Kingdom of Heaven

KofH posterWith America’s eyes turning toward the battle for Rifqa Bary in Florida, it seemed fitting to pull this one out of the vault. Americans are famously clueless about history, but especially so when it comes to the history of Islam and Christianity. When I was in Bar Exam preparation, the lecturer, who was your typical American WASP, aparently felt the need to vent concerning the Crusades. He said the kings and knights went off to “teach Christianity to the heathens” in the Middle East, and how they completely destroyed the “Islamic Culture” there “that had existed for thousands of years.” He then went back to legal matters, but many listening had no doubt been entrenched more deeply in very popular and very dangerous misconceptions. Circumstances prevented me from addressing him directly, but I would have liked to point out that, at the time of the Crusades, “Islamic culture” had existed for about 400 years (Christianity, for the record, had been around for about 1000), that the Crusades had nothing to do with converting anyone or teaching anyone anything, but were about reclaiming territory and securing safe pilgrimages for the already faithful, and that they had hardly been unprovoked.

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005) is one of many films about the Crusades. It does succumb to many of the same misconceptions of past films, but  represents an improvement. One review commented that the Muslims in the film were put in a surprisingly positive light. The surprise for me was that the Christians were not portrayed as completely barbaric, as tends to be the habit of Hollywood. For instance, the Kevin Coster version of Robin Hood (1992) introduced a new character in Hazeem, a Muslim who follows Robin to England from Jerusalem (Morgan Freeman). Through Hazeem, Muslims get undeserved credit for all kinds of advances in science, including gunpowder, which came from ancient China, telescopes, which were invented in Denmark in the 17th Century, and Cesarean section. Hazeem tends to be juxtaposed against Friar Tuck, a drunken, bumbling (albeit lovable) figure of Christianity. Worst of all, at one point, Robin Makes a speech, during which he declares “One man, fighting for his home, is more powerful than 10 hired soldiers!” He then looks over at Hazeem and says “The Crusades taught me that.”

And so it goes. Throughout history, from the class room to the silver screen, Christianity is portrayed as having spread out violently from Europe, destroying the peaceful, environmentally sound cultures in its path. Will the real story ever be told?

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Kingdom of Heaven is a definite improvement. Most of the characters we get to know are on the Christian side. Most of them are admirable. The biggest surprise was that the movie portrayed Muslims, Christians and Jews as living peacefully side by side for much of the story. One knight tells the lead, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) that his father, Grodfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) kept Jerusalem as a place of prayer for all faiths, just as the Muslims did before them. (At least now both sides are equally misrepresented.) The villains of the story are Guy de Lusigan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), two French knights who want to provoke a war with Syria. (Those who care to check out the DVD extras will notice the real Guy, at least, wasn’t so bad) They succeed about two thirds of the way through, which leads up to the climactic battle (which, I might add, is a great piece of film-making). We don’t see enough scenes on the Muslim side to really like or dislike them. We do see a brief shot of Saladin crying over the bodies of men slain in battle. We see a lot of shots of both sides shouting “God wills it!” as they move into battle.

In the book “Unveiling Islam,” Ergun Caner, a former Muslim,  comments that this cry (Dues Volt! in Latin) was only adopted in Europe after centuries of raids and colonization by the Arabs.  Other features of Islam seem to have rubbed off on Christians about this time. For instance, the teaching in Islam that one who dies in jihad automatically goes to paradise (Hadith 4:73, 9:93:555) seems to have been adopted by Pope Leo IV, when he promised forgiveness of sins to any who fought the Muslims.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

The heroes of Kingdom tend to be those who acknowledge God’s authority but insist on using cool-headed reason to end conflicts. There is a priest in Christian Jerusalem who comments “thanks to religion, I’ve seen the lunacy of madmen in every denomination be called the will of God. The kingdom God desires is here (pokes Balian in the head) and here (pokes him in the heart).” This evenhanded film is probably characteristic of the post 9/11 era where Americans want to believe all religions are the same. Today, the media can’t seem to fathom that Muslim parents, who’ve cared for their daughter for 17 years, might kill her for apostacy. As she repeatedly told an interviewer, “you guys don’t understand!”

There are a number of battles in history that I have often wished someone would make a movie out of – battles that represent some of Christian Europe’s victories over the Jihad. For instance, the Battle of Tours (A.D. 732), where the French stopped a Muslim army that had pillaged its way across northern Africa and Spain, thus saving western civilization. Or the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571) that broke the Turks’ stranglehold on the Mediterranean and liberated thousands of slaves. Or the valiant defense of Constantinople, which resisted the Ottoman empire (which terrorized the world for about 500 years) for centuries. And then, of course, there were a series of battles late in WWI that marked the final destruction of the Ottomans and the liberation of the Serbs (who are now vilified as oppressors of Muslims). Today, we’re watching the story of a young potential martyr unfold from our livingrooms.

On one hand it seems like a pipe dream to hope that these stories will ever get the remembrance and celebration they deserve in the present climate. Americans can’t seem to fathom a time when western culture was in danger of being overrun.  Still, Kingdom of Heaven might be a step in the right direction. Maybe the next Ridley Scott will read this column. Time will tell.

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Inglourious Basterds

I B Teaser 1-Sht.Few cinematic visionaries have an eye and an ear quite like Quentin Tarantino.  The man is a brand of his own.  When you sit down for one of his movies, you know that the experience of it will be quite different from any other piece of filmmaking not of his craft.  Tarantino is a storyteller through and through, possibly a little self-indulgent in his work and overly animated in his regard for gratuitous violence, but he has a talent for originality from concept to execution.  “Inglourious Basterds” surpasses all of his recent works.

I won’t pretend to know anything about the previous incarnation of “Inglorious Bastards,” but I will say I doubt there can be much comparison based on Tarantino’s signature style and knack for meaty ongoing dialogue.  Much of “Basterds” is just that: a lot of style and talky-talky.  But, like all Tarantino works, the dialogue is so interesting, well-thought-out, and well-delivered that it really absorbs the audience.  Many scenes in the film are built around conversation and the tension often skyrockets.  The actual plot (or plots) of the film seem to exist as an afterthought when the written page onscreen has us so wrapped up.


Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa

I will admit I underestimated the storyline for this film.  I assumed (based on the marketing) that Brad Pitt’s character, Lt. Aldo Raine, and his group of soldiers would spend 2 1/2 hours trekking through WWII Germany hunting, mutilating, torturing, and beating Nazis to bloody pulps.   Well there is some of that, yes, and some of it is very gratuitous and very violent.  Ultimately, that’s not the meat of the story.  Like all Tarantino movies, he constructs these sub-plots that intersect into one final meeting for the characters.  And that is the case here as well.  The movie opens with with a group of Nazi soldiers searching for Jews in hiding.  The Nazi leader, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), drills a dairy farmer for suspected harboring of a missing Jewish family, which the farmer has secretly been doing.  Upon the family’s discovery, Col. Landa orders them to be executed.  One of the younger girls of the family manages to escape and carries the horror of that day with her, until four years later she has an opportunity to avenge her family, which plays into the other developments of the story.  This particular scene reaches an unbelievable amount of tension and is, truthfully, beyond spectacular.  Heartbreaking, yes, but unbelievably effective.  Besides Tarantino’s expert penmanship, due credit belongs to Christoph Waltz’s slithering, brilliant performance–one that will guarantee him an Oscar nomination come year’s end.  Every time he’s onscreen, there is an unsettling sensation running through your veins, and he has many scenes to steal the show.

inglorious picThe Basterds’ chapter comes in after that setup.  As promised by all the commercials and trailers, Brad Pitt’s (who is hugely funny here) slurring southern Leuitenant calls upon him eight soldiers–experts in Nazi killin’.  Among the most recognizable faces are B.J. Novak from ‘The Office’, and Eli Roth (director of Cabin Fever and Hostel).  Roth is the only ‘actor’ in the film that doesn’t quite fit the bill.  It feels very much like an extended cameo by a filmmaker, and it never quite works for the overall look and feel of the movie.  It’s not that he hinders the movie per se, but his presence and performance fail to mesh with everything else.  And that’s hard to do in a film where Tarantino lets anything fly as he totally rewrites history in scene after scene, amounting to sheer brilliance for the most part.

“Inglourious Basterds” is not just violent, or bloody, but it’s also quite humorous, as Tarantino turns Hitler into a cry-baby cartoon, and then saddles every character with outrageous, gut-busting dialogue.  Listen to Brad Pitt pronounce “Bonjour-no” trying to masquerade through a Nazi gathering as an Italian.  Many viewers will walk away offended by the treatment of WWII and the Holocaust as presented here, but this movie is all about fantasy.  This is an alternate-reality revenge-flick put upon the Nazi regime.  Think a successful version of “Valkyrie” meets “Pulp Fiction” meets “Man on Fire.”  The tone of “Basterds” almost works perfectly, but Tarantino does let his scenes run on for some extended length, which make for a very long movie.   Almost every frame actually does work, but as usual for its writer-director, this movie takes its sweet old time.

I can’t complain too much.  This is the work of a filmmaking pioneer, like it or not.  Quentin Tarantino’s short resume has revolutionized cinema to some extent.  “Inglourious Basterds” is a welcome return to greatness we haven’t seen since 1994’s Pulp Fiction, and one of the few great films we’ve been granted this summer.  As a whole, this movie is a bit hit-and-miss, but mostly an awesome, violent, bloody, hilarious, history-rewriting event that should not be missed.

-MJV & the Movies

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pathfind posterWith “Pathfinder,” horror Director Marcus Nispel, (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Friday the 13th, Killer Cut”) attempts to branch out into the historical epic/adventure genre.

Nispel Does deserve kudos for at least one thing with this movie: venturing into a part of history where Hollywood has feared to tread. Much like his characters, he is blazing uncharted territory.

We know that Vikings began to explore North America somewhere between A.D. 900 and 1200. We also know that there were already people there. What happened next must have been a fascinating clash of cultures, and could have made for a really interesting movie. Sadly, Pathfinder never transcends a level of shallowness reminiscent of 1940s propaganda.

The first thing we see in Pathfinder is a montage of Vikings mercilessly slaughtering and enslaving Native Americans. The Vikings don’t even appear human, their horned helmets (which Vikings did not wear) hiding their faces, and they shake the very ground on their horses (which Vikings did not ride).

The text on the screen reads: “600 years before Columbus, North America was invaded by a brutal people bent on settling there. Something stopped them. This is the legend.”

In the scenes that follow, a Native American woman happens upon a wrecked dragon boat, and finds that a Viking boy, 12 years of age, is the sole survivor. She takes him to her village, where the natives in this movie, remarkably ungrizzled by thousands of winters, spout the same humanistic rhetoric as contemporary Hollywood liberals. The boy, now named “Ghost,” is allowed not only to live with the tribe, but also to retain possession of a number of artifacts of the civilization that is slaughtering his hosts, most notably a Viking sword.

Fast forward 10 years. Ghost (Karl Urban) is now a man; a loyal brave of his tribe, although someone (it’s anyone’s guess who) has apparently taught him swordplay and other Viking tactics. Things seem peaceful until another army of Vikings makes landfall nearby and begins raiding villages and killing natives. This time, however, they face a strangely pale-skinned native, who is familiar with their weapons and tactics, and once they’ve killed his adoptive parents, he wages a one-man war against them. One has to wonder how so many men and horses could fit into a few dragon boats, but at least there’s plenty of fodder for Nispel’s next gore fest. Really, the movie is less deserving of ink than the real story.

Karl Urban takes up the sword in "Pathfinder."

Karl Urban takes up the sword in "Pathfinder."

Firstly, while no one could ever call the Vikings humanitarians, there was more to them than sacking and pillaging. The ones who came to the Americas were aspiring not to raiding, or “viking,” but to a quiet life of settled farming. (see What’s more, the Viking raids of European towns were motivated by a desire for precious metals and stones. Needless to say, native American villages wouldn’t have had these, although there still would have been conflicts over land and resources. It is also worth noting that European scholars recorded that Vikings were actually quite hygienic for their time. (Lost Civilizations: Vikings, Thomas H. Flaherty, 1993) The story of their colonization of Greenland is one of remarkable courage. A Viking skeleton has been found there of a man who dislocated his arm during farm work. With no medical care available, he worked with that arm for several more years until he actually wore a new socket in the scapula! (Lost Civ, Faherty, ’93)

As for what “stopped them,” the harder question would be what didn’t. The ships Vikings had were glorified canoes, and the journey – some 3,000 miles across the violent north Altlantic – would have been exceedingly difficult for seasoned sailors, let alone women, children and livestock.

The land that far north was only slightly more hospitable. ( The Vikings might have made it had they learned from the Inuit, who subsisted entirely on seals and fish. The farming lifestyle that Vikings knew would have been extremely difficult in a part of the world reputed to have “10 months of winter and two months of bad sledding.” A combination of rough seas, brutal winters and starvation are much more likely to have “stopped” the invaders than a guy with a slingshot (not to spoil the end or anything).

It also needs to be said that native Americans were far from gentle when it came to dealing with captured enemies. The Iriquoi, whom the Vikings would have encountered, made a habit of torturing prisoners. The accounts of some of their activities are enough to chill the blood. (The Jesuite Relations, Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1791) This wasn’t because they were any less civilized than anyone else, but because they were hardened by a daily fight for survival. Hollywood humanism didn’t exist yet, and a child of an enemy tribe, native or European, probably would have been ignored, if he were lucky.

It’s not that I expect movies to be 100% realistic. It’s just that this could have been a great film. The Vikings and the various native tribes of the northeast were fascinating peoples. Doubtless there was bravery, passion, and at times great evil on both sides. “Pathfinder” cheapens both sides almost beyond recognition. And all for the sake of turning our brains off for battle-action that’s too gruesome to enjoy anyway.

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Lions for Lambs

Robert Redford is one of the most distinguished individuals in Hollywood today:  his decades-spanning film acting career includes such classic titles as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men, and Out of Africa.  As a director he has produced indelible works like Ordinary People, A River Runs Through It, and The Horse Whisperer.  He even played an instrumental role in founding Sundance Film Festival the annual indie-movie showcase named after his role in Butch Cassidy.  Lions for Lambs, his most recent project which directed and in which he starred, is an intriguing film that explores many facets of the War on Terror as seen through roughly intertwining vignettes involving a Republican senator and a liberal interviewer, a college professor and his young mush-minded pupil, and two students-turned-soldiers who are on the front lines of a new attack strategy masterminded by the senator.  While the acting and direction are top-notch, perhaps the film’s most impressive quality is its restraint, as Redford deeply explores many sides of a complicated issue instead of using the hour and twenty minute running time to grind a particular political axe.  It’s classic Robert Redford:  classy.

When this movie came out I was surprised at how little attention it got from the general public.  Having watched it this week, though, I think I can understand why:  Lions for Lambs is not exactly entertaining per se, and it’s also a tricky premise to sell to an audience (especially an audience that has catapulted drivel like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen into the box office stratosphere) because of the multi-faceted approach to telling its story.  The action unfolds in real time as senator Jasper Irving, played by Tom Cruise who looks and acts like the all-growed-up version of his Daniel Kaffe character in A Few Good Men, is being interviewed by journalist Janine Roth, played by Meryl Streep.  She gets him to spill the beans about a new strategy for finally winning the War –a plan that is being put into action in Afghanistan as they speak, and involves two young soldiers who get separated from the rest of their platoon.  The two soldiers just happen to be former students of professor Stephen Malley–Robert Redford in a role that feels as natural as any he has ever played, if a bit more passionate at times.  Malley is, at the same time this is all going on, trying to knock some real-world sense into one of his students (young actor Andrew Garfield, channeling a healthy dose of Judd Nelson’s character from The Breakfast Club), using his former students as examples of true courage and conviction, even though he personally disagrees with their decision to join the military.

The movie isn’t so much a story as it is an exploration of a political topic.  And yet, despite the intensely political nature of the film, it never gets preachy.  The characters come across as passionate but not informed and far from their stereotypical raving counterparts in so many movies today.  There are no easy answers to the solution to the War, and the viewpoints expressed by the various characters are thoughtful and reasonable as opposed to ideological diatribes.  Several express regret over past mistakes, and the media at large is even taken to task for its role in ramping up the hype for the War years ago.  However, all this serves as an interesting essay or PBS debate, but it does not serve to make the most engaging movie.  For all that I appreciate about Lions for Lambs, it does boil down to little more than 80 minutes of dialog, and the disconnected nature of the plot keeps it from being in the same league as movies like Frost/Nixon.  There is no main character to follow, no central storyline other than the peril of the two stranded soldiers, and the conflict rests mainly in the minds of the audience rather than the characters.

But it’s a fine film overall, especially for people who are looking for a more thoughtful approach to politics in their movies.

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