-Depicting The Picts Onscreen, Part Two
As promised last time [see Part One], we’ll look this time at the 4 most recent films portraying Picts, all made within the past 5 years, and all now on DVD. (Two, possibly three, of the four had minimal cinema releases, and only became accessible with their later DVD release.)
Before we get to the individual films and their strengths and weaknesses, we need to take note of a problem common to this subgenre.
Since the 1950s, novelists like Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart have attempted to rationalise mediaeval Arthurian romance elements in terms of known Dark Ages history, using elaborate dialogue exposition to explain romance-compatible plot turns. This is difficult for today’s youth- and action-oriented films to manage without getting bogged down in expository dialogue scenes. The proto-Arthurian drama genre also has a particular problem due to the mainstream feature film industry’s tendency to cobble together stories around current genre tropes - stock genre conventions with modern appeal. Thus in the 2004 King Arthur [see Part One], we get an Arthur who’s a dutiful-but-disillusioned Roman cavalry commander, a Guenevere who’s a feisty Pictish princess in leather scanties, etc. You get supposedly Dark Ages dialogue straining to anticipate the conventions of mediaeval romance. When Guenevere says to Arthur, ‘You and I are not the polite people who live in poems’, this is completely anachronistic since Dark Ages poems (a few survive) did not feature polite people - politeness was not even a cultural concept then. Genteel heroes and heroines would only occur centuries later, when courtly romances became self-consciously inspirational fables promoting a Christian chivalric code.
The same syndrome affected another big-budget Anglo-American production of an Arthurian-spinoff legend made soon afterward, Tristan & Isolde (2005), which is potentially of interest here as Tristan is thought to be derived from a Pictish name, Drust[an]. However this is not followed up in the film, and we won’t explore it any further here - we’ve mentioned it before and it’s not set in Pictland, but mainly Cornwall and Ireland. (For those interested, a critique of its geographic and historical inaccuracies can be found here and here.)
While today you wouldn’t portray native Americans as mindless savages, the old colonial view has been having its last gasp in the Romans-in-Britain subgenre. To take the 4 most recent films set in Pictland north of Hadrian’s Wall by their time-setting (to simplify explanation as to their historical background):
All but one are set in the Roman era, with two set in the early 2nd C. AD (Centurion and The Eagle) and one in the later 5C (The Last Legion). These three films all feature Hadrian’s Wall as Rome’s northern frontier, beyond which is ‘savage’ Pictland. The 4th film (Valhalla Rising) is set in Scotland/Pictland’s far north 4-5 centuries after that, among the last remnants of wild-living northern bands. As to general portrayal of the Picts, the two 2nd-C. Romans-in-Pictland films, Centurion and The Eagle, set up the natives as the usual fanatical screaming barbarians, but then have the Roman protagonists discovering in the end that their martial world-view is simplistic, and that their own side is just as barbaric. The 3rd film, The Last Legion, again has Roman protagonists, but here both the Roman leaders and the ‘native’ ie Celtic British Druidic/bardic spiritual advisor are treated as proto-Arthurian inspirational figures, though sadly there are no identifiably Pictish elements in view. The 4th and final film, Valhalla Rising, portrays a grim struggle to adapt as Christianity is foisted on an isolated northern warband; there is no screaming or shouting, only a growing sullen resentment as their new ‘civilising’ mission leads to their destruction, one by one.
Note that the name Pict is not attested in surviving codex MSS till 297 AD, as Latin Picti ‘Painted Men’, but we’re going to use it here also for the earlier Caledonians whose spokesman, according to Tacitus, styled the initial anti-Roman resistance confederation of AD 84 as ‘the last men on earth, the last of the free’. The same goes for Pictland (Latin Pictavia), the more common name (still in use) being Alba, probably meaning highlands. The other common name for the country, Caledonia, may be from Caledonii, the ‘hard men’ (still a Scots phrase) tribe who fought the Romans, or a Celtic place name probably meaning hard (caled) place, though the Welsh spelling Celidon suggests hidden place.
Arthurian novels and dramas have sometimes been compared in terms of functional appeal to the American western novel and drama, and to make an analogy between these ‘proto-Arthurian’ Romans-v-Picts films and American cavalry-v-Indians westerns, I think we’re approaching the stage of cultural development equivalent to when the native Indians were first depicted as engaging in more than unmotivated whoop-it-up scalp-happy circle-the-wagons bloodlust. This first surfaced in post-WW2 films like Fort Apache, 1947 (inspired by the Custer ‘Massacre’ debacle) and Broken Arrow, 1950 (based on the true story of an Indian agent in Apache territory), when burying the hatchet seemed appropriate. (Native Americans had served in the US military in WWII.) Many of these, such as White Feather, suggested that Indian ‘troubles’ were instigated by young hotheads while the older wiser chiefs were ‘good Indians’ because they made peace with the invading whites. More sympathetic treatment reappeared in late-Vietnam ‘war-guilt’ films like A Man Called Horse (1970), Soldier Blue (1970), Little Big Man (1971) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972) (whose scriptwriter was Scots). This resurfaced during the next US war era, that of the Gulf War, in Dances With Wolves (1990) and Last Of The Mohicans (1992), a film which I believe was an influence on both Centurion and The Eagle. The Eagle’s director, Kevin Macdonald, in an article in The Times, also named two of the above films, A Man Called Horse and Ulzana’s Raid, as examples of the type of film he was aiming at.
Stoic martial values come to the fore during war eras, and a more recent influence was the 2000 hit Gladiator. This opened in Germania’s ‘barbarian’ north with a (fictional) ‘last frontier’ battle in 180 AD, at the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, where we see stoic Romans versus howling barbarian hordes. The film later uses the phrase self-consciously for the battle-of-Carthage sequence in the Colosseum, when the arena presenter announces to the audience, ‘I give you - the Barbarian Horde’. Anyone who has seen Gladiator will get a certain sense of déjà vu watching either Centurion and The Eagle. (Looking at some film stills of grubby Romans in freezing pinewoods, it’s hard to tell which of the three films they are from.) The director’s commentary to The Eagle notes the same Scots actor who played the bearded leader of the German barbarian horde in Gladiator appears as a Roman who has gone native for twenty years, leaving him similarly shaggy looking. (And if his barbarian chants sound familiar, it’s because they’re taken from the film Zulu.)
Taking the 4 films in order of their historical time setting:
This is set entirely north of Hadrian’s Wall, in 117 AD, at the time of the supposed defeat of the Ninth Legion, with Roman protagonists, and the Picts as relentless pursuing adversaries. (The specific time setting is due to the fact the Ninth Legion is last mentioned in Roman records as a unit in 118, hence their defeat is notionally set the year before.) It focuses on the fate of 7 survivors after the rest of the legion is wiped out by the Picts in a forest ambush. I say supposed defeat, since there is no real evidence the legion was wiped out at all, much less by the Picts. It may have been disbanded after falling from imperial favour, as could happen, or (some historians suggest) defeated later elsewhere. There are also a few inscriptions to some of its officers long after 118 AD, though it is no longer listed in a roll of legions in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (the emperor who dies near the start of the film Gladiator). The verdict is by no means in - there could have been a Pictland massacre - and for those interested, there are various historical articles on the Ninth Legion mystery online.
The story’s other main Roman bulwark, Hadrian’s Wall, is also problematic even as a historical background element. The idea (not new here) is that the building of Hadrian’s Wall was a fallback strategy after the massacre of the Ninth. In the script it has just been commissioned and is somehow already partly built within days, before news of the massacre has even got back to HQ. It’s a neat tie-in, though Wall construction is not attested until 122 AD, with a stone or turf wall supplanting a vallum or bank-and-ditch, so showing even a section of it substantially complete within a week of the battle is an anachronism. (For those interested in theories as to the changing Roman strategies re their northern-frontier, Hadrian’s Wall is currently the subject of a number of cultural promotion projects, including a nonfiction ‘biography’, Hadrian’s Wall: A Life by Richard Hingley.) However, the Wall was not always an impregnable rampart of castle height - some counterbalance in terms of popular depictions is provided by a Blackadder parody where the time-travelling antihero finds himself guarding a part of the Wall which is only 3 feet high against a horde of onrushing tattooed ‘Scots’ (screenshot below, fromYouTube clip here).
Returning to our fictional scenario, the survivors reach a Roman outpost only to discover it has been abandoned as part of an ordered general withdrawal. This makes little sense militarily, and the scene is probably a trope from earlier films with a similar story. (The abandoned-fort motif occurs in ‘raid-and-retreat’ westerns like Northwest Passage or Charge At Feather River.) In fact, the overall narrative is a classic action-genre setup (visited in many guises over the decades): a small band of survivors has to travel through difficult, enemy-controlled country back to safety. Here, the hostile terrain is not the wild west, the jungle, the veldt, the inner city etc but the Highlands; safety is the equivalent of the cavalry fort in westerns: the ramparts of Hadrian’s Wall.
As a story setup it is a lot older than cinema, as old as known literature, the earliest example being an ancient Greek codex of c400 BC, the Anabasis, the true story of a military expedition written by an officer-participant, Xenophon. (Anabasis means a trek up-country, there, safety is reaching the coast, when the famous mass cry goes up, “Thalatta! The sea!”) This is a classic work long studied at officer colleges but has never been filmed no doubt due to its sheer scale (10,000+ participants), the modern stories concentrating on a small patrol-size unit, a platoon or squad, cut off miles behind enemy lines. (Sound familiar?) Centurion features 7 survivors out of an entire legion (up to 5000 men) fleeing across Pictish lands and falling prey to their pursuers or the hostile terrain, including a band of pursuing wolves.
The poster carries the strap-line ‘History is written in blood’ indicating its focus on violent action, complete with added CGI-blood spatter. I suspect the tale, scripted by director Neil Marshall, a member of the so-called ‘Splat Pack’, was chosen simply for its potential for gory action scenes. (His 2002 hit Dog Soldiers was about an 6-man army squad on an exercise in the Highlands pursued by werewolves.) After all, the Picts were a bunch of mindlessly cruel, bloody murdering bastards, even worse than the Roman squaddies - right? Well, that’s just what the Roman characters think at the outset, however ruthless they themselves are.
Who are the barbarians here?
I’m being sarcastic here, of course, about this cynical setup, but what makes it more interesting is that over the course of the drama, we discover the Romans don’t really deserve to live. After the gung-ho centurion manages to escape captivity, he leads his squad into the wilderness, where they die one by one, through stubbornness, misadventure, lack of endurance or wilderness know-how, or other poor judgment (one right at the fort gates), even crippled by a treacherous comrade. And for once it’s the Romans rather than the barbarians who do most of the hysterical screaming and shouting.
Only the centurion makes it back to Roman HQ in the end, and he survives only with the help of a lone Pictish woman, Arianne. And as a final cynical twist, his own commander tries to kill him to cover up the massacre, and he has to flee north of the Wall again, back into the arms of Arianne. She’s the one sympathetic character in the drama; she is an outcast, the female Pictish scout leader Etain regarding her as a ‘witch’. That a herbalist-healer would be regarded as a witch is another anachronism: such individuals were valued as healers or seers, and it was only with the advent of Christianity that ‘witchcraft’ was persecuted. (The same ambivalent setup occurs in the 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel.)
Arianne, the Pictish woman healer who helps the centurion as she herself is an outcast to the tribe. She wears her hair over her cheek as it was slashed by the female Pictish scout leader, Etain (her scar actually gets smaller and less visible, evidently a concession to box-office appeal).
The pursuing Pict warband is led by Etain, whose life is dedicated to revenge against the Romans after they killed her family, raped her and tore out her tongue so she couldn’t tell. She has already caused the legion’s massacre by volunteering as a scout to the Romans, leading them into a woodland glen where her tribe await. If any of this sounds familiar, these are motifs found in The Last Of The Mohicans, graphically filmed in 1992. However, the scout there, Magua, posing as a member of a friendly tribe to pursue a private blood feud against the British commander and his family, was male. This would account for the plot hole here: why would the native-woman-despising Romans trust their lives to a female ‘Brigantian’ scout who looks just like a Pict, and couldn’t even speak to them?
Painted with blue woad ‘warpaint’ makeup and played by a French-Russian actress in a nonspeaking role, the Romans having torn her tongue out after they murdered her family and gang-raped her, the female Pictish scout leader Etain now leads a merciless revenge pursuit.
The Picts themselves are only seen in closeup after they capture the centurion and the hardline legionary general, with the macho name of Virilus (virile, geddit?). The Pictish characters speak Gaelic as the closest available cousin to the lost Pict language. (This is arguable: Gaelic is a Q-Celtic dialect spoken by the Irish Scotti people, while Pictish was a P-Celtic language, akin to Welsh or Breton, which Scots Gaelic displaced, so that Pictland became Scotland.) The Pictish king is called Gorlacon, a name that sounds like something out of a Prince Valiant comic, though it is more likely one of the many cod names found in the many now obscure lesser romances, where minor characters tend to have patently made-up names.
There is really no need for this here, as there is an extant Pictish kings-list codex, with some evidently being a reused ceremonial kingly name (list here). For instance, according to a near-contemporary codex account (Adomnan’s Life Of Columba) the 6C Pictish king whom St Columba negotiated with, somewhere near Inverness, to bring Christianity to the northern Picts, was named Bridei or Brude, an evocative name that suggests brute, brood, bridegroom (to the land, which was female), even the root of Britain itself, the Picts’ own name for themselves probably being something like Priteni or Prydain, their land being Prydyn (din = stronghold). (Columba’s mission to the Picts was reported a couple of years ago as being developed as a film by Scots director Norman Stone, The End Time, with Jeremy Irons in the lead role.)
Cynicism over the grim realities of warfare and betrayal by political masters, and the world-weary Disillusioned Warrior are common tropes in this subgenre, and the film breaks no new ground here, making no special effort to give the Picts equal time, keeping the captivity sequence as short as possible to focus on nonstop chase-action. (The ‘captivity narrative’ - A Man Called Horse being a modern example - is an old established literary genre which offered insight into the mindset of ‘barbarian’ peoples.)
What we get onscreen is an epic pursuit through Caledonian woodland and over the snowbound Grampian mountains into the open lowlands, with Etainn’s band of mounted Picts strangely unable to catch up with the Roman footsoldiers. It is the genuine Highlands that we are seeing at least. Trailer here.
in the Great Caledonian Wood, the Caledonia Silva mentioned by Roman
writers and in a later church chronicle’s Arthurian battle-listing entry
(as Coit Celidon). Actually, most of this once extensive woodland was
felled from Roman times on (mainly to clear out wolves, and make the
land more suitable for grazing). What we see onscreen is one of the many
Scots Forestry Commission pine and fir plantations that were first
planted post-WWII. (Gladiator began this location trend, using a Surrey FC plantation to represent barbarian Germania.)
Originally titled The Eagle Of The Ninth, adapted by Jeremy Brock from Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic 1954 young-adult novel of the same name, this was not the first screen adaptation, there being a 1977 BBC-TV children’s serial as well. It was held back a year due to its similarity to Centurion, and renamed The Eagle - apparently in case anyone thought it was a golfing picture! (A 3rd film on the same subject, a Scots-produced version simply called Legion, seems to have in the meantime vanished into the mists.) Set in 140 AD, twenty years after the Ninth vanished, this time our centurion, Marcus Aquila, is the son of the legion’s vanished commander, newly arrived in Britannia to take up command of a fort - in fact on a personal quest to investigate his father’s fate.
The film opens with Gladiator-style explanatory scene-setting titles and wintry background, explaining how Rome’s shame at losing the IX Legion prompted the building of Hadrian’s Wall. This was the thesis in the novel, with some historical support (see comments above) but in any case neatly setting up the story, which begins 20 years later, c140 AD. Young Aquila has been living with the shame of his father being the centurion blamed for losing the IX Legion’s ceremonial eagle insignia. (A bit of a stretch, this, since even if the legion did disappear into Scotch mists, why would the leader of a single company be considered a fool or a coward when nobody knew anything of what had happened? The recovery by 2 soldiers of a legionary eagle lost in a Gaulish skirmish, an incident in Julius Caesar’s war memoirs, was of course the inspiration for the HBO-BBC series Rome, which followed the pair’s subsequent adventures.)
The first half hour or so is set in ‘Britannia’ i.e what became England, here portrayed by Hungarian locations. In his first post as centurion-commanding officer, Aquila proves himself in action when the post is attacked by resentful locals stirred up by a shaggy wild-eyed Druid. (The locals get in such a wired-up frenzy they manage, ninja-style, to leap the fort’s newly-greased 20-foot high ditch-and-wall and land right on the palisade.) In the novel, the legionaries are themselves ‘shaggy’ Gauls [the Roman phrase was Gallia comata], descendants of the yellow-haired opponents conquered by Julius Caesar, who made Gaul a Roman province. Recruiting former fierce enemies is a practice that would continue through to the British Army’s Highland regiments, but the film ignores this ironic aspect of Roman militarism, preferring to keep the nationalities of the Romans and the locals obscure. The attackers are largely bare-torsoed and shaven-headed on the Scots ‘hard man’ model, though as the initial setting is Devon, the natives would be Dumnonii.)
The Romans counterattack using the testudo, or ‘tortoise’ shield formation against the natives’ rugby-scrum style advance, though unlike in Gladiator, it proves no match for British chariots which here are ‘scythed’ like those in Gladiator and Ben Hur. (British chariots are mentioned by Caesar et al, but the ‘scythed’ aspect seems without historical basis.) Aquila is wounded in a Gladiator-style chariot pile-up, and honourably discharged. (We get the first of several Gladiator-style overlit dream scenes of the hero seeing his dead family.)
Free, Aquila heads north to try to trace the lost eagle with the help of his new Brigantian slave Esca, whose life he spared in the arena, acting as interpreter and guide. (Sutcliff possibly got the name Esca from the Roman name for the town Aquila is stationed near, Isca Dumnoniorum, ‘Water of the Dumnoni tribe’, today Exeter on the south Devon coast. This is not clear in the film, though Aquila’s arrival is vividly portrayed via a spooky upriver trip.) One theory about the loss of the IX legion (based at York) was that it was wiped out in a revolt by the Brigantian tribes of Yorkshire, and the story later neatly ties in a Brigantian role here. A language issue arises here, since the natives would have spoken Pictish or an even older dialect, and Eska, Brythonic; as in Centurion, both these are represented by subtitled modern Gaelic.
We get a map inset of the sort seen in Sutcliff’s novel (and in many a subsequent one in this literary genre), showing the journey through Britannia with its Roman place names. (Significantly, we never get native place names on such maps, even parenthetically.) The location filming at this point switches from Hungary to Scotland, though the topography is slightly wonky. They ride out of Hadrian’s Wall straight into bare brown hills, with no sign of the Great Caledonian Wood mapped by Ptolemy around this time. (The hills were deforested later on, by deliberate burning and over-grazing.) “The Highlands” announces Eska, when they are already atop what looks like a sea of mountains and is in fact the extreme northwest of Scotland.
The main filming location for the cross-country riding scenes was Wester Ross right up in NW Scotland.
Woodland-glen scenes were shot farther south, by Loch Lomond, these appearing whenever they camp.
The novel’s own sketch map shows their journey up Loch Lomond, then making a loop just to the northwest. Though inland, this is supposedly the home of the Seal People, an invention of Sutcliff’s meant to portray an ancient coastal tribe. (She may have got the tribal-identity name from northern-Scots folklore about Silkies or Selkies, but none of the trappings fit the story. They coat their faces with clay, presumably to look like grey seals, and wear spotted skins reminiscent of leopard seals (which of course live in the Antarctic).
The film’s production photos speak of the “Pictish village” but the Seal People are not conventionally Pictish; neither does the film make any attempt to portray a Neolithic fishing/hunting/gathering community. Instead it depicts them as tomahawk-wielding Iroquois straight out of Last Of The Mohicans with ‘Mohawk’ haircuts [see stills].
Transforming them into a familiar warrior mould may have been the filmmakers attempt to disguise how unlikely it was that a small remote primitive coastal fishing community had a lead role in destroying a Roman legion, capturing its ceremonial eagle as a trophy. Supposedly the Seal People’s “rogue warriors” are so fierce they cut off the feet of the dead and dying so they cannot walk to the Otherworld, and rip out the beating hearts of captive officers (a la Magua in LOTM). For ‘rogue’ warriors in this context, the authentic historical term (according to Roman writers on Druidic authority) was ‘broken’ men, referring to those who had been banned from or had broken away from tribal authority. The latter was also the situation of Huron war-captain Magua in LOTM when he brings his captives to the Sachem - the title of an Iroquois spiritual leader - for a decision on their fate. Here we also have a zealous princely warrior who brings prisoners to the Sachem-type (Druidic?) leader. Confusingly, some locals who attack the duo earlier, in the Caledonian Wood, are tattooed like Picts but are identified only as ‘rogue warriors’ (see woodland-glen swordfight still above).
Aquila and Esca have a falling-out when their master-and-slave roles are reversed as part of their cover story, and Esca elaborates on how the destruction of the Legion was purely defensive, though he’s a bit out of his territory here as the Brigantes dwelt south of the Wall. There’s the implication of an intertribal alliance, an idea which inspired the 1979 novel Legions Of The Mists by Prof Amanda Cockrell, which has the Ninth wiped out by the combined tribes of the north. The other problem is that a Roman legion marching north would not be anywhere near here, as the rugged west coast with its many long sea-loch inlets keeps even modern roads much farther inland, and the known Roman routes were up the east coast, not the west, where it was easier for the land force to keep in touch with their accompanying supply ships.
The how of this massacre is never really explained either (for the difficulties of defeating a Roman legion in battle, see the 1960 Spartacus), though we do see a flashback to an ambush in a woodland glen, just like the one in Centurion. (The filmmakers may be inspired by the historical loss of 2 legions in a Germanic wood, when they were trapped in adverse circumstances - their bowstrings got wet, etc.)
The extreme warlike nature of the Seal People (which includes killing one of their own boys as a disciplinary example) is not explained, and their young prince is like so many trouble-making ‘hothead’ tribal leaders in westerns. (If you don’t know what I mean, see White Feather, a 1954 Broken Arrow followup written by historian John Prebble, who wrote books on Scots history as well as the film Zulu.)
The tribe keep the missing eagle as a talismanic token of their power. The film gets quite multi-cultural at this point, reminiscent of modern ‘eco-aware’ jungle-set films like The Emerald Forest and Apocalypto as well as Terrence Malick’s meditative take on the Pocahontas tale, The New World, which also employed dancers to portray cultural “otherness”. While the tribe are all passed out after a ceremony which has them imbibing some psychedelic sacred potion and wearing themselves out in a haka-style line-up dance rite, the duo steal the eagle back and flee.
Though the Seal People have horses, the Seal Prince’s warband closely pursues the mounted duo on foot, and the pair are only saved when Esca, now freed from slavery, goes off alone and instead of abandoning the wounded Aquila, rounds up a band of grey-bearded survivors of the lost legion. (How he manages this improbable feat remains unexplained.) There is a final battle in a wooded ravine and all the Seal People are killed by Roman shield-wall tactics. The one enlightened moment occurs when Aquila holds the Seal Prince’s head under the stream to drown him, and all his clay warpaint washes off, leaving him looking ‘human.’
The film has alternate endings, both on the DVD and both meant to be upbeat finales in the standard genre trope where the new buddies - now equals and friends - head off bantering re their next adventure. Neither end is convincing in terms of where the duo could possibly go (since Rome split Europe into two zones, one ruled by it and the other so hostile to it Rome had been unable to conquer it). In the novel, Aquila has already, while recuperating in Hampshire, met and married a Romano-British wife, which develops the theme further towards reconciliation between Roman and provincial peoples; this is omitted from the film, which has no women characters. (Usually even if none exists in the source novel, a ‘love interest’ is added for box-office reasons, but the intent here is obviously what Hollywood calls a buddy movie, with the focus on male bonding.) The unused ending has the duo bantering about their going to Spain to raise horses - like the hero of Gladiator, who was Spanish, no doubt like some personnel of the Legio IX Hispana. As to the object of the hero’s obsessive quest, the sought-after eagle: in one version it is solemnly burnt on the veterans’ funeral pyre and in the other, returned to Roman HQ by the duo who cheek off the snobbish officers and walk out, to set off for points unknown.
The filmmakers inherited a filmically awkward situation with Sutcliff’s Seal People, but it could still have been developed into a more credible and interesting story, hinting at how the Pictish confederation grew from the integration of Celtic warbands fleeing Rome’s advance with earlier Neolithic groups - warrior culture meeting ancient belief in protective magic. The difficulty of deciphering surviving inscriptions in the Pictish language has led some historians to argue it included a pre-Celtic layer, adopted when the newer warrior culture intermarried with a local Neolithic society which practised matrilinear succession, which Bede says the Picts continued to practice when needed to choose the next king. (It’s been said that no son follows his father in the Pictish kings list, the realpolitik behind this being in the days before DNA testing you could be sure who the mother of a prince was but never the father.) Tattooing was also a widespread pre-Celtic (shamanistic?) practice, possibly associated with early acupuncture, as has been suggested by the examination of Otzi, the Stone Age hunter preserved in Alpine glacial ice for 5000 years. (He has tattoos where he was suffering from arthritis.)
The film’s scenery at any rate was impressive and fairly authentic, even if the Picts were portrayed in an inauthentic, derivative way, as if they were Iroquois warriors.
The Last Legion
Only the last third of this $67mn hodge-podge adapted from V M Manfredi's 2002 historical novel L'ultima legione is set in Pictish Britain, in 460 AD. The plot attempts to intertwine a number of historical and legendary strands and becomes quite convoluted in the process, despite the literary talent behind it. (It’s adapted by Jez Butterworth - author of the award-winning play ‘Jerusalem’ - and his brother Tom, from a best-selling novel by an Italian historian and archaeologist turned novelist and screenwriter, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, whose expeditions included retracing the ‘Anabasis’ route of Xenophon, the basis of his 2008 novel The Lost Army.) There was also a determination not to make the same mistake as the 2004 King Arthur film already discussed in Part One. Manfredi has given an interview saying that he suspects its scriptwriter David Franzoni read his 2002 novel and this had an impact:
I have the impression that Franzoni read The Last Legion (the English translation was published in 2003), and drew from it many ideas for his screenplay of King Arthur. Many people have told me: “this film closely resembles your book”. Apart from the crucial tale - whose central element is the sword, Excalibur - set between the Rome of the Caesars and the heroic deeds of King Arthur, the two works also share many other features. The handful of untamed knights escorting a boy of royal blood (King Arthur’s Alexius overtly evokes Romulus August), the valiant woman warrior in love with the protagonist, the crucial battle, and more.
... In fact, because King Arthur was so badly received both by critics and by the public …. the screenwriters of The Last Legion decided to distance themselves radically from Fuqua’s film. King Arthur’s most serious mistake is, in my opinion, that it gives the protagonists the same names as the heroes of the Arthurian saga (Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere). The story is set in the late Roman Empire, towards the end of the 5th century, so it’s clear that the spectators, who are accustomed to a very different version of the heroic deeds of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, feel puzzled and let down.
The plot ‘McGuffin’ here is a sword whose Latin inscription reveals it to be Julius Caesar’s long-lost sword (this seems to be a completely original motif); the boy who wields it is destined to become the inspiration for legendary Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. The story’s tie-in explanation to Arthur’s father is in the (false) claim the 9th Legion was known as Draco, the Dragon Legion. (As mentioned, it was actually the Hispanic - Legio IX Hispana.) Uther’s legendary surname ‘Pendragon’ in the romances compiled in English by Sir Thomas Malory, is a patently symbolic title, ‘head-dragon’ (pen is head in Welsh), which is still used by modern pagans like the self-styled modern Arthur Pendragon. (A former soldier who had his name changed by deed poll in the 1960s and campaigns in druidic costume, wielding Excalibur to save Stonehenge from the depredations of motorway developers.) Uther may likewise not be a proper name, but a ‘qualifier’ epithet, itself similar to ‘Arthur’: ‘aruthr’ meaning ruthless - Ruthless Head Dragon, with the implication the scaly dragon symbolises armoured troops, perhaps mounted, setting up the future legend of Arthur’s mounted knights. (The 2004 film King Arthur also plays with this motif.)
The group arrive south of the Wall, the out-of-place mountains being the result of filming in the Tatras Mountains of Slovakia.
Character actor (Gandhi) Sir Ben Kingsley plays Meridius Ambrosinus, a prototype Ambrosius/Merlin paternal-advisor figure, obviously a Briton (he speaks with a Welsh accent, suggesting a Welsh bard). (Manfredi has explains the name as ‘a Latin calque of Myrdin Emreis, Merlin’s ancient Celtic name’.) He has somehow wound up in Rome as tutor to the imperial heir, the boy Romulus, before he is displaced in a coup forced on the Senate by invading Goths under Odoacer. Romulus escapes and heads for Scotland, escorted by Ambrosinus and Aurelius, captain of his praetorian bodyguard, played by Colin Firth (best-known as Pride And Prejudice’s Mr Darcy). They intend to rally the last loyal legion, the legendary 9th, based at Hadrian’s Wall. (The news presumably hadn’t filtered back to Rome by 460 that the 9th had been wiped out centuries before.)
They are pursued all the way by a posse led by Odoacer’s henchman, a Germanic warrior (played by a Scots actor, presumably to make him sound tough). The group free the boy emperor and take him and the also-rescued Caesarean ‘sword of power’ north to fulifil the destiny that will be the basis of the Arthurian legend. (The others in the group have names like Demetrius and Mira, which simply don't resonate in Arthurian legend.) Still pursued by Odoacer’s Goths (I gather a lot of footage of their trek was cut, the film originally being 4 hours long), they arrive at the Wall, “a monument to Roman law and order”. Here, the Wall is overlooked by surrounding mountains - I gather this was the result of using a castle in Slovakia’s Tatras mountains to play the Wall, but it makes a nonsense of its siting, as enemies can obviously overlook it (a tactical no-no).
They find the Wall abandoned, the 9th massacred by ‘Vortgyrn’, who has somehow become leader of united British tribes. (His leadership is made unlikely due to his being literally faceless: he has had his face burnt and wears a gold mask - a colourful touch presumably inspired by the ‘sun-king’ Mordred in John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur as well as the leprosy-disfigured ‘Jerusalem’ king in Ridley Scott’s 2005 Kingdom Of Heaven.)
Vortigern (as the name is usually spelt) is usually classed as historical, though like Uther Pendragon, his name may be more an honourary title (vor-tigern= ‘head of all households’ in early Welsh). Odoacer is historical, a Germanic warrior turned Roman general who installed himself as first barbarian king of Rome, though the film has to fudge the dates here to fit the various story elements. Vortigern’s 5C floruit is much earlier, he being an older man in the story of Saxon leader Hengist, who seems to have died before 450, so Odoacer’s coup was likely rolled back over a decade to 460 to accord with this; the PR blurb on the other hand insists the film’s setting is 470, as is the novel’s, a decade closer to Odoacer’s 476 coup. Odoacer did depose an imperial-nominated heir, the teenage Romulus Augustulus, and exiled him for the rest of his days to Capri. Here, he is rescued from Capri by Aurelius, Ambrosinus and a female warrior, who this time is not a fierce Pictish warrior princess. (The film version changes the character to that of Mira, an Indian swordswoman initially disguised as a boy, a figure straight out of a Bollywood costume romance; I take it we owe this to director Doug Lefler’s having previously worked on the "Xena Warrior Princess" tv series).
The IX Legion’s general has survived, but “gone native” as Custenin (a name in fact out of British Celtic tradition as the surname of someone who helps and rescues Arthur). The ex-general returns with some surviving legionaries to help hold the Wall against the coming Pictish (?) onslaught led by Vortgyrn. How the Wall is somehow still being maintained, long after Rome’s fall is not explained - here the defeat of the Ninth must have occurred over 3 centuries later than supposed elsewhere. (This clumsy shoehorning of historical timescales remains the biggest storytelling problem these works have in trying to claim they are historically based.)
Our mid 5C setting was when the Picts had evidently overrun the Wall (Gildas mentions their pulling British defenders off it with hooks) and the Saxons, led by Hengist, invited in by Vortigern’s Romano-British council to fight the Picts, had mutinied and seized power. There may be Picts here, but they have no obvious identity: we’re back to undifferentiated barbarians, sadly.
How Vortigern came to be their leader is not explained; this may be because in the original legend he was of course on the other side, leading the fight against Pictish incursions into the old Romano-British state of Britannia, ie England. Here presumably he is either a Pict or a surrogate Pictish leader… it’s hard to tell - Pictish culture is not shown at all, not even the usual blue-woad body painting or tattooing.
The final setpiece is a battle in front of Hadrian’s Wall, which is identified in the novel if not in the film, as that of Badon Hill - Arthur’s legendary single-handed victory. (I’ve never seen an historian arguing for placing of the Badon battle-site by the Wall.) Colin Firth as Aurelius makes a pre-battle speech which I gather was cut out of some versions of the film. This is not so much ‘we happy few, we band of brothers’ inspirational as stock pro-Roman puffery, with no foreshadowing of the Round-Table brotherhood idea (which you get in Boorman’s Excalibur, intelligently scripted by Rospo Pallenberg to show Dark Ages conflicts as the raw material of later romances). Armed with the special sword, the boy ruler Romulus shows his mettle in the melee before the Wall as some of his companions lay down their lives fighting the barbarians (who seem to be largely non-Pictish, including the posse of pursuing Goths, who seem to have picked up some Saxon allies just to add to the mix).
Finally, Ambrosinus/Merlin chases after Vortigern in a scene resembling a western denouement, trailing him to his rocky lair in the high mountains which (don’t) surround Hadrian’s Wall. The final duel however is more Tolkienesque than western action, a Gandalf-v-Saruman duel with staves that ends with Merlin burning Vortigern alive. This fiery fate is presumably inspired by one of the several extant variants of the Vortigern legend, which has him burnt up in his citadel or fortress by lightning as a punishment for his incest, hubris or whatever.) Novelists like Mary Stewart, in her best-selling Crystal Cave trilogy narrated by the young Merlin Ambrosius as he schemes to defeat Vortigern, have ‘rationalised’ the associated legend’s dragon symbolism - two dragons lurk under the citadel site, a Red Dragon which fights a White Dragon. It is a dream-motif which did pass into heraldry, the red dragon becoming the emblem of Wales, and the white, for a time that of Saxon England. However nothing is made of the dragon symbolism here.
Anyone interested in the difference between the film and older traditions should also note that it was Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12C (and later, Mary Stewart in the 1970s) who conflated Myrddin/Merlin and Ambrosius, converting the latter name into the Celtic Welsh epithet Emrys, leader. The original Ambrosius, known in the 9C Historia Brittonum of Nennius as Ambrosius Aurelianus or Aurelius Ambrosius, was more likely a Romano-British commander-in-chief, the man whose father had ‘worn the purple’ (ie was of imperial rank) and was last of the ‘Roman’ leaders in Britain in Gildas’s 5C account. (Arthurian novels tend to portray A.A. as a mentor to young Arthur, providing the link so beloved by English authors to ‘legitimate’ Roman authority against Vortigern et al.)
As a final visual ‘clincher’ touch, Romulus rams Caesar’s now-victorious sword upright into a nearby boulder to become the legendary sword-in-the-stone; a closeup shows parts of its original Roman inscription [GAI. IUL. CAES. ENSIS CALIBURNUS] obliterated so that all that is left readable is E… S ..calibur the basis of Excalibur. This is patronising nonsense as to linguistic development. (I suspect the scriptwriters had something in mind like the damaged Voyager spacecraft becoming the mysterious “V’ger” in Star Trek.) Cognominal swords, ie with names like Excalibur or Biter are a major part of ancient warrior lore, but this is a lame attempt to pass off a classic Arthurian-motif name as Roman-derived but misunderstood by the ignorant locals. The original of Excalibur in the Old French romances is Escalibor, from the Celtic Caledvwlch; caled- is the same root as in Caledonia. The sword name’s exact meaning is now obscure but the two syllables together could imply hardened by a fiery forge - suggesting steel, then a new process.
To be sure I wasn’t mistaking the inscription, I made a screenshot: besides Gaius Julius Caesar’s abbreviated name, all the Latin says is ensis, normally an adjectival suffix that could be used to describe classes of weapon etc, and caliburnus, as given above. Here, the inscription names its original owner for whom it was forged, and evidently offers a manufacturer’s guarantee the blade is tempered steel. This might imply it can penetrate rock, but it is not per se cognominal - something that ancient ‘barbarian’ peoples (and later writers who studied their lore, like Tolkien) knew well symbolised the almost magical power of the warrior who wielded it.
An epilogue follows. Ambrosinus, now the fully-fledged bard Myrddin/Merlin, is telling the rest of the tale to a young lad (it’s not clear but it seems he’s the young Arthur) who is uncertain of the storyteller’s reliability. (This seems like the scriptwriter’s getout clause famously employed by the script for the Spartan epic 300, hinting the storyteller may be what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, thus covering the filmmakers PR-wise if critics complain too many liberties have been taken with the source material.) Merlin tells him that Romulus, the boy’s father, became the Pendragon. The young Arthur is last seen running off saying that Merlin lies to him every day - which seems a misjudged variant on the end of the filmed stage musical Camelot (from WH White’s whimsical novel sequence), where the young Sir Thomas Malory runs off to tell the tale. (I need hardly add the Arthurian legend was known long before Malory put together his translation-compilation c1470.) “When the pathway gets dark, we need heroes, don’t we?” Merlin has told him, and the film ends with the implication the story we have just seen is an embroidery created for purposes of inspiring future generations and perhaps for nation building. Thus, even if young Arthur doesn’t believe it, others in future will keep the story and its ideals alive. This is fair enough in itself, addressing a central function of heroic odes which later became elaborated into romances. But the trouble here is the story we have just seen makes little sense and has little basis in the Arthurian legend handed down to posterity.
Finally, we come to this grim European minimalist drama, which bears almost no resemblance to any of the above films.The closest I can think of for initial comparison would be the 2005 Beowulf & Grendel, a realistic take on the legend, filmed in an Icelandic settlement where Christianity is just arriving, via an Irish missionary priest. The time setting here is similar to this, centuries later than the 3 films above (the Crusades are briefly mentioned), set in 1000 AD according to the presskit. A prologue indicates that Christian teaching has just arrived in the remotest corner of heathen Scotland. To use the title of Scots director Norman Stone’s planned film about St Columba’s conversion of the Picts, for the old ways, this is “The End Time.” It’s historically the time that Pictland became Scotland, and the Pict language and identity became lost.
Valhalla Rising was filmed in the extreme north of Scotland and the first half is set there. The protagonist is described in passing as “one of the biggest savages in Sutherland.” The name sounds a slight anachronism, but it’s from the Orkney Norse name Southern-land, meaning the southern shore across the Pentland - originally Pictland - Firth. The Picts are often thought to have become assimilated by the Scots when the two kingdoms were officially merged in the 9th C, and Pictland became Scotland. But it’s quite credible that in 1000 AD, when the story is set, there would still be bands of men whose ancestors were Picts, but who now have no real identity or affiliation.
Because of its position right in the northern tip of Britain, this area would remain Britain’s isolated district. It was here the last wolf in Britain would be killed around the time of Culloden, and most of the district’s human inhabitants were forced to emigrate, mainly to North America, in the subsequent Highland Clearances. The story setup here anticipates this later history, with a starving isolated group who sail to North America, though their leader, a demented Christian zealot, thinks they are off to conquer Jerusalem and the Promised Land.
With few trees this far north, we finally escape those anachronistic Forestry Commission pine and fir plantations for bare windswept hills stretching to the horizon. Later, when the luckless emigrant warband wash up on the shores of North America, what we see seems indeed like another world, though cleverly it’s just a less barren part of the Scottish highlands, with natural loch-side woodlands doubling as the New World. [see stills below]
The film has almost no dialogue, and what little there is can be hard to follow, spoken naturalistically by Scots actors (you might want to watch it with subtitles on). The protagonist never speaks, evidently a mute taken captive by an unidentified northern Scots or Pict warband, who are semi-nomadic (we never see any dwellings, not even tents) and simply perch on the bare hillside in all weathers. (Is this meant to be a literal representation of ‘heathen’ - folk who live and worship out in the open, on the heath?) The slave boy assigned to look after the mute in his hillside cage names him One-Eye, as the other has been gouged out. This was presumably in one of his many fights, for he is kept as a cross between a gladiator and a sporting animal. Warriors wager as to whether he can or cannot kill the next combatant in hand to hand fighting while he is chained to a post by an iron neck collar.
The press material makes One-Eye a Dane or Viking, though his origin is never explained and his torso is painted with Pictish symbols, so it’s possible he was meant to be a Pict captured by Scots, or else the symbols are painted on him by his Pictish captors as protective magic so he will win them money. Eventually he escapes this gladiatorial slavery, wreaking bloody revenge on his captors, and he and his boy companion join up with a supposedly Christian group. They seem little different from the other lot, except that their leader is piously hypocritical - they have a dozen muddy, naked women sitting silent on the grass, their clothes in a pile, evidently recent slave captives. Historically, there are a few later accounts of Scots raiding parties stripping all the captives (probably to stop escapes) before marching them north, but here the naked women remain unexplained; nobody ever says a word about them, and they disappear after this scene.
The group’s elder announces they are off to the Promised Land, and the two sail with them, the boat lost for days in a great sea fog. The film is divided into 6 chapters - Wrath, Silent Warrior, Men Of God, The Holy Land, Hell, and Sacrifice, and the last 3 of these, set in North America, can only be summarised as a cross between Herzog’s mad-conquistadors expeditionary drama Aguirre Wrath Of God and Mallick’s poetic-realism take on the Pocahontas story, The New World. Suffice it say their evangelical leader proves a self-righteous, deluded fanatic who leads the band to their own destruction.
Scripted by its Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and Roy Jacobsen (presumably the award-winning Norwegian novelist) this seems one of those attempts to use the physical brutality of this primitive world as a blunt weapon, expressing a totally bleak, existential worldview via cinematic brutalism, showing how actions belie words.
The warband’s two elders see themselves as missionary saviours, but the unseen natives of this new land will not engage with them. (Interestingly played by Tibetan actors for a different physical look, the unidentified Indian warriors only show themselves in the final scene, when they are ready to move in for the kill with their Stone Age clubs.) Regarded alternately by the others as a jonah and a useful thug, the one sympathetic character is the man who does not speak, and thus never lies or makes false promises. Guided by his own blood-red visions, he always acts pragmatically, until he finally welcomes his own mercy killing in combat as the only way out for himself and the boy. If this description seems over the top, here’s the link to the trailer so you can judge for yourself.