Viggo Mortensen as Captain Alatriste
Before Sean Bean traveled through Middle Earth, he embodied a fictional English rifleman who fought against France in the Peninsula Wars – Richard Sharpe. After Viggo Mortensen escorted the Hobbits to Mordor, he embodied a 17th century fictional Spanish soldier – Captain Alatriste – who fought in Flanders while the Spanish Empire crumbled.
Sharpe and Alatriste are the creations of history novelists: Bernard Cornwell and Arturo Perez-Reverte. Although set 200 years apart, the characters have similarities. Neither are well-born; pragmatism is their credo; they are loyal to their comrades and contemptuous of authority figures. They are men of honour, but their moral codes are unconventional.
The budget for the film of the Alatriste novels was the largest for any Spanish film made at that date (2005). It is quite possible you may never have heard of the film, although it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened world wide by 2007. I had given up all hope of seeing the film, until today, Day 2 of my Netflix fee trial.
While shooting the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Viggo learned to handle a sword – well, really well. Alatriste’s weapon of choice is a sword. Viggo is fluent in Spanish, and a bankable action star. A box office trifecta you would think. Unfortunately for fans of Sharpe, Aubrey, Hornblower et al, Spain has always been the enemy.
There are conventions in English-speaking history novels that become a short-hand, colours of uniforms, shapes of flags, shapes of helmets – and the profile of rifles. They are visual cues that enable the viewer to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
I was blind watching Alatriste, because of my complete lack of familiarity with history from a Spanish perspective. My ignorace hindered my ability to watch a stunning film. The aesthetic is that of a Velasquez painting come to life. Yet Viggo and his companions engendered emotions that led to tears while watching the final scene, because of a universal truth – soldiers fight not for their king, but their band of brothers.
Missing from Alatriste was ‘the speech’ – no Once more into the breach for Harry and for England. Through composition and acting the finale of Alatriste had all the crie de couer of Harry at Agincourt.
Netflix’s version has subtitles – terse, simple and I suspect lacking in the emotion of the Spanish dialogue. This film is not for the squeamish. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are graphic.
Alatriste may be one of the best films about war and politics you have never seen.