Ancient Rome, Battle of Mutina, Empire, Mark Antony, Military Stuff, Movies I Hate, Octavian/Augustus, Roman Republic, Santiago Cabrera, Vincent Regan
I hate Empire with a surprising passion. I want nothing better than to forget the 6 hours I spent watching it, but somehow I just can’t seem to stop writing about this turd, sort of the way I couldn’t stop picking at a wart that I once had on my right hand, even though picking at it hurt in a bad way. The worst thing ever filmed about ancient Rome culminates in the Battle of Mutina, a very odd choice, but no odder than the other shit that gets dropped into this film.
The Battle of Mutina
Historically, the Battle of Mutina was a fairly minor conflict, usually barely even mentioned in modern histories of the Late Republic. In 43 BC, the negotiations between the Senate and Mark Antony broke down. Antony insisted on being given a 5-year governorship in Gaul, the way Caesar had before him. Gaul was close enough that Antony could swoop down into Italy if he disliked what was happening in Rome. But the post had already been given to Decimus Junius Brutus, one of Caesar’s assassins. So Antony laid siege to Decimus in Mutina (modern Modena). The two consuls, Pansa and Hirtius, and Octavian all hurried north with forces to break the siege. Antony’s army ran into Pansa’s forces and routed them, mortally wounding Pansa in the process, but then retreated as Hirtius’ troops showed up.
The two sides clashed again somewhere outside Mutina. The battle doesn’t seem to be well-enough documented to enable a full reconstruction of it, but it went poorly for Antony. Hirtius’ forces were able to attack Antony’s camp, but Hirtius was killed in the assault. Octavian performed well in the battle; when the standard-bearer was killed, Octavian took it up and carried it for an extended period. After the battle, the Republic was now without consuls. Decimus tried to take control of the troops, but Octavian refused to surrender control over them. So Decimus tried to flee to Macedonia where Brutus and Cassius were gathering troops, but he was caught and executed. Mutina helped establish Octavian as a major leader, despite being only 19, and created the conditions that forced Antony to make common cause with him against the Liberators. But it wasn’t the end of the struggle between Antony and Octavian by a long shot, since Octavian only finally defeated Antony at Actium in 31 BC, 12 years later.
Empire’s Version of Mutina
I was saddened to discover that instead of shelling out a couple of bucks for the DVD of this wretched miniseries, I could have just watched it on Youtube. But it does mean that you can have the pleasure of watching this shitty battle scene for yourself.
The set-up for the battle is all wrong. Pansa and Hirtius are nowhere around, having already been executed by Mark Antony (Vincent Regan), and poor Decimus isn’t even a character in the story. Instead, Antony has become a vicious tyrant in Rome and Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) has run off to Gaul and found Julius Caesar’s legendary 3rd Legion sitting around in Gaul for the past two decades. He’s persuaded them to fight. But they’re (of course) badly outnumbered; they’re just the remnant of the 3rd Legion and 20 years older than before, while Antony has six legions. (But don’t worry; being outnumbered never has any impact on the battle whatsoever.) Antony is accompanied by General Rapax (Graham McTavish) and Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), while Octavius has Marcus Agrippa (Chris Egan) with him. None of that makes any sense whatsoever, but you shouldn’t be surprised by that at this point.
The clip opens with Antony and Rapax on horseback. Rapax is so bad a bad guy that they’ve given him black armor, while Antony is proving he’s a bad guy by ordering Rapax to kill people during a battle. Antony’s armor has at least a vague resemblance to what actual Roman soldiers wore in this period (although he’s not wearing a helmet), while Rapax’s armor is just silly. But it’s positively museum-grade compared to the nonsense that Octavius and his forces are wearing, which is just a mishmash of generic crap armor.
The battle takes place in a forest. While we don’t really know much about the topography of the real battle, it’s pretty damn unlikely it was fought in a forest, because forests are lousy places to fight pitched battles. The trees and uneven terrain make keeping a solid formation nearly impossible, and loss of formation was typically deadly to Roman troops. Since both sides are Roman soldiers, they ought to be drawn up in very tight ranks, shoulder to shoulder, with multiple ranks standing behind the front line. The men on both sides ought to be carrying scuti, curved rectangular shields that cover much of the body, and gladii, short swords. Some of Antony’s troops are equipped roughly the way they ought to be, but are not in proper formation. Octavius’ troops, however, are just milling around in disorganized clumps, and are carrying anachronistic small round shields.
Antony’s forces come running through the trees in a disorganized mess, some of them on horseback. In this period, cavalry was usually kept on the wings of the army, used to make flanking attacks and to prevent the opponent from maneuvering on the field. Octavian responds by ordering his men to do an all-out charge (when in reality Roman advances were done at a slow run so as not to lose formation). Octavius’ archers then begin firing into the melee, presumably killing and wounding men on both sides. So we’ve established that no one involved in the production of this miniseries knew a damn thing about Roman warfare, or in fact warfare at all.
The battle is depicted as having no formation or structure at all, with individual pairs of combatants scattered around the battlefield, and troops from both sides coming in from both sides of the screen. After killing someone, the surviving combatant then looks around for another person to attack. So each man is fighting without any support from his fellow soldiers, and can easily be attacked from behind. Antony fights from horseback with a gladius, a really dumb thing to do, because on horseback a gladius isn’t long enough to reach foot soldiers. None of the principle characters wear helmets, obviously because the viewer has to be able to identify them. Normally I can accept that convention, but here, surrounded by so much egregious stupidity, it just looks moronic.
Then at the 1:47 mark, Agrippa tells Octavius “they’re rolling over us.” Octavius’ response is to shout “hold the line!” This is stupid for two reasons. 1) It amounts to shouting “fight harder!”, which probably isn’t helpful battlefield advice to beleaguered troops, who are probably fighting as hard as they can not to die. 2) More importantly, THERE ISN’T A LINE TO HOLD, YOU IDIOT! YOU SENT THEM INTO BATTLE WITH NO FORMATION! ‘Hold the line’ means ‘keep in formation.’
Then Tyrannus, using his patented Badass Two-Gladius Fighting technique kills someone who says “Hail, Caesar,” like that means something, and Tyrannus realizes he’s fighting on the wrong side and decides to start killing Antony’s men, and his soldiers decide to switch sides too, becauase they’re none too keen to be fighting under a general named Rapax, I guess, because when you work for someone whose name is the ancient equivalent of Johnny McPsychopathicKiller, you probably start of suspect he’s a bad guy and you might be on the wrong side.
Rapax is just about to kill Agrippa when Tyrannus distracts Rapax by throwing one of his swords at him. In general, while throwing swords looks cool in movies, disarming yourself is a really dumb thing to do when you’re surrounded by guys who want to kill you. Then Tyrannus says “we who are about to die, salute you,” as he kills Rapax, because that sounds really cool and sort of clever if you don’t bother to think about it at all.
Then Antony meets Octavius and they fight. Despite the fact that Antony is obviously a much better fighter than Octavius, Octavius disarms him and forces him to surrender, but chooses to be merciful and not kill Antony. Historically, it’s correct that Antony survived the battle, because, as I explained last time, the two of them created an alliance and ruled the Empire jointly for several years before having their final falling out and fighting and Octavian winning and Antony committing suicide. But the miniseries presents Mutina as the end of the whole conflict, and suggests that Octavian became ‘Caesar’, by which it means emperor, in 44 BC, rather than in 31 BC. So not killing the deranged guy who’s gone on a murder spree looks pretty dimwitted because what’s to stop him from throwing more orgies and trying to kill you with asps again? Still, the thought that they might have tried to cover the next 12 years of history and add a couple extra hours to this shitstain of a miniseries makes me glad that everyone involved just threw up their hands and called it quits after Mutina.
I feel like a need an exorcism to get this thing out of my head.
This set of reviews was paid for by Victor, who
viciously generously donated to my Paypal account and asked me to review Empire. So, umm, thanks, Victor. I think. If you want me to review a movie or show, please make a donation to my account and tell me what you’d like me to review, but please, make it something a little better than Empire, because I don’t know if I can handle another one like that. Assuming I can get access to the film or series, I’ll do a review.
Andrew, as a lover of history, I find your reviews both entertaining and informative. I also often catch historical errors in movies, but never in the number and depth of understanding that you do. And there is often no more teachable moment than an abject failure — and presented in the right spirit, it can be a very entertaining one at that. Harry and Michael Medved, for instance, wrote a series of books scornfully reviewing some of the worst movies ever made. I enjoy and appreciate your work on this blog, as well as your sacrifice sitting through long stretches of bad history like “Empire.” Thanks.
I can often find something to like even in a bad movie. Ironclad: Battle for Blood had a couple interesting bits amidst the mess. But the Scottish movie has a moment I like. But not Empire. I hated it from start to finish. At one point, I thought, “Oh, God, I have another two hours of this to get through.”
“Vincent Regan makes a habit of appearing in things I violently dislike”
This caption briefly made me think you hated cloaks with somewhat inexplicable straps (or possible that particular shade of red), but I quickly realized that you meant the mini-series.
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