Boudicca ; Mythic Warrior Queen or Feminist Role Model for Our Times? as Mel Gibson Turns His Attentions to a New Leading Lady, D J Taylor Tells the Story of an English Icon
Taylor, D J, The Independent (London, England)
With the multi-million dollar profits from The Passion of The Christ stashed in the vault, and Hollywood avid to bankroll anything to which he sets his signature, to which fresh project is that distinguished actor-director Mel Gibson now turning his gaze? Another biopic, naturally, full of blood, guts and the epic sweep of history, but of whom? Nelson? Washington? Genghis Khan? In fact, our man has just signed up to frame in celluloid the career of an East Anglian warrior queen, dead these 1,950 years, of whom all that can accurately be said could probably be recorded on a couple of sheets of A4.
The life and times of Boudicca (or Boadicea, or Boudica or even Bonduca, depending on your authority) might seem an unlikely choice for a movie subject. Yet close inspection reveals this talisman from the days of Roman invasions, English settlements and tribal insurrection still twitches with phantom life. Only the other year, for instance, the celebrated screenwriter Andrew Davies engineered a small-scale biopic for ITV (slated by the critics on grounds of historical inaccuracy) as a means of allowing the actress Alex Kingston to appear in various states of undress.
Elsewhere, Dreaming the Eagle, the first instalment of a projected trilogy by the historical novelist Manda Scott, recently spent time on the bestseller lists. To descend a rung or two lower on the cultural ladder, there is a rag-trade concern of the same name ("edgy and erotic, impeccably cut, non-conformist clothes" etc) and even a Harry Potter connection. At any rate, legend - subsequently proved to be an inspired practical joke - used to insist that the lady was buried beneath what is now Platform 10 of King's Cross station. Not bad going for a woman lost in history, the site of whose very residence - it may have been at Gallows Hill near Thetford - still escapes the archaeologist's grasp.
As the foregoing demonstrates, all this has a tremendous figurative significance. Doubtless in Mr Gibson's hands it will acquire even more. As for the real Boudicca, however, all that we know turns up in the pages of a brace of Roman historians, Tacitus and Dio Cassius, both of whom wrote sometime after the fact (Dio Cassius a good two centuries after) and relied on what other people told them. The date is AD60-62, a century or so into the Roman occupation of these fair isles, and Romano-British relations are at a low ebb. They are particularly bad in the area between Colchester and Norfolk, home of the Iceni tribe, whose dying king, Prasutagus, has tried to secure his kingdom by making Rome co-heir along with his two daughters. Unimpressed, the local Roman military commander has his queen, Boudicca, flogged with rods and his daughters raped, subsequently destroying the royal house and eventually banishing the Iceni from their land.
It is not, in the context of the time, a smart move. The Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, is at this point hundreds of miles away on the holy island of Anglesey, marauding the druids. Supported by another local tribe, the Trinovantes, also done out of their ancestral lands by the newcomers, Boudicca and a horde rising to 120,000 warriors (the entire Roman military strength in Britain is only a third of this number) sack the garrison town of Colchester, march on London and put it to the sword so thoroughly that even now a layer of red clay a dozen feet or so beneath the modern-day pavement is all that remains of the ancient city.
As for the fomenter of this unrest, here is Dio Cassius's admiring description: "She was of huge frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: she wore a twisted torc, and a tunic of many colours, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her." Cassius also furnishes extracts from the fiery speeches she is alleged to have made to ginger up her troops. …