If Lepanto Went Hollywood
Memo to Hollywood: if you want to replicate the blockbuster success of American Sniper, make a film about Lepanto.
The Battle of Lepanto was fought on October 7, 1571, in the Gulf of Lepanto south of Greece. It was a seminal victory on the Western world turning back Islamic imperialism, which in the 16th century had been spreading west for one hundred years, since the time of Mohammed.
I'll just be blunt about it: Lepanto would be a film about Islamic imperialism and the attempt by the Christian West to turn it back. It would depict Muslims -- not all Muslims, but more than a few -- as violent hegemonic oppressors intent on taking over the world.
As historian H.R. Crocker III put it, "The Ottoman Empire, the seat of Islamic power, looked to control the Mediterranean. Corsairs raided from North Africa; the Sultan's massive fleet anchored the eastern Mediterranean; and Islamic armies ranged along the coasts of Africa, the Middle and Near East, and pressed against the Adriatic; Muslim armies threatened the Habsburg Empire through the Balkans. The Ottoman Turks yearned to bring all Europe within the dar al-Islam, the 'House of Submission' -- submissive to the sharia law."
In 1453 Muslim Turks had taken Constantinople, and were setting their sights on Europe. Their leaders was the Sultan Selim. While Europe argued over its own religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, Pope Pius V attempted to sound the alarm. As Lepanto historian Brandon Rogers once wrote: "Pius understood the tremendous importance of resisting the aggressive expansion of the Turks better than any of his contemporaries appear to have. He understood that the real battle being fought was spiritual; a clash of creeds was at hand, and the stakes were the very existence of the Christian West."
In 1571 the pope took action. He formed the Holy League, an organization to combat Islamic aggression. It included Spain, Venice, and the Papal States. The pope ordered prayers and fasts, and emphasized the importance of the Rosary to victory. The Holy League was badly outnumbered. The Ottoman fleet was 100,000 men and over 300 war galleys strong. The Holy League had 208 war galleys and 80,000 men -- 30,00 soldiers, 50,000 manning the oars. Nevertheless, Pope Pius ordered the ships out to meet the Turks. The Turks had called Rome "the Red Apple," a resplendent and valuable prize, and Pius had no doubt that that was where the Muslims would head if not faced down.
The Holy League was led by Don John of Austria, the bastard son of Emperor Charles V and half brother of Phillip II, the King of Spain. He was 24. In him Pius saw "someone who in council would rise above pettiness and envy, who in battle would lead without flinching." It was needed. Europe was a mess, and the men who would fight at Lepanto would often bicker with each other. According to Jack Beeching in his book The Galleys at Lepanto, "Don John was clear in his own mind as to the terms on which Islamic aggression must be fought...He had been given the task of fighting a total war against another system of ideas -- historically, the hardest of all wars to win...It followed that in the ships of the Holy League blasphemy or any other kind of religious doubt, openly expressed, had to be treated as sedition. The impending battle could be won only by men who were unanimous." Easier said than done. Like most free people, the Holy League was somewhat disorganized, with clashing personalities and people who questioned the mission, the cause, everything.
It's quite a setup, and has a mix of genres that would seem to make piles of money if turned into a film. It's action-adventure, underdogs versus a foe who appears unstoppable, a period piece, a war film, sword and sorcery -- and pro-Christian. It's The Avengers produced by Clint Eastwood.
Spoiler alert: The Holy League defeated the Muslims. Minutes before the battle the wind shifted to the advantage of the Holy League's warriors. Don John surprised and confounded the Turks. He used banks of cannons, the first time that had been tried in naval combat. He removed iron rams that had prevented the main cannon from firing at close range, and sunk many Ottoman ships with a single volley. He covered ships in netting to snap attacking enemy soldiers. He also said that any slave held by the Turkish fleet would be a free man if he turned on his captors. One of the soldiers in the Holy League was Miguel Cervantes from Spain, who would go on to write Don Quixote.
At the end of the day October 7, the Christians had destroyed or captured over 200 war ships and almost 100 smaller boats. They lost 7,000 men, the Turks 30,000. Over 15,000 Christian slaves were freed from the Ottoman ships, many to kill their former masters.
Many historians consider the Battle of Lepanto the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. Historian William Cinfici, in a commentary that is part of an edition of G.K. Chesterton's great poem about the battle argues that after this defeat -- and being driven back from Vienna a few years later -- Islamic aggressors became cowards. Increasingly they resorted to terrorism, refusing to face their enemies in battle. At Lepanto they had more men, more ships, and, according to them, God himself on their side. They had a banner once carried by the prophet himself. Then at the crucial moment before engagement the wind changed. The Holy League fought with the ingenuity and reckless bravery of free people.
Put on screen, the Battle of Lepanto would be all the things Hollywood claims it loves: an epic underdog story with great villains, a combat film that celebrates freedom and bravery and entertains the hell out of the audience -- all while making a huge amount of money.