Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Crusaders, caped and otherwise

(Note: This commentary contains spoilers for the movies Kingdom of Heaven and Batman Begins. If you haven’t seen both of them, I suggest you don’t read this until after you do.)

In the days and weeks after September 11, 2001, it seemed as though 9/11 might be one of those dates that would forever have significance beyond being a day on the calendar. Perhaps like the Fourth of July (in the U.S.) or Cinco de Mayo (in Mexico) or le Quatorze Juillet (in France).

Will 9/11 (which, as it happens, in most other countries signifies November 9) endure as a date that will forever evoke memories and passions? For Chileans and those who care about Chile, the date (known there simply as “el Once”) already had significance as the date (in 1973) on which the military overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende. On a personal note, it had also long been an important date in my wife’s family—as the anniversary of the day she lost her mother. But whatever associations the date had before, September 11 seems destined to bring to our minds the worst terrorist attack (to date) on American soil.

Among commentators, there is a tendency to refer to events and mindsets as “pre-9/11” and post-9/11.” As I mentioned in my review of Batman Begins, I heard film critic Kenneth Turan refer to the movie as being post-9/11. This raises the question of precisely what effect 9/11 has had on films. The effects of the attack were visible, superficially, in commercial movies very quickly. I presume that there were movies still in production at the time, particularly comedies, that may have had shots of the World Trade Center removed from establishing shots of New York City, although I don’t know for a fact whether this actually happened. Martin Scorsese pointedly included the towers in the final minutes of his 2002 labor of love Gangs of New York. Sam Raimi’s 2002 movie Spider-Man had a scene added in which New Yorkers came to Spider-Man’s aid and yelled, “When you attack one of us, you attack all of us!” But these movies were conceived, written and well on their way to creative completion before 9/11 happened. It is only now that we are finally seeing mainstream movies for which the war on terror was already a way of life since before their gestation.

One of the most provocative ideas for a big-budget movie this year was Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, which deals with the Crusades. What better time to explore the history of relations and conflicts between Christian and Moslem cultures? And who better to do it than the director who gave us an extremely relevant look at the consequences of American military intervention in a Moslem country in the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down, about the violent events in 1993 that led to the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia? Kingdom of Heaven even has one of the supporting players from Black Hawk Down (Orlando Bloom) as its lead. But sadly, the similarities (and the respective quality) of the two films pretty much end there. It is hard to believe that the same director made the two of them, and it leads us to wonder if Scott should be dealing with history that goes back more than, say, ten years.

The temptation is to draw some sort of parallel between current events in the Middle East, specifically Iraq, and the story of this movie, which recounts how Western occupiers were driven out of Jerusalem in the 12th century. Maybe we aren’t meant to do that. Maybe we are meant simply to infer that Arabs resent Westerners invading territory that is important to them and here’s one of the big reasons why. But things get a little confusing because, in the film’s story, we have two camps of European occupiers, one that is more or less good (represented by Jeremy Irons, looking as if he has had one night of sleep too few and one glass of sherry too many) and one that is irredeemably evil (represented by Marton Csokas, who seems to have been cast because of a resemblance to the late Oliver Reed). This raises the question that maybe occupying Middle Eastern territory might be all right as long as you deal fairly with the locals. Unfortunately, the details of the story provide some hilarious gallows humor for those who are looking for it. This is because Bloom’s character is French. At the end of the story, he is left with two major accomplishments: 1) he has refused to go to battle with his fellow Europeans against the Arabs, and 2) he rallies everyone left in Jerusalem to fend off slaughter long enough to negotiate reasonable surrender terms. In other words, he is an Anglo-American wag’s quintessential French military leader: he is best at refusing to fight and surrendering.

This clearly unintentional joke is not the only thing that undermines Kingdom of Heaven as a movie. In this day and age, we expect a movie about past clashes between the West and the Middle East to provide some context and perception. What Scott has given us is essentially the old cowboy movie, where the good cowboys have to clean up the mess caused by the bad cowboys who have riled up the noble savages, culminating in a valiant last stand in a forsaken desert village. The post-9/11 environment has not been kind to remakes of The Alamo, no matter how disguised they may be.

The post-9/11 references in Batman Begins are more subtle than those in Kingdom of Heaven. It is the personal story of one man, who has been traumatized as a child and who has an all-consuming desire for justice in the world. He travels aimlessly across the globe until he falls in with a group that seems to want what he wants and which is a lot more structured and efficient at realizing it. He undertakes training with them, believing that he has joined some sort of fellowship of do-gooders. Only on graduation day does he realize that they are essentially terrorists. Now here’s a situation that is genuinely thought-provoking. Seeing things from Bruce Wayne’s point of view, we get taken in too. Director Christopher Nolan has used the same trick that he did in Memento. Forced to see things from the protagonist’s point of view, we make the same mistakes in judgment that he does. And a superhero action movie, improbably enough, thereby helps us to understand how terrorists get recruited. (We also get taken in by the casting of Liam Neeson, because we were conditioned by The Phantom Menace to see him as a benevolent Jedi master. The fact that their training center looks like some kind of Himalayan Buddhist temple also throws us off the track.)

After this setup, the rest of the movie becomes an exercise in pinpointing the precise difference between an evil terrorist and a good superhero. The line can be hard to draw. Especially, when Batman decides not to repeat his mistake of sparing Neeson’s life, justifying himself by splitting moral hairs over whether he is actively killing him or merely refusing to intervene in a fatal situation (that Batman himself, by the way, has set in motion). The difference, of course, is that Batman is trying to save lives, even though some lives may be lost in the process. The terrorists’ aim is to end lives indiscriminately.

It is a sign of the movie’s richness that people with differing viewpoints can watch Batman Begins and come away with different, yet valid, interpretations—just as viewers of Black Hawk Down could do the same. In the earlier movie, isolationists could point to it as evidence that the U.S. should stay out of countries where it does not belong. Interventionists could claim that it demonstrated that military action should be undertaken only with adequate troop levels and support. Similarly, people on opposing sides can see their own justifications in Batman Begins. On one hand, it implies that one man’s terrorist is another man’s hero, insinuating that neither side in a war is morally superior to the other. On the other hand, it suggests that people who don’t have someone to fight terrorists on their behalf could conceivably wind up being killed by terrorists.

In the end, however, superhero movies have less room for ambiguity than do movies that are based on actual events. As a rule, superheroes pretty much have to err on the side of fighting evil.

-S.L., 30 June 2005

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