What is truth anyway?
The film starts by narrating the context: “50 BC. While attacking the Parthian empire, a Roman legion vanished. Soon after, traces of them were found along the Silk Road. This story is inspired by true events.”
These “true” events are primarily based on the appearance of inhabitants of the village of Liqian, located at the fringes of the Gobi desert in northern China. A 1940s Oxford study suggested that they may be descendants of a lost Roman legion, and though there has been evidence to the contrary since then, the legend persists. I am not going to explore to what extent this is correct. The Romans certainly traded with the Chinese via intermediaries such as the Parthians, so I was happy to go along with the whole kung fu meets testudo (or as the poster says: 'when the eagle meets the dragon') action film format, even if the “true events” are rather an overstatement.
Utopia and baddies with an English accent
The superficial message is one of peace, as 36 minority groups of China all work together with the Romans to rebuild the Geese Gate. Roman engineering is acknowledged as superior and the Romans help rebuild the city walls in 15 days (as one reviewer said, “Dragon Blade puts the lie to that old saw about how Rome wasn’t built in a day. With Cusack and his soldiers on the job, I think they could have done it in six hours, tops.”). There is a playful showing off of martial prowess from Chinese and Roman sides, which ends in a Roman and a Chinese soldier hugging. Could it get cuter?
Chan’s universal utopia is only skin-deep, however, and, in spite of the Roman technological advances, the Chinese are represented as morally superior to the Romans. Romans, Chan explains, train soldiers to kill, while he was trained to save men. Moreover, while the Chinese officials are definitely baddies, they are not nearly as evil as Roman general Tiberius, whose army almost kills everyone at the end.
The film, interestingly, is multilingual, with Chan navigating his way between the various groups by speaking their own languages. The Romans, as has become customary, speak English. General Tiberius indeed speaks with an English accent, while the other Romans are American. If you want a true baddy, turn to an Englishman!
Once the city walls have been rebuilt, however, everybody parties, and first Chan and then the Romans sing in their own languages – and this is what I found the most interesting part of the film.
Another glass of wine for courage. In a world of chaos and conflict,
no matter how tough the obstacles, I swear to turn turmoil into peace,
to turn foes into friends. There’s no need for weapons.
We’ll move forward hand in hand – may wars end forever.
It’s a lovely sentiment, and mirroring the previous scene in which first Chan and his men show off their martial skills, both internal and external audiences anticipate a Roman song. And we get one – in Latin! A bit of a shock to the system after the Romans have been speaking English from the start.
Roman rugby anthem
Sung first by the sweet little boy-would-be-emperor and then picked up by his faithful soldiers, it almost made me feel patriotically Roman! If you ever wondered what a Roman Republic rugby anthem would sound like, this is it. More akin to 20th century national anthems than to anything the Romans ever produced, its sentiment does echo ancient ideology regarding Roma Aeterna. Here are the lyrics which I got online - having listened to the song more than ten times now, I can’t come up with a better rendition, and it’s possible the song actually has some Latin errors (in the middle):
Firme nunc me spondeo, Fidelis tibi maneo,
Bella priorum cara patria, Nunc et semper florens Gloria.
Pulchras terrae patriae! Fortes terrae pro homines,
Romae nostrae aeternae, Vis cavire domum navium,
Frusta ipsa impentur, Sunt sine spe!
Domus dulces portula, Fraudi obsta,
Tubae militaris vox Legiones procant mox!
Et in tota patria, cantus victoriae resonat.
Et in tota patria, cantus nostrae resonat.
Tempus est in gaudium Superbiae Roma aeterna
Firmly now I pledge myself. I remain loyal to you.
Beautiful sweet land of my forefathers, Now and forever flourishing with glory
A fatherland of beauty; A land for the courageous
Our Eternal Rome; the might of enemy ships
Threatens it in vain. They are without hope.
Turn away from deceit and sweet delusions
For the military trumpets call our legions soon
And across the fatherland a victory song rings.
And across the fatherland our song resonates.
It is time for joy for proud Eternal Rome.
The translation is obviously not entirely my own but largely the one offered on youtube, since I can’t make sense of the middle of the text (does anyone have any suggestions?). Now, let's leave aside the clerical rather than Classical Latin pronunciation and the rhyme which was hardly used in Roman poetry. Because neither Chinese nor western cinema goers are meant to understand the Latin song, and the internal audience in the film is certainly moved by the song, whether they be Chinese or Roman. As external audience, you are invited to listen to the beauty of the voices in a solemn, mysterious song, almost like a religious hymn. As the Chinese are represented as being proud of their nation and celebrate their minorities, the Romans are allowed to be proud of theirs: it all ties in neatly with Chan’s peaceful utopia.
Yet the Roman sentiment is rather more warlike than the philosophical longing for peace expressed by Chan. The tubae militaris (military trumpets) and cantus victoriae (song of victory) are clear: the Romans worship war and expansion, even when cornered and outnumbered. I really do wonder whether this is part of Chan’s subtext about Chinese moral superiority. When asked about the patriotic identity of the film, Chan responded: “I have always been a patriot. Is it wrong? If people are cursed for being a patriot, please curse me.”
I don’t have a problem with Chan’s patriotism. I’ve seen much worse come out of Hollywood. I am interested in the linguistic inconsistency. As a reviewer said, “The filmmakers decided to have Chan speak extremely broken English to Cusack, presumably meant to represent the fact that a Chinese warrior in the first century BC wouldn’t know much Latin. But surely that could have been fixed with a line of dialogue: “Luckily, I studied Latin.””
Indeed, at the end of the film, when the Parthians restore peace, a treaty is signed, among other languages, in Latin. It’s unclear why the Romans speak in English, but sing and write in Latin. If someone really thought this through (though I doubt they did), the confusing of both languages indeed equates the Romans with the English-speaking West and renders their representation rather more contentious politically. However, I don't think that much thought went into it. Perhaps it was added to remind the audience they are Romans? To add a sense of mystery to their representation? Or, perhaps, just like the mention of the “true events” at the outset of the film, to lend an air of veracity to the narrative? In any case, it’s awesomely cringeworthy.
Written by Evelien Bracke