Frederick I was emperor and leader of the Holy Roman Empire and also King of Germany. He led several campaigns into Italy in the 12th century and was given the name Barbarossa, which means “red beard” in Italian. This film details his attempts to gain power of Italy and the resistance he was met with. It also depicts his force’s clash with a group of men known as “The Company of Death” at the Battle of Legnano. Directed and co-written by Renzo Martinelli, it has been released under the title Sword of War for the North American DVD market.
In the opening scene of the film, a group of men on horseback are hunting a wild boar. After splitting up, one man skewers the boar with his spear but is then thrown from his horse. Charged down by the angry and wounded boar, he is saved by a boy with a crossbow. The boy is called Alberto and he is surprised when the man reveals himself to be Frederick I of Hohenstaufen, the Emperor, also known as Barbarossa (played by Rutger Hauer). The Emperor gives him a dagger as thanks and the pair go their separate ways.
Barbarossa marries a young French girl called Beatrice, who proves to be a confident and determined ally. Alberto grows up in the city of Milan with his father and brothers. He is in love with a beautiful but strange young woman called Eleonora, who has visions of the future.
Milan rebels against the Empire and Barbarossa takes an army to destroy the city. During the siege, Alberto sneaks out to the enemy camp. Barbarossa discovers him but seeing his dagger, remembers the young boy who saved him from the boar and spares his life.
Milan falls and Alberto suffers a great loss, thanks in large part to the machinations of Siniscalco Barozzi (F. Murray Abraham). Barbarossa orders the Milanese citizens to disperse in different directions and the city of Milan to be literally wiped off the map.
The Milanese start to regroup and Alberto creates a force called “The Company of Death”, young men from across Italy who will stop at nothing to defend their homeland. They believe it is better to be dead than a slave, and give Braveheart-esque shouts of “Freedom!” Together, they go to face Barbarossa’s mighty forces in what would become known as the Battle of Legnano.
This film caused a stir on its release in Italy, when it emerged that it had received backing from Umberto Bossi, leader of the far-right Northern League, and that he had been using the film as propaganda at rallies. French actress Cecile Cassel (sister of Vincent) said that she would not have accepted the part of Barbarossa’s wife Beatrice if she had known about the film’s “political ghosts”.
Barbarossa Siege Lord has some very nice cinematography, especially the wide shots of the vast landscapes. The battle scenes are good fun and bloody, if a little over-dramatic. However, the story feels long and drawn out and loses its momentum after the siege at the castle of Milan. There are also conflicting sympathies between the supposed protagonist Alberto and his rival, the title character played by the more well-known Rutger Hauer. I often found myself taking the side of Barbarossa and even Barozzi because these performances were much more convincing and enjoyable. Also, as an aside, some of the minor characters appear to have been dubbed as the audio is slightly out of sync with the picture.
That being said, this film has the makings of a good medieval war epic. 12th century Italian politics and the Holy Roman Empire may be a bit too obscure for most people who like their historical adventures but it is interesting and entertaining for the most part and is worth a watch, especially for fans of the brilliant Rutger Hauer, who commands attention and respect as the mighty Emperor.
[DVD screener provided by flickfeast. Review originally posted here]