Film-making, September 11th and The Passion of the Christ

It’s been three months since the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and I have a number of posts relating to that topic.  Here is the first, on how the events of that day impacted on film-making and in particular the reception of the film The Passion of the Christ.

The events of September 11th had a unique impact on Americans, with attendant implications for how they responded to cultural artefacts such as feature films. Many people assumed that the events would affect American film production, distribution, marketing and reception by promoting a return to patriotism: films that were “righteously patriotic, confident in American might, and freighted with old-fashioned archetypes” (Douhat 2008, p. 53). An often quoted Vanity Fair article by Graydon Carter predicted that, “There’s going to be a seismic change. I think it’s the end of the age of irony…. Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear” (quoted in Beers 2001). Further, as Ross Douhat points out, “We expected John Wayne; we got Jason Bourne instead.”

In other words, the immediate years after 2001 were characterised not by rousing patriotic films but by what he calls a return to the 1970s paranoid pessimism and paranoid style of film-making – films like The Conversation (1974), The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). The post-September 11th period has been typified by films such as the remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Syriana (2005), Good Night and Good Luck (2005), The Constant Gardener (2005), The Good Shepherd (2006), V for Vendetta (2006), the Jason Bourne trilogy, Michael Clayton (2007), Traitor (2008), Body of Lies (2008) and Burn After Reading (2008). Douhat believes that “it wasn’t just the reassertion of America’s usual frivolity that caused the 9/11 moment to be stillborn; it was the swiftness with which the Iraq War replaced the fall of the Twin Towers as this decade’s cultural touchstone” (Douhat 2008, p. 54-55).

As Stephen Prince points out in his book, Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism, “the weak box office of World Trade Center and United 93, and the commercial failure of all the post-9/11 films released late in 2007, suggest that viewers are rejecting the role that popular cinema might claim in bearing witness to atrocity” (Prince 2009a, p. 305). Other accounts support this: (US) National Public Radio reporter Brooke Gladstone reported what New Yorkers were watching:

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we wondered what movies people were watching for perspective, or solace. When we called a video store on New York’s Upper East Side, the manager said that romantic comedies were flying out of the place. No disaster films, he said, except one — The Siege, made in 1998, an action film with terrorists, and a message (On the Media 2009).

So how did this post 9/11 era in American filmmaking relate to the reception of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ? Dartmouth Professor of Jewish Studies Susannah Heschel wrote in 2005:

Every era invents the Jesus that meets its needs. Gibson’s Jesus is not simply the product of his own religious imagination; he is an expression of the contemporary American cultural moment and a response to the long Christian conundrum of whether Christianity is the daughter religion of Judaism…. To contextualize Muslim terrorism against the West, the film presents a Jesus who is tortured rather than a Jesus who is the leader of a political liberation movement…. This American Jesus of the twenty-first century creates and sanctifies the right-wing memory of the horrific events of September 11, 2001 – the Passion of Christian America – when innocent, defenseless Americans were attacked over and over in a most brutal fashion…. (Heschel 2005, p. 104)

There was substantial publicity about the miracles that reportedly occurred during the making of The Passion. These were in turn directly related to the appeal of September 11th memory: actor James Caviezel was quoted by conservative columnist Peggy Noonan in her 18 March 2004 Wall Street Journal article, saying:

Miraculous things have happened. When I was hit by lightning (during the filming of a crucifixion scene), it was the one day I didn’t have communion. We always had mass and I always received communion but on that one day the priest ran out of hosts. I was up there on the cross and I was hit and we knew I was going to be hit, we could see it coming. And the eyes of the men below me turned glossy. Everything was pink, fire coming from both sides of my head. And there was a sound—it was like the sound of the planes hitting the building on 9/11, a weird, guttural, discordant sound. Not like an explosion. And then afterwards I heard the sound when they played one of the films, the videotape (of the World Trade Center on 9/11, on television) and it was like a shock: “That is the sound of the lightning.” The plane going into the building (Noonan 2004).

Mark Juergensmeyer takes the September 11th analogy one step further, connecting The Passion’s “bad guys” directly to the “war on terror” and writing that the “current preoccupation with religious terrorism is at least one factor explaining the phenomenal interest” in the film, at least in the USA. His point is that the emotions which the film evokes – including the response to intense blood and gore – makes The Passion a “war movie” (given its struggle between good and evil) in which Jesus represents all Americans violated by acts of terrorism and the perpetrators are “the shadowy, bearded and robed figures lurking in the background in the movie” – effectively Muslims or at least a generic “Other” (Juergensmeyer 2004, pp. 279-281, 283).

Here differences between Australia and the USA are apparent. Islamic terrorists executed bombings in Bali on 12 October 2002, killing 2002 people – of whom 88 were Australians. But the Australian mood and reaction at that time was dramatically unlike that in the USA. Expatriate American media executive Bruce Wolpe observed in November 2002 that:

There are significant differences in the national mood right now in America and Australia. September 11 and October 12 are definitively linked, but each event has had a disparate impact on the national psyche. In America, the aftermath from the shock has been mourning, anger, resolve and vengeance. In Australia, the aftermath has been mourning, anger, resolve and temperance (Wolpe 2002).

In a June 2011 speech, former Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Dennis Richardson noted that the events of September 11th profoundly impacted on the American psyche in ways simply not experienced in Australia.  Even though “since 9/11, more Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks globally than Americans – they have been killed outside of Australia.”[1] This was totally unlike the attacks on the American “homeland” which profoundly “changed both attitudes and ways that define how we go about our lives.”[2]


[1] Speech at the United States Studies Centre conference “The 9/11 Decade: How Everything Changed,” University of Sydney, 6 June 2011.

[2] Jeffrey Bleich, American Ambassador to Australia, speech at the United States Studies Centre conference “The 9/11 Decade: How Everything Changed,” University of Sydney, 6 June 2011.

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