Sunday, November 29, 2015

BBC Series "The Last Kingdom" Ends With a Battle and a Bang

In 878 A.D. (C.E.) a battle took place in a field in what is now southern England, which determined the very existence of the country. How odd it is now, to consider that of the few thousand fighting men and women present that day, some gave their lives for what they thought was the small kingdom of Wessex - the last remaining stronghold of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, after years of Viking raids - but in the end, they gave their lives so that the United Kingdom would eventually come to be what it was centuries later . . . one of the world's greatest and most productive empires. How surprised they would have been to learn that their sacrifice was the foundation of so much more than what they could have imagined.  

The final battle, with the shield walls dividing enemies.
The Battle of Edington (aka the Battle of Ethandun) was arguably the most important battle in English history, and it is fitting that the first season of the magnificent The Last Kingdom from the BBC gave us this battle as its finale. For many reasons, the first season has been an impressive debut for what has become a standout series, and it has in a short time built a strong fan base who must have been, as I was, cheering a little inside as our hero rode off into the final sunset with a narration promising more adventures ahead. Given the enthusiasm of a growing fanbase, the BBC would be foolish not to be planning for a second season.

The series is based upon the Saxon series of nine (so far) books, from renowned historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. The story follows the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the son of a Saxon Northumbrian ealdorman (the precursor of an earl). When the Danes (Vikings) invade and kill his family, he is taken as a child slave into the Danish household of Danish warlord Ragnar, where due to his intelligence, loyalty and charm, he is eventually raised as a son. But fate is not kind to Uhtred, and a warring clan of Danes kills off his adoptive family as well.  Uhtred is left without a country, rejected as a Saxon by Danes and a Viking by Saxons.  He has to fight his way into acceptance by those he must trust - including the future King Alfred "the Great" of Wessex and later of all England - in order to gain back respect and his birthright.  His story is told against the backdrop of the fierce wars of the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries of England against Danish invaders intent on making the British Isles part of a Scandinavian kingdom. This was a time when battle was eye-to-eye brutal, life was cheap and dearly won, and Pagan and Christian strove to coexist.
Lord Guthrum of the Danes is baptized.
The series was produced by the executive producer of Downton Abbey, Gareth Naeme, who obviously understands how to capture and hold an audience. Unlike some of the others in the current parade of Dark Ages and Medieval fantasy series, this one follows much more closely actual historical events and incorporates characters based firmly in historical reality (even Uhtred of Bebbanburg existed, and is a distant ancestor of Cornwell, although little is known of his actual history). As can be expected from the BBC, production values are held to a high standard. 

David Dawson's King Alfred battles for Wessex.
The eight-episode season was shot mostly in Hungary, with some additional work in Wales and Denmark. From the reconstructed villages and wooden/stone palaces of the Saxons, to the costuming (reportedly done with an intentional "modern edge"), to battle scenes, one is easily transported back in time to a place that actually existed, and a people who were caught between two worlds and facing an uncertain future. The film is saturated with warm, rich red tones which bring out firelit interiors, skin, and setting sun, and also green tones which exploit the wild, earthy feel of a time when life took place mostly outdoors. Camerawork is consistently expertly rendered, and interesting without being distracting.

Not enough can be said about the cast. Heading it up is the relatively unknown Alexander Dreymon, whose anonymity will come to a screeching halt with this project. The well-trained young actor has delivered a performance worthy of an epic - always competent, nuanced, and fascinating. He understands the value of accent, the glance of an eye, posture, and all the small moments that raise a performance from passing to mesmerizing. His Uhtred is multi-layered, enigmatic, superbly physical (check out the horseback stunts and the fight scenes - his martial arts training shows) and by turns quietly emotional and fiercely warrior-like, as he cries over a friend's betrayal or his dead child, then rushes into battle swinging a broadsword with an intimidating fury-birthed grimace. He is never less than 100% male, as a ninth century warrior had to be in order to survive.

Also excellent are David Dawson as King Alfred, Adrian Bower as the knight Leofric, Eliza Butterworth as Aelswith, Ian Hart as Father Beocca, Emily Cox as Brida, Harry MacEntire as Athelwold (a fan favorite, to be sure!), Charlie Murphy as Iseult, Rune Temte as Ubba, and many others.

Wessex has finally won everything, while Uhtred has lost all.
Fans of the books will love the series, but may be a little put off by a few instances of straying from the novels' storyline. As a writer and a film fan, I have no issue with the changes: many are necessary in order to make a series play to a film audience without confusing them with too many characters and subplots; after all, film is a much different medium, and must have different requirements for the sake of clear storytelling.  Other changes added to the stories, such as the screenwriter's decision to flesh out Uhtred's love relationships, where in the books they are too often mere mentions. This change in particular makes the film more interesting to a wider audience, and Uhtred's character more multi-dimensional. It also, in this writer's opinion, raises the quality of the story. Like many a male, Cornwell tends to write from a testosterone-laden point of view. In much the same way that some female writers are unwilling to write a great battle scene, he shies away from love scenes or any scene of emotional romantic depth. The screenwriter has understood the value of fixing that, and brings a story accessible and interesting to everyone.

Hild the Nun takes no prisoners.
Which brings us to the battle scenes. These are some of the best you will ever see on television; each battle-cry to raise the shield wall gives the viewer goosebumps. The filmmakers employ stunts and special effects and camera work to increase tension and authenticity -which is expected - but they go further. In an era of television and film when rape and massacre are too often exploited for entertainment (this means you, Game of Thrones), this series neither shies away from tough scenes nor does it present them as purely entertainment. There is brutality, but not the glee of excessive butchery; there is rape, but not a script or camera that lingers over a woman's torture and humiliation for the sake of titillation. These filmmakers understand the difference between realism and exploitation, and it raises the production to a higher level than any other historical out there.

Uhtred and his Danish brother "Young Ragnar" loyal enemies.
Just about the only quarrel I had with the series, and one present also with the books, was resolved in the last episode: that of the treatment of various religions. In the books, Christianity is presented nearly always in a bad light - never as a force for good or the power of justice and peace, against poverty and blind brutality, but as a particularly malicious form of oppression. As an amateur historian of the era, it troubled me because it doesn't give a complete picture. I have always been fascinated in the question of why the new religion swept over a culture as quickly as it did (given that there was no mass communication). Through the years I
have read the suggestions of many historians - it encouraged the value of the individual life, and raised the value of life overall; it offered a way out of a pattern of personal vendetta and inter-clan wars; it raised the value of literacy and learning; it established the first social programs such as orphanages, schools, and soup kitchens; it improved ties to the Continent and the Roman Empire and the rest of Europe, which meant trade and improvement of quality of life. Cornwell has said in interviews that he holds a personal bias against Christianity given his upbringing, and while I can't fault him for that, I do think it's a shame that it kept him from writing more realistically about the gentle slipping away of the pagan world, and the gradual establishment of the Christian. Historians agree that for the vast part, it was a peaceful transition for England, and I for one think it would be a fascinating question for the novels to have explored more. 

But here, the screenwriters have rescued the story from one-dimensional Christian-bashing. In the final episodes, pagan Uhtred comes to reconcile the two philosophies in his own mind, Christian King Alfred comes to appreciate that his god may have a broader point of view than he originally thought, Father Beocca realizes that God works even through pagans, and - as happened in history - the leading warlord of the Danes, Guthrum, offers himself for baptism as part of a peace treaty. (In reality, Alfred stood as Guthum's godfather for baptism, and Guthrum took the Christian name Athelstan, after Alfred's deceased elder brother.)  In the last minutes of the final episode, we have nuns and priests taking up the spear and raising the battle-cry for Wessex and rushing headlong into the battle - a scene which, given the politics of the moment in time, I agree is highly imaginable. Even the religious would have understood that the saving of a way of life demanded every heart and weapon available, and that defending one's life and land was a justification for war when the invaders were at one's doorstep.

As I watched this series, I was often moved not only by the story of Uhtred and his companions, but by the story of England's birth, and the comparisons in my own mind to our political struggles today. Surely the people of Wessex were increasingly frightened as the Viking menace first tickled their shores, and then made its way inland to kill and conquer. Perhaps at first they - preoccupied with everyday survival at their little farms and trades - would have heard stories of the pillaging and murdering and thought of it as a far-off thing, of not much consequence. They would not have understood that it was growing bigger, that it was a force that did not share the values they had embraced with Christianity, and would spare no one until they were all dead or subjected. Even good King Alfred imagined the Danes as people who would be reasonable, could be negotiated with and then trusted to obey a peace agreement. But he was wrong, and it is to England's luck that he learned it in time enough to get serious about defending his people.

Today we face a similar situation, as a force intent on the destruction of our way of life moves closer and grows larger, while still our leaders and a vast majority of our citizens play blithely along at their day-to-day pursuits, without understanding what is at stake and the choices we will have to make in a very near future. I wonder if we still - we peoples of the western world, who have built civilizations on a specific set of values and beliefs, whether we acknowledge that fact or not - possess the courage it will take to keep the right to decide our own path into the future. 

As Uhtred told us in every episode of The Last Kingdom, "Destiny is all."  In the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, Destiny ("Wyrd") was a reality predetermined before one ever took a first breath. But they believed also that individual choices could affect destiny.  Let's hope that our destiny is as hopeful and kind to us, as was that of the brave Anglo-Saxon men and women who won their future with blood.

Do yourself a favor and watch The Last Kingdom in its entirety. You'll get a great history lesson, a glimpse into the past of a great people and land, and a rollicking good time.


Writer Bernard Cornwell with "Uhtred" Alexander Dreymon.

Bernard Cornwell's series can be found at, at bookstores, and elsewhere all over the web. The popular books are well-researched and well-written, and I highly recommend them.

The Last Kingdom is currently finishing up its run in the UK and Europe, but is finished with the first season's run in the US.  It can be purchased online as a DVD, or downloaded from Amazon or ITunes. If you are like me you will be watching each episode about four times.