In his original outline for the novel he intended to call The Un-Dead, Bram Stoker called his villain ‘Count Wampyr’ – if he’d stuck with it, a complicated industry wouldn’t have sprung up about the fairly thin relationship between the real-life 15th Century Wallachian ruler Vlad the Imapaler and Stoker’s fictional Transylvanian vampire Count Dracula. In all likelihood, Stoker just liked the sound of the name, the way R.L. Stevenson liked the sound of the name ‘Israel Hands’ and took it from a real pirate to hang on a fictional character in Treasure Island. Because of the supernatural angle, the fact that Stoker found the name ‘Dracula’ in a historical record, and makes a vague attempt to imply that his vampire is this long-lived character, intrigues more than the relationship between the fictional and historical Macbeth, Cyrano or d’Artagnan.
In 1979, before the Dracula tourism industry really got started, the Romanian film industry turned out this biopic of the historical Vlad, covering many of his atrocities but nevertheless presenting the Prince (Stefan Sileanu) as a national hero rather than a monster. The plot covers a fairly brief period in Vlad’s career – neglecting his several lengthy spells in captivity – as he comes to power, despite the opposition of a cadre of nasty nobles, and rallies the country against the Turks, so effectively resisting their invasions in several big battles shot in lovely green countryside that the Sultan resorts to even greater cruelty (kidnapping and threatening to murder the families of Vlad’s commanders) in order to persuade Vlad’s armies to swear allegiance to his Turk-friendly brother Radu the Handsome.
Sileanu looks exactly like the woodcuts of the Impaler, with Prince Valiant hairdo and a Jason King moustache, and gives him a certain grim humour and integrity (we see him impaling criminals and enemies but don’t get the oft-told stories of his casual murders of supposed subjects and loyal allies) – but the film only tries to present a woodcut rather than a real person or even much of a historical figure. We get a great deal of dashing about on horseback and court pageantry, but no wives intrude on the story and there isn’t even a particular stress on Vlad’s rivalry with his sellout (and probably gay) brother. Directed by Doru Nastase, who specialised in historical-patriotic-mythic sagas.