Prince Caspian and the War on Terror

By Thérèse Taylor

The recently released film of Prince Caspian is flawed by a tone of pro-war propaganda. 

The film’s production is first rate, with beautiful scenes, alluring special effects and polished acting.  The only problem is the story.

The original novel, Prince Caspian, was written in the late 1940s and published in 1951.  The film of Prince Caspian, released in early 2008 as the war on terror roars on, reflects the preoccupations of the filmmakers and their audiences.  It gives voice to a spirit of aggression, and does not speak the language of the erudite romancer, C.S. Lewis, who defied the secular spirit of the post-world war two years to write myths and fairy tales. 

Caspian and His World

The book Prince Caspian, tells the story of an oppressed Prince who is obliged to flee his home because his uncle, the Tyrant Miraz, has usurped his throne.  Caspian hides in the forest and is befriended by native Narnians, whose country is under occupation.  He is then finally rescued by the four children who are ancient rulers of Narnia – summoned by magic from England. 

Peter Rainer, writing for The Christian Science Monitor, notes that in the film of Prince Caspian: ‘The new Narnia is .. now ruled by the Telmarines, a race of entirely dark-haired humans (no blondes need apply).’ 

The film has a conflict-ridden scenario which is different in several ways to Lewis’ book.  These alterations do not appear to be justified by script writing, for they do not streamline the existing plot – they alter it and take it in new directions which are alien to the spirit of the original story.

To begin with, the significant detail noted by Peter Rainer – the Telmarines are uniformly dark-haired, and speak with a pronounced foreign accent. 

In the film, the first person to come on screen is the wife of Miraz.  Dark-haired and loud-voiced, she remains nameless and ambiguous throughout the film. 

In the novel, this woman is introduced as Caspian’s: ‘aunt, who had red hair and was called Queen Prunaprismia …’  The tyrant Miraz, when upbraiding his courtiers, ‘after staring at them as if his eyes would start out of his head’ tells them that they are ‘as lily-livered as hares’.  Indeed, they are a pasty-faced race.  When the battle turns against the Telmarines, even: ‘Tough-looking warriors turned white …’

When a book insists this strongly on an Anglo-Celtic appearance of its characters, one would expect a film to reflect the story in its original tones.  Instead, the Telmarines of the film take on the appearance of Hispanics in old-fashioned English nationalist drama about the Armada.  Evil, dark and flashing-eyed, they live up to a stereotype of the foreign villain.

War Film

A Portugese reviewer, Pablo Villaca, who writes for cinemaemcena.com is one of the few who have dissented from the film’s ideology.

He comments that on film, Prince Caspian: ‘seems to transmit the idea that all the endless violence does not bring real consequences – and, in this direction, the film becomes still more reprehensible when insisting on the tragic image of children becoming involved in battles and killing innumerable opponents (one can remember that, in the first instalment, we saw Father Christmas giving weapons to the little children as presents). To get worse, the film clearly justifies the murderous acts of its young heroes because they are honoured for doing so, and the Telmarine enemies are obviously "an unfaithful" people that deserves punishment. This aspect of "crusade" already would be enough to establish a relationship between the events of Prince Caspian and the history of the religion – and of all the countless deaths "on behalf of the Faith".’

This energetic critique is very different from most of the reverent writings about the Disney version of Narnia which appear in English.  Pablo Villaca is insightful in pointing out the film’s simultaneous use of faith motifs and the glorification of war.  The film suggests that warfare is natural, and also that even flawed and doubting characters can overcome their problems by recourse to violence – which is thrillingly channelled at a repulsive enemy. 

The original Narnia upheld ideals which Lewis seriously believed in – patriarchal Kingship, chivalry, the exclusion of women from battle, and the notion that virtue is always rewarded.  

By contrast, the film has an anxiety about power, which is never taken for granted but is bitterly contested even among the good characters.  Victory is simply a reversal of the power structure – the rightful heir takes over the tyrant Miraz.  The audience is encouraged to believe that this is the only way to attain peace.

Views in Favour

Those who praise this film do so, often, for the very features which I find to be flaws.

Michael Ward, a scholar of C.S. Lewis, wrote an article for the New York Post describing Prince Caspian as ‘A War Flick With Honor.’  He compares it to films critical of the war on terror, such as ‘Lions for Lambs’ and ‘In the Valley of Elah’, and suggests that by contrast with them, Prince Caspian: ‘is expected to do quite well. The secret: It’s not anti-war.’

According to this reviewer, the film affirms ‘the necessity of chivalry’, in which Lewis strongly believed.  Lewis maintained that the chivalrous knight exists to defend the weak and restrain evil. 

However, so many of the innovations which the film makes to the story of Prince Caspian are not chivalrous at all – such as the sneak attack on Miraz’s castle – and rather seem to affirm a willingness to try any tactic, and a conviction that action releases one from doubt and contemplation.

Interestingly, the novel Prince Caspian has little to teach anyone who is engaged in invasion or conquest.  It is a novel about war – but it is the warfare of resistance, of confronting a long-term occupation.  The good characters are steadfast. The novel warns some people are crushed by occupation and become evil and despairing.  By contrast, the heroes maintain faith in their cause even when they are losers for year after year.  They face an enemy who has not only taken their country, but has spread a propaganda story that they do not exist, and never did so. 

This is not an especially satisfying story for the major powers of our times – which might be why it had to be altered to become a mainstream film.  The original story suggests that popular memory is long, that some places have their own spirit, and they belong to their own people.  Invaders always lose in the end.  In Lewis’ inspirational story, the invaders are finally given some wise advice – they are simply told to go back to where they came from.

-Thérèse Taylor teaches modern history at Charles Sturt University, Australia.  She is the author of a scholarly biography of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, and numerous articles.  Her recent critique of false memoir, ‘Burning Questions’, is featured at aljadid.com. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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