Monday, August 13, 2012

Bring On The Barbarians

-Depicting The Picts Onscreen
Having recently been travelling around Scotland, which is currently launching its national independence campaign, I thought it might be an appropriate time to have another look at the recent big-screen depictions of early Scotland and its earliest-known native people, whom the Romans loosely referred to as Caledonians and then a confederation called Picti, Picts.
As I write, Pixar has just released its animated feature Brave, and Scotland’s First Minister has just been on a tie-in junket to California to promote Scotland to American investors. I haven’t seen Brave, but given the characters have cod-names like Lord Dingwall and Lord MacGuffin, it doesn’t seem to be based on anything authentic. (Dingwall is a later Norse name for a town outside Inverness, while MacGuffin is a made-up joke name Hitchcock famously adopted as a term for any film’s central plot device.) The title of course evokes Braveheart, a film which though historically inaccurate connected with modern audiences by means of a simplistic portrayal of history. There, the Scots are freedom fighters (complete with blue-painted ‘Pictish’ faces) and the English are cruel oppressors exercising droit-de-seigneur ‘first night’ (jus primae noctis) conjugal rights over any bride in the vicinity. ( “We’ll breed them out,” as the smirking English king puts it.)
I say ‘another look’ as in an earlier post (Those Pictish Blues Again), I commented on how unenlightened screen depictions of the Picts generally were, and noted that, from their advance publicity, the recent round of big-budget feature films set in Pictland sounded no better. Now that these films are all out on DVD, complete with director’s commentary or behind-the-scenes docu, we can look at their actual depictions of this obscure Celtic domain, portrayals which I now reckon to be at least an improvement on earlier ones.

The one thing the films I’ve seen have in common is that the natives tend to be Fanatical Barbarians while Rome or Roman Britain is the Civilising Influence. Their citizens get to speak modern English while the natives at best are subtitled, and often just scream for blood, including human sacrifice. That is such a travesty of history (even using the history written by the Romans themselves) that I’m pleased to say that this hard-line approach is starting to melt away. However this thaw has been a long time coming.

The Picts were not a tribe of bloodthirsty savages who fought the Romans and then disappeared as the Irish Scots took over. They were not a tribe but an inter-tribal alliance of ‘free’ Britons, who survived the incursions of the Romans, English and Vikings to amalgamate peacefully with the Scots (Irish colonists) in the 9th C. under King Kenneth MacAlpin (Alpin is a Pict royal name). Though the Pictish language is lost and only a couple of codex manuscripts have survived, their artwork, including contributions to illuminated manuscripts, shows them to have been a creative, sophisticated society.

The murderous-northern-barbarians depiction goes all the way back to Shakespeare (who had the excuse of catering to a narrow-minded Scots king), with his unhistorical Macbeth, depicting a king (Mac Bethad mac FindlaĆ­ch) who actually had a fairly peaceful 17-year reign and his wife as self-destructing murderers who didn’t last out the year. The Scots king presumably did not object to this depiction on the basis the real Macbeths were more Pictish than Scots. (Lady Macbeth’s real name was Gruoch, a Pictish name, and Pict noblewomen held real power, their royal succession being matrilinear. Macbeth’s crowned successor Lulach was in fact her son, but not his. See Macbeth: A True Story by Fiona Watson, 2010; there is also a 2010 RSC-stage and Radio-3 radio sequel play, Dunsinane, by David Greig, on Gruach and son’s continuing claim to the throne.) In 2004, the Scottish Parliament debated a motion to have 2005 declared the ‘Year Of Macbeth’ to redress this misrepresentation. The debate may have been prompted by the then latest portrayal of the Picts as howling barbarians (cf “Picts wrongly painted as a race of barbarians,” Glasgow Herald 20 Sept 2004) - the 2004 film King Arthur, of which more anon.

The ‘Pictish problem’ is also part of a larger tendency to see heroism as imposing an authoritarian ‘order’ on those deemed barbarians or savages. This is an atttitude that has pervaded western thinking and arguably led to much worse problems (such as war and colonialism). Filmically, it’s not limited to making the Picts the barbarians the forces of law and order must fight. The Arthurian equivalent of the American western would on occasion use other tribes, such as Boudicca’s Iceni-led alliance, as almost interchangeable barbarians. “Bring on the Barbarians,” was the command that went back to Roman-arena times. Filmically, the approach flourished in the postwar era when Hollywood was making Technicolor historical adventure films in Britain for tax reasons: in the early 1950s, the Government's blocking export of sterling revenues from Hollywood box office takings in England led to a cycle of costume adventure-dramas set here. The Picts made their big-screen debut then, along with various other unkempt and uncouth native ‘barbarian’ tribes in films like Knights Of The Round Table (1953), The Black Knight (1954) and Prince Valiant (1954), where the Scottish picture-postcard castle Eilean Donan made its first screen appearance as Prince Val' s home castle, while nearby Dornie became a Viking village.

These costume dramas had a certain comic-book sweep, but no real feeling or even respect for period, applying an American moral code alien to the period depicted. The use of British scriptwriters to create authenticity did not, under such circumstances, help. In his autobiography Notes For A Life British film industry veteran (actor, writer, director) Bryan Forbes tells of being hired by telephone out of the blue, as a “fast rewrite man,” for Warwick Films' Arthurian adventure film The Black Knight, starring Alan Ladd, scripted by the award-winning multi-talented Australian-expat writer Alec Coppel, directed by Hollywood veteran Tay Garnett and produced by Irving Allen and Cubby Broccoli (who would become famous as producers of, respectively, disaster films like Earthquake and the James Bond films). The project sounded interesting, though he was quickly disillusioned.
Forbes: “What's the film about?”
Broccoli: “What do you care what the film' s about? Can you start work today, this afternoon?”
On arrival, Broccoli told Forbes they had shot action exteriors in Spain (a then-popular cost-saving practise) and had begun filming around Pinewood, where they had built a fake Stonehenge (whose megaliths all get pulled down in the climax) where the Druids could burn prisoners alive in a wicker cage, as was their wont. However the producer had belatedly realised they needed some dialogue to explain the plot to the audience, which in summary was that Alan Ladd, as a village smith named John, saves England from invasion.

He then proceeded to detail one of the most unlikely plots in the history of motion pictures... England had been invaded by Saracens disguised as Vikings. Against these improbable forces King Arthur had given battle on a Spanish field. The said bogus Vikings had sacked Camelot and now convention demanded that Alan Ladd somehow become a Knight Of The Round Table and single-handed achieve final victory.... In addition ... the Druids at Stonehenge ... had somehow imported a bevy of Vestal Virgins ... and were intent on sacrificing them as the sun came up over Pinewood Studios, thus posing yet another problem for King Arthur and Alan Ladd. And just in case the audience might feel it wan't getting value for money, the Christian 'Bishop' of Stonehenge (one of the more inspired and endearing conventions of the script) was scheduled to consecrate a new abbey to replace the edifice destroyed by the aforementioned Saracens inadequately disguised as Vikings… it was at this cliff-hanging point that the existing script came to a full stop. Irving finished his digest of notable events. He seemed remarkably calm for a men in the process of changing film and constitutional history on such a heroic scale. There was no real problem in his view. My task, for which I was being suitably rewarded [fast-rewrite-man fee of £600], was to resolve all the loose ends by Monday morning...

Forbes then discovered script approval was in the hands of the star’s wife. Mrs Ladd at once rejected Forbes's first idea for Ladd' s escaping captivity by grabbing a horse from his guards: “This Limey writer you got here, he's got Alan Ladd stealing a horse. He steals a horse, we lose the Boy Scouts Association of America. So unless you change it we're catching the next plane out of here.” A line was duly added to Forbes' s script, of Ladd saying 'Is this the horse I ordered?' Explained Mrs Ladd later to Forbes, “It's never a waste of time to get things right.” When the climax at Stonehenge was finally shot with the entire Westminster Choir singing a Te Deum and the Abbot reading from the King James Bible [pub. c1610], Forbes told Allen that “within this hallowed scene he had brilliantly encompassed six hundred years of history and managed to get every single detail wrong.” Riposted Allen, “So who cares? They won't know the difference in Little Rock, and that's where it's going to take the money.”
Says it all, really.

Anyway, as a starting point, we can compare the recent films (four made in the last five years) with the last big-budget feature that had a north-of-Hadrian’s-Wall setting, King Arthur (2004), since issued on DVD in a longer ‘Director's Cut’ version together with making-of documentary.

Although there are indications the Arthur of native tradition fought north of the Wall (references to battles in the Caledonian Wood and at Din Eidyn, Edinburgh), the setting north of the Wall may seem surprising, partly because Arthur’s floruit - however you measure it exactly - was in the Dark Ages after Roman Britain (and the Wall) fell into ruin. It may be that Spielberg’s announcement in 2002 he was making a £85m, 8-hour Arthurian miniseries for American audiences, using key personnel from his HBO Band Of Brothers series, caused King Arthur producer Jerry Bruckheimer to look elsewhere for a differentiated approach. Spielberg’s HBO project was to be set in Somerset, and was to “de-evolve” the legend, making Arthur into Artos, a humble Romano-British blacksmith (shades of Alan Ladd in 1954’s The Black Knight) at a ‘Roman’ fort around AD 500, who discovers the steel-forging secret behind Excalibur. Spielberg’s plan was criticised for its English-Arthur setting by Welsh Arthurian proponents, including a Welsh MP, after a dozen English MPs had welcomed his project in Parliament when it was announced as to be shot in the West Country. Unfortunately the Treasury tax breaks that attracted Band Of Brothers had already been withdrawn, making filming in Britain unlikely - more probably in Ireland like Saving Private Ryan and Bruckheimer’s rival project; the upshot was Spielberg shelved his plan (which sounded desperately unimaginative in any case).

King Arthur went ahead, with an American scriptwriter (who also co-wrote Gladiator) and director, based on a theory that would put the setting north of the Wall, something that had been done in novels, but not Arthurian films. The theory was one formulated by anthropologists the Arthurian legend was based on campfire tales of a Sarmatian contingent of 5,500 heavy cavalry patrolling Hadrian’s Wall, led by a Roman officer whose middle name was (wait for it) Artorius. The anthropologists observed the Sarmatians had folktales of warriors called narts, a magic sword thrown in the water as the hero lies dying, and a few other evocative details [summary here]. The thesis was the leader’s name transmuted from the Batradz of Sarmatian folktale into Arthur (somehow with the un-Roman ‘th’ dipthong) after Lucius Artorius Castus their onetime officer. It’s just as likely the Celtic Iron Age inherited it from an earlier substratum of Indo-European legend and folktale, but English historians and novelists have always been keen on any theory that makes Arthur a Roman-trained cavalryman, and in this scenario he is also an ‘ethnic’ figure, which gives the theory appeal to both authoritarian and liberal sensibilities. There has long been a notion among English historians and novelists that Arthur’s association with knights means he could not simply be a British warrior, but had at least to have been Roman-trained to use cavalry tactics. Various Arthurian novels make Ambrosius, a historical figure, Arthur’s mentor. 

Of course it’s not true the Celts or Britons did not know how to use horses in battle; they did not have stirrups for a medieval-style ‘jousting’ type of battle-charge, which you need for true cavalry. (The stirrups are adjustable so you can stand rather than sit in the saddle, which, believe me, is a lot less bumpy when cantering etc; the setup is still used with western-style or ‘cowboy’ saddles, which when properly adjusted will have one handspan of free space between your crotch and the saddle.) But neither in the main did the Romans. Their forte was heavily armoured infantry in shield-wall formations (seen in all the recent Romans-in-Pictland films). I’ve previously characterised this notion as like creating a western-genre scenario where kindly old patrician General Custer trains Crazy Horse and his Sioux warband how to use horses as a military tactic, so that they can then go off and defeat their mutual enemies. (On the natives’ use of cavalry, one of the Vindolanda inked-wooden-leaf tablets recovered in the 70s from a fort near the Wall has a 2nd C. description of their mixed cavalry / mounted infantry / infantry tactics: "The British are unprotected by armour. There are lots of cavalry. They don't use swords nor do these dreadful British people mount their horses to throw javelins at us.”) Note that the Britons here would be Caledonians or Britons from lowland provinces based around Edinburgh or Strathclyde rather than the later Picts.

The film opens with a prologue saying that recent archeo discoveries have shed light on Arthur’s true identity. This is incorrect: the basis of the scenario is in folklore studies, not archaeology; nor is the theory recent. I recall reading an article in a folklore journal in the early 1980s on this theorised Sarmatian source. Sarmatia was a sub-division of Scythia, which was a general-purpose Greek and Roman name for Eastern Europe, in this case the more open lands north of the Black Sea – horse country. Hadrian’s Wall figures in the story, though it is set well after the fall of Rome. The film introduces Clive Owen in the lead role of weary Romano-British cavalry commander Artorius Castus, here also given a Sarmatian heritage like his troop of 6 survivors; this contradicts the historical background - the Romans didn’t trust such colonial contingents without a proper Roman officer, rather like the British Indian Army with its British officers and native troops; Lucius Artorius Castus is not a Sarmatian name, but a Roman one. To add to the confusion, producer Jerry Bruckheimer announced the concept was that "Arthur was really Roman and the Knights of the Round Table were Russian and great horsemen." Although the film claims a respectable academic theory setup as its starting point, it’s already getting muddled, and soon only serves to demonstrate how unwieldy this approach is, either as history or an Arthurian realist scenario showing how the legend might have come about.

For decades, historians and authors tried to come with a Dark Ages historical basis for the later elaborate mediaeval legend we read in the Arthurian romances, but these draw on so many traditions, from ancient folk-tales onward, that the reality is obscured and the romances appeal because they are a synthesis of western heroic and fabulous traditions, not because they dramatise some obscure Dark Ages source. It’s just a wish-fulfilling academic fantasy to try and reconcile the vast Arthurian mythos with a single piece of history. I’ve sometimes been impressed by the sheer ingenuity of novelists (both English and American) who have imposed Roman place names and practices onto a Dark Ages Britain to come up with a credible prototype framework for the legend, so that you could see the kernel from which the mighty Romance legends would grow. But King Arthur, with its awkwardly over-reaching title, is proof how clunky the process of rationalising legends can quickly become, and soon makes little sense as either realist tale or as legend prototype: it simply falls down between the two.

Apart from a battle on the ice which has more to do with 13C Russian (cf Alexander Nevsky) than Arthurian legend, the battles, the tactics, the leadership depicted are nothing special, certainly not convincing as a shining inspiration. The story setup has a small troop of Sarmatian youth impressed into the Roman Army, 452-467 AD, in order to better fit the chronicle dates of the First Saxon War. The problem is Rome fell in 405 AD, the Western Empire and Roman Britannia collapsing soon after. Hadrian’s Wall, built around 120-133 AD and abandoned soon afterwards, belongs to a much earlier era, and the 5,000 Sarmatians who patrolled the border there in the 2nd C would have been reassigned long before Rome fell. What these 7 unkempt-looking lone survivors are still doing there centuries later is not explained.

The other problem is there is a set of native-British legends about Arthur, preserved in Welsh, which are different from the Breton-French ones; in the former he is not a king at all, but a huntsman or warband leader (or to use the English historians’ favourite disdainful expression, a warlord) who is not the least interested in waging war as an extension of Roman empire building. Of course, one could argue the native version is the ‘vulgar’ form which developed among the common people, while the Breton-French one was developed at court into something aspirational, with moral lessons for the aristocracy of the mediaeval era. Then there is also a bare-bones chronicle version listing some of his battles, like Badon (which is dramatised in at least two of the recent films), in the monkish historical records of west Britain. But there seems no way to reconcile the three strands of folk-hero, romance, and chronicle, and that remains the essential problem for Arthurian adaptors who want to have their cake and eat it.

The action begins with our Artorius (who calls himself “Arthur Castus”) and his troop of 6 Sarmatian cavalry foiling an ambush by those nasty howling natives the Picts, here referred to throughout by the contemptuous name Woads. (One of the music tracks is named ‘Woad To Ruin’.) I suppose the scriptwriters got the idea from American natives being called Redskins originally after the red-ochre paint they marked their bodies with. Woad however is probably not the dye used for Pictish tattoing - tests have shown it is impractical. Although not visibly dyed, the Woads are described as blue demons that eat Christians alive. The 7 defeat the Woads by shooting arrows from horseback like Parthians (as in ‘Parthian shot,’ modernised as ‘parting shot’), and then, in an unconvincing fight scene, defeat the more numerous Woads in hand to hand combat. The long-haired wild-eyed Woad leader turns out to be Merlin, and the story now also quickly works in Excalibur. The 7 arrive at Hadrian’s Wall, which is somehow still being maintained and even has a Round Table in the officers mess. Arthur’s 6 ‘knights’ for reasons unexplained (beyond more legend-stuffing) have proto-Arthurian French or Welsh rather than Sarmatian names: Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, Tristan, Bors etc. They remain completely undeveloped characters, there to provide Arthur with a trio of sidekicks on each side of his horse every time he poses on some vantage point. (Though the actors playing the six are somewhat more lively in demeanour than Clive Owen as Arthur, who looks glum throughout.)

Some real figures from history are now introduced, in ways that contradict what is known about them. Bishop Germanus (an actual Gaulish bishop who visited Britannia in 429 and 445 AD), arrives - here somehow a Roman military commander in AD 467. Arthur claims he is a Pelagian (a ‘heretical’ largely British school of Christianity), though nothing further is made of this. (There is vague talk in a cut final scene about making your own fate.) Germanus tells him the north ie Scotland is to be taken over in “a massive incursion” by the Saxons, led by Cerdic (the 5th-6th C founder of Wessex according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). It’s implied this has been authorised by the Pope, though why he would want to give land to pagans is unexplained, and why the Saxons would want to invade from the wrong end of the country is also not explained. (In one early source, the Saxons were brought in and given land to fight the Picts raiding from the far north, and the land the Saxons were given was in the south.) Arthur and his 6 knights are told to head north, instead of going home to Sarmatia (having finished their 15 years indentured military service), to rescue a Roman official from the Saxons, by order of the Pope. (My viewing notes may have got slightly muddled here, as having the Pope in charge of ‘papal armies’ conflates the Roman Empire with the Holy Roman Empire not founded until the 10th C AD.)

The less-than-magnificent 7 ride north and are ambushed by the cunning Woads who have set the usual fallen-tree traps on the road, but they are spared by Merlin for some reason. Arthur turns on the Bishop’s protege as a tyrant when he discovers he has imprisoned Guinevere, here a Pictish warrior-princess in a fetching leather-and-wickerwork bikini outfit. She lectures Arthur about being a Roman collaborator killing Britons. They pass a massacred Roman unit (”Saxons!”), whose presence so far north of the Wall - and so many decades after the Romans abandoned Britain - is also unexplained. Soon they must do battle with the Saxon army, on a frozen lake (guess who falls through the ice in great numbers). Back at the Wall, with the help of Merlin’s Woads, they wipe out the Saxon army at a spot which turns out to be called Badon Hill (the famous Arthurian victory dated in the chronicles to AD 495 or later). Arthur slays Cerdic (who presumably never gets to found Wessex in this alternate reality - or is he meant to be a different Cerdic?). Lancelot is also killed in battle, and as this is before he can have his famous affair with Guinevere, the legend as well as history is being confounded. Luckily Guinevere has turned out to be not just a wilful queen (as in the romances) but an expert archer who leads the Woads, now also painted blue like Braveheart, using longbows, mediaeval crossbows and giant catapults. (There is no record the Picts ever used these.) Afterwards, Arthur and Guinevere wed as the Woads shoot flaming arrows over the sea and all hail him as ‘King Arthur.’ (On the commentary, the director laments that this was a new ending to satisfy complaints from a preview audience; the original ending included on the DVD has Arthur involved in an awkward legend-stuffing talk about Fate, with a boy who is presumably the next-generation Arthur figure.) Merlin hails Arthur as he announces that from now on, all Britons will be united in one common cause. Even the most idealistic mediaeval romance was never that politically naive. The ‘Britannia’ that a ‘Roman’ Arthur represents of course was ruined and split into provinces (the only near-contemporary source is Gildas’s 6C tract titled “The Division And Conquest of ‘Britannia’”); these were overrun one by one until they all became part of a new German state called Angle-land - England. There is also an epilogue narrated by someone with a RADA accent, who according to the commentary is (the already-dead) Lancelot. “There’s a King Arthur in all of us,” lamely concludes the director’s commentary, as the moral of the tale.

King Arthur is really the nadir of this pretentious have-your-cake-and-eat-it school of attempting to rationalise mythmaking, a production that would have likely attracted no interest had it not been backed by such a big-money producer as Jerry Bruckheimer. As in that witless 1950s Alan Ladd film, the main story elements belong to different time periods; centuries of history and legend are opportunistically ransacked for dramatic elements in a way that CB DeMille would have found cynical. (See Scots author/scriptwriter George Macdonald Fraser’s Hollywood History Of The World, on how they did try in the old days to work from source materials and research.) Both history and the legend are confounded by an approach that continually shoots itself in the foot. Even the standard Hollywood defence “it’s only entertainment” would be misapplied here, due to the film in its publicity and prologue insisting this is the true story, finally told. This attempt to capture the high ground falls flat due to an inability to combine history and legend in any convincing way.

Next time, we’ll look at the 4 more recent film productions set north of Hadrian’s Wall, wherein a certain disillusion with the simplistic and prejudiced depiction of the Romans as heroes and the Picts and Scots as scary shouty hairy barbarians is finally manifesting itself.