Episode 1: Go East Young Men

Episode One Podcast

The three movies we cover in this episode are: Ridley Scott’s 2005 Crusade saga  – Kingdom of Heaven; Oliver Stone’s 2004 bio-pic – Alexander; and Zach Snyder’s 2006 extravaganza – 300. We decided to start with these because they all fall into a classic Hollywood genre: the sword and sandals epics. What these films have in common is also what makes them weird because when you think about that kind of movie, you think of it as something way outdated and not a popular draw. But in the years since 9/11 THEY KEEP SHOWING UP

Sure, Ridley Scott made Gladiator in the 1990s, but part of what made that movie such a success was that it sort of reimagined the genre. We weren’t expecting him to go back to that well again. And Oliver Stone, whose obsession with history is usually – even notoriously – centered in 20th century American history – is suddenly interested in Alexander the Great. And superhero movie auteur Zach Snyder decided that the best follow up to his remake of Dawn of the Dead was a graphic novel revisiting a battle from ancient Greek history. 

What are the lies agreed upon that these movies have in common? 

  1. That lengthy wars are inevitable and justified in the name of defending civilization against barbarians.
  2. That the East and the West have always and will always be enemies.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – Directed by Ridley Scott, written by William Monahan. It stars Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, Edward Norton, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Sheen, among others. Bloom is a French blacksmith named Balian who heads off to the Crusades because his life is really crappy in Europe. In fact, at the beginning of the film we get a helpful scroll telling us all that Europe is a mess and men are fleeing to the east to seek their fortunes. 

The year is  1184 to be precise (which is between the Second and Third Crusades for those keeping score), Jerusalem is ruled over by Christians at this point in the 200-year collision between Christain and Muslim. Apparently, because he’s the bastard son of a knight (Liam Neeson) who convinces him to go along, Balian is able to quickly acquire all the skill he needs, like swordfighting. 

Once we’re in Jerusalem, it isn’t really what the average viewer is expecting. After their previous victory, the Christians have set up a King in Jerusalem (Edward Norton), who is trying to keep the multi-ethnic, multi-religion, multi-racial territory in a workable peace and hates it when fundamentalists show up – in other words, Crusaders. The rest of the movie is the tolerant/enlightened Christians, including the King, his advisor Tiberias (played by Jeremy Irons), Balian, and the King’s sister, Sybilla, played by Eva Green,  as well as the equally reasonable Saladin (played really well by Syrian actor/filmmaker Ghassan Massoud) trying to stop the region from blowing up into a war because of the ignorant, violence-loving radical Christian Knights Templar, who act as the posse for Sybilla’s husband, Guy de Lusignan. 

Initially, when Balian arrives and claims the lands given to his now-dead father, the plot is dedicated to showing the improvement of the lands, and the wise leadership of the King. We are introduced first to Saladin’s chief minister and then to Saladin himself, who are also eager to keep the peace so that the various people can prosper. 

There are a series of escalating events, all caused by either Guy himself or the leader of the Knights Templar, Raynard (played by Brendan Gleeson). Multiple times, a major war is averted due to the tolerant leadership on both sides. But eventually, war is provoked. Raynard kills Saladin’s sister and so Saladin is forced to respond. And that gives Guy and his fundamentalist followers the excuse to drag the entire society into a giant confrontation between Muslims and Christians. 

The battle becomes a siege which becomes a stalemate. Eventually, Balian and Saladin parlay. They agree to spare the innocent people of Jerusalem by having the Christians retreat and leave the city to Saladin. 

Of course this also means that the lands and title that Balian inherited from his crusader father must also be abandoned. And the end of the movie finds Balian living happily as a blacksmith in France again, with Sybilla as his wife. The next wave of crusaders come through town on their way to retake Jerusalem yet again, but Balian refuses to join them.  A final message on the screen reads “nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Holy Land still remains elusive.”

It seems since Braveheart every one of these sweeping historical dramas needs a big speech. Let’s listen to Balian describing the true meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven:

Ridley Scott and William Monahan are getting the 12th Century to do a lot of heavy lifting in the cultural commentary department. But they aren’t alone. Oliver Stone, similarly, seems to have thought Alexander the Great would be a good vehicle for him to work out what he was feeling in response to the current state of affairs. 

Alexander (2004) was written by Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle and stars Colin Farrel, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto among others.

The film is based on the life of Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, who conquered Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia and part of Ancient India. Stone begins by showing us Alexander’s early life, including his difficult relationship with his father Philip II of Macedon, his strained feeling towards his mother Olympias, and his “close friendships” with other noble Macedonians. But most of the film concerns the conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 BC. It also details his plans to reform his empire and the attempts he made to reach the end of the then known world.

Stone can’t decide whether Alexander’s mission of blending civilizations is laudable or fanciful, and neither do the characters. It is clear Stone is flummoxed by Alexander’s sexuality and we have to endure his discomfort as well. 

Alexander’s tutor was Aristotle, which isn’t bad I guess, but he had some nasty things to say about the Persians:

At the end of it all, Alexander’s story doesn’t quite work for the message of tolerance – because the Greeks were the ones who didn’t seem so keen – and Oliver Stone couldn’t decide whether Bablylon and India were awesome and way more fun than Greece, nor could he deal with Alexander’s homosexuality because it got in the way of his textbook exoticization of the “East”. 

300 doesn’t have any of those problems.  300 (2006) was originally a graphic novel by Frank Miller and inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. It is directed by Zach Snyder and written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad. It stars Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, and Rodgrigo Santoro as Xerxes

In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army in a mountain pass. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. Persian King Xerxes led an army of well over 100,000 men to Greece and was confronted by 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans. Xerxes waited for 10 days for King Leonidas to surrender or withdraw but left with no options he pushed forward. Leonidas and the 300 sacrifice themselves to allow Greece more time to prepare and fight another day. 

The movie version of this story sets the elders of Sparta, who refuse to ok Leonidas’s pan to keep the Persians at bay, against the brave 300. It’s revealed as the movie goes on that at least one of those politicians has been bribed by Xerxes. Played as a true slimeball by Dominic West, he forces Gorgo to hav sex with him in exchange for a promise to send reinforcements, but he doesn’t and then he tries to publicly shame Gorgo to further discredit her and her husband. Gorgo kills him. Her husband might be dead, but virtuous Sparta will live on in her son, and with the leadership of Leonidas’s right hand man Dilios, one year later, the Greeks fight as a united force and repel the Persians.

In between the bloody fighting there are moments to speak about a clash of civilizations, mythologizing Sparta as a democratic racial stronghold and Persia as the colossus from the East. Let’s listen to the fateful meeting between Xerxes and King Leonidas:

So why have we chosen these three movies? Why did the writers, directors, and producers all decide to make these movies? Why did they think the movie going public would want to watch these movies? Simply by the way we’ve summarized these films you’ve probably started to pick up some common elements. But to make things clearer, let’s remind everyone just what was going on between 2004 and 2206, when these movies were released.

 The George W. Bush administration launched an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 after misleading the public about connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.  Bush famously declared mission accomplished in May, although the war dragged on for another 8 years, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and untold treasure, and he infamously called the war a “crusade,” alarming even the conservative National Review, which depicted a cartoon Bush as a Knight Templar. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan was also raging, and had been since right after 9/11. The moviegoing public in the west watched wars rage in these two Muslim countries. It was styled by media and pundits and some lazy historians as a clash of civilizations. And it was in this moment that Hollywood felt compelled to excavate the history of the region where those clashes had supposedly been going on for millenia.

The problem is that Bush himself, amazingly, was unable to articulate a coherent strategy or message about what came to be known as the Global War on Terror.  Let’s listen to Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress just days after 9/11

Notice how he distinguishes between Islam and the radical extremists represented by Al Qaeda and compare that to this impromptu press conference on the White House lawn. 

So now, let’s return to the plots of these movies…and the lies agreed upon:

In the aftermath of 9/11, the lies agreed upon were that lengthy wars are inevitable and justified in the name of defending civilization against barbarians. And that the east and the west have always and will always be enemies.

Bush’s speech to Congress is a careful expression of the clash of civilizations, a sentiment that seems more like Balian’s  on the walls of Jerusalem. There are good Muslims and its a shame it had to come to this, but this war must be fought.  

Bush’s Crusade press conference, where he attacks the evil doers and condemns the barbarism trying to attack a superior western civilization is all 300, except if we were being historically accurate it is the Spartans who are the savage barbarians and the Persians the cultured civilization.  

Alexander is muddled and wavers between preaching a clash of civilization thesis versus coexistence and mutual respect. I think this might be the most accurate description of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Muddled, improvised, swallowed up by the East, like all who came before it. 

It is painfully clear by now that that September 17, 2001 Bush speech ushered in an era of endless war, something our three movies also address. The Crusades, Alexander’s conquest, and nearly a century of Greece vs. Persia followed rapidly by Greece vs. Greece. 

What have we learned from the endless wars, both real and imagined?  First, the fundamentalists are the most violent, and often Christian or representing the West. The Spartans are the blood thirsty death cultists and Alexander’s Macedonians wander the known world for no discernible reason.

Second, if you think you will be greeted as liberators, think again. The Crusaders learned this hard way, as did the Persians, and later the Spartans for that matter. Alexander’s enlightened idea of blending civilizations was less popular with the Greeks than the people he conquered.

Finally, the wars pit the disciplined and heroic West versus the chaotic hordes of the East. In 300, the Persians are literally monstrous. If defeat comes at the hands of the East, and it does in each film, it is only because of their vast numbers, indifference to death, and slave mentality. 

In episode two we ask, how did we get here?

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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