Ideology and the Modern Historical Epic: How the political concerns in the genre have changed since 11th September 2001
Leon Saunders Calvert
Introduction and Assumptions
“All observations are theory-impregnated: there is no pure, disinterested, theory-free observation.” That is to say, no observation is ever truly objective as it cannot be free from the subject observing. As our brains process sensory information they automatically infuse it with our own theories about the world, interpreting it based on previous observation and already held presumptions in order that we can understand what we are seeing. We can of course consciously project more sophisticated ideas and analysis onto the world we observe which add to or change the way we interpret things but even without this the world is ‘theory soaked’ by and for each individual. This is necessarily equally true of art. No film, however superficial it might appear is ever ideologically innocent. It is inevitably laced with theory and assumption about the way the world is or how it should be. Mainstream Hollywood cinema is often rightly lambasted for being superficial, pandering to economic interests and being largely bereft of any serious intellectual, emotional or political content. Careful analysis of these films, however, may allow us to extract the political pre-occupations and social or personal fantasies which burden the picture, often unknowingly reflecting generally shared social views and values. If a film is hugely successful it is unlikely to be so just because of the expensive special effects, but rather because it taps into shared desires and issues, both political and personal, and attempts to resolve them for us (more often than not in such a way that would be impossible in real life). “The whole point about Hollywood blockbusters is that the audience – primarily the people of non-coastal America, but nowadays everyone from Johannesburg to Moscow to Taipei – has its hopes and fears reflected back at it.” This is hardly a revolutionary idea and has been the predominant theme of critical thinking about film, most notably in political film theory, for the last few decades; “American film is both the carrier of the dominant ideology and a reflector, occasionally even an arbitrator, of the changes and shifts within it. Film tends to support the dominant ideology when it presents itself as unmediated reality.”
Following on from this one would expect recent mainstream cinema to try and deal with the social and moral issues thrown up by the most profound global political event in the last few years; the terrorist attacks of September 11 th 2001 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’, carried out in military terms in Afghanistan and then Iraq. This crystallised the deepening resistance from some in the Muslim world against everything they saw as Western. There is also, of course, the ongoing problems between Israel and Palestine, the conflict that lives at the heart of the Islam and the West debate. Politics has all of a sudden become important again after an apathetic period post Cold War and we are faced with major issues that require practical responsive actions. Nobody has a monopoly of knowledge on these issues though and they have invaded each of our the personal lives of each of us; East versus West, religious fundamentalism, religion and the state, tolerance, democracy, globalisation, are just a few of the important topics of discussion that have gained new urgency because of the new global political coordinates.
An interesting resurgence in American cinema in the last few years has been the return of the historical epic, last seen many decades ago with films such as Spartacus, Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, The 300 Spartans, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, and so on. It is relatively easy to look back and project onto these epics of the 1950s social concerns of the time, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and so on, but a close look at their modern reincarnations also reveals desperate attempts to wrestle with our social anxieties and this essay will attempt to discuss and, hopefully, reveal how the ideologies found in those films since September 11 th are markedly different from those prior.
Having established some of my assumptions, I will start the essay proper through an analysis of the few epic historical movies that came out in the decade leading up to September 11 th before studying the genre movies post 9/11 to demonstrate the shift in preoccupations between the two. I will look at how each of the films post September 11 th attempt to deal with the concerns thrown up by the present political climate, both explicitly and implicitly, consciously or unconsciously – no doubt revealing some of my own social prejudices along the way given my open advocacy of a Popperian philosophy of tolerance and the Open Society.
The genre pre September 11th
Whilst the historical epic was not fully reignited until the release of Gladiator in 2000 it is worth skimming over the various films inhabiting the genre in the decade prior to this to examine which conflicts they choose to depict and what their overriding thematic elements are.
There were two geographical settings which acted as inspiration for the quasi-epic historical movies released in the decade prior to 9/11. These were the various battles fought by the European imperial powers for dominance over Europe (Henry V, Rob Roy, The Messenger) and America (The Last of The Mohicans, The Patriot). In both cases the conflicts with which we are presented are those involving only the western powers (admittedly this is with the exception of the often confused racial themes found in the films set in America about Western encounters with indigenous American Indians and with the African slave trade). The audience is asked to identify with one side of this power struggle, usually identified for thematic purposes as the victimised side, who fights against oppression by the powerful and demonised Other. In this case however the ‘other’ does not constitute something radically different and unrecognisable from ourselves but merely the alternative western power. The two sides have intertwining histories, close geographic backgrounds, similar traditions and religious environments, and comparable goals and aspirations for themselves individually and for their peoples collectively. Only the language and relatively minor cultural and historical differences separate the two, but these differences are exaggerated by both sides in order to distance them from each other. In all the films above, the conflicts represented are between cultures that are, if not quite homogenous, certainly not as distinct as each would like to believe (as is often the way, we rebel most strongly against those who are most similar to us). They represent wars and battles between western powers whose degree of divergence is exaggerated. Their discord does not stem from the problem of the ‘other’.
We will see that the films released after 9/11 choose distinctly different settings and conflicts, where clashes are between cultures with significantly different traditions and influences. Of the pre-9/11 films however Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) is worth an extra mention given that it touches briefly but directly on one of the themes that will become central to post September 11th thought, the Crusades. The film begins with Robin’s escape from slavery in Jerusalem having taken part in King Richard’s crusade to the holy land. The film is not overtly political but displays a certain amount of simplistic anachronistic liberal tolerance as Robin laments his father’s death upon his return to England, “He called the crusades a foolish quest. He said it was vanity to force other men to our religion”. This forced revisionism extends to the addition to the story of Morgan Freeman’s Moorish character. The film’s primary theme however is with fight against repression by those of the same culture and country, simplistic morality being the good poor against the greedy and power hungry rich. In essence there is no fundamental cultural conflict, clashes arise instead from class difference and more directly from the denial of freedom due to oppression from a malevolent tyrant.
It was not until the release of Braveheart(1995) that signs that audiences might once again flock to these sorts of films. Whilst undeniably well made, Braveheart is a crude and historically naïve piece undeserving of the critical adulation it has received but is nonetheless an effectively produced and emotionally manipulative piece of entertainment. Manipulating history to serve its own quasi-nationalistic purposes, it hypocritically claims as its central theme the notion of freedom. Whilst certainly a noble and worthy theme, Braveheart’s notion of freedom is somewhat woolly and confused. It seemingly takes the fight for freedom found in Kubrick’s Spartacus as its template but never fully explains what it would mean to have political freedom and substitutes a modern, loud, crude and somewhat empty ideal in its place which fits uncomfortably with the film’s black and white caricatured morality, which offers “a stew of Hollywood clichés. Political analysis is not on the menu; this is a tale of heroes ‘n’ villains, pure and simplistic. The Sassenachs are rude stereotypes, while the Scots are either macho hunks or, should they be aristos, dour quislings…[The film is] one dimensional and rhetorically solemn. Pure hokum.”
Gladiator is the only film to which I will give serious analysis from the epics released prior to September 11th as it stands in popular opinion as the apotheosis of the modern epic and is by and large credited with reviving the genre and setting the benchmark for all those to follow due to its critical and commercial success. It is not hard to see why Gladiator has earned such a reputation. It is a consummately professional production that has an almost Shakespearean air about it. Ridley Scott, “less an auteur than a top-dollar metteur en scène”, is at the peak of his game, using his grandiose sets and special effects together with his eye for lighting and shot composition to create a suitably grand and visually striking spectacle. The film’s success is also largely indebted to the excellent acting, most notably Russell Crowe delivering a lead performance with seemingly no end of gravitas and pathos. Gladiator, however, is just as guilty as one of its influences, Braveheart, of dabbling with the history books. It is a more thoughtful and intellectually rigorous work, however, which stands up better to close analysis than does Braveheart. The manipulated history, whilst not overly commendable, does not lend credence to anything so disastrous as a nationalistic ideology as in Braveheart but rather serves to allow for a more acceptable (by mainstream standards) character arc for the central role. Gladiator is at its core a moral story, but more a personal one, of Maximus’ dignity and ability to do good through action and character, rather than a political one. Maximus, like all the best action heroes, is impossibly heroic yet not quite to the extent that it damages our ability to identify with him and break our sense of suspension of disbelief. He feeds directly into the male omnipotence fantasy, asserting himself onto the world with limitless effectiveness. He is far from the 1980s Reaganite heroes of Stallone or Schwarzenegger, displaying a thoughtful ethical code which he sees as his reason for living, “Ancestors I honour you and will try to live with the dignity you have taught me.” When provoked by the Emperor who tells him how his wife was raped by those who killed her and her son, Maximus responds not with his fists with noble restraint, “The time for celebrating yourself will soon be over.” Gladiator, possessing the perfect hero for the modern audience, is a largely personal story of redemption and morally justified revenge which on the surface at least only happens to be set at the height of the Roman Empire but could equally be transposed onto any historical time and place. Nevertheless it certainly does have social and political offerings if put under close examination. The film recognises the problem with the commonly accepted modern notion of democracy as the will of the people. Commodus, the film points out, is very much in the people’s favour despite being a dictator as he delivers for them the lowest common denominator, blood sport. As Gracchus states, “Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it's the sand of the Coliseum. He'll bring them death – and they will love him for it.” The will of the people is made problematic as the majority may very well promote policies which are in direct contravention to their own freedom brought about because of their compliance with, and lack of challenge of, the accepted wisdom or authority figure. The masses may very well concern themselves with the superficial and overlook or not recognise policies of import. “ Rome here stands in for America: corrupt at its heart, based on enslavement, dedicated to sustaining pointless wars abroad while the mob happily forgoes a more civil society for bread and circuses. One of the film's better jokes is the way we're invited to see parallels between its gladiatorial arenas and the sports arenas of today, right down to the announcer/promoter who hypes up the combatants before the bouts… the movie is nonetheless implicitly critical of the present-day culture which spawns television shows like, well, Gladiators - the spandex-clad mock-heroic game show - and makes modern emperors of sportspeople and entertainers. When Commodus' sister Lucilla tries to persuade Maximus to help her overthrow her brother, he complains, "I have the power only to amuse the mob." To which she replies, "That is power."” Having problematised simplistic notions of democracy Gladiator however makes no concessions to dictatorial rule despite the problems it raises about putting power in the hands of the people. Maximus’ journey to avenge the death of his family and Marcus Aurelius runs parallel with his task of turning Rome into a Republic again. This is a selfless act and “the last wish off a dying man.” Giving power to the people may be problematic but it is preferable to putting the power into the hands of a dictator, even a benevolent one. Maximus refuses to take power even once the senate takes over (the fact that he dies conveniently leaves him without the need to be involved in the consequences of these actions) claiming that he knows nothing about politics. This stands in contrast to the widely accepted but truly naive view that the best leaders are anti-statesmen; those who have not been corrupted by politics (interestingly George W Bush has tried to leverage the notion that he is ‘bored’ by policy making and is the sort of person who one would like to have a drink with in the local pub/bar). Gladiator does not support a commonly held myth, espoused by the likes of Braveheart, pre 9/11, and Gangs of New York, after 9/11 (a film that we will look at in more depth later), that people are basically pure whilst politicians are corrupt. Whilst not all politicians are morally superior beings in Gladiator they are by and large more aware and impressive than the masses who are for the most part ignorant and unengaged with reality and matters of importance. Nonetheless, the film displays enough respect for the masses to champion a form of government which is answerable to them as opposed to suggesting the need for despotic rule over them.
Gladiator also asserts a slightly more complex relationship between the usually caricatured ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Whilst we are clearly invited to cheer for Maximus and boo Commodus we find a more interesting antagonist in the latter than in Braveheart’s Edward Longshanks for instance. Commodus’ character does not entirely reject identification. He is portrayed more as a sociopath with psychological reasons for his actions. He is a damaged human being whose drive to do wickedness comes not from some pure form of evil but from his inability to deal with his shortcomings and his injurious relationships with those around him, especially the disappointment of his father.
Yet we find with Gladiator that the central theme of the pre 9/11 epic is the fight for freedom against oppression set in a homogenous culture. It found itself at the top of the tree of the modern historical epic and certainly was the primary force for reigniting the swords and sandals genre. As we shall see, although the subsequent releases aim for the same audience and success, in many ways taking Gladiator’s lead and trying to mimic directly successful parts of it, they are importantly different in text and subtext. I will now proceed to argue that this is because of the significant change in political context between the release of Gladiator and its offspring.
The genre post September 11th
As we have seen, the battles and wars that were chosen as the setting for the cinematic epics pre September 11th are almost entirely those between western powers vying for imperial control or fighting against suppression from each other or from within. We see a marked difference in terms of the periods of history that Hollywood chose to represent after 9/11 and although some films managed to avoid overtly political themes altogether (Master and Commander, Cold Mountain) we can see an almost immediate contrast in terms of thematic concern after 9/11 in the genre, including the releases which superficially at least have similar settings.
Gangs of New York (2002) was a project gestating in the mind of Scorsese for some three decades, set during the American civil war, it brings to the table three important themes which had not until now been the central focus of these types of film; religious fundamentalism, nationalism based on xenophobia, and the blurring of good and bad. Gangs sets itself high targets. It is “a poetic, visionary epic, a "birth of the nation" saga that seeks nothing less, as the New York Times reviewer comes close to suggesting, than to supplant the grand narratives of national origins created by DW Griffith and John Ford.” It can be seen as a pessimistically amoral film, aware of the contradictions of the origins of America, “a nation founded in the name of freedom by people fleeing oppression, the founding itself an act of oppression (the subjugation of the Indians), the result an extremely oppressive civilization based on the persecution of minorities. Britain itself has of course markedly contradictory connotations – a democracy as well as an imperialist power, which America inherited.” Scorsese’s pessimism leaves no character for the audience to cling to for moral grounding. Everyone in the film’s world is bereft of an ethical code which does not serve his or her self interest. Politicians are corrupt and even our central lead character has no greater goal in life than to avenge his father’s death. Everyone has either no or an utterly superficial and hypocritical concept of altruism. Even the very few characters who appear to want to serve a better purpose than immediate self gratification are offered no redemption, being killed by those who they refuse to serve. Of the two characters with the strongest moral codes, one is killed in the opening scene and the other is the film’s principal antagonist. We are left to decide who if anyone we want to be victorious, which causes unsettling and challenging viewing. “Scorsese's film offers no such extreme moral contrasts. As knife goes up against cleaver, club against skull, nativist against immigrant American, Protestant against Catholic, "good" and "evil" seem almost irrelevant. This is the amoral world of bare-knuckle power, a Darwinian cityscape in which only the fittest will survive.” This destructive and violent world, Scorsese tells us, comes from fundamentalism of nationalism and religion. It is a world of intolerance where those who do not agree with you, or do not have the same cultural heritage, are wrong, inferior and worthy of nothing. It is a world where might is right. It is clearly an attempt to bring to American consciousness the hypocrisy of its past and the danger to democratic civilisation of blind nationalism, religious intolerance and stifling freedom of speech. It is a historical epic which straddles the western and gangster genres and whose thematic concerns are entirely relevant to the moral issues surrounding post 9/11 American society. We are reminded in the film, as the civil war unexpectedly bursts onto the streets of New York, interrupting and usurping rival gang warfare, that the larger unchecked geopolitical and other forces can belittle the petty daily riffs based on insignificant differences between us forcing us out of our prejudices and uniting us in common humanity. The analogy with the terrorist attacks of September 11 th is not a difficult one to see.
Having been heavily involved with two films in the genre prior to September 11 th (Braveheart and The Patriot), Mel Gibson provided us with what was clearly his biggest professional risk and most heartfelt film in Easter 2004, The Passion of the Christ. It turned out be a massive success at the US box office on par with the biggest blockbusters of the last decade. Like Kingdom of Heaven, which we will look into in more depth shortly, it is a massively important work, irrespective of its quality purely because of the subject matter. We are presently living at a time when religion has become central to political debate. The terrorists who committed suicide destroying the World Trade Centre in New York and part of the Pentagon in Washington did so with the belief that they were doing God’s will and would be rewarded in heaven for their actions. America’s political response was also intricately linked with religion; Bush and his hard line right wing also making the claim that they were doing the right thing in their military response based on their strong Christian beliefs. Bush barely gave a speech after 9/11 relating to the terrorist attacks which did not incorporate his Christian faith in some way. He even went to the point of calling the ‘war on terror’ a ‘crusade’ prompting an understandably angry reaction from many in the East and West alike. Bush’s politics, heavily mixed with his Christianity, are reminiscent of Reagan’s claim that America had a ‘special relationship’ with God. It is based on an assumption that God sides with us and that subsequently we must be right. It undermines the need for any serious analysis of the geopolitical situation or of the motivations of one’s ‘enemies’. Outlined in brief, this new importance of religion in current affairs, widely supported in the US if not the rest of the western world, implies that any large scale Hollywood film released in the current climate that takes religion as its central theme cannot be free of modern implications.
The Passion of the Christ is extremely effectively made and very emotionally manipulative mainly because the graphic and prolonged crucifixion of Christ is so realistic that a common initial response to any criticism of the film is ‘how can you not find it moving?’ This is a very important point to address as it is laced with presuppositions. It assumes that because it is so realistic and thus emotionally involving that this in someway gives it veracity. We must remind ourselves here that any film’s realistic effect is “a particular set of aesthetic/stylistic choices” and that it is not “anything that guarantees truth.” The ability of a work of art to move us in no way lends it validity. We can be moved by all sorts of things which on close inspection are against the very values we might stand for. Effective Hollywood cinema has always been about presenting to the audience something which we can assume to be ‘real life’ or ‘realistic’ and often allows us to surrender “to the reactivation of a set of values and structures [our] adult selves have long since repudiated [being not] immune to the blandishments of reassurance.” Analysis of why we react emotionally to certain things can spoil this reaction but “on many levels, it is imperative that [it] be spoiled.” This ability of effective emotional manipulation to bypass critical analysis is explored with reference to Gibson’s movie by critic Nick James who recounts that his Catholic upbringing “grants the Christ myth a latent power to affect me that I usually resent. I tried to suppress this while watching the film, but during the long haul up to Gibson’s Golgotha I found myself suddenly very moved…But by the end my resentment had redoubled because The Passion of the Christ so lacked the richness and complexity I remembered, and had substituted gore and bombast instead.”The Passion of the Christ is constructed to bombard the viewer, through its imagery and sound (notably by its use of language with the actors speaking in Aramaic and Hebrew) and its realistic effects so that one must acquiesce and criticism becomes almost impossible. It is as if to analyse and question the seriousness of what we are being shown on screen would be tantamount to sacrilege.
Gibson claimed absolute authenticity for the movie, saying it was true to the gospels and even declaring that the Holy Ghost spoke through him whilst making it, but “The Bible does not have an encounter between Jesus and a sort of Satanic succubus figure in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Bible does not have a raven pecking out the eye of one of the crucified thieves. The Bible does not have Judas pursued to his suicide by a horde of supernatural and sinister devil-children.” In fact “to take the film’s account of the Passion literally will give most audiences a misleading picture of what probably happened in those epochal hours so long ago. [In the film] the Jewish priests and their followers are the villains, demanding the death of Jesus again and again; Pilate is a malleable governor forced into handing down the sentence. In fact, in the age of Roman domination, only Rome crucified…it is very difficult to imagine Caesar’s man being bullied by the people he usually handled roughly.”The Passion of the Christ ends up being not much more than exploitation cinema with a somewhat disturbing anti-Semitic interpretation of the gospels. It is an extended orgy of torture to which we have little choice but to submit. It is a film which, for all its attempts at purported historical realism to convince us of its inevitable truth, is full of second rate B movie shock tactics which leap on our superstitious prejudices; “lurking within its reels we find an apparition of Satan whose pallid visage recalls the subliminal ‘Captain Howard’ face from The Exorcist; a gaggle of monstrous children apparently hijacked from The Brood; and even a demon baby who seems to have crawled off the set of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive.” Gibson’s movie is coded for instant recognition of what it good and what is evil at the same time as, superficially at least, appearing to be utterly realistic and an attempt to display what really happened. Nonetheless, it is a fantasy film which purports “the fraud of redemption through violence”, made for those who are already converted, arriving at a time when there have been huge challenges to the Christian faith from the Muslim world as well as from anti-religious westerners. The film was lapped up in middle America, becoming nothing less than a proof for many that their faith was true and superior. In Europe, where generally audiences have less extreme religious viewpoints, it had a comparatively milder reception in box office terms. The Passion of the Christ is the cinematic equivalent of Bush; anti-intellectual, unquestioningly superstitious, morally simplistic. It is no coincidence that the popularity in America of both was compounded by post 9/11 ideology leaving the rest of the western world struggling to understand such dogmatic zeal.
There has of course been a historical epic made about the Passion story over a decade before September 11 th, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. A film almost entirely opposite in nature to Gibson’s effort, it strives to understand Christ’s plight in humanist terms and provides insight into how such an extraordinary philosophy of love for one’s fellow men was created and blossomed during such oppressive times. It was a commercial failure and was panned by hard line Christians as being blasphemous. This idea of the more successful films being the more immature and simplistic is not a coincidence and will be a recurring theme in this essay.
At this point we will begin to encounter the real crux of the argument, looking at the blockbusters that directly followed in Gladiator’s wake in an attempt to recreate its success. The Last Samurai (2003), Troy (2004), Alexander (2004) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). All these are politically very different from Gladiator and as we shall see are overwhelmingly concerned with issues directly related to the current political climate, ‘East’ versus ‘West’.
The Last Samurai might not seem superficially as if it relates very closely to the issues we are primarily concerned with. Set in late nineteenth century Japan it finds the lead character, an American civil war veteran disenchanted with capitalist America, being converted to ‘bushido’ – the way of the warrior – because of its strong code of honour. The film’s strengths lie in its careful reconstruction of the Japan of the period during which the country modernised its military and society. It is a period of history which Zwick, the director, has an obvious interest, and with his stately composition throughout, he does justice to it. His fascination with the Samurai becomes somewhat worrying however, as he dutifully ignores or glorifies the extreme hierarchy and barbaric practices found in such societies, where women have little or no rights and the greatest ethical duty one can perform is to serve one’s master without question as to his or your motives. He concentrates instead on the fantasy of the noble warrior. By the end of the film Tom Cruise’s character learns blindly to give himself over as a servant to the emperor, as Katsomoto had done before him, handing over all moral decision making to a superior authority.
The film makes a further intellectual error so catastrophic, although made for seemingly noble and moral reasons, that it cannot recover and be taken seriously as an intelligent work. In an attempt to show the damage that unrestrained free markets have on sovereignty and ethical tradition, the film sides with archaic feudalism over modernity, with the hierarchical and fascist over the free, the tyrannical over the democratic. The film “does not allude to the fact that the Samurai culture [it] is rhapsodising about was one of the most patriarchal and misogynistic in human history…Feudal societies are built on rigid, unchanging hierarchies, and women are always at its base…in pre-modern societies, power is scattered between disparate groups, which are invariably controlled by violent men…Deep ecologists need to understand that you can’t have the pre-modernity they long for without a pre-modern political system.” In justifiably trying to criticise American foreign policy the film ends up as an apology for suicidal fundamentalism and extremism. “The ultimate expression of this code is ritual suicide – seppuku – and that’s the ‘glory’ to which Zwick and his collaborators thrill, engineering a hopeless battle between the outnumbered rebels (with arrows and swords) and a faceless imperial army armed with heavy artillery and machine guns. Zwick draws confused parallels with Custer at the Little Bighorn and the Spartans at Thermopylae, but you could also draw a less complacent analogy: Algren’s closest contemporary must be John Walker Lind, the American Taliban.” This confused moralising about honour brings the film very much into post 9/11 territory, finding itself dangerously close to Al Quaeda comparatives. It supports Tom Shone’s view that Hollywood yarns like to support the underdog and that the overwhelming obviousness of America’s global military might does not fit well with this template, “Al-Qaida versus America is a story America is used to telling, but from the opposite angle, from the point of view of David not Goliath, and for the moment at least it has left Hollywood’s moral gyroscopes spinning.”
Troy’ s strengths and weaknesses are almost entirely opposite to those of Gladiator. Where Gladiator is directed with astonishing flair and a true cinematographic eye, Troy is competent in its execution but no more. It tries to find a middle ground between the grittiness of Gladiator and the scale of The Lord of the Rings and fails to match either in terms of craftsmanship. Whilst Gladiator is an expertly crafted personal story of a heroic individual, Troy suffers in terms of character development (in comparison to its source material the dialogue sounds pompous rather than profound). Even Troy’s score feels overbearing rather than epic and emotional. Yet Troy’s strengths do not lie in its form but rather in its political content. The conflict depicted in the film is the historical/mythological Trojan War that, in The Iliad at least, lasted ten years and is probably the most ancient and famed battle between East and West. Troy provides us with a complex moral ground where the conflict between the two sides is not about good versus evil but rather an inevitable tragedy the determinants of which cannot be undone. Indeed the Greeks are slighted but they use this as a convenient excuse to wage war against a Trojan enemy too proud to try to undue the injustice it has wrought. Interestingly the individual whom we, the audience, are most invited to identify with is the noble Trojan warrior, Hector, who has more than a dash of Gladiator’s Maximus about him. The Greek warrior, Achilles, is too consumed in self glorification for us to side with and Agamemnon is simply a power hungry tyrant. Whilst initially one might argue simplistically that the Trojans from the East are to blame, we are not given any Greek character with whom we can relate and the war becomes a conflict in which no-one will benefit. “Petersen sensibly veers away from morbid intimacy with war’s ravages on the flesh, and instead strains for a Breughelian horror in the D-Day-like assault on the beach and inferno-lit sack of Troy. In grandiosely illustrating the power-drunk derangement of empire-building, and in rendering war as a pointless, brutish, dishonourable wank, Troy is certainly of its horrified moment.”
Having discussed religion at length in relation to other films, it is interesting to note the decision to make a film version of the Trojan War without the Gods, so integral to The Iliad. The film in fact takes a somewhat anti-deity standpoint throughout. When characters appeal to the will of the Gods they are inevitably disappointed, shown to have been wasting their time and making bad decisions on the hope that an omen from the gods will see them through. The most effective characters in terms of their ability to assert themselves and change the face of battles are Hector and Achilles who are both dismissive of superstition. This however does not save them from death. Although it may be an overstatement to suggest that the film promotes an atheist viewpoint it certainly presents the idea that if the gods (or a God) do indeed exist, they are utterly indifferent to the outcome of the war or the fates of any individuals taking part in it. This anti-superstition standpoint is a rather mature view for a summer blockbuster to promote and it is summed up in a philosophical speech by Brad Pitt’s Achilles to Briseis, mocking the devotion of her entire life to worship, “The gods envy us. They envy us because we are mortal. Because any moment might be our last. Things are more beautiful because we are doomed.” The film, once again through Achilles, derides the notion that fighting for one’s king or country is necessarily a virtue, “Soldiers, they fight for kings they’ve never even met. They do what they are told, they die when they are supposed to die…Don’t waste your life following some fool’s orders.” At a time when a climate has been created in America where to speak in criticism of the government is to be anti-patriotic, and to be anti-patriotic is to be immoral, thus stifling meaningful debate on the subject, Troy provides a rather engaging and mature outlook. The fact that it is directed by a German, Wolfgang Petersen, perhaps removed enough from the recent resurgent American nationalism to create something more morally ambiguous, accounts for its relative failure – critically and commercially. In Petersen’s own words, “It’s as if nothing has changed in 3,000 years. People are still using deceit to engage in wars of vengeance. Just as King Agamemnon waged what was essentially a war of conquest on the ruse of trying to rescue the beautiful Helen from the hands of the Trojans, President George W Bush concealed his true motives for the invasion of Iraq.”Troy is an interesting addition to the genre post Gladiator. It may not have the latter’s immediate charm but is an achievement on a more political/philosophical level although not quite the masterpiece it might have been in the hands of a truly gifted director. The source material is after all one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written.
Oliver Stone is arguably the most overtly political filmmaker working in mainstream American cinema. He has demonstrated a sophisticated view of history, that it is not simply a story of historical facts but that it is rather a dynamic inter-twining of competing accounts, each agenda-driven and ideologically-soaked. It is for us to be aware of this and critically sieve through it in an attempt to arrive at something as close to objective truth as possible. “Rather than being asked to share the point of view of the main characters, the viewer is offered a variety of positions in and outside the narrative, which is constructed in such a way that no one comfortable position is offered – at least for any length of time. The viewer is placed in a state of agitation and interrogation – his perceptions are brought into question and he is asked to interrogate what is being seen…[he] asks us to interrogate the images and narratives of politics…invites us to look at what we believe we know and to imagine alternative fictions.” With Alexander Stone finds the perfect subject with which to explore this theme. The history of Alexander the Great is one predominantly told by Western, specifically Greek, sources. The most famous, best preserved and most informative history of the Macedonian King is by Flavius Arianus Xenophon which was written 200 years after Alexander’s death. Alexander’s achievements were so enormous that they have become almost mythical in nature, creating further difficulties in coming to any kind of objective truth about the subject.
Stone, until Alexander, had never attempted to present such a distant past, keeping most of his period pieces to within the later decades of the twentieth century, but it comes as no surprise that Alexander is a richly layered and complex work which asks much of its audience. It is both an overtly political as well as a deeply personal story, the two strands feeding each other. The parallels in the film with current middle eastern invasion are unavoidable but critics have not been able to agree what Stone’s position is, naively assuming that the film was only made as a vehicle for modern political comment and that it can be judged purely on this, “At the end, a major question remains unanswered: is the film criticising or endorsing American imperialism.” Few critics have tried to analyse the film on its own terms, bringing with them presuppositions and prejudices about what an Oliver Stone film should be and fewer still, with the notable exception of Hywel Williams, have praised the film’s complex relationship with modern politics, “The extremity of the reaction to a flawed masterpiece needs explaining…Stone, for all his enthused worship, shows us a ruler who is half-psychotic – deranged by dreams of destiny that outstrip his capacity. In the age of Rumsfeld and Bush that is a brave and accurate call.” Stone is both in awe of the might and value of Alexander’s accomplishments but also appears to use them as an argument against empire building. Alexander’s campaign into Asia was immense as he went from victory to victory. He took with him and spread Greek culture but was also open to the new and different traditions of those he conquered, placing him at odds with his Greek army who maintain a steadfastly superior view of themselves. Stone juxtaposes these two sides of Alexander’s campaign, his desire to conquer ever more peoples and his contempt for his xenophobic men, making it difficult to expound a simplistic and encapsulating theory of his character. Further paradoxes of Alexander’s character are explored, such as his being torn between a desire for global peace and his war hungry animal nature. “Stone’s Alexander is as much an intellectual as a warrior, a compassionate proto-democrat who berates his commanders for their “contempt for a world far older than ours” and whose dream is to “free the people of the world”. This is a post-millenial idea of masculinity: Alexander seems to aspire to be an anti-macho, existentialist epic – an epic which deconstructs its own premise of heroism…there’s real cinematic intelligence at work here…there’s a sense that the epic is being subverted from within.”
Alexander’s sexuality is treated equally maturely, avoiding easy demarcation, offering something more ambiguous, presenting the desires of a man free from the same prejudices or labels which we bring with us to the theatre. Stone suggests that these many paradoxical dynamics in Alexander’s character are informed by the relationship with both his parents, who despise one another and have completely different influences on him, carried out in both loving and abusive ways. Critics have jumped at Stone’s apparently simplistic psychoanalysis and have justly lambasted him for lack of subtlety, particularly with reference to the sexuality presented in the film. The other main criticism of Alexander was that it was a confused mess. I would argue that this reflects a lack of imagination of the audience which is based on an assumption that Stone was attempting to create a Greek Gladiator when in fact he was aiming for something far more interesting, albeit unfortunately less audience-friendly. The complexity of the politics, history, sexuality and relationships in the film should not be mistaken as confusion on the part of the film or director. Equally, lack of subtlety about Alexander’s sexuality is not the same as lack of nuance. Stone’s work is intellectually challenging and box office takings, and indeed critical reaction, do not respond well to this. Alexander’s critical and commercial failure contrasts with the success of The Lord of the Rings, as does The Last Temptation of Christ to The Passion of the Christ, Rob Roy to Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven to Gladiator. Robin Wood explores this contrast whilst discussing Blade Runner and ET; “I take these facts as representing a choice made in conjunction by critics and public, ratified by the Motion Picture Academy – a choice whose significance extends far beyond a mere preference for one film over another, expressing a preference for the reassuring over the disturbing, the reactionary over the progressive, the safe over the challenging, the childish over the adult, spectator passivity over spectator activity.” Unlike any of the other epics discussed Alexander manages to create effectively the world it represents, not just in terms of costume and sets, but in terms of the values, ethics and goals of its characters. Stone captures something of the ancient Hellenic world in this sense; the Homeric heroic ideals and the Greek philosophy and dramatic tradition are the cornerstones of the lives of the characters, informing all their decision making, what they aim towards and what they fall back on. Rory Stewart writes that “Alexander quite consciously aimed to be a hero, imitated other heroes and promoted himself as a hero. This underlay the scale of his achievements, the extremity of his courage and charisma.” Stewart further states that this self promotion did not, until recently, act in contradiction to one’s heroic stature. In the modern world we find it difficult to forgive Alexander’s ambition which is seen as a weakness, a sign of insecurity, and would rather have accidental self-sacrificing heroes such as the 9/11 firemen, where emphasis is placed on their modesty.” Stone’s film carries with it more ancient principles. It does not merely transplant our assumptions about the world onto his characters, though of course his knowledge of what we will bring with us to the picture adds further complexity to the identification process.
Alexander is massive and complex in both form and content. It may not make for easy viewing but a more compelling film in the genre you will be pushed to find.
Having reignited the epic with Gladiator, Scott returned to the genre post 9/11 with what is the most immediately politically relevant film thus far. Basing a film on the crusades at a time when the fight for Jerusalem is as alive as ever, not to mention the war in the Middle East, is a potentially hazardous decision. If, as the success in the US of The Passion of the Christ would support, film is a medium which is more likely to support people’s prejudices than challenge their ideas, then the risk of espousing intolerance and smothering debate is one which is inherent in the subject matter. This fear is given further leverage if we recall Scott’s last foray into American foreign policy on screen, Black Hawk Down, an expertly crafted but disturbingly one-sided recreation of the US military mission in Somalia in 1993. On the other hand, if a film on the Crusades could be done well it would have the potential to open up and promote dialogue in relation to Islam and the West, which as we have discussed has been socially suppressed since 9/11 in America. Even prior to its release it attracted polarising reactions, “Charlotte Edwards wrote an article for the LondonDaily Telegraph which ran with the headline: “Ridley Scott’s new Crusades film panders to Osama bin Laden.” Conversely, Waxman accused the movie of adopting an anti-Islamic stance.” The subject matter is a veritable minefield given the current geopolitical situation and sidestepping support for intolerance, including that against Christians, is not easy given modern interpretation of Crusading history, “Islam has always been far more tolerant of Christianity than Christianity of Islam…it was asserted that wars were exactly what God demanded, if directed against God’s enemies: anyone fighting their way to victory against non-Christians would win enough divine brownie-points to guarantee a place in heaven. Islam had previously used the same principle in a rather less precise form: jihad…The Christians excelled themselves [on the 1099 siege of Jerusalem] with the butchery of Jews and Muslims, in sharp contrast to the Muslim Saladin’s restraint when he recaptured the city 90 years later.”
It is with some relief, as well as interest then, that Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is a mature exposition of the historical conflict between Christianity and Islam, if a somewhat historically dubious one. It provides much needed context to our present crisis and perhaps even goes someway to undermining some of the prejudices of the narrow minded on both sides of the debate. It is certainly a more ambitious project than Gladiator in the sense that Scott’s goal here is political and not just with telling a personal story on a grand scale. Kingdom of Heaven’s themes are context driven and in fact one might argue that Scott fails to a degree in creating a piece of entertainment of Gladiator’s equal as a result. The earlier work derives much of its appeal from its hero through whom we see the world; sharing in his anguish and celebrating in his triumphs. Kingdom of Heaven gives no such easy character vehicle for identification. This is sacrificed in favour of having more characters share screen time so that the political ideas are explored more effectively and multiple viewpoints are given to us. The film is a pluralist work both in its moral message and in the form and structure of its storytelling. Whilst individual characters are not morally nuanced creations along the lines of Stone’s Alexander, they collectively give a multifaceted portrait of each side, the Christians and the Muslims respectively.
In the film Edward Norton’s leper king (Baldwin IV) and Ghassad Massoud’s Saladin must do battle with the fundamentalist factions of their own men more than with each other and unlike Alexander it does present the audience with a central non-Western character in the guise of Ghassan Massoud’s Saladin. Scott admirably does not allow his film to take sides in the Christian and Moslem debate but rather reflects negatively on all kinds of intolerance and extremism, particularly that disguised hypocritically in the name of religion. “ Kingdom of Heaven is not an incitement to violence. It revisits the Crusades as a means of revealing a common humanity…Saladin is even depicted as gracious in victory…The battle scenes offer more opportunities to contemplate nobility and salvation than to revel in the detail of violence. One aerial shot towards the end of the battle for Jerusalem rises so bewilderingly high above the unfolding carnage it begs the question ‘Why?’…It would be quite instructive for those who have assumed that this film will generate animosity between Christians and Muslims to know that there are very few battle sequences. The most magnificent battlefield scene takes place, in fact, without a major fight.”
In a world prior to, or without, democracy, the difference between the goodies and the baddies (en masse) is dependent merely on who happens to be in power. These differences in moral worth are not due to the fact that some nations, religions or cultures are ethically superior to others but are instead based on who happens to be in power at any given time. Thus Christians and Muslims are not portrayed as inherently good or evil in anyway but rather are dependent on their leadership at any given time to promote values which are either more or less tolerant. In the film, the Christian world under King Baldwin IV is a morally superior one to that under Guy de Lusignan but whether one or the other is in power is just a matter of historical chance. In fact the only implied cultural superiority that the film hints at is the ability for one group of people to promote tolerant leaders into power as opposed to tyrannical and violent ones. It is in this sense that the film hints at the superiority of the Muslims in their historical endorsement of mercy for ones enemies and in bringing to power men of such ethical character as Saladin.
Much like Troy, it might be an exaggeration to describe the film as an atheistic or anti-faith work but its primary ethical theme is that one’s moral worth is defined not by one’s faith but rather in one’s actions, claiming as its pinnacle of virtue those actions which promote the life and freedom of others. Interestingly, as a result of this, the film fails truly to convince us of the historic authenticity of the values and goals of the characters at that time. It is different to Alexander in that respect, it does not manage to create a truly authentic ancient world, despite the perfectionist attention to detail of the costume design and sets, etc. Jonathan Riley-Smith is particularly critical of the film’s approach using King Baldwin IV’s representation as an example, “there is no evidence that he held the views attributed to him in the film, which anyway would have made no sense in the twelfth century.” Scott instead uses his setting, beautifully portrayed aesthetically, as a vehicle for direct contemporary social comment. An “intelligent epic [that] proves a strikingly conciliatory report from the Middle East…Enshrining the fruitfulness of compromise and establishing a man’s worth through his actions rather than adherence to clerical prescripts…If the contemporary angle is obvious, and presumably not what Bush’s America wants to hear, it’s also perhaps just a touch too impeccably liberal to convince in its proper historical context…[it is] striking in thought and deed.”
Although it is not a historical epic, I believe it is worth touching upon Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), which has so captivated audiences in the last few years. Its presentation of huge battle sequences lend it obvious visual resemblance to the films we have discussed but the point I want to emphasise is how its influence has been, if not negative along the lines of The Passion of the Christ, certainly unhelpful in coming to terms with the complexity of the contemporary political and moral state of affairs. This becomes an important addition to the discussion at hand given the importance the trilogy seems to have attained globally on an apparently serious basis as well as an unarguably entertaining one. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings was in essence an attempt at creating a new mythology based on the history of the two World Wars (even the map of Middle Earth is very similar to that of Europe around WWII) fused with existing myths – Kalevala, King Arthur, etc. Its simplification of morality, of good versus evil, has close and easy alignment with the Second World War. Its success partly depends on this as it allows the audience the fantasy that good and evil present themselves to us ready formed and that somehow we need not take responsibility for deciding which is which ourselves. “The Two Towers follows Tolkien in creating a universe of moral absolutes. Tolkien didn't like people calling his great work an allegory of the battle against Adolf Hitler, but the echoes of the Second World War, the last just war, are everywhere. The Dark Lord Sauron is the incarnation of evil, and his most potent (and very Wagnerian) weapon, the One or Ruling Ring, is made of and perfects that evil. All who come under Sauron's baleful influence become as thoroughly, homogeneously evil as their lord. The forces of good that stand against him – and this explains much of Tolkien's appeal – are, by contrast, extremely various: from Gandalf the wizard (the powerful good guy), Aragorn the ranger (the heroic good guy), Legolas the elf (the cool good guy), Gimli the grumpy dwarf (the uncool good guy), all the way down to the little people, the hobbits or halflings, who will in the end save the day.” Any moral decisions in the series are about deciding whether to be good or bad (much like Star Wars) rather than actually having to resolve what is good and what is bad. In essence it responds to our present concerns by reassuring us through identification with the ‘goodies’, that we need not worry ourselves with troubling analysis of what is right and wrong but that we can assume ourselves to be the good side and must overcome evil without analysis of ourselves and our present or historical actions (or indeed of theirs) – exactly the kind of thinking that Bush tries to promote and that we, as an audience in general, seem to respond to. Note the similarity to the Vietnam/Nixon era – after much of 70s cinema had tried to analyse the problematic political issues one film came out that annihilated the competition, Star Wars. It was morally simplistic and “offered nothing less than virtual patriotism – flag-waving without any of the embarrassment that then clung to the stars and stripes – a chance for audiences to cheer on the scrappy rebels once again, boo the evil empire and see their founding myth play out in the harmless vacuum of space.” Compare this to the moral complexities of Troy, Alexander or Gangs of New York, which “is a far braver, rarer vision than that of The Two Towers, brilliant as the fantasy epic is. The films have opened at a time when all of us are trying to come to grips with the fact of a controversial war, and many people, on both sides of the argument, are taking the absolutist line. The Bush camp's interest in "evil" and "evildoers" needs no further emphasis… the New Evilism that is busily painting the world in black and white…The truth looks more confused, more amorally Scorsesean…and yet [war] may paradoxically succeed in bringing a more modern world into being. Ambiguity is out of fashion, however. We will be given a war of heroes against villains at all costs. After all, The Two Towers is a vast popular success, and Gangs of New York is doing no better than modest business.”
Although not directly related to our argument, it is worth noting that a non-Western epic has stormed the global box office in recent years, the Chinese film, Hero (2002). Taking as its setting nothing less than the foundation of the Chinese Empire, it is certainly equivalent to any of the Hollywood movies we have discussed in terms of scale and ambition. Having said that, Hero focuses on a very personal story involving the relationships of four main characters, to some extent each involved in the assassination of the tyrannical Emperor, telling their stories from different perspectives, Rashamon style. Similar to Gladiator, the politics are played down in favour of emotional characterisation. Nonetheless, its ideological stance is startlingly different from that which we would expect from a Western perspective. Our assassins decide at the last minute that the killing of this tyrant is not in the best interests of the Chinese people, despite his mass extermination of those who oppose him. They come to the conclusion that his continued domination is the only way to unite the various clans into a Chinese Empire. The assassins instead give themselves up to be put to death for the common good. To a Western audience familiar with “freedom of the individual” being the expected lesson that one normally takes from these kinds of productions, this maxim of “sacrifice for the community” could be interpreted as nothing short of an apology for the Chinese communist dictatorship. The difference in political ideology to Hollywood productions is somewhat startling and helps open our eyes to the fact that what we would normally see as being only pure entertainment is utterly theory soaked, but this normally goes unnoticed due to our unconscious acceptance that the values on display are facts rather than assumptions – assumptions based on underlying principles that not everybody shares. Whilst often unobserved by us, the political ideology of Western movies must be as obvious and startling for Eastern audiences as Hero is to American/European moviegoers. I suggest that this stands as a corroboration of the originally stated theory of this essay that art is laced with, reflects and informs the political ideology and assumptions of the society from which it is produced.
The various historical epics of the decade, prior to September 11 th, cover many conflicts in many times but are all primarily concerned with homogeneously Western imperial struggles and the fight against oppression within this setting. Nowhere do we see any East versus West conflicts that come to occupy the primary space of later films and the thematic elements of conflicting extremists’ religions are also conspicuous by their absence when seeing things from our current standpoint.
In the decade prior to September 11 th, there were really only two period films about historical conflict that were produced on an epic scale and captured the imagination of audiences and critics alike, both winning the Oscar for best film in their respective years of release. Braveheart opened the door to the possibility of the revival of the genre, concentrating its theme on the freedom of oppression of Scotland from England in the fourteenth century, the homogeneously Western setting and culture being thus depicted. If Braveheart had rung the bell for an epic resurgence, it was Gladiator that really opened the door. Whilst it was more a personal story that might have been set at any time and place, it does contain a political core arguing against the corruption under the Empire of the original Republican state by one individual gaining total power by appealing to the superficial desires of the masses whilst stripping them of their freedom. The success of these two films, particularly Gladiator, which was released sixteen months before September 11 th, spurned the launch of other productions in the same mould. These later movies, however, were produced after September 11 th and in different ways address the new political arena we now live in, distancing themselves in content from their predecessor despite the fact that they tried to replicate its form.
The Last Samurai unwittingly ends up as an ideological call for feudalism and suicide in the name of honour, drawing uncomfortable analogies with Islamic extremism and religious fundamentalism. Troy presents to us the first famous battle fought between East and West but manages to come to a more ambiguous and morally complex stance with regards its protagonists and antagonists, taking a strong anti war position instead, telling us that it will serve no-one’s ends. Alexander finds the title character trying to find a balance between empire building as he takes over the entire Persian Empire (over what would now be the Middle East and beyond) and respecting and learning from the new cultures he encounters whilst dealing with his own countrymen’s xenophobia. The overtly political Kingdom of Heaven takes the Crusades and the battle for Jerusalem as its setting, regretting that whilst hardline extremists are in power on both sides peace is impossible, only tolerance will allow us to achieve this. With this group of films in particular we have found an ambiguous representation of morality than had been previously seen in the genre; perhaps this is a reaction to the stifling of dialogue with regard to such issues in East versus West political debate in recent times.
If the central theme of the pre-9/11 epics was the fight for freedom against a culturally similar imperial oppressor, the battles of the post 9/11 epics have now become conflicts of values, wars between competing morals, beliefs and cultures. We have found ourselves, through these films, in the middle of a morally complex clash of civilisations.
In terms of the periods of history that they choose to represent and the political and ideological content of these post 9/11 films, they are unmistakable different to those that came before. The parallels with the current Middle Eastern crisis wrought by the attacks of September 11 th and the subsequent war on terror, along with the soul-searching on religion and philosophy they have brought with them, are strongly evident in the thematic concerns of these films. Similar post 9/11 films such as Gangs of New York, The Passion of the Christ and The Lord of the Rings have also contributed, not always in a positive way, to the way these issues have become so urgently portrayed in the last few years.
As the global political climate changes I think that we can expect these sorts of films to change as they mirror the unconscious as well as conscious geo-political concerns. The modern Hollywood-style epic has not quite had its day yet with the imminent release of Terrence Malick’s The New World, the planned production of a film based on Hannibal of Carthage and on Gates of Fire and The 300, two movies about the great East-West clash at the Battle of Thermopylae. It looks as if further debate is needed and will be forthcoming on the subject from Hollywood.
Karl Popper, Evolutionary Epistemology, p84, ‘Popper Selections’ edited by David Miller, Princeton University Press, 1985
Mark Cousins, Does Hollywood reflect social change or initiate it? A depiction of Alexander the Great’s bisexuality seems to have left middle America unfuming, p70, Prospect, January 2005
Robert Kolker, p13, A Cinema of Loneliness: Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 2000
An exception to this rule is John McTiernan’s The 13 th Warrior which does approach the issue of the other but despite its non-mystical storyline it has more in common with something like Conan the Barbarian than the sorts of historical epics we are looking at
Geoff Andrew, p164, TimeOut Film Guide, Thirteenth Edition 2005
Leslie Felperin,Sight & Sound, June 2000
Leslie Felperin,Sight & Sound, June 2000
Salman Rushdie, Arms and the men and hobbits: From Middle Earth to New York and Washington, the morality of war is at issue , Saturday January 4, 2003 , The Guardian
Robin Wood, Papering the Cracks, p170, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan
Salman Rushdie, Arms and the men and hobbits: From Middle Earth to New York and Washington, the morality of war is at issue , Saturday January 4, 2003 , The Guardian
Robin Wood, Two Films by Michael Cimino, p273, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.
Robin Wood, Papering the Cracks, p164, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan
Nick James, Hell in Jerusalem, p18, Sight & Sound, April 2004
Christopher Hitchens, I detest this film…with a passion, The Mirror, 27 February 2004
Jon Meacham, Who Killed Jesus?, Newsweek, 16 February 2004
Richard Eyre, The Passion of the Propagandist, p7, The Guardian Review
Johann Hari, The danger of this growing fashion for nostalgia, p17, The Independent, Wednesday 14 January 2004.
Tom Charity, p725, TimeOut Film Guide, Thirteenth Edition 2005
Tom Shone, Empire of the Senses, p36, The Guardian Weekend, 25 September 2004
Jessica Winter, p1354, TimeOut Film Guide, Thirteenth Edition 2005
Wolfgang Petersen in Tom Shone’s article Empire of the Senses, p34, The Guardian Weekend, 25 September 2004
Robert Kolker, pp 64-69, A Cinema of Loneliness: Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 2000
Philip French, Oh Alexander, your roots are showing, The Observer, 9 January 2005
Hywel Williams, Alexander was, after all, defeated: Oliver Stone’s tale of imperial hubris in the Middle East is too close to the bone for American tastes, The Guardian, 10 December 2004
Rob White, p42, Sight & Sound, February 2005
Robin Wood, Papering the Cracks, p182, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.
Rory Stewart, Great Expectations: When it comes to Alexander, the scholars lose out, pp10–11, The Guardian Review, 8 January 2005
Hamid Dabashi, Warriors of Faith, p24, Sight & Sound, May 2005
Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Holy Beach-Towel hypothesis, p14, The Guardian Review, 3 April 2004
This may be partly due to Scott’s need to trim over forty five minutes of footage from his initial cut to the final theatrically released edit, perhaps impacting on the level of characterisation he was able to achieve for his hero, Balian (Orlando Bloom) and for the other characters.
Hamid Dabashi, Warriors of Faith, p24, Sight & Sound, May 2005
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Knight’s Tale, p72, TimeOut, May 4-11 2005
Trevor Johnson, p73, TimeOut, May 4-11 2005
Salman Rushdie, Arms and the men and hobbits: From Middle Earth to New York and Washington, the morality of war is at issue , Saturday January 4, 2003 , The Guardian
Tom Shone, Empire of the Senses, p34, The Guardian Weekend, 25 September 2004
Salman Rushdie, Arms and the men and hobbits: From Middle Earth to New York and Washington, the morality of war is at issue , Saturday January 4, 2003 , The Guardian
There has in fact been a medieval set epic film which we have not discussed in this essay, King Arthur (2004), which takes a similar political position to the pre 9/11 films and as such seems somewhat extraneous and relatively boring.