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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Holy Vulcan!

We continue our exploration of movies that may give us insight into current events.

One question that might be raised by happenings in the past couple of months is: Are there any films out there about charismatic but wacko fringe religious leaders going off the deep end and ending up causing senseless violence? The answer, of course, is yes. They fall into a cinematic sub-genre that I like to call charismatic-but-wacko-fringe-religious-leaders-going-off-the-deep-end-and-ending-up-causing-senseless- violence.

I have exhaustively researched this important film sub-genre by sitting down and spending a good five minutes or more seriously thinking about movies I have seen (and can remember) over my lifetime. Interestingly, most such movies that I can think of seem to be based on actual facts. It’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been at least one made-for-TV movie about David Koresh and the inferno at Waco, Texas, but if one was made, I seem to have missed it. On the other hand, there are at least two movies I know of for sure about the Rev. Jim Jones and the mass suicide of his cult in Guyana, both made in 1980. Guyana Tragedy: The story of Jim Jones starred Powers Boothe, and Guyana: Cult of the Damned starred Stuart Whitman.

But the Waco and Jonestown tragedies don’t really offer any useful parallels to the current war on terrorism. Another fact-based movie, however, comes a bit closer. The 1966 British historical epic Khartoum dealt with the ten-month siege of the Anglo-Egyptian military outpost at Khartoum, Sudan, in 1884-85 by the forces of a fanatical religious leader called the Mahdi. The siege ended in the massacre of the entire garrison, including the British general Charles George Gordon (a.k.a. “Chinese Gordon”). The name Mahdi (Arabic for “he who is guided aright”) refers to the expected Moslem messiah, and apparently in the late 19th century a certain Muhammad Ahmad convinced a lot of people that this referred to him. He briefly set up his own empire in eastern Sudan and, as his empire grew, it became inevitable that he would clash with the colonial British. (The British eventually got Khartoum back in 1898.)

The 1966 film by Basil Dearden and Eliot Elisofon was a thoughtful and historically accurate examination of the intricate theological and socio-cultural issues raised by this conflict. Yes, I’m joking. The film gave (western) audiences what they wanted (and still want): lots of elaborate battle scenes. In a search for the best actor match for the diminutive and eccentric British general Gordon, the filmmakers quite naturally cast Charlton Heston. The Arab zealot Mahdi, on the other hand, was played by the renowned Middle Eastern actor, Laurence Olivier. It was one of a long line of ethnic and foreign roles in Sir Larry’s career that allowed him free rein to indulge his hammy streak. He clearly had fun playing the role, and the scriptwriters gave him some good scenes with Heston, even though history records that General Gordon and the Mahdi never actually met. Seeing this film again can only get our juices flowing in anticipation of some day seeing a movie in which Osama bin Laden (played by, say, Ralph Fiennes) gets to chew the scenery in a face-off with George Bush (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger).

As for fictional stories that fit into my little sub-genre, I can only think of one off-hand, and it’s one that I hesitate to mention out of sensitivity to any readers who may be Star Trek fans. Yes, I am referring to the dreaded Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which showed once and for all that, as a director, William Shatner wasn’t half as bad an actor as we thought he was. When people think back on that movie, they invariably think of (and wince over) Kirk, Bones and Spock singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” in Yosemite National Park. But there was other stuff that happened after that. For instance, a renegade Vulcan religious fanatic takes some ambassadors hostage so that he and his followers can hijack The Enterprise and make Kirk and crew take them to a fabled place called The Great Barrier, where they expect to meet God or Whatever. It’s hard not to be interested in a movie that promises to reveal God to you, but in the end we got one of those Star Trek-type resolutions that was okay when you only had to spend an hour watching and you knew there would be another episode the next week. But it wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to waste a whole Star Trek movie on when you knew it would be a couple of years until the next one. But the refreshing thing about this religious fanatic story, compared to other ones—particularly the factual ones—was the fact that the religious fanatic was actually after something truly spiritual rather than in simply causing worldly trouble.

In the end, I think the best movie in my little sub-genre is one that has yet to be made. That would be the film adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s sprawling 1981 novel about an end-of-the-19th-century clash between the Brazilian government and an apocalyptic prophet’s utopian paradise, called La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World). It is an enthralling read, and if you aren’t familiar with it, I heartily recommend that you look for a copy. Unfortunately, I know of no plans for a film version to be made.

-S.L., 15 November 2001

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