Bright Lights Film Journal

Blocked or Taking Stock? A Very Brief, Not Too Bleak Mid-Winter View (Albeit with the Aid of Spectacles)

“I now present Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) – the mighty one himself – in a light few will recognize: not Quinn the rank sentimentalist ham (or Eskimo), but Quinn the deeply persuasive Thomist, brilliant projector of the human frame as home to all our spiritual potential.”

St. Thomas Aquinas

Not that it prevented him riding straight into the branch of a tree and dying soon after, the somewhat bulky horseman known by history as Thomas Aquinas didn’t believe in dead bodies. This was because he did believe very strongly in living ones – bodies so alive they contained, in themselves, an illustrated account of matter-as-spirit. One of the biggest writers of any era, he wasn’t a great talker, letting his quill – and his corporeal being – do the talking for him. He also made use of scribes – or other people’s quills; but that doesn’t detract from his extraordinary personal commitment to the word. (Thanks here to Terry Eagleton for his review of Denys Turner’s new book on the subject.)

Few films deal with such intense feelings about the importance of reading and writing; and this might, I suppose, betray a dead-weight materialism in world cinema. On the other hand, it might be that the world is actually more literate than ever and, as a result, takes literacy not just as a right but as a given. Indeed, by a prickly irony, it’s only the “better” educated among us (no names, no pack drills) who cling to the belief that, in the developing world, literacy is still stuck at very low levels. In fact, such levels have done nothing but rise for many years now and are soon set to equal those of “the west.” (Thanks, Hans Rosling, for the evidence-based optimism. And for being a goldener oldie than whatever the statistical average might be.)

Introductions over, I now present Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) – the mighty one himself – in a light few will recognize: not Quinn the rank sentimentalist ham (or Eskimo), but Quinn the deeply persuasive Thomist, brilliant projector of the human frame as home to all our spiritual potential.

Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates

I’ll be brief, but I begin, M’Lud, with a film you certainly think you know: in Zorba the Greek does not Quinn’s portrait get deep inside a quintessentially Thomist view of the living body as a death-defying revelation of the truly real? The novel by Nikos Kazantzakis emerged just after World War II, whose unusual supply of dead bodies might have preempted any remaining trust in our physical selves. Yet this is exactly what Zorba (1946 book and 1964 film) seeks to restore. Granted, Zorba’s stance on literacy is one of deep suspicion; but, while this echoes the angst of his creator, no one can deny that it puts the body-mind nexus at the centre of everything.

More than that, Quinn is lending his presence to the, then, especially frustrating work of extending racial/cultural inclusiveness. Everybody’s body should make us think of the full range of human sensibilities. If this long-term humanist project is at last making headway, the critically derided but widely enjoyed Zorba is, I humbly suggest, a not insignificant contributor. And the film’s successes only look more remarkable when one learns that the director – the classically educated and artistically resourceful Michael Cacoyannis (1922-2011) – could drum up no “western” support whatsoever, except from Anthony Quinn.

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Moustapha Akkad (1930-2005) was – as Wiki says – “a Syrian American producer and director best known for producing the original series of Halloween films and for directing Mohammed Messenger of God and The Lion of the Desert.” His position vis-à-vis industry connections was always better than that of Cacoyannis; but, again with Quinn as a mainstay, the inclusiveness of that word “humanity” is extended by many legions.

Mohammed Messenger of God, also known as The Message, Akkad’s 1977 account of the founding of Islam, has to take on the challenge of never being able to show the Holy Prophet on-screen. Remarkably this leads to less confusion than one might fear; and more often than not we know when we’re viewing a scene through the Prophet’s eyes and when we’re just ordinary spectators. The wide view of religious history tells us that most, if not all, faiths remind us of what, in our ignorance, we don’t know and should not, therefore, say about the Deity. Saying what God does not mean can encourage a deeper sense of awed mystery; and we call this approach apophatic – a negative compliment, designed to enhance positive feelings about the Holy. (English Lit students will think of Keats and his theory of negative capability applied to the secular, poetic mind.)

During its first fifty years or so, cinema had also generally declined to show Jesus on-screen. For Muslims and non-Muslims, however, there’s a human need to understand religious leaders as embodied people, and Akkad tackles this potentially controversial area with great care. Often concentrating on the theme of literacy and its importance to Mohammed the man, Akkad lets us know the scorn Islam initially faced because the Prophet, as a tribal desert leader, did not enjoy a privileged education amongst educationally privileged others. In fact, many doubted that someone so unused to the world of books could not only produce one of his own, but one capable of launching a new world religion. In fact, of course, the Holy Q’uran was dictated – a practice followed throughout the classical world and well into later eras, even when – like Thomas Aquinas – people with literary aspirations could, if they wished, do the job themselves.

Meanwhile, opposition to Mohammed went further than scholarly disbelief. Akkad’s film, set perfectly in Moroccan and Libyan locations and perfectly cast to complete a compelling sense of authenticity, shows pantheistic Mecca going all out to punish these upstart monotheistic nomads, now based in Medina. (A lovely scene shows the decision to build their first mosque being left to a tired – and politically disinterested – camel: where it takes its rest, there the mosque will be.) But Mecca is on the warpath and Quinn’s character – the Prophet’s uncle, Hamza – must come to the fore. Much to be admired are Akkad’s very believable battle scenes – for me, among the best on film. The preamble of the first big encounter looks as if it will be limited to champions from either side; but, lending a greater sense of historical accuracy, the greater battle, with far greater bloodshed, goes ahead anyway!

But one battle, however great, isn’t going to settle issues; and a sense of protracted struggle removes any hint that the founding of Islam was easy or inevitable. Skirmishes continue and “victory” usually means keeping alive those prisoners who can read and write: and they will earn release only when they have taught ten Muslims the same precious skills.

With the Prophet’s eventual death, the last word is, indeed, The Word, symbolised, of course, by the Holy Q’uran and as incarnate as anything in Thomas Aquinas.

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Quinn in Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert

Akkad’s other great Arab-culture epic, Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert (1981), is the story of a Libyan who, from before World War I to 1931, led the resistance to Italian colonialism. Playing the lead, Anthony Quinn is on call for almost every scene in a feature that runs for almost three hours – a demanding enough role for any actor, and Quinn, by now, is in his mid-sixties. Yet despite his age – and unlike Thomas Aquinas – Quinn seems to have remained an alert and adept horse rider. On the other hand, he can’t read without his spectacles. For a schoolteacher and a lover of words who doesn’t live around the block from a dozen opticians, this puts added value on a humble pair of specs; and the fact that Akkad makes use of this to get us closer to Omar is, perhaps, unsurprising. But that it’s done so sparingly and, finally, so movingly is something of an artistic triumph. The final scene shows Omar being executed by hanging, his spectacles dropped at the scene and picked up by one of his former pupils. But if that sounds sentimental, this film began by showing old newsreels of multiple hangings, followed by frequent acted scenes of similar events; and all of it adding up to another of those “obscure” genocides we’d frankly rather forget.

Yet, if we need to explain or justify such gloomy subject matter, I think our reasons are a long way from “obscure.” As already hinted, the road to a more inclusive world requires a more literate world population – more literate in terms of books or internet text; more literate, also, in moral terms. And, also as previously hinted, we’re actually much nearer our liberal-humanist goals than many of us know. For me, taking stock of the blockades faced by some cultures in their bid merely to be considered human has been a painful, if brief, experience. But more hopefully, maybe we’ve found a few examples of world cinema to help enlighten us, even through the darkest hours.