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In the spring of 1519, the Aztec god-king Montezuma II received word that strange, marvelous creatures had appeared on his empire’s eastern shore. Fearing either to receive or destroy them, he sent envoys with orders to greet them, offer them gifts, and bid them leave the way they came.
The emissaries went down to the coast, where they found Spanish adventurer Hernando Cortez and his army. These fair-skinned strangers were duly presented with gifts of gems and gold, at which their eyes gleamed. Then the Aztecs brought forward some Indian captives, stretched them out, and cut out their hearts in honor of the visitors.
In Aztec diplomacy, this was correct protocol, but it produced an unexpected result among the Spaniards. As an Indian chronicler later wrote: “When the white gods saw this done, it was as if they were filled with loathing and disgust. They spat upon the ground; they closed their eyes and shook their heads from side to side; they wiped away tears. When food sprinkled with hot blood was offered them, they struck it away, as if it sickened them, as if the blood were rotted.”
Historian T.R. Fehrenbach notes that the conquistadors’ reaction to the ceremony reinforced Montezuma’s belief that they signified the return of the god-king Topiltzin–Quetzalcóatl, a deified ruler of a previous Middle American civilization who had been deposed 500 years before for trying to abolish human sacrifice. This misconception did much to paralyze the Aztec ruler’s response to the Spanish invasion.
That invasion would destroy Montezuma, consume his city and overthrow his monstrous gods. And although many of the Aztecs’ subject peoples fought alongside the Spaniards for their own liberation, Old World diseases and conquistador greed would soon devastate and demoralize all of Mexico. By 1650, an Indian population first estimated at 11 million had shrunk to about 1 million—proportionately the greatest loss of human life since Noah.
It has been 500 years since those epic events unfolded, and Mexico’s recently elected left-wing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO for short), thinks it’s time Spain and the Catholic Church apologized for it.
“I have sent a letter to the Spanish king and another letter to the pope so that the abuses can be acknowledged and an apology can be made to the indigenous peoples for the violations of what we now call human rights,” AMLO said.
“One culture, one civilization, was imposed upon another to the point that the temples—the Catholic churches were built on top of the ancient pre-Hispanic temples,” he added.
The Spanish were unimpressed. What about Cortez’s Indian allies, they asked. Are they going to apologize to themselves? What about the Americans, who invaded Mexico in the 1840s, or the French, who forcibly imposed Emperor Maximilian on Mexico in the 1860s? What about Austria, the land of Maximilian’s birth?
“It looks a bit strange to demand an apology for events that occurred 500 years ago,” remarked Josep Borrell, Spain’s foreign minister. “Likewise, we aren’t going to ask the French Republic to offer an apology for what Napoleon’s soldiers did when they invaded Spain; neither are the French going to demand an apology from the Italians for Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.”
As for His Holiness, our “woke” pope has, bless his heart, already apologized to Mexico’s indigenous people. “Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior,” Francis confessed to them during a 2016 visit.
Catholic churches may indeed stand atop Mexican temples, and Christian traditions may indeed have supplanted indigenous ones, but one thing is certain: No one is dragging sacrificial victims to the altars of those churches and cutting out their hearts, as was long done in the temples underneath.
The conquest of Mexico, in other words, was not simply an assault of greedy, bigoted villainy on unsullied innocence. The evils it destroyed were at least equal to those it unleashed. It was real life, not a melodrama. It was both triumph and tragedy. That’s what reality has always been.
It’s hard to get more dramatic than the story of Cortez and Montezuma. But human imagination has proven equal to the task, through the creation of the melodrama.
As perfected in late Victorian romance and early motion pictures, melodrama usually involved a mustachioed villain, a damsel in distress, and a doughty young hero. Railroad tracks were desirable but not required. The villain’s appearance on stage (or screen, in the silent days) was always accompanied by the house pianist (or organist or pit orchestra) playing Schubert’s “Erl-King,” and it was always greeted by lusty hissing and booing from the audience.
Classic melodrama seems ridiculous to us moderns. It’s long been good for laughs, but who could take such stuff seriously in this day and age?
As it turns out, quite a lot of us can. We may pride ourselves on being smarter than those simpletons who cheered the hero, booed the villain and trembled for the heroine in “The Perils of Pauline,” but melodramatic nonsense continues today, in movie houses and, more destructively, in real life.
Staying with entertainment for a little longer, let’s consider the case of the Brutal Brit. Only two decades ago, nasty Englishmen were a mainstay in film, ranging from Tim Roth’s fantastically wicked rapist/duelist Archibald Cunningham in “Rob Roy” (1995) to Jeremy Northam’s icy assassin in “The Net” (1995) to Tom Wilkinson’s oily art thief in “Rush Hour” (1998).
The Brutal Brit looms large in German director Roland Emmerich’s puerile would-be epic “The Patriot” (2000). Mel Gibson plays a fictional version of the Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, while the Dark Side’s heavy lifting is performed by Jason Isaacs in a role based on the real-life British cavalryman Banastre Tarleton. The film defames Tarleton by having him burn down a church after locking its congregation—men, women and children—inside. No such atrocity was ever inflicted by British troops during the American Revolution. Tarleton, notorious as “the butcher” and “Bloody Ben” for taking no prisoners after one battle (a policy known thereafter as “Tarleton’s quarter”) was accused only of killing rebel soldiers who tried to surrender. As more than one irate British reviewer observed, it was the Waffen SS who packed civilians into a church and set it ablaze, in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, in 1944. Take that, Herr Emmerich!
American critic Michael Lind sent up the whole thing by imagining a Tinseltown brainstorming session:
OK, here’s the pitch: A remake of Gary Cooper’s 1941 “Sergeant York.” In the new version, York’s this Tennessee farmer who refuses to fight in World War I because of his religious convictions, see? Then some of the kaiser’s commandos on a secret mission in the South molest his nephews and nieces and burn down his church. Now it’s personal. Cut to Sgt. York kick-boxing the kaiser and a couple of field marshals. . . . Such a Hollywood mutilation of the Sgt. York story couldn’t be any sillier than [Emmerich’s and Gibson’s] “The Patriot.”
Overripe as that movie surely is, Hollywood’s masterpiece of Brit-bashing melodrama has to be an earlier film in which Mel Gibson bathes in his enemies’ blood: the 1995 Oscar-winner “Braveheart.” That at least is set in an era when the English, along with everyone else then living, were quite capable of indiscriminate massacres. Even so, Gibson’s film gives the Scottish side of its story a thorough whitewash. It represents its hero, William Wallace, as a peace-loving farmer driven to violence by his wife’s murder. But according to Scottish historian James Mackay, Wallace had been waylaying and killing Englishmen for years before that event.
Hero-and-villain distortions pervade the film:
- It depicts the English as smugly overconfident at the battle of Stirling, but in reality they could see that Wallace held a strong position on high ground beyond a narrow bridge over the River Forth, and when he returned a defiant answer to their offer to parley, they were unnerved and unsure of what to do. One of them, Sir Richard Lundie, told his colleagues, “My lords, if we go on to the bridge we are dead men,” but the English commander, a corpulent political appointee named Hugh de Cressingham, replied, “There is no point in dragging out this business any longer, and wasting our King’s revenues for nothing. Let us advance and carry out our duty as we are bound to do.”
The battle developed precisely as Lundie had feared, and Cressingham was killed in the ensuing rout. Mackay writes that the Scots skinned him, stuffed his genitals down his throat, and dried and cured his hide, of which Wallace “caused a broad strip to be taken from the head to the heel, to make therewith a baldrick for his sword.”
- The film represents Wallace’s enemy, King Edward I, as a “pagan” and a cold, calculating manipulator who stole an easy victory at Falkirk through treachery. “Longshanks” was a brutal man, but no more so than Wallace himself. Neither was he less ardent and courageous than Wallace.
And he was no pagan. When his army’s situation in Scotland grew desperate as supplies ran low and the elusive Wallace waited to fall upon him on his retreat, Edward’s scouts brought word they had located the Scottish force. The king cried, “God be praised! who has brought me out of every strait! They shall have no need to follow me, for I shall go to meet them, and on this very day.” He pressed his men forward and bivouacked in the field with his horse tethered at his side. The horse, restless from lack of fodder, trampled the sleeping monarch, breaking his ribs and starting a panic among his troops.
The tumult ended only when Edward mounted up and ordered the advance to continue, bringing the English upon the Scots at Falkirk so quickly that Wallace had to fight at a disadvantage. The Scottish cavalry did desert him, as in the film, but Mackay says this was more likely out of panic than treachery. Even so, the battle was a near-run thing, fought and won by a badly injured English commander.
- While dressing the English in the darkest colors, the film paints a contrasting image of joyful Celtic solidarity by having Edward’s Irish conscripts switch from the English to the Scottish side at Falkirk. No such thing actually happened. Not only that, but in the campaigns leading up to Stirling and Falkirk, an army of turncoat Scots and Irishmen loyal to Edward was defeated by Wallace at Loch Dochart. Some of them drowned trying to flee across the lake; others begged for mercy. Mackay writes: “Wallace gave instructions that the Scottish prisoners should be spared, but to the Irish he gave no quarter.”
Melodrama is bad enough in the movies, but when it starts affecting real life, it becomes a real problem. “Braveheart,” for example, blew wind into the sails of the movement for Scottish independence, helping it come close to breaking up the United Kingdom. As another Scottish historian, Allan Massie, complained:
Bad history is potentially dangerous. In this case, “Braveheart” can scarcely fail to feed the growing Anglophobia which is, to many Scotsmen, a pernicious feature of our country today. If it does so, it will be not only a bad film but a deplorable and damaging one.
In a future column, I’ll examine the pernicious effect another famous movie melodrama, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), once had here in America. That film and the two Mel Gibson vehicles cited here all go to show that a taste for melodrama is by no means confined to left-wing Mexican presidents. But just consider how much harm this appetite is doing to our country and the world today.
NeverTrumpers? Melodrama fans, every one. Diehard Democrats? Ditto. Confederate statue iconoclasts? Antifa thugs? Hate crime hoaxers? They’re the heroes; we’re the villains. Muslim terrorists? “It’s us against the infidels. Allahu Akbar!” Black Lives Matter? “Here comes a racist cop! Cue the Schubert!” College snowflakes? “Unhand her, Dan Backslide!”
It’s hard to think of a modern problem that isn’t made worse by this heroes-and-villains mindset. True, there are times when a society’s survival depends on people recognizing that public enemies do exist, and social evils do persist, and such must be opposed with resolve and sometimes even with force. But the eager, childish, indeed moronic pleasure some of us take in conjuring up enemies and evils when only fellow citizens and ordinary difficulties actually are there—that’s a problem in itself. It has been so ever since Don Quixote went tilting at windmills, and no doubt long before that.
If only these devotees of derring-do could see themselves! Years ago it struck me how much they resembled Don Quixote, and Mr. Magoo, too. Vainglorious and blind. Crime, AIDS, broken families, bumbling schools—nothing fazed them. I wondered how much longer they would persist in making a mess of things, trotting along from one social calamity to another, always shifting the blame for whatever misery they didn’t ignore altogether, and lamenting how “liberal” had become a dirty word.
I still wonder. But I also recall how, in “Man of La Mancha,” the dreamer of impossible dreams collapses and takes to his deathbed when the Knight of the Mirrors forces him to look upon himself in the harsh light of reality. Perhaps the kindest course is to humor the melodramatists while working to limit the damage their delusions have done and may yet do.
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