Maybe it depends on how old or far away or deeply imagined the setting is. Post 9/11, medieval, ancient, or classical war zones have featured in big productions. Ridley Scott attempted to go to the heart of the Christian-Muslim divide with Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a spectacular rendering of the Third Crusade of the 12th century. It seems that, had the voices of moderation and tolerance been heeded, and the jihadists or the neo-con Knights Templar — how did they ever morph into the cool dudes of The Da Vinci Code? — been given a pass, a lot of trouble could have been avoided.
Let’s go further back, then, into the mythical and ancient past. In Wolfgang Petersen’s Classics Illustrated version of the Iliad, Troy (2004), the treacherous Middle Easterners strike a surprise blow at the West, kidnapping the Greek queen Helen. It takes 10 years to resolve the problem (we’re halfway there in Iraq), and the film grossed more than $50 million, due in a large part to Brad Pitt’s shaved chest.
Another person inspired by Homer to take on the evildoers in the East is the Macedonian king featured in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). Like Troy, this epic of another headstrong Western onslaught against elusive Eastern adversaries proved fatuous and muddled, however, and a box-office bust.
But with 300, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, in 480 BC, Hollywood was on to something. The key to contemporary box-office success seems to lie in both ignoring the historical facts altogether and somehow manipulating the story so that it not only relates to the present-day predicament, but it can be interpreted as equally supportive of either side in the debate. Thus, one can feel justified that the Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 stalwart countrymen represent the US in its noble last stand for Western civilization against the Persian hordes of Xerxes. On the other hand, could Xerxes and his minions stand for the US invaders of Iraq? Tough call, but most moviegoers just got off on the gory combat and stunning visuals.
Similarly, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) dazzles the eye with its brutal, surreal re-creation of the declining Mayan empire of the 15th century, even as it’s not clear what, if anything, it’s trying to say about the present day. In it, a humble villager, Jaguar Paw, dragged to the big city for human sacrifice, escapes and tries to make it back home to his wife and family. While promoting the film, Gibson compared the US deployment of troops in Iraq to the ancient Mayans’ barbarism portrayed in his film. A case could also be made that his depiction of Mayan culture is a lot like present-day Baghdad, with bodies in the streets and religious fanatics killing people in the name of God. Likewise, the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, set ostensibly in the 18th century, has chilling contemporary resonance, as a cold-blooded British governor, having suspended all civil rights, marches an unending line of ragged men, women, and children to the gallows.