Hollywood and History: Druids (aka The Gaul, 2001)

Detail of Statue of Vercingetorix. Aimé Millet (1865). Mt. Auxois, near Alise-Sainte-Reine

Hollywood and History: Druids (aka The Gaul, 2001)

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Ancient Worlds on Film

by Tobin Bromberg

Synopsis of Druids

The film Druids, also known as The Gaul, opens in the year 60 BC, with the people of Gaul facing dire times. Turning to a religious ceremony in order to find a solution to the woes of the Gallic people, the Druids witness a shooting star. The arch-Druid Guttuart (Max von Sydow) proclaims this to be a sign that a new king shall soon come to Gaul, despite the fact that Gaul had long ago abandoned a monarchical government. The film cuts to the Avernian capital, Gergovia, where a young Vercingetorix (Assen Kukushev) shows one of his friends, the daughter of a Gallic chieftain, around the city. He boasts about the meaning of his name, literally translated as “king of great warriors”. He aspires to achieve the power that his name holds, saying that he will one day be the king of Gaul, and tells the girl that she will be his queen. Vercingetorix and Epona, eager to find out what important matters their elders are discussing, sneak into a cave where a meeting of Gallic chieftains is being held. Here, Vercingetorix’s father, Celtill (actor not named) presents to the chieftains the crown worn by the Gallic kings of old. As soon as he does this, two Roman spies disguised as Gauls shoot him in the back with an arrow. Vercingetorix flees from the scene, while Celtill’s brother, Gobanittio (actor not named), detains him. Vercingetorix then watches his uncle burn his father alive, and swears vengeance, saying, “I will kill you, Gobanittio” (00:11:30).

The film leaps forward many years, bringing us to a now adult Vercingetorix (Christopher Lambert). He has been educated by Druids, and still holds fast to the childhood promise he made to his uncle. He and Guttuart approach a road that the Romans are building, but Guttuart runs away when Julius Caesar (Klaus Maria Brandauer), accompanied by Roman legionaries, approaches. Caesar attempts to recruit Vercingetorix and the Avernes to help him invade Britain, offering the Gauls half the booty that they will capture. Caesar gives Vercingetorix a horse on which to ride back to Gergovia. Upon arriving, Vercingetorix acts on his promise from so many years ago and kills his uncle. He tells the people of Caesar’s offer, to which they react with great enthusiasm.

Vercingetorix presents a Roman soldier with a grisly offering to present to Caesar.

Vercingetorix presents a Roman soldier with a grisly offering to present to Caesar.

The scene shifts to Bibracte, where Caesar meets with various chieftains of Gaul to discuss the British expedition. Many of the chieftains agree with his plans, but Dumnorix (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) voices his doubts, saying he will not join the expedition. Caesar, displeased with Dumnorix’s dissent, takes his children hostage. In a private meeting with Caesar, Vercingetorix reunites with his childhood friend, Epona (Ines Sastre). Caesar shows them the crown of Gaul and offers to make Vercingetorix king, saying that the Gallic people could be better off united under a single leader. Vercingetorix refuses, claiming that destiny, and not man, must choose the king. Caesar receives word that Dumnorix has attacked a Roman outpost, and sends Vercingetorix to capture him. Vercingetorix tracks down Dumnorix, who tells him that the Romans were to blame for Celtill’s death. Immediately afterwards, two Roman soldiers assassinate Dumnorix. Vercingetorix chases after them, and kills one. He gives the remaining soldier Caesar’s horse as well as a severed arm of the dead soldier, and orders him to “bring back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give my tribute to him” (00:36:03-00:36:13), officially ending the alliance between the Avernians and the Romans. Caesar receives Vercingetorix’s gruesome gift and realizes that the Romans have “made [him] an enemy; and it would be much better to have him as a friend” (00:37:02). He proceeds to place a bounty on Vercingetorix’s head.

Vercingetorix heads back to Gergovia, where the Roman guards of the city tell him that he is banished due to Caesar’s decree. He turns away from the city without saying a word. Later that night, Vercingetorix and his supporters murder the Roman soldiers at Gergovia. Having been liberated from Roman rule, the Avernians rally around Vercingetorix; he proclaims that he will only become king if his people want it to be so, not if the Romans choose him for the position. His people give him nearly unanimous support, and he becomes the king of Gaul.

Vercingetorix wastes no time putting his newfound power to use, leading scorched-earth campaigns against Roman settlements and burning entire cities to the ground. Vercingetorix spares the city of Avaricum, though his decision to do so was not made without a significant internal conflict between what is right and what is necessary. Caesar, however, orders that all of the inhabitants of Avaricum be slaughtered, causing great pain to Vercingetorix. The Roman army arrives at Gergovia, along with their allies, the Eduens, ready to crush the Avernian resistance. The Avernians attempt psychological warfare, throwing chickens at the Roman soldiers and having their women flash them, hoping that confusion and lust will overpower the Romans’ senses, causing chaos on the battlefield and crippling the Roman army. As the Romans prepare for what seems to be an extremely lopsided battle, it is revealed that the Eduens are extremely upset with Caesar because of his order to massacre the people of Avaricum; they abruptly end their alliance with Rome, switching sides in the conflict.

Suddenly outnumbered, the Romans have no choice but to retreat. With victory secured, the chieftains of Gaul assemble and choose Vercingetorix to be the commander in chief of a united army of all of the tribes of Gaul on account of his obvious military genius. The Gauls now feeling that their people may survive the Roman onslaught with their customs unchanged, burn an effigy of Caesar. Overcome with joy, Vercingetorix makes Epona his queen.

Unbeknownst to the Gauls, while they were celebrating, Caesar traveled to the Rhine River, where he enlisted the help of the Teutons, fearsome warriors from what is now Germany. The next day, the Teutons ambush a group of Vercingetorix’s men while they are riding through the countryside on horseback. One of the horses returns to the Gauls carrying its dead rider, and Vercingetorix identifies the weapon that killed him as Teutonic. The Teutonic presence in Gaul distresses him greatly, as it demonstrates to him that the Romans will stop at nothing to conquer Gaul. That night, at Alesia, some of Vercingetorix’s men try to convince him to leave, as they have received word that Caesar will attack soon. However, he makes this situation into his own personal Rubicon, going so far as to quote Caesar, saying that Gaul does not need a huge battle but “now the die is already cast” (01:17:41). With this, Vercingetorix seals his fate, essentially saying that he will fight until the end to prevent the Romans from conquering Gaul.

The battle begins with the Romans laying siege Alesia, building a series of fortifications around the city. Within, Vercingetorix begins to resort to desperate measures, halving rations so that the Gauls are able to hold their ground longer than expected. He orders his troops to go out into Gaul and recruit as many men as possible into a relief army, but warns them not to attack, as he cannot risk losing any of the people who make up his inner circle. Problems continue to arise in the city, as the Gauls’ food supply drops so low that they are forced to release their horses. In desperation, Vercingetorix suggests sending out everybody who cannot fight, though Epona persuades him to let the children remain in the city.

Meanwhile, the Gauls outside the city experience significant difficulty trying to elect a general for their relief army, as people initially try to tamper with the election. When this problem is fixed, they still have difficulty choosing a general, as none of the candidates receive a majority of votes. Eventually the Gauls agree to have four generals of equal rank, The relief army finally arrives at Alesia, significantly delayed because of the infighting. Though Vercingetorix now has the numbers required to take defeat the Romans, he refuses to give to order the attack. In the Roman camp, Caesar tells his advisors that they will starve to death if the Gauls do not attack, stating that their campaign will end either with “triumph or death” (01:31:25). Caesar justifies putting his army at risk of starvation by saying that he has destiny on his side. Unable to wait any longer, the Gauls try to persuade Vercingetorix to attack; he gives in and agrees to lead the Gauls in battle, but not before making it known that they will most likely all be killed, saying, “we will become immortal” (01:36:17).

Vercingetorix lays down his arms.

Vercingetorix lays down his arms.

Prepared to defend their homeland or die trying, the Gauls rush forth from the walls of Alesia. However, the Romans’ superior military technology immediately becomes obvious, as they mow down Gauls with javelins and arrows before the front lines engage. Finally, Caesar gives the order to release the Teutonic cavalry. This spells doom for the Gauls, as the Teutones prove to be too much for them to handle. The Gauls retreat through a field littered with the innumerable bodies of their fallen comrades. Everyone left behind is slaughtered, including the women and children. The Gauls having been conquered, Vercingetorix gives up the throne. He rides to the Roman encampment where he lays down his arms and kneels at Caesar’s feet admitting defeat. As the film ends, Guttuart narrates what happened afterwards: Caesar is assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C, while Vercingetorix had been executed 2 years earlier.

Ancient Background

Book 7 of Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico is the only ancient source dealing with the life of Vercingetorix. He tells the story with little emotion or extraneous detail, choosing to focus exclusively on the military actions of the Romans and the Gauls, rather than the underlying causes behind said actions. He shows Vercingetorix as an extraordinary military leader, able to use his ability to earn whatever position he desired. The Gauls are said to have fairly advanced military technology, mostly due to being “an extremely resourceful people” (Caesar, 7.22). Among their military technology were such things as ropes designed to entrap and steal Roman equipment and walls that were resistant to both fire and battering rams. When writing from a Gallic viewpoint, Caesar portrays the Romans as brutes; in one speech allegedly made by a chieftain to incite war Rome is said to be rife with “singular and nefarious cruelty” (Caesar, 7.77). Conversely, when writing from the Roman point of view the Aedui are deemed untrustworthy. They first “greatly terrified our men” (Caesar, 7.50), despite being brought in to help the Romans, and ultimately revolted against Roman rule.

During battle scenes, Caesar depicts the Romans as underdogs, citing the Gauls’ numbers, position and familiarity with the land as giving them numerous advantages. Despite doing this, he does not downplay the military strength of the Gauls, often referring to them as fierce warriors. Caesar does not rest on his laurels even when Vercingetorix is captured. Rather than praise himself, Caesar simply states, “Vercingetorix was handed over and his weapons were thrown down” (Caesar, 7.88).  With sentiments such as this, De Bello Gallico presents a clean, unembellished view of the events that transpired during the Gallic revolt.

Caesar provides a less detailed and positive view of Vercingetorix’s early life than the film. Druids suggests the death of Vercingetorix’s father was a Roman conspiracy in order to make the audience sympathize with him and his fight against Rome. In De Bello Gallico, Caesar does not indicate any connection between the Romans and the death of Celtillus; he claims that, “trying to gain a kingdom, Celtillus had been put to death by the state” (Caesar, 7.4). Vercingetorix’s motivation, according to Caesar, was not revenge but the expansion of his territory and the removal of Romans from Gaul. Caesar also contradicts the idea that the Gauls had long ago abandoned monarchy, stating that Celtillus “had held power over all of Gaul” (ibid.). This is one of the major differences between the film and the ancient sources. It is clear that Caesar’s portrayal stems from the fact that Vercingetorix was not seen as superior or inferior to any other barbarian chieftain. Because Vercingetorix holds no special status in Roman culture he is not romanticized or exaggerated in any way. The film and novel do agree on one point, however. Just as the film did, Caesar shows considerable admiration for Vercingetorix’s military ability, referring to him as “a young man whose abilities were second to none” (Caesar, 7.4).

While Druids portrays Vercingetorix as a kind and compassionate leader, Caesar portrays him as the opposite. De Bello Gallico depicts Vercingetorix as cruel, stating that for serious crimes, “he killed offenders with fire and all types of tortures” (Caesar, 7.4); for less serious infractions, “he sent offenders home without their ears or eyes” (Caesar, 7.4). Though Druids suggests that the Gauls joined Vercingetorix’s army for the greater good for their country, De Bello Gallico gives a more stark reason for their enlistment saying that many Gauls were compelled to join his army through fear of Vercingetorix’s reputation for cruelty and torture. Caesar views Vercingetorix’s methods of conscription as cruel and unusual, forcing every able-bodied man from every Gallic state to fight regardless of their other responsibilities. Caesar’s commentary also paints the Gauls as being less motivated by the desire for freedom than they are in Druids. Rather than rallying around Vercingetorix and forming an army of their own accord, the Gauls are forced to action on pain of torture, providing a starkly different view of Vercingetorix’s recruitment methods than what is shown in the film.

Caesar’s intent in writing his account of Vercingetorix’s rebellion is not to entertain the Roman people, nor is it to show the Romans as superior to the Gauls. His writing is simply meant to inform the populace back in Rome of the current state of affairs in Gaul. While Caesar does occasionally praise the Romans, he does not fail to acknowledge both the ingenuity and the tactical skill that the Gauls displayed in battle. Caesar’s language is extremely plain, meant only to inform people of the events that were happening in Gaul, nothing more and nothing less. Though Caesar’s writing is fairly neutral, it is meant to show the superiority of Romans over barbarians, depicting Caesar’s tactics and strategies as brilliant, spur of the moment ideas, thus pointing out Caesar’s own military excellence.

Making the Movie

Chris Parry, in his review of the film on efilmcritic.com, opens first by comparing Druids to a low budget remake of Braveheart set in Bulgaria. He then asks, “who knew they could make movies this bad?” (Parry 2002). This question, unfortunately, is one that must be asked while viewing Druids, which in addition to being both a critical and a commercial failure, is often said to be one of the worst French films of all time. The goal of the film was to provide a dramatization of Vercingetorix’s life, an endeavor at which the film fails. Druids is rife with historical inaccuracies, either due to lack of knowledge or accurate sources on the part of the writer/director, Jacques Dorfmann, an attempt to make Vercingetorix more sympathetic, or a combination of all three reasons.

The main creative force behind the film was Jacques Dorfmann, the director. He filmed in Bulgaria, roughly 1,300 miles from where the actual events depicted in the film would have taken place, though this is just the first in a cavalcade of historically inaccuracies seen throughout the entirety of the film. The script seems to be based loosely upon Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, though significant changes were made in order that Vercingetorix might appear more sympathetic. To begin with, in the film Vercingetorix’s father is not executed by the state, rather he is murdered in a Roman conspiracy. Furthermore, the Romans are cruel and brutish, concerned only with expanding their empire, while Caesar is extremely arrogant, finding delight in indulgence, and entirely devoid empathy. This is all a result of the traditional French view of Vercingetorix, which dates back to the Napoleonic era. Napoleon III especially admired Vercingetorix, and “used Vercingetorix to get across a powerful political message, which was: get behind me, and we will fight together against the invader” (Beardsley 2013). Napoleon even commissioned a statue of Vercingetorix, in the belief that he fought for independence in the same way that France was still fighting for it at that time. For this reason, Vercingetorix is a folk hero in French culture, revered for his dedication to his country. Dorfmann goes out of his way to avoid casting even the slightest shadow on Vercingetorix’s reputation, ignoring the harsh punishments alleged in De Bello Gallico, including torture and execution. Instead he passes these atrocities on to the Romans and Germans, both of whom the film depicts as marauding brutes intent on preventing Gallic freedom. Dorfmann’s Vercingetorix is kind, compassionate and dedicated,

Many of the actors cast in Druids are either virtually unknown or are not known for being in highly regarded movies. For example, the star of the film, Christopher Lambert, is perhaps best known for starring in the Highlander film series, which has always been a critical failure despite its cult following. His performance in Druids is devoid of the power that one would expect from Vercingetorix. Though the young Vercingetorix boasts that his name means “king of great warriors,” Lambert’s Vercingetorix never seems to assert himself. Rather, he allows the soldiers to pressure him into making rash decisions, most notably the Battle of Alesia. Had Vercingetorix refused to attack, the Romans would have starved to death; he chose to listen to his men, though, leading to the annihilation of the Gauls.

Perhaps the most famous actor in the movie is Max von Sydow, who previously appeared in critically acclaimed films such as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and The Exorcist (1973), as well as playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983). He remains influential even today, having been cast in HBO’s extremely popular series Game of Thrones as the Three-eyed Raven, a powerful clairvoyant. His appearance in Druids as the arch-Druid Guttuart is almost painful to watch, as the character is limited to prophecies that are meant to sound deep and foreboding, but in actuality have little to no substance. In fact, his character is so bad, and appears so infrequently in the film, that Chris Parry of efilmcritic.com “wondered to [himself] if maybe [von Sydow] had died before the end of the shoot” (Parry, efilmcritic.com). Perhaps the strangest casting choice of all is Klaus Maria Brandauer as Julius Caesar, who is effectively the main villain of the film. He, like Max von Sydow, appeared in Never Say Never Again (1983) where he played Maximillian Largo, the main villain. In that film, Roger Ebert thought Brandauer was “a wonderful actor, and he chooses not to play the villain as a cliché. Instead, he brings a certain poignancy and charm to Largo” (Ebert 1983). This high praise from one of the most well-known film critics of all time offers definitive proof that he is able to play a villain role well; in Druids, however, he has no real motivation for wanting to conquer Gaul other than simply being able to do so. Furthermore, the choice of a German actor turns Caesar into a German, which is blatantly historically inaccurate. Dorfmann may have had an ulterior motive behind choosing a German actor to play Caesar, however, as his German accent may remind some viewers of Adolf Hitler, thus making Caesar seem even more evil.

Themes and Interpretations

In my opinion, the most prevalent theme in Druids is the unwavering character of Vercingetorix. From the time he is crowned king of the Gauls, to the moment of his capture his loyalty to the Gallic people stands, he puts the good of the state before his own personal benefit. The scene in which Vercingetorix throws down his arms, the lowest point of his life, shows him accepting his punishment yet defiant of Roman ideals, mirroring Lionel Royer’s painting Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar (1899). In this painting, Vercingetorix holds his head high and throws his weapons at Caesar’s feet with disdain, while Caesar watches from his throne with disgust. Though he is defeated, he does not show any signs of sadness. Rather, he remains defiant to the end, a symbol to the Gallic people that the Romans can never truly conquer Gaul. The film, though it gives a different visual portrayal of the scene, conveys the same message. In the film, while kneeling at Caesar’s feet, Vercingetorix tells Caesar that what he has witnessed is only the start of a conflict that will last for years to come. Though he may die, others will take his place, and Gaul will continue to fight for freedom from the Roman Empire.

In my opinion, the film deserves all of the harsh criticism it has received in the years since its release. It attempts to be a serious film, but is too full of non-sequiturs to be taken as seriously as it wishes. These problems are in full view from the very beginning of the film, which depicts a Gallic religious ceremony. During this scene, priests walk around a fire and instead of wearing historically accurate clothing, they are clad in white robes and hoods, making them look scarily similar to a Ku Klux Klan rally. It remains possible not to laugh at the film for roughly the next seven minutes, until the meeting of Gallic chieftains, which takes place in an enormous underground cavern that appears to have been taken directly from The Lord of the Rings. The film continues relatively free of laughable errors until the scene where Vercingetorix and his followers slaughter the Romans in Gergovia. Here, one of the extras killed during the scene is wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Later, at the battle of Gergovia, the Romans form a testudo. A Roman cavalryman rides past the formation, and his horse clips a shield with an audible thud (00:53:15). Because of this, the soldier almost drops his shield, and his hand reaches out at the last moment to put it back in position. I had to watch three or four times to make sure that I had just seen what I thought I saw. Afterwards, with no explanation whatsoever, the Gallic soldiers bafflingly start throwing chickens over the walls (00:54:36), while the women flash the Romans, tactics that were neither previously discussed, nor talked about afterwards.

Before the Battle of Alesia, a scene occurs that has absolutely no connection to any of the events in the film. Vercingetorix is shown playing a game with a small child, whom he accuses of cheating; this leads to his wife, Epona, giving him a lecture on why the rules don’t matter, before he sees some deeper meaning in her words (1:47:12). Finally, when Vercingetorix surrenders himself to Caesar, his son rides with him on the same horse. However, after Vercingetorix enters the camp, his son is left outside, seemingly stranded with no way to get back home, as he is not yet competent at horse riding, making it seem as if Vercingetorix has just doomed his heir. These bizarre errors, as well as many others, completely change the tone of the film, taking it from a serious historical epic to a second rate unintentional comedy.

Another heavy source of criticism for Druids is the shocking lack of historical accuracy, which ranges from mistakes in the portrayal of characters, their actions and motivations, to major errors in depictions of equipment used in the film. For example, Caesar is portrayed as a subpar tactician, stating that he would stay camped outside Alesia until either his men starved to death or emerged victorious. In actuality, while Caesar did realize the danger of starvation once the Gauls had “cut them [the Romans] off from a supply of provisions” (Caesar, 7.56), the Romans were never in any real danger of starvation, as Caesar “found a path, suitable for those things which were necessary” (Caesar, 7.56), which allowed the Romans to continue provisioning their entire camp. Furthermore, the film claims that Caesar enlisted the help of the Teutons to win the Battle of Alesia. He was far less dependent on German reinforcements than the film shows, though, mostly using them to augment “the courage of our men” (Caesar, 7.70) when they began to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Gauls.

Vercingetorix’s motivations are completely misrepresented. While he did hate the Romans, the film claims he felt this way because the Romans orchestrated the conspiracy which killed his father. In reality, he simply wanted the Romans to leave Gaul. Finally, much of the equipment depicted in Druids is completely anachronistic. One of the major errors is the fact that “The type of armor being used by the Romans is the Lorica Segmentata, which was not introduced until fifty years later, and even then was never in such widespread use” (imdb.org n.d.). Additionally, all the horses are equipped with stirrups, which did not appear in Europe until at least seven hundred years after the events of the film. Finally, while Caesar makes note of the Gauls’ fairly advanced technology, especially relating to their walls, none of this is present in Druids, which instead shows the Gauls as technologically impaired, possibly to make their chances of winning seem even lower. With these blatant misrepresentations of equipment and technology, the film is quite clearly one of the least historically accurate films depicting the conquests of the ancient Romans.

Overall, Druids can only be described as being an incomprehensibly bad film. It is full of errors and plot holes, the most notable one being when it simply forgets to name one of the major characters, despite the fact that she constantly trains and mentors Vercingetorix. The historical accuracy is subpar at best, as equipment, technology, and characters are constantly misrepresented in the hope of making the action more cinematically friendly. The film contains a perplexing number of errors made by actors that could have been easily fixed by reshoots, but puzzlingly remain in the film. Individually the historical inaccuracies, bizarre mistakes, and incoherent plot could possibly be forgiven, but when added together, they make for a film that can’t decide if it wants to be a serious historical drama or a lowbrow action film. Without a clear vision, the director created a truly awful combination of the two genres. These flaws, in my opinion, show that Druids truly does deserve its title as one of the worst French films ever made. It started with a grand vision, but something went wrong between the film’s conception and release, resulting in a film so bad that it is almost impossible to watch in one sitting.

 

(Header Image: Detail of Statue of Vercingetorix. Aimé Millet (1865). Mt. Auxois, near Alise-Sainte-Reine, France. Photo by Jochen Jahnke via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.)

Bibliography

Druids (aka The Gaul, aka Vercingétorix). Dir. Jacques Dorfmann. Perf. Christopher Lambert, Klaus Maria Brandauer, and Max von Sydow. Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), et al. 2001.

Beardsley, Eleanor. “How Gaul-ing! Celebrating France’s First Resistance Fighter.” NPR.org. Web.

Caesar, Julius and Aulus Hirtius. The Gallic War. trans. Carolyn J.-B. Hammond. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Movie Review: Never Say Never Again.” RogerEbert.com. Web.

Parry, Chris. “Movie Review: Druids.” Efilmcritic.com. 15 Sept. 2002. Efilmcritic.com. Web. 4 May 2016.

 

Hollywood and History is an on-going series featuring the original work of students in the course Ancient Worlds on Film. Papers have been slightly edited for publication.

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