Monday, 25 October 2021

Sign of the Pagan: Sirk, feminism and tyranny

When one thinks of Douglas Sirk, the German-born film director who fled Nazi Germany for the USA in 1937, it is usually his 1940s film noirs – Lured; Sleep, My Love; Shockproof – and even more so his 1950s melodramas – Magnificent Obsession; All that Heaven Allows; Imitation of Life; The Tarnished Angels, dismissed at the time as ‘women’s films’ but, to  more discerning critics, hailed as masterpieces for their dissection of American bourgeois life and studies of female and racial hypocrisy and repression – we have in mind.

It’s strange, therefore, to see Sirk's name associated with a film like Sign of the Pagan, a sword and sandal epic that purports to tell the story of the threat to the divided Roman empire – with the Western part led by Valentinian III in Rome and the Eastern part by Theodosius II in Constantinople – posed by the barbarian Mongol hordes of Attila the Hun.

The film takes the line that both these competing emperors are too self-absorbed, caught up in petty palace politics and the luxuries and fripperies of being emperor, to recognise the dangers the barbarian warlord poses to the existence of civilisation.

Civilisation in this case is identified in the film as Christianity, which has by now – the mid-5th century – been established as the state religion in both parts of the empire, but is reviled by Attila for its message of peace and love.

The film also posits that if Valentinian and Theodosius are too weak and short-sighted to confront the dangers of Attila, then the more robust Markianos, the stout Roman soldier, has the answers.

Markianos’ commitment to fighting Attila and devotion to a pacifist religion confuses Attila, who begins to doubt his venture to conquer the Roman world and destroy Christianity. Prophecies of his own doom also unbalance his mind.

And it is perhaps Attila’s descent into madness, which is of Shakespearean proportions, that provides us with Sirk’s interest in the story. We also note that Attila’s ultimate betrayal and killing are carried out by two women – it is his brow beaten daughter Kubra that betrays her father to the Roman enemy and it is the Huns’ brutalised concubine, Ildico – and not Markianos, as you’d expect – who delivers the final blow of the knife that ends the life of the savage tyrant. The fact that it is women who are given the role and satisfaction of bringing down tyranny perhaps points us to Sirk’s overtly feminist films to be made in the near future and alerts us to his interest in making this otherwise uninspiring historical drama.