*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The UK rental release of this film is titled 'Dark Prince: The Legend
of Dracula', rather than 'The True Story of', thereby leaving fewer
hostages to fortune re: its accuracy or otherwise, and placing it
firmly in the realm of folk-tradition. I was initially perturbed by the
blurb on the case, which described it as 'Braveheart meets Interview
with the Vampire' - conjuring some truly nightmarish but hilarious
visions of an Undead Mel Gibson running around Romania in a kilt, in
pursuit of Tom Cruise... However, it is an old-style swashbuckling
drama about the 15C Romanian warlord Vlad Dracula (which means 'son of
(the Knight of) the Dragon'), also known as 'Tepes', or 'Impaler'. It
has some interesting religious-political currents, and a (too) handsome
'Dark Prince' was made for US TV, not the cinema, so is cursed by a fairly low budget (no massive armies tramping around the countryside or large-scale battles). However, it does reasonably well within its constraints, helped by the use of location filming in Romania and a largely Romanian supporting cast, with just a handful of foreign leads. These include the dashing German actor Rudolf Martin as Vlad, and British actors Jane March and Roger Daltrey (yes, of 'The Who'!) as Lidia and King Janos. Given the 30 year time-span of the story, Janos aged more convincingly than some of the other characters, perhaps because he wasn't exactly young to start with. I had hitherto only seen Rudolf Martin as Dracula in 'Buffy the Vampire-Slayer', and had been rather taken with his looks. In 'Dark Prince' he gave a fine performance, with plenty of sword-fighting, as the same character's living form. All in all he made a good swashbuckling Vlad, though I wasn't convinced latterly that he looked like a 45-year-old who had just had a 10-year stint in prison! Needless to say, the portrayal is rather idealised. Christopher Brand as Bruno, Vlad's faithful sidekick, is good: 'Little John' as drawn by Breughel.
Mediaeval Romania is not a subject I know in great detail, but the broad outlines of the story were recognisable, allowing for the romanticisation of swashbuckling genre. It included some of the key points of the Vlad Tepes myth: impaling his enemies; nailing hats to the heads of Turkish envoys; a wife who ends up in the river; and a feud with his brother Radu who sided with the Turks. What struck me was that, within genre constraints, the script at least *attempted* to convey some of the ideological animosities that divided efforts to present a united front against the Turks just before and after the fall of Constantinople: Vlad gets into serious trouble with the Orthodox Church for getting assistance from the Catholic Hungarians and Papal money. As a bit of background plot, though, I think it would have been helpful to make more reference to the fall of Constantinople, the Second Rome - a world-shattering event for 15C people, especially in south-eastern Europe. It would have given a keener sense of how much was at stake (pun intended).
Vlad's cruelty and vengefulness are not glossed over, although somewhat sanitised (it is a TV movie). One of the most impressive scenes, closely related to a contemporary German woodcut, is the one where he sits dipping bread in wine, at a table in front of a field full of impaled boyars... The nailing of the Turks' hats scene is especially disturbing because presented as a black joke between Vlad and his young son. Lidia is the innocent 'moral viewpoint' character, but she becomes unhinged in her efforts to square her husband's motives with his methods. There is a strong thread running through the film as to how far ends can justify means: Vlad's rule is brutal, but the townsfolk feel safe (symbolised by the communal gold cup at the fountain - an element taken from the Romanian folklore about him); he wants to preserve his Orthodox country from the Turks, but must solicit Catholic help from Hungary to do so, thereby risking his soul through excommunication.
The film climaxes with an entirely a-historical scene more reminiscent of Scottish history: think John Comyn vs. Robert de Brus (Vlad's death was really rather less dramatic.) Judging by other reviews, the shift into fantasy clearly flummoxed some. However, there is in it a nod to the Orthodox cult of ruler as 'Strastoterpets' ('Passion-bearer'), a Christianised form of sacrificial kingship. Meanwhile, Father Stefan, whose machinations stemmed from his obsessive belief that a 'bleeding' icon was proof that Vlad was the Antichrist, pays by turning him into something almost as disconcerting... In this, the film serves as an effective precursor to the purely fictional, Stoker-derived 'Dracula' stories and films we know and love. Indeed, it can be watched as a prologue to the Coppola version.
The film essentially projects the Romanian folk-tradition of Vlad Tepes as national hero, akin to that other ruthless, violent, clergy-harrying 'son of the Chief Dragon' whose story followed the fall of the First Rome, at the other end of the Empire. The caption at the end, that there is a myth of his return, completes the analogy: Vlad Dracula as the Romanian Arthur?
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