Watchmen, 2009. What if superheroes were real – I mean really real?
Directed by Zack Snyder.
Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse.
Scored by Tyler Bates.
If Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies are the best supervillain movies (meaning that the supervillains challenge the superhero not just physically, but mentally and morally as well), then Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” is the best superhero movie (meaning that the superheroes actually act like Ubermenschen would, and do not just echo the humanistic pieties of the Untermenschen who hate and fear them). In fact, the one superhero in the movie who does echo those pieties turns out to be a supervillain. The superheroes themselves, however, are “watchmen” fighting the law-breaking and defending the law-abiding, which is actually quite subversive in today’s “anarcho-tyranny.”
The most important thing about “Watchmen” is its characters – who, however fantastic, have interesting and realistic personalities. As Alan Moore, the author of the graphic novel on which the movie is based (but who refused any involvement in the movie), explained of his characters, “We tried to set up four or five radically opposing ways of seeing the world and let the readers figure it out for themselves; let them make a moral decision for once in their miserable lives! Too many writers go for that ‘baby-bird’ moralizing, where your audience just sits there with their beaks open and you just cram regurgitated morals down their throat…What we wanted to do was show all of these people, warts and all. Show that even the worst of them had something going for them, and even the best of them had their flaws.”
One character, the Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is a deep-state agent who carries out assassinations, coups, and other black-ops activities that would warm Elliott Abrams’ heart. He acts cynical and irreverent out of increasing disillusionment, which peaks when he finally realizes that the liberal decadence which he has fought for all of his life is not a deviation from American ideals, but rather those ideals come to fruition. “Whatever happened to the American Dream?” one character asks the Comedian, in the midst of nationwide riots. “It came true,” the Comedian replies, sadly.
Another character, Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Haley), is a vigilante who is absolutely uncompromising in his pursuit of justice. He wears a mask that looks like a Rorschach test – and much like those inkblot tests, how viewers respond to the black-and-white Rorschach says something about who they are and what they value. Where are they on the x-axis from “lawful” to “neutral” to “chaotic,” and on the y-axis from “good” to “neutral” to “evil”?
Dr. Manhattan (played by Billy Crudup), a physicist who was destroyed in an experiment but who returned, miraculously, as a godlike figure. He grows increasingly detached from, if not disgusted with, humanity, and it is his lover, “Silk Spectre” (played by Malin Akerman), who must remind him of the value of life.
Adrian Veidt (played by Matthew Goode) is a capitalist and philanthropist who, before superheroes were outlawed, was “Ozymandias,” named after Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the megalomaniacal Egyptian pharaoh. Veidt is a materialist (who believes that unlimited resources will bring universal peace) as well as a utilitarian (who thinks in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number, not right and wrong).
Silence, 2016. The story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to discover the fate of their mentor, who is rumored to have renounced his faith and gone native.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson.
Written by Martin Scorsese.
Scored by Kim and Kathryn Kluge.
Like “Gangs of New York,” this movie was a passion project of Martin Scorsese’s which he had wanted to make for decades. It is an intensely religious story about faith and doubt – God’s apparent “silence” as his followers suffer. When two Jesuit priests in Portugal, Sebastio Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (played by Adam Driver), hear that their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), has become an apostate, they embark on a mission to redeem him, even though Japan has closed itself off to foreigners. When Rodrigues and Garupe arrive in Japan, they are horrified to by the official inquisition against Christian converts, (who, if exposed, must either apostatize or be tortured to death).
The Japanese point of view is similar to that of the Greek philosopher Celsus and the Roman Emperor Julian, both of whom opposed the Christianization of their peoples. According to Celsus and Julian, religion is not a matter of individual choice or free will, but is linked to particular peoples as expressions of their organic uniqueness. To the Japanese authorities in the movie, the Christian missionaries are a threat to the identity of their nation and the sovereignty of their state. Although the Japanese inquisition is portrayed, unflinchingly, as brutal (indeed, even diabolical, as the Japanese understand the Christians better than the Christians understand the Japanese, and are able to trick them into renouncing Christianity out of Christian motives), it is hard not to sympathize with the Japanese, who are simply trying to resist Western colonialism. Yet the Jesuit priests are not portrayed as chauvinists, either, but as earnest believers who are trying to save souls and are conflicted over the persecution that their presence causes. Indeed, to prepare for their roles, Garfield and Driver immersed themselves in the Jesuit lifestyle, and with the help of practicing Jesuits, even underwent the Jesuit rite of a seven-day silent prayer vigil.
True to its name, “Silence” is a quiet movie without much in the way of music. Instead of a score, there are the sounds of nature – of waves crashing on a rocky shore, of a nighttime forest buzzing with life, and so on. It is an utterly immersive experience.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 1993-1999. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav wars – in space!
Of all the Star-Trek series, “Deep Space Nine” is the most mature. “Next Generation” perfected the adventure format of the original series (uneven in quality and dated by sci-fi kitsch) and is enhanced by the acclaimed performance of Patrick Stewart. “Voyager” had Seven of Nine and “Enterprise” had Porthos. Yet “Deep Space Nine,” according to cast member Rene Auberjonois, “is the one that is almost like a Russian novel.” Indeed, as the show follows a well-sized cast of well-developed characters through war and peace, it is Tolstoyesque. While other Star-Trek series can be highly episodic, “Deep Space Nine” explored overarching themes of ethics, faith, identity, and more. While other Star-Trek series prioritized world-building over character-building, “Deep Space Nine” did both, building its own history and mythology as well as a highly individualized cast of heroes and villains. Speaking of villains, “the Dominion” is one of the most sinister villains in fiction: a galactic empire overseen by the “Vorta” (a genetically engineered managerial class) and “Jem’Hadar” (a genetically engineered warrior class), though ruled in secret by “the Founders” (a cabal of shapeshifters with a persecution complex who infiltrate and undermine other states which they have targeted for subjugation).
The Sopranos, 1999-2007. An Italian mob boss in New Jersey struggles to balance his two “families” – his fellow gangsters in the city with his wife and children in the suburbs.
This show blends thrilling criminal intrigue, moving relationship drama, dark comedy, and a skillfully deployed classic-rock soundtrack. It pioneered the often-imitated, rarely duplicated concept of making the protagonist an otherwise unsympathetic individual whom gives the audience a transgressive thrill. Mafia movies, along with Westerns, are a unique American art form, and “The Sopranos” is a Mafia story for this age of rootlessness, meaninglessness, and hopelessness. As Tony Soprano states at the very beginning of the show, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over…Take my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in ways he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, what do we got?”
Firefly, 2002-2003. “Space Opera” meets “Wild West.”
After reading The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel on the Battle of Gettysburg), Joss Whedon was inspired to tell a story about people who had fought on the losing side of a war and were seeking freedom on the frontier, like many ex-Confederates did in the American West after the Civil War. The result was “Firefly.” In the future, after Earth’s resources are depleted, the human race colonizes another star system. When the central planets (“The Sino-American Alliance”) try to take control of the outer planets (“The Independent Faction,” which is distinctly Wild West), war breaks out, and in the end, the Independents are badly beaten. Captain Malcom Reynolds, an Independents veteran, lives outside the law on the edge of civilization (known as “the black”), though he live by his own code of honor. The rest of Reynolds’ crew are all seeking their own forms of freedom, too: a city-slicker doctor, a high-class prostitute, a doe-eyed mechanic, a dim-witted mercenary, a fast-talking pilot, a kind-hearted preacher, and more. “Firefly” does what Whedon does best: tells a story filled with light humor around real depth of feeling. The cast is a salad bowl of different personalities and yet also a melting pot of one family. Just when the show seems not to be taking itself too seriously, it subverts expectations with a dose of sincerity, and when things are getting too serious, it subverts expectations with a dose of irony. Even the music stands out, which is rare for anything on television. Unfortunately, Americans would rather have a smorgasbord of never-ending sitcoms and procedurals, and thus “Firefly” was canceled midway through its first season. The show has a loyal fan-base, however (known as “Browncoats,” the unofficial name for Independents soldiers, and reminiscent of Confederate “Graybacks” and Union “Bluebellies”), and the show was continued as a movie, “Serenity,” which I also highly recommend.
The Wire, 2002-2008: The story of modern-day Baltimore told from the perspective of different municipal institutions (the schools, the press, the ports, the politicians, etc.), particularly through their relation to law-enforcement.
“The Wire” is the product of David Simon (a reporter for The Baltimore Sun) and Ed Burns (a Baltimore police officer and schoolteacher), who had collaborated on a book about inner-city life in Baltimore. They prided themselves on the realism of their storylines and characters, drawing from their own experiences in the city and often using non-professional actors from the city. “The Wire,” while cynical about the effect that institutions (whether bureaucracies or gangs) have on individuals, is optimistic about the humanity of individuals themselves (whether police officers or drug dealers). “The Wire” is, perhaps most popularly, a vehicle for virtue-signaling politically correct opinions, such as “the need for criminal-justice reform.” While such liberal platitudes were, without a doubt, the intention of Simon and Burns (and they are not wrong that the “War on Drugs” does more harm than good), because of his integrity as an artist and a journalist, that was not the only message that was conveyed. In fact, “The Wire” was a spectacular “Kinsey Gaffe” in that unsparingly portrayed the downright feral behavior – sorry, but is there any other word for this? or this? or this? – of Baltimore’s “black community.” The transformation of Baltimore from “Charm City” and “Monumental City” to “The City That Bleeds” parallels what has happened to many American cities in the wake of the civil-rights revolution. In just a few generations Baltimore transformed from a thriving metropolis to a blighted slum. The city’s demographics went from 63% white in 1950 to 76% black in 2010. Like most urban areas that have undergone similar demographic transformation, the city is also depopulating – by 35% between 1950 and 2010, with a 75% drop in the white population. The result is the world of “The Wire.” As someone whose family is from Maryland (my father’s side is from Baltimore and my mother’s side is from Annapolis) “The Wire” bleakly illustrates what my family – and our nation and civilization as a whole – has lost.
Battlestar Galactica, 2004-2009: After an apocalyptic event on Earth, what is left of the human race must preserve not only its very existence, but its ideals – what makes them human.
The 2000s “Battlestar Galactica” is a remake of an earlier series from the 1970s, and is a rare example of a remake that is actually an improvement on the original. While the original is pure sci-fi kitsch, the remake is an intelligent show. Unlike the futuristic world of “Star Trek,” the world of “Battlestar Galactica” feels real. It is not just the aesthetics which feel real, however, but the issues faced by the remnant of the human race. Whether election fraud, martial law, acts of terrorism, vigilante justice, collective punishment, and show trials, the question that is asked again and again is, “Can the ends ever justify the means?” (Anyone with a categorical answer to that question is someone who either believes in nothing at all or in only one thing, both equally dangerous.) “Battlestar Galactica,” which took place in the midst of the “War on Terror,” is clearly influenced by the debate between “national security” and “individual privacy,” what is “necessary” versus what is “legal,” and whether perceived threats are real or fake. Unfortunately, as the show ends, it takes a self-indulgent dive, dropping its complex politics for an over-the-top mysticism that is head-scratching and eye-rolling.
The Tudors, 2007-2010. The story of the life and times of King Henry VIII, with particular emphasis on his six different wives.
The appearance of this show is deceiving. On the surface, it may seem like a mass-market historical romance, where everyone is gorgeous and eager to rip off each other’s clothes. For instance, Henry VIII, rather than the husky man that we know from his portraiture, is played by a svelte Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who looks like he belongs in a cologne advertisement. It is a bit of a bodice-ripper, to be sure, but it is much more than that. It is also a compelling portrayal of English Reformation. While many historical liberties are taken, it is always necessary to cut and condense material when adapting a story – especially a true one. Catholics, in particular, will appreciate the unflinching portrayal of the Protestant revolution. “Idols,” such as art in churches or relics in shrines, were vandalized. Customs and traditions, such as festivals for saints, were outlawed as “idol-worship.” Homes were ransacked in search of “idols” (such as an image of a saint) and visiting a family graveyard to offer prayers for the departed was suspected as “idolatry.” Monasteries were abolished and their property confiscated. Rebellions by peasants who wanted to worship in their old ways were double crossed and stamped out. Catholic dissidents were executed. The Reformation, in short, was a period of hyper-fundamentalist repression. If the purpose of a historical adaptation is to create awareness of and interest in a particular event or period (even if every detail is not exactly right), then “The Tudors” succeeds marvelously.
True Detective (Season 1), 2014. Weird horror, cosmic terror, philosophical interludes, dark comedy, tempting women, and more.
In this Southern mystery, two detectives, Woody Harrelson’s Marty (an outwardly respectable family man, though inwardly a liar and a cheater) and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust (outwardly, a misanthrope, but inwardly, an honorable, lawful man), to solve a murder mystery which has haunted them for years. The show is set in Louisiana, because that is what the showrunner, Nic Pizzolatto (born in New Orleans, raised in rural Louisiana, and graduated from LSU) knows. It is no modern-day Southern gothic horror, however, like “True Blood,” but spends most of its time out in the sticks or deep in the underworld. In literature, the only place better for a horror story than New England (with its hyper-repressive hatred and fear of the unknown) is the South (with its grim resignation to the existence of evil). Southern writers, influenced by an older Christianity which has nothing to do with the fanatical Hebraic-Puritanism of New England, know that there is an innate evil in humanity which no social systems or progressive reforms, however well-intentioned and well-administered, can ever fully repress. “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks,” quipped Flannery O’Conner, “I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” As their suspenseful investigation uncovers darker and darker secrets, the detectives’ notions of morality and even reality are shaken their core.
And now, for American history. I feel the same way about American history and movies that the late Tom Wolfe did about modern American life and novels: with so much potential material out there, how is it that historical movies are so scarce (and when they exist at all, they are usually meant to make us feel bad about ourselves?). Why is there no historical adventure movie featuring John Smith, who was a real-life swashbuckling hero? Why is there a historical romance about the fictional romance between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but not one about the real-life romance between Thomas and his wife, Martha? The list of wasted opportunities is endless.
The Patriot, 2000. The story of the American Revolution in South Carolina, following a yeoman farmer trying to escape his reputation as a legendary Indian fighter and keep his family safe.
Directed by Roland Emmerich.
Starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger.
Written by Robert Rodat.
Composed by John Williams.
A brilliant but flawed movie which has become near and dear to my heart due to the fanatical, malicious criticism to which it has been subjected. Yes, the movie is, at times, melodramatic, and, at times, historically inaccurate, but other movies which grossly falsify history in order to be politically correct are not nearly as criticized as “The Patriot” was for its harmless fictional liberties here and there. For instance, 2016’s much-applauded “Birth of a Nation” rewrote the history of Nat Turner’s slave revolt: instead of a short-lived killing spree of white families in their sleep which was summarily crushed by the local militia, it was a heroic rebellion against white supremacy which held out until it was crushed by overwhelming numbers. In fact, criticism of “The Patriot” was one of my earliest encounters with the Cultural-Marxist Left: a young, teenaged me, “surfing the web” as we said back then, came across Salon’s hate-laced review, in which a neurotic, paranoid Jewish critic compared this conventionally patriotic movie to Nazi propaganda.
The protagonist, Benjamin Martin (played by a typically heroic Mel Gibson), is a composite-character of the real-life South Carolinians Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter, and the antagonist, Col. William Tavington (played by a typically villainous Jason Isaacs), is based on the Briton Banastre Tarleton. The movie accurately depicts the internecine warfare between American revolutionaries and loyalists which took place in South Carolina, the backwoods “guerrilla” warfare which superseded pitched battles, and the decisive importance of French intervention. The Battle of Camden is briefly depicted, and the final battle is based loosely on the battles of Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. John Williams’ martial score is full of bugles, drums, and fifes, sounding a lot like what the painting, “The Spirit of ’76,” looks like, and makes me long for the true sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – not a stylized R&B cover, but a poetic anthem which should be backed by the full force of an orchestra.
The movie has been justly criticized for falsely depicting the British as vicious war criminals and minimizing the presence of slavery. Indeed, British tyranny is almost entirely a figment of the American imagination, even back in 1776. Prior to the American Revolution, the colonists were already the freest people in the world, and it was that freedom which gave them the self-consciousness and self-confidence to break away from their mother country and central government. When it comes to slavery, while I object to the morbid obsession with it which masquerades as “historical accuracy,” I also object to cowering from it in the name of “political correctness.” Slavery existed in the Americas, because the Americas were colonized by Europe, and slavery existed in European colonies, as well as everywhere else in the world at the time and for all time. In fact, slavery’s roots in human history are so wide and deep that, technically speaking, it is arguably the natural state of humanity, and the idea that every individual is equal and has rights the profoundly irregular, unnatural state. I refuse to live in fear of slavery – that is, of being called “racist” for refusing to erase my history, deny my existence, and abort my future – and encourage all other Americans to emancipate themselves.
Gangs of New York, 2002. The story of tribal politics in New York City, riven by mass-immigration and the Civil War, following one man’s quest to kill the man who killed his father.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lorgan.
Composed by Howard Shore.
“Gangs of New York” is a superb movie, with the great director Martin Scorsese, the great actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio, and the great composer Howard Shore all at the top of their game. It is a Shakespearean tragedy set in New York City, 1863, with themes of honor, loyalty, and revenge. Portraying this period of American history (which is, in this case, based on Gangs of New York, a book from 1928 about the immigrant-versus-native gang warfare) was a passion project of Scorsese’s for decades.
The nominal antagonist, Day-Lewis’ Bill “the Butcher” Cutting, is, in my opinion, the real protagonist of the movie. At the very least, the nominal protagonist, DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon, has little to no redeeming qualities, while the antagonist has many. In the interest of not spoiling anything, all that can be said is that brutal as Bill is, he fights for his people and lives by a code of honor (just like his legendary enemy, “Priest Vallon,” and unlike Priest’s son, Amsterdam, driven by the low motive of revenge and willing to dishonor himself to have it). To borrow some lines from Bill himself, in a world of “base defilers,” it is only Bill who rises above the mob to be “a great man.” It helps, of course, that Day-Lewis is absolutely captivating as Bill, striding across the screen with charisma and machismo, unlike the skulking Amsterdam.
Unfortunately, most critics seem to have drawn the wrong conclusion from “Gangs of New York,” believing that it is merely another ethno-religious pageant of good immigrants versus bad nativists, in which democracy and diversity win out in the end. (Even contributors at VDare.com have criticized the movie along these lines, though not everyone agrees.) This is incorrect and unfair. The movie’s portrait of democracy is one of corruption and cynicism. Everyone is for democracy because everyone is cheating the system. Its portrait of diversity, likewise, is not one of vibrancy, but of squalor and despair. Immigrants are tearing down and burning the society of their host country, both figuratively and literally. Its portrait of the Civil War, even, is not one of the usual Yankee triumphalism: all of the main characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, are either uninterested or outright opposed to the war. Scorsese, justly famous for his visual spectacles, pulls off a long tracking shot which follows Irish immigrants as they disembark from a ship, are conscripted into the Union army, then put back on a ship heading to the war front – which is, at the same time, unloading coffins of Union soldiers. Far from an empty-headed applauding for the shlock and schmaltz, “Gangs of New York,” much like Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” has a deeply subversive message.
Gods and Generals, 2003. The story of the first two years of the Civil War, focused on Gen. Stonewall Jackson, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Col. Joshua Chamberlin.
Directed by Ron Maxwell.
Starring: Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, and Jeff Daniels.
Written by Ron Maxwell.
Composed by John Frizzell.
This movie is brilliant but flawed; it reminds me of a diamond with excellent color and cut, but poor carat and clarity. It is full of cumbersome and didactic writing, but it is also full of spectacular battle sequences (particularly Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville), as well as well-written, well-acted, and well-scored scenes which capture the pathos of the Civil War.
The critics do not hate it for its flaws, however, but for its virtues: it commits the thought-crime of humanizing the Southern people. In this fanatical “Battle Hymn of the Republic” school of history, there is no pathos to the Civil War: it was the smiting of evil incarnate, and the only tragedy is that the smiting was not bloodier and fierier. According to the historian Steven E. Woodworth, for instance, “Gods and Generals” is “the most pro-Confederate film since Birth of a Nation, a veritable celluloid celebration of slavery and treason.” To Woodworth, anything which presents the Confederacy in a positive light must, by definition, be “Lost-Cause mythology,” because, in his mind, there was literally nothing positive about the Confederacy – even depicting Confederate soldiers as a fearsome fighting force, a historical fact to which Union soldiers amply attested, is suspect.
All of this, of course, is quite insane. Granted, there is plenty of SCV-influenced historical revisionism in the movie (yes, slavery did play a role, and the sooner we understand how and why, the sooner we can more effectively defend our heritage and identity from anti-historical presentism and iconoclasm), but that is not the only reason critics like Woodworth hate it. They hate it because of Robert E. Lee’s reflection on what it means to fight for your homeland, the love and loyalty shown for one another by the white and black members of a Fredericksburg family, for the performance of “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and other such humanizing moments. Its predecessor, “Gettysburg” (which takes place after the events of this movie, yet was made in first in 1993) has all the same strengths and weaknesses as “Gods and Generals,” and our own Clyde Wilson, quite controversially, prefers Martin Sheen’s Lee to Robert Duvall’s.
The Alamo, 2004. The story of American folk-heroes Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Barret Travis in their last stand at the Battle of the Alamo.
Directed by John Lee Hancock.
Starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, and Patrick Wilson.
Written by John Lee Hancock.
Composed by Carter Burwell.
“The Alamo” is a big-budget battle movie. Prior to the battle itself, which is the movie’s set piece, there is a lot of expository dialogue on the historical background as well as the characters’ backstories, though it does not lay it on as thick as “Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg.” Patrick Wilson, playing William Barrett Travis, movingly portrays an idealistic but inexperienced young man struggling for the respect of older, harder men. Jason Patric, playing James Bowie, acts with the intensity of a rattlesnake about to strike, just like his character. Last, but not least, Billy Bob Thornton is perfect as the hard-bitten, wise-cracking Davy Crockett.
The Texan Revolution is one of many events of American history which cannot be squared with the cuckservatives’ Sunday-School lessons about American history. Where does a quasi-racial war between “Hispanic” Mexicans and “Anglo” Americans fit in with the bromide that “America” has no ethno-cultural identity or heritage, but is a “proposition nation”? Does anyone believe that Americans fought at the Alamo to “dedicate themselves to the proposition that all men are created equal”? David French, Jim Geraghty, and Kevin Williamson probably do, but imagine the laughter that such a notion would have elicited from Bowie, Crockett, and Travis!
Speaking of the Alamo and cuckservatives, an incident involving the two had a decisive impact on my then-young mind. In 2010, National Review, in an obituary for the actor Fess Parker, described Crockett (his most famous role) as a “gaudy self-promoter.” In response, “Carol L. Crockett” wrote a letter defending the memory of her ancestor from this completely uncalled for dishonor. Ms. Crockett quoted from Jay Winik’s review of A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, which had been published in National Review nine years earlier. In that review, Winik quoted the founder of and editor of National Review himself, William F. Buckley, who dismissed the revisionist history around Crockett as a “traditional debunking campaign” by “liberal publicists.” According to Buckley, “He’ll survive the carpers.” In reply to Ms. Crockett, the editors reiterated that while Crockett “died a hero’s death,” he was, in life, a “gaudy self-promoter.” “History is as simple as humanity,” they intoned, whatever that is supposed to mean. After that embarrassing exchange (there was no need to respond to her letter, and certainly not in such an arrogant and petulant manner), I promptly canceled my subscription. For years, I had read National Review with increasing dissatisfaction – mainly with its ideological neo-conservatism, but I had also come to hate the editors’ obnoxious habit of putting down well-meaning readers. They came off as schoolboys with more wit than wisdom (and not much of either, at that) who always had to get the last word. Read Chronicles and The American Conservative instead!
Like most movies about American history (at least those that are not guilt-fests over racism), “The Alamo” was critically panned, and, sadly, was a spectacular “box-office bomb.” In 2004, apparently, Americans would rather have watched yet another “Shrek” movie, yet another “Spider-Man” movie, yet another “Harry Potter” movie, and worse (mindless, tasteless garbage such as “Dodgeball,” “Starsky and Hutch,” and “Anchorman”), than a patriotic action movie about a true story so dramatic that it seems legendary – an American “Thermopylae.”
Sadly, mass-immigration – legal and illegal – has given away what was won in 1836 and 1848. Texas recently crossed the majority-minority demographic event horizon, which has already brought and will continue to bring cultural, political, and social changes. San Antonio itself, the site of the Alamo, is now a “sanctuary city” (and the kritarchy has, running interference for the Left as usual, prevented anyone from doing anything to stop that).
For what it is worth, the “Deguello de Crockett” scene is, in my opinion, one of the best portrayals of the spirit of the South. You’ll have to watch it to find out for yourself!
The New World, 2005. The founding of Jamestown, inspired by the legendary romance of John Smith and Pocahontas.
Directed by Terrence Malick.
Starring Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, and Christian Bale.
Written by Terrence Malick.
Composed by James Horner.
Terrence Malick, who directed and wrote “The New World,” was, refreshingly, not out to “deconstruct” the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, as many historians are eager to do these days. Just look at how “Pocahontas,” a charming children’s cartoon, is still sneered at for “neo-colonialism” and “cultural appropriation.” Whether literally true (in that their romance did indeed happen) or mythically true (in that their romance, like the Thanksgiving fable, is a metaphorical memory), Malick could not care less. To him, the story is a vehicle to illustrate how the American-Indian natives and the European colonists both discovered a “new world” at the same time. To the natives, “Europe” was as much a “new world” as “America” was to the colonists.
Speaking of “myths,” one of the most annoying and undying “myths” of American history is that the American-Indians were peaceful people before and after the arrival of Europeans. As John Smith puts in the movie (in an adaptation of a passage written by an earlier English explorer, Arthur Barlowe), “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.” This belief in the “noble savage” is a form of the “romantic primitivism” which can come over civilized people when they first encounter an uncivilized “Other.” The Romans viewed the Germanic barbarians in the forests as noble savages. The English viewed the Scottish barbarians in the highlands as noble savages. When Europeans encountered the Indians, they viewed them as noble savages, too. The idea has always been that “soft” civilized life corrupts people, while “hard” savage life ennobles people. Many Indians, probably unknowingly, have absorbed this sentimental fantasy into their own identity. (Nowadays, the “noble savage” myth is not based on philosophical beliefs about the innate virtue of humanity and the innate depravity of civilization, but is based rather on the innate virtue of non-white people and the innate depravity of white people.) The reality is that the Indians were anything but “noble savages.” Reviewing “The New World,” Dr. Cathy Schultz, a professor at the University of St. Francis, objected that Powhatan and his people “were far from the innocent, childlike creatures we see in the film,” but that they “ruled by conquest over the surrounding tribes.” Indeed, in 1622, the Powhatan Chiefdom, in a coordinated surprise attack across several English settlements in Virginia, massacred one-third of the white population – assuming, incorrectly, that the English would act as other Indians would after defeat in battle and simply leave. Long before Europeans arrived, Indians fought wars of enslavement and extermination amongst themselves which, if most people knew about, would drain their blood and chill their bones. The cause of these inter-tribal genocides? Land! In fact, most of what people think that they know about Indians comes from the “New Age” movement, which – to borrow a term – culturally appropriates them as symbols of its nebulous spirituality. Of course, none of this is to excuse the U.S. government’s own savagery and treachery in its relations with the Indians. When more than one civilization comes to occupy the same space, coexistence is impossible and conflict is inevitable, yet even so, the U.S. government often dishonored itself in that conflict.
“The New World” is a movie of little dialogue but with lush visuals. According to one reviewer, the movie – a spellbinding spectacle of unspoiled sights and sounds – reflects Mallick’s obsession with “Eden.” Malick has probably not read Louis B. Wright’s Colonial Search for a Southern Eden, but his portrayal of Virginia as an “Eden” is exactly how the “Cavaliers” who colonized Virginia perceived it, in stark contrast to “Puritan” colonists up north, who feared the “howling wilderness.” Early in the movie (in a voiceover adapted from John Smith’s own words) John Smith expresses his high hopes for the New World: “A world equal to our hopes, a land where one might wash one’s soul pure, rise to one’s true stature. We shall make a new start. A fresh beginning. Here all the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor. Here there is good ground for all and no cost but one’s labor. We shall build a true commonwealth, hard work and self-reliance our virtues. We shall have no landlords to rack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labor. No man shall stand above any other, but all live under the same law.” While the Virginians were clearly optimistic – perhaps somewhat “utopian” – about what life would be like in the New World, they still identified as Englishmen and Christians and intended on maintaining historical continuity with their country and church. Once again, it was the Puritans who were the real “utopians,” cutting themselves off from the world while also setting themselves above the world, in order to found a “City Upon A Hill,” or a “Christian Israel” and “Hebrew Republic.”
Lincoln, 2012. The story of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by the Congress near the end of Abraham Lincoln’s life.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
Written by Tony Kushner.
Composed by John Williams.
Hear me out! The portrayal of Lincoln in the movie, which might seem hagiographic at first, is actually deceivingly historically accurate. For one, the movie clearly portrays Lincoln bribing and lying (not just to politicians, but to the public) in order to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the Congress. He offers patronage to politicians in exchange for their votes. “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!” Lincoln shouts. “You will procure me those votes!” He covers up negotiations with Confederate peace envoys (offering to restore the Union but leave slavery intact – a compromise which Northerners would have eagerly accepted), and when news of such a peace offer leaks, he lies and denies it. David Brooks, one of the “house conservatives” at The New York Times, wrote a whole column about how he hoped that Lincoln would not only inspire Millennials to believe in “the high vision” of politics again, but also teach them to accept the “low cunning” that politics requires. “It shows that you can do more good in politics than any other sphere,” gushes Brooks, “but you can achieve these things only if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise, and be slippery and hypocritical.” I can think of few better tableaus of the corrupted, degenerated state of Conservatism, Inc. than this column on “Lincoln” by Brooks.
For another, the movie shows Lincoln’s signature rhetorical style of twisting the meaning of questions he is asked and avoiding straight answers to even the simplest of questions. There were many moments when the script could have had Lincoln deliver a presentist pontification about how race is nothing more than skin color, or something, but in which he dodges the issue with a facile, folksy tale instead. This can easily be misunderstood as homespun wisdom, but it is not hard to point out that Lincoln is simply talking about of both sides of his mouth, which is annoying once it is noticed. In one scene, for example, a freedwoman who is friends with Lincoln’s wife, states, “White people don’t want us here” (to which Lincoln replies “many don’t”), and then asks him, “What about you?” Lincoln replies, “I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you. But what you are to the nation, what’ll become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.” That is another way of saying, “No, I don’t want you here, either. I’m one of those white people to whom you just referred. But I can’t just come out and tell you that.” In another scene, Lincoln lectures his Cabinet on presidential war powers, using lawyerly sophistry to deconstruct the Constitution. Afterwards, his own Secretary of the Interior comments, “You’re describing precisely the sort of dictator the Democrats have been howling about,” and asks the rest of the Cabinet, “What reins him in?” Last of all, in a fine example of Lincoln’s rhetoric, he invokes Euclidean geometry in support of his fundamentalist “all men are created equal” interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. “Euclid’s first common notion is this: ‘Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other’…That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works; has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is ‘self-evident.’ D’you see? There it is, even in that two-thousand year-old book of mechanical law: it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That’s the origin, isn’t it? That’s balance, that’s fairness, that’s justice.” So if A and B are both equal to C, then, logically, A is equal to and B is equal to A…therefore, “all men are created equal”?
To the movie’s credit, the primary antagonists (the opponents of the amendment, represented by George H. Pendleton and Fernando Wood) and secondary antagonists (the Confederate envoys Alexander Stephens, R.M.T. Hunter, and John Campbell) are not characterized as intellectually, physically, and spiritually defective, as if it were a medieval morality play, and are allowed to speak for themselves in key moments. The movie’s secondary protagonists (Republicans like William Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, and Francis Preston Blair, Sr.) are hardly lionized, either, but are characterized realistically, as a querulous politician, a fanatical ideologue, and a reluctant conservative, respectively. Daniel Day-Lewis, famously selective about his roles as well as renowned for his intense “method-acting,” transforms himself into character and delivers a definitive Lincoln performance – not supreme, stentorian, and statuesque, but sensitive, soft-spoken, and stooped (not to mention slippery). For John Williams, however, the score is surprisingly unmemorable, though this is not a movie that really needs much of a score. All things considered, “Lincoln” is a historically accurate movie about a historically important event, whether or not we are happy with the way that everything happened.
The Witch, 2015. A New-England family, banished from their colony and living on the outskirts of civilization, is terrorized by a witch lurking in the woods.
Directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, and Kate Dickie.
Written by Robert Eggers.
Composed by Mark Korven.
“The Witch” is an “atmospheric horror” movie that is as much about the psychological as it is the supernatural. The eponymous character does not merely prey on the family’s livestock and children, but on their fears as well, turning them against each other one by one.
The director and writer, Robert Eggers, grew up in New England. “Witches were a part of all my earliest nightmares,” he explains. “The 17th-century witch, the Puritan witch – she’s a lot more primal and a lot scarier than we ever would have imagined.” In order to make the audience really believe in the witch the way that the characters would believe in her, Eggers demanded absolute realism. The dialogue is written in an archaic style of English and spoken with heavy English accents. (Some of the actual lines are adapted from 17th-century documents, including passages from the writings of Cotton Mather and John Winthrop.) For authenticity, costumes, props, and sets were hand-constructed with period-appropriate tools. (For reference, museums were visited, archaeologists were consulted, and some of the more detailed work was outsourced to master craftsmen.) The movie was filmed out in the woods, not in a studio, and on a location so remote that cell-phone service was dead. The characters are not disdainfully “pathologized” à la Arthur Miller, either: they are not portrayed as dumb bumpkins or creepy fanatics, as religious folk are usually portrayed in entertainment media, but as the common folk of their time and place. The result was an immersive experience for the crew, the actors, and of course, for the audience.
What makes “The Witch” so frightening is not cheap jump-scares or gore-porn (there is, fortunately, neither in the movie), but the atmosphere of gloom and doom, which only grows more ominous as the story unfolds. The family lives in fear of the dark woods which surround their homestead, in fear of an evil devil preying on their weaknesses, in fear of a lawful god punishing them for their sins, and in fear of one another for betraying them. “Fear itself” is not the only thing that this family has to fear, however. “The Witch” is, as Eve Tushnet comments at The American Conservative, “a powerful brew of family tragedy, religious drama, and horror show.”
I would like to name some of my favorite movies and shows, with a little bit of basic information and personal commentary (without much in the way of spoilers, of course). After that, I would like to do the same for what I think are a few of the best movies about American history – a woefully underserved genre, to say the least!
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962. “‘Cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood…From out of the East a stranger came, a law book in his hand, the kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land…When the final showdown came at last, a law book was no good…The man who shot Liberty Valance, he was the bravest of them all.”
Directed by John Ford.
Starring John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin.
Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.
Scored by Cyril J. Mockridge.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” has all of the features of a great Western, particularly the conflict between love and duty and the challenge of standing up for what is right even if it means standing alone. What makes this movie unique, however, is the philosophical question that it asks: on the frontier of civilization, where law has not yet been established, how is chaotic evil to be stopped – by lawful good or by chaotic good? The two protagonists, Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart) and Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne), are philosophically opposed on how to deal with Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin), the ringleader of a gang terrorizing a frontier town. Stoddard is adamant that the establishment of law and order will put an end to Liberty’s reign of terror (and more importantly, that it is crucial to the establishment of law and order that men like Liberty not be dealt with extra-legally). Doniphon insists, however, that only brute force is capable of stopping Liberty (and that law and order cannot be established until men like Liberty have been dispatched). How does the movie answer the question? Watch and find out!
A Man For All Seasons, 1966. The story of Sir Thomas More’s refusal to accede to the English Reformation.
Directed by Fred Zinneman.
Starring Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, Orson Welles, and Robert Shaw.
Written by Robert Bolt.
Scored by Georges Delerue.
Sir Thomas More was a philosopher, and although not a king himself, a philosopher to the king, so to speak. More was an advisor to King Henry VIII and helped him write public polemics against Martin Luther. For refuting Luther, Pope Leo X titled Henry “Defender of the Faith.” When the Catholic Church would not grant Henry the divorce he desired, this erstwhile “Defender of the Faith” broke with Rome and set himself at the head of his own church. More, however, who was serving as Lord Chancellor of England at the time, refused to endorse Henry’s divorce or acknowledge Henry’s supremacy, for which he was accused of heresy and treason.
Nowadays, there is a so-called “Resistance” against Pres. Donald Trump, which despite its insufferable self-regard is, in reality, merely the system mustering all of its money and power to destroy any real resistance. The Resistance is a corporatist, elitist, globalist counter-revolution to the nationalist, populist, traditionalist revolution which Trump unwittingly incited in 2015. No member of the Resistance is risking anything. Indeed, everyone from public figures to private individuals is free to defame the President in the vilest terms without any fear of consequences whatsoever. Even illegal aliens parade around in public, complaining about oppression as they flaunt their crimes and trumpet their rising numbers. At the same time, those loyal citizens who agree with the President’s “isolationist,” “nativist,” and “protectionist” agenda are subject to life-destroying harassment by alt-left goon squads, which often results in getting fired from their jobs, doxed on social media, and physically assaulted in the streets. What sort of “fascist regime” is this? On the contrary, it is unvarnished “anarcho-tyranny.”
More, in his day and age, was a part of a real “Resistance.” He and a few other Catholic individuals (who have all been sainted since) took conscientious, principled stands against a tyrannical king and religious fanaticism. “A Man For All Seasons” does this inspiring story justice. The script is essentially one long debate on conscience, ethics, and law, with enough wisdom to have been written by More himself. It is one of the few movies out there that is truly educational, edifying, and uplifting – intellectually, morally, and spiritually – to watch.
The Star Wars Trilogy, 1977-1983. A space opera drawn from world mythology.
Directed by George Lucas.
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher.
Written by George Lucas.
Scored by John Williams.
“Star Wars,” though a space opera, is not really of the science-fiction genre, but more of the fantasy. Science fiction is about exploring the consequences of scientific innovation, which is why it is alternatively known as “speculative fiction,” yet “Star Wars,” though outwardly futuristic, is not about the future, but the past. Specifically, “Star Wars” is modeled on what Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology and religion, terms the “Hero’s Journey,” which is a story – or “monomyth” – that can be identified in all world cultures. George Lucas was heavily influenced by Campbell’s theories, and drew on the Hero’s Journey to tell his own story. As Lucas explained to Campbell’s biographers, “What’s valuable for me is to set standards, not to show people the world the way it is. Around the period of this realization, it came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology. The Western was possibly the last generically American fairy tale, telling us about our values. And once the Western disappeared, nothing has ever taken its place. In literature we were going off into science fiction, so that’s when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe’s books. Before that I hadn’t read any of Joe’s books. It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I began to realize that my first draft of ‘Star Wars’ was following classic motifs. I modified my next draft of ‘Star Wars’ according to what I’d been learning about classic motifs and made it a little bit more consistent.” So although “Star Wars” may take place “in a galaxy far, far away,” it also takes place “a long time ago.”
John Williams’ score, simply put, makes “Star Wars.” Without it, the movies would have been unable to overcome the sci-fi kitsch. It is hard to take some of the special effects of the movies seriously, but it is impossible not to take the score seriously. The music is present throughout most of the movie – each movie opens with a magnificent overture – and explains much of what is actually happening at that moment. Indeed, Williams’ scores are so iconic that they often come to define whole movies themselves.
The original “Star Wars” trilogy, from 1977 to 1983, was lightning in a bottle. Its archetypes, patterns, and themes of the story touch our “mythic imagination,” which is why they resonate so deeply. The writing and scoring of the movie is memorable, full of quotable lines and hummable tunes. The casting is perfect (could there be a wiser mentor than Alec Guinness, a darker-sounding adversary than the voice of James Earl Jones, or a more heroic-looking hero than Mark Hamill?), and the acting only gets better with each movie. The prequels that Lucas made from 1999 to 2005 were poorly written and acted, but were at least earnest in trying to tell a new – far more modern and less mythic – story. The ongoing sequels that Disney is making, however, do not seem to understand anything about what made “Star Wars” great, and feel like cash-ins and rip-offs.
Excalibur, 1981. The Legend of King Arthur.
Directed by John Boorman.
Starring Nigel Terry.
Written by John Boorman.
Scored by Trevor Jones.
“King Arthur,” unfortunately, is one of those stories which is endlessly adapted in bad faith, like Robin Hood (who has recently been turned into an antifa punk) and Sherlock Holmes (who has recently been turned into a man-child). “Excalibur,” however, is a faithful adaptation which actually wants to retell the story to a modern audience, not trade on its name to tell a different story altogether. Specifically, it is based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which was first published in the 15th century.
“Excalibur” features a big cast of British actors before they became famous in the movies, including Gabriel Bryne (as King Uther Pendragon), Helen Mirren (as Morgana Le Fay), Liam Neeson (as Sir Gawain), Patrick Stewart (as King Leodegrance), Nicol Williamson (as Merlin), and more. In order to make the movie feel more mythic and less realistic, there is little in the way of characterization or dialogue, and much in the way of music and imagery.
Speaking of music, the score to “Excalibur” is fantastic. Richard Wagner and Carl Orff: who better for a score to one of the greatest myths of all time than the composers of “Siegfried’s Funeral March” and “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” (both of which feature prominently in the movie)?
American History X, 1998. A story of redemption and damnation, as an older brother recently released from prison struggles to save his younger brother following in his footsteps.
Directed by Tony Kaye.
Starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong.
Written by David McKenna.
Scored by Anne Dudley.
“American History X,” set in Venice, Los Angeles, is the story of Derek Vinyard (played by Edward Norton) from the point of view of his younger brother, Danny (played by Edward Furlong). Derek is meant to be a sympathetic figure. He is a bright young man with a frightful temper who turns to the neo-Nazi movement after his father, a firefighter, is murdered by a drug dealer while putting out a fire at a drug den. Even after he becomes a neo-Nazi, however (complete with a shaved head and tattoos!) his bravery, charisma, and intelligence remain irresistible, in stark contrast to every other skinhead depicted in the movie, who are indeed mere bigots and cowards.
“American History X” can be, and often is, interpreted as a mere homily against racism, but it is much more than that. It is a tragedy. What happens to Derek is tragic. What happens to Derek’s family as a result of what happens to him – no spoilers! – is tragic. Yes, the message of the movie – “hate is baggage” – is somewhat moralistic and simplistic, yet rather than demonized, “haters” like Derek are humanized, which is what makes the movie a tragedy and not a medieval morality play. Incredibly, the black gangs of the movie are not portrayed as blameless, helpless victims, but just as thuggish as the white gangs. “American History X” is a refreshingly sensitive and thoughtful criticism of racism.
The Believer, 2001. The story of a prodigious and prodigal yeshiva student who hates his own people as a perverse act of love.
Directed by Henry Bean.
Starring Ryan Gosling.
Written by Henry Bean.
Scored by Joel Diamond.
“The Believer” is similar to “American History X” in that it is a story about a neo-Nazi (Danny Balint) who finds redemption with an absolutely captivating performance by that actor (Ryan Gosling). By day, Danny is a thug getting into trouble with his gang. By night, he is a Jewish boy living at home with his father. Danny’s identity crisis began in yeshiva, where he was expelled for blasphemy: he hated God for his cruelty and hated the Jews for their passivity, both exemplified in the infamous story of the Binding of Isaac.
Danny is not a paranoid anti-Semite, afraid of and angry at Jews merely because they happen to be different from him. On the contrary, as a Jew and an educated Jew at that, he has a sophisticated understanding of what it means to be Jewish, which informs his esoteric, intricate theories of anti-Semitism. (Much of what Danny says about Jews, in fact, is much of what Jews have said about themselves – for example, Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2005.) Danny is articulate and intelligent (Gosling’s portrayal of his intensity and insecurity is irresistible), but he lacks self-awareness and self-control, and has a tendency to push his arguments too far. When he finally has a chance to take action, however, he is conflicted, and realizes that his hatred of his own people is, strangely, rooted in his love for them.
Alas, the compelling-yet-disturbing character of Danny was too much for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who accused the movie of anti-Semitism. As a result, “The Believer,” despite winning the Sundance Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, was dropped by Paramount Pictures. When the director (who was Jewish) complained about “Jewish paranoia” making it impossible for him to find another distributor, the SWC’s Rabbi Marvin Hier accused him of implying that Jews control the media. Incidents like this remind me of one of Norm MacDonald’s old jokes back when SNL was funny. “Marlon Brando said on ‘Larry King Live’ that Hollywood is ‘run by Jews,’” quipped MacDonald. “Brando met with Jewish leaders to apologize for his comments. They have accepted his apology and announced that he is now free to work again.”
The Lord of the Rings, 2001-2003. An adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental masterpiece, which was influenced heavily by his lifelong study of Germanic mythology and singlehandedly invented the genre of fantasy.
Directed by Peter Jackson.
Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortenson, and Ian McKellen.
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson.
Composed by Howard Shore.
“The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy is a remarkably faithful adaption: the script is full of Tolkien’s own lyrical prose, follows the plotlines as closely as possible, and includes an unbelievable degree of attention to detail when it comes to lore. I recently learned, for example, that the choral singing in “The Revelation of the Ringwraiths” (the theme that plays in dramatic moments featuring the Ringwraiths, ancient kings of men corrupted by their rings of power) is a poem written by one of the screenwriters, Philippa Boyens, which she translated into Adunaic (an archaic human language which Tolkien invented) and which the composer, Howard Shore, gave a choral and orchestral setting.
Speaking of the music, the trilogy’s score is suitably epic (not epic as in modern sense, e.g. “This pizza is epic,” but epic in the literal sense, e.g. worthy of a heroic saga). Although lots of Hollywood-style action was added to make the movie exciting to mass-audiences, many of the action sequences are entertaining. Furthermore, live actors, location shooting, and physical effects are preferred to CGI, which is used only when appropriate. The casting is uniformly perfect, launching (Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn), revitalizing (Elijah Wood as Frodo), and crowning (Ian McKellen as Gandalf) careers across the board. Last, but not least, “The Lord of the Rings” contains no degenerate or subversive content (not even feminist tropes, e.g. the woman who is better than the men at everything, or token diversity, e.g. casting black actors in white roles), all of which would have pleased the traditionalist Roman-Catholic Tolkien.
Peter Jackson’s majestic “The Lord of the Rings” is the perfect alternative to HBO’s gory porno “Game of Thrones.” It is incredible that such a movie trilogy was even made, so savor it, because it will not happen again any time soon. Jackson’s recent adaptation of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (complete with oversaturated CGI, cartoonish action, feminist tropes, non-white tokens, and even a recycled score) is proof of that.
Alexander, 2004. The story of the man who united most of the known world under his rule.
Directed by Oliver Stone.
Starring Colin Farrell.
Written by Oliver Stone.
Scored by Vangelis.
“Alexander” is a strange departure for Oliver Stone, who is famous for counter-cultural movies like “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” and “JFK” (all good, by the way). There is nothing counter-cultural about “Alexander,” however; it is downright hagiographic. The movie is narrated by Ptolemy (who gained control of Egypt in the civil war that broke out among Alexander’s generals after his death) as he narrates the memoirs that would be lost to history in the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria. Colin Farrell, who plays Alexander, is a fine actor who is often savaged by critics for no apparent reason. Vangelis’ one-man electronic score is amazing, as usual, somehow managing to sound as if he is conducting the heavens themselves.
When I was a young, dumb, ugly libertarian, I hated Oliver Stone for what seemed like warmed-over “socialism” to me, though I loved his exposures of U.S. foreign policy (see especially his “Putin Interviews” and “Ukraine on Fire”). As I grew up, however, the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” became apparent to me (how the so-called “creative destruction” of capitalism actually undermines everything which conservatives supposedly wish to conserve), and I became far more tolerant of anti-capitalists, even if they have problems of their own. Likewise, I used to hate Alexander, a megalomaniacal warlord who burned and bled the world for no reason other than his own glory, yet became too much of a degenerate to rule effectively and left his generals to fight over his empire after he died. I distinctly remember walking back to my dormitory after a lecture on Alexander, troubled by how he could have destroyed a city like Persepolis. Nevertheless, Alexander was one of the most important figures in all of history. He was brave (fought alongside his men) and intelligent (tutored by Aristotle), as well as charismatic and eloquent (pushed on his men and shut down mutinies). Where he destroyed, he also built: he was a founder of cities as well as a patron of the arts and sciences. By uniting the world, however briefly, the West began “Hellenizing” the East, and the East began “Orientalizing” the West, creating a new “Hellenistic Civilization.” All of this is why Alexander is known as “the Great,” not “the Good.” A movie about someone like that cannot be anything other than interesting.
The Dark Knight Trilogy, 2005-2012.
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman.
Written by Christopher Nolan.
Scored by Hans Zimmer.
The “Dark-Knight” trilogy, which includes “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” are the greatest supervillain movies. Each movie features a supervillain who presents a radical critique of modern society and its secular-humanist beliefs, written so compellingly by Christopher Nolan that they cannot just be rejected as “psycho.” In “Batman Begins,” the supervillain is Ra’s al Ghul, the head of a shadowy cult which, throughout history, pushes decadent civilizations on the brink of collapse over the edge, in order to end the Dark Age and begin a new Golden Age. This pessimistic theory that history is essentially cyclical (“hard times make strong men – strong men make good times – good times make weak men – weak men make hard times”) is in stark opposition to the optimistic theory that history is essentially progressive (i.e. things are always getting better). In “The Dark Knight,” the supervillain is the Joker, who traps Batman in twisted experiments designed to challenge his faith in mankind. The Joker, pessimistically, believes that people are basically evil, not basically good, and tries to prove that by showing what happens when chaos disrupts the law. In “The Dark Knight Rises,” the supervillain is Bane, who combines the League of Shadows’ pessimistic theory of history with the Joker’s pessimistic view of humanity. To make an example of Gotham City – and the optimistic faith in historical progress and human goodness – Bane incites the worst of the underclass against the worst of the ruling class, pitting anarchy against tyranny, then stands back and lets the world watch as the revolution consumes itself.
Apparently, David Boreanaz (“Angel” from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) was originally cast as Batman, but Christian Bale edged him out in the end. The hunky Boreanaz more looks the part than the leaner Bale, but Bale is such a good actor that it is hard to complain. Hans Zimmer, who has a team of composers working for him at a studio, produced a score for the trilogy, which has its moments, but is mainly there to punch up the trailers. Zimmer’s team has done much better work on other favorites of mine, such as “The Last Samurai” and “Inception.”
300, 2006. Elite Spartan warriors, led by their king, defend a mountain pass against the invading Persian army – a sacrifice which rallies all of Greece to resistance.
Directed by Zack Snyder.
Starring Gerard Butler.
Written by Zack Snyder.
Scored by Tyler Bates.
“300” is the story of the most famous last stand in history – perhaps the last stand that inspired them all. King Leonidas and his bodyguard were willing to give up their individual lives for the sake of their people’s continued existence. Their story is considerably “sexed up,” in this case, but it still pays tribute to their very real sacrifice and exemplifies their very real virtues.
As with “Watchmen,” Zack Snyder pulled off the rare feat of improving on his source material. Frank Miller’s graphic novel is full of ugly art (all the characters, even the Spartans, look downright simian) and neo-conservative propaganda (trying to equate the modern War on Terror with the ancient Graeco-Persian wars). Snyder’s movie, by contrast, has a beautiful cast (Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, and other heroes literally look like Greek statues), and makes it clear that the Spartans are fighting for their own people on their own land (not neocon abstractions like “reason” over “mysticism”). Tyler Bates’ score is a veritable wall of booming percussion, soaring choruses, and roaring brass worthy of such a legendary battle.
I matriculated at Bucknell University in 2006 (the year that “300” was released), already intending to major in Classics. Naturally, the movie was often the subject of heated discussion among the students and teachers alike, mostly having to do with its historical inaccuracy and fantastical style. I, however, was one of the few who defended the movie. For one, I thought that the historical accuracy of the movie was overlooked and underrated. For another, I thought that the movie’s fantastical style gave it a sort of “meta” historical accuracy. No, the Spartans were not godlike heroes who fought in the nude, but they were remembered as godlike heroes by the Greeks, who depicted their heroes as nude. The Spartans were, of course, a highly effective fighting force and the only Greeks who could have held out at Thermopylae. No, the Persians were not subhuman or even inhuman monsters, but they were remembered as such monsters – “barbarians” – by the Greeks. The Persians did, of course, have a very different civilization from the Greeks (who had never encountered so many different cultures before could not conceive of a single centralized state ruling multiple nations). When it comes to mythic memory (and much of the history of the Battle of Thermopylae is mythic), therefore, “300” is historically accurate. In fact, the most quotable lines from “300” are ripped right from the pages of Herodotus.
Flags of Our Fathers, 2006. A companion movie to “Letters from Iwo Jima” – the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima told through the soldiers from the famous flag-raising photograph.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Starring Ryan Philippe, Jesse Bradford, and Adam Beach.
Written by Paul Haggis.
Scored by Clint Eastwood.
The protagonists of this movie need no lionization: they are the subjects of one of the most iconic images of World War II. What this movie does is tell the story of who they were, what happened to them, and how their overnight celebrity changed them.
Letters From Iwo Jima, 2006. A companion movie to “Flags of Our Fathers” – the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima told through the letters that the Japanese soldiers have written home.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Starring Ken Watanbe.
Written by Paul Haggis and Iris Yamasita.
Scored by Kyle Eastwood.
In World War II, the principal Axis Powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan – three of the most beautiful civilizations in world history. Whatever threat Hitler’s Nazis, Mussolini’s Fascists, and Tojo’s Imperialists posed to world peace (one which, I suspect, was trumped up by their geopolitical rivals, the Soviets, British, and Americans, cf. Pat Buchanan and Peter Hitchens, or Charles Beard and Herbert Hoover), I simply refuse to believe that the highly cultured Germans, Italians, and Japanese were such barbaric enemies. Certainly the rank-and-file soldiers themselves were not fire-breathing, blood-thirsty warmongers, but like men in all wars, just doing their duty when their country called. “Letters From Iwo Jima” is a significant step towards humanizing one of the most-demonized American enemies, about whom crude war propaganda is still widely believed. (Every August 6th, for instance, neo-conservative chickenhawks and other fat-headed jingoists ritually remake the case for vaporizing the city of Hiroshima.)
The score has an authentic Japanese sound – sensitive and minimalistic – and is absolutely haunting, befitting a story about a garrison which was practically killed to the last man. There were parts of the movie where it, literally, moved me to tears.
Apocalypto, 2006. The story of one family’s struggle for survival amid the beginning of the end of Mayan civilization.
Directed by Mel Gibson.
Starring Rudy Youngblood and Dalia Hernandez.
Written by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia.
Scored by James Horner.
Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia, who met while the latter was working as an assistant during the post-production of “The Passion of the Christ,” had a mutual love of the action-chase genre. “We wanted to update the chase genre by, in fact, not updating it with technology or machinery,” explained Safinia, “but stripping it down to its most intense form, which is a man running for his life, and at the same time getting back to something that matters to him.” At the same time, they wanted to tell a larger story about the fall of civilization set in Mesoamerica prior to the arrival of Europeans. They believed that the same forces that undermined the Maya – environmental degradation, overpopulation, internecine warfare, political corruption, and socioeconomic inequality – remained as relevant as ever, and wanted to use an ancient culture like the Maya to illustrate, starkly and shockingly, those parallels. As Gibson put it, the 15th-century setting is “merely the backdrop” for “civilizations and what undermines them.” They did not want the movie to be entirely pessimistic, however, and explained that the title (which does not make sense until the final scene) literally means “a new beginning or an unveiling – a revelation.” According to Gibson, “Everything has a beginning and an end, and all civilizations have operated like that.”
“Apocalypto” is remarkable for its authenticity. First, there is a complete absence of CGI effects and sets. The movie was shot entirely on location in the jungles of Veracruz, as well as on a set modeled after the sites of ancient Mayan cities which Gibson and Safinia had visited in the Mirador Basin. The effort that went into creating that cityscape, from the attention to detail in the various domestic and economic structures and materials, to the reconstruction of a plaza with a step-pyramid (modeled after that of Tikal), was monumental. In addition, a team of artists based all of the movie’s costumes, hairstyles, makeup (such as piercings and tattoos), and props on archaeological sources, such as ceramics and murals. Second, the cast is entirely comprised of Indian actors and actresses, almost none of whom had any prior acting experience and relied heavily on Gibson’s skillful directing. Third, just as “The Passion of the Christ” was written in Aramaic, “Apocalypto” is written in Yucatec-Mayan, an obscure indigenous language which is the closest possible approximation of what language the characters would have spoken.
“Apocalypto” is also remarkable for its historical accuracy. Of course, a few historical liberties are taken here and there for dramatic effect, but nothing which misrepresents who the Mayans were and what their world was like. Nevertheless, as is the case for any movie that is not pornography about American slavery or the Holocaust (whoever fact-checked “Roots” or “Schindler’s List”?), the movie was nitpicked to death. Richard Hansen (a professor of Mesoamerican Studies and the historical adviser for “Apocalypto”) defended the movie from criticism, and in a published article argued that while there were a few anachronisms in the movie, the criticisms in question were rooted in “relativism,” “revisionism,” and “aboriginalism” among academics-turned-activists. For instance, while many of these critics claimed that the Maya did not practice ritual sacrifice, Hansen demonstrated that the archaeological and documentary evidence is to the contrary (and that the movie was inaccurate only insofar as it omitted even worse details, such as flaying the corpses for human decoration or butchering the corpses for human consumption). “Apocalypto will be judged in time as a cinema masterpiece, not only in its superb execution of film production, but also as an allegorical reference to the present,” argued Hansen. “The criticisms, which were both accurate and fallacious, will continue to surround this film due to its unique story, the extraordinary setting, the allegorical and metaphorical references, and the various levels of awareness that are inherent in the film regarding the human saga.”
“Apocalypto” begins with a quote by the historian William Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” Likewise, a great man is not conquered from without until he has destroyed himself from within. The summer before “Apocalypto” was released, Gibson was arrested for speeding along the Pacific Coast Highway with an open bottle of tequila in his car. Gibson’s profane, obscene, and above all drunken tirade had been recorded by the police, and when it was leaked to the media it was so humiliating that Hollywood blacklisted him and his wife divorced him. (To learn more about what happened that night, watch his interview with Diane Sawyer.) A few years later, Gibson’s partner claimed that he had been physically and verbally abusive, leaking recordings of the latter that worsened his already ruined reputation. Only recently, after a decade of alcohol-recovery and anger-management therapy, has this immensely talented actor and director begun to make a comeback, with the critically acclaimed and award-winning movie “Hacksaw Ridge.” Unfortunately, Gibson’s public self-destruction simultaneously overshadowed and tainted “Apocalypto,” which did not win many awards and is now out of production – a travesty against this artistic masterpiece.
No Country for Old Men, 2007. A suspenseful tale of hunter and hunted and good and evil, across the ghostly landscape of West Texas.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, and Kelly Macdonald.
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Scored by Carter Burwell.
“No Country for Old Men” is the Coen Bros.’ adaptation of a book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, thus uniting two of our best modern directors with one of our best modern authors. The movie is also a combination of two distinctive American genres, noir and Western – a Noir-Western. The antagonist, Anton Chigurh (played chillingly by Javier Bardem) is a personification of “Unstoppable Evil” and a demonic “Angel of Death.” He shows no human empathy to those whose lives are in his hands and appears apathetic about the lives that he takes – accordingly, there is nothing sympathetic about him. The protagonist, Llewellyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) is a morally gray man who, by chance, comes into conflict with very evil men. At first, Moss tries to run from the relentless Chigurh, but chance or fate seems to keep bringing them together, and Moss decides that his only hope of survival is if he hunts the hunter. As Sheriff Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones) tracks the trail of blood that they leave, trying to help Moss and stop Chigurh, he becomes increasingly disillusioned along the way. “No Country for Old Men” is an engrossing thriller.
James Rutledge Roesch lives in Florida. He is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, as well as the author of From Founding Fathers to Fire-Eaters: The Constitutional Doctrine of States' Rights in the Old South.