Category Archives: History and Film

Thoughts on Argo, and a Three-Thousand Year Old Peaceful Resoultion

younger memnon

Last night, Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture.  I remember 1980 and the Hostage Crisis very well, and I remember how we worried about the United States bombing Iran in retaliation for taking the hostages. No one wanted to see a violent end in Iran, yet no one knew what would work to bring the hostages to safety.  Even though it is not entirely true to history (it is based on the story , but NOT a reporting of the event), Argo speaks to the desire to solve conflicts peacefully and creatively.  Zero Dark Thirty, also a Best Picture contender, did not share in this vision of peaceful resolution.

About 3,272 years ago, Egyptians and Hittites may have been holding their breath in the same way we did in 1980, and the way we did in 2001, the year which set the situation at hand in  Zero Dark Thirty.  Ramesses II, the pharaoh of Egypt, spent considerable energy moving toward the Hittite Empire (based in today’s Turkey), and the Hittites met the Egyptians in battle at Kadesh, a neutral city near the Hittite borders. For the next twenty years, the Egyptians and Hittites engaged in a sort of Cold War.   Then, around 1254 BCE, the nephew to the Hittite king Hattusili III, a man named Uri Teshub,  attempted to overthrow the king.  He was chased out of the Hittite Empire, and found safety in Egypt.

Hattusili III demanded his return.  Egypt refused.  And the world waited.

Who was the adviser who thought of a different strategy?  Egypt and the Hittite Empire met each other on the battlefield before.  What made this issue different? The Egyptians could use Uri Teshub as a pawn in overtaking the Hittite Empire, and the Hittites could use Uri Teshub as the excuse to invade Egypt. Both sides knew about the movements of nomadic tribes in all directions, and both sides had reason to fear the increasing power of the Assyrians, from what we would call northern Iraq today.

Instead of war, both sides agreed to a treaty,  Both sides pledged peace.  The Hittites promised to aid Egypt in the face of invasions or rebellions, and Egypt promised to aid the Hittites in the face of invasions or rebellions.  Uri Teshub was extradited to the Hittites.  And IF the world was holding its breath — if they were even aware of this tension between superpowers in a world without journalism– they could exhale now.

Ramesses received a silver copy of the treaty, now long lost to history.  Egypt would never face a Hittite invasion, but they would meet Sea Peoples, Libyans, Assyrians, Nubians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and European colonialism.   The Hittites would never face an Egyptian army again, but the Sea Peoples who wrecked havoc on Egypt also aided in toppling the Hittite Empire.  A copy of the treaty rests in the Istanbul today (a city  unknown to the Hittites), and a copy carved on Rameses II’s mortuary complex also survives in the remains of ancient Thebes.

One other copy can be found in New York, at the United Nations.

Someone thought of something daring and untested in the 1980 CE  hostage crisis, and someone thought of something daring and untested –amongst superpowers at least — in 1259 BCE.  Let’s never forget the power of human creativity in the face of war.

Django Unchained as Education


Django Unchained has received a lot of commentary this year, and deservedly so.   Spike Lee condemned it, historians criticized some of its details, and film critics lauded it.  Can such a movie teach us about American history, and if so, in what ways?

-The obvious:  slavery was brutal.   The violence in the film may be too much for my younger students, but Americans can never dismiss the violence and dehumanization of slavery.   The image shown here of Gordon, a real former slave from the same Mississippi featured in the film, makes a statement in its own right, and it may have been what Quentin Tarantino was thinking about when he visualized the whippings and scars.   Also, female and male slaves experienced the dehumanization quite differently.  Tarantino is famous for all of the blood, but he restrains himself from depicting what most female slaves, especially those as beautiful as Brunhilda,  faced.  Surprisingly, our history books still don’t stress any of this brutality.

-Slavery was also PSYCHOLOGICALLY brutal.  Hence, the vicious character of Stephen, or the diabolical Calvin Candie.   Why, during one whipping scene, were slaves on swings, apparently relaxing on a hot summer’s day?

-The History of Racism is complicated.  Tarantino offers a disturbing soliloquy delivered by Candie on phrenology and servitude, which frames a great deal of the American arguments about race, found both in the South AND North.   The addition of King Schultz provides the German perspective on American slavery and racism.  What were non-Americans writing and discussing at the time when looking at America and slavery?  Why, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did Eliza want to escape to Canada and NOT the North?

– The mistakes:  the Klu Klux Klan came later (but there were earlier groups similar to the Klan) and there is no strong evidence for Mandingo fighting.  Are these mistakes?  Can a filmmaker take liberties with history in the spirit of creativity?

– The History of Film.  Tarantino pulls from the “Spaghetti Western” and “Blaxploitation” genres.   We need not forget that one of the first great commercial successes in Hollywood was the 1915 Birth of a Nation, which, in many ways, is far more disturbing than even the most violent scenes of Django Unchained.

-History inspires creativity.  Django is not from history directly, but he is inspired by history.  What other films, novels, or artworks use history as a base for creative expression?

We can also think of Django many other educational ways, with the “Hero’s Journey” (from Joseph Campbell)  being one which I’d love to explore more, as a sort of Odysseus-Django comparison.  In religious studies and philosophy, the idea of “ultimate concern” (from Paul Tillich) would make an interesting paper, as would using Django’s ethics alongside Aristotle, Plato, and Arjuna’s in the Bhagavada Gita.    While I would not hesitate to show this film in a college classroom, I feel more comfortable leaving it up to homeschooling families to decide if it is appropriate for their children – or perhaps focusing on scenes, when it is released on DVD.

But one of the strongest questions relating to Django Unchained and education came for me at the end of the film, when my daughter asked me, “What would happen next?”.  What WOULD happen next for Django, riding off into the sunset…in Mississippi…just before the Civil War?   Think about it, and be grateful that Quentin Tarantino left it open for us to contemplate creatively.