Why has “The Passion of the Christ,” a film that has already set box office records, caused so much fuss in this country? By the standards of Hollywood, the film should have sparked no reaction at all. For all the talk about anti-Semitism and the evangelical market and the sinister nature of Mel Gibson’s father, “The Passion of the Christ” in fact belongs squarely within a well-established Hollywood genre. It is pure pseudo-history: a movie that purports to depict real events but that actually twists them ever so slightly, distorting the facts for dramatic effect.
There have been many, many such movies in recent years. Look, for example, at Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan,” which was hailed as a great historical achievement, was produced in consultation with historian Stephen Ambrose, and was accompanied by a historical Web site where fans could check out the documents and “true stories” upon which the film was based. That was in the United States. In Britain the film was denounced because it left out any reference to the substantial British participation in the Normandy invasion, making D-Day appear to be a wholly American affair. A retired Royal Navy officer who had transported American troops across the channel — including the U.S. Army unit that inspired Spielberg’s film — was quoted saying that “an apology would be expected and acceptable.” But of course none was received.
The appearance of the film “Enigma” — a half-true historical account of the breaking of the Nazi wartime cipher — led to similar outrage, this time in Poland. Furious Polish historians pointed out that the film not only failed to mention the key contribution that Polish code-breakers made to the project, but that its plot revolved around a fictional Polish traitor who was giving information to the Germans. Various Polish and Polish American groups wrote angry letters — to the film’s producer, to the Motion Picture Association of America, to newspapers — all arguing that “Enigma” “deliberately and invidiously misrepresents historical facts and implies that they are true.”
Mel Gibson’s historical epic fits beautifully into that tradition. He has made it very clear that the bloody scenes of beating and crucifixion are intended not merely to inspire devotion but to evoke a sense of reality, which is why the actors speak in street Latin and Aramaic, and why the makeup artists used so much fake blood. This may work cinematically, but it is also what has gotten Gibson into trouble. For it is precisely the film’s purported authenticity that has led so many New Testament scholars to publish lists of the various distortions and to pronounce upon what their significance might be. Gibson behaves as if the attacks on him are all anti-Catholic; in fact, they are anti-bad-history, no different from the British or Polish reactions to Hollywood’s distortions of their history.
But there is a larger context too. Distorted history, after all, matters only if no one realizes that the distortions exist. New Testament scholars may well know, for example, that none of the Gospels describe Caiaphas, the high priest who tried Jesus, taunting Him on the cross, but most of those watching the film don’t know it. Historians of World War II will also know that D-Day was not a unilateral American excursion and that the Poles fought on the side of the Allies. But most American audiences won’t know those basic facts either.
We have so lost the habit in this country of reading history and teaching it to our children that we simply have no context in which to place the “realistic” epics of Gibson or Spielberg. They are dangerous not because they dramatize or alter historical events — something great novelists have been doing for centuries — but because there isn’t anything else. In this sense, Gibson’s film is actually less worrisome than others. Most of the people who go to see “The Passion of the Christ” will at least have a pretty good idea of the plot. Most of the people who saw “Saving Private Ryan,” by contrast, knew very little about D-Day, aside from what they saw on the screen.
Which is hardly surprising: There are many states that don’t require children to study American history, let alone European history, before graduating from high school. Fundamental though it is to any real understanding of Western culture, the subject of New Testament history would utterly terrify most public schools, which long ago sacrificed history to “social studies.” Unless and until that changes, Mel Gibson’s interpretation will indeed matter, and will indeed require public debate. Hollywood’s power does not lie merely in its ability to distort. Hollywood’s power lies in the fact that it distorts in a vacuum.