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IT is of course the merest nonsense to expect political or historical accuracy in a modern commercial film. Nonetheless, some things are more than strange. If you saw a movie about a crisis in Mexico and the plot hinged on its significance for the Islamic world, you might be a bit confused.
I recently saw the action flick Olympus Has Fallen. Now, the plot is pretty silly. A group of North Korean terrorists takes possession of the White House and imprisons the president, his son and sundry cabinet officials. It is heartening to see that the totally unrespectable world, so far as commercial movies go, has been reduced to the North Koreans. Hollywood is pretty chary of nominating any Middle East nation as a villain, and China is out of the question because of the huge commercial considerations of film distribution in the Middle Kingdom. China is just too big a market for a commercial filmmaker to ignore.
No one, on the other hand, makes money distributing foreign movies in North Korea. Olympus Has Fallen is nonstop action: simple, clean lines; a bit too violent for my taste but the baddies are baddies, the goodies are goodies. Morgan Freeman does his stock turn as a statesman-like president — this time an acting president, as the main man is a hostage; the hero is a slightly disgraced special forces soldier; there’s a kid. It’s all good.
But the problem is, when the inevitable threat of nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula emerges, the news program announces: ‘‘ Southeast Asia on the brink of war’’. South-what Asia? Some American filmmakers, I suppose, have a vague folk memory that the Vietnam War was in Southeast Asia; Korea, they wrongly conclude, is near Vietnam, so it too must be in Southeast Asia. Korea is in fact in East Asia, sometimes called Northeast Asia. No one has ever classified it as Southeast Asia.
I sometimes defend popular culture, especially heroic American movies, as being generally a bit less corrupted intellectually by ultra-modern nonsense. But really, this is enough to give cinematic militarism a bad name.
A more serious example of the same kind of thing is to be observed in the very strange British series of the Father Brown stories screening on the ABC. Readers of this column may possibly know already that I am devoted to GK Chesterton, the creator of Father Brown, the clerical detective. The series is a period piece, as it should be, but Chesterton died in the early 1930s and the series is set, mysteriously, in the 50s.
In some ways, the Father Brown series has a bit to recommend it. It’s amiable TV in the very long tradition of eccentric detectives. The British are without peer at the chummy, reassuring, familiar detective series. And in a time of intense secular hostility to Catholic priests and most things to do with the church, Father Brown is an attractive character. He is kind, brave, clever and modest. But he is so spectacularly unrelated to Chesterton’s Father Brown that there is a kind of perverse wickedness in having used the name at all. For a start, Chesterton’s conceit, though lighthearted in execution, was based on the sober idea that Father Brown’s experience of the confessional would give him an acute understanding of the ways and habits of human evil.
This only works, of course, in a culture in which people who do wicked things sometimes repent of them and confess all to their priest. We are a long way from that time, if indeed it ever existed. I accept that this idea of the Catholic practice of confession and its potential for crime solving is a bit too subculturally specific to succeed as popular television, though the church has always claimed to be an expert in all aspects of human nature. But the TV Father Brown is perfectly bizarre in much more fundamental ways.
In one episode the good father is sceptical about a fellow claiming to be an Indian mystic with powers to foretell the future. These powers naturally turn out to be fully real. In argument, the Indian pronounces his scepticism about Christ walking on water, multiplying the loaves and fishes, and so on, to which Father Brown replies that you shouldn’t read the Bible literally. Good grief! Surely hardly any serving Catholic priest ever, even in our demented age, has denied the New Testament miracles of Christ. Certainly Chesterton never would. That dialogue is a real miracle of modern TV.