In 60 B.C. wandering druid Guttuart (Max Von Sydow) arrives in Gaul in time to see Celtill, chieftain of the Arvenes tribe, betrayed and slain at a gathering of his fellow chiefs. Aided by Guttuart, Celtill’s young son Vercingetorix manages to escape. Years later a matured Vercingetorix (Christopher Lambert) returns seeking revenge. Reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Epona (Inés Sastre), Vercingetorix forms an uneasy alliance with the Roman army, lured by a promise of peace and prosperity from none other than Julius Caesar (Klaus Maria Brandauer) as long as the Gauls aid his invasion of Britain. But when Vercingetorix uncovers Caesar’s treachery he leads a rebellion striking out against the might of Rome.
Rechristened Druids for its international release, this French-Canadian historical biopic was presumably meant to do for real Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix what Braveheart (1995) did for William Wallace. Instead it went down in infamy as among the worst French films ever made and failed to recoup its fifteen million dollar budget. If you ever wondered what an Asterix adaptation might look like minus all the wit, charm and ingenuity, then Druids is your answer. The film was evidently a pet project for Jacques Dorfmann, a respected figure in the French film industry more active as a producer (notably Jean-Pierre Melville’s wartime thriller Army of Shadows (1969), Jean-Luc Godard’s experimental drama Tout Va Bien (1972) and Francis Girot’s dark comedy The Infernal Trio (1974)). As Mel Gibson did with Wallace, Dorfmann paints Vercingetorix as a hero able to rally disparate peoples in the fight against tyranny. A visionary whose foresight helped forge a nation’s identity. Yet curiously the film also hints that he is resigned to the foolishness of his people. It paints the Gauls, and the chieftains in particular, as selfish, drunken louts unable to rise above their own petty nature even with the fate of a nation at stake.
Interestingly the film is loosely based on a novel by American science fiction writer Norman Spinrad. Which might be why it opens like The Fifth Element (1997) tracking a comet as it streaks through space, past stars, planets and a vast orange sun. However events unfold in the same obtuse mould as the Arthurian fever dream of co-screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg’s Excalibur (1981) with similar heavy symbolism, flash-forwards in time and philosophical debate. Early scenes where Max Von Sydow’s genial druid tutors the callow young king-to-be recall the relationship Nigel Terry’s young Arthur had with Nicol Williamson’s wildly eccentric Merlin although Von Sydow, incapable of delivering a bad performance, plays it far more straight. To its credit Druids attempts to delve into a complex web of alliances and betrayals that lay the groundwork for the nation that became France. It even tries to give Caesar his due and casts the clash between him and Vercingetorix as one of opposing philosophies rather than strictly good and evil. There is an anti-capitalist subtext to the script as Vercingetorix chastens Caesar for using free trade as a pretext to oppress and enslave the ‘uncivilized’ world.
Alas, for all its good intentions, Druids stumbles every step of the way. While mounted on a scale impressive relative to its meagre budget the film never stages a stirring or suspenseful sequence when a laborious exchange of cringe-worthy dialogue will do. Dorfmann, whose handful of directing credits include Shanghai-based drama Le palanquin des larmes (1988) and Shadow of the Wolf (1993), an adventure set among Canada’s Inuit tribal folk that pairs Toshirô Mifune with Lou Diamond Phillips (together at last?), exhibits no aptitude for historical adventure. His battle scenes are clunkily staged and, worse, set to embarrassing techno music (it is worth noting cult Euro-horror director Aldo Lado supervised the second unit). Meanwhile the florid melodramatics are straight out of a Monty Python skit. Klaus Maria Brandauer seems to be having some fun as a self-amused Julius Caesar while supermodel Inés Sastre wafts through the whole film with the same fixed grin. Christopher Lambert, then at the tail end of his post-Highlander (1986) groove as the go-to guy for this sort of thing, at least attempts to invest his role with some intensity and commitment with that myopic thousand-yard stare. Happily his career would rebound (in a different vein with a run of acclaimed art-house roles) while Druids remains justly forgotten. Seriously, just go watch any Asterix cartoon instead.