Attila Rides (Roughshod) Again

Category: Attila Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: January 28, 2001 | Publication: Daily News (New York) | Author: ALISSA MACMILLAN
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Hero or villain - depending on which side tells the story - there is no question Attila the Hun changed the history of the world.

It was the fifth century, and the Roman Empire was struggling for survival when a band of nomadic Huns stormed from the East, ending Rome's reign. Leading the army of barbarians was Attila, a passionate warrior who was viewed by Rome as a ruthless savage.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the USA Network airs a two-part movie of his life, filmed in the epic style many believe his story has long deserved.

"We only know what people write down," says screenwriter Robert Cochran. History books depict Attila as a virtual anti-Christ who pillaged, plundered and murdered. But the Romans wrote the history books.

"To the Romans, he seemed like the bad guy. From a historical perspective [the Huns] did bad things, but if you look at the Romans, they're a country that conquered the world by slaughtering everyone that got in the way," says Cochran.

Cochran should know: He's a self-proclaimed history buff who was thrilled when he heard about the Attila project. In school, he had written a paper about the Battle of Chalons, the turning point in the war between the Huns and Romans, which became the climax of the film.

Not much is recorded about the conflict, but from his extensive research, Cochran was able to base his screenplay on these established facts: Attila was once a good friend of the Roman general Flavius Aetius (played by Powers Boothe), and the Huns and Romans were even allies at one time. When Attila led the Huns, there was a sense that Rome was on the decline while the Huns were on the rise. And the Battle of Chalons was absolutely factual.

But, he admits, we know very little about Attila's love life, except that he had a harem of a couple of hundred wives (Simmone Jade MacKinnon plays two of them).

Historians do know that the Huns virtually lived on horses. "They had a level of horsemanship nobody in the civilized world dreamed of," says Cochran.

Michael Joyce, the co-executive producer, adds: "They did whatever they could to make themselves terrible and terrifying to their opponent."

Interestingly, scholars think Attila may have been short and deformed. "He was an ugly, squat guy," Joyce claims.

In casting the lead role, USA went in the opposite direction, choosing Gerard Butler, a stunning, strapping Scotsman.

"They told me they were looking for someone fierce, intelligent, good-looking, charismatic. And I thought, 'How the hell am I going to do this?!'" exclaims Butler. But Cochran points out that he needed to be able to act borderline crazy yet have a charming way with women.

Butler always dreamed of being in an epic-style movie and quickly fell into the time, place and personality of Attila.

"I have a lot of love for the guy," says Butler. "He's been painted very negatively through time. ... He's known as a demonic, crazy figure, but there's a lot more to the man."

In getting to know Attila's world, the entire crew was taken back in time: Sets in Lithuania transformed the area into a scene from the past."We truly were transported to the fifth century, to another time, another place, another planet," says Butler.

The film makers realized that "Attila" was not so much about the man but about the rise and fall of nations.

"It's a drama about a civilization trying to hang on and a new, young civilization, and how they clashed," says Cochran.

Butler agrees that the film is about something bigger than Attila's story - and is not as simple as good versus evil.

"Romans are not necessarily guilt-free; these were violent times," says Butler, citing one difference. "The Huns smashed you on the head with a club, not stabbed you in the back like the Romans."

Joyce sees eerie parallels between themes in the film and those found in today's world. Huns and Romans? Think Microsoft and Apple, says Joyce.

"Change the names, and you've got the same thing today," he says. "History repeats itself continually, no matter what era it is."

Fifteen hundred years may have elapsed, but "the basic human drives are the same: ambition, power, love, how you relate to society, loyalty to friend versus loyalty to country, those emotional dilemmas and aspects are always present," says Cochran.

After communing with Attila, Butler knows this to be true: "He wasn't necessarily a great guy or the devil, but he was extreme."

In other words, Attila, your average corporate raider trying to take over Rome, Inc.

"Attila," Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on USA

Copyright 2001 Daily News, L.P.