First Run Features // 2007 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // October 9th, 2008
No war is holy.
"I saw crosses everywhere when I was a kid. The cross was central to the
way I saw the world. It was like a sighting device through which I looked. And
then it changed: I began to see that this cross throws a shadow."
-- James Carroll
A former Catholic priest turned author and journalist, Carroll examines the dark side of Christian history as he researches the roots of anti-Semitism. Interviewing historians, biblical scholars and witnesses of recent history, Constantine's Sword is a fascinating documentary that retraces the blood-soaked trail of religious fervor exploited by politics.
Carroll's journey begins with his investigation into reports of institutionalized anti-Semitism at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The infiltration of Evangelicalism into academy life causes cadets to feel obliged to see The Passion of the Christ after being bombarded with flyers advertising Mel Gibson's film. A young Jewish cadet believes the movie promotes the image of Jews as Christ-killers and he confesses that he's at the breaking point after being called that repeatedly on the campus.
Troubled by the fact that this fundamental moment of Christianity's history is tied to the negative portrayal of Jews, Carroll sets out to find the origin of this connection. The journey takes him through Europe and the Middle East to locations that are significant both to Carroll's research and also to him personally. The trail leads back to Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, who ended persecution against Christians and legitimized their religion. Carroll examines the historical record to reveal Constantine as a brutal ruler who used propaganda to his advantage. Gradually tracing the path of the Church to the present day, it becomes evident that the legacy hate established by the Roman emperor lives on today.
James Carroll began questioning Christianity during the Vietnam War era. Preaching against the war caused friction between him and his father, a U.S. Air Force general who was helping prepare for nuclear war. Carroll left the Church, and the military, behind him but he kept his faith. As a Christian, his conscience prompts him to ask: how can it be that his religion promotes hatred?
This film version of Carroll's book Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History follows the author on his search for answers. He meets like-minded Christians who don't accept what's written in the Bible without question. Director Oren Jacoby shapes this documentary like a detective story so that every answered question leads to more questions until the big picture is revealed. It is a riveting history lesson that charts Christianity from its origin through many of its controversies. Asking the hard questions, Carroll's findings challenge many of the religion's tenets. What really happened when Jesus was crucified? What were his last words and who could have been there to hear them?
Putting the microscope to another accepted legend gradually brings the issue back to the present day: how convenient that Constantine's mother found the sacred robe of Jesus just as the empire was about to go to war. Carroll makes the case that wartime propaganda and the stories of the Bible are one and the same. It is an explosive revelation, especially for those who have never thought about the historical context of the New Testament. Considering the record of anti-Judaism that was promoted by the Catholic Church, the Holocaust appears more like the culmination of centuries of hatred and oppression rather than a unique evil perpetrated by the Nazis.
Carroll presents a convincing argument that since Constantine's time, the marriage of church and state has led to bloodshed. If it seems like the documentary's theme has moved too far from where it began, you only need to hear from one of the promoters of the evangelical movement at the U.S. Air Force Academy. In an interview recorded before his disgrace in a gay sex scandal, Ted Haggard reveals "the predominant way the Bush administration communicates with us is a Monday conference call with evangelical leaders and I'm one of those."
Constantine's Sword combines new and archival footage and the image on this DVD is very good. The picture is bright, clean and sharp. A minor quibble is that the photography often employs a wide-angle lens that warps the picture whenever the camera pans. A major complaint is that the 1.85:1 widescreen picture is presented in a non-anamorphic transfer. The stereo soundtrack delivers the dialogue clearly.
First Run Features has included a nice selection of extras on this DVD. There are three video supplements: an introduction by Gabriel Byrne; an extended scene that shows the entire interview with one historian; and another interview that wasn't used in the finished film. Text screens let you read a statement from director Oren Jacoby as well as his biography and that of author James Carroll. There are also some notes about the book.
This is a briskly paced film that covers a lot of ground. Carroll spent seven years researching and writing his 700-plus pages book and that is encapsulated in this 95-minute film. The gist of the argument is eloquently presented but this film is certainly just an introduction to the book.
Though Carroll's detective work examines the real historical record, the selective results of his research are one-sided. There are plenty of experts -- both inside and outside of the Church -- who share his critical stance but we don't hear from anyone who defends the Catholic Church's position. Of course, if their spokespeople are anything like the slimy-looking Haggard, it's hard to imagine they could add anything useful to the discussion.
This is a fascinating history lesson loaded with moral questions. Carroll and Jacoby's film is essential viewing for people of every religious stripe. There are many somber revelations but there are also examples of heroism to be observed. Carroll and those he interviews are Christians but they have the courage to question their beliefs and face the dark history of their religion because they believe faith has the power to do good.
There's a lot of blame to be shared when religion and military power are joined, but this documentary is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted and Extended Scenes
* Director's Statement
* About the Book
* Official Site