Buried inside a July 1 New York Times story about Hollywood's boyish new sex symbols (Tobey * Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, et al.) is the revelation of something much more interesting. Hollywood is suddenly making big-budget epics about the subjugation of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf by the white-skinned peoples of the West. Is this, um, really a good idea?
According to the Times, Ridley Scott is preparing a movie about the Crusades starring Orlando Bloom, while Baz Luhrmann and Oliver Stone are each hard at work on movies about Alexander the Great, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Colin Farrell, respectively. In apparent deference to modern sensibilities (not to mention the hair-trigger propensity toward violence in many Islamic countries) the films will undermine the shopworn theme of the White Man's Burden. A new Hollywood genre struggles to be born: the 9/11 Apology Flick.
Prerelease buzz has it that the Crusader movie (whose original title, The Crusades, has now been changed to Kingdom of Heaven) casts Bloom not as a Crusader but as a plucky young peasant who fights to repel the Christian infidels from Jerusalem. The Luhrmann biopic about the pagan king of Macedon who conquered Egypt and Persia (and therefore facilitated the spread of Christianity many centuries later) will reportedly dwell on Alexander's purported homosexuality. Assuming Lurhmann checks his impulse toward camp surrealism—eschewing, for instance, any production number in which Alexander croons "(Let's Get) Physical" to his beloved comrade Hephaistion—this likely won't subject Alexander to mockery and scorn in the cosmopolitan West (as well it shouldn't). But in homophobic Arab and Muslim nations, audiences will surely read a gay Alexander as a pathetic villain. Chatterbox knows less about the Stone biopic, but given Stone's track record it seems a reasonable likelihood that Stone will allege that the wily Macedonian was a dirty trickster, and perhaps played a direct role in the Teapot Dome scandal of the early 1920s.
It's quite possible that one or all of these movies will portray the West more favorably than Chatterbox presumes, or (in the case of Alexander's homosexuality) in a way that Egyptian and Iranian moviegoers might conceivably accept sympathetically. But that would only make these projects more provocative to Islamist terrorists, and therefore even less advisable. Why make these movies at all? We live in an age when public figures are wise to avoid the very word "crusade," and when even ironic discussion of Western conquests or attempted conquests in a part of the world now dominated by Islam is best confined to Western audiences. To Muslims, many of whom resent Western pop culture to begin with, this is a very touchy subject, even though these events occurred in what Westerners view as an unimaginably distant past. Where's Hollywood's customary timidity on the rare occasion when we need it? Can't it take a rain check?
"But wait," stout defenders of liberty may say. "If Hollywood stops making big-budget movies about the Crusades and Alexander the Great, the terrorists will have won." The obvious logical flaw here is that Hollywood had no interest in making such movies before the World Trade Center fell. The urge to make them now seems not only reckless, but perverse.