By Paula R. Stiles
Time Machine: Beyond The Da Vinci Code. History Channel. London: Weller-Grossman Productions, 2005. 90 minutes.
I’ve already trashed one History Channel doc this week, so you’re probably expecting me to trash another one. Actually…Beyond The Da Vinci Code‘s not half-bad. The documentary, as the title suggests, exists to go over the claims made in Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code, and determine whether or not they have merit. One of many, many documentaries and books put out at the time to “explain” or debunk the book, this is a repeat, of course, trotted back out to garner some publicity out of Brown’s recent publication of the sequel to the novel, The Lost Symbol.
The History Channel seems to swing back and forth between uncritical bosh and more balanced (if not perfect) analysis. In the former, you get long, long minutes of increasingly circular reasoning and silly theories. Then, very briefly, you’ll get a sensible expert (often not identified) shredding these carefully-built castles of sand. Their current series, The Nostradamus Effect, does this pattern to a T. Often, the only value you’ll get out of these boring, badly-fictionalized attempts at telling history is the odd bit of pretty scenery and interiors of places you might not normally be able to get access to when you visited them as a tourist.
Beyond the Da Vinci Code has the usual suspects (notably Richard Leigh, coauthor of the ’80s book Holy Blood, Holy Grail that Dan Brown totally ripped off), but also brings in more sensible souls like Dr. Karen Ralls to refute the fantasies. For one thing, the documentary gives everything point and counterpoint instead of letting the fantasies spin out over an entire subject and giving the academic little or no time for refuting a whole mass of claims. For another, the voiceover (which is what people mainly tune into) introduces both the point and counterpoint. In the dodgier bosh, the narrator only gives us the sensationalist points, deemphasizing the academic counterpoints.
The documentary makes short work of claims made by The Da Vinci Code, such as that gospels telling the “truth” of Jesus were suppressed at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. (there is no evidence that any books were suppressed at that council, according to Dr. Deirdre Good); that Mary Magdalene was erased from Church history because her marriage with Jesus made the comparisons to the ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris too obvious (Mary was actually canonized as a saint not suppressed and there is no evidence she was connected to Isis because the Church never saw her as a goddess); and that the Templars were part of the Priory of Sion (there’s no evidence that the Priory of Sion, a modern invention, even existed in the Middle Ages).
Especially entertaining is the devotion of much of the last twenty minutes to blowing the Priory of Sion myth out of the water (the rest is a quicky bio of Opus Dei, a right-wing Catholic group that Brown merrily libeled in The Da Vinci Code). This includes Leigh’s wandering attempts to explain his vigorous defense of the Jesus bloodline theory in Holy Blood, Holy Grail by saying that he’s just putting it out as a theory and doesn’t necessarily believe in it. Well, that’s all right, then. Almost as funny is Dan Burstein’s statement that Brown’s claims are closer to known reality the further back in the past you go. This might have something to do with the fact that we know less about the distant past than we do about, say, thirty years ago. So, it’s easier to make stuff up.
Beyond The Da Vinci Code is not a perfect documentary by any stretch. For example, it never addresses the distortion of the etymology of “sangraal” to support the bloodline theory. Even worse, it claims that the Templars were attacked and murdered by King Philip IV’s men when, in fact, they were merely arrested and put on trial. Yes, the Templars were besieged in the Crown of Aragon in Spain, but they eventually surrendered peacefully. Beyond The Da Vinci Code also doesn’t do terribly well in explaining the origins of Freemasonry. Let’s just say that thinking a medieval noble family, from Scotland or anywhere else, would even be caught dead working as part of a guild of non-noble craftsmen, like masons, shows a basic lack of knowledge of the structure of Western-European medieval society. And if you’re looking for any accuracy of clothing and armour in that Merovingian murder scene, forget it. But overall, it does pretty well. You don’t have to believe either of the groups arrayed on either side of this issue, but you do get both sides.
It would have been nice for the show to spend more than three minutes at the very end on why The Da Vinci Code was so popular. It’s nice to say that Brown inadvertently struck a millennial nerve. Obviously, he did, but Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was even more outrageous and that came out right before the millennium, but it didn’t have nearly the same cultural effect. Brown’s ideas were stolen wholesale from people who had neatly laid them out for him thirty years before. What was the difference? Honestly? I think that The Da Vinci Code was a crappy potboiler with a diabolically brilliant marketing campaign. I think we should be looking into the genius of how the book was sold to the public, not the book itself. The book itself is nothing to rotomontade about. I doubt you’ll find the answers to the questions it raises there.
Interested in buying this book? You can find Beyond The Da Vinci Code on Amazon.com.