Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

34. Dracula Untold (2014), dir. Gary Shore

I saw this almost three weeks ago now, and have been wanting to write about it ever since, but life is busy, and this was never going to be a short review. I thought it was great, though. It hasn't been getting the best reviews, apparently, but I haven't been reading them anyway, because I was always going to watch this with a different eye from most critics, so I don't really care what they think. Rather, it was obvious to me from the first trailers I saw that this film was going to do something I have long yearned for in a Dracula movie - make a proper attempt to explain how the historical Vlad III Dracula might have become a vampire, and do it by using something very much like the Scholomance mythos (in brief, an underground Devil's school which is part of Romanian folk-legend, is exactly where Bram Stoker says Dracula got his dark powers from, and may ultimately derive from genuine ancient pagan religious practices).

I am fundamentally positively disposed towards the idea that the Dracula of vampire legend should have begun his life as the historical Voievod. It really enriches almost any Dracula story for me to have that wealth of back-story sitting behind the character (whether or not Stoker himself used the historical figure as anything much more than a bit of vague window-dressing). I also like the idea of vampirism having its roots in ancient paganism, which the Scholomance legend can evoke without needing to be explicit about it, and which is toyed with in Hammer's Brides of Dracula. So I went into this film already loving it for even having attempted to bring all that to life on screen. And I came out feeling that even if it hadn't been the perfect movie, or told the story in quite the way I have sketched out in my own head during idle moments, it is still probably the best shot the modern-day film industry will ever take at stitching together the two.

Of course, because I'm a historian, my perfect Dracula-the-vampire origin story would respect what we actually know of the historical Dracula to the letter - but no-one else would want to go and see that film, because it would be dry, dull and dramatically unsatisfying. Meanwhile, the word is that Universal were basically using the film to fly the kite for a reboot of their 'monsters' back-catalogue in the form of a superhero-style multi-verse. So what they needed to do was to turn the historical Dracula into a classic 'troubled hero' type figure. Their take is that he was so determined to protect both his country and his family against impossible odds that he accepted the power of vampirism in full knowledge of its potential dangers, and as a result achieved what he wanted for others, but paid a terrible personal price. This adds up to a fine dramatic arc, and leaves them at the end of the film with a sympathetic superhero figure with a dark past - just what they needed! But history does get pretty distorted in the process.

As it happens, I've just finished reading a Proper Academic Book about the historical Dracula (to be reviewed in its own right shortly), so I am in a very good position indeed to spot the historical inaccuracies in this film. Here are some of them - and the reasons why Universal apparently introduced them:
  • Early on in the film, members of Dracula's court congratulate him for the "ten years of peace and prosperity" which they have enjoyed as a result of his reign. Excuse me while I choke to death with laughter... Bear with, bear with... bear withhhh... OK, I'm done. Um, no. Wallachia was in total chaos throughout the entirety of the historical Dracula's lifetime, partly because it was a buffer between the two larger powers of the Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and partly because its own internal politics were brutal and messy. Dracula never even managed to rule for ten whole years in a row, let alone ten peaceful ones. The main action of this film is evidently set in 1462, when he had his main confrontation with the Ottomans, but prior to that he had spent most of 1456-1460 involved in on-off conflicts with the Hungarians and the cities of southern Transylvania which were under their protection, several of which were about economic protectionism. Definitely not peace, then, and almost certainly not prosperity either. But obviously none of that would work in a film which needs its central character to be a Great Leader faced with a Terrible Dilemma.
  • Moments later, Ottoman soldiers arrive to claim 1000 boys, including Dracula's son, to become janissaries in their army. There's no evidence that the Ottoman empire expected any such tribute from Wallachia in this period - and by contrast there is plentiful evidence that they expected a monetary tribute, so if boys were claimed as well, we can be sure it would be mentioned in the same sources. Besides, it is straight-up political lunacy to march into a neighbouring country, no matter how powerful you are and how humble they are, and arbitrarily kidnap the ruler's son. The historical Ottomans did no such thing, and wouldn't have dreamt of it. Here, though, they do, because of course the entire set-up of the story demands that they should be the aggressors, and Dracula the Noble Wronged Father. This, in fact, is the catalyst for the open war-fare between the two sides which then provides the setting for the rest of the story, and the need for Dracula's vampire powers. For dramatic purposes, he absolutely has to be forced unfairly into this situation - and so it goes.
  • Once equipped with his vampire powers (including super-senses and the ability to control weather, control bats, and turn into a swirling cloud of killer bats himself), the war with the invading Ottoman forces goes pretty well for Dracula. Of course, there are set-backs and tragic deaths along the way, but he basically wins and kicks them out. Indeed, everything culminates in a dramatic man-to-man duel between himself and Sultan Mehmed II, which results in the latter's death. Back in the world of reality, Dracula's defence of Wallachia against the invading Ottoman forces was a qualified success at best, while Mehmed II lived on for another two decades after the event. We are well beyond mere historical 'inaccuracy' here, and into the land of sheer fantasy - on a par with the decision in HBO's Rome to have Octavian's mother, Atia, live on for (at least) 14 years after the date of her historical death. But HBO did that for the good dramatic reason that they needed a Livia-figure to drive their stories, and Universal let Dracula kill off Mehmed because they needed to show that the sacrifices which he had made in taking up vampirism had been worthwhile.
  • Film!Dracula then disappears from human society shortly after the victory, because of course he is a vampire and can hardly carry on ruling Wallachia in the normal way any more. In fact, he basically commits suicide by choosing to expose himself and his vampire hordes to the sunlight (except that we then see him being brought back to life by a loyal disciple, in classic Hammer style). But after his defeat by the invading Ottomans, real!Dracula was arrested by the Hungarians, kept prisoner for several years, got married, had (at least) two more children, briefly reclaimed his throne and was then finally killed 14 years later. Those don't sound like the actions of a vampire to me, especially the getting married and having children bits (Twilight notwithstanding). Obviously, though, that makes for a messy and unsatisfactory narrative, when there has already been such a clear climax to Dracula's narrative arc in the confrontation with the Ottoman army - so in a film, it's gotta go.
  • Finally, film!Dracula is directly succeeded by his apparently-about-ten-year-old son. In reality, after rousting the historical Dracula, the Ottomans placed his brother and their loyal ally, Radu cel Frumos, on the throne in his place. Dracula's oldest son (the only one who was born before 1462) did eventually make it to the throne of Wallachia, but not until 1508. But again this is all part of Universal needing to show Dracula's decision to turn to vampirism as a worthwhile if terrible sacrifice.

Not super-accurate, then, in short. But my list is not meant as a stick to beat the film with. As I've shown, all of its deviations from the historical record (as we know it) have an obvious dramatic justification in terms of the story it wanted to tell. And in any case, this isn't a historical drama. It is a superhero / vampire movie. Having gone into the cinema to watch a film about the historical Vlad III Dracula turning into a vampire, it would be pretty churlish to then insist that everything else about the film should be entirely historically accurate (much as I, personally, would pay big money to see that film nevertheless). Meanwhile, for all that individual events are obviously distorted, embellished or entirely invented, I actually think that overall, the feel of Dracula's reign was captured pretty effectively. My guess is that someone did some pretty careful historical research during the early stages of this film's development, and that although quite a lot of what they found out was later laid aside for dramatic reasons, much of it survived to inform the outlines and atmosphere of the story.

Certainly, the basic situation of Dracula as a warlord in a small, geographically-remote country, vastly out-resourced by a neighbouring imperial power, is pretty effectively conveyed. The outlines of his conflict with the Ottomans are roughly right, too, even if the outcome of the final confrontation with Mehmed II is bobbins. And the landscape through which the action unfolds feels plausible too - the castles, the forests, the monasteries - even if the details aren't precise. OK, so it's all a bit Game of Thrones-ified (directly in the casting of Art Parkinson as Dracula's son and the location filming in Northern Ireland, and indirectly in the feasts, drapery and Dracula's improbably-blonde wife), but again, this is a fantasy film, and as such jolly well should be in dialogue with other productions in the same genre. Also, the special effects employed when Dracula used his vampire powers to control the weather and lay the smack down on the Ottoman army with his cloud of bats almost made me wonder if they'd been developed on the basis of some of the descriptions of those very same battles from the Ottoman primary sources. This is the sort of passage I'm thinking of:
Being told about the defeat of his army which he had sent to prevent the Moldavians' attack, [Vlad] Țepeș found nothing better to do than to attack the mighty Sultan. On a dark night, his heart full of wickedness and accompanied by his Infidel army, he flew like a black cloud towards the army of the wise Sultan, attacking him... At midnight the army of Wallachia started like a torrent towards the Imperial camp and made their way on horse into the middle of the triumphant army. The Turkish soldiers thrust their fiery swords deep into their black hearts. The heaps of corpses which poisoned the earth were so high that the victims of the slaughter could be easily seen even on such a dark night. [Source: Appendix II.E, Treptow 2000]
OK, so in the film the heaps of corpses are Ottoman, rather than Wallachian, but if you've seen it I think you'll recognise the sorts of scenes which are being described here.

There is an obvious political problem with telling the story of Dracula's historical conflicts with the Ottoman empire in a 21st-century context, though. It is essentially an east vs. west narrative, and if your superhero origin story requires you to cast Dracula as the hero, that means the Ottomans - i.e. a bunch of Muslims - are going to appear in the role of the enemy. Some of the problems with the way the Ottomans are portrayed in the film are outlined in this New Statesman article, although I'm afraid the article as a whole really annoyed me, because it perpetrates massive historical inaccuracies about Dracula even while complaining about the film's inaccuracies regarding the Ottomans. (For the record, the Ottomans did not attack Wallachia to 'quell' Dracula's 'blood-thirst', but because he had stopped paying tribute to them, and nor did the Hungarians arrest him because they had 'had enough of his grizzly antics' either, but for their own reasons of political expediency.) The issue is definitely there, though. I don't think it's quite as bad as the similar set-up in 300, where the Persians were literally portrayed as inhuman monsters, but it's true that the Ottoman characters in Dracula Untold are portrayed as aggressive, arrogant, amoral, authoritarian and materialistic, in contrast to the brave, honourable, individually-developed and impoverished Wallachians (or Transylvanians, as the film has it). Some of the dialogue also reflects very contemporary-sounding prejudices. In one scene, two Wallachians / Transylvanians approach the Ottoman camp, and say something along the lines of "Have you ever seen anything like it?" "Soon everyone will be Turks". I could really have done without that - and, rather sadly, I don't think I can really conceive of a world in which an American-made east vs. west film would ever be made without at least some of it.

But so far I've talked about this largely as though it were a historical drama, and it is not. On the supernatural side of things, I've already said how thrilled I was to see that the film-makers had decided to have Dracula become a vampire thanks to an encounter with a devilish creature in a cave - i.e. something very much in line with the Scholomance mythos. Apparently, in earlier drafts of the script, this character, who is played by Charles Dance, was explicitly presented as the Roman emperor Caligula, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense. Certainly, as filmed, the character is portrayed as power-hungry, eaten away with corruption, and keen to become master of his own deadly set of supernatural games. (His last line, "Let the games begin", seems to suggest that he has only just got started on an elaborate master-plan, presumably to be unveiled across a series of further films.) All of that matches up well enough with Caligula, but seems to have been ironed out during production into a more generic back-story, in which Dance's character is simply an ancient magician, rather than any specific individual. And honestly, although the prospect of a film about Dracula which also had a Roman emperor in it would have been Really Quite Exciting, I think that was the right choice. The original conception would have distracted from and complicated the main story, while the more generic version allows room for him to be whomsoever the viewer might choose - including Zalmoxis if you like it that way (which I do!).

Anyway, Dance is absolutely fantastic in that role, bringing to it every ounce of the great British villain tradition in a manner which Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes or indeed Christopher Lee could be proud of. Indeed, most of the cast were pretty impressive, although some of the characters which they were playing could have done with being developed better by the script. After Bram Stoker's Dracula, I think there is a whole generation of film-goers who react viscerally against the idea of any story-line involving Dracula's love for his wife surviving over the centuries and being rekindled by her reincarnation, which unfortunately does happen at the end of this film, but if you can bring yourself to give that a pass I think it was quite effective to include his wife in the story, so that we could see the impact of the changes which he undergoes on that very personal relationship. She is the first one to realise that something very bizarre has happened to her husband, to try to help him cover it up, and eventually (of course!) to suffer for it, while he has to grapple with and try to resist the intense urge to drink her blood. And although she obviously has to act within the framework of an essentially medieval society, she is clearly delineated as strong and capable character - again in quite a Game of Thrones-ish sort of way.

Meanwhile, the overall look of the film, and especially the clouds of killer bats, was just great, and I particularly loved the spectacle of hordes of properly ghoulish-looking vampires stalking through the battle-fields towards the end of the film, helping Vlad to wreak hideous vengeance on his enemies. If you think you might like it, those visuals alone make it worth catching in the cinema, rather than waiting for the DVD. And thankfully, I've just about managed to get this review up while you still have time for that.

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Tags: dracula, fantasy, films, films watched 2014, historical characters, history, horror films, reviews, vampires

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