Saturday, January 28, 2006

Sign of the Pagan

Of the many sword-and-sandal epics made after the Second World War, 1954's Sign of the Pagan is one of the maddest. It's not just Jack Palance blacked up to look like a Klingon, or the fictitious daughter Kubra acting as a proto-Xena until she see the Christian light. It's little bits like Attila, who seems to have been talking to someone about the Divine Right of Kings, saying "how could a mere centurion become emperor of Rome?" when centurions had been gaining the purple for two centuries. It's the complete re-arrangement of chronology. It's Jeff Chandler's prematurely grey hair.

There's the eastern bias to the whole thing. The western emperor Valentinian appears briefly, and his general Aetius, who actually defeated Attila at the battle of Chalons, is omitted entirely. Curiously the same year saw another movie, Attila, with Anthony Quinn as the Hun (Hollywood in the 1950s had a real difficult casting Central Asian war leaders, as anyone who's seen John Wayne as Genghis Khan can attest - though Attila was actually an Italo-French production). This version, which I haven't seen, seems from the cast list to take a western approach - Valentinian, his sister Honoria, their mother Galla Placidia, and Aetius all appear, but Theodosius seems not to.

I am particularly amused by the transformation of Pulcheria, elder sister of the eastern emperor Theodosius II and wife of his successor Marcian. Gone is the fifty-something chaste ascetic, and in her place is a picture of Italian voluptuous sensuality (yes, I know Ludmilla Tcherina was Franco-Russian, but the whole film looks Italian, despite hardly any Italian involvement) - I doubt this Marcian will be respecting his new bride's vow of chastity.

Sign of the Pagan in an oddity for a Hollywood Roman epic. In most, the Roman empire (as opposed to the Republic) is depicted as inherently corrupt and corrupting. Even good emperors like Marcus Aurelius cannot stand against the tyrannical nature. However, there is an underlying message that the advent of Christianity will make everything right - this can be found in the voice-overs at the start of Spartacus and Quo Vadis. But Sign of the Pagan depicts a Christianized empire. Valentinian is depicted as a coward, and Theodosius selfish, but at the end Theodosius is deposed, Valentinian runs off, and Marcian marries Pulcheria and becomes ruler of a united empire. What's the message there? Here's to benevolent dictatorship?

8 comments:

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Oh ... now I want to see it ....! BTW, I think it's Jeff Chandler.

Tony Keen said...

So it is. Brain not quite fully working. Corrected now, thanks.

Alex Bordessa said...

I saw bits of this film on Friday. It didn't hold my attention, and I was supposed to be doing something else anyway! However, I was fascinated to see some of the trappings of the Late Roman era. The chi-rho was well featured, and some of the costumes certainly echoed Late Roman dress. Its one of the only films I can think off that has some good Late Roman elements in it, though I haven't seen the Quinn Attila. I can easily think of one or two recent films set in the Late Roman era which have been totally c**p - no names, no pack drill ;-)

Tony Keen said...

Alex - You wouldn't by any chance be referring to the film discussed here, by any chance?

Gabriele C. said...

Hehe, the only excuse for that sorry movie were the hot men. Had they called it for just another take on Arthur, instead of History, I'd have enjoyed it.

Except for Keira Knighley. That anorexic thing could never wield a real sword, there's no place for muscles between skin and bones. ;-)

Vladimir Agrigoroaei said...

Did you came across the recent production of "Attila" (2001)? It's a TV one, directed by Dick Lowry, with quite a low budget and cheap faked settings, but it's got all the right characters in it... My girlfriend likes it 'cos the actor is "hot" (as she describes him). More information here http://attila.justmango.com/
Have a great day!

Gabriele C. said...

The actor is Gerard Butler, and of course, he's hot. Not exactly looking like a slant-eyed, crook-legged Hunnish king, but definitely hot. :-)

Alex Bordessa said...

Tony - yes, got it in one, *that* film. Just think of what they could have spent the dosh on instead?!