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Ridley Scott’s “Democratic Realism”

Reading Raymond Ibrahim’s excellent November 2nd article, “How Historic Revisionism Justifies Islamic Terrorism,” I was led to follow one of his links to how Hollywood contributes to that revisionism and disinformation. There I discovered James Burke’s May 2005 article on the Free Republic site, “Kingdom of Heaven: Propaganda or History?” The Burke article examines the revisionist depiction of the struggle for Jerusalem between the Crusaders and Saladin’s Moslem armies in Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic, “Kingdom of Heaven.” That in turn led me to thinking about the filmography of the star director and producer.

Ibrahim wrote in his Historic Revision article:

How important, really, is history to current affairs?  Do events from the 7th century—or, more importantly, how we understand them—have any influence on U.S. foreign policy today?

By way of answer, consider some parallels between academia’s portrayal of historic Islamic jihads and the U.S. government’s and media’s portrayal of contemporary Islamic jihads.

While any objective appraisal of the 7th century Muslim conquests proves that they were just that—conquests, with all the bloodshed and rapine that that entails—the historical revisionism of modern academia, especially within Arab and Islamic studies departments, has led to some portrayals of the original Muslim conquerors as “freedom-fighters” trying to “liberate” the Mideast from tyrants and autocrats. (Beginning to sound familiar?)

Hollywood and Ridley Scott have lent a helping hand in that revisionist project. Burke’s article thoroughly dissects “Kingdom of Heaven,” not only for its historical inaccuracies, but for its bias against Western civilization and for Islam, in which the Crusaders are depicted as a bunch of posturing, spiritually lost, bungling boobs and Saladin and his hordes are depicted as nice, honorable guys who just happened to be roaming the deserts armed to the teeth in the 12th century, and Saladin as a leader not really interested in cementing his growing Islamic empire by retaking Jerusalem.

Ibrahim notes near the close of his Historic Revisionism article:

….[T]oday’s accepted narratives do not come from antiquated historians or primary historical texts; they come from the Saudi-funded ivy league—Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, etc.—all of which peddle pro-Islamic propaganda (I personally had direct experience at Georgetown), including the “freedom loving jihadis” vs. “oppressive tyrants” thesis.

Percolating out of liberal academia to liberal mass media, the effects of this well-entrenched but false narrative have taken their toll, ultimately helping to create a disastrous U.S. foreign policy.

Put differently, the Islamic terrorists waging jihad against autocratic (but secular, religiously tolerant) governments—most notably in Syria today—are easily portrayed in the West as “freedom fighters” against oppressive tyrants and thus deserving of U.S. support in great part because this motif has permeated the social consciousness of America, molded as it is by Hollywood and the news rooms, and based on academic distortions of events that took place nearly fourteen centuries ago.

That motif percolates just as furiously in Hollywood as it does in academia and the State Department. Ridley Scott is guilty of depicting Saladin as an early Islamic “freedom fighter” imbued with benevolence and admirable virtues. Scott daren’t “mold” things otherwise, otherwise theaters showing this particular film might have been picketed (or suicide-bombed) by offended Muslims, shouting, Allah ist alles!  James Burke in his “Propaganda or History” introduces the reader to Scott’s painterly film with:

After the anti-Christian Left was blind-sided by the popularity of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, key influencers in the media complex were eager to promote the release of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, one finds the loudest praise for the film coming from the pages of the most radical left-wing papers and journals here in the U.S. and, of course, in Europe. Why then is turnout so high here in the U.S.? Viewers hoping for a more positive (or at least less anti-Christian) take on the Crusades are not going to find it in this film, and should probably go rent Cecile B. DeMille’s equally fantastical The Crusades (1935).

Scott, of course, was the director Gladiator and the pathetic propaganda piece titled 1492: The Conquest of Paradise. Now, in a movie that takes a distinctly revisionist approach to the Crusades, Scott has delivered a film that positively glorifies anti-Roman Catholic mythologies and, worst of all, one of history’s most brutal, savage, and expansionistic dictators in the Moslem world. Anything to make a point in this historical parallel to what many in the Arab world see as America’s and Britain’s current “crusade” to build a Kingdom of Democracy in Iraq. The imagined open market and multi-cultural democracy that Jerusalem was supposedly fighting for under the leadership of Orlando Bloom’s character in this film didn’t last long – and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (portrayed as Jesus’ promised “Kingdom of Heaven”) was abandoned (in a fictionalized ending) by Bloom in one of the film’s final scenes.

The propaganda point of the film couldn’t have made clearer with that last bit of historical revisionism – get out!, and don’t even think about fighting crusading Moslems anymore.

Burke writes from a distinctly Christian (or Catholic) perspective; I, from an atheist’s perspective. Burke’s article covers all the critical bases and I recommend it to readers because it does identify and correct all the intentional and unintentional gaffes in the film – particularly the ones that glorify Saladin – and Burke doesn’t proselytize his pro-Catholic position in it. He sticks to facts.

The subject here, however, is not necessarily Islam and how it has been portrayed in film by anyone, but Ridley Scott’s entire oeuvre and how it comports with today’s leftist, anti-establishment counter-culture. Or rather with the culture that used to be the “counter-culture,” but now is the establishment. Which makes Scott an exponent of antidisestablishmentarianism.

Burke closes his article with these observations:

Kingdom of Heaven is the king of so much historical revisionism, much like 1492: Conquest of Paradise before it, that Mr. Scott can rightly be called the leader of a new school of “Democratic Realism” in film. For those who have ever studied Soviet film and propaganda techniques, the term should be familiar as this author’s knock on the Bolshevik concept of Socialist Realism. Here, instead of re-writing history to promote “socialist ardor” and revolutionary cultural destruction of socialism’s enemies, Mr. Scott has a particular penchant for re-writing history to advance his peculiar left-wing take on democracy.

In both “Realisms,” the Roman Catholic Church takes many of the punches. Indeed, this author was struck by the parallels in terms of propaganda techniques between this film and the Stalin-edited Soviet WW2 film titled Alexander Nevsky. In the latter case, Knights Templar crusaders were shown fighting in Nazi-era German helmets. Here, in Kingdom of Heaven, the film’s producers, lacking much historical evidence of battle flags for Saladin’s army, had the determined foes of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller marching behind flags that included some remarkably similar to those flown by insurgents in Iraq (check out the black flags in particular). [See the black flag of jihad.]

It cannot be denied that Scott is a master filmmaker. Most people do not realize it, but it was his TV commercial which officially debuted the personal computer era in 1984 with his iconic Apple Macintosh ad.

But then his predecessor Alfred Hitchcock, a superb maker of suspense films, with Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) made respectable a fascination for the irrational and for metaphysics gone mad. He, more than any other filmmaker, made it possible for horror and studied insanity to rise from second-string “B” features to blockbuster status.

There is one outstanding attribute present in most of Scott’s films: their darkness, or malevolence, not only in the story but in their overall visual ambience. Of all the films by Scott, “Blade Runner” is the darkest, “textually” and visually; it highlights his signature esthetic and metaphysical style, present even in his stories that take place under brilliant sunlight. This film in particular could be classified as “super-noir.” Scott’s films have become templates for dozens of copycat movies about aliens, cannibals, and hardtack, “life-is-tough-and-meaningless-and-then-you-die” emulators of the premise that one’s life is controlled by external, malign forces.

Burke’s estimate of Scott’s “peculiar left-wing take on democracy” is off-point, because the director’s takes on our culture are multi-targeted. In “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” his left-wing take is on capitalism, not democracy or politics. In the first, it was a corporation that wanted the lethal alien captured so it could be developed into a military weapon. In the second, a sunless Los Angeles exists under an unrelieved dusk-like pall and non-stop rain, thanks to capitalism; the lethal renegade bio-engineered replicants “blade runner” Harrison Ford is assigned to “terminate” are also products of capitalism.

Scott directed “Prometheus,” touted as a distant-cousin “prequel” to his “Alien,” and essentially is science fiction bathed in the mysticism of man’s origins and man’s alleged pride of his own existence. Again, the chief villain in this film is a super-successful capitalist who underwrites an expedition to a distant moon and who hopes to find a means of prolonging his life. The Wikipedia synopsis of the film goes:

The central theme in Prometheus concerns the eponymous Titan of Greek mythology who defies the gods and gifts humanity with fire, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment. The gods want to limit their creations in case they attempt to usurp the gods. The film deals with humanity’s relationship with the gods—their creators—and the consequence of defying them. A human expedition intends to find God and receive knowledge about belief, immortality and death. They find superior beings who appear god-like in comparison to humanity, and the Prometheus crew suffer consequences for their pursuit. Shaw [an archeologist crew member] is directly responsible for the events of the plot because she wants her religious beliefs affirmed, and believes she is entitled to answers from God; her questions remain unanswered and she is punished for her hubris.

You can’t get more mystical than that. It’s a soufflé of Scientology and Rosicrucianism.

As for capitalism’s “spoliation” of a pristine Rousseau-envisioned Eden, the theme of “1492: The Conquest of Paradise” is telegraphed in the title of Scott’s version of the discovery of America by Columbus, played by French actor Gérard Depardieu, whose struggle with his English dialogue renders many of his lines unintelligible.  (I have linked the Wikipedia descriptions of all these films; IMDB’s descriptions tend to be facile and surfacy.)

Thelma and Louise” features a crime spree by two women moved by undisguised misandry, or man-hatred. “G.I. Jane” expands on that theme, and exploits (and anticipates) the women-in-combat issue that is currently emasculating the U.S. military. “Black Hawk Down” depicted the carnage and confusion of fighting a non-offensive, Just-War-Theory-governed war. “Hannibal,” the sequel to Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” simply says that evil cannot be combated, contained, or defeated, and that reason is impotent in the face of criminal insanity, which will always out-fox rationality.

Robin Hood, as a “prequel” retelling of the legend, sought to explain how Robin Hood came to haunt Sherwood Forest. Scott’s film is a gritty Naturalistic “new narrative” version of the Richard Greene TV series, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and of the 1938 Errol Flynn movie of the same name, both of which clash violently with Scott’s rendition in content and characterization.

American Gangster” and “The Counselor” are pure mayhem-soaked sagas about criminals and drug cartels, the first loosely based on a true story, the second the product of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Cormac McCarthy’s sordid imagination. These films do not even attempt to glamorize criminals; according to Scott, whether or not one is a criminal, life isn’t glamorous.

The Wikipedia synopsis establishes the themes of “The Counselor,” but the same could be said about “American Gangster,” as well: “The plot revolves around the troubled Juarez, Mexico//Texas border area and deals with themes of greed, death, and the primal instincts of humans and their consequences.” In short, heroism is a pathetic illusion, the only people worth contemplating are homicidal dirt-bags. The settings are irrelevant. McCarthy wrote the novel, The Road, on which the 2006 movie was based, which was reviewed in “Netflix’s Turkey Farm”.

I have seen about half of Scott’s oeuvre over the years, beginning with “The Duellists” in a New York City “arts” theater when it was released in 1977. Then, as now, I still see it as a very-well done but pointless story about the conflict between two French army officers and their duty-driven obligation (or compulsion?) to duel each other over a minor insult.  About the only film of Scott’s from which I derive some value is “Gladiator,” which, even for its historical flaws and overall malevolence, focuses on a truly personal motive of the main character, played by Russell Crowe. Having been robbed of his most important values by a psychopathic emperor, all he can do is seek some sort of justice in the form of vengeance.

Scott is now directing a Biblical epic, Exodus, about Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, scheduled for release in 2014. I’m sure that when it is released, Muslims will have something to say about it, pro and con, just as they had about “Kingdom of Heaven.” But, I think it is appropriate that Scott, now 76 years old, would follow “Prometheus” by turning to the Bible for a story to tell. It’s where most very tired and idea-bankrupt lefties usually turn after they have exhausted their repertoire and done their bit in trashing the West.

The best antidote to Ridley Scott’s “Democratic Realism” – which isn’t “realistic” at all – is Romantic Realism, a literary genre which depicts man as a heroic being in pursuit or in defense of rational values. Hollywood hasn’t a stellar record in producing such films, but it once allowed its directors, producers and actors the freedom to produce them.

  • DogmaelJones1

    Leave it to the editor to pick a perfect illustration for a column. In this instance, he picked a still of Michael Fassbender, who plays a cyborg member of the Prometheus crew. In the Wikipedia cast notes, Fassbender is noted for having styled his hair after Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia role. When I first saw the still, something clicked in my memory
    and I re-read the Wikipedia Fassbender notes, and there it was. See the Wikipedia article on T.E. Lawrence and the first photo portrait of him at

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._E._Lawrence

  • DChrls

    Great piece on the mentality of people like Scott.