…and then, with the fury of Baal in his blood and the glory of Amun upon him, Rameses II went out alone on the battlefield in his two-horse chariot. He alone cut down Hittites by the thousands. He slashed limbs and heads. He hurled dead bodies into the waters of the Orontes until the river ran red. King Muwatallis II threw another thousand chariots at him. Rameses routed them all—by himself. Terrified, the Hittite king cowered across the river together with his remaining infantry. The mighty Egyptian pharaoh single-handedly seized his victory in battle.
Now that “Argo” has won the 2012 Best Picture Award after opinion columns in many newspapers and magazines criticized its depiction of actual events and characters, we have in front of us a resilient piece of history rewritten, in the mold of the archetypal political spin first recorded in history during the times of Pharaoh Rameses II of Egypt (1279–1213 BCE).
“Argo” opens with an account of the Iranian state of affairs during the years leading to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and closes with a montage of still shots taken during the hostage crisis in Iran set side by side with pictures of the truthful sets created for the movie. In between: the gripping story of American guile that saved six U.S. diplomats from Tehran. I left the theater thinking, wow, did it really happen that way?
No, it didn’t. And I felt hoodwinked.
Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott wrote in their opinion column in The New York Times, on February 22, 2013:
But invention remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.
While journalists and politicians don’t have the artistic means to reach masses in a riveting, all-captivating way, movie directors, photographers, writers, painters, sculptors do. And artists’ works can survive millennia.
In the fifth year of his reign, Pharaoh Rameses II was still uncomfortable with the humble origins of his family and eager to prove himself better than his father, Seti I, who had battled against the Kingdom of Hittites (an ancient people who lived in modern-day Turkey), but failed to stop its advance towards Egyptian-held Palestine and Syria. As a first step in succeeding where his father had failed, Rameses decided to take over Kadesh, a fortress near modern Homs in Syria, and to establish there a permanent base against the Hittites.
Just miles away from Kadesh, Rameses split his 20,000-strong army of chariots and infantry into four divisions, and prepared, based on faulty intelligence, for an easy takeover of the fortress. He learned too late that 16,000 Hittites were waiting for him behind the city walls, armed with iron weapons and driving three-man chariots. The Egyptians carried bronze weapons.
Rameses lived through that day only because one of his divisions rejoined his main army in the nick of time, and also because the Hittites, who were not paid to fight, were too busy plundering the conquered Egyptian camp to notice when the pharaoh slunk behind them.
The Battle of Kadesh ended in a draw and the Egyptians retreated while the Hittites continued on, as far south as Damascus. But Rameses couldn’t return home with a defeat. Back in Egypt, he ordered his carvers to decorate temples, buildings, public squares, even cliff-faces, with glorious images of his feats during the Battle of Kadesh and with hieroglyphic texts telling the story of his single-handed victory against the armies of King Muwatallis II. That early “triumphant” campaign allowed Rameses to establish his ruling platform at home. More victories and a long-lasting peace with the Hittites followed, even though Rameses never succeeded where his father had failed.
Then Rameses was forgotten—for thousands of years. During the 19th century, Western archeologists digging tombs and pyramids out of the sand rediscovered him. The deciphered hieroglyphs carved in stone told amazing stories of his glorious days. It seemed that every building in Egypt had been raised in his times of prosperity. The West began to call him Rameses the Great. Further research showed that, during his 66 years on the throne, Rameses erased other pharaohs’ names from buildings and replaced them with his own. But by then, 3000 years after his reign, Rameses had become legendary. Due to his steady rewriting of history.
For years to come, people will watch “Argo,” the Oscar winner of 2012. While some will feel hoodwinked, most will only remember how the lonely CIA operative fooled all those bearded revolutionary guards at the Tehran airport with his black-and-white storyboards of a Hollywood sci-fi movie.
… and then the phone rings. The young Iranian guard dashes through the airport, shoving women and children out of his way. He reaches the closed glass doors to the tarmac and yells at other guards. A blond Swiss flight attendant scrambles to stop them from opening the gates. A bearded revolutionary guard pushes her away and shoots at the glass panes. The glass shatters. Men with assault weapons rattle the bars of another closed gate, in sight of the airplane. The pilot gets his thumbs-up for takeoff. More bearded men shout in their phones. The plane rolls on the tarmac. The guards get through the unlocked gates and jump into military trucks, brandishing weapons. They’re so close to the plane now. They’re driving right underneath its wings. The pilot cannot see them though. He only looks up, at the clear skies in front of him, over the snowy peaks of jagged mountains. Toward freedom.
Also, in 1979, most Iranian men didn’t wear beards.