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Neville Longbottom as Horatius Cocles

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 16, 2011

Last week, I joined the ranks of those who have marked the end of the Harry Potter era by watching The Deathly Hallows Part 2. I enjoyed seeing the characters I’ve known for so long, grown to full maturity and able to defeat Voldemort at last; loved the cinematic realisation of the Battle of Hogwarts; and shed a quiet tear when Harry described Snape as one of the bravest men he’d ever known in the final scene. But what caught my attention most of all was a short little scene featuring Neville Longbottom which had powerful Classical resonances.

It comes during the Battle of Hogwarts, just before and after the shield of protection around the school breaks down. The rickety wooden covered bridge has already been primed with explosives, ready to be set off by the right spell, and Neville is stationed at the end, waiting for Voldemort’s hordes to attack:

As the clip shows, he stands taunting them for as long as the shield holds, knowing that once it gives way, they won’t lose a moment in rushing forward to attack him. As soon as that happens, he turns and flees – but this was all part of the plan. Neville then chucks a spell over his shoulder to ignite the explosives, bringing the entire thing tumbling down behind him, and plunging the pursuing Snatchers to some unspecified fate:

For a horrible moment, it looks as though Neville himself has fallen with them. But somehow he manages to cling on, and emerges over the broken edge of the bridge – much to the relief of his friends.

And that, in a nutshell, is the Roman legend of Horatius on the Bridge. It is told most famously by Livy, whose version (along with some contextual explanation) can be read here. Neville is Horatius Cocles, the Hogwarts bridge is the Pons Sublicius, and the Snatchers charging down the hill are the Etruscans, trying to capture Rome on behalf of the cruel king Tarquinius the Proud, whom the Romans had kicked out. Why, even Neville’s rather implausible escape matches neatly with Horatius’ swim across the Tiber to safety while the Etruscans hurl missiles at him. In fact, I must say that my reaction to this scene in the film was rather like Livy’s reaction to Horatius’ miraculous escape. Clearly, there was no way Neville could possibly have survived as the bridge collapsed beneath him – and yet somehow, he did. Similarly, Livy describes Horatius’ swim to safety as “an act of daring more famous than credible with posterity” (rem ausus plus famae habituram ad posteros quam fidei) – his polite way of saying that he doesn’t personally believe a word of it.

Neville’s personal brand of heroism isn’t quite identical to Horatius’. Neville is a hero, and he showed the early signs of this right back in the first book / film, when he was brave enough to try to stop Harry, Ron and Hermione sneaking illegally out of the Gryffindor common room. But it’s hard to read Horatius’ story without imagining him standing there with his chest puffed out, supremely self-confident as he booms out orders to his men and taunts towards the enemy. Horatius is a full-blown traditional hero-figure with quasi-supernatural powers of swordsmanship, resourcefulness and daring – but the whole point about Neville Longbottom is that he is brave and good, but also scared and ordinary at the same time. So it is appropriate that even Neville’s taunts are quite tentative, and that he lures the Snatchers to their doom by running away in apparent terror, rather than holding them bravely off in hand-to-hand combat.

All of the Harry Potter films are ripe with Classical resonances, many of which Juliette Harrison has chronicled. For the most part, these originate in the books, where they can of course be attributed directly to J.K. Rowling’s background in Classics. But this one doesn’t – perhaps partly for the very good reason that the wooden bridge isn’t in the books! (It appeared for the first time in the film of Prisoner of Azkaban). This means that I can’t be sure whether or not Steve Kloves, the script-writer for the later films, deliberately wrote Neville’s bridge scene as a version of the Horatius legend or not. But the match is very close, and the story is certainly pretty firmly embedded in western culture – see e.g. Macaulay’s poem, a whole bunch of works of art, or nice accessible kids’ versions like this one. So it would be surprising if Kloves didn’t know it, and that means I feel reasonably confident that Neville’s scene in The Deathly Hallows Part 2 is consciously Classically-inspired.

The final climax of Neville’s development into a real (though still ordinary) hero comes when Voldemort enters the castle with Harry’s (apparently) dead body – and now that I’ve seen the film, I find that Neville’s behaviour at this point in the book as well is more Horatian than I’d previously realised. Neville may not be standing on a bridge at this point, but he is the only person who dares to come forward and challenge Voldemort, while everyone else cowers in fear. The essential motif of a lone hero standing firm is in place – so perhaps JKR did have Horatius in mind when she wrote this scene, after all? In that case, Kloves’ contribution would have been to recognise the basic elements of the Horatius legend in JKR’s account of the stand-off between Neville and Voldemort, and then to expand on this by adding an extra scene a little bit earlier featuring Neville on an actual bridge.

Certainly, in Kloves’ hands, Neville gets an incredible rising trio of heroic moments in quick succession, each of which takes him closer and closer to the full-blown hero model which Horatius represents. From his tentative taunts on the bridge he progresses quickly to very real defiance of Voldemort in the courtyard – this time without the protection of a magical shield. And from there, it is but a short step to his magnificent beheading of Nagini:

Neville Beheads Nagini

By that stage, he has become a proper traditional hero-figure – steadfast, proud and entirely uncompromising as he swings the fatal blow (though still, of course, wearing a cardigan clearly knitted by his gran). It’s very much the heroic climax to his story that Neville has always deserved, and I’m not surprised that so many people have raved about his role in the film. I am thrilled, though, to see a Classical story playing a small part in that. :-)

Posted in classical receptions, films, harry potter, reviews, roman history, roman literature | 3 Comments »

28 Days Later (2002), dir. Danny Boyle

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 13, 2010

Last weekend, I attended the ninth annual Fantastic Films Weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford. I had a brilliant time discovering and rediscovering classic horror and Sci-Fi films, but also came across a lovely use of the Classical tradition in the film 28 Days Later.

I really loved 28 Days Later when it first came out – in fact, I ended up seeing it twice while it was still in the cinema, which is very rare for me. But I hadn’t seen it again since, so I’d forgotten a lot of the fine detail. It really is a very beautifully-shot piece of film. I’d certainly remembered the early scenes of Cillian Murphy wandering around a deserted London, and found on re-watching that they very much stood the test of time. But I’d forgotten all sorts of other absolutely breathtaking scenes, such as the use made of the rain during the attack-and-breakout scene at the military head-quarters towards the end. I’d also forgotten how much the music adds to the emotional impact throughout – it’s been running round my head all week, and I’ve bought several of the songs from the soundtrack album today.

I had remembered how good the characterisation was, though obviously it was still a pleasure to rediscover in detail how well-drawn all of the characters were. The focus on the interactions between a small group of people clinging together in the face of extreme danger makes for some very intensive drama. Plenty of time is given to really getting to know all of the main characters and understanding their feelings and motivations, while the range of their experiences of scary attacks, empty sadness, horrible tension and occasional moments of sheer joy felt really well-balanced to me. The dialogue is just masterful, pushing the plot along nicely where it needs to, but always remaining naturalistic and emotionally truthful. And although it shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary, the film also deserves credit for presenting a black female character (Selena) in a strong central role – unfortunately still something which is still all too rare in the cinema.

The world-building and the settings are very carefully thought through, too. The notices and newspapers which we catch sight of on walls and tables, and blowing around on the floor, are a good example of this. Most of them are never focussed on directly, but the glimpses that we get do so much to evoke what has happened during the 28 days between the break-in at the research lab and the start of the main story. And how clever to set the picnic and overnight stop which they have on their journey north from London in a ruined abbey, with all its evocation of a past way of life brought violently to an end. The same goes for the large country mansion used by the Major and his soldiers. Our aristocracy weren’t violently overthrown in the same way as the monasteries – but they are a thing of the past, while the setting throws up fantastic contrasts between the refined, luxurious world which the house evokes and what we see actually going on there during the film.

But what really caught my attention as a professional Classicist was the large copy of the famous ancient statue of Laocoön in the hall-way of that mansion:

Statue of Laocoon and his sons in the Vatican museum Laocoon in 28 Days Later

It’s possible that the statue is a permanent fixture in the stately home where the scenes were shot, since many English country houses do have extensive collections of either original Greek and Roman statues or copies of famous pieces. But Googling “trafalgar house” + laocoon brings up no meaningful connection between the two, while the way the light catches the statue seen in the film makes it look rather like it is made of fibre-glass – and thus probably a prop. So I think it is probably a deliberate piece of mise en scène for the purposes of the film – and of course even if it isn’t, the decision to focus on it so heavily in the film certainly will have been deliberate.

It may seem a fairly small piece of background detail, but thinking through its implications, it nonetheless adds a great deal to the story. Of course, many viewers won’t know anything about the statue or what it represents, but even so it is obvious that the statue depicts a human being dying in agony, which helps to underscore the basic horror of the film. Meanwhile, viewers who do know Laocoön’s story are invited to ponder on all sorts of themes. Laocoön defied the will of the gods by trying to persuade his fellow-citizens that it might possibly not be the brainiest of ideas to trundle some random wooden horse which the Greeks have left behind inside the walls of their city, and was punished with an agonising death for his troubles. So is all the violence and horror which we see happening around the statue a kind of divine punishment, visited on mankind for pushing too far into the domain of the gods with the animal research which we see at the beginning of the story? The link there becomes even stronger if we take into account Titian’s caricature of the Laocoön statue, with apes instead of humans as the main figures:

Titian's caricature of the Laocoon

Debate rages over exactly what Titian himself was trying to say when he made this print. But in the context of 28 Days Later, the existence of Titian’s caricature does help to make a stronger link between the suffering which the human researchers visit on the apes at the beginning of the film, and the suffering which mankind endures as a result.

Finally, putting a character from the Trojan war inside a mansion which is under siege by the infected also acts a foreshadowing for how that section of the story is going to end up. As soon as we see it, we’re reminded of the fate of Troy itself, and also prompted to start asking where the Trojan horse is in all this. I think there’s more than one possible answer to that. It could be Jim, Selena and Hannah, whose arrival in the house is greeted joyously by the soldiers – but ultimately turns out to be a disaster for all of them. Or it could be the infected soldier chained up in the yard. I’m not sure it really matters how you answer the question – but the fact that the statue is there to prompt it is just one very impressive example of how thoughtfully crafted this film is.

Posted in classical receptions, films, reviews, roman art, roman literature | 5 Comments »

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