I’ve been watching Westworld, HBO’s new prestige series that they’re probably hoping will become their next Games of Thrones. So I figured I would take a break from my thoughts about Robin Hood to say what I’m thinking about this show. Back to Robin Hood next time.
For those who haven’t watched the series, it’s based on the 1973 Michael Crichton thriller of the same name. It focuses on an immersive playground, Westworld, in which android ‘hosts’ simulate the Wild West of the 1870s for the amusement of human ‘newcomers’ (the paying customers). The hosts are programmed to live out a set script that repeats itself every day unless a newcomer intervenes, in which case the hosts improvise appropriate reactions. Many of the hosts offer a ‘mission’, a unique storyline that provides adventure for the newcomers. The newcomers are allowed to do anything they want to the hosts. Some newcomers choose to be ‘white hats’ (signified literally with headgear), meaning that they are ‘good guys’ and deal with the hosts in pro-social ways, while other newcomers can be ‘black hats’, meaning that they may work with the various villainous hosts or engage in whatever mayhem they chose to direct against the hosts.
Unfortunately, some of the hosts are beginning to achieve sentience. Of these, the series focuses on Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the classic Western ingenue daughter of cattle-ranchers who are fated to be murdered unless a newcomer intervenes, and Maeve (Thandie Newton), the madame of the local brothel and saloon, who tends to get caught in the crossfire when violence breaks out there.
Wood as Dolores
Most of the rest of the cast are other hosts or the human staff who maintain the park, repair the hosts every night, and program the hosts with new stories and personality traits. But I want to talk about a third category of characters, the newcomers. Thus far the show has focused on three of them
The mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) a long-time visitor who knows the park by heart and who is searching for a mysterious ‘next level’. He’s solidly in the Black Hat camp, slaughtering any host who gets in his way.
Logan (Ben Barnes), another veteran newcomer who likes the park for the immoral hedonism that it allows him to indulge in.
William (Jimmi Simpson), Logan’s brother-in-law and first-time newcomer. William almost instinctively gravitates toward a White Hat, despite Logan’s attempts to get him to indulge his more primitive urges. William decides to defend the confused Dolores once her awakening consciousness leads her away from her programmed story-line.
We see a couple of other newcomers who don’t get names. In particular, there is what appears to be a husband and wife couple that turn up in a few episodes.
Barnes as Logan
The series makes no pretense of actually trying to recreate 1870s America. The park is clearly built around common clichés of the Western genre: gunfights, bandits, and whiskey flow in abundance. What interests me is the show’s missions.
Over the first several episodes we get to see some of the set storylines that hosts offer the newcomers. Mostly we see these from Logan and William’s point of view, but we also get to see the storylines that Dolores and Maeve fit into. The missions include
Rescue Dolores when bandits murder her parents. Black Hats can join in with the bandits, and can rape and kill Dolores if they want. If no one intervenes, one of the bandits does that.
Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) rides into town with a gang and shoots the place up to get what’s hidden in Maeve’s safe. Newcomers can kill his gang or, presumably, join Hector’s it.
Hunt down various bandits and trouble-makers who are, of course, Wanted Dead or Alive.
One minor host character offers a chance to find lost treasure.
A hard-to-reach villain offers a mission to rob a group of American soldiers of a cargo of nitroglycerin they’re escorting.
What’s striking to me about this list are two things. First, it’s a very male-centric list of adventures. All of them are built around the opportunity to employ violence, either in pro-social (stop the bad guy) or anti-social (help or be the bad guy) ways. The only non-violent activity in Westworld seems to be having sex with a prostitute. Perhaps this is a reflection that the series creator decided to focus exclusively on male guests (Logan and William are obviously modeled on the two main characters in the 1973 version of the story). The husband and wife newcomers decide to pursue one of the bandits who needs capturing, but the wife either gets bored or finds the mission to0 physically uncomfortable; she rides back to town while her husband continues with the mission. There just don’t seem to be any missions that might appeal to women more than men.
Maeve and Hector
The female hosts seem to reinforce this sense of masculine urges as the point of the park. Dolores needs to be rescued from the bad guys, while the more worldly Maeve offers the opportunity for sex and seduction. Apart from these two, we only get to see two other recurring female hosts, the prostitute Clementine and the sharp-shooting bandit Armistice (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), a member of Hector’s gang with a brutal past. So all the female hosts apart from Armistice fall into very traditional feminine roles from the Western genre.
The show seems to acknowledge that the park is all about sex and violence in one episode when the park’s creator Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) comments that originally there were an equal number of dark and ‘hopeful’ missions, but no one wanted to do the hopeful missions, so they were dropped in favor of darker ones.
Hopkins as Ford
But I don’t think the show is simply indulging in the standard HBO formula of violence and sex. Rather, I think what the show is (perhaps unintentionally) doing is demonstrating just how profoundly masculine our vision of the Wild West is. When we think of stories set in the Wild West, they are always stories of masculine violence: men seeking violent revenge on the bad guy who killed their family, men coming to town and violently protecting the defenseless residents from bandits or other villains, men drifting from town to town until they find the woman who gets them to stay and make a stand. With a few exceptions, the stories we (or rather Hollywood) choose to tell are overwhelmingly about (mostly white) men doing traditionally masculine things and saving the day.
Occasionally we get a movie about Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley, who are chiefly interesting because they act like men; they can shoot guns and ride horses well. We don’t tell a lot of stories about the female bandits like Pearl Hart or Belle Starr. Hollywood mostly bowdlerizes the rare story about Western madams or prostitutes like Poker Alice, making them into mostly sexless ‘hookers with hearts of gold’. Little House on the Prairie purported to tell the story of pioneer woman and prot0-libertarian crank Laura Ingalls Wilder, but presented her in a traditionally domestic role that rarely acknowledged the grueling physical hardships and social isolation that pioneer women struggled with. Hollywood doesn’t acknowledge the more deviant figures like the cross-dressing Charley Parkhurst, who lived as a man and drove stagecoaches for a living, or Cathay Williams, who served two years as a Buffalo Soldier under the name William Cathay after having fought in the Civil War. Black women like Williams are particularly invisible in our popular memories of the Old West.
Westworld, however, isn’t so much ignoring the highly sexist nature of Wild West mythology as meditating on it. I said earlier that the show isn’t just indulging the HBO formula of violence and sex, in part because there’s very little actual sex shown on-screen. Logan indulges himself with a couple of prostitutes and in a later episode he, William, and Dolores discover a massive orgy. That’s it so far over 5 episodes, when that would be about half an episode’s worth of sex on Game of Thrones. And while the hosts are frequently shown nude, as the park staff repair or reprogram them, the nudity acts not to sexualize them but to highlight their profound vulnerability to the staff’s manipulation.
With the sex considerably downplayed, the show is about violence. But it’s not just about letting us watch violence for titillation and shock. The show seems to be developing a critique about the effects of violence. Logan and William are offering us a story about the corrupting power of violence, while Dolores and Maeve both flash back to earlier ‘lives’ that ended in terrifying violence. They struggle to understand the effects of violence on their existence, a violence that matters even though they cannot clearly remember it. The original Westworld was a parable about the dangers of hedonism coming home to roost, and the new series seems determined to explore that in a far more intelligent and thought-provoking way than Game of Thrones ever has. Violence, the show seems to be saying, always has consequences, even in a place where violence isn’t supposed to have consequences.
Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC) is one of the most famous and successful conquerors in history, and his conquests had enormous and far-reaching effects. So it’s a little surprising that so few films have been devoted to him. Apart from two Bollywood movies about him and an Italian animated film, there have only been two films about him, 1956’s Alexander the Great, starring Richard Burton, and 2004’s Alexander (2004, dir. Oliver Stone), starring Colin Farrell.
Writing a biography of Alexander is a challenging thing, because the earliest sources about Alexander have been completely lost. Alexander had a professional historian, Callisthenes, who served him and wrote a history of Alexander (although he did not accompany him on his campaign). Callisthenes’ work is now lost, but it was used as a source by Ptolemy and Cleitarchus (the former of whom had known Alexander well, being one of his generals) when they wrote their histories of Alexander. Another of Alexander’s officers, Aristobulus, also wrote a history of the conqueror, and his admiral, Nearchus wrote about Alexander’s exploits in India. But none of these histories have survived either.
Instead, what has survived are the works of much later historians who quoted Cleitarchus, Ptolemy, and Aristobulus in their works. For example Diodorus wrote his history around the year 30 BC, drawing off of Cleitarchus’ account. Curtius Rufus, writing about 60 years later, used Cleitarchus and Ptolemy’s histories. Arrian, writing in the early 2nd century AD, tapped Ptolemy, Aristobulus, and Nearchus but ignored Cleitarchus. Plutarch, writing about the same time as Arrian, used all but Nearchus. (Confused? Here is a page that explains it.)
So the result is that the most reliable sources can only be known through other, much later sources. These sources often disagree. The various sources mention a range of legends about Alexander, some plausible, some not. The result is a rather confusing welter of possibilities about who Alexander was, what he did and what he wanted.
A ancient Greek bust of Alexander
So perhaps it’s fitting that Oliver Stone struggled to produce a film that told the conqueror’s story. When Alexander was released in the theaters, it was as a 175-minute version, reportedly with some cuts having been made because of pressure over the films depiction of Alexander’s homosexual relationships (a group of Greek lawyers threatened to sue Warner Brothers at one point). When it was issued on DVD a year later, Stone’s Director’s Cut was 167 minutes, with footage taken out and other footage added and scenes in a different order. In 2007, Stone released Alexander Revisited: the Final Director’s Cut, which was 214 minutes long. Then, in 2012, Stone released his Ultimate Cut, a 206-minute version that Stone swore would be his last. Thus far he’s kept his word.
I saw the original theatrical release in 2004, and my memories of it are hazy, except that Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie, playing Alexander’s parents Philip and Olympias, were involved in a scenery-chewing contest in which the winner was whomever was being paid to build replacement sets. My reaction at the time was pretty much a big ‘meh’.
But when I sat down to watch the Ultimate Cut, which is what Netflix has, I came away relatively impressed. The film has serious problems. It’s long and at time it drags. Alexander inherits his parents’ tendency toward histrionics, especially as he gets older. The film compresses various details, attributes historical actions to different people, and omits the first three years of Alexander’s campaign against the Persians. And it’s reluctant to depict Alexander’s homosexual relationships (although it does, if you listen closely, acknowledge that Alexander and Hephaestion [Jared Leto] were lovers) while dwelling at length on Alexander’s consummation of his marriage to Roxane (Rosario Dawson).
Farrell as Alexander
But it still does a very good job of telling a coherent story about who Alexander was, what motivated him, and what he did. Farrell’s Alexander is a man haunted by his awkward relationship with his drunken father and his increasingly hostile relationship with his shrewish, demanding mother, who is convinced that Alexander’s real father was the god Zeus. Convinced that Philip’s decision to take a second wife means that she and Alexander will be pushed aside, Olympias probably orchestrates Philip’s very public assassination to ensure that her son will become king. So Alexander spends his whole adult life trying to outdo his father and to get as far away from his mother as geographically possible. His father is a drunkard who violently assaults Olympias at least once, a dynamic he recreates with Roxane, who is jealous of Hephaeston, who is in turn jealous of Alexander’s relationship with the slave Bagoas (Francisco Bosch). He also struggles with the things that the philosopher Aristotle taught him, and wrestles with the question of whether he can match the deeds of Heracles and the other sons of Zeus. And his relationships with his generals and battle-companions veer from warm camaraderie to political quarrelling and jealous accusations of betrayal. This Alexander is a complicated, tormented man, pulled in many different directions at once, and in that sense he is perhaps one of the most complex characters ever put on the screen. It’s a fitting attempt to capture the personality of a man who both an historical giant and a mystery.
Stone also demonstrates that he has a keen mind for how to depict warfare on the screen. He does a good job making his two major battle scenes, Gaugamela and Hydaspes, intelligible to the viewer. At Gaugamela, he makes excellent use of a literal bird’s-eye view to help the viewer understand the overall battle while also explaining to the viewer that different portions of the army are doing different things. He smartly labels the scenes “Macedonian Center” or “Macedonian Right” so that viewers can understand how Alexander’s unit relates to the other parts of the army in the middle of the fighting. And at Hydaspes, Stone makes breath-taking use of cinematography in a scene in which Alexander, mounted on his faithful horse Bucephalus, confronts the Indian king Porus, riding in a howdah on the back of an elephant. Watch the scene for yourself and tell me that the shot isn’t breath-taking.
One of the things about the film that I like is that it purports to be the memoirs of Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), now an old man, having ruled Egypt for decades. The film opens and closes with Hopkins dictating his account to a pair of scribes. The film has a complex structure; within Ptolemy’s narrative, we get the sequential account of Alexander’s adult conquests interspersed with sequential flashbacks to Alexander’s childhood, as we see the various events that shape who Alexander was to become. Ptolemy’s narration explains key background facts and provides commentary on various events. And because the whole film is Ptolemy’s reminiscences, we are always aware that the events we are seeing are history.
Ptolemy dictating to his scribe
Because of this, we know the film is not the events as they happened but Ptolemy’s version of those events (although he’s a bit of an omniscient narrator, since he knows what Alexander says to his lovers in private moments). This allows Stone to play around with the complexity of his historical sources. He shows us key moments, such as Philip’s murder, an attempt to poison Alexander, the death of Hephaistion, and Alexander’s death, without giving us a statement of exactly why those events happened. And then Ptolemy later comments about what he thinks happened.
For example, Philip’s murder takes place when he is appearing at a public spectacle. One of his bodyguards, Pausanius, walks up to him, kisses him, and then stabs him to death. Olympias watches the whole scene impassively, having already hinted to Alexander that he ought to remove his father before his father removes him. In an earlier scene, however, Philip is shown anally raping Pausanius during a drunken party. And early in the film, Alexander has repeatedly declared that the Persians were behind the murder.
Kilmer as the one-eyed Philip of Macedon
The viewer is left to decide what happened. Did Pausanius commit the murder out of a desire for revenge? Did Olympias orchestrate it? Pausanius clearly had some help, since when he flees he is trying to meet up with another man who has a spare horse, but he falls and Cleitus spears him before he can be interrogated. Was Cleitus part of the plot? The whole scene follows one in which Cleitus and Alexander have a falling out during a drinking party and Alexander spears Cleitus. Could Alexander have been part of the plot? At the end of the film, Ptolemy comments that Olympias was probably the one behind the murder.
What’s going here is that Stone is playing around with the contradictory sources about the incident. Diodorus, expanding on a comment made by Aristotle, claims that Pausanius committed the murder out of revenge for being raped. But other sources claim that Olympias lavished honors on the dead Pausanius, including putting a crown on his corpse, suggesting that she was behind the crime. Alexander clearly stood to gain quite a lot from the murder. And Alexander blamed the murder on Darius, using it as an excuse to invade Persia. So the film gives us at least three different perspectives on the killing before finally giving us Ptolemy’s idea of what happened.
Similarly, when Hephaeston dies, Alexander suspects poison and confronts Roxane, who denies the charge. He then throws a party in which he drinks a large amount of wine and immediately falls ill, with symptoms not unlike Hephaeston’s. Stone leaves it ambiguous just what happened. Is Alexander trying to get himself poisoned after his lover has died? Or is he distraught about the man’s death and seeking to get drunk to forget what’s happened? Is he just exhibiting his father’s alcoholism? At the end of the film, Ptolemy comments that many suspected Roxane in Hephaestion’s death and suspected one of the generals, Cassander, of poisoning Alexander. Ptolemy comments that Cassander fabricated Alexander’s diaries in an attempt to depict him as a bloated drunk, in order to make his death seem more natural.
Leto as Hephaestion
And then he drops the bombshell. “The truth is, we did kill him. By silence we consented, because… because we couldn’t go on….What did we have to look forward to in the end, but to be discarded like Cleitas?” A few moments later he turns to the scribe. “Throw all that away. It’s just an old man’s rubbish. You shall write, ‘he died of a fever in a weakened condition.’”
Once again, Stone is playing with the complex question of what actually happened. Different ancient sources offered varying claims about exactly what Alexander died of, either poison or a fever (perhaps malaria). Consequently modern historians are divided about the role that alcohol, poison, illness, or some other problem might have played in Alexander’s death.
And Ptolemy’s confession is ambiguous. Is he admitting that there was an actual plot among the generals to murder Alexander, or when he says “by silence we consented,” is he just expressing a sense of guilt that he might have saved Alexander had he acted differently? Is this just an old man’s momentary foolishness, or something true? Regardless, Ptolemy immediately rewrites his text, obscuring the truth for posterity, and reminding the audience that this is history as it is written, not history as it happened.
Stone also uses Ptolemy to explain what happened to other characters after Alexander’s death. Cassander assassinated Olympias a few years later, and a few years after that poisoned Roxane and her young son. Roxane had already poisoned one of her rivals, Stateira. Bagoas simply disappeared, perhaps wisely, given what was happening around him. Ptolemy got Alexander’s body and followed him as pharaoh of Egypt. The scene is a bit wordy, but a nice variation on the usual “what happened to the characters” epilogue.
And then, in the epilogue, Stone gives us one last twist of the sources, telling us that Ptolemy’s memoirs were lost with the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria. So what we can know about Alexander is a rewrite of a rewrite of a writing of the past, and not the past itself.
Beowulf ranks among the greatest works of literature in the English language, and holds pride of place as the first great work of English-language fiction. It is a powerful, profound, and mysterious text that continues to move and fascinate readers more than a thousand years after it was first written down.
Unfortunately, when film-makers try to translate the story to the big screen, this strange old tale thwarts their best efforts to produce a decent story. Beowulf (2007, dir. Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) is perhaps the worst adaptation of a piece of medieval literature I’ve ever read, and Neil Gaiman, who is normally a great storyteller as Sandman demonstrates, ought to be embarrassed that he wrote it.
Beowulf, as many who read it high school or college know, tells the story of the Germanic’s warrior’s three greatest battles. He is a Geat, belonging to a tribe that resided in what is today southern Sweden, a branch of the Gothic people. (Side note: ‘Geat’ is pronounced ‘Yat’ or “Yay-at’, not ‘Geet’.) He travels to Denmark to help the great Danish king Hrothgar. Hrothgar is a successful war leader, but he is outclassed by the horrible troll Grendel, who is harrying the Danes in their great hall, Heorot. Beowulf kills Grendel by ripping off the creature’s arm. But then Grendel’s unnamed mother (whom I’ll just call Mother) continues her son’s feud against the Danes, and Beowulf is forced to track her to under lair in the moor where he eventually kills her.
The geography of Beowulf
After that Beowulf returns home to Sweden and becomes the Geatish king. Fifty years later, a slave steals a cup from the horde of a dragon, who goes on a rampage, killed and destroying the Geats until Beowulf and his warband go to confront the monster. With the exception of the faithful Wiglaf (‘Wee-laf’, not ‘Wig-laf’), the warband chickens out and runs away, leaving Beowulf unsupported in his battle against the dragon. As a result, he kills the dragon but is mortally wounded. The poem ends as it begins, with the funeral of a great king. The Geats lament not only the death of their king but also the cowardice of the warband, because they are now vulnerable to the depredations of their neighbors. One woman predicts the destruction of the Geatish tribe, a prediction that eventually came true in the real world when the Swedes eventually conquered and absorbed the Geats.
While a great poem, Beowulf presents many puzzles to the reader. In a surface reading, the first two fights seem essentially unconnected to the third fight, and scholars have debated how much unity the poem actually has. Indeed, it’s been suggested that the poem as we have it (which survives in a single 11th century manuscript) may in fact represent the fusion of two unrelated poems. My personal feeling is that two halves of the poem are in fact a unitary whole, tracing as it does a hero from his early triumphs to his disastrous death. There is an underlying theme about the dangerous nature of violence. The poem is riddled with apparent digressions about unrelated acts of violence, but I tend to see these digressions as commenting on the nature of violence and highlighting Beowulf as a hero precisely because he understands when violence should and shouldn’t be resorted to. The cowardice of his men serves as a warning that sometimes violence is necessary, and Beowulf’s successful battle as an elderly ruler counterpoints Hrothgar’s earlier inability to triumph over Grendel. But that’s just one way to understand the poem.
The first page of Beowulf
As a result, the story presents a basic problem for modern audiences. The first two acts don’t connect to the third in any obvious way; there’s no through-line for the plot. Beowulf is a Germanic hero; he lacks the interiority and personal conflict that modern audiences tend to want in their heroes. His conflicts are mostly of a purely physical kind, although he does face social challenges as well, such as when he arrives as an outsider at Heorot and is challenged by the loud-mouthed asshole Unferth. And at a later moment in the poem, he is tempted by Queen Hygd to seize the Geatish throne, but refuses to do so, refusing to take it until King Heardred is killed in battle. (Like I said, he knows when to use violence and when to reject it.) But the moral universe in which he operates is drastically different from modern America, and that makes it harder to get modern audiences engaged with the underlying ideas in the poem.
When Gaiman and Avary were trying to figure out how to turn this story into a 3D animated film that uses motion capture technology, they clearly recognized the problem of the disjunction between the first two acts and the third. Unfortunately, their solution to the problem was to tie the third act to the first two in a way that shits all over the heroic qualities of Beowulf and Hrothgar. In order to explain what’s so wrong with their screenplay, I’ll need to summarize the whole film.
The film opens with a feast in the newly-built Heorot. The elderly Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is a fat, drunken slob who has to be carried into the hall and can barely keep his bed sheet wrapped around his otherwise naked body. His beautiful young wife Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn) is disgusted by him and refuses to sleep with him. The feasting and merriment unsettles Grendel (Crispin Glover), who has very delicate ears, and so he rampages through the hall, killing men while the impotent Hrothgar proves unable to attack him.
Eventually Beowulf (Ray Winstone) the ‘Geet’ shows up and promises to fight the monster. He is confronted by Unferth (John Malkovich), who points out that the only thing Beowulf has done of note is lose a swimming contest. Beowulf responds by explaining that he lost the competition because he had to take time to kill nine sea monsters. One of his retainers comments that the last time Beowulf told the story, there were only three monsters. And in the flashback to the event we see that Beowulf is lying; one of the monsters is actually a mermaid, who successfully seduces him, rendering him unable to kill her.
Beowulf clearly has the hots for Wealtheow, because as the feast is winding down, he literally takes off all his clothes while everyone watches. She is appalled by this and flees the room, so he just lies down to relax while his men keep partying. When the fight with Grendel comes, Beowulf rather inexplicably watches the monster kill most of his men before getting into the fight. He manages to trap Grendel’s arm in the door of the hall and smashes it off. As he later retells the story, he just ripped the arm off while wrestling with him.
After Mother comes to slaughter Danes in vengeance, Hrothgar offers Beowulf his greatest treasure, the Dragon Horn, an elaborate drinking cup, which he got when he killed Fafnir, a dragon. (Fafnir is the dragon from a completely different legend, the story of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, but whatever.) Beowulf inexplicably takes the horn with him when he tracks Mother back to her lair, and discovers that it glows in the cave (which is actually kind of a nice touch).
Hrothgar giving Beowulf the Dragon Horn
When he meets Mother, she turns out to be Angelina Jolie with golden body-paint, a sexy braid that is also her tail, and built-in stiletto heels. Instead of fighting her, she seduces him with a promise that as long as the cup remains in her lair, nothing will be able to harm Beowulf and he will be a great king. So instead of killing her, he bones her and then goes back to Hrothgar and claims to have killed her. Hrothgar is relieved, declares Beowulf his heir, and then commits suicide by jumping off a tower. By this point it has become clear that years ago Hrothgar did exactly what Beowulf has just done, and that Grendel was actually Hrothgar’s son.
It must be really hard for Mother to shop for shoes
The film jumps forward to years later. King Beowulf of the Danes is married to Wealtheow, who is as disgusted with him as she was with Hrothgar, so he needs to sleep with slave girls instead. He’s disgusted with himself, because he knows he’s not actually a hero but rather just a liar. There’s a hint that perhaps his deal with Mother has made him invulnerable to battle, so that he no longer feels any danger when he fights.
Unferth has inexplicably become a Christian. But his slave steals the Dragon Horn from Mother’s lair. A dragon, who is Beowulf’s kid, goes on a rampage, destroying the local church (which is several centuries too early for a film set in 6th century Denmark), and sending Beowulf a message that the deal is off. Beowulf returns the horn to Mother, but she refuses to accept it, and releases the dragon again. The dragon rampages, destroying the town and much of Beowulf’s castle. He eventually realizes that the dragon has a soft spot at the base of its throat, but for reasons I won’t go into, he has to partly sever his right arm in order to reach into the soft spot and rip out the dragon’s heart (I guess because he tore off Grendel’s right arm). They both plunge to the surf, where the dragon transforms into Beowulf’s son, and they both die.
The fight with the dragon is pretty much the best part of the film
Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) becomes king and Beowulf is given a Viking ship funeral. Right after that, Wiglaf finds the Dragon Horn in the surf. Mother appears to kiss Beowulf’s corpse, and then beckons Wiglaf to come to her, implicitly offering to repeat the cycle again. Wiglaf stares back at her, and the film cuts to black, leaving it unclear how he responds.
Words cannot express just how much I hate this mangling of the story of the poem. It’s only with great force of will that I am going to refrain from swearing as I dissect it.
The central problem is that instead of presenting Hrothgar and Beowulf as great heroes, which is exactly who they are in the poem, the film offers us two decidedly unheroic liars. Both men achieve their worldly success not by killing monsters but by having sex with Mother and then lying about it. It’s clear that both men are glory hounds who are more than willing to exaggerate their great accomplishments. They are both fundamentally weak men incapable of keeping their pants on when presented with the opportunity for hot monster sex. Their glory is purchased with the future slaughter of their own men because their pretended triumphs lay the foundations for the future crisis that will ruin them and wreak havoc on their people.
Heorot at the start of the film
Whether Hrothgar was ever a great man is entirely unknowable, because we don’t get enough evidence to tell whether anything in his version of events is true. Beowulf shows signs of being a potentially great man; he does basically kill Grendel nearly single-handedly, albeit not the way he later claims. Whether he actually kills any sea monsters is left uncertain; he’s clearly an unreliable narrator and it’s entirely possible that he lost the swimming contest because he decided to get busy with a mermaid and then made up the sea monsters to explain his failure. But in his fight with Grendel he literally just watches Grendel butcher his warband until it’s pretty much only Wiglaf left. So in contrast to the poem, which emphasizes the mutual obligations between war leader and warband by showing the failure of the warband in the battle with the dragon, it’s Beowulf who fails his men.
It’s only at the end of the film that Beowulf gets truly heroic by confronting the dragon and severing his own arm in order to kill the dragon, well aware that he will die when the dragon he’s clinging to falls from the sky. It’s a heroic moment, but sharply undercut by the fact that the whole disaster is his own fault.
Instead of being a film about heroic men doing great deeds, this Beowulf is a story about lying faux-heroes discovering that glory is ultimately hollow and emasculating. Hrothgar’s response to this discovery is to drink himself into a stupor and eventually kill himself, whereas Beowulf manages to rise above himself and finally do the right thing. In other words, the film is about the falseness of heroism far more than its possibility. All heroic inspiration is a falsehood rooted in boasting and deceit. And Wiglaf’s final comment, “He was the bravest of us. He was the prince of all warriors. His name will live forever” reads more as an ironic commentary on the impossibility of true heroism. If the greatest of all heroes is basically a liar and braggart who barely deserves his acclaim, what possibility of heroism is left to the rest of us lesser men?
Seeing the film in the theater in 2007, I was struck by how much the film read as a critique of contemporary American politics, with political leaders whose “Missions Accomplished” are little more than hollow boasts covering up miserable failures that got lots of good people killed. But maybe that was just the mood I was in at the time.
And Then There’s the Women
The film has three female characters, Wealtheow, Mother, and Ursula, Beowulf’s concubine (who’s mostly there to demonstrate the failure of Beowulf and Wealtheow’s marriage). Wealtheow is on the surface a strong women, refusing to sleep with either of her husbands because she is disgusted that they both slept with Mother. But she’s like a day-old sink full of dirty dishes and brackish water; the moment you poke the surface, you’re assaulted by the nasty stench underneath.
It’s hard to see her disgust as anything other than sexual jealousy. She’s angry that her husbands both slept with a woman who is incomparably more beautiful than she is. And her disgust appears to be the reason that both her husbands are emotionally broken men. She has driven Hrothgar to drink and left Beowulf bitter with his life. It is her failure to adore her husbands that forces them to see the hollowness of their victories, because neither man understands the long-term consequences of sleeping with Mother until long after they’re broken men. So basically, if Wealtheow wasn’t such a jealous shrew, these men would have been happy and able to enjoy their false victories. She is the cause of most of their man-pain.
What makes this worse is that she’s also the Woman as the Prize. Hrothgar literally gives her to Beowulf when he declares Beowulf his heir. So Beowulf’s reward for apparently defeating Mother is a kingdom and a beautiful young wife. But that beautiful prize turns out to be a viper that gradually poisons him by refusing to have sex with him. The film treats this as entirely natural, and is completely oblivious to the fact that Wealtheow clearly has no attraction to Beowulf. She’s his prize and ought to put out for him, and her persistent refusal to do so is part of his ruin.
She’s also incapable of saving herself. When Grendel menaces her, she is saved by Hrothgar distracting Grendel, and when the dragon attacks and she is about to fall off the castle’s bridge to her death (because Ursula isn’t strong enough to pull her up), it’s Wiglaf who saves her. And, inexplicably, the older Wealtheow has grey hair but no wrinkles; her skin seems as dewy fresh as it does at the start of the film. So she’s literally four of the worst cinematic tropes about women rolled into one. She has no agency and exists purely to drive home the plot lessons for her husbands.
And Mother is even worse. She’s an eternally young and hot sex kitten, who never bothers putting clothes on. She is literally the cause of all the evil in the film. She is the mother of Fafnir, the dragon that Hrothgar confronted; the mother of Grendel; and the mother of the unnamed second dragon who is Beowulf’s son. Presumably she seduced Fafnir’s father the way she seduces Hrothgar and Beowulf, and the film ends with the very real possibility that she will seduce Wiglaf and repeat the cycle. (In fact, I think the film makes it likely that she does seduce him; Wiglaf has just declared that Beowulf is a far greater man than he is, so if Beowulf has fallen to Mother’s temptations, it is likely that Wiglaf will give in as well. He’s a helper, not a hero in his own right, even by this film’s tawdry standards. And his reception of the Dragon Horn just a moment before acts as a symbol of his impending seduction, since both Mother and the Horn are passed on from Hrothgar to Beowulf and now apparently from Beowulf to Wiglaf.) So the locus of all evil in Denmark is Mother’s irresistible sexuality; she has been birthing monsters since before the film begins and will apparently continue birthing monsters after the film ends. Her evil triumphs over all male efforts to stop her, and no women can apparently stand in comparison.
She is also an emasculating figure. In the poem, when Beowulf ventures into the lair, Unferth gives Beowulf his ancestral sword Hrunting. The sword turns out to be unable to hurt Mother, and she melts the blade down to its hilt. In the film, as she seduces Beowulf, he holds up Hrunting and she begins to stroke it with her hands, causing it to melt even as he has sex with her. So the film directly associates the sword with Beowulf’s penis, showing it softening when he yields to her.
Mother stroking Beowulf’s sword
And lest I be accused of getting Freudian without warrant, the film repeatedly draws parallels between swords and Beowulf’s dick. When Beowulf strips naked before the fight with Grendel, the film has a running joke of various things obscuring his penis: Wiglaf’s arm, smoke, a candlestick, and finally and most blatantly a sword. When he confronts the mermaid, he drops his sword just as she embraces him. At the end, as he is trying to reach the dragon’s heart, he drops his knife and its only then that he can reach in and rip the heart out with his hands. So the film has an odd pattern in which being swordless is somehow a metaphor for sex and heroism. It’s a clumsy image; how can he get Mother pregnant if his sword has already gone flaccid? But it’s definitely there. So the film seems to say that having sex with Mother is going to lead to his impotence.
See what I mean?
And of course, Mother sends her son the dragon out to kill when her deal with Beowulf is broken by the theft of the cup. So she gets her son killed because she’s angry with Beowulf. Grendel goes out on his own, not at her instigation, but when Beowulf comes to the lair the first time, she actually decapitates Grendel’s corpse for some reason. So just as she ruins the men she sleeps with, she also seems to ruin her children and treat them as pawns.
When you combine Wealtheow and Mother as images of femininity, we’re left with a view that women are simply destructive to men. Their power is profound, corrosive, irresistible, and ultimately enduring. Both women survive the film.
I get it. I understand why Gaiman and Avary decided to make the plot of the film fold back upon itself by linking the dragon to Beowulf’s mother and using the cup/Dragon Horn as a recurrent symbol of Mother’s seductive power. I’m sure they thought that resorting to the cliché of the Hero’s Redemption would produce a satisfying twist on the original text. But I’m baffled by why Gaiman, who is normally a subtle and perceptive author, didn’t recognize what a moral sludge the story becomes as a result of these choices and how deeply misogynist the film’s treatment of its female characters are. And he failed to recognize that the poem’s continued power grows to some extent from the fact that it doesn’t follow contemporary notions of story-telling. It produces a satisfying story of a great hero doing great deeds despite the lack of a through-line plot and the directness of the hero’s personality. And it’s not as if American action films aren’t brimming over with morally simplistic heroes whose heroism mainly consists of killing all their opponents. There must have been other ways they could have made the story engaging for modern authors than just pissing all over the entire notion of heroic valor.
Still, there’s one thing I take comfort in, no matter how much this film infuriates me. As Gaiman wrote in Sandman 13, “The Great Stories will always return to their original forms.”
Want to Know More?
If you really want to see this crappy film, you can find Beowulf on Amazon. Better yet, read the original. The Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition)is popular these days, but honestly, I think it’s terrible, constantly introducing Irish terminology where it doesn’t belong and horrible to read aloud. Burton Raffel’s Beowulf (Signet Classics) is a prose translation, but does an excellent job of translating for meaning. A much better poetic option is Dick Ringler’s Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery (Hackett Classics), which is meant to capture the way the poem would have sounded. (Full disclosure: I was a student of Ringler’s in grad school–he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had the privilege of taking a class with.)
In 1839, a Spanish slave ship, La Amistad (“Friendship” in English), was travelling between Havana and Puerto Principe, Cuba, when the slaves in the hold found a file and were able to liberate themselves from their chains. They armed themselves and staged a rebellion. They killed one of the owners of the ship and took the other two, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, prisoner and tried to force them to sail back to Sierra Leone, where the Africans had been taken captive, but instead Ruiz and Montez sailed north, until the ship was intercepted by an American naval vessel off Long Island. That triggered an important legal battle and was ultimately the inspiration for Amistad, (1997, dir. Steven Spielberg).
The Legal Issues of the Amistad Case
The arrival of the liberated slaves caused an extremely complex legal problem. Lt. Gedney, who was captaining the ship that found the Amistad, took it to Connecticut rather than New York, because slavery was still technically legal in Connecticut, and that allowed him to present a claim for salvage that included the slaves as part of the cargo. Two other men also claimed salvage rights over the ship because they had apprehended some of the slaves who came ashore in search of food and water. Ruiz and Montez filed a claim that the ship and the slaves were their rightful property. The Spanish government, acting through the Connecticut district attorney, claimed the ship and its slaves as Spanish property. Finally, the liberated slaves claimed that they were not property at all and that therefore none of these suits had authority over them.
The slaves were supported in their position by the British government, which had by this point taken the lead in opposing slavery, signing treaties with various countries to ban the international slave trade, which the United States did in 1808. As a result, the issues at play in the Amistad case were intimately connected to international law. Since Spain had not outlawed slavery, and since the US had a treaty with Spain (Pinckney’s Treaty) that required the return of Spanish property to its rightful owners, the question was whether the liberated slaves counted as property or people.
Just as important were questions of Admiralty Law (or Maritime Law), which deals with matters relating to maritime commerce, crimes at sea, and the like. The chief issue here was Gedney’s decision to take the Amistad to Connecticut instead of the closest harbor, which was in New York. Gedney’s claims for salvage rights over the liberated slaves would not have been admissible in New York, which was a free state rather than a slave state. So a key question was whether the Amistad had been found in New York waters or international waters.
Fortunately for the slaves, their case was taken up by Lewis Tappan, a Christian abolitionist from New York. He put together the legal team, led by Roger Sherman Baldwin, that represented the slaves, worked to improve their living conditions while they were in captivity, attended the trial on a daily basis and wrote newspaper reports on it for an abolitionist newspaper, and arranged to have the slaves tutored in English. After their release, he worked to raise money to return them to Africa.
The case made its way through three courts. It was initially heard in the Connecticut Circuit Court under Judge Smith Thompson where the charge was mutiny and murder. Thompson ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction because the acts in question had happened outside American waters on a Spanish ship. The case was simultaneously heard in District Court under Judge Andrew Judson (not Juttson, as the film spells it) to address the issues of Admiralty Law. The chief issue here was initially the question of salvage, which Judson was skeptical of, doubting that the liberated slaves could be regarded as property.
Despite the fact that the central issue was whether the case should be heard in New York or Connecticut, Baldwin made the origins of the liberated slaves an important element of the proceedings, even though it was readily conceded by almost everyone that the slaves were Africans and not Cubans. The centerpiece of this was the testimony of Joseph Cinqué, a leader of the liberated slaves, who told the story of his capture in Africa, his journey across the Atlantic, his purchase in the Cuban slave market, and his role in the mutiny. After that, Gedney’s lawyer dropped his claim for salvage rights over the slaves, saying that his client had only ever wanted salvage rights over the ship and its non-living cargo.
Judson ruled that Gedney and his crew had taken possession of the Amistad on the high seas, not in New York waters, and so Admiralty Law was relevant. Gedney was therefore entitled to 1/3 of the appraised value of the ship and its non-human cargo. The slaves, he ruled, were born free and therefore had been unlawfully enslaved in violation of a treaty that prohibited the Spanish from importing slaves, and ordered the Executive Branch to take possession of the liberated slaves until their return to Africa could be arranged.
The Van Buren administration decided to appeal the case to the Circuit Court, because the matter had begun to rile up the southern states and Van Buren was hoping to be re-elected. Rather than hearing lengthy arguments that he realized would result in an appeal regardless of which way he ruled, Judge Thompson affirmed Judson’s ruling and sent the case to the Supreme Court because it involved two major international powers and significant issues of American law.
Martin Van Buren, 8th President of the United States
When the case got to the Supreme Court, the US Attorney General, Henry Gilpin, argued that the Amistad’s records showed the slaves were Spanish property and that therefore the courts had no right to reject the documents’ validity. Therefore, the slaves must be turned over to the Spanish. It was a weak argument, but Gilpin spent two hours making it. Baldwin spent the next four hours repeating the same arguments he had already made; he added that the Spanish had failed to appeal Judson’s liberation of the slaves, and so were arguing the wrong issue.
Former President John Quincy Adams then delivered an 8-hour speech that took up the following two days. The centerpiece of his argument was an attack on the powers of the Executive. He argued that if the President had the power to return the liberated slaves to Havana, the President would also have the power to order American citizens sent to other countries to stand trial. He also argued that Pinckney’s Treaty did not cover the return of people, only property. He also invoked the Declaration of Independence and its statement that all men have an inalienable right to life and liberty.
John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States
Justice Joseph Story issued the Court’s ruling, which was that the Africans were unlawfully kidnapped and therefore entitled to their freedom. It rejected Gilpin’s argument that the Court had no right to rule over the legitimacy of the documents in the case, since the documents were elements of a fraud. Gedney was entitled to salvage rights. When the Amistad came into American waters, it was under the possession of the liberated slaves, and was therefore not Spanish property, so no treaty required its return to Spain.
As you can see from this very long summary (assuming you haven’t given up and gone somewhere else by now), the Amistad case was an extremely complex one that ranged across a variety of issues (and let me admit here, I’m certainly no expert on legal history; I relied heavily on a couple of goodsummaries of the case, and may well have made a few mistakes on the legal details). But the issues being debated in the case were not primarily the legitimacy of slavery as a legal institution in the United States; rather the chief issues were various international treaties, Admiralty Law, and ultimately the power of the Executive branch.
Spielberg’s Version of the Amistad Story
The Amistad case has long been acknowledged by historians as an important case in the history of American slavery. It has not, however, always been well-known to the American public, having been overshadowed in the public consciousness by the later Dred Scott case since the latter case was far more important for domestic law. Debbie Allen, the well-known black actress, director, and producer, learned about the Amistad case from a historical novel by William A. Owens, Slave Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad (1953, republished in 1968 under the title Black Mutiny), which she optioned for a film. She persuaded Steven Spielberg to make what he eventually called his “most important movie”. The subject is certainly worthy of a film, but it unfortunately didn’t get the film treatment it deserved.
Slave Mutiny, the book that inspired the film
The chief problem with adapting the Amistad case to film is obviously that American audiences were unlikely to go to a movie about the legal complexities of international treaties and Admiralty Law. So, in typical Hollywood fashion, a decision was taken to focus instead on an uplifting story of American freedom that would affirm viewers’ notions that America was a country of liberty and equality where the court system was ultimately opposed to slavery. Getting the Amistad case to speak to those ideas would require considerable torture of the facts.
Since law was so critically important to the case, Spielberg and screenwriter David Franzoni (one of the screenwriters on Gladiator) decided to fall back on cinematic conventions of trial movies, so they made the film into a story about the lawyer, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) , and his client, Joseph Cinqué (whose African name was Sangbe Pieh, played by Djimon Hounsou). These characters were given strong story arcs that focus in Baldwin’s case on his journey from thinking about the slaves as property to thinking about the slaves as human beings and in Cinqué’s case on his journey from anger and despair to discovering the beauty and promise of American justice.
McConaughey as Baldwin and Hounsou as Cinqué
John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) undergoes a less central but still important arc in which he moves from not caring about abolitionism to being a passionate proponent of it, thanks to his meetings with Cinqué. In fact, it wasn’t necessary for him to be persuaded to take the case; Adams volunteered to represent the Africans.
This is an uplifting story that has little basis in fact. Far from being a poor struggling lawyer who has to chase after the case as the film seems to present him, Roger Sherman Baldwin was the grandson of one of the Founding Fathers and a highly respected lawyer who was also a member of the Connecticut legislature and a committed abolitionist. He was elected Governor of Connecticut just three years after the Amistad case. Nor did Baldwin approach Lewis Tappan about hiring him as a lawyer; Tappan recruited Baldwin because of his solid credentials as an abolitionist and the fact that he was prominent politician of Connecticut.
I’ll talk about the film’s treatment of Cinqué in a later post, because there’s a lot to say about it, but here I’ll just say that there’s no evidence that Cinqué went through a period of angry refusal to co-operate with Baldwin. That element of the story is entirely Hollywood’s trope of the hero who goes through a period of self-doubt before finding his confidence. That part of his story line meshes rather poorly with the film’s treatment of him as a ‘Magical Negro’ who helps white people become better human beings by being inspiring.
To give Baldwin his fictitious character arc, the film had to largely sideline Lewis Tappan, who in reality was central to the entire effort on behalf of the slaves. After having a couple meetings with Baldwin and the fictitious black abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), Tappan essentially vanishes from the film, apart from watching some of the courtroom proceedings. Replacing Tappan, who was in many ways the driving force for the case, with the fictitious Joadson is a serious disservice to Tappan.
The Joadson character is a particular problem. Joadson has neither back story (other than a few hints that he was a former slave) and no motive for being an abolitionist apart from the presumed motive that a black man would obviously care about the legal rights of blacks. Freeman is given no real character development and, apart from one scene where he helps Baldwin search the Amistad for evidence, has very little to actually do except occasionally talk to Adams. The character seems to have been added to increase black audience interest, since in 1997, Freeman was already a solidly established actor while Hounsou, playing the other major black character, was a relative unknown at the time. It’s unfortunate that a film that purports to be about the humanity of blacks resorted to this sort of tokenism in casting Freeman as a made-up person.
Freeman as Joadson
The Legal Elements
Despite the character arcs that Franzoni made up, the film is still at its heart a courtroom drama. But the case was far too complex, and turned on legal issues that were unlikely to captivate American audiences, so the legal details required considerable massaging. As I noted, the main legal issues in the actual case were the question of where the Amistad was taken by Gedney and whether various treaties applied. The film shifts the issue considerably, to the question of whether the slaves were African or Cuban in origin.
That choice is not an unreasonable one. It focuses the audience’s attention on the easy-to-understand issue of whether the liberated slaves were legally or illegally enslaved, and allows the central issue of the film to be the well-loved issue of ‘freedom’, in this case understood as literal freedom from slavery. It allowed Spielberg to use chains as a recurring symbol of the issue weighing on Cinqué, so that after the Supreme Court decision, Cinqué’s handcuffs can be removed right there in the courtroom as a symbol of his triumph, despite being entirely invented since Cinqué was not present at the Supreme Court portion of the case. This choice also allows the film to get away from the much thornier issue of where Gedney found the ship.
But this choice does distort the case considerably. There seems to have been relatively little real debate in the courtroom over whether the slaves came from Africa or Cuba, despite Baldwin’s emphasis on this issue in the trial. Ruiz and Montez said they were Cuban slaves, but witnesses were presented that Ruiz had admitted they were African. A Yale linguist testified that the slaves spoke Mende, and two interpreters were found so that the slaves could provide their own testimony. (The film actually gets almost right the way the translators were found. The linguist learned to count to ten in Mende and then walked around the docks counting loudly until someone recognized what he was doing and approached him. But it wasn’t Joadson and Baldwin who did that.) But Cinqué actually did tell his harrowing story of enslavement in court, so the film is not just shoehorning that in for drama.
More problematically, if the main issue is where the slaves came from, it means that by Hollywood convention, there needs to be a stock scene in which the lawyer personally searches for evidence to prove his case. We’ve seen a scene like this in just about every courtroom drama ever filmed, and in this case it takes the form of Baldwin and Joadson searching the Amistad. Joadson finds a lion’s tooth, which allows the film to introduce what is supposed to be an inspirational story about how Cinqué killed a lion in Africa. The film later keeps returning to the metaphor of ‘slaying the lion’ (slavery, in case you needed to be hit over the head with it, which the film thinks you do) as a way to show how inspiring Cinqué is, but it all feels very contrived and it is entirely made-up.
On-board the Amistad, Joadson panics when confronted with the sight of slave chains, drops his lantern, and has to be helped by Baldwin, who then conveniently discovers the log-book of the Tecora, the slave ship that brought the Africans to Cuba. It’s used to prove that the liberated slaves were actually Africans, although it’s never explained why the Tecora’s log-book was on the Amistad in the first place.
The film also significantly changes the details of the courts and the judges involved. As I noted, the case was first brought into the Circuit Court under Judge Thompson, but was heard simultaneously in the District Court by Judge Judson as a bench trial (in which there is no jury, only a judge making a ruling). After Judson’s ruling, it briefly returned to Thompson and then was sent to the Supreme Court after Van Buren ordered an appeal.
In the film the case starts under Judge Judson, apparently in the District Court. But Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) somehow contrives to have the jury and the judge dismissed and replaced by a bench trial in front of a young ambitious judge who will do what Van Buren wants, which is to find against the Africans so he can be re-elected. But Cinqué’s cause is so obviously righteous that the judge has a crisis of conscience and does the right thing and frees the Africans. He also rules against Gedney. Then the case gets appealed straight to the Supreme Court.
The removal of the Circuit Court from the storyline makes sense; it smoothes out a complex detail that would only confuse the viewers. But the fabrication of Van Buren manipulating the court system is both unfair to Van Buren and rather nonsensical. It’s not explained how Van Buren does this, and since the film has decided to remove Adams’ attack on the power of the Presidency, it doesn’t really go anywhere in terms of the narrative arc. All it does is introduce some extra tension that could more easily have been introduced by making Judson less sympathetic to the case. It also turns Van Buren into a villain for the film, but he’s a villain who is given very little to do other than fret about the how the South will react to the case. From a script perspective, it just feels clumsy.
As they prepare for the Supreme Court trial, Cinqué suddenly develops a keen legal mind, pestering Adams with legal questions about Admiralty Law and international treaties. This is just silly, because throughout the rest of the film, Cinqué’s understanding of the American system is limited to referring to Adams as a ‘chief’ and not understanding how he can be a former chief.
At the Supreme Court level, Adams delivers a fairly brief speech (compared to the actual 8 hour oration) that acts as the film’s climax. Instead of arguing against the powers of the Executive branch, he makes an impassioned plea for liberty that, apart from a mention of the Declaration of Independence, bears no resemblance to Adams’ actual speech because it mostly turns on what a hero Cinqué is. He declares liberty to be the natural state of mankind. The film also tries to heighten the tension by claiming that 7 out of the 9 Supreme Court justices were southerners; that’s false; while I didn’t look up all the justices in 1841, at least four of them were northerners. (On a side note, the film does have a nifty piece of casting here; Justice Story is played by actual Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun.)
(Ignore the opening and jump to about 1:45)
As a result of these changes, the audience is led to think that the Amistad case basically put the whole system of American slavery on trial, and it essentially provoked the American Civil War two decades later. In fact the closing scenes of the film show the Civil War and the epilogue text mentions it. In reality, the case was about international law and the international slave trade and while its outcome certainly didn’t please supporters of slavery, it had no direct impact on American slavery. In fact, in 1841, American slaves traveling on the Creole mutinied and escaped to the Bahamas; the American government, despite the Amistad precedent, badgered the British government into paying compensation for the slaves. So rather than being sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, the American courts were generally hostile to it.
Why is the Amistad Case Important?
The film situates the Amistad case as a cause of the Civil War. Several characters mention how the southern states are ready to fight over the issue. That’s a considerable exaggeration. The Civil War wouldn’t come for another twenty years. It played a role in raising tensions over slavery, but the states were a long way from being willing to fight militarily over the issue.
Nor did the case lead to the political defeat of Martin Van Buren in his bid for a second term as president as the film says. The case started in 1839, but it didn’t reach the Supreme Court until 1841, by which time Van Buren had already been defeated by William Henry Harrison. Harrison died less than two months into his term, and was succeeded by his vice president, John Tyler, a pro-slavery southerner who refused to assist in returning the Africans to Sierra Leone.
Nor did it lead to the destruction of the Lomboko Slave Fortress in Sierra Leone. The film shows the British navy liberating the slaves and blowing down the walls of the fortress with a naval bombardment. But the Lomboko fortress was destroyed in 1840, before the Supreme Court had rendered its verdict. It’s hard to see how the case would have influenced the British to do this, since the British were already very active in opposing the slave trade.
So if the Amistad case didn’t accomplish any of the things the film attributes to it, why is the case important? What does it matter in the larger scope of history?
The Amistad case was a turning point in the abolitionist movement. Prior to 1839, abolitionists had sought to overthrow the American slave system primarily through persuasion. They had emphasized the immorality of slavery and sought to win converts to their cause that way. The House of Representatives had imposed a gag rule that automatically tabled all petitions against slavery, so that it was impossible for the issue to be addressed legislatively. What Tappan did in 1839 was open a new front in the struggle; he went to the courts and began to fight slavery legally. In that regard, the Amistad case was a significant victory for the abolitionists, even though it did not set a very strong legal precedent as far as domestic law was concerned. The case also helped rally support for abolitionism because Cinqué’s testimony dramatically illustrated the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, and Van Buren’s efforts to get the Judson’s ruling overturned seemed to suggest that the Federal government was complicit in the slave system. The case is also important in the history of international law and American diplomacy; it resolved questions about the treaties the US had with Spain.
About the only thing the film gets right about the impact of the case is that it ultimately led to the return of the Africans to Sierra Leone, but that gets to issues of how the film depicts the liberated slaves, and that’s something I’ll save for next time.
At the start of this blog, I discussed perhaps my favorite movie of all time, The Lion in Winter (1968, dir. Anthony Harvey). But there was one facet of the movie that I didn’t discuss in that post, namely the claim that the movie makes that Richard the Lionhearted was homosexual. So I want to look at that today.
In the film, Richard (Anthony Hopkins) meets with Philip II (Timothy Dalton) and reminds him of a night that happened several years earlier, during which they had been physically affectionate (the film doesn’t specify exactly what they did, but the implication is that they had sex). Richard clearly feels something for Philip, and is distressed when Philip cruelly tells him that he submitted to Richard’s advances purely to gain a weapon to use against Richard and his father. He viciously describes how disgusted he felt when he pretended to be attracted to Richard. Richard is deeply distressed by the revelation. Later, Philip shocks King Henry (Peter O’Toole) by describing the encounter to him, and then taunts him “What is the royal policy on boys who do with boys?”
Richard and Philip
When The Lion in Winter came out, it was still a year before the Stonewall Riots ignited the Gay Liberation movement. Homosexuality was a taboo issue, and Philip’s revelation would have been as shocking then as an admission of incest might be today. Because homosexuals were stereotypically depicted as effeminate, the notion that the great medieval soldier Richard the Lionhearted might be homosexual was startling. But was author James Goldman just making this detail up, or is there something to this claim?
In 1948, historian John Harvey, in his book The Plantagenets, put forward the argument that Richard was homosexual. Among the evidence for this claim is the fact that Richard married rather late to Spanish princess Berengaria of Navarre, and never had children with her, and that according to the very well-informed medieval chronicler Roger of Hoveden, Richard had been rebuked by a hermit for not sleeping with his wife and for indulging in ‘the sin of Sodom’. He twice confessed and performed penance, possibly for sodomy. Since Harvey put forward the idea, a number of other authors have explored it, adding one or two pieces of evidence. In particular, it has been pointed out that Hoveden also says that they shared a bed chamber, or perhaps a bed. If you want to see the passages in question, you can read them here.
John Gillingham, perhaps the most expert scholar on Richard, has argued against this claim and asserted Richard’s heterosexuality. Richard had at least one illegitimate son, Philip of Cognac, and he is noted in some accounts as raping women. The fact that he never had children with his wife might be partly due to the fact that soon after he married her, he was separated from her by events around the 3rd Crusade, and on his return home, he was captured in Germany and held prisoner for more than a year. This would obviously have reduced his opportunity to sleep with his wife in the early years of his marriage. He does not seem to have had much affection for her; after his return to England, he did not spend time with Berengaria until Pope Celestine III ordered him to be faithful to her. Thereafter he attended worship with her on a weekly basis. Thus he may simply not have liked her as a person, since this was a political marriage. And, of course, it is possible that she was barren.
Berengaria of Navarre
Jean Flori, another expert on Richard, has come down in the middle, arguing that Richard was probably bi-sexual. (All of this assumes, of course, that medieval sexuality can be analyzed in terms of the modern notion of sexual orientation.)
The specific claim that Richard and Philip were lovers is based on a reference to them having once shared a bed or bed chamber (the Latin is ambiguous on this). While two adult men sleeping in the same bed would certainly be sexually suggestive nowadays, in the 12th century, this was a much less sexually-loaded practice. 12th century households had much less furniture than modern houses do, and the royal household carried its furniture with it as it traveled about from one estate to the next. Servants very commonly slept on the floor in their master’s bedroom. So even a king might not have spare beds in which to put up a royal guest, and inviting a visiting king to share one’s bed would have been much more about courtesy and hospitality than it would have been an opportunity to conduct a personal examination of the royal jewels. So even scholars who support the notion that Richard slept with men generally discount the claim that Richard and Philip were ever lovers.
However, at the time Goldman wrote his play, Harvey’s book was much closer to the cutting edge of scholarship than it is today, and his assertion that Richard and Philip had been lovers creates a good deal of interesting tension in the script. And certainly to audiences of the 60s, the revelation of the relationship would have seemed quite shocking, especially since Richard the Lion-hearted is one of the most celebrated warriors of the Middle Ages, whereas in America, the US military was still issuing dishonorable discharges for homosexual activity in 1967.
Want to Know More?
The Lion in Winter (1968) is available through Amazon. There’s also an, in my opinion, inferior 2004 remake starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, The Lion in Winter. The performances are all good, but they simply can’t compete with the originals.
John Gillingham’s study of Richard Ifocuses heavily on the myths that have developed around this king. As I noted, Gillingham disagrees with the notion that Richard was homosexual. I’m not sure I entirely buy his argument, but it deserves serious consideration.