Monday, 4 January 2016


The armies of Jerusalem on the march, from Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005)

A friend from drama school who's now a teacher and director recently posted on social media asking for examples of favourite scenes from films. She wanted to provide her students with examples beyond her own tastes: a smart move I think, and a pro-active use of social media.

As an avid film/television series junkie, it got me thinking, and seemed a good excuse to write something myself.

Of the many genres I'm drawn to, one stands out as favourite: the big budget, historical epic, often also referred to as 'swords & sandals'. The kind of stuff that has the whole cinema/front room quaking with the sound of armies on the march, the clash of swords, yells of battle-cry. All peppered and held together with political intrigue and harsh realities of the era. I love 'em.

Though many don't consider the genre the most 'high-brow', it's what I personally want to see in a film. I want the grandeur, the violence, the huge spectacle of vast armies and battles - the likes of which most of us (thankfully) won't ever witness. The real turning points of history. If I want to think about modern/intellectual issues, I can read a book. Hell, I can turn on the news. There's more than enough material to ponder at the moment.

So to volunteer an answer to my friend's question, my mind raced through films I've enjoyed of that genre, that I felt had something to say in a modern context.

Here are my top five.

1. Kingdom of Heaven (2005, Dir: Ridley Scott)

Strangely enough, though it's a prime example of a well-crafted and intelligent 'big-budget' historical film, having both profound meaning and relevance in the modern world, it didn't do particularly well at the box office. In fact, neither of Ridley Scott's follow-ups to Gladiator, this or the subsequent Russell Crowe Robin Hood reboot, were as well received.

First and foremost, there was one huge thing wrong with Kingdom of Heaven. In two words - Orlando Bloom. He was the supposedly big Hollywood name carrying the film (riding unmerited success from a veritably mute role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), yet rarely have I seen an otherwise amazing film so corrupted and utterly poisoned by a lead performance. It is some of the worst, most disengaged and unbelievable screen-acting I've ever born witness to.

The same is true of the actor's involvement in the previous year's Troy, which he also nearly ruined too. Fortunately, director Wolfgang Petersen at least placed a few genuinely talented names above Bloom on the bill, namely that of Brad Pitt and Eric Bana, not to mention the formidable Brian Cox as Agamemnon, and together they successfully carried the film. Too much reliance was placed on Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven, and his lacking was only too painfully obvious. It bugged me outlandishly, because some of the other performances were nothing short of spell-binding. Notably Jeremy Irons as Tiberias, Brendan Gleeson as Reynald de Chatillon, and Ghassan Massoud as Saladin. Not only that, but the cinematography was awe-inspiring.

The other widespread criticism cited at Kingdom of Heaven was that it was too complicated, too slow moving, and too 'politically correct'. In other words, there was no clear goodie/baddie, no clear identification of who was right or wrong. 

That's the exact reason I found the film so special. That is the real world. That is real-life. Nothing is black and white. Each side in any dispute will see justification for their cause, and I distinctly remember the epiphany of being taught at drama school: "villains don't see themselves as baddies, they usually see themselves as being morally right." I personally think the film tackled that sentiment far more bravely than the majority of Hollywood blockbusters, as well as the reality that within any political alignment, whether now or hundreds of years ago, there are often internal struggles between greatly varying temperaments.

However, a film suggesting Christianity could be at fault, or indeed that Islam could ever have held the moral superiority was never likely to go down well with large portions of Western audiences, particularly in America. (I think many would have preferred a Fox News style interpretation.) Kingdom of Heaven passes all too relevant judgement on the modern age, and also explains to a modern audience the early origins of the current conflict in the Middle East. The romantic notion of the Christian 'crusade' was really anything but, and in many ways the West are still doing exactly the same today - albeit under the umbrella of democracy and global capitalism. That's progress for you.

One of my favourite scenes is when Saladin and the great Mamluk army are about to lay siege to the crusader castle of Kerak. Balian (Orlando Bloom) has been spared from execution by the fantastic Alexander Siddig (better known for his more recent depiction of Doran Martell in Game of Thrones) as karmic retribution for his fair treatment earlier in the film, but our Christian hero is nonetheless warned he will soon die at the hands of Saladin: "My master has arrived". Then suddenly crossing the horizon, the whole army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem turns up, led by none other than the masked leper king, Baldwin (Edward Norton) - just in time to save the day. The audience sits there expecting some major on-screen battle action, but instead, events take a quite unlikely and almost anti-climactic turn. 

The two leaders trot out to meet each other ahead of their armies, and in the ensuing conversation, we discover they respect one another. They even feel affection and concern for one another; they're virtually friends. It is this relationship, the wisdom of two men alone that holds together an incredibly fragile peace - one that would be flung aside in an instant by their own advisers and statesmen, even the greater populace. The ill-advised majority are only too keen to follow a propagandist agenda for war. 

Sound familiar at all?

Instead, Baldwin and Saladin do not bow to the political pressures on them at this time. No lives are thrown away that day: reason and humanity win out, at least temporarily. The Mamluk army turns around and retires to Damascus, and Baldwin goes on to redress the evil within his own ranks, Reynald de Chatillon. For me, that is quite powerful imagery and sentiment. 

The lure of war can be refused, by the right leaders.

2. Gladiator (2000, Dir: Ridley Scott)

Staying with our much celebrated director Ridley Scott, Gladiator was probably the title that most rejuvenated the once jaded historical 'swords & sandals' epic. Everyone loved this film, even those who might not ordinarily enjoy the genre. It was genuinely quite hard to find fault with - from the sets and costumes, the jaw-dropping enormity of the Roman legions, the barbarity and beauty of the Colosseum, the flawlessly crafted script and story, to the inspiring renditions of the leading cast. Russell Crowe was suitably tough, noble and stoic as Maximus Decimus Meridius, "commander of the armies of the north", Joaquin Phoenix was delicious as the tortured and tantrum-prone emperor Commodus (another good example of a villain who doesn't realise he's a villain), and performances by the late Richard Harris and Oliver Reed in their respective roles as Marcus Aurelius and Proximo were simply out of this world. (In fact, if there is a God, I'd like to imagine his character is similar to that of Richard Harris in this movie.) Derek Jacobi and Djimon Hounsou definitely deserve a nod too, but Connie Nielson was a bit of a weak link for me as Lucilla, if I was forced to find fault somewhere. Perhaps only because she spoke with an obtrusive foreign accent, when all other Romans seemed to exhibit a crisp, British RP.

How to pick a scene from the film? It was pleasing on so many levels: action, drama, intrigue, you name it. However, having provided myself the guideline of highlighting relevance in the modern world, I'd have to choose that pivotal moment at the very end where an already disadvantaged Maximus faces off against his nemesis, the emperor Commodus in single combat, before the eyes of the Colosseum.

When it becomes evident to Commodus he will not win, in spite of underhandedly having Maximus stabbed beforehand, he casts aside all honour. Even in front of a huge audience. His true colours become evident. Disarmed by the gladiator, he calls out to his Praetorian cohort and demands they provide him a sword. Their commander Quintus (Tomas Arana), former friend to Maximus, is suddenly and unexpectedly handed direct responsibility for the outcome of the entire film.

As Lieutenant to Maximus at the film's opening, Quintus had been torn by the conflict of morality versus mandate, for its entirety. Finally, at the crucial moment, he defies the ruthless maniac leading the Roman empire to ruin, and commands the Praetorians to sheathe their swords. Commodus is then defeated; justice is served, and control of the empire is handed back to the senate and people of Rome.

The relevance? Now, as then, monsters who manipulate the world are only able to do so on account of a chain of command. It's only by unopposed compliance that evil is able to thrive unchallenged. It really is the responsibility of every human being to determine truth from propaganda: right from wrong. Only courage to challenge the established order can put an end to tyranny, and in this instance, by actively choosing right over wrong, even someone subservient in the established chain of command is effectively able to do exactly that.

That's an important message.

3. Braveheart (1995, Dir: Mel Gibson)

Despite starring an Australian, cries of "Freedom" in a Scottish accent have become as culturally synonymous to our kilt-wearing cousins as Irn-Bru and bagpipes. 

The Scots themselves generally loved it, as despite any misgivings and inaccuracies, it painted the English in an extremely unfavourable light. Continuously. Throughout. There were no 'shades of grey' here. That was more than enough to rally Scottish support, as well as that of our previous colonial conquests across the Atlantic.

In fairness, despite more than a few historical liberties taken, we were pretty malicious bastards back then. Our questionably 'United Kingdom' was forged by exactly such oppression. Only political and dynastic manoeuvres eventually conjoined the crowns of both countries in James Stuart; something of little concern or value to the average Scot, now or then. It was decided at a time of absolute monarchy, not the constitutional (and virtually ineffectual) one we have today. Scotland always has and will be a proud independent nation, and its forced union with England has been despised by many Scots for centuries

It probably doesn't help that to this day, the lyrics of our national anthem originally included a society-wide request for our monarch to "like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush". Wowzer. No wonder the Scots were annoyed. You can sing "ice ice baby" over the bass-line all you like, it's always going to be Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie.

The same sentiments are painfully present in Northern Ireland. An English national hero immortalised in stone and bronze outside our parliament is generally thought of (by the Irish) as a bit like a German parliament proudly displaying a statue of Hitler. Oliver Cromwell was responsible for untold atrocities across the Irish Sea. It's therefore arguably extremely distasteful, but inevitably, it's victorious conquerors that decide whom history shall revere.

It's important to understand that in the same way the populace of the Middle East have never forgotten sins committed against them, as portrayed in Kingdom of Heaven, similar atrocities were committed against the Scots and Irish around exactly the same sort of time. In fact, Edward Longshanks, the villainous English tyrant and 'Hammer of the Scots' so brilliantly played by the late Patrick McGoohan (ironically an Irishman), joined the ninth crusade to the Holy Land in 1268.

The film also glazed over the fact Longshanks had recently 'pacified' Wales too. They were the first to fall to a 'United Kingdom'. I obviously don't need to explain how the issue of Scottish independence, or the desire for freedom from English governance is relevant today. And if I do, you've probably been living in a cave.

My favourite moment in the film is actually one of those historical liberties previously mentioned. I'm not sure there's any evidence to suggest Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) did actively fight or engage in a plot to ensnare William Wallace (Mel Gibson), let alone fight on the English front lines dressed like the medieval equivalent of Darth Vader, but I do think it was a valuable dramatic license that comments on the reality of politics.

When it's finally revealed to be Robert the Bruce fighting for Longshanks (it is true his family were in and out of favour with English Kings over the years, dependent on their level of cooperation), it's an acute and visceral betrayal - as seen very much in the eyes of our hero. It's simply incomprehensible to Wallace how the very man on whom Scottish pride and dreams depend, could possibly do a private deal with the tyrannical power of England for personal gain. 

It serves as stark reminder that those we conceive to be acting on our behalf are not always motivated by our desires or needs. Instead they are often motivated by greed, and desire for political advancement within the established order; motives more often than not in complete opposition to any notion of 'common good'.

However... the Bruce then helps Wallace escape. He turns on the oppressors, and leads the Scots to victory at the implied Battle of Bannockburn at the end of the film. Ergo, even those who've previously done the wrong thing can finally say 'enough is enough', and take a moral stand. 

Eg: It's never too late to do the right thing: it can make the difference. Again, that's a quite important message.

4. Agora (2009, Dir: Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar)

This rather unconventional 'swords & sandals' epic strayed quite far from the formula that usually makes for a successful blockbuster in the genre: there was very little in the way of special effects, amassed armies waging war, epic confrontations etc. It was all about conquest of the mind, the conquest of ideas - the early oppressive and misogynistic Christianity that held dominion over the minds of Kings and paupers alike, all the way from its rise to Imperial power under Constantine and the Roman Empire, through the entire middle ages, until its decline with the rise of secular (colonial) government.

Also unusually, there was no macho male hero clutching a sword in the face of all-encompassing evil; this film is the complete opposite. Our focal character is a virtually powerless but nonetheless compassionate, educated and inspiring teacher - who also happened to be a woman: Hypatia (of Alexandria), a Greco-Roman philosopher and mathematician played with enormous charisma, as ever, by the wonderful Rachel Weisz.

The film covers a very specific and effectual period of history. In 391 AD the Roman Empire was at the peak of it's territorial control, controlling vast regions of Europe, north Africa and the middle east, but struggled with its own bureaucracy. It became fractured and splintered, resulting in countless civil wars and uprisings, and of course vying factions competing for power and influence. Eventually it divided into the western Roman empire with Rome as capital, and the eastern Roman empire with Constantinople (modern day Instanbul).

The east identified far more strongly with Greek culture, having been colonised by Alexander the Great and his successor kingdoms even pre-dating Roman occupation, and it consequently became known as the Byzantine empire: a faction and lineage that went on to survive the western Roman empire by quite some time, well into the middle ages. It is there in the east, in the secondary Byzantine capital of Alexandria (Egypt) that the tale is set.

The early years of the fourth century were critical. A potent slave religion known as Christianity had gathered incredible momentum across the Roman empire, particularly in the east, and severely threatened the established classes who still followed the old Greco-Roman gods. It was initially oppressed brutally, however then something very unlikely happened no-one could have predicted.

The Chi Ro - early symbol of Christianity
One of the four Roman would-be emperors vying for control was a man heralded as 'Constantine the Great'. Around 310 AD, he went to war with one of his competitors, Maxentius, and in a desperate ploy to rejuvenate his wavering and outnumbered troops (and perhaps also genuine personal conversion, who knows), he announced to his entire army they were now Christians, and fighting in the name of the "one true God". Constantine ordered his soldiers paint the symbol of this new religion, the Chi Ro (Greek symbol for Christ) on their shields, promising it would lead them to victory.

Whether a stroke of luck or 'divine intervention', Constantine's army emerged victorious: which of course he saw (or at least publicised) as the latter. He formally converted to Christianity, announced himself its spiritual leader, and literally wrote the Catholic prayer-book (the Nicene creed, or Catholic 'declaration of faith').

Then he set about spreading its influence across his newly conquered Roman empire, and although Christianity and Paganism were allowed to coexist at first, Constantine's successors soon realised that controlling subjects with religion, eg: guaranteeing either eternal salvation or damnation in the next life, was far more cost effective than military repression. A multitude of different gods/different rules also created numerous bureaucratic problems for an empire seeking to re-establish order.

The film covers that transitional period when Christianity suddenly ceased to be a religion of the slaves, abhorred by the gentry classes, suddenly becoming the official state religion. A pioneering humanitarian and scholar such as Hypatia is horrified by the routine violence engulfing her city, all in the name of what she sees as senseless man-manipulated religions. She preaches tolerance and reason, but all too soon the brutal and aggressive tide of Christianity becomes inescapable.

The film was very poignant for me, especially as a former Christian who now considers himself Agnostic. Apart from clearly shining a spotlight on the oppressive and violent origins of Christianity and the dangers of religious fanaticism, it also showed how fickle people (of all classes) can be regarding their political/religious alignment, if their security and/or personal position is threatened.

In one scene, the established order is very visibly overturned. Vengeful Christian preacher Cyril (Sami Samir) deliberately chooses to incite his newly empowered flock to violence, using scripture to attack the governing Roman prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac, of recent Star Wars Episode VII fame) and his friendship with a Hypatia - now painted as a blasphemous heathen. Orestes resists the open challenge to his authority and refuses to bow to Cyril, who brandishes an early edition of the Bible as justification for the public subjugation. The Roman's refusal is seen as affront to the whole religion, rather than just the upstart preacher as intended, and Orestes is then stoned by the angry mob upon departing the temple.

It marks a point in our history when religion suddenly became more powerful than imperialism. A 'New World Order' that lasted centuries.

It's the last time in the film Orestes attempts to defend his beloved friend. If you make people fearful enough, they will give into anything eventually, even the persecution of those closest to them.

One cannot help see common ground with the dangers of religious fanaticism today: how those at the top of any institution, especially the religious, are able to twist the minds and will of their followers to suit their own agenda. One group's perspective can become law with the flick of a pen.

It also teaches another concurrent lesson from history: persecuted groups will often wreak the most terrible vengeance on their oppressors, should the tables ever be turned. I believe it was Machiavelli who centuries later wrote: "Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries - for heavy ones they cannot." His theories of Realpolitik are certainly the carbon opposite and in complete contradiction to modern notions of humanitarianism and morality, but unfortunately they are arguably ignored by a modern statesmen at his or her country's peril.

Machiavelli's writings are therefore, in essence, the foundation and justification for every right-wing argument and attitude to this very day.

5. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999, Dir: Luc Besson)

This quite outlandish take on one of France's most iconic figures, revered as a saint by the Catholic church to this day, is as much a study on the effects of deep psychological trauma and injustice, as it is a historical 'swords & sandals' epic. In this quite twisted piece directed by Luc Besson portraying the famous turning point in the Hundred Years War between England and France, our heroine is little more than a manipulated, misguided (and often bizarrely behaving) pawn in a power struggle between vying French factions. 

I always thought it odd that a predominantly French film should question one of its iconic figures in such a way, or paint Joan of Arc (Milla Jovovich) as an at-times insatiably impetuous lunatic - but then again, France is nowadays perhaps understandably more keen on promoting its staunch secularism, and the fact it gave birth to modern notions of 'liberte'. France were the first nation to reject both religious and monarchic absolutism, and that's of course a prevailing reason why just about every powerful dynasty in Europe went to war with them in the 18th and 19th centuries.

This specific ideology holds far more sway in the film than any promotion of France's pre-revolution Catholicism and/or crusader state heritage, at any rate.

This film is set around 1429, a period in The Hundred Years war (still the longest running concurrent period of war between two nations in world history) when France were virtually defeated, and English kings ruled more territories on the continent than the subjugated French. They were prisoners in their own land, and had almost given up hope of ever displacing the occupying English forces. 

Basically Braveheart, but the other side of the English Channel.

Step forward a traumatised 'holy' woman with a score to settle, who claims to have received visions and instructions directly from God. She whips the French up into a rebellious frenzy, gives them a seemingly implausible belief they can in fact beat the invaders back with God on their side, and before you know it, the conquered become the conquerors.

Like some of the others, this film shows how fervent religious belief is truly a force to be reckoned with, particularly when it's combined with effective manipulation or propaganda and a prolonged state of repression. That specific combination can very literally turn the established order upside down. 

It also highlights how once Joan's purpose to the state had been served, it turns on her - the very instant she was conceived to be a threat and at odds with the new status quo. And it disposes of her most ruthlessly.

Of course, what this film also bravely addresses in a shock twist at the very end, is that religious 'signs' and visions are psychosomatic flights of fancy, often a bi-product of trauma or vanity. However baseless, irrational or fraudulent their origin, such idealism can and often has been manipulated to implement calamitous world-changing events. 

Dustin Hoffman, who periodically appears throughout the film as embodiment of Joan's conversations with God (possibly God himself in human form), suddenly turns on her at the crucial moment of her own trial. The voice that's guided her from the outset suddenly alludes to the fact he is not the voice of God, but simply a voice within her own head - now telling her she's conceived certain events to be signs exactly because she wanted them to be: it suited her purpose.

Suffice to say, this film was probably not a hit with the Catholics.

Fantastically, Hoffman's performance is so good, you can almost ignore the hideous protrusion of his American accent, amidst what is already a film full of jumbled accents. Surprisingly small details can be a suspension of belief too far, at least for me, and I do find American quite jarring. Surely it's an accent that should never appear in a historical film, certainly not one that's set pre-dating when the country was even discovered??

Worth a watch, particularly if you're an angry Atheist.

Thank you for reading. 

Give the films a watch, if you haven't already!

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