May 08, 2013

Sand Creek massacre in Iron Man 3

'Iron Man 3' Villain Invokes Sand Creek MassacreThe villain in the blockbuster action flick Iron Man 3 has a list of grudges against the United States -- and one is a historical event that only periodically gets attention outside of Indian country.

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."
Iron Man 3 Blasts Sand Creek

By Dr. Leo KillsbackThe majority of mainstream Americans know little to nothing of the violent and unjust history of the colonization of Native America. Anytime such truth is revealed to the public on the big screens, it should be done fairly since these are rare opportunities to reach the masses. The brutality of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 is one of the most horrific events in American history, but it is so shameful and remains out of sight, ignored, and therefore out of the minds of the majority of Americans. Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 includes the story of Sand Creek in the first real acknowledgement of the massacre in the modern mainstream film industry, but Black miserably fails to take advantage to shed some light on the dark and shameful history of the U.S.

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.
Comment:  I haven't seen Iron Man 3 yet. If I understand Killsback's description, terrorists killed innocent Americans in Kuwait and the Mandarin justified it by saying Americans killed innocent Cheyenne at Sand Creek.

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."


dmarks said...

1) The Sand Creek reference in the movie in my view highlighted this incident in a proper way, and did not nullify it. As such, in this hugely popular movie, it will make a lot of people look it up to find out about it. A positive development. I think the audience can accept this this atrocity occurred, while rejecting the connection of it to unrelated events.

2) As for "P.S. This movie also raises the issue of Anglo/Indian Ben Kingsley playing a Chinese character. Can you say "yellowface"?"

Take my word on this: it doesn't. You have to see the movie to find out how wrong this assumption is.... 1005 in fact. Without seeing the movie, though, it is public knowledge by now that the Mandarin is re-envisioned into someone from the Middle East, perhaps Iranian. There are also a couple of Chinese characters played, I am pretty sure, by real Chinese. A rather yellowface free movie I would say.

This would be the third time I know of that Kingsley has played an Iranian, and the fourth time I know that he has played an Asian (but not East Asian, Chinese).

Anonymous said...

He won the Oscar for portraying Ghandi. But yeah, as Northern Cheyenne Killsback is just complaining for the sake of complaining. There was no ill intent towards Sand Creek, and I thought they handled it in a respectable way.

dmarks said...

And a zillion moviegoers all over the world were made aware of it with an accurate mention of the incident... perhaps the only thing non-fiction among all the fictional characters and incidents.

Kingsley also played an Iranian immigrant in "The House of Sand and Fog", and also Nizam, the presumably Persian (Iranian) villain in "Prince of Persia".

There's no yellowface going on, but if there is a term for NW European whites playing southwest/south Asian non-white Caucasians, it would surely apply to Kingsley, I think.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the Mandarin mentioning it as a bad thing. Hell, Marvel has a villain whose entire motivation is the Holocaust, but I don't think anyone is calling Stan Lee or Jack Kirby a Holocaust denier.

Yeah, there's also the "pick another minority" trend. You can see this with Indians in movies sometimes. Usually you can get away with it, if appearances let you.