Reviewed by: Danel Griffin
Starring: Christopher Lambert, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Max von Sydow, Ins Sastre, Maria Kavardjikova, Yannis Baraban | Directed by: Jacques Dorfmann | Produced by: Jacques Dorfmann, Claude Lger, Patrick Sandrin | Written by: Anne de Leseleuc (story), Jacques Dorfmann, Rospo Pallenberg, Norman Spinrad | Distributor: Columbia Tristar
Hollywood is a funny place, especially when you’re a movie. Case in point is “Druids,” a very good historical war film. Never heard of it? Well, here’s some general information:
It is a French production about the Gallic Wars that took place between Julius Caesar’s Roman army and the Gallic tribes, united under the leadership of Vercingetorix. It boasts a talented international cast including Christopher Lambert (“Highlander,” “Greystoke”), Max von Sydow (“Snow Falling on Cedars,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told”), and Klaus Maria Brandauer (“Out of Africa, Mephisto”). It was directed by Jacques Dorfmann, a historian who knew much about the film’s subject matter. It was distributed by a major studio, Columbia Tristar Pictures, who, in an attempt to appeal to American audiences well as Europeans, chose to shoot in both French and English (the French-speaking version was released in Europe under the title “Vercingetorix”). It features unforgettable images of war and striking photography of the Gallic Isles. It has a tremendous, beautiful soundtrack by Pierre Charvet, featuring haunting vocals and a powerful fusion of synthesizer and orchestration. And the script, written by Dorfmann himself, is intelligent and coherent—some dialogue lifted from Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars itself.
So what went wrong? Why have you never heard of this movie? Why was “Pearl Harbor”, a ludicrous film that rewrites history and suggests that a clichéd love triangle is more tragic than the deaths of two-thousand-plus American soldiers, released widely in the summer of 2001, and “Druids” received a limited release that same season before getting dropped onto video shelves in mid-December?
I have a theory. Hollywood is a funny place. It was not ready for the approach to the subject matter that “Druids” takes. Columbia/Tristar took in this movie and measured it by the standard of Hollywood eye-candy, and they were disappointed and were convinced that it would not do well with a wide theatrical release. So instead, it was released only in a few cities in North America (mostly in Canada) and dumped quickly to video.
It is a sad insight to the direction that Hollywood has chosen to take. The saddest part is, they were probably right. This film is too objective, too tame to have made a great deal of money at the American box-office (on a side note, it was tremendously successful in France). However, as a history buff and film critic, I found “Druids” to be an unforgettable experience.
It tells the true story of how young Vercingetorix, a chieftain’s son, witnesses a secret meeting of the chieftains of the many Gallic tribes in circa 60 B.C. In this meeting, his father insists that because the many tribes are not united under one king, the Roman and German forces will march into the Isles and conquer the Gauls a tribe at a time. Vercingetorix’ father, himself the chieftain of the tribe Gergovia, has ambitions of becoming that king. However, before an agreement can be reached, Vercingetorix’ father is betrayed by his brother, who has made a secret pact with the Romans, and he is put to death by his own tribe. Vercingetorix vows revenge, and he is determined to continue his father’s legacy. He is then taken in by the Arch Druid Guttuart, who teaches him the ways of the ancient Druid religion. Vercingetorix (played as an adult by Christopher Lambert) is able to reestablish his rightful title as chieftain of Gergovia, and from there, he attempts to unite all of the tribes together to keep Julius Caesar’s (Klaus Maria Brandauer) Roman army from slowly taking overall of Gaul.
In viewing this film, it is best to keep in mind that, despite what the American DVD box conveys (it was probably written by someone who hadn’t even seen the film), “Druids” is not attempting to be the next “Braveheart”. In a sense, it is the polar opposite of the latter film. Yes, it is a big historical epic about a war that lasted many years. Yes, it boasts impressive battle sequences and charged performances by the leads. Yes, it has a plot that bathes in political corruption. The difference between these films lies in the approach. “Braveheart” focuses on the repression of the Scottish commoners by the evil British nobles. There are at least a dozen central characters, and all of the Scots are portrayed as poor and oppressed, and all of the Brits are evil and sadistic. Therefore, by the end of the film, the viewer is ready to take arms with the Scots against the British. This has clearly become a battle between good and evil, and such a war effectively stirs the emotion of the viewers.
“Druids”, however, has no such ambition. Rather, it attempts to portray the Gallic War from an objective point of view, by simply stating the facts and letting the viewer come up with their own opinion of whether or not the war was necessary. Both the Gauls and the Romans are portrayed as having both selfish and reasonable reasons for fighting. There are only a handful of important characters, and both sides of the conflict are treated with about equal intensity. There are some amazing war sequences, but they are there simply to move the political story along. This is a much different approach to war than “Braveheart”, which uses the war scenes as a template to emphasze either that the evil Brits are getting what they deserve, or that the poor Scots are being mistreated again.
As a result of this neutral viewpoint, most viewers might find “Druids” boring, and perhaps uneven. They are used to being spoon-fed Hollywood sentiment, instead of being challenged to think about the moral implications of war, and that often, wars are fought more because of politics than for justice. By taking out the patriotism, Druids loses much of its potential audience.
This is a pity, because it is a rousing film, filled with excellent performances. Christopher Lambert has always had a hit-or-miss career. When his material is good, he’s Brando (“Greystoke,” “Highlander,” “To Kill a Priest”). When it’s bad, he is often unwatchable (“Fortress,” “Road Killers,” “Adrenalin”). Here, he is on the ball, turning in one of his best performances in years. He portrays Vercingetorix as a man obsessed with his father’s legacy. He may believe that fighting Caesar will maintain Gaul’s independence, but he only wants that independence so that he can govern over all of the divided tribes as king himself. Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Caesar is a man who seems so occupied with his quest to be emperor of Rome, his participation in this war is just a nuisance. The world around him does not exist so much as his interpretation of it exists, with all its people, politics, armies (including his own), and circumstances as chess-pieces on his board. He moves through the movie with confidence and charisma, as if he never doubts the final outcome.
Film critic Roger Ebert once described Max von Sydow as the “mighty oak of Swedish cinema—unsurpassed at the difficult challenge of appearing not to act, of appearing to be simple and true even in scenes of great complexity.” He maintains that integrity here, though he is given little to do but offer an occasional word of wisdom to Vercingetorix. It seems that he shot his footage in “Druids” over a long weekend, but his presence supports the film’s credibility. His character, Arch Druid Guttuart, despite heavy involvement with the war, seems detached from the world, and so certain of his religious convictions that he is confident that whatever the outcome of the war, events are happening as destiny would have them. Ins Sastre, as Vercingetorix’s faithful wife Epona, has little to do but look ravishing, and she succeeds.
Dorfmann’s direction is confident and swift. He has a good eye for battle scenes (especially their aftermaths, which are unforgettable moments), but he is more focused on telling a story than he is curdling our blood with realistic images of war. His movie is very dialogue-driven, and the viewer must keep their ears posted at all times, or else they will miss much of the film’s key plot points. Indeed, “Druids”’ momentum is in its characters, and Dorfmann effectively creates them.
There are some flaws, however, and most of them have to do with the English version of the film. While the lead actors are accomplished English speakers, many of the smaller roles are amateurs who needed their lines re-dubbed. For the most part, the dubbing works, but there are a few clumsy moments scattered here and there, particularly at the very beginning. The opening scene is also poorly shot, and the child playing the young Vercingetorix is seriously lacking conviction. I would have also liked to have seen more emphasis on Vercingetorix’s mother, who should have been a pivotal role. Unfortunately, she spends most of her screen time staring off into the distance and looking concerned.
Parents will need to be careful when viewing “Druids” if they have younger children or teenagers. There is only one profanity in the entire film (a use of the “a-word”), but there are some grisly battle sequences featuring stabbings, impaling, and much blood spilling. The violence never reaches the intensity of “Braveheart,” but it will still be disturbing to younger viewers. In addition, there is a great deal of nudity in the film: in the first battle scene, Gallic women sit on the towers of their encampment and reveal their bare breasts in an attempt to distract the Roman army. It works.
The film also seems to promote the ancient religious codes of the Druids—a religion that eventually evolved into the Occult known today as Wicca. However, a Christian watching this film from a historical viewpoint can easily determine that the emphasis on the Druid religion is simply an attempt at historical accuracy, another aspect that the film excels at, right down to the jewelry worn by the Gauls. We can expect nothing less but complete accuracy when discussing their religion as well, and the film succeeds in this task.
Overall, “Druids” is a thinking man’s war movie, and it is definitely recommended on every level. It is quite a pity that a historical film of such quality can fly under the radar, yet exploitations such as “Pearl Harbor” continue to rack in millions. As I said, Hollywood is a funny place.