview comments have fans worried about its 'authenticity.'

The 'world's most famous barbarian' was a Cimmerian, from an historically attested tribe originating in the area of the ancient Crimea, but which is often presented as a land of mist and fog, suggesting a northern Atlantic-coast setting closer to home. Some writers identify them with the Cimbri of Jutland, who abandoned their homeland due to flooding. REH apparently thought the Cimmerians were the ancestors of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles. Ironically, the Picts are excluded from this, treated as the enemy, of both Conan and REH's predecessor-hero Kull of Atlantis. REH was one of many who held to the Romantic 19C belief the British Isles were remnants of once-mighty Atlantis. He used the name Hyboria, adapted from the Greek name for the dwellers-beyond-the-North-Wind (controlled by the god Boreas), the Hyperboreans, who some identify with the residents of the North Sea area, including Britain.

What about the two new screen versions announced of The Odyssey? For there is a theory going back to Roman times that Homer's Odyssey is not set anywhere in the Med, but somewhere beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar Strait), closer to home, among the mythical Hyperboreans. (The Odyssey's foggy weather and remarks about the constellations and the nights being twice as long as the days in winter have suggested a northern voyage.) Well, one filmization, to star Brad Pitt (the recent film Troy's Achilles), is actually an S-F adaptation to be directed by George "Mad Max" Miller and set in outer space. This may not be an isolated case - there's a claim that the current Battlestar Galactica TV series is "a retelling of The Aeneid"

Since the success of the 1956 SF classic Forbidden Planet (the template for Star Trek), widely accepted as an adaptation of Shakespeare's Mediterranean-island fable The Tempest, such cross-genre adaptation has become quite accepted and overt. With its classic opening line "Of arms and the man I sing," Virgil's Aeneid, intended as Rome's "founding" epic, remains a highly influential work, originally translated into English by Dryden and later by Poet Laureate C Day Lewis in 1963, by Allen Mandelbaum (1973 National Book Award), and US Poet Laureate Robert Fitzgerald (1981). In the past few years, there have been four recent translations by American scholars: by Penguin's own 'Aeneid' translator, Robert Fagles of Princeton, by Frederick Ahl of Cornell, by U of Kansas classics professor Stanley Lombardo, and the first by a woman, poet and classicist Sarah Ruden of Yale. And there are reportedly two more versions in the works, one by poet and translator David Ferry, and one by classical literature professor Jane Wilson Joyce. So it isn’t a ‘dead’ work by any means, just a difficult one.

Despite a finale so violent the dying Virgil ordered the manuscript burnt, it has not had a proper film adaptation (as far as I know), though the Italian sword-n-sandal cycle no doubt drew on it. (Obviously the title would be changed as it merely means "concerning Aeneas," the Trojan prince who flees west carrying the 'sword of Troy'. (This is a ‘cameo’ moment at the end of the 2004 film Troy, as if setting up a possible spinoff.) The story is that after a suitably epic period of odyssey-like wanderings, Aeneas founds Rome.)

Disappointingly, the other 2010 Odyssey film will omit Ulysses' ten-year epic voyage and concentrate on his return home and bloody revenge against his wife's suitors back on Ithaca, and looks set to be another gorefest. (it's directed by South African filmmaker Jonathan Liebesman, best-known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.) Yet there is still hope here for a mature film of Homer's Odyssey - the bestselling UK paperback till 1962 (the year of the Lady Chatterley's Lover censorship trial victory). It's had major English translations into both verse (Alexander Pope) and prose (TE Lawrence), and the influence it still holds among writers, together with recent archaeo-historical theory, may turn the tide.

In the late 19C, Heinrich Schliemann, insisting the Iliad was fact-based, confounded the scoffers of the archaeological establishment by digging down into a great mound near the Hellespont and discovering traces of 7 citadels, one built atop the other. Sceptics said it was too small to fit Homer's account, but a German team of several hundred archaeological staff led by the late Manfred Korfmann have since patiently uncovered a moated outer city, of suitably 'Homeric' size. Since then, there have been similar attempts to rationalise the Iliad's sequel The Odyssey, and its cousin the Argonautica, at least in terms of questing 'in-the-wake-of' style travel books and Discovery Channel documentaries. The account of Jason's Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece is postulated to have been inspired by an early voyage east through the Black Sea to the Caucasus. There, gold was (and still is) traditionally 'panned' out of mountain streams by putting a sheep fleece in the shallows to trap the gold flakes, while rams' skins were royal paraphernalia. (Archaeo-historian Michael Wood, author of In Search Of The Trojan War: “Recent discoveries about the Hittite Empire in Bronze Age Anatolia show celebrations where fleeces were hung to renew royal power.”)

However, with Homer's Odyssey, a similar rationalising theory has not found similar acceptance, partly as earlier books traced out Ulysses' wanderings around the Western Med without reaching any consensus. Since then, it's been argued none of the geography proposed really fits the story 1:1. More recently, a fringe theory has developed that scholars have been trying the fit the inspiration for the tale onto the wrong map, and that they should get their noses out of maps of the Med and look farther afield. That is, the 2nd part of the Odyssey at least was inspired by sailors' “tall tales” from long-distance early Greek voyages to visit actual Bronze Age peoples dwelling on the North Atlantic coast - principally the British Isles.

This is a thesis which is as far as I know is yet untapped by a film industry always on the lookout for 'new' theories, or rather for some twist or spin on orthodox history (like King Arthur having been 'really' a Roman commander). None of the screen Odysseys I've come across to date have had anything but a Mediterranean setting. And we've no had no Discovery Channel type documentary which might document the idea, and thus pave the way. (I’m thinking of the likes of Shaun Trevisick of Atlantic Productions, akin to his 2004 documentary The Real Jason And the Argonauts - inspired ironically by his seeing the 1963 fantasy epic Jason And The Argonauts.) Any film-maker who came across the “Northern Odyssey” thesis via various speculative books, and looked into it may have been put off by the sharply conflicting claims in these books, with no agreement at all on geographical identifications etc. So to do it justice, it's best if we devote a separate blog post to it – next time.