“He’s going where nothing more can be written.”
Druids is the North Americanized title of a France-Canada co-production filmed in Bulgaria and originally called Vercingétorix. The film had but modest success when first released in Europe (where at least its title made sense). It sank without a trace in North America (where even its title made no sense). Columbia TriStar has tried to raise it from the depths on DVD with the help of a good transfer, but the drag of a poor script and mediocre acting is too powerful a counterweight.
The young Vercingétorix sees his father betrayed by the treachery of other Gallic tribal leaders in pre-Christian times. He vows to avenge his father and be a true leader of all the Gallic people against the tyranny of a Roman Empire bent on subjugating all the Celtic peoples. Once grown to adulthood, he uses the advice of a mysterious Druid elder named Guttuart and his own determination to begin uniting the various Gallic tribes. Eventually he manages to be recognized as the king of all Gaul and he sets out to prevent Julius Caesar and his invading army from taking control of Gaul. A succession of battles takes place with early success for Vercingétorix’s forces. Shaken by his early defeats, Caesar engages the aid of the Teutons and a final great battle is joined which will decide the ultimate fate of all Gaul.
Somewhere in all this, there was the kernel of a good idea — produce an epic film on the life of a real-life person who two millennia ago tried to unite an entire territory to do what no other region had been successful in doing — successfully resist coming under the domination of the Roman Empire. The timing would have seemed right. Films with somewhat similar themes or occurring in the same era (like Braveheart and Gladiator) had proved to be very successful. Such a film would offer plenty of opportunity for battle scenes, interesting locations, real historical personages, and the added lure of mystic figures like the Druids. (But with a little sex, said the producer. Yes, with a little sex, said the director.) How could it miss? Well, let me count the ways.
The main problems with Druids lie in the muddled script, particularly the succession of indistinguishable battles, and in the director’s uninspired handling of them. It’s often unclear where a particular battle is taking place and sometimes one battle just seems to merge with another. The participants generally lack passion as though the extras playing them didn’t really have good direction as to what was expected of them. It’s all just a mass of flailing swords and waving shields, with plenty of thrusts of spears into bodies, and lots of falling horses. When a battle is over, it’s even difficult to know who’s won and who’s lost sometimes. Then after an hour and a half or so of this sort of thing, it looked like the director realized things were getting out of hand so he subjects us to some contrived camera work in an attempt to emphasize that he’s in control. We get an artificial montage of Roman troops approaching from the distant hills and then passing as in review while the camera photographs them from various skewed angles and finally from directly overhead in a Busby Berkeley-inspired moment. So impressed was the director with the start of this sequence that he repeats it shortly thereafter except this time with Gallic troops. Perhaps, it’s not surprising that the same man — Jacques Dorfmann — was both director and co-writer for the film. Dorfmann has a reasonable résumé as a producer, but only a couple of films to his credit as a director or writer. Druids is not likely to be a catalyst for adding future credits in these areas.
The cast is headed by Christopher Lambert as Vercingétorix, Klaus Maria Brandauer as Caesar, and Max Von Sydow as Guttuart. Lambert’s acting talents are pretty limited at the best of times. Here, he spends most of the time looking grim, perhaps thinking about the script and wondering why he agreed to participate. Brandauer’s version of Caesar somehow only reminds me of one of the Mario Brothers. He bounces about in and out of danger, but always with a sort of enigmatic smile on his face. Then we have Von Sydow mired in an incomprehensible part as the mysterious Druid adviser sporting white, cowled friar’s garb and spouting such solemn pronouncements as “The greater the magic. The greater the price that must be paid.” None of the supporting cast is memorable enough to rate a mention.
Columbia TriStar is the company saddled with releasing this film on DVD. To its credit, Columbia does a rather good job with its image transfer. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen utilizing 28 chapters. Generally, the image is quite crisp with accurate colour rendition. This shows off the film’s costume design and art direction (two of the film’s few merits) to advantage. A few of the nighttime scenes are a little murky with poorer shadow detail than normal, but overall, this is a nice-looking disc. Edge enhancement is not a significant factor. A pan and scan version is also available on the other side of the disc.
The DVD contains a fine Dolby Digital 5.1 English sound track. Dialogue is clear and action sequences are characterized by generous use of the surrounds and good directional effects. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround track is also included. The disc provides English, Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles.
Supplements consist of an original theatrical trailer and trailers for two other Columbia TriStar releases: Fortress 2: Re-Entry and The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc. Given the film’s inadequacies, I normally wouldn’t quibble with the meagerness of the disc’s supplements, but in this instance, the film would have really benefited from some historical notes and production detail.
Druids is an ambitious film that unfortunately fails on many basic levels. Apparent attention to historical detail in costumes and props can never overcome an inadequate script, lax direction, and indifferent acting. Columbia tries to give the film a boost on DVD with a fine transfer, but it’s not enough. Another fine opportunity to save both purchase and rental money.