by Mateusz Zatonski
The Battle of Vienna, which saw a league of Christian European states defeat the Ottoman Imperial forces at the gates of the Habsburg city, has a prominent place in the Polish historical psyche. Most Polish schoolchildren are taught from an early age that it was thanks to the brave Polish cavalry led by the Polish king Jan III Sobieski, who also held overall command over the Christian armies, that the Ottomans were prevented from continuing their conquest of Central Europe. In other words, the battle, which most famously included the largest cavalry charge in history, is the stuff of legends in Poland.
It has been therefore clear for some time that a major movie production recounting the story of the battle would be produced. However, few saw the shape it would take. The first signs seemed encouraging. The movie, entitled in Poland The Battle of Vienna, was to have a budget of €12 million, making it the second most expensive Polish movie of all time. It was also to star F. Murray Abraham, the memorable Antonio Salieri from Amadeus (the role won him an Oscar), Jim Caviziel, and Harvey Keitel, alongside a number of famous Polish and Italian actors. The film was to be shown in 50 countries around the world and finally assure global immortality for Sobieski and his hussars.
But then things started to smell fishy. The movie was to be directed by the relatively unknown Italian director Renzo Martinelli. Martinelli was accused of having connections with the Northern League, the quasi-separatist north Italian party, known for its fervent anti-immigrationist stance. Martinelli’s previous film, Barbarossa, even featured a cameo performance by the controversial Northern League leader, Umberto Bossi. Quite quickly Jim Caviziel and Harvey Keitel dropped out of the project. On top of those setbacks, it turned out that The Battle of Vienna’s title for international distribution was to be… September Eleven 1683 (the battle itself actually took place a day later, but the producers let nothing stand in the way of a good title).
The film, which came out in Poland in October, was promptly bashed by audiences and critics alike. Its presentation of the war between the Christian ‘Holy Alliance’ and the Islamic Ottoman Empire as a simplistic battle of good vs evil (spoiler alert – the Ottomans are the bad guys), and the pushy religious symbolism was briefly noted. Nonetheless, the Polish media concentrated on complaining about its lack of real plot, paper-thin characters, and special effects that looked more like a Georges Méliès film, than a 21st century multi-million Euro production. Another common complaint was that little screen time was given to Sobieski, as the Italian director decided to make the Italian friar Marco D’Aviano the hero of the story.
Only when details of the movie reached Italy, where Martinelli’s connections with the Northern League were known, the time bomb really went off. Rather than complaining about plotholes or acting, Italian critics, more versed in the exigencies of political correctness (or simply cultural tact), quickly got to the heart of the matter. The movie about the Polish victory outside Vienna was labelled overtly racist by the more leftist spectrum of the media, and just a little embarrassing by the slightly more conservative journalists. The uproar wasn’t calmed by the fact that the movie was co-financed from tax money, or by the interviews with the director, who stated that his work ‘explores the roots of September 11, 2001’. Have a look at the trailer for yourselves for a glimpse of his in-depth analysis.
The film will be released in Italy in January 2013, and soon after in other countries. As distributors are getting increasingly uneasy about the film based on its early reviews and title, it is actually not quite sure what those other countries will actually be (or if there will be any). One thing, however, is quite clear – The Battle of Vienna will do little to promote Poland abroad, unless the promotion in question is that of the stereotype of Polish racism and a lack of cultural awareness. As one of the Polish reviewers, Jakub Demiańczuk, noted; ‘in order to be defeated at Vienna, we had to seek the help of some mercenary troops: Sobieski’s army was vanquished by the Italian Renzo Martinelli.’