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Featured DVD Review: Sword of War

February 19th, 2011

Sword of War - Buy from Amazon

Sword of War, a.k.a., Barbarossa, is an Italian epic about a war that took place in the 12th century between a German conqueror and a small group of Italian patriots trying to defend their homeland. While this part of world history is mostly unknown in the United States, a good medieval epic can find an audience, even if the back story is lost on most people. But is this a good medieval epic? Or is it strictly for genre fans?

The Movie

Rutger Hauer plays Federico Barbarossa, a Germanic ruler, who in the 1150s lead a campaign to conquer Italy and reestablish the Charlemagne Empire. His ambitions were complicated by Alberto da Giussano, who raised an army to stand in defiance against his force. At least that's how the legend goes. (In reality, he's about as real as Robin Hood.) Early in the rebellion, Alberto da Giussano fights along side his two brothers, who seem a lot more eager to fight against Barbarossa than Alberto himself. In fact, early on the pair seem more like troublemakers than rebels fighting for a just cause and Barbarossa comes across as a just ruler showing restraint when dealing with traitors. Since Barbarossa was trying to reform the Holy Roman Empire, or at least the Charlemagne Empire, which had come out of the Holy Roman Empire, he's less of an invading force than one looking to return Rome to previous glory. The initial conflict between the Giussano family and Barbarossa's forces appears to be about taxes, which to continue the analogy with Robin Hood, is like having the Sheriff of Nottingham come across as more sympathetic than Robin Hood himself.

This is the first major flaw in the movie. The "good guys" seem like pricks. The second major flaw with the movie was that is was filmed in Italy, but with a mix of English and Italian speaking actors, so some of the roles have to be dubbed in English, and poorly dubbed at times. The syncing issues are forgivable, but the weak voice acting is not. Although to be fair, this could also be an issue with trying to translate to the story for an English audience, as there were a few scenes with voiceovers that seem tacked on as an after thought. So perhaps the dialogue had to be changed to fully explain the history that non-Italians wouldn't be familiar with, which made is clumsy. I really wish I were given an option to watch the film in the original language with subtitles to be able to tell where the problem lies, but given the mix of actors, that wasn't really possible.

It's not a total loss and there are some really nice battle scenes, while the production level is quite high making for a nice recreation of medieval warfare. Additionally it is beautifully shot at times. But, that's not enough to make up for the major flaws in the storytelling and in the end it never lives up to its potential.

The Extras

The only extra on the DVD is a seven-minute long behind-the-scenes featurette, which is a mix of talking heads, behind-the-scenes footage, and clips from the movie.

The Verdict

Some of Sword of War works, including Rutger Hauer's performance, some of the battle scenes, the general medieval look. But the story is muddled and the dubbing is poor. (These two problems could be connected.) Add in a DVD that doesn't have a whole lot of extras, and the movie is only worth a rental, and that's if you are a fan of the genre.

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