So I don’t mind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, dir. Steven Spielberg). It’s a pretty fun movie that captures some of the spirit of the first movie and avoids everything that’s awful about the second one. But there is one brief moment in it that drives me crazy, like a raspberry seed between my teeth.
Partway through the film, Indiana (Harrison Ford) and his father Henry (Sean Connery) are trying to escape from some Nazi airplanes in a car. The car gets bombed and they’re trapped on a beach with a bunch of birds. Daddy Jones suddenly charges at a bunch of sea gulls flapping his umbrella. The startled gulls take off and the airplane flies through them and crashes. And then Henry says “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne. ‘Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds of the sky.’ “
Here’s the scene, if you need a reminder. The quote comes at the 1:45 mark.
What I hate about this scene is that the quote is entirely made up. It doesn’t derive from any actual source about Charlemagne. Jones Senior talks about “my Charlemagne” implying that he has studied Charlemagne’s writings, the way one might talk about “my Vergil” or “my Chaucer”.
But Charlemagne never wrote anything. It’s not just a case that nothing he wrote has survived, he actually didn’t write any texts because we know from his main biographer Einhard although Charlemagne tried to learn to write as an adult, he was never able to do so. To quote Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, “He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.” Charlemagne was a smart guy and quite learned in some subjects, thanks to the intellectuals at his court, but he never acquired the ability to write.
We do have the text of laws and letters written in his name, but it’s unlikely that he directly composed much of that, although in some cases a scribe might have taken dictation from him. But even so, his writing isn’t given to flights of poetry like talking about rocks and trees and birds as his armies.
Charlemagne was quite a conqueror. He ruled France (more or less) from 768 to 814, and in that period he waged war on a nearly annual basis, conquering what is today western Germany, northeastern Spain, and northern Italy and subjugating much of the rest of central Europe. This wasn’t a guy who going to wax poetic about nature being his armies, because he needed actual armies with real man fighting for him.
And what the hell is this quote even supposed to mean? How are rocks and trees and birds supposed to fight for a king? What metaphorical battle would nature fight for someone, the battle of boredom? It sounds kinda Franciscan-spiritual until you actually try to pin it down, and then you realize it’s just a dumb thing to say.
Now if this was just some toss-away line from a movie that no one ever talks about it wouldn’t be such a problem. But if you google the line, you’ll find it all over the Internet. People are making inspirational posters out of it!
Here, let me show you.
Aaaagh! And that’s just a small selection of the damn things!
This is why there’s no such thing as “just a movie”. Because people out there who know nothing about the Middle Ages are prone to getting their faux-inspirational quotes from action films.
Want to Know More?
There really isn’t anything more to know here. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is available on Amazon.
Instead of getting your knowledge about Charlemagne from action films, consider reading Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. These two biographies are quite short.