There have been lots of Dracula movies over the years, and with the current fad for vampire stuff, it was only a question of time until some studio went back to that particular well. Dracula Untold (2014, dir. Gary Shore) is a mediocre example of a vampire flick. It’s neither especially good nor especially bad. It has a lot of the same problems that recent vampire films like Underworld: Rise of the Lycans have: medieval characters wearing improbably silly armor, sunlight and clouds that come and go largely on the whims of the plot, medieval architecture that makes little sense, and people who spend lots of time running around at night because that makes them vulnerable to vampires (who knew that the Turkish army mostly traveled at night, and—I kid not–blindfolded?). It’s basically a fantasy action film. But it sticks its toe in the waters of history (and generally decides that these waters are too chilly for it), so I felt like I ought to review it here.
Spoiler Alert: I discuss a couple fairly major plot points, so if you want to see this movie, you shouldn’t read further. However, for reasons I’ll explain later, I don’t think you should go see this movie. So I’d encourage you to just keep reading.
The Film’s Vlad Dracula
The film deals with the life of Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans). Vlad was given as tribute to the Ottoman Sultan as a boy. He was trained to fight as a Janissary and served the Sultan so ruthlessly he became known as ‘the Impaler’. Eventually he was made prince of Transylvania, although it’s not clear (at least to me) whether he inherited the position or was given it by the Sultan.
At the start of the film, which is set in the 1440s, a messenger arrives from the Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper, playing a distinctly non-Turkish looking Turk), demanding tribute in silver and 1000 boys to be raised as Janissaries (the film incorrectly depicts this as a practice that was terminated prior to the 1440s, when in fact the Janissaries were an import element in the Turkish military down into the 18th century, and weren’t disbanded until 1826). To save his son from this, Vlad tracks down a vampire and asks for help in defeating Mehmed. The vampire agrees to temporarily turn him into a vampire for three days, warning him that if he drinks human blood during that period, he will become a vampire forever. I think you can already guess where this is going.
The film depicts Vlad as a good ruler, a man who deeply loves his wife and son and who is well-liked by his people. He also, inexplicably, has no army, which is why he needs to seek help from a vampire. He admits to having once impaled thousands of peasants while serving Mehmed, but he is nicer than that now. Later, he returns to his impaling ways after he slaughters a bunch of Turks. But basically he’s a loving family man even after he’s become an inhuman monster. At least he doesn’t sparkle.
The Real Vlad Dracula vs. The Cinematic Vlad Dracula
It’s hard to sort out fact from fiction with the historical Vlad the Impaler, because the best sources for his life were written after his death. There are a number of German pamphlets that describe him as a horrible person, and a number of Russian pamphlets that are pro-Vlad (although they still mention his unsavory habit of impaling people and torturing small animals). And there’s Romanian folk tales about him to add to the confusion; they both revile him for his cruelty and celebrate him from his supposed hostility to German merchants. So there aren’t a lot of good, reliable, unbiased sources out there about him. And I’ll readily admit that Eastern European history isn’t my strong suit. But there’s a fairly clear core of fact we can discuss. So here goes.
Vlad’s father, Vlad II, was the Voivode (Duke) of Wallachia. He was inducted by Emperor Sigismund of the Holy Roman Empire into the Order of the Dragon, a military order created specifically to oppose the Ottoman Empire, which was in the process of pushing up into the Balkans. Because of this Vlad II was known as Vlad Dracul (Romanian for “the dragon”). His son was therefore known as Dracula (“son of the Dragon”).
When he was 13, Vlad and his younger brother Radu were given to Sultan Murad II, not to be raised as Janissaries (since Janissaries were slaves) but rather to serve as hostages for their father’s good behavior. As a result he was raised with the future Mehmet II (this fact the film gets right). Vlad became jealous of the attention his better-looking brother received at court (Radu was nicknamed “the Handsome”).
In 1448, with Turkish support, Vlad succeeded his father as Voivode of Wallachia. He was quickly ousted, but returned to power in 1456. But he soon defied a request for tribute and young boys to serve as Janissaries, probably because paying it would mean acknowledging that Wallachia was part of the Ottoman Empire. So instead, he had the turbans of the Turkish emissaries nailed to their heads. (In Vlad’s defense, he wasn’t the only Eastern European ruler to indulge this sartorial fancy.)
When the Turks invaded, Vlad ambushed a large group of cavalry and defeated them. He ordered them impaled on spikes, with the commander getting the highest spike. In 1462, when Mehmet showed up at Targoviste, he discovered 15-20,000 of his troops impaled on spikes; sickened, he retreated briefly. As a result of this the Turks called him ‘Lord Impaler’. His Romanian nickname Tepes (“the Impaler”) seems to have been bestowed on him in the mid-16th century, and was not a term used at the time.
However, Dracula wasn’t just impaling his Turkish enemies. Vlad seems to have used impaling and other forms of cruelty as a tactic to dominate the boyars of Wallachia (the land-owning aristocracy) and to encourage obedience. The boyars had conspired against Vlad II, so when Dracula came to power, he invited many of them to a feast, impaled those responsible for his father’s death, and enslaved the rest for a construction project. He reportedly impaled the merchants and boyars of the city of Brasov on St. Bartholemew’s Day, 1459.
Various stories circulate about his other cruelties, such as impaling adulterous women, unchaste widows, thieves, and dishonest merchants. Nor was he just into impaling; sometimes he reportedly indulged in other forms of unpleasantness, such as flaying people and cutting off women’s breasts. When his concubine claimed that she was pregnant, he reportedly cut her open to find out the truth. However, given the nature of the sources about Vlad, it’s hard to know how much truth there is behind these stories. It’s clear Vlad Dracula was a pretty nasty guy, but just how nasty is hard to say.
Ultimately though, Mehmet sent in Vlad’s brother Radu, backed with enough troops to exhaust Vlad’s forces. They captured Poenari Castle, his stronghold, which the film inaccurately calls ‘Castle Dracula’. In the film, it’s not surprising this castle gets captured; it’s built in the middle of a plain instead of on a mountain cliff. (In general, the architecture in this film makes little sense, and the first castle we see in the film, when the Turkish emissary comes demanding tribute, would have been a much stronger defensible position to take a stand at. But apparently that didn’t serve the needs of the action scenes very well.) Vlad’s wife reportedly leapt to her death rather than be captured, and Vlad was arrested by the king of Hungary, for reasons that are still unclear.
Some time later, however, the king patched things up with Vlad, let him out of prison, and let him marry his cousin Ilona (not ‘Mirena’ as this movie would have it). He returned to power in 1475, and died late the next year; stories about how he died vary—a Turkish ambush, betrayed by the boyars, or in an accident. He was buried, perhaps at Comana (not at Snagov, as 19th century tradition would have it, or in Naples, as recent crappy scholarship claims).
Also, as a minor note, Vlad Dracula did not kill Mehmet, who died in 1481 of natural causes. At the time of the movie, Mehmet II was in his mid-teens. He was a major figure in Turkish history, so killing him in the 1440s is sort of like killing Elizabeth I in the late 1550s not long after she has started her reign.
So the film is, to say the least, not particularly historical. But it’s a film about how a historical figure became a vampire, so you probably knew that already. It’s a bit perverse to make one of the most infamously cruel figures in history a romantic hero, as others have already pointed out. But I suppose in 600 years, we can look forward to seeing a rom-com about Pol Pot or Josef Stalin, in which our hero has a meet-cute with some dewy ingénue and then has to keep his genocidal schemes from her in order to win her love, with wacky consequences.
It’s also sad that the film decided to omit Vlad’s brother Radu. The two of them seem to have had a powerful rivalry, and making Radu one of the central bad guys would have given the plot more…um…bite. But I suppose we’ll just have to save that for a better movie.
So Why Shouldn’t I Go See It?
The film is not particularly good history, but it’s not historically offensive either, unlike, for example, Braveheart. My objection to it has little to do with my role as a historian. My objection to this film is entirely about my role as a decent human being who thinks women deserve to be treated better in film.
The movie is neither particularly feminist nor anti-feminist for the most part. Mirena (Sarah Gadon) is a generic cinematic wife. She gets one moment of being commanding, but is otherwise just there to give Dracula a motive to do anything to fight the Turks. She and his essentially pointless son are mostly just the triggers for all the manpain modern cinematic heroes are required to experience.
But then, as the film approaches its climax, it suddenly veers into one of the most horrifically misogynistic tropes developed by the video game industry. Mirena falls off a high balcony of a monastery (why did these monks build a pointless balcony over a high cliff and forget to include a railing?) and Dracula is unable to catch her in time. As she lies dying (having been tough enough to actually not die instantly from the long fall), she begs Dracula to kill her by drinking her blood, knowing that this will transform him permanently into a vampire and give him the power to defeat Mehmet. Dracula does as she asks and thereby gains vengeance on Mehmet.
As Anita Sarkesian has pointed out, the trope of the Damsel in Distress begging the hero to kill her has become a common story-telling device in video games. But the ‘Euthanized Damsel’, as she terms this sub-trope, is a deeply misogynistic idea, in which women beg their loved ones to kill them and then thank them for engaging in violence against them. As Sarkesian puts it, “These women are asking for it, quite literally.” Given that Dracula immediately runs off and starts making vampires of his other dying followers, the film never explains why he doesn’t just do the same to Mirena (we can hypothesize that he can’t make other vampires because he hasn’t yet drunk human blood and therefore doesn’t have that ability, but the film never clearly says this), so there is no objective reason why Mirena has to die, except that Vlad’s unhappiness is incomplete without him having to kill his beloved wife. In this particular example, all of Dracula’s immortal unending manpain is due to Mirena begging him to become an evil monster to avenge her and defeat the Turks. So Dracula is just a good guy who gets to suffer an eternity of torment because he loves his wife and kills her just like she asks him to. Some women are just never satisfied.
Here’s the video in which Sarkesian lays out her critique. Give it a watch; it’s disturbing to realize how widespread this trope is in video games. I enjoy video games, and I’ve played my share of them over the years. So I’m not hostile to video games or even video game violence. But I am hostile to the sort of misogyny that Sarkesian is calling out.
So why do I think you shouldn’t go see this film? Because you’d be giving money to a movie that has decided to embrace one of the most disturbingly misogynist tropes in modern storytelling, and in so doing, you’d be rewarding Hollywood for sinking to this level and encouraging the use of this device in more films. Hollywood obsessively reproduces whatever sells, and if this film sells well, it will encourage more Hollywood movies to delve into video game misogyny. There is, of course, already talk of a sequel; the studio seems to be hoping for a franchise. Avoiding this film would be a small gesture, but honestly, this movie isn’t good enough on its merits to justify your money anyway. Wait until it comes to Netflix, and then watch something else instead.
Want to Know More?
Don’t see this movie. Read the book instead; it’s much better. Here’s the Kindle edition of Dracula
Stefan Pascu has written a couple histories of Transylvania, so if you want to learn about the region, you might try his A History of Transylvania. However, I haven’t read it, so I can’t really vouch for it.