An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

November 16, 2010

Haydock/Risden, eds. Hollywood in the Holy Land

Nickolas Haydock and E. L. Risden, eds., Hollywood in the Holy Land: Essays on Film Depictions of the Crusades and Christian-Muslim Clashes. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

Reviewed by Michael R. Evans (evans2m@cmich.edu)


This collection of essays is more expansive and inclusive than the title would suggest; it covers depictions on the big and small screen of crusades to the Holy Land, the Baltic crusades of the Teutonic Knights, the Templars and the Templar conspiracy theory genre, El Cid, medieval France, the Arabian Nights, and modern Christian dispensationalist apocalyptic fantasies. As might be expected from such a wide range of subject matter, and from a dozen contributors drawn from both literary and film studies, the quality of the essays is variable, but at its best the work shines a revelatory light on the western media treatment of the Muslim world and the Middle Ages. One contributor, John Ganim, is also the author of the book Orientalism and Medievalism, and these two themes figure prominently in most of the essays.


Haydock sets the scene in his introduction in which he contextualizes media treatments of the Muslim ‘Other’ in the age of the ‘War on Terror’. As well as critiquing recent Hollywood treatments of Muslims and the Middle East, he also challenges a recent turn toward crusades apologetics among some medieval historians such as Thomas Madden, whose writings in the conservative media portray the crusades as a ‘in every way a defensive war’ against an Islam described in Orientalist terms as an ‘opulent  empire.’ (fn. 1)


Several essays focus on the core theme of the movies’ treatment of the Crusades to the Holy Land. Movies including Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922), The Crusades (Cecil B. De Mille, 1935) An-Nasir Salah ad-Din (Youssef Chahine, 1963), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Reynolds, 1991) and Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005) treated the crusades either as their central theme or as in important background element. Lorraine Stock’s essay on western crusades movies, and Paul B. Sturtevant’s on Chahine’s Salah ad-Din both relate how movie depictions of the crusades reflect contemporary political attitudes. Stock demonstrates how film versions of the crusades changed to reflect American attitudes to contemporary warfare, from the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood’s reflection of recent memories of World War 1 to Prince of Thieves’ ambivalent view of the Islamic world in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, in which the U.S., had fought against a Muslim Arab power alongside Muslim Arab allies.  Sturtevant demonstrates how Chahine’s portrayal of Saladin reflects the propaganda program of Nasser in support of Arab unity against Israel and the West. These are important papers in dealing with the core them of the book, but there is a danger in reducing art to a mere cipher that reads ‘X in the movie = Y in contemporary politics’. Sturtevant fails to fully recognize the complexity of Chahine’s vision, which discriminates between avaricious and idealistic members of the crusader forces; for example, Richard I is presented in a positive light, when it would surely have been more politically expedient, only seven years after the Suez Crisis of 1956, to present both Richard and Philip II of France as aggressive imperialists. 


Several contributions address the subject matter from a more purely cinematic as well as a social and political perspective. A good example of this is Ganim’s essay ’Framing the West, Staging the East’ in which he argues that the cinematic framing of what he terms ‘Middle Easterns’, borrowing from the visual vocabulary of the ‘Western’ and from Orientalist paintings of the Middle East, creates an often clich├ęd vision of the Muslim world. 


Although Orientalism is a key theme of the book, the films under discussion are at times perhaps treated a little too kindly, when more could have been said about their Orientalist elements. For example Risden, in an incisive article on the use of a Muslim ‘buddy’ in Hollywood medievalism, contrasts The Thirteenth Warrior favorably against other film treatments of the Muslim Other (notably Prince of Thieves), while missing the movie’s own Orientalism. Writing at the time of the film’s release, Ziauddin Sardar commented that it had merely added a layer of nuance to ‘the exotic Arabia of western imagination, complete with semi-clad veiled women, a Scheherazade, an ugly and conniving vizier and a despotic caliph.’ (fn. 2) Likewise, Kingdom of Heaven (1999), Ridley Scott’s bold but flawed attempt at a multiculturalist approach to the events leading to the Third Crusade, is treated sympathetically by Risden, overlooking the scene where Balian, newly arrived in Outremer, teaches the art of digging wells to Palestinian fellahin who were, presumably, completely unaware of such a concept before the arrival of the enlightened westerner.


The contributors might have been more critical in approaching the idea of 9/11. Many of them refer to it, and the whole ‘War on Terror’ casts its shadow across the subject matter of the book, but all take ‘9/11’ at face value. Yet has not the whole concept of ‘9/11’ itself become a media artifact, increasingly unhooked from the actual events of September 11 2001?  A critique of medievalist presentations of ‘9/11’ and ‘Ground Zero’ in the media would have been fruitful in relation to the subject matter of this work. The ‘Hallowed Ground’ of the former World Trade center has become for many Americans akin to a medieval pilgrimage site, as demonstrated in the current (as of September 2010) furor over the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’. The real atrocity of September 11 has been overshadowed by the atrocity story of ‘9/11’, the universal excuse used to conduct war in the Middle East, just as atrocity stories about Muslim persecution of Christians were used by Urban II to build enthusiasm for the First Crusade.
On a production note, there are unfortunately many printing errors and much inconsistent orthography throughout the book. It may seem pedantic to comment on these issues, but errors such as references to ‘Muslin warriors’ detract from the seriousness of the tone, leading the reader to speculate on how a Muslin warrior might have fared against a Hessian horseman. Likewise, missing diacriticals might lead the reader to questions the writers’ or editors’ knowledge of foreign languages, especially when one contributor admits to basing his analysis of the dialog in an Arabic-language film solely on the English subtitles (p. 143).


It would be wrong, however, to make too much of the book’s flaws. This is the first scholarly work on this subject, and the study of medievalist film as a whole is in its early days. There are many excellent essays in the collection that deserve more attention from this reviewer than space restrictions allow, notably Tom Shippey’s and Kevin J. Harty’s chapters on the political context of the movie El Cid (Anthony Mann, 1961); Nickolas Haydock’s discussion of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) alongside lesser-known film depictions of the Baltic Crusades from the Eastern Bloc; and Lynn Ramey’s essay on post-war French racial politics in the film Le Chanson de Roland (Frank Cassenti, 1978). The editors and contributors are to be congratulated for a thought-provoking foray in a developing field, and we can look forward to scholars in the future building upon the arguments advanced in this collection.


Michael R. Evans
Central Michigan University


Notes:
1) Thomas F. Madden, ‘Crusades Propaganda: The abuse of Christianity’s holy wars,’ National Review, 2 November 2001.
2) Ziauddin Sardar, ‘A Traveller’s Tale,’ New Statesman and Society, September 6 1999.