A film sold to 14 countries.
This will be a very unusual film review by me. I have written all my other film reviews on this blog after seeing the films. However, when the film Redbad arrived in the cinemas, I was busy. I thought: ‘Many media expect it to become a big commercial success. So, I can wait a bit and then I will still be able to see it in the cinema’. However, after I had waited a bit, the success turned out to be not that big.
I had already gathered information on the film to write a review later. Well, I thought, it is a pity to waste that. So, I prepared to write a strange review of this movie; strange, as I read quite a lot about it, but did not see it myself. Meaning that I would not be able to say 100% certainly whether the film company’s publicity and/or the reviews were correct.
This is the trailer of the film.
Redbad film with Arabic subtitles
Then, however, I found out that someone had put Redbad, with Arabic subtitles, on YouTube. So, after all, this did not become my first film review ever without having seen the film. Though I saw it on my small computer screen; meaning I may have missed some details which I would have noticed on a big cinema screen.
One day after I saw the movie on my computer, it turned out that YouTube had deleted it.
Some reviews of Redbad are sharply critical.
The film makers did have a historical adviser: Nathalie Scheenstra. However, Ms Scheenstra is a specialist in Dutch medieval clothes and jewelry. Not in other aspects.
The film depicts conflict in the Dutch Dark Ages, about 700 AD, between the Frisians, living in the north west of the present Netherlands; and the Frankish kingdom, of the south-east of what is now the Netherlands, of present Belgium and parts of present France and Germany.
Who was King Redbad?
King Redbad, the protagonist of the film, probably only ruled what is now North Holland, South Holland and Utrecht provinces; not Friesland province, as the film claims. Franks and later historians saw ‘Frisia’ from the Zwin estuary on the present Dutch-Belgian border to Denmark as an unity which it was not.
The film is mainly about Redbad’s youth, the time before he became king. However, about Redbad’s youth nothing is known. Was he a son of Aldgisl, an earlier Frisian king? Unknown. Redbad’s daughter Theudesinda, aka Thiadsvind, married Frankish royal prime minister (mayor of the palace) Grimoald the Younger, son of Frankish prime minister Pepin of Herstal. The film wrongly calls Pepin of Herstal ‘king’. And in the film, not Redbad’s daughter, but his sister marries a Frankish leader. She marries not Grimoald the Younger, but Charles Martel, who would become prime minister, and is better known to many people than that other Frankish mayor of the palace Grimoald. Charles Martel is the villain of the film, depicted as, apart from atrocities against Frisian civilians, murdering his father Pepin of Herstal and his little child nephew who might have become a rival for the mayor of the palace office.
This video shows an interview with US American actor Jonathan Banks (Mike in Breaking Bad) who plays Pepin of Herstal.
No uncle, no cousin of Redbad is known in history; though these are major roles in the film.
Both according to Christian hagiography and the film, a missionary tried to baptize Redbad. In the film, that missionary is Saint Willibrord. In historic sources, it is Saint Wulfram of Sens. In the film, the baptism attempt is while Redbad was not yet king. In Christian tradition it was while he was already king; which makes sense from the early medieval church’s viewpoint that converting a ruler makes its easier to convert his subjects (Cuius regio, eius religio …); which is less probable if the convert is a non-ruling royal family member.
Both according to tradition and in the film, Redbad then asked whether, if he would die and go to heaven being a Christian, he would then meet his deceased ancestors again. No, was the answer: it turns out that his pagan ancestors are in hell, while his Frankish enemies will be in heaven. Then, Redbad refused baptism; a bit like the 16th century native Cuban who refused baptism as he did not want to meet the Christian Spanish conquistador killers of his people in heaven.
This picture shows the expansion of the Franks’ realm.
Who were the Frisians and the Franks?
Who were ‘Frisians’? Were they Germanic or Celtic? Was Frisia maybe Celtic speaking in the Roman age, and became Germanic speaking only later? We are not sure.
In Friesland province, people object that there is no Frisian language in the film. In the movie, the Frisians speak Dutch. The Anglo-Saxon missionaries Willibrord and Boniface speak English, not Anglo-Saxon. Early medieval Anglo-Saxon was rather similar to Frisian, that is why the church sent Anglo-Saxons as missionaries. While in the film there is a language barrier which hardly existed in the early middle ages. Franks and Danes also speak English in the film. Though it would have been logical to have the Franks speak Dutch, derived from the Frankish language.
In the film, houses of the Frisian upper class look too much like primitive barbarian dwellings. According to archaeological research, they were more comfortable than that.
This Dutch language video is about the cast of the film in a reconstructed prehistoric village in Eindhoven in the Netherlands. One should not wonder that the ‘Frisian houses’ in the film look so primitive: as they are really Eindhoven prehistoric houses.
While the Frankish aristocrats are depicted as living in castles: which look like they belong in the late Middle Ages, not the early Middle Ages (the film was recorded partly in Bouillon castle in Belgium, in its present form mainly from the 16th-17th century).
Even Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, of about 100 years after the time depicted in the film, did not live in castles like Bouillon castle, but in not so palatial farmhouses, though a bit more luxurious than usually then.
The Frankish knights in the movie are depicted wearing chain mail; not in use about 700 AD.
According to the medieval Christian Saint Wulfram hagiography, Frisians practiced human sacrifices. The film’s opening scene is a young woman burned to death as a sacrifice to the goddess Freyja. We know that later polytheist Scandinavians worshiped Freyja. But we know nothing about Frisians about 700 AD worshiping Freyja; let alone sacrificing humans to her. In fact, we know very little about Frisian polytheism then.
The Saint Wulfram hagiography mentions Frisians sacrificing humans by tying them on rafts pushed into the North Sea. That happens to Redbad early in the film. He miraculously survives, the raft taking him all the way to Denmark.
There were no invading Vikings yet in the 8th century Netherlands, as the film says wrongly.
However, the film is accurate about depicting the kingdom of the Franks as using Christianity as a tool in violently subjecting Frisians and others. The point on which Google corporation tried to censor the film for supposedly ‘insulting Christianity’ by criticizing Frankish rulers of 1300 years ago.
Franks, Frisians and xenophobic propaganda
Both the 8th century Frankish and Frisian kingdoms play a role today in right-wing nationalist propaganda.
The French neofascist National Front, now called National Rally, claims Charles Martel is a Christian hero as he waged war on the Muslim Umayyad caliphate. Marine Le Pen‘s party equates present day immigrant workers and refugees from wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere with 8th century armed Muslim soldiers.
On the other hand, Dutch neopagan neonazis see King Redbad as a hero, supposedly saving the ‘Germanic race’ from supposedly ‘Jewish’ Christianity. Ancient Germanic religion did not know ‘race’. It glorified war in its Viking age Scandinavian form. But we cannot say whether 8th century Frisian polytheism also glorified war. We know so little about early medieval Frisian religion.
The film might be interpreted as saying opposing ‘foreign intruders’, like Redbad did, is a good thing; some spectators might draw unpleasant parallels between Redbad stopping Frankish soldiers and stopping unarmed 21st century refugees from coming to the Netherlands. Historian Sven Meeder says that the film might be used by the Dutch extreme right.
However, Redbad’s fights against the Franks, in history and in the film are not really useful for chauvinist Dutch nationalism. The people of the southeastern half of what is now the Netherlands were Frankish in Redbad’s time. The present Dutch language is derived from Frankish.
Also, the real Redbad, though he fought the Franks, and did not want to convert, often had diplomatic negotiations with Franks. Like Queen Cleopatra used more diplomacy than war to keep Egypt as independent of the Roman empire as possible.
Redbad offered Christians some religious tolerance. Missionary Willibrord (depicted as a bigoted enemy of the Frisians in the film) was allowed to preach in Redbad’s kingdom.
Redbad was a pagan, but not a fanatical pagan, as the Frankish Carolingian dynasty wrongly claimed, Meeder says.
Communist Frisian author Theun de Vries wrote ‘Redbald and [Saint] Wulfram’ and ‘Odin’s City’ about Redbad.
Roman Catholic and Celtic Christianity
The film asks the question why in 754 AD Christian bishop Saint Boniface was killed near Dokkum town in Friesland. Was it murder, maybe with the vile motive of robbery; as medieval hagiographies claim? Or did Boniface rather go to Friesland with a Frankish kingdom armed force to forcibly convert Frisians, and did Frisian polytheists therefore kill him in battle, as 21st century historians think?
Historian Han Nijdam criticized the film (eg, about its depiction of Willibrord as a hardliner, and of Saint Boniface as mild; while it was the other way).
In the film, when Willibrord forcibly baptizes a woman or a man, it looks more like waterboarding torture than a religious ceremony. While in history, Boniface may have been more likely to baptize people in that violent way than Willibrord.
The historical Willibrord originally had Celtic Christian influences, which may have made him less dogmatically authoritarian. Boniface had persecuted Celtic Christianity in England. Willibrord and Boniface did not like each other.
Historians point out that the forced conversions by Saint Boniface and similar preachers basing themselves on Frankish weapons, were at least as much against Irish ‘Celtic’ Christianity as against Germanic paganism. Roman Christians accused Celtic Christians of mixing their religion with Judaism, claiming the Celts did not like to eat pork etc.
This 2014 video says about itself:
Is This the Reason Ireland Converted to Christianity?
Many attribute the spread of Christianity in Ireland to St. Patrick. But medieval history and scientific evidence dating back to 540 A.D. hint at a more cosmic reason.
‘Celtic’ Christianity originated in Ireland. It differed much from continental European Roman Catholic Christianity; due to social differences. Irish 5th-century society had never been occupied by the Roman empire. It still had many leftovers from ‘primitive communism’; though there were kings, and some slaves. Saint Patrick, usually seen as the originator of Irish Christianity, used to be a slave. ‘Saint Patrick Christianity’ used to be much less top-down than Frankish and other continental religion; based on collectives of monks, rather than on hierarchies of bishops with the bishop of Rome, the pope, at the top. A difference with ‘Roman’ monasteries, where monks and nuns took vows supposedly for life, was the greater flexibility in Irish convents, where people could move in and out; a bit like in Buddhist monasticism. Women had a bigger role in churches than they had in the Frankish kingdom. Celibacy was not universal among Celtic clerics.
Irish preachers managed to convert many people in Britain and also in Germany and elsewhere on the continent to their brand of Christianity. This caused conflicts with Roman Catholics. At clerics’ meetings, that might take the form of quarrelling about what was the proper time to celebrate Easter (Roman clergy thought Celtic Easter was too much like Jewish Passover). However, behind that were much deeper, social, differences.
In the Frankish kingdom and elsewhere, there were many fewer leftovers from ‘primitive communism’. These were countries in transition from Roman empire-days slave-owning societies to medieval feudalism. In religion, that led to hierarchical, Vatican-centred Christianity.
The Celtic and Frankish monastic ideals differed. The Celtic ideal was ‘peregrinatio’. Literally, that means ‘pilgrimage’, a concept known throughout Christianity and other religions. Specifically to the Saint Patrick monks, it meant travelling far away, without Frankish soldiers to help you, to tell people wanting to listen voluntarily about the Christian religion. Peregrinatio had a link with rests of ‘primitive communist’ nomadic hunter-gatherer societies in ancient Ireland and Scotland, never conquered by the Roman empire.
The Frankish ideal for monks was ‘stabilitas loci’. Monks should in principle stay in one place, at their monastery in territory controlled by the Frankish kingdom or other Roman Catholic states. Eg, the Frankish king, later emperor, Charlemagne was against Christian missionaries going to areas not subjected by Francia; like Celtic missionaries did. There is a parallel with peasant serfs in continental European feudal society: they were not allowed to travel unless their masters permitted it.
In England, Saint Boniface managed to defeat Saint Patrick Christianity, with a little help of coercion by Anglo-Saxon kings. In Germany, he also had successes against Celtic style Christians, with a little, or rather much, help from Frankish rulers. Celtic Christians, to become Roman Catholics in good standing, had to be re-baptised; equating them with pagans who had never been baptised. We are not sure about Celtic Christianity in early medieval Frisia. Often, Boniface converted kings and other nobles first; usually then, he could leave coercion to convert their peasant subjects to the newly Christianized nobility. The slogan ‘Cuius regio, eius religio’ is best known from 16th century conflicts in Germany between Protestants and Roman Catholics. However, it also seems to have worked about 800 years earlier. That conversion strategy did not work for Boniface in Friesland: decentralized, hardly ever been occupied by Roman empire armies. So, Frankish invasive armies had to do the work that local kings did not.
This 13 July 2018 video is called Why did the Carolingian/Frankish Empire Collapse?
In the 11th century, after Saint Patrick Christianity had been defeated in Britain and on the continent, newly Christianized Normans conquered England and made themselves kings there. After that, the Normans invaded Ireland, bringing feudalism and destroying Celtic Christianity to replace it with Roman episcopal hierarchy.
The people of Ireland paid a bloody price for that forced conversion to Vatican-centric religion. Eg, when in 1689 the Protestant king of England, William III, supported by the pope, defeated Irish forces in the battle of the Boyne.
Eg, when in the 19th century Protestant Anglo-Irish landlords obstructed Home Rule for Ireland, claiming it would be ‘Rome rule’. Untrue, but not 100% incredible.
And in the 20th century, when the Roman Catholic hierarchy subjected Irish women to slave labour, and Roman Catholic children’s homes massively dumped dead Irish babies in septic tanks and other mass graves.
And why was the missionary Saint Boniface killed in Friesland province, as the film’s publicity material asks? According to historians, because of converting people forcibly, accompanied by Frankish soldiers. While the film depicts the not-so-hardline Saint Willibrord as a hardliner; and Boniface as a moderate. It is more logical for Boniface to have been killed for being as historians depict him than for being as the film depicts him.