Saturday, April 18, 2020

Movie Reviews: Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold
directed by Gary Shore
For centuries the Ottoman Turks conquered large areas of Europe . They were turned back at Vienna twice, in 1529 and 1683. Those experiences, along with others, could explain why so much of European inspired fantasy or historical literature has themes of invasion by swarthy hordes from the East. It could also explain why Europeans have so far vetoed Turkey's membership in the EU.

Before the Turks could invade Hungary and Austria and go toe to toe with the Holy Roman Empire they had to go thru Romania, or more precisely Wallachia. 

Like any small state, Wallachia made the best of a bad situation. Vlad Dracul III, known later as Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, for his preferred method of dealing with enemies, was as a young boy along with his brother Radu, sent to Istanbul as a hostage for his father's (ruler of Wallachia's) good behavior. 

Vlad and Radu were not well treated. They were part of the system of devshirme or blood tax, in which conquered/tributary Christian states were forced to provide thousands of young boys to the Ottomans. 

These boys would be taught Turkish, forcibly converted to Islam and trained as soldiers or state officials. Some boys would also be raped either as punishment or just because some Turk felt like it. Christian boys were also subject to beatings, starvation and imprisonment. All of this happened to Vlad and Radu.

This treatment left Radu with a fear of Turks and a constant desire to please them, but caused the opposite reaction in the older Vlad. That's the history which this movie very obliquely references. 

This film reboots the Dracula origin story. It is also almost a side gig/reunion for some actors and other performers from The Hobbit and Game of Thrones. In this story Vlad is something close to an antihero, not a monster.

Vlad (Luke Evans) is the ruler of Wallachia. He enjoys the love of his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and son (Art Parkinson, Rickon from Game of Thrones). Vlad used to be a soldier for the Ottomans, fighting against the enemies of the Empire but he's all done with that. 

Vlad grew up with the new Sultan (Dominic Cooper). They were like brothers. And somewhat generously the Sultan has decreed that Wallachia can pay its tribute in silver, not boys. 

Good times never last. While reviewing his borders Vlad finds evidence of Turkish incursions. He tracks the scouts to a foul looking cave where something has apparently killed them. This thing (Charles Dance, Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones) kills Vlad's soldiers but lets Vlad go.

At the Easter feast Turkish soldiers and diplomats rudely enter without invitation. Vlad has their money and abruptly orders them to leave. But now the Turks want more than money. 

The Sultan has re-instituted the blood tax. Wallachia must provide 1000 boys in addition to the money. And if Vlad refuses, well he knows the consequences. Desperate, Vlad meets with the Sultan, offering his service as a soldier again, but the Sultan likes the idea of humiliating Vlad. 

An angry Sultan informs Vlad that Vlad's son is now part of the expected tribute. The Sultan will send his people around to pick up the boy. Vlad won't give them any trouble now will he? 

The Sultan would really hate to destroy Wallachia as an object lesson. But he'll do it if Vlad gives him any more lip. Don't Vlad's responsibilities to the people of Wallachia mean more than the sacrifice of his son and the respect and love of his wife? Rulers must make hard decisions for the good of all.  

The way the Sultan sees it Vlad's only choice is to go home, say goodbye to his son and explain to wifey that he's not man enough to provide and protect. But Vlad thinks a man has no choice but to provide and protect. And that means making a deal with that thing in the mountain cave, no matter the cost.

At its best Dracula Untold felt like a classic Hammer movie.  At its worst it felt like bad copies of the Lord of the Rings films. The writers couldn't decide if they wanted an action film, a fantasy movie, a horror movie, a superhero story, a cheesy romance story, or a coming of age fable. So they threw everything against the wall to see what stuck. Not much did. The cinematography and costuming were good. Charles Dance was criminally underused. 

The special effects were intrusive. Ramin Djawadi , who did much of the music for Game of Thrones, provided the music here, something which occasionally gave this movie some heft it did not otherwise deserve.  

This film was rated PG-13. It should have sought an R rating, not for sex (Gadon's cleavage is already prominent) but for violence. The filmmakers should have given the viewer a better idea of Turkish atrocities and Dracula's inventiveness and eagerness to match and exceed Turkish violence to scare off the invaders.

The real life Dracula was someone who, when meeting with Turkish emissaries who refused for religious reasons to remove their turbans in his presence, nodded sagely and then had his soldiers nail the turbans to the emissaries' heads in order that they might be more devoted in their faith. 

The real life Dracula was someone who, upon noticing that a man was covering his nose against the stench of the Turkish soldiers Vlad had impaled, had an extra long stake made. He then impaled that man upon the newly made stake, telling him that he hoped that the great height would prevent the odor of the others from offending his delicate nostrils.

Perhaps Dracula was a mad dog but he was living in a rough neighborhood. He did his best to defend his lands against overwhelming Turkish might. Evans is a good actor but apparently neither he nor the writers were interested in that interpretation. And more's the pity. Overall this film was bland.
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