NO HISTORY LESSON, TV FILM SHOWS THE ‘SCOURGE OF GOD’S’ MANY SIDES
Um, excuse me, USA Network. My reference books describe the Huns as a short, Asian people. But your Attila the Hun looks like he could have stepped out of the extras for “Braveheart.”
And while we’re at it, a four-hour miniseries about Attila the Hun? What’s the matter; was Genghis Khan already taken?
With “Attila,” airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, the USA Network goes where no network has gone before – commissioning a drama that seeks to redeem one of the great villainous names of history, Attila, fifth-century threat to Rome later nicknamed the “Scourge of God.”
Attila is played by Gerard Butler, who bears a striking resemblance to Sean Penn’s most famous character, Jeff Spicoli of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” – that is, if Jeff Spicoli had never cut his hair, was given to wearing small animals draped around his shoulders, and was in a perpetual bad mood.
Young Attila has much to be grumpy about. He watches helplessly while his father is slaughtered; he and his older brother grow up to become bitter enemies; and he has this dream of conquering the Roman Empire, or what’s left of it, that no one else shares.
It would probably help to have a smidgen of history here; and a smidgen is all “Attila” offers, all in its opening credits.
“Though decadent and corrupt, weakened by politics and war, the Roman Empire remained the greatest power on earth,” intones a narrator as the words fill the screen in the grand style of cheesy epics.
“Then a new people, the Huns, fierce and independent, appeared from the east.”
What follows bears a closer resemblance to “Conan the Barbarian” than history as Attila, TV star, leaves his mark across western Europe.
“Attila,” shot entirely on location in Lithuania, a claim I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone else make, is almost all brawn, which is probably exactly how the Huns would have liked it.
Director Dick Lowry, best known for TV Western and action films, is good at capturing the ground-pounding, village-razing, slave-taking excitement of the conquering Huns, famed for their skill with bow and arrow on horseback.
The miniseries becomes a lot less convincing when the action moves inside Roman villas where Alice Krige as Empress Placidia, Reg Rogers as her son, Emperor Valentinian, and Powers Boothe as Gen. Flavius Aetius plot more against each other than the barbarian at the gate. Equally self-motivated is Tim Curry as Theodosius, Byzantine emperor.
Perhaps we are supposed to view Attila as the nobler of the two sides. He is spurred on by a single goal – conquering Rome – compared to the back-stabbing Romans (it helps if you remember Powers Boothe in his role as the Rev. Jim Jones). But at least they had better plumbing, which even Attila admires.
Although it has very little historical fact to go on, “Attila” is determined to present the many sides of its hero: not merely scourge, but also capable ruler, sensitive boyfriend and thoughtful husband. Let all my wives join me in my new Roman bath, he instructs his assistant. That way, they won’t fight among themselves.
The miniseries apparently latches onto a shred of historical fact, then bends it to fit into its overly romanticized plot line.
For instance, history has it that Honoria, the emperor’s sister, appealed to Attila to rescue her from an arranged marriage. And that Attila used this as a pretext to claim half of Rome’s western empire.
In USA’s miniseries, this translates as a torrid affair between Roman princess and king of the Huns after his arrival in Rome. (As the new barbarian in town, he creates something of a sensation. “He’s quite striking, in a primitive way,” admires a young Roman female.)
According to history, Attila died in his sleep shortly after his final marriage. The miniseries seizes upon this idea to create a ’twas-beauty-killed-the-beast ending.
“Attila” may be suitable viewing if you’re in the mood for four hours of sword fights, battering rams and the occasional Roman debauchery. But for history, wait for the A&E “Biography.” ATILLA
AIRS: 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, USA Network
Copyright 2001 The Richmond Times Dispatch