Barbarossa – Siege Lord

cast: Rutger Hauer, Raz Degan, F. Murray Abraham, Christo Jivkov, and Antonio Cupo

director: Renzo Martinelli

123 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Ian Sales

Barbarossa – Siege Lord

Back in the 1960s, Italy produced a series of films featuring Hercules, in which he battled all manner of people and creatures, from the Tyrants of Babylon to the Moon Men. Clearly, there was nothing historically accurate about these swords and sandals epics. In fact, they had very little to recommend them. The title role was usually taken by someone better known as a body-builder, the plots frequently made no sense, and the special effects plainly cost no more than a handful of lira. In a roundabout sort of way, this brings us to Barbarossa – Siege Lord which, despite possessing a title better-suited to a game for a PS2, is an Italian-Romanian co-production, historically accurate for the most part, and expensive.

Rutger Hauer plays the title role, the holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (1122 – 1190 CE). During Barbarossa’s third campaign in Italy in 1162, his army captured the rebellious city of Milan and razed it to the ground. A group of Milanese nobles who had escaped joined up with others from northern Italian cities sympathetic to their cause, and formed both the Lombard League and the ‘company of death’. The latter, a cavalry unit of 900 horsemen later went off to prove instrumental in Barbarossa’s defeat at the Battle of Legnano in 1176.

Barbarossa – Siege Lord opens with a young boy saving Barbarossa’s life from a wild boar while the latter is on a hunt. Years later, the boy has grown into Alberto da Guissano (Raz Degan), the man who founds the company of death, and who, despite saving the emperor’s life all those years ago, is now determined to kill him. Rebellion, however, especially when several cities, each with a different agenda, are involved, is a complicated business.

There is something in Barbarossa – Siege Lord which calls to mind Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven – Perhaps it’s the battle scenes, which are well-staged. Unfortunately, little else in the movie does. The film is glossy and colourful, but getting across such a complex sequence of events in two hours is clearly beyond the powers of the filmmakers. This is the sweep of history and it does not always obey the rules of narrative. There are lots of scenes in Barbarossa – Siege Lord in which the cast stand around and declaim about the current political situation – usually framed as complaints about Barbarossa and his policies. There are scenes, such as Barbarossa’s marriage, which did indeed take place within the years the film covers, but add nothing to the story of Milan and the company of death.

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Not helping matters is the fact that the dialogue throughout is looped, most likely because the foreign actors’ voices were re-dubbed by an English-speaking voice cast. It adds an air of Hyperborean unreality to the proceedings, as if Barbarossa himself were some fantasy-land ‘dark lord’ and not the holy Roman emperor of history. Further, the volume of voices appears to have been flattened. In one speech, da Guissano goes from whisper to bellow… and yet his voice remains at exactly the same volume.

In other respects, Barbarossa – Siege Lord evokes its period well. The sets look convincingly historical; the costumes appear fitting for the time. The cast are perhaps a little too clean and clean-cut to really convince – and even the ‘ugly’ female character looks like an MTV vee-jay – but that’s a cinematic convention and so it’s forgivable.

Hauer appears to sleepwalk through his part. F. Murray Abraham oozes evil and plays Siniscalco Barozzi as a one-note scenery-chewer. The remainder look pretty and strike suitably heroic poses, but it all seems lacking in verisimilitude. The pacing is way off for much of the film, with the plot getting bogged down in endless discussions, often repeating obvious plot points for an audience that could probably figure it out for themselves. The battle scenes, though not boasting a cast of thousands, are impressively done, with plenty of blood and gore. There is apparently a 200-minute cut, which is the original version released in Italy, and a 138-minute ‘international cut’. Given the uneven pacing of this 123-minute cut, I can only express relief it’s the one being released in the UK.

Barbarossa – Siege Lord is a film to watch with a beer in one hand and the remote control in the other. Fast-forward through the boring bits – you won’t miss enough of the story to make much difference. And if you get to the end quickly enough, you’ll still have enough time left in the evening to watch a good historical film, like La Reine Margot…