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Barbarian with heart

Category: Attila Reviews
Article Date: January 28, 2001 | Publication: The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) | Author: Renee Peck; TV Focus Editor

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Leave it to television to give us a kinder, gentler Attila the Hun.

In USA network's four-hour miniseries "Attila," airing Tuesday and Wednesday, the fifth-century Barbarian known as "the Scourge of God" emerges as a thoughtful, even humane ruler with a weakness for redheads. And, while "Attila's" producers stay within the mainframe of the Hun leader's recorded history, they don't let the facts stand in the way of a good story. The result: a rollicking tale of lust and power long on both entertainment and historical speculation.

Attila the Hun, for those who need reminding, was a great Barbarian ruler who attacked the declining Roman Empire and united many of the Barbarian tribes throughout present-day Europe along the way.

The real Attila ruled the Huns jointly with his older brother Bleda through much of the time period chronicled in the miniseries, roughly 434 to 451 A.D. He actually murdered Bleda about 445, though the miniseries has the two fighting to the death early on, after Attila accuses Bleda of murdering their uncle to become king, a plot device that didn't turn up in any of my reading. Nor did the circumstances surrounding Attila's TV death; without giving anything away, the real king drowned in his own blood from a nosebleed following a little too-hearty celebration at his wedding feast.

The real Attila, according to the "Encyclopedia Britannica," was irritable, blustering, truculent and capable of great cruelty. Historical sources have credited him with every horror from rape and pillage to cannibalism (including eating two of his sons), though the encyclopedia does admit that he was "by no means pitiless." As described by the Roman Priscus, who met him, Attila was "a short, squat man with a large head, deep-set eyes, flat nose and a thin beard."

But that, of course, wouldn't make for good TV. Cable's Attila (Gerard Butler) looks more like Fabio: an overabundance of thick dark locks, piercing gray eyes, bulging biceps, lots of white teeth and a way with the ladies. His great nemesis, in both fact and this particular fiction, was the Roman commander Aetius, whose life was committed to destroying the Huns and saving Rome from the Barbarians.

Onscreen, they engage in a friendship that deepens into enmity, a relationship that, again, hasn't turned up anywhere in my history books.

But "Attila," like most miniseries, is far more interested in the human condition than in mere events. The bare bones of history's battles are fleshed out with enough greed, love, revenge, despair and intrigue to keep several centuries worth of battles going. The action moves from Barbarian camps to the Colisseum, from prophecy and strange visions to Roman orgies. Sex and death, love and violence hold sway in this fifth-century plotting for the edification of 21st-century audiences.

Butler delivers a sturdy, likable Attila, though not one to strike terror into any viewer's heart. As Aetius, Powers Booth coolly balances integrity and guile in a multi-faceted character that elicits both admiration and dislike. Simmone Jade MacKinnon doubles as the two slave women who prove to be Attila's downfall.

Like more and more cable "big events" these days, "Attila" is handsome and faithful to the period, with its hordes of Huns, marching Legions and re-creation of Rome.

"Who are the good guys?" my 11-year-old asked, strolling through the living room to catch a glimpse of the Huns and the Romans fighting over Gaul.

It's to "Attila's" credit that I couldn't come up with one. History, unlike popular film and fiction, often has no obvious good versus evil. It's made up simply of men and women battling for power or happiness, position or mere survival.

And that, "Attila" captures.

Copyright 2001 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company


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