Rewriting the script

Why do blockbusters have to distort the history of Christianity? Why not bring its heroes to Hollywood?
Michael Cook | Jun 24 2010 | comment  

Is it a sign of exhausted creativity that anti-Christian film makers are exhuming Enlightenment myths? In the arthouses this summer are two films recycling tattered canards which have been mouldering in history books for centuries, repeatedly refuted and repeatedly revived.

Pope Joan (Die Päpstin) is a German production about a female Pope who — supposedly – was elected in 853. Mediaeval legends about the Popess are sketchy, but what legend leaves out, the imagination of the director, Sönke Wortmann, fills in.

Joan is the daughter of a German priest. In a time of political and social chaos she finds safety by disguising herself as a monk. So brilliantly does she succeed that the Romans end up electing her as their Bishop by acclamation. She makes a great Pope and her lover becomes the general of her army. Unfortunately, during a Papal procession in the third year of her reign, she miscarries and dies in childbirth. In some versions of the legend the mob tears her limb from limb.

If this is history, so are Hellboy and Borat. The newspaper L'Avvenire, which speaks for the Italian bishops, has called it a "a hoax" and a film of "extremely limited vision". That’s being charitable.

The other film, Agora, is a Spanish blockbuster by Alejandro Amenábar which takes place in Alexandria in 415. Its heroine is Hypatia, a young unmarried and virginal woman of genius who teaches philosophy and astronomy in the Agora, the ancient world’s version of a university.

Hypatia is a pagan, one of a declining minority in a city torn by feuds between Jews and fundamentalist Christians led by the scheming Patriarch Cyril. It is a tough time for lovers of the truth, especially when Christians destroy Alexandria’s rich library. When Hypatia refuses to recant her belief that the earth revolves around the Sun and then refuses to become a Christian, the mob seizes her. To spare her the agony of being stoned, one of her admirers euthanases her. (Amenábar also directed The Sea Inside, an award-winning film about euthanasia.)

The story of Hypatia has been kicking around for a long time, although Amenábar heightens her virtue, beauty, intellect and accomplishments to a higher pitch than usual. John Tolland, an 18th century foe of Christianity, wrote a tract about her, salting the scanty historical record with vicious ridicule. In the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, another anti-Christian historian, Edward Gibbon recounts, somewhat gleefully, how “a troop of savage and merciless fanatics” scraped the flesh from her bones with sharp oyster-shells and “her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames”. But in fact, little is known for certain about Hypatia’s life, and it is not completely certain that she was a pagan. We know about as much about Hypatia as we do about Pocahontas. 

Agora, like Pope Joan, is basically an excuse to depict Christians as fierce, ignorant, and intolerant barbarians.

There’s little point in lamenting the embellishment of scanty historical records with anachronistic prejudice and romantic fiction. Why don’t fans of Christian history make their own films about well-documented events which display the heroism and humanity of Christian life? Here are some of my suggestions for film scripts with possible titles. Post yours in the comments.

With God in Russia. This is the astonishing story of Walter Ciszek, a rebellious Polish-speaking lad from Pennsylvania who became a Jesuit missionary in the USSR during World War II. He was quickly captured and tortured in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, then sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Siberia. There he evangelised his fellow prisoners and after his release became an underground chaplain for hundreds and hundreds of Catholics in dusty Stalinist cities in central Russia. How about Leonard Di Caprio in the leading role?

Katonda, Katonda. These were the last words of Charles Lwanga, a young Ugandan man who was an official in the court of King Mwanga in the 1860s. A talented wrestler and a natural leader, he was also a Catholic catechist. He was burned alive for refusing to renounce his Christian faith and for refusing the homosexual advances of the king. A deeply moving portrait of muscular Christianity with a pointed subtext about gay culture. "Diddy" Combs might be a bit old for the role, but he would bring in the star factor.

Dictionary. The most famous literary figure of 18th century England was Samuel Johnson. He was tall, ugly, overweight and afflicted with tics and bizarre mannerisms, but a brilliant wit and a devout Christian. The work which consumed his life was his Dictionary of the English Language. A good director could make an arthouse hit with scintillating dialogue as Johnson labours for years on a work “written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow.” A great role for James Cromwell, if he can be persuaded to add about 50 pounds.

Pressed for Time. A tale of a courageous feminist of Elizabethan times. While Good Queen Bess sat on the throne of England, her agents pursued Catholic priests as traitors. Margaret Clitherow, a mother of three in the northern city of York was accused of sheltering priests. She refused to plead either innocent or guilty because in either case her children would lose their inheritance. “Having made no offense, I need no trial,” she said. So she was remorsely pressed to death beneath a plank laden with rocks. Even Elizabeth was horrified at this barbarity. Nicole Kidman would be great.

The Great Experiment. Maybe the European Union is falling apart because no one has made a film about it. How about a biography of one of its founders, Robert Schuman, a French politician who might someday be canonised as a saint of the Catholic Church? His life has everything: escape from the Gestapo, fighting with the French Resistance, fighting Communist unions, dramatic speeches, and a millennium-old dream of European unity. Ben Kingsley looks uncannily like him.

Sabre and Sickle. Why not a film about the first modern genocide? Where? Not in Turkey, Russia or Germany, but in France, where the revolutionary government suppressed a Catholic and royalist uprising by killing everyone. Of the estimated 800,000 people in La Vendée in 1790, up to 400,000 may have been slaughtered. French general Francois Joseph Westermann reported to the government, “I have exterminated all. The roads are sown with corpses... Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment.” In a history with so many herores and so much technicolour bloodshed, perhaps the film could focus on Charles Melchior Artus de Bonchamps, the doomed rebel leader who died in battle, but not before pardoning five thousand Republican prisoners, whom his troops had sworn to kill in revenge for his death. Whether this was a genocide or a murderous civil war is heatedly disputed amongst historians. But, hey, it would make a great film.  

More suggestions? Include a working title and the main star or stars as well. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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