The portrayal of Romans in Dragon Blade

The following essay was written by myself (James Wear) for my undergraduate Classical civilisation degree module “Classics and Cinema” and submitted to the university of Roehampton on the 10th of March 2017. I’m very proud of this essay, the mark it received and how far my writing abilities have come since beginning my course. This essay and its content serves as a starting point for the kind of blog posts I am hoping to write in the future and I hope you all enjoy it and read future articles of mine.

In this essay I am going to analyse the portrayal of Romans in the 2015 movie Dragon Blade and consider the extent to which the Roman figures have been adapted from Hollywood traditions to meet the cinematic requirements of the Wuxia genre.  To begin, it is necessary to discuss the history and context of Wuxia and what defines it, while applying these traits to Dragon Blade in an effort to understand the film and genre further. This investigation will rely heavily on Stephen Teo’s 2016 book Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Secondly there will be a discussion of the traditional portrayal of Romans in Hollywood cinema, researching the ideals and characterisation of Roman figures, all the while paying attention to the cinematic techniques used.  This section will use the film Gladiator (2000) as its primary source, reinforced by Theodorakopoulos’ 2010 book, Ancient Rome at the Cinema, Story and Spectacle in Hollywood and Rome. Following on from this there will be an in depth analysis of Dragon Blade with emphasis on the characterisation, ideals and cinematic techniques in order to show the extent to which Hollywood traditions have been adapted to fit Wuxia. The evidence for this will be drawn from the  overviews of the two cinematic styles, with particular emphasis on comparisons to Gladiator. Finally, attention will be paid to the cultural differences of the two forms and how they clash in Dragon Blade. Thought will be given to any nationalistic or political messages conveyed in the two films and what these mean to different audiences viewing them. By the conclusion of this essay I hope to have successfully displayed how closely linked Hollywood and Asian cinema are in Dragon Blade and show the inspirations from both traditions and how they combine to influence the portrayal of Romans in Dragon Blade.

The term Wuxia is used to describe a genre of film that has dominated Hong Kong and Chinese cinema in recent years. It is derived from two Chinese words, Wu, which has militaristic connotations and Xia which is associated with acts of chivalry and nobility (Teo,2016:2). Unfortunately, the term does not translate simply into English, though the generally accepted interpretation is “the swordplay film”, yet it is also commonly referred to as martial arts or Kung Fu (Teo,2016:2). However, Wuxia is not restricted to swords and often features use of other weapons like spears and cudgels, and though Martial arts are apparent in Wuxia it would be wrong to define movies such as Dragon Blade as “Kung Fu”. Kung Fu is considered to focus around real fist fighting on the ground, whereas Wuxia distinguishes itself by allowing more phantasmagorical actions, like the ability of flight as used famously in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) (Chang, 2007:96). Another crucial element to the Wuxia style is history, a convention carried over from Chinese literature as almost all traditional Chinese novels and Wuxia films have an overwhelming reliance on history, historiography and historicism, which may link to its connotations as a parochial, old country and China-centric genre (Teo,2016:6).  Wuxia has also been amalgamated with other genres such as horror and comedy in the past, one example being Ding Sheng’s Little Big Soldier (2010), which is a comedy set in China’s warring states period and starring Jackie Chan as he plays a soldier adept at avoiding participation in battle, yet the core features of historical setting, swordplay and heroic values are still apparent throughout the film as Chan’s character becomes a brave, skilled and patriotic warrior. It is clear that Chan has brought his comedic  experience to Dragon Blade and it is not a 100%  serious film. The cinematic appeal of Wuxia is its fantasy, but also its realism and the appeal of the choreography, training and expertise, the martial arts can be treated as a dance form, often accompanied by oriental flute and Haitian drum (Teo,2016:11). When applying all these traits to the movie in question, it is clear that Dragon Blade is of the Wuxia type, though not as serious in tone as movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Flying is absent but this is typical of Chan’s style and there is still a strong presence of the fantastic, especially in some of the combat portrayed. One example would be when Chan’s character, Huo An, attaches an elasticated clip to his sword essentially allowing him to throw it like a yo-yo. The use of such an attachment fits Wuxia’s realistic-fantasy and the movie still keeps its historical setting, martial arts/dance displays and core concepts of chivalry, heroism and nobility.

In order to fully understand the adaptations made to Romans to fit Wuxia tradition, we must first understand Romans in Hollywood. In the early 1950’s and 60’s historical epics depicting Romans were more extravagant spectacles than anything. Often using new technologies such as Cinemascope and Technicolour along with big stars and impressive sets and costuming. The selling point of the historical epic was as a recreation of the grandeur of the Ancient world, all in a struggle to win over television audiences (Theodorakopoulos,2010:1). However, modern historical epics of Hollywood  are sometimes criticized for sacrificing storytelling for the domination of visual effects, which almost always teeter on the edge of excess and can overwhelm the audience (Theodorakopoulos, 2010:4). This has turned out to be true for historical movies like Pompeii (2014) in particular which boasted a CGI recreation of the city using state of the art LIDAR and characters based on the famous casts found at the site (Rojas, 2014), yet it is generally derided by critics for its poor storytelling and reliance on special effects. Dragon Blade is similar in that the story is weak, loosely based on the myth of a group of Roman soldiers going missing on the Silk Road yet the special effects and glorious panoramics are plentiful at times. Gladiator , on the other hand manages to keep balance of its special effects spectacle and storytelling and one way it does this is through the fast cutting and close up camera as opposed to wide screen.  Theodorakopoulos concludes that these modern techniques are used as a move away from historicity, which Wuxia and traditional Hollywood relied on heavily, in favour of humanity as they focus intently on one individual making it more relatable for the audience, while at the same time removing the appearance of a staged historical epic and creating a modern action adventure which she believes is  hugely responsible for the success of Gladiator (Theodorakopoulos,2010:96).

Surprisingly, many of these Hollywood techniques which are not usually prevalent in Wuxia are used heavily in Dragon Blade, most likely as an attempt to match the spectacle of traditional historical epics. There are many wide angle and panoramic shots showing off the desert scenery and CGI is used, though it is in no way state of the art (Clarke, 2016:74). It is clear that the audience are supposed to be impressed by the scale of the movie and this idea of Hollywood spectacle is reflected in the casting of American stars, like Adrian Brody and John Cusack, alongside Jackie Chan, as use of Hollywood actors has never been done in Chinese cinema. While old epics were spectacles of recreation of the past, Dragon Blade is a spectacle looking to answer the question, who would win in a fight, the ancient Romans or the Chinese? The movies slogan is “when the Eagle meets the Dragon” which shows its intent as nothing more than an exploration of West meets East. However, the most damning argument for this movie being more spectacle than story, is the lack of a story, Clarke describes it as “a clunky film that does not know where its heart lies” and condemns the script as “terrible, full of caricatures and cod philosophy” as he feels Lee has taken too much from the popular series Game of Thrones (Clarke, 2016:74). Essentially, the movie has failed to find the balance between its native Wuxia and the imported Hollywood techniques, and this comes across in its depiction of Romans. One moment they are participating in a martial arts display and one on one duels, which are typical of Wuxia, however this attempt to emphasise the differences between the  Roman and the Chinese cultures becomes a laughable spectacle, more reminiscent of morris dancing than a display of martial prowess. The fluctuation in tone does not stop there, when the film is not following the realistic-fantasy of Wuxia, it is trying too hard to be serious like Gladiator. For example Adrian Brody’s character, Tiberius, is the stereotype maniacal emperor and similar to Commodus except without the air of teenage rebellion about him. He is bent on world domination and works through the film by torturing man and child alike, before eventually succumbing to Huo An in a duel virtually identical to the Gladiator finale, down to the brotherly embrace of the dying fighters. The costumes are also worth noting as the Romans echo Gladiator further in the choice of colour scheme. Commodus and Tiberius wear blue and are symbols of Roman decadence in expensive furs (Theodorokopoulos, 2010:97), as opposed to Lucius’ metallic, military armor with simple geometric patterns. The emperors surround themselves with their elite guards also donned in blue, while the good characters are shown wearing red, and often not even full armour, possibly insinuating that they are of lower rank compared to the members of the establishment praetorian guard, therefore making them more relateable for the audience. To summarise, it is clear that Dragon Blade takes huge inspiration from Gladiator and Hollywood epics of the 50’s and 60’s as it incorporates many of the key features, but in its attempt to stay true to its native Wuxia traditions, while seeking approval from Western audiences, it has become farcical as viewers would have expected a serious story like Gladiator and generally responded poorly to the film and its fluctuating attitudes, though in its native  China the movie has grossed over eighty million dollars (Coonan, 2015) which implies that it has been well received by Chinese audiences as a homemade Wuxia movie with spectacular foreign influences.

Finally, It is important to analyse the political undertones of the movie and investigate how these have affected the Romans’ portrayal. Both Dragon Blade and Gladiator contain reflections of their indigenous culture and nationalistic identity. The Wuxia genre was banned in China until recently for some 50 years due to purveying superstition and feudal thinking (Teo, 2016:176) and recent movies are considered to be foreshadowing of the emergence of China as a major power on the world stage, often with nationalistic messages promoting unity, while older films show the need for internal reformation of a China in crisis (Teo, 2016:186). One example of the recent movies would be Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film Hero, which the main assassin climactically does not kill the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang-Di, in the hope that he can bring about a utopian state, which historically Qin does and gives the state his name, China. This film received a government funded premier effectively giving the genre the stamp of approval after the original ban (Teo, 2016:180). Though later,  Dragon Blade is brimming with encouraging messages of teamwork between East and West, but it is not without its nationalist agenda. Clarke picks out the dialogue as particularly engendered towards pleasing the Chinese government as Huo An makes seemingly innocent remarks to Lucius like “You’re trained to kill, we’re trained to keep peace”, which Clarke considers to be a typically Chinese position, a staunch belief in the Chinese peoples own good heartedness (Clarke,2016:74). It is clear that the movie is sympathetic towards China, as during the scene of the Romans first arrival Huo An desperately tries to avoid a fight, though Lucius is unwilling to listen and resorts to violence instantaneously, showing the clear image of the foreigners or Romans as agressors towards Jackie Chan who acts as a personification of China. Even with a varied cast, the Wuxia theme of national unity is still at the forefront of Dragon Blade as the multi-ethnic community of the city quickly welcomes the Romans to avoid both factions deaths in a sandstorm. From there they work together throughout the film looking to achieve a utopian dream of a city that welcomes all, slightly different from the unified city state of traditional Wuxia, but the same premise.

Another technique prevalent in American cinema founded on political ideology is the theme of the isolated hero against the establishment (Theodorokopoulos, 2010:19). In Gladiator the hero is Maximus, a Roman general who longs for nothing but his home, his wife and his son, yet it is taken away from him by the corrupt elite. In Dragon Blade multiple characters share this theme of having been betrayed by the immoral government. Lucius is the most prominent as he, along with the young heir to the throne and soldiers are fleeing the usurper Tiberius, who represents the corrupt establishment. Though the isolated hero theme is also present with Chinese characters as Huo An and his Silk Road Protection Squad are betrayed and exiled to the far reaches of the Chinese border. Huo An specifically appeals to the viewer as he is portrayed as a family man, who, like Maximus, loses his wife. Unfortunately however,  the individual against the establishment is probably better set in Hollywood as it is clear that Dragon Blade wrestles between its imported Hollywood social liberalism and Chinese nationalist hard power (Clarke, 2016:74), failing to successfully fuse the traditional Wuxia techniques with Hollywood’s, resulting in a movie that cannot commit to one genre and loses its credibiliity.

To conclude, it is clear that Dragon Blade is definitely a Wuxia movie but one which takes huge inspiration from old and new Hollywood historical epics in an attempt to appeal to a wider western audience, yet its native Chinese viewers at the same time. However, this seems an impossible task given the extreme differences in culture and politics and the movie fails to combine the two. Instead the tone is ever changing between fantastic Wuxia and serious Hollywood, losing its storytelling ability along the way. Because of this, the extent to which the Romans have been adapted is huge, they enter the film as Hollywood Romans who have wandered into an eastern setting as if they had just left the set of Gladiator, but after a short while they are transformed into Wuxia Romans, leaving the reality and politics of Hollywood behind and engaging in the fantasy and ideals of Wuxia. When considering all this, alongside its political messages, it makes sense that a movie created in China for a primarily eastern audience would feature westerners conforming to their ways. Ultimately this film is no more than a big, jocular answer to the question of “What would happen if Anient Romans went to China and had a fight?” with some singing and dancing thrown in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filmography

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000, China/Taiwan/Hong Kong/ USA, Dir. Ang Lee, Scr. Wang Hui Ling & James Schamus & Tsai Kuo Jung

Dragon Blade, 2015, China/Hong Kong, Dir & Wri. Daniel Lee

Gladiator,  2000, USA/UK, Dir. Ridley Scott, Wri: David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson

Hero, 2002, China, Dir. Zhang Yimou, Wri. Feng Li, Bin Wang, Zhang Yimou.

Pompeii,2014, Canada, Germany, USA.  Dir. Paul S.W. Anderson, Wri. Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson

Triumph of the will, 1935,Germany, Dir. Leni Reifenstahl. Wri. Leni Reifenstahl and Walter Ruttman and Eberhard Taubert

 

Bibliography

Chang, Hsiao-Hung. 2007. The unbearable lightness of globalisation, in Darrel William Davis and Ru-Shou Robert Chen, Cinema Taiwan: Politics, Popularity and State of the Arts, pp95-107, Routledge, New York

Clarke, Roger. 2016. Dragon Blade. Review in Sight & Sound pp 74, available at http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=77792ec5-bc35-4910-8873-d0f642f062a5%40sessionmgr120. Accessed 03/03/2017

Coonan, Clifford. 2015. Jackie Chan touts success of ‘Dragon Blade,’ declares his patriotism, The Hollywood Reporter, available at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/jackie-chan-dragon-blade-patriotism-778236 (accessed 04/03/2017)

Teo, Stephen. 2016. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition, second edition. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh

Theodorakopoulos, Elena. 2010. Ancient Rome at the Cinema, Story and Spectacle in Hollywood and Rome. Bristol Pheonix Press, Exeter

Rojas, Alejandro. 2014. “Interview With Paul W. S. Anderson, Pompeii Director, on the Film’s Scientific and Historical Accuracy” Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alejandro-rojas/paul-w-s-anderson-pompeii-scientific-historical-accuracy_b_4827109.html  (accessed 02/03/2017)

 

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