Monday, December 03, 2007

Hollywood in the Holy Land

Posted on behalf of Nick Haydock.

Hollywood in the Holy Land: The Fearful Symmetries of Movie Medievalism
McFarland & Co., Publishers, Inc.
Co-Editors: Nick Haydock and Edward Risden

This project aims to collect essays by various hands about films concerning or evocative of confrontations between the Middle East and the West in the Middle Ages. A primary concern will of course be films set in the times of the Crusades (from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades [1935] through King Richard and the Crusaders [dir. Robert Butler 1954] and Youssef Chahine’s Saladin [1963], down to Ridley Scott’s controversial Kingdom of Heaven [2005] and H. D. Hogan’s Soldier of God [2005]), but the collection will also welcome essays on films set in medieval Spain (such as Anthony Mann’s El Cid, 1961), as well as those which explore imaginary confrontations between Vikings and Saracens (e.g. The Long Ships, dir. Jack Cardiff, 1964 and The Thirteenth Warrior, dir. John McTiernan, 1999). The legends of Robin Hood are clearly relevant here, particularly in their depictions of returns from the Levant to an enfeebled and corrupt England, including the many film versions of Sir Walter
Scott’s Ivanhoe. No less apropos are films set in contemporary times which seek to recover or escape an imagined vital connection to the medieval Middle East, such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Three Kings, Da Vinci Code, or recent low-budget films such as the Pythonesque The High Crusade or the polemical Afghan Knights. Nick Haydock will write an introduction surveying this varied corpus of films, also touching on the contemporary battles over the meaning and applicability of the Crusades to the contemporary world. Edward Risden will write a conclusion in response to the foregoing essays, mapping points of convergence and divergence among the contributions.

The Crusades (particularly as the West has conceived them) have become an embattled theater of operations for a mass-society intent on waging its wars of demagoguery over analogies between the medieval and the contemporary “clash of civilizations.” Beginning from the premise that what Erich Auerbach dubbed a figura is by definition an imagined typology linking disparate times and places based on a faith in the significance of history, recent denials of the Crusades as figura are as politically compromised as the arguments of those on all sides who stress the parallels between millennia. Though it was Pope Urban II who called the First Crusade in 1095, the contemporary occupant of the papal throne, Pope Benedict XVI, recently quoted a fourteenth century dialogue in which Islam is characterized as a religion of the sword. Official responses from the Muslim world predictably compared his “mentality” to that of the Crusades. Osama bin Laden has repeatedly cast the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as a “crusade” called by George Bush. Bruce Holsinger, in study that provocatively spans both academic and political discourse, has devastatingly critiqued the linkage between neo-medievalism and neo-conservatism in what Bush in an unguarded moment called “this crusade, this war on terror.” Yet leftists like Terry Jones also run rough-shod over historical alterities to spark horrified delight at the ease with which they collapse medieval faith and modern fundamentalism. Those on the right eager to support “Operation Iraqi Freedom” are backed in their denial of the Crusades as figura by important scholars of the medieval crusading movement such as Jonathan Riley-Smith and Thomas F. Madden. The work of these scholars is widely quoted in best-selling, rabble-rousing books like Robert Spencer’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (2005). Yet conservative commentators like Spencer are seldom content merely to shun historical analogies altogether; rather they engage in a recognizably orientalist discourse whereby historical continuities are denied for the “enlightened” West but underlined for the Middle East, conceived as ideologically stable and technologically backward empires of faith.

Perhaps not surprisingly even before the release of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) experts and pundits could be heard weighing in from all sides, the very ferocity of their condemnations clearly motivated less by any dispassionate interest in popular film than by the analogies with the present the film was perceived to evoke. Riley-Smith, the reigning dean of British Crusade historians, accused Scott of sharing “Osama bin Laden’s version of history,” and UCLA’s Abou el Fadl rather petulantly forecast that Arabs would riot. In short these academic experts from their entrenched perspectives saw the film in almost mutually exclusive terms, as a condemnation of western crusades, past and present, or as a condemnation of Islam. It is neither, though of course both experts’ opinions were compromised by the fact that neither had seen the film! Yet it is worthwhile to look closely at this film and at others like it that screen popular projections of the present into the past precisely because these figurae are as ineluctable as they are toxic. Since we cannot avoid historical analogy, we must seek to understand and critique it. Riley-Smith tips his neo-con hand when he suggests that the Crusades are more analogous to the Liberation Theology movements in Spanish America than to contemporary interventions in the Persian Gulf. Yet in many of these films an ideology of “freedom” is made to translate the religious convictions of the crusaders, an appeal perhaps similarly composed of belief and cynical manipulation. That is as true of Ridley Scott’s film as it is of his major cinematic source, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades (1935), which likewise preached non-involvement to Americans in the face of an international menace. Scott also imagines the late 12th century Jerusalem as a convivencia of Muslim and Christian, not unlike that portrayed in El Cid and appealed to by both academics and in popular culture as a model of multi-cultural tolerance. Indeed, in the imagined friendship between the Arab Imad and the Frankish Balian, Scott’s film proposes a recurrent trope of interfaith and intercultural tolerance which finds its ultimate source in Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman but appears too in films as varied as El Cid and The Thirteenth Warrior. In short, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven demonstrates that the politics of these films are likely to be as ambivalent as the culture that produces them.

This collection of essays will be the first to take as its subject films that might broadly be characterized as products both of medievalism and orientalism. In studying these films we hope to allow our readers to consider both constants and divergences in a cinematic technology of othering both the past and East while bringing both into fearful symmetries (or telling asymmetries) with the modern western world.

Contributors are asked to submit electronic copies of their work to Nick Haydock ( and Edward Risden ( by April 1, 2008. Submissions should follow McFarland house style (which we will provide) and be from 5000-10,000 words, including footnotes and works cited.


Matthew Gabriele said...

Sounds like an interesting collection. I look forward to it.

Steve Muhlberger said...

I wish I had the learning or the insight to write something substantial on why Walter Scott still has such a grip on us. Talk about a "world historical figure!"