Sunday, October 21, 2007

Four legionaries and a funeral

On Tuesday's edition of BBC Radio 4's arts magazine show, Front Row, Sir Ben Kingsley gave an interview about The Last Legion in which no mention was made of Arthur, Merlin or Excalibur, whilst making clear to any listener with the slightest knowledge of the Matter of Britain that this is what the film is about. This is rather symbolic of the film's schizophrenic publicity materials, which at first ignored the Arthurian nature of the narrative, as if it's meant to be a big surprise (which, in fairness, is how the film itself is structured), but eventually came to embrace it (presumably because the magic name of Arthur was felt necessary to draw audiences in, who would otherwise stay away from a sword-and-sandal epic).

It's actually a little bit surprising that Sir Ben can recall anything about the film, or can be bothered promoting it. Filming was done in 2005, and the film is at least a year overdue on release. When it finally came out in the US, there were no press previews, usually a sign that not only is a film a turkey, but the producers know it's a turkey.

But somebody plainly felt that there was a better chance of promoting the film over here. They may have a point. The Last Legion is a terribly British film, with a cast full of the usual UK thesps: Colin Firth, John Hannah, James Cosmo, Kevin McKidd (last seen working the Roman side of the tracks) in a silly beard, as well as Kingsley himself. The nearest to the sort of US star usually felt desirable to make this sort of film work is Deep Space Nine's Alexander Siddig.

Britishness aside, the film defines itself within the first ten minutes, through reference to other, better, movies: Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars. That pretty much tells you what you can expect, and the film doesn't deviate much from that, as it throws in further nods, to innumerable Alexandre Dumas and Errol Flynn swashbucklers for the most part, but also to James Bond movies, and, in the most absurd moment of the film, The Great Escape (or was it The Outlaw Josey Wales?). The resolution of the final battle is entirely predictable, and it even cops out of a noble death. And that's the trouble with this film. There is nothing in it you haven't seen before. It never does anything novel and interesting with its materials, nor does it do what Martin Campbell's The Mask of Zorro achieved, and tell a traditional story so well that one is reminded why one liked these sort of films in the first place. Doug Lefler has worked on Hercules and Xena, but brings none of the charm of those series with him.

Historically, it's nonsense, of course. The Last Legion sits in the same tradition of placing the Arthur legend in a historical framework as does 2004's King Arthur. But unlike that film, it makes no claims to historical authenticity, and is therefore less absurd. Indeed the film sets out its attitude very early. In the opening narration Tiberius is described as "the last in Julius Caesar's line", and described as a great emperor. That is so far removed from anyone's perception of the historical reality around the tyrannical old pervert that it's as if the film's creators say at this point "look, we have no intention of allowing historical fact stand in the way of the story we want to tell." And why should they? The Last Legion is no less historically accurate than the 1930s and 1940s swashbucklers it emulates. One might have thought audiences had become more historically sophisticated since, but the BBC's Robin Hood works on the basis that they haven't, so why shouldn't this film? So, for instance, there is a distinctly Islamic tinge to the mis-en-scene of the representatives of the Eastern Roman empire, regardless of Mohammed's birth being a century in the future.

One presumes that Valerio Massimo Manfredi's original novel, which I haven't read, paid more attention to known historical fact. But though Manfredi is credited as "historical consultant", the film is only "based in part" on his novel, and though Manfredi provided the original story treatment for the film, that was reworked by Carlo Carlei & Peter Rader, and then again in Jez and Tom Butterworth's screenplay. It is presumably then that the deviations from Manfredi (such as the replacement of his Italian warrior woman Livia with the Indian Mira, presumably to bring in the Bollywood demographic), from history, and, arguably, from sense, came in.

Nevertheless, real history seeps through, presumably from Manfredi. Through the appearance of the Goth leader Odoacer, and the magister militum Orestes, there's a fair bit of the actual story of the deposition of the last western emperor Romulus Augustulus, though it's been confused by adding the sack of Rome from a half-century before. Other elements, such as the Ninth Legion in Britannia, show more familiarity with Rosemary Sutcliff than anything else. The presence of Hadrian's Wall is just gratuitous, and perhaps unwise in the light of its use in King Arthur. (And which way is is meant to be facing? North or south?)

Manfredi's adult novel causes problems in another area. Is this a film for adults, or, because it centres on a the adventures of a prepubescent boy (though played by then sixteen-year old Thomas Sangster), is it a film for children? This was evidently a problem during filming - so when Aishwarya Rai climbs into bed with Colin Firth, both are fully clothed, and they do nothing but cuddle. It's also a problem for the film's distributors - when I saw it the accompanying trailers veered from violent blockbusters like American Gangster and The Kingdom, to the unashamed kid's fare of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.

This is not a particularly dreadful film; but neither is it very inspiring. It will not be much remembered amongst the ranks of Roman empire movies.


Anonymous said...

Hello Tony

Why are you surprised that it's garbage? It's Hollywood after all!

Just wait till you see you Vin Diesels Haniibal scheduled for next year!


Just to let you know that nowadays you should refrain from using the schizophrenic in metaphorical terms as it is regarded as stigmatising and unhelful to those with schizophrenia

Tony Keen said...

I'm really not convinced we'll ever see Hannibal the Conqueror, and it certainly won't be next year. It's been in pre-production for more than five years now, and so far not a foot of film has been shot.

Carla said...

I read the book a few years ago and was unimpressed. I can't speak for its historical accuracy, but its description of the discovery of Julius Caesar's sword struck me as unlikely. What I chiefly remember is that I found it a flat and lifeless read, and wondered if it had suffered in translation.

Tony Keen said...

I haven't read this, or any of this other novels, but I quoted some comments on his Alexander trilogy in the previous entry, and I know people whom have read other works of his, and 'flat and lifeless' seems something of a consensus opinion.