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Boudica And Rooting for the Colonized
As long as the colonized are the right kind of people.
Boudica: Queen of War is a generic scuzzy action/revenge pic, with few frills or pretentions. As a result, it provides an unusually straightforward, almost didactic lesson in how central anti-colonialism is to Hollywood’s moral universe—and in why that moral, imagined anti-colonialism doesn’t translate into much support for resistance movements or anti-colonialism in the real world.
The film is very loosely based on a historical British revolt against the Romans in 60 AD. Boudica (Olga Kurylenko) is the wife of King Prasutagus (Clive Standen), who pays willing vassalage to Rome to avoid conflict and unpleasantness. However, Rome covets his well-positioned fort, and connives with his advisor Ciaran (Leo Gregory) to ambush him while he’s out fighting bandits. Boudica inherits the throne, but Emperor Nero (Harry Kirton) has declared that women aren’t allowed to rule because of prophecies about a woman king challenging the emperor. So regent Catus Decianus (Nick Moran) deposes Boudica, takes her kingdom, whips her, and kills her children. She is rescued by British partisans, and launches a war of revenge, with lots of extremely bloody battle set-pieces. Her martyrdom becomes a mythical foundation for British nationalism, embodied in the big honking statue you get to gaze at in the final frames.
This is, again, very clearly a story of anti-colonial struggle; the Romans are outside invaders who compare Boudica’s daughters to monkeys, sneer at the Briton’s savagery, extract wealth, impose their own customs, and murder and assault the populace with impunity. They are tyrannical imperialists; Boudica’s resistance movement is an indigenous struggle for freedom. She’s been crushed and she is rising against her oppressor; that’s why she’s righteous. That’s why you’re on her side.
Is it why you’re on her side though? The plot derives its energy from anti-colonial struggle, but it’s anti-colonial struggle that’s carefully curated.
In the first place, we’ve gone back some 2000 years to find a point where Britain is the colonized rather than the colonizer. Through the power of Hollywood anachronism, we’re rooting for Anglophone white resistors against Mediterranean aggressors.
More, the film takes great pains to make sure that Boudica is a hero we can get behind. It does that not by showing us she’s a good person, exactly. Instead, the first half of the film is dedicated to showing that Boudica is a good woman. She is put through a kind of gauntlet of feminine validation; she goes to buy makeup, she goes to buy cloth for a pretty dress, she dotes on her children and her husband. She plays at sword-fighting in a cute, non-threatening way that underlines her harmlessness and not-warriorness.
The transition from decorative feminine helpmeet in flattering rouge to raging warrior Queen in blue battle facepaint is supposed to be dramatic. But the femininity isn’t just to set up a contrast; it’s to justify the bloodshed. The crime of colonialism in this movie is that it defiles a beautiful, faithful, pure white wife and mother. Boudica is a paragon even after her transformation; she remains faithful to her dead husband even though she’s attracted to the mercenary Wolfgar (Peter Franzen), and even though sleeping with him would help cement his commitment to the cause.
The message of the film, then, isn’t exactly that colonialism is wrong because all people deserve to be free. It’s that this colonialism is wrong because there is a universal imperative to protect the purity and innocence of white women and the sanctity of the nuclear family which white British women ensure and preserve. Even the theoretically revolutionary themes of women’s empowerment are carefully damped down; Boudica has no real desires or emotions other than revenging her family, and she’s portrayed as monomaniacal and insane with grief—she sees and consults with her dead daughters, who direct her war from the spirit realm. Unlike Sailor Moon or Buffy, she has to break with femininity to be a hero; unlike Sarah Connor or Ripley, breaking with femininity drives her insane.
Boudica is a third-tier release with a limited cultural footprint and an audience that mostly wants to enjoy watching someone (sure, Roman soldiers, why not?) brutally dismembered via enjoyably tactile practical effects. It’s a symptom rather than a cause. But the symptoms are I think telling.
There’s a fairly broad consensus now that colonialism is a bad thing. But the imagined badness of colonialism relies on the colonized being a lot like the colonizers in terms of complexion, gender norms, language, and (imagined) innocence. Empathy for the colonized doesn’t necessarily make the colonizer sympathize; it may make the colonizer demand that the colonized become the colonizer. Boudica pretends to represent an anti-colonial dream, but it is in many respects a fantasy of colonization, in which the other is transformed into an idealized self in an effort to justify one’s own way of life and one’s own fantasies of blood.
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