The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley, is a terrorist mastermind who interrupts TV programming to rail against injustices and broadcast acts of violence -- a Denver Post reviewer says that the character "definitely conjures the ghost of Osama bin Laden" and "swings his ideological ax wildly."
One of the crimes The Mandarin uses as justification for his own mayhem is the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which some 700 Colorado Territory militia led by Col. John Chivington killed over 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, most of them women, children and elderly.
The reference has been noted by many viewers, perhaps none more prominent than University of California-Davis professor Ari Kelman, author of A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek.
"For almost a century and a half, different groups of people have used memories of Sand Creek to advance their political agendas," Kelman said, according to Denver Westword. "The makers of Iron Man 3 tapped into this rich historical vein, repurposing the massacre yet again, this time as an emblem of the hazards of American imperialism. A terrorist in the film seizes on the slaughter at Sand Creek as justification for his crimes ... It's a chilling scene and a grim reminder that the struggle over the meaning of the Sand Creek Massacre still haunts this nation."
By Dr. Leo Killsback
In the movie the villain called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) justifies his violence in a series of propaganda videos. One video showed historic pictures of Cheyennes, even children at Carlisle boarding school, with his voice-over telling how the U.S. waited for warriors to depart on a hunt before soldiers attacked the peaceful camp. The Mandarin then asserts that this same tactic inspired his terrorist group to attack a church in Kuwait filled with the families of American soldiers. Initially, I was generally impressed that Sand Creek was actually mentioned in the blockbuster film. I was even fascinated that the fictionalized villain correlated the Sand Creek Massacre to conflicts in the Middle East. Unfortunately, by midway through the film, I was completely disappointed and deeply upset that the massacre was even mentioned.
The purpose for using Sand Creek wasn’t too clear, but results in too many wrong assumptions. Are Americans supposed to hold resentment towards their terrorists as Cheyenne survivors held resentment towards the U.S. after Sand Creek? Does the correlation promote sympathy for unjust acts of genocide committed by the U.S. in 1864, or condemn terrorists as unjust and irrational as the U.S. soldiers? Whatever the case, the use of Sand Creek further confuses the populace of crimes of the past.
If the movie had made a parallel between the U.S. atrocities committed at both Sand Creek and in modern Middle East conflicts, like the revisionist films of the 1970s, then it would actually promote sympathy for the insurgents, since they defend their families and homelands against the same imperial aggression. The Mandarin’s comparison had potential to be an intelligent reflection of the George Santayana’s celebrated quote: “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.” But this was not the case and such parallels are likely to never happen in Hollywood. Besides this isn’t my primary concern.
What upset me the most is that when the Mandarin was captured and exposed as a fraud, and as he lost all credibility, he took the true story of Sand Creek with him. By virtue of association, the true story of the massacre was falsified, devalued, and in all likelihood, branded in the minds of viewers as nothing short of propaganda from a fictional terrorist played by a drug-addicted actor, played by Ben Kingsley. I would rather have the events of Sand Creek completely ignored than be subjugated to so many levels of fictionalization.
Since two wrongs rarely if ever make a right, I'm not sure how one massacre justifies another. Especially when they're separated by 150 years and more than 7,000 miles.
Is the Mandarin saying the US soldiers acted properly at Sand Creek? So his terrorists acted properly also? If he sympathizes with the Cheyenne, why wouldn't he sympathize with the Kuwait victims too?
The only way this comes even close to working is if there's a clear connection between the two incidents. For example, Columbus enslaved the Indians he met, so the Indians killed the men he left behind. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, so the US nuked Hiroshima. (Not that I agree with this one, but it shows what I mean.)
It doesn't work to say Mexico attacked the Alamo in 1836, so the US can invade Mexico in 2013. And it really doesn't work to say, oh, Al Qaeda attacked us from Afghanistan, so we can invade Iraq. That's pure criminal behavior masked as a "just" cause.
P.S. This movie also raises the issue of Anglo/Indian Ben Kingsley playing a Chinese character. Can you say "yellowface"?
For more on massacres, see "Why Do They Hate Us?" 2013 and Sand Creek Called "Collision of Cultures."