Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lines in the sand: Crusaders, swarthy hordes and the Alamo

I'll admit up front that I'm unhappy with this post, but having chewed on it for a while and then taken the time to write it all down, I can't bring myself to bin it.  I think there are some useful observations in here and some points to ponder, maybe dispute, that may be the sole area where its value lies.  Ultimately, it's more of a hunchback than a soldier....which is actually a plot element in one of the films discussed (300)....but I use it here in the sense of Aleister Crowley's parable....

My inspiration for this post was a comment made by LoS comrade .sWineDriveR. in response to our post about the massacre in Oslo earlier this year ("Their ashes were then ground up and dumped into the Seine, so as to leave no relics behind.")

In that post I mentioned the movie Ironclad because of the coincidences:  Templar protagonist; bloody tag-line (Bllood.  Will.  Run.); it was released within days of the attacks.  sWD noted: 

I want to say this company lives in the  "sword and sorcery" neighborhood -- but it's more like a romanticization of European Heroic Mythology as exemplified in the last few years with:

[sWD here lists some recent films]

A fairly mixed lot, but confined to a fairly tight thematic subset. I'm probably falling feint with synchronicities, but I do think it's a significant development. After all, only ten years ago we were inundated with techno-dystopias. A kind of soul searching with blood and unwashed peasant titties?

In his list of films I imagine a subset of the subset I'd like to explore here, in chronological order.  Not an exhaustive survey by any means; I'm not even sure it is useful.  Forewarned is forearmed.

A little history

It was in Norman Davies' massive and excellent Europe: A History (recommended to me by sWineDriveR., incidentally), that I first read the idea that it was the rise of Islam that first gave rise to the notion of Europe.


Islam, in fact, provided the solid, external shield within which Christendom could consolidate and be defined.  In this sense, it provided the single greatest stimulus to what was eventually called 'Europe'.

I think this idea is debatable, of course, and I state it not as a fact but as an idea which has a long history.

Less debatable is that the history of "the West" and Islam has been one of recurrent conflict, from the early Middle Ages until the present time.

Consider that the Muslim calendar takes as its starting point the Hegira, or "flight of Muhammad."  This was when Muhammad left Mecca for Medina in order to escape an assassination plot.  This is dated 622 AD/CE by the Western calendar.  Islam wasn't even a religion at this point.  Yet by 718, Muslim armies had conquered the Iberian Peninsula, most of the Pyrenées and parts of southern France.  The northward advancement of Muslim armies wasn't checked until a decisive Frankish victory over the invading armies in 732 at the Battle of Tours.

Although modern historians disagree over the significance of this battle, it was (and still is) a widely held belief that the battle "saved" Christianity and Europe from Islam.  Most scholars, including Davies, accept that the victory made it possible for the Carolingians to dominate Europe for the next hundred years or so.  As Davies puts it:

[The] establishment of Frankish power in western Europe shaped that continent's destiny and the Battle of Tours confirmed that power.

We have already seen how the Visigoth Pelagius had won a victory over the Moors ten years earlier at Covadonga, Asturias, later imagined by Christians to have been the start of the Reconquista,  the effort to win Iberia back from the Muslim control.  This process wasn't complete until 1491, the year before Columbus "discovered" America.  An 800-year struggle!

The history of the Middle Ages is pretty much inseparable in the popular imagination from the Crusades, a series of mostly disastrous military campaigns to take the Holy Land from Muslim hands.  The principal crusades took place between 1095 and 1291 and gave rise to the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights, all of whom will figure into our later discussions as heroes of our cinematic genre.  The Crusades and Reconquista are pretty much part of the same global struggle defining the Middle Ages.

Contemporary context

When I think of my own childhood, my memories are peppered with incidents involving violent struggle with Muslims and Arabs.  I recall the Iranian hostage crisis, a humiliating ordeal for the U.S., fraught with anxiety.  I remember toilet paper with a picture of Khomeini and the slogan "In the bowl-a with the Ayatollah!"  Then there were a series of aerial skirmishes with Libyan jets and the "mad Arab" Gaddafi.  Beirut and the Hezbollah gave us hundreds of dead Marines.  The Gulf War and the mad Arab Saddam Hussein, the World Trade Center Bombing, the USS Cole....a continuous barrage of conflict with Arab countries and terrorists.  All this culminating (so far) in the spectacular trauma of September 11th.  The hunt for the mad Arab bin-Laden and his al-Qaeda henchmen, the attempt to eliminate the Taliban, our current folly in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Drones in untrustworthy "ally" Pakistan, suspected in all sorts of dirty anti-American deeds.  And 30 years later, one of the hostage-takers in the Iran crisis is now the country's saber-rattling President.  It goes on and on.

The events of the Arab Spring, while promising, have given some in the West cause for concern.  Democracy in the Arab world is a noble goal....but what if the turmoil leads to the seizure of power by Islamic fundamentalists?  In this, Islam itself is seen as the enemy.

The films I am going to look at have all been produced against this historical and contemporary backdrop. 

While the "noble Moor" character crops up from time to time--see Costner's Robin Hood (1991) or Banderas in The 13th Warrior (1999), I would argue that the fact they are solitary figures alone in the West allow them to be friendly and noble.  They are not a threat because they are not numerous.  On the contrary, the films I will look at offer up a kind of "Alamo" scenario:  A noble group of European types face incredible odds against a mostly mindless mass of foreign invaders.  Not all of these invaders are Arabs, some are merely foreign, some aren't even human.  But I would argue the dynamic is the same.

There are also two other films from this roughly decade-long slew of medieval epics which deserve mention.  Kingdom of Heaven (2005) is set in 1184.  The Swedish production of Arn - The Knight Templar (2007), treats more or less the same time frame.  Both feature positive portrayals of Saladin, a nemesis of the Crusaders.  In Arn, (the only film I mention in this post that I have not seen), the hero saves Saladin's life and the two become friends.  In Kingdom, Saladin is portrayed in one scene returning a cross which has been knocked over to an upright position.  Reviewers from the right were scandalized that the crusaders were portrayed so negatively.  Robert Fisk has this to say:

Yet it is ironic that this movie elicited so much cynical comment in the West. Here is a tale that - unlike any other recent film - has captured the admiration of Muslims. Yet we denigrated it. Because Orlando Bloom turns so improbably from blacksmith to crusader to hydraulic engineer? Or because we felt uncomfortable at the way the film portrayed "us", the crusaders?

This post is not a "wake up call" nor a call to arms against Islam.  This is not one of those "Islam is our greatest enemy" essays.  Nor is it an accusation of racism against the films I will present.  I am merely observing a set of shared elements within our current historical context.

The Films

The first of these films is actually a trilogy:  The Lord of the Rings.  The films were released between 2001 and 2003.  Tolkien has long been accused of racism in the original books.  The evilest of creatures, usually non-human, are invariably described as "swarthy" or "slant-eyed".  But Tolkien was, by all accounts, actually quite liberal on issues of race and ethnicity for his time--yet he was still a product of his time.  When I saw the last film, however, there was one scene which gave me pause.  The whole trilogy is full of "Alamo moments", wherein a small group of heroic Western types takes on a massive horde of mindless Asiatic/Arab types.  In the final battle, the enemy comes lumbering in on Elephants, in Turbans, with junk-like boats, etc.  Their get-up, depending on the group, is clearly inspired by Arab, African or Asian models.  Our heroes, on the contrary, though fantastic, are clearly inspired by European models.

The battle commences with a rousing speech by Aragon which ends like this:

Hold your ground, hold your ground! Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of woes and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!

I specifically remember "Men of the West" is emphasized, yelled really, at greater volume than the rest.  I remember noting that is would certainly be interpreted as a racist commentary the moment I saw it.  Whatever intention Tolkien or Jackson had aside, one cannot fail to see the implications of the speech in our day.  Personally, I see it as entirely normal that a culture celebrates its virtues in the face of an "other".  LOTR is arguably the most influential work of fantasy, ever (aside from the Bible).  This aspect seems to have made its way into several films:  a noble band fights a de-humanized horde and wins against incredible odds.  In an earlier battle, Gimli and Legolas are competing for kills.  As Legolas cuts Orcs down as easily as leaves of grass, he gleefully shouts out the number:  "21!....(hack)....22!"  No compunction, no guilt or uneasiness.  His is unbridled joy.

2003.  In 300, which .sWineDriveR. suggests is the first in this line (one of them, I'd agree) we have a film which is basically plotless and takes this unbridled killing as its central focus.  It's basically pornography in this sense, anything other than violence is merely a pretext, a setup for the "sex scene".  But 300 is also one long Alamo moment:  The Spartans, 300 of them, are the only thing that stands between Greece (the West) and the Persians (the East).  The Spartans are herein noble, brave, highly-skilled, heroic; the Persians are mindless, some of them not human, who, like the Orcs, keep coming and coming, struck down as fast as they come, neither brave nor fearful, merely full of blood-lust and fanaticism.  They come on elephants, their leader an androgynous monster.

The film has also been accused of being fascist, racist, nationalist, etc., which is a  debate I'll leave to others.  Thematically, however it fits right in with the previously described scenes from LOTR and is nearly impossible (for me anyway) too see in any other way except against the backdrop of Western/Arab conflict.

Next film in the list is Black Death (2010).  England.  The year is 1348.  A motley band of highly-skilled warriors, led by a disillusioned Hospitaller, along with a pious monk, make their way to a village led by a witch.  There is no Alamo theme exactly, but the men are highly outnumbered.  I saw this film almost at the same time as the much-derided Season of the Witch (2011). This latter takes place in 1344.  A Teutonic Knight, a disillusioned crusader, leads motley band of kick-ass yet slightly unsavory characters, including a monk, into what is essentially a showdown against superior force.  Their mission is to bring a witch to be judged.

I would argue that the disillusioned soldier returning from battle in the Middle East is in a sense a reflection of the current reality that hundreds of young men and women are in fact returning from combat in the Middle East, many of them much more cynical than when they left.  Yet for all that, in these films, the characters retain a certain nobility of purpose, and integrity.  And of course, they remain pretty much the one-man army of super-human skill which is a staple of American pop culture, from Rambo to Batman.

Ironclad (2011).  England in 1215.  King Henry is forced by the feudal nobility to sign the Magna Carta, but Henry's not to happy about it.  The plot basically revolves around a bloody siege.  Again, a motley band, not quite savory but ultimately brave and above all, highly-skilled, hold off a vastly superior force, in this case foreign mercenaries  Western values are extolled..."liberty" is thrown about every once and a while.  There something of Braveheart (1995), which is set at the end of the 13th century.  Like 300 it is one long Alamo scenario.

Another example isn't a film, but a series: Game of Thrones (2011).  The hero is played by the lead actor in Black Death and is much the same:  a man willing to die for principle, forged by war, well-meaning but cynical.  What GoT shares with our LOTR meme is that the danger lurking in the background is two-fold.  One is a zombie-like menace from the North, at this point in the series not so developed.  A lot of the action takes place in the Westerlands, as various interests scheme for the throne.  But in the east live a people known as the Dothraki, clearly based on the Mongols.  They are vaguely Asiatic, copper-skinned, nomadic, somehow more wild than the clearly European Starks, Lannisters, what have you.  Like LOTR and 300, the Dothraki have been accused of being a racist stereotype.

Just now, running a check on something, I came across this:

Maybe all of this is in the book and the producers are just staying faithful to the source material, but that doesn't change the fact that this is an unfortunate trope that crops up all too frequently in popular sci-fi and fantasy. Think of the turban-wearing, generically evil Men of the South in The Lord of the Rings, or the also turban-wearing, dark skinned Calormenes who help literally end the world in The Chronicles of Narnia, or the menacing Persian army (which is historically real but never had a leader who dressed like an S&M queen) in the movie version of 300.

Obviously, I'm not the only one who sees a connection here.

I  have spoken about "Alamo moments".  The story of the Alamo is that in 1836, during the Texas Revolution, a group of 189 Revolutionaries held off an assault on the Alamo mission by thousands of Mexican troops.  Instead of surrendering, they decided to resist.  A famous anecdote has it that Colonel William Travis drew a line in the sand and said, "Those who are with me, join me on this side of the line.  Those who aren't are free to go."  This line in the sand was evoked by George Bush against Iraq, not just in the sense of joining him, but as in defining a line against aggression from the mad Arab Saddam Hussein.  Looking for the origin of Bush's metaphor, I found out about the Alamo.  But the quote has an earlier use; history tells us it was first used by the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae, the very battle depicted in 300!

I would also point out that Martel's aforementioned victory at the Battle of Tours served and still serves as a "line in the sand" moment.  Although, estimates vary, Martel and the Franks were outnumbered by their Moorish foes, and the casualties were one-sided.  1100 Frank to 12,000 Moors, a ratio of more than 10 to one.

Final thoughts

Looking back over what I've written, I fear this is one of those posts that seemed good in my head, but not so much on paper.  The links I see may simply stem from the fact I saw these movies more less at the same time.

The thesis that "Europe" is inconceivable without Islam is provocative; such a seemingly unified and quick-moving foe provided an "other" against which the differences between Christian peoples seemed lessened.  "We hang together or we hang separately", to pull a temporal fast one with a Franklin quote.  The encounter with Islam certainly had a profound effect on European culture.  Arab scholars had preserved a lot of classical learning which found its way back to Europe with returning Crusaders, ultimately contributing in no small way to the Italian Renaissance;  these first inklings are generally dated to the end of the 13th century:  simultaneous with the end of the major Crusades.

In addition to the preservation and transmission of Classical culture, the Arabs also contributed a great deal to European scientific culture in the fields of optics, mathematics (especially Algebra) and medicine.  International trade was given a great boost and it was to protect pilgrims that the Templars invented the credit system which pre-dated modern banking.  Not to overstate things; who knows where Europe would have headed if it hadn't thrown so much time and effort into what was ultimately a futile endeavor.  Yet it would be foolish to dismiss Arab influence out of hand.

There's certainly a lot more to say on this topic and many more films to be seen.  I'm sure there are far more egregious examples of the Alamo theme.  In one of Robert Anton Wilson's books he quotes the 1935 film The Crusades.  A female lead played by Loretta Young says to Richard the Lion-Heart, "You just gotta save Christianity, Richard, and you gotta!"  I laugh at this every time I read it.  Simpler times, and like the rest of this post, I'm not quite sure what my point is in quoting it.  I certainly feel this post in incomplete, but I also feel that given my uncertainty, there's not much cause to continue.

That said, I think there's a lot to be considered regarding the ongoing identification between elements of the far right and the Crusades.  Anders Behring Breivik, the Oslo killer, identified himself as a Templar and believed he was waging "Christian war."  His rhetoric is that of the lone figure fighting of an onslaught of immigrants which he feels are, in effect, invaders.  His manifesto (PDF link) describes his actions as the continuation of the Crusades, essentially unresolved from the Middle Ages to the present.

As we've already mentioned in another post, Xe (formerly Blackwater) founder Eric Prince has been accused of viewing

....himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe....To that end, Mr. Prince intentionally deployed to Iraq certain men who shared his vision of Christian supremacy, knowing and wanting these men to take every available opportunity to murder Iraqis. Many of these men used call signs based on the Knights of the Templar, the warriors who fought the Crusades.

Which may or may not be true and in all fairness we should emphasize the "may not" over the "may".  If it is true, it's far more sinister and potentially dangerous than a fellow such as Breizik.  These people are wealthier and better armed, both with guns and government contracts.  Prince would not be alone.  Far right Catholics invariably see themselves as upholding the Crusader spirit.  The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), to cite one example, publishes a magazine called Crusade which glorifies the exploits of Christian heroes such as our friend Pelagius; the "threat" of Islam is a major preoccupation in their writings.  Of course, this is not solely a Catholic viewpoint.  Protestants of all stripes share the rhetoric.

I'm not here to say whether or not the TFP is right or wrong, but to propose that it's worth discussing the reality that their ideas exist and to determine to what extent these ideas are held among Westerners and, finally, to what extent they are reflected and/or perpetuated by contemporary Western cinema.

Hopefully some one out there will take up the mantle and charge headlong into it, like some hero from one of the movies herein described.  Good luck, pilgrim.

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