For 60 years now the world has thrilled and guffawed to the exploits of Asterix the Gaul, the pint-sized, prodigiously nosed national hero created for French comics (or bandes dessinées – literally “drawn strips” – if you’re feeling continental) anthology Pilote by writer René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo.
Outliving his creators (Goscinny passed in 1977, Uderzo in 2013), the scrappy rebel has been beating up Roman legionaries, eating wild boar, and hanging out with his big-bellied best mate, Obelix, for some 42 collected volumes now. His adventures have been translated into more than 100 languages and earned legions of fans, Roman or otherwise, around the world, including a dedicated English-speaking audience.
The concept is deceptively simple yet conceals deep complexity. As the opening of every story tells us, “The year is 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely... One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaires who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium...”
The bravest warrior of the village is, of course Asterix, a crafty, short little fellow gifted with superhuman strength by a magic potion brewed by the village druid, Getafix. His best friend, Obelix, is a hulking, good-natured brute. The pair, with various other characters often in tow, traipse around the ancient world having adventures across Europe, the Middle East and beyond, more often than not pitting themselves against the might of the Roman Empire, but never shying away from beating the hell out of whatever villain happens to be handy (the comics are very violent, but in a cheerfully slapstick manner).
What a premise! Using this framework, Goscinny and Uderzo produced a long-running body of work of impressive durability and wide appeal. Younger readers could enjoy Uderzo’s appealing grotesque caricatures and the rough-and-tumble knockabout humour, while older fans could plug into the more sophisticated satire and the historical detail; the comics compress several hundred years of history and culture for dramatic and humorous effect, but it’s not like many other places were talking about the Gallic Wars, or Roman colonisation of the Levant. Both could enjoy the puns – as evidenced by the character names, Goscinny was not above cheap wordplay, which was carried cross the language barrier by some skilled translators.
Inevitably the big screen called in 1967 with Asterix the Gaul, the first of 10 traditionally animated films, the last of which, Asterix and the Vikings, was released in 2006. However, in 1999, to mark the character’s 40th anniversary, the pugnacious warrior made the leap to live action with Asterix and Obelix Take on Caesar (Asterix and Obelix Vs Caesar in some parts of the world).
Melding together elements from a number of the books, including but not limited to Asterix the Gaul, Asterix and the Soothsayer, Asterix and the Goths, Asterix the Legionary and Asterix the Gladiator, the film was an all-star effort, directed by veteran French filmmaker Claude Zidi (My New Partner, La Totale!) and starring Christian Clavier (Les Visiteurs) as Asterix and Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) as the duplicitous Roman, Lucius Detritus. Crucially, the film also saw French acting legend Gerard Depardieu in the role of Obelix, a piece of casting so perfect it defies description.
Clavier and Depardieu returned in 2002, this time under the direction of Alain Chabat (French Twist, The Science of Sleep) for Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, an adaptation of the 1963 book Asterix and Cleopatra, which had already been adapted as an animated feature in 1968. Chabat himself took on the role of Julius Caesar, with the star power kept on high beam by Monica Bellucci dropping in for the title role. At the time of production, the film was the highest-budget production in the history of French cinema, featuring lavish production design, massive set pieces and, incongruously, a theme song by Snoop Dogg.
Clavier bowed out for 2008’s Asterix at the Olympic Games, with Clovis Cornillac (A Private Affair, A Very Long Engagement) subbing in for the lead role in an adventure that, as you have no doubt guessed from the title, had Asterix and Obelix (Depardieu again, because why mess with perfection?) competing against a squad led by Brutus (Belgian comedian Benoît Poelvoorde) at the titular games. This entry was not only the most expensive French film at the time of production, it was the most expensive non-English language film of all time, too, with a budget of $113.5m. Fittingly a string of sports superstars made cameos, including Michael Schumacher, Jean Todt, Zinedine Zidane, Tony Parker and Amélie Mauresmo, but for film fans the standout was French New Wave luminary Alain Deloin gracing us with his turn as Caesar.
Cornillac was arguably the George Lazenby of the Asterix film franchise, racking up a single appearance before being replaced by Edouard Bayer (Chicken With Plums) for 2012’s Asterix and Obelix in Britain, also known as Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia. Funnily enough, Bayer also had a small role in Mission Cleopatra. The last live action Asterix adventure to date, the film was made on half the budget of its predecessor and sees Asterix and Obelix (Depardieu yet again) haring off through Roman-occupied Britain with a barrel of magic potion to help the Britons fight their invaders. The great, and now late, Jean Rochefort (Cartouche, The Phantom of Liberty) pulls the now seemingly mandatory “French acting royalty” duty as a Roman senator.
Asterix made another jump in 2014, this time back to animation, now of the computer-generated kind. Adapted from the 1971 comic of the same name, Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods, the first 3D Asterix film, sees the doughty Gauls fighting against a whole new threat: gentrification in the form of the eponymous Roman real estate development whose veiled intent is to “Romanise” the Gaulish countryside.
Roger Carrel and Guillaume Briat voice Asterix and Obelix while an all-star cast, including Jack Whitehall, Nick Frost, Matt Berry, Catherine Tate, Harry Enfield and Jim Broadbent, was assembled for the English dub. With a sequel, Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion, just released in Australian cinemas earlier this year, no doubt we haven’t seen the last of Asterix and Obelix on our screens.