In the late eighteenth century, theater critics blasted Matthew Lewis’s play The Castle Spectre (1797) because it depicted a ghost on stage, which they believed could have the terrible effect of increasing the public’s belief in the supernatural. To this, Lewis replied:
Against my Spectre many objections have been urged: one of them I think rather curious. She ought not to appear, because the belief in Ghosts no longer exists! In my opinion, that is the very reason why she may be produced without danger; for there is now no fear of increasing the influence of superstition, or strengthening the prejudices of the weak-minded.
Yet in the end, Lewis was wrong and the critics were right: Gothic horror helped give rise to the Spiritualist movement and a revival of belief in ghosts, psychic powers, and so on—and in turn, the Spiritualists fed their beliefs back into fiction. At one point, Helena Blavatsky simply declared that the writers of scientific romance and horror were themselves latent Spiritualists with half-formed insights from another plane of existence.
Normally, I give a wide berth to fiction in its presentation of fake history since it is, after all, fiction. But sometimes that fiction has a different purpose that isn’t related to entertainment. In that case, it seems fair game to complain about its message. This happened last year with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which the director explicitly said was meant to advocate the claims of Erich von Däniken, and which I therefore criticized as propaganda. It happens again in a few days’ time when a group of alternative history believers release American Templars, a movie dramatizing fourteenth-century aristocrat Henry Sinclair’s alleged voyage to America.
The problem with the movie is not that it is using fake history but that it is telling its audience that the underlying story is true: “The film uses real artifacts and locations to shed light on the fascinating history of medieval exploration of North America by Prince Henry Sinclair, a Scottish lord with ties to the Knights Templar.” The filmmakers want the audience to come away believing that the “facts” behind the movie are real, and that Henry Sinclair traveled to pre-Columbian America.
The movie was directed by Michael Carr, last heard inventing the fake Englishman “Rough Hurech” while mistranslating fake runes on America Unearthed. The movie is based on David S. Brody’s novel The Cabal of the Westford Knight: Templars at the Newport Tower (2009) and centers on the alleged carving of a Templar knight in the town of Westford, Massachusetts, which mainstream scholars take for Native American carvings or natural features. (The most accepted explanation is that glacial ruts were expanded into a “knight” in the nineteenth century by an unknown artist.) First mentioned as “Indian” carving in 1883, the carving was only identified as a medieval knight in 1954, a Templar still later, and a member of the Sinclair expedition still later as the Sinclair-Templar myth developed. The development of this myth is told in David Goudsward’s recent book on The Westford Knight and Henry Sinclair (2011), and I’ve outlined its problematic origin here.
In June David Goudsward took issue with my characterization of his book on the Knight, which I originally wrote supported the Sinclair myth. Goudsward told me that he debunked the Templar connection in his book and “by default the carving,” but that isn’t quite what he told the Boston Globe, whom he told that the Knight was “evidence of pre-Columbian Scottish explorers visiting the New World.” They just weren’t Templars or Sinclairs. Whatever Goudsward’s actual views, the newspaper presented his book as supporting pre-Columbian Scottish voyages.
David S. Brody is the chairman of the Westford Knight Committee and oversees the carving, according to the Globe. He has a vested interest in promoting it as “real” and a tourist attraction. A frequent novelist, he recognizes that the Sinclair story is problematic. However, he told another newspaper that “If it’s true, then that means Columbus was about 100 years late to the party, and Westford becomes a very important part of history.” And there is the driving force behind the historically impossible claims: the endless drive to make one’s own home the navel of the world and the locus of history.
Anyway, the movie version is also being used as a marketing tool. According to the Boston Globe, which credulously accepted the claims of Scottish voyages in its most recent article, the Westford Historical Society and Museum will be using the “world premiere” screening of the film to raise money. On its website (which the Globe plagiarizes nearly word-for-word), the museum agrees that “ancient artifacts and sites … indicate Scottish explorers found America 100 years before Columbus.”
Regardless of the intrinsic entertainment value of American Templars—and given the terrible acting and production values on display in the trailer, there isn’t much!—the propaganda purpose of the film warrants complaint. I am not able to evaluate the film artistically without having seen it, but in viewing the trailer, such masterpieces as Birdemic come to mind. I wonder, though, if the terrible production values and cable-TV documentary aesthetics don’t work in the film’s favor—not as cinema but as propaganda: by looking like something put together on video from real life, it reinforces the idea that there is a real history behind the story.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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